The cliché says you can’t win the Tour de France in the first week, but you can certainly lose it. It’s a shame really, because so many pro teams organize their season around the Tour, the possibility for stage wins, for sponsor publicity, for glory. Something simple like the swerve of a car or a wet bend in the road can play havoc with a pack of riders grand tour thick and first week nervous.
Those who lost the Tour in the first week are easy to list: Alexandre Vinokourov and Team Astana, Alessandro Petacchi, Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Team Radio Shack, Tom Boonen and his QuickStep squad, and Bradley Wiggins.
Aging Vinokourov fractured his pelvis in a gruesome looking crash over a concrete barrier and down into a ditch. The sight of his teammates gathered around, along with a team doctor, carrying him back up onto the road, signaled the end for the Kazakh team. Vino went off to hospital. The rest rode desultorily up the road to chase onto the neutralized peloton. Even Roman Kreuziger, who might have pretended to be riding for GC, injured his wrist earlier in the week. Not sure what the boys in electric blue and yellow will do for the next two weeks, but we will see.
Another elder statesman of the road, Alessandro Petacchi, has managed to be involved in exactly nothing in the opening stanza. Tipped as an outside bet to nick stage wins off Mark Cavendish, the Italian has instead been conspicuous only by his absence.
Team Radio Shack are going only slightly better than Team Astana. One possible GC man, Jani Brajkovic, crashed out with a concussion and a broken collarbone on Stage Five. Chris Horner left the race two days later also with a dramatic head injury. Levi Leipheimer has been on the deck as often as Captain Ahab, falling out of GC contention, and then Andreas Klöden, the Shack’s one remaining hope, injured his back on Stage Nine. They’ll drag themselves to the finish, but this, apparently, will not be the year Johan Bruyneel forgets his old buddy Lance.
QuickStep are never in France riding for the general classification, but with major crashes leading to the abandonment of Tom Boonen, their best hope for a stage win, and heavy injuries to Sylvain Chavanel, their strongest breakaway chance, QuickStep will likely be walking away with nothing in 2011.
Team Sky also lost their main GC hope when Bradley Wiggins did his collarbone on Stage Seven. With Geraint Thomas, Stage Six winner Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Rigoberto Uran still in the race, Sky has plenty left to ride for, but conceding the GC battle must hurt a team whose stated goal is to win the Tour with a Briton.
There is also a small group whose fate is still too hard to discern.
Much has been written over the past week about Alberto Contador’s misfortunes and seeming vulnerability. When he lost more than a minute on Stage One, commentators were already saying his race was over, but these storylines are predictable. In truth, an on-form Contador can pull back his current deficit in a single Alpine attack. More worrying for the Spaniard is that multiple crashes have left him battered and bruised, especially a bad right knee which could steal his explosiveness in the steeps. Furthermore, his SaxoBank-Sungard team never seems to be with him. Even when he’s tucked into the peloton, his support team is seldom in evidence. Will they be there when he needs them most, in the Pyrenees and Alps?
Another too soon to tell is Ivan Basso. The Italian decided to forgo a defense of his Giro d’Italia title to focus on the Tour, and now, at the end of the first week, Basso has managed to remain upright, but he is 3:36 down on GC, and he’s a crappy time trialist. You can count three or four GC faves Basso will outclimb when the road turns up, but the podium will be a big stretch.
Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. On the one hand, first week drama is always good for the Tour as the real fireworks seem to fly on the climbing stages of weeks two and three. However, the riders and teams are feeling as though the course is too dangerous, and some high profile crashes and injuries reinforce the notion that the new game in grand tours is putting the participants through the wringer.
Multiple accidents involving caravan vehicles call into question the Amaury Sports Organization’s ability to manage all the moving parts, and cramming 22 teams of 9 riders each through some of the tiny roads of northern and central France looks like a not very good idea too. Fans, especially those who’ve never crashed, seem to love the carnage, but in the end, we all want to see the race decided by the quality of the riders, not by simple attrition.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
No one, it seems, is faster than a Cavendish scorned. Written off the day before, Mark Cavendish stormed to the line in Stage 5 without his
security blanket lead out train. He pulled a real Freire out there, freelancing on Geraint Thomas’ wheel, before blasting past Philipe Gilbert. Honestly, who blasts past Philipe Gilbert? If I were HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Rolf Aldag I’d walk to the back of the bus each morning and slap the young Briton across the face. It’d be a win-win.
