Even longtime cycling fans sometimes wonder what’s happening in bike races. Take this week’s opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. It looked like a fairly straightforward race day when a breakaway went clear from the start, but why did Orica-GreenEdge, the team of race leader Luke Durbridge, let the leaders create a 13-minute gap, forcing other teams to conduct the chase? And why couldn’t the sprinters’ teams close down the attacks in the finale before BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans snagged the stage win in precocious fashion?
The first question is easier to answer. Having the yellow jersey at races like the Dauphiné can be a mixed blessing. To win the flat prologue ahead of such a strong field was a coup for Australian rookie Durbridge, but he’s never going to be a top climber, so keeping the overall lead was not a high priority. Durbridge’s focus this season is trying for an Olympic time trial medal in London, so rather than defending a yellow jersey he’d be better off saving his energy for this Thursday’s long, 53.5-kilometer TT stage of the Dauphiné. And that’s what he did.
What was more interesting on Monday was that the chase behind the breakaways was initially taken up by Evans’s BMC men, not by the Sky team of prologue runner-up and defending Dauphiné champion Brad Wiggins. Evans himself went back to his team car to talk with his directeur sportif, John Lelangue, before getting teammates Michael Schär and Manuel Quinziato to push the pace at the head of the peloton.
In contrast, Wiggins, who’d take over the GC from Durbridge, was not eager to wear the yellow jersey and said at the post-stage press conference, “At one point [in my career] I would have been happy to wear the maillot jaune. Now, I can’t say that I’m upset, but I’d rather wear my Sky skinsuit for Thursday’s time trial, so I’d prefer to lose a few seconds between now and then.”
As a result, it was BMC that virtually closed down the breakaway, and then on a Cat. 3 climb in the last 12 kilometers, it was BMC’s Philippe Gilbert who joined one of several attacks before Evans counterattacked to join the key move after the summit. With the Aussie superstar were local French rider Jérôme Coppel of Saur-Sojasun and Kazakh veteran Andrey Kashechkin of Astana. “I knew that there could be some splits [on the climb],” Coppel said later, “and that once we were over the top of the hill the road didn’t go down right away.”
It was understandable that Coppel, in his “hometown” race, would ride as hard as he could with Evans, but it was surprising that the Kazakh also gave a few pulls to sustain the break over the final 5 kilometers. Five years after he was suspended for blood doping (shortly after the same verdict for his team leader Alexander Vinokourov), Kashechkin, 32, is trying to re-establish himself with team Astana; but, other than team-time-trial performances, he hadn’t taken a top-10 placing since his comeback to racing until his third place behind Evans and Coppel on Monday.
Maybe Kashechkin has hopes of replicating the third place overall he took at the 2007 Dauphiné, but at this year’s race he should be riding support for Astana teammate Jani Brajkovic, the 2010 Dauphiné champ, and not helping Evans gain what was a three-second gap at the end. As Lelangue told L’Équipe after the stage, “At the Dauphiné, every second is always good to take.”
Evans himself said he hadn’t planned on winning the stage, but “I enjoy being in these sort of moves.” His strong pulls and eventual dynamic uphill sprint were reminiscent of a certain Bernard Hinault, the five-time Tour de Franc winner who also took the Dauphiné three times. Evans has placed second four times at this prestigious French stage race, so maybe this is his year to win it for the first time before going on to shoot for a second Tour victory.
Among the BMC rider’s most serious opposition at the Tour will be the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team’s battery of stars. The team’s theoretical Tour team leader Andy Schleck is riding as he usually does at pre-Tour stage races, and he’ll likely test his climbing legs on one of the Dauphiné’s three mountain stages over the weekend; but signs from last week’s Tour of Luxembourg were very positive for the U.S.-sponsored squad.
On the decisive climbing stage on Saturday, only the sturdy Dutch climber Wout Poels of Vacansoleil could stay with The Shack attack by Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden and Jakob Fuglsang on the short but steep Col de l’Europe (1.5km averaging 7.6 percent), which they climbed three times at the end of the 206km stage.
In contrast to Evans’s unrehearsed breakaway at the Dauphiné, the Schleck-Klöden-Fuglsang demonstration was very much premeditated, and it is just the type of multi-pronged move that the team can be expected to engineer at the Tour next month, especially when you add into the equation RadioShack’s other climbers Chris Horner, Maxime Montfort and the younger Schleck, along with such explosive riders as Fabian Cancellara, Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt.