Here is some more advice for open-minded managers and DSs:
Bjarne Riis just shouldn’t speak to Alberto Contador. Not until they’re riding into Paris anyway. Learn the lessons of the past Bjarne, and shut your pie hole. Cast your mind back just two short years. Another guy with a big mouth, Johan Bruyneel, was running Contador’s team that year, and he, in an effort to produce an eighth Tour win for one Lance Armstrong, effectively snubbed the mercurial Spaniard.
Oh, Bjarne. Just remember the look on Lance’s face as he stood on the third podium step and go whisper something encouraging in Richie Porte’s ear, in English.
Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevre has one very discouraged and somewhat damaged Tom Boonen on his hands. Now that Boonen isn’t sure he likes sprinting so much anymore, you have to wonder why Tornado Tom is even at the Tour. Quick-Step are stage hunters at a race like this. They have NO real climbers. So you’ve got to do whatever it takes to shake Boonen’s cage. Maybe have breakfast with Philipe Gilbert, or accidentally call him Fabian over the race radio. Desperate times.
If Leopard-Trek’s Kim Andersen had any sense at all he wrote down every bat-shit crazy thing Bjarne Riis said over their long stint together at CSC/Saxobank. He’s going to want to go back through those notes now to see if there is ANYTHING that will get the Brothers Schleck out on the attack. Those boys can climb, but they never seem to start until someone else is up the road first.
Perhaps mention to Andy that he has never, actually, you know, sort of, won a stage race. Yeah, yeah, he probably knows, but it might help if you let him know that YOU know.
Finally, based on their team performance thus far, there is really nothing I can tell Jonathan Vaughters that he hasn’t already thought of, other than hire a credible GC rider. Of course, the story of the first week has been Thor Hushovd and the sheer class he’s demonstrated in the team time trial and then in the lead out for the Stage 3 sprint, taken by teammate Tyler Farrar. It’s a charming departure from the minor hissy fit he pitched after being forced to watch teammate Johan van Summeren win Paris-Roubaix.
Vaughters’ master stroke was in having Hushovd cross the line first in the TTT, allowing the Norwegian to don the maillot jaune. Hushovd just wants to feel special, and what, in all of cycling, is more special than pulling the yellow jersey over the world champion’s stripes? Nothing is the answer. There is nothing more special than that. And now the Mighty Thor will do whatever you ask of him, and that is worth everything. Way to go, JV!
Now lose the sideburns. You look like someone’s creepy uncle.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Unlike amateur golf, pro cycling does not use a handicapping system to give riders of unequal talent an equal chance at winning the race. That is why, Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme deployed the “dumb ass spectator” strategy to bring the peloton down, outside the 10k banner, with Alberto Contador caught up in the resulting mess.
Oh sure, it looked like an accident, but could Prudhomme really have hoped for more? From the moment the UCI cleared Contador to ride, he was instantly installed as favorite to win. Having watched Lance Armstrong ride away with the yellow jersey in the ’00s, Prudhomme HAD to do something to take his race back.
And so, on an innocuously straight road where the pack was just ramping up the speed to set up the finish, a spectator leaned out, looking up the road for some reason, rather than back at the swarming velo mass flying by, clipped Maxim Iglinsky of Astana and sent riders tumbling like a gym full of dominoes at the end of a long college weekend. Contador wasn’t injured in the pile up, but he lost 1:20 on the stage, slightly less to the other race favorites, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Andreas Klöden, et. al.
Do not believe anyone who tells you Contador can’t overcome that deficit. He can. But that deficit is going to turn the 2011 Tour de France into a race.
Stage winner Philipe Gilbert perpetrated a half kilometer sprint to take the day. He dropped Fabian Cancellara. He gapped the entire lead group. A late breaking Cadel Evans couldn’t chase him down. It was exactly the sort of win that makes Gilbert the most exciting racer on the road today. On the podium, he pulled the yellow jersey over the Belgian champion’s jersey. That, my friends, is a bad ass maneuver.
Also, a big thumbs up for the new intermediate sprint rules. We were particularly surprised to see Mark Cavendish fall sound asleep in advance of the line, allowing both Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel to come over top of him. Perhaps it’s true what he’s been telling the press, that he’s really only interested in stage wins.
The new set up for green jersey points turns 21 stages into 42. Sort of.