GIRO AND CALIFORNIA
While on the subject of why people make certain moves and others don’t, it’s worth taking a brief look back at last month’s Giro d’Italia and Amgen Tour of California. For example, why did 2004 Giro winner Damiano Cunego twice go out on long breakaways on the first two mountain stages, probably knowing that the moves wouldn’t be successful? Why did Horner, the defending Amgen champ, attack so far from the Mount Baldy finish on the decisive stage, leaving behind a breakaway group he had engineered with Voigt and two other teammates on the opening climb? And why did race favorites at both the Giro and the California tour wait so long before making aggressive moves—or simply waited and waited and never took risks?
Sometimes, the riders themselves can’t exactly explain their actions (or non-actions). They often act on instinct and even, at times, ignore the instructions given to them by their directeurs sportifs. But in the case of experienced riders such as Cunego, his Lampre-ISD sports director Robert Damiani and co-team leader Michele Scarponi, you can bet that the Italian rider’s actions were well thought out, even if they were impromptu.
On the first stage in the high mountains of the Giro, in cold and wet weather, Cunego reacted to a solo attack by the Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a few kilometers from the summit of the Col de Joux with about 90 minutes of racing still ahead before the mountaintop finish at Cervinia. Cunego had to work hard, sprinting out of the saddle on the long, steady climb just to get close to Rujano’s wheel—and when the Venezuelan slowed on the descent, Cunego plowed on alone before catching the day’s early break and eventually dropping back and being passed by the more conservative favorites.
Cunego made a similar move on the next day’s stage 15, again in cold, wet conditions, and both days he allowed teammate Scarponi to sit quietly in the small pack of leaders before making his own accelerations on each day’s summit finish. Scarponi didn’t win the Giro. but his efforts actually keyed the attacks by longtime leader Joaquim Rodriguez.
Because the toughest two mountain stages of the Giro came at the very end of the three weeks, everyone was hesitant to enter the red zone too early on any of the summit finishes. And even then, anyone who watched the riders finishing one by one, and in states of massive fatigue, on Alpe di Pampeago could see that this was a Giro fought to the very last breath. And the man with the most endurance, the strongest teammates and the best time trial was the man who deservedly won: Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda.
Over in California, the decision was always going to be made on Mount Baldy, the second-to-last day, because none of the stages before the stage 5 Bakersfield time trial were well-enough structured to avoid group sprints. By uncharacteristically conceding more than two minutes to the other main contenders (and placing a lowly 42nd in the time trial!), Horner ruled himself out of repeating his 2011 overall victory. Or so it seemed.
His jumping up to the first break on the Baldy stage and driving it with three RadioShack teammates was a gutsy and totally unexpected development that showed the true level of Horner’s ambitions. And when, after Voigt was cooked, Horner jumped clear of the break (with Colombian climber Jhon Atapuma on his wheel), he had a margin of more than three minutes on a desperately chasing field. And overall victory still seemed possible.
Ideally, the Californian would have had one more teammate. And in a perfect world, that man would have been Matt Busche, but last year’s Baldy hero was having a bad day and just surviving back in the peloton. So in the circumstances Horner had no choice but to make his solo attempt (Atapuma barely helped) with almost 40 kilometers (most of it uphill) still to go. It was an epic performance and augers well for Horner and his team to make the upcoming Tour de France one where tactics and teammates will be more important than ever before.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
The last ten days have surprised me for one unusual piece of news after another. I’m not normally one to write the grab-bag post, but because so many disparate pieces of news have elicited the same reaction in me, I figured the uniformity of my reaction is enough to include them in the same post.
I’ve followed discussions about rate of ascent (VAM) on Tour climbs with some interest. While I have found some of the numbers reported troubling, I haven’t been willing to place too much faith in those numbers because it’s hard to be certain of just where the climb starts and finishes are, which can throw off the math in the calculations. And even if you trust the calculations, I haven’t yet seen an argument connecting the dots in a way that lead to an inarguable conclusion that normal biology can’t produce a particular performance. That is, I hadn’t seen one until I read this post on the Science of Sport blog. It connects the dots in a very convincing way. Because we are getting more and more information about riders as they race, in the future it will be possible to look at a rider’s performance on a climb in a very objective manner and the math that Ross Tucker provides will help us sort the fiction from the clean.
Some folks I’d prefer would shut up, have been making headlines. On their own, they don’t merit posts, but Michael Ball and Rudy Pevenage both elicited a “You’re kidding.” from me but for entirely different reasons. One wonders why Pevenage decided it was time to admit his involvement in organizing Ullrich’s trips to Spain to see Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes now, yet more curious is why he thought he needed to tell us this little factoid. It’s not much of a confession as most everyone was satisfied that Ullrich was involved in Operacion Puerto; who served as travel agent is inconsequential, and Pevenage’s moral relativism—“It was normal”—isn’t washing.