And on we go to the Stage Two Team Time Trial (TTT). I will be wearing a skin suit while watching from my couch. It’s an attempt to shave some time off the 3hr 30min live coverage that will keep the lawn from getting mowed and my children from getting parented.
Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Race to the Sun wrapped up Sunday in the pouring rain. It was the second day of wet misery in a row, and it made for a pretty excellent race. I hate to hope for bad weather races. The boys in the peloton don’t come to my office in mid-winter, throw the windows open and eat chips while I type my daily missives with chattering fingers. Still, the technical element that bad weather adds to the racing, not to mention the way it draws the hard men out of the pack, I find completely thrilling.
Having said that, here are some impressions from Paris-Nice:
1) Tony Martin is a worthy winner. I wish I had more glowing praise to heap on the German. He’s so strong. I’m just sort of bored by guys who win races on the strength of their time trialling. It’s one thing to be a strong cyclist. It’s another to find ways to win out of the pack. The $1M questions is whether young Tony can become a Grand Tour rider, or whether he’s going to have to carve his career out of winning one week races.
2) Having said that, Thomas Voekler is a total stud. Two wins, from two breakaways. The way he dropped Diego Ulissi on the descent into Nice yesterday was all class. I also loved the way he bunny-hopped the water off his rims rather than tapping his brakes.
3) Was anyone else surprised/disappointed that RadioShack couldn’t muster any sort of attack on Martin on the last day? I never expected to see Klöden on the podium, so good for them, but they seemed to go out with a a whimper, rather than a bang.
4) Vacansoleil’s performances were solid gold all week. From de Gendt wearing the yellow jersey twice to Matteo Carrera bullying guys in the final breakaway (before breaking himself), the boys in blue were fun to watch. It made me sad they even bothered to sign Riccó and Mosquera.
5) Poor Sammy Sanchez. I really thought he was going to pull off something big yesterday, but it wasn’t to be. At least he tried. There are a few other teams in the peloton that might ask themselves if they gave enough to get a result.
6) I know I said I liked watching bad weather racing, but there was NOTHING thrilling about seeing Robert Kiserlovski wedged under a truck by the side of the road. ‘Stomach turning’ is the phrase that comes to mind. That guy’s going to need some counseling before he rides a bike again.
Meanwhile, Tirreno-Adriatico has served up more great racing (my DVR is full of it), down in Italy. Stay tuned to see if Cadel Evans can close that one out, or if one of the Liquigas boys will push him off the top step.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The professional racing season is underway in Europe. The pro peloton are all racing to the sun in France or from sea to sea in Italy, and there are finally more articles about actual racing than about the Contador case. At last, Paul Sherwen and Bob Roll are doing their best to enliven the first few hours of television coverage, when the peloton’s main business is riding through gray-ish tan villages, hucking empty water bottles at small pockets of people just out of the café for a few minutes.
And while certain bits of the story are running to script the racing has already offered up some surprises.
For me, the biggest has perhaps been the riding of Thomas de Gendt at Paris-Nice. The Vacansoleil rider came out of nowhere to win Stage 1, engineering his win from a three-man breakaway with Jeremy Roy and Jens Voigt. The Belgian then kept the jersey through the Stage 2 sprint, but lost it on Stage 3 by just two seconds. Not content with his performance up to that point, de Gendt found his way into another successful breakaway and pulled the golden fleece on again. Not a threat for the overall, de Gendt has still been able to light up the race with the sort of smart and swashbuckling riding every fan likes to see.
Of course, another big surprise was Andreas Klöden’s win on Stage 5, out sprinting Sammy Sanchez of all people. In doing so, he put enough time into de Gendt to take the leader’s jersey as well. Klöden won this race 11 years ago, but did ANYONE mention his name in any of their previews as a possible overall winner? Answer: no.
This is not to focus all our attention on the Paris-Nice. At Tirreno-Adriatico, the sprinters are all tuning up for Milan-San Remo. After the opening Team Time Trial (TTT), won, shockingly by Team Rabobank, Tyler Farrar took a win in Stage 2, and then JJ Haedo took Stage 3, just denying Farrar the double. Of course, the name missing here is Mark Cavendish, who has finished well down the order on both sprint stages.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: What has been the biggest surprise of the week for you, and why?
1. Mark Cavendish’s failure to win yet at Tirreno-Adriatico.
2. Andreas Klöden’s win at Paris-Nice.
3. Thomas de Gendt (who?) in the yellow jersey at Paris-Nice.
4. Team Rabobank’s TTT win at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International