Michael Ball, ex-pricey jean entrepreneur and director of Rock Racing—the only professional cycling team to model its organization after the Bad News Bears—was served with a search warrant. Presumably, the warrant is as a result of Floyd Landis’ confession, as it was filed by investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is remembered for bringing the house of BALCO down. If Novitzky smells smoke, there’s a conflagration.
Ball, who briefly employed Pevenage in 2008, congratulated Landis on coming clean, telling the New York Daily News: “Floyd is in a better place. Someone needed to come clean who was on the inside, who had lived it.”
However, what made my jaw drop was his crazy claim that, “I was in the sport for three years and I saw what went on. But not on my team, because I wouldn’t allow it.”
Really? I assume by “what went on” he means doping. Has he already forgotten about Tyler Hamilton’s positive test? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about doping it is that those closest to the riders sometimes do not know, so for Ball to suggest he knows something about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by pro riders he didn’t sponsor means that he thinks we’re dumber than he.
Speaking of Landis, his latest accusation, this one printed in the Wall Street Journal, is that he couldn’t get an extra bike to train on because Armstrong was busy selling bikes to—gasp—buy drugs. Here’s a newsflash: Teams have sold off bikes at the end of the season for ages. That Landis expects us to believe that just because he couldn’t account for the presence of 60 bikes it means they were sold to pay for doping. In addition to claiming that that Johan Bruyneel admitted the bike sales were paying for drugs, he has also claimed he paid for the drugs he took. Unridden team bikes won’t carry any sort of multiplier with collectors, so those bikes would have gone for roughly $5k apiece. The only bikes that carry any sort of multiplier would be those ridden by the team stars and having spoken with collectors, I can say Lance’s bikes weren’t going for $20k, even with the aid of photographic provenance. Even if the accusation is proven true, it really adds nothing significant to his story, which makes us wonder why he’s talking.
Speaking of bike sales, a week ago Campagnolo announced it would begin offering industry deals to verified industry employees. For those of you who have never worked in the industry, I can tell you this is the single most surprising piece of news in this post. As a shop employee I remember checking with multiple distributors to see who had the best prices on Campy any time I needed—er—wanted to purchase new gear. The difference in price between different distributors could mean saving as much as five percent which was what passed for a discount for us wrenches. It has been my understanding that Campy USA wanted to do this for ages, but Italy finally listened and came to appreciate that having shop staff riding their components could make a difference in how often they wind up on a custom build. Bravo to Campy.
And while I’m still mystified that anyone would try to defend Mark Renshaw head-butting Julian Dean and then shutting the door hard on Tyler Farrar, we’ve continued to get other head-scratching moments every day at the Tour de France. Take Alexander Vinokourov. Let’s be honest; he has a reputation for being a rogue rider, which is why his declaration that he would dedicate his effort to supporting Astana team leader, Alberto Contador was met with at least a bit of skepticism.
So what does Vino do? He goes off on a breakaway in the final kilometers of the climb to Mende. Let’s be clear, if you’re sole mission is to support your team leader, then you’re not heading out for stage wins—that’s a big, big effort and burns more than a few matches. But once gone, why not give the guy some rope, right? But Contador chases down Joaquin Rodriguez, and then proceeds to take a very strong pull.
As I’d been saying all week, I couldn’t stifle myself from saying, “Really?”
Was Contador teaching Vinokourov a lesson? Or was he really that nervous about Andy Schleck that he felt compelled to gain every second he could? It’s fair to wonder if Rodriguez had enough gas on his own to catch Vinokourov. At the point Contador began his chase of Rodriguez he knew that he couldn’t gain all that much time, certainly not enough to gain the yellow jersey. While Vinokourov has never been my favorite rider, but Contador managed to make me feel some sympathy for the win he was denied.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get weirder, Vinokourov takes off on yet another flyer. And fortunately for his efforts, he got the win in Revel. However, after taking breakaways two days in a row, does anyone—John Lelangue especially—think that Vinokourov will really have the gas necessary to work for Contador through the Pyrenees?
If he does have the reserves to provide support to Contador, it will be an impressive piece of riding. Impressive, and for this writer, suspicious. If he doesn’t, then his pledge to support Contador will have been proven to be BS, and Contador’s chase will be hard to criticize.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International