In 2009, Bradley Wiggins finished 4th in the Tour de France. It was a revelatory result and one that suggested the Briton’s decision to switch from the track, where he was a total legend, to the road, was maybe not as ill-advised as it might have seemed.
But success can be a fickle mistress. What appeared to be a breakout performance in 2009 was made less clearly a turning point with Wiggins’ move to Team Sky for 2010. A settling-in period ensued, during which Wiggins reverted to more human results; 2011 looked better again. Wiggins won the Dauphiné and came third at Paris-Nice. At the back end of the summer he stood on the third podium step at the Vuelta a España.
This week, the gangly Englishman will win the Dauphiné again (barring something catastrophic going down), and the velo-press are falling all over themselves to install him as a firm favorite to stand atop the final GC in Paris next month. Certainly his overwhelmingly dominant performance in this week’s ITT suggests they’re not too far off.
But has he peaked too soon? Shown too many cards?
Defending champ Cadel Evans has shown strong form as well, taking a good uphill victory in Stage 1 of the Dauphiné and time-trialling as well as he always does, which was well enough to wear yellow on the Champs Élysée last year, if not quite good enough to scare Wiggins, who has all sorts of medals in the discipline.
With over 100kms of TT in the Grand Boucle this go round, are these the only two real contenders?
For a moment let’s consider Andy Schleck. He’s had a calamitous spring through injury and indolence, and his current form is probably best described as indifferent. Maybe he’s hiding his true form, but with few racing days and no discernible improvement in his TT skills, will it even matter? A running battle with team manager Johan Bruyneel may also be indicative of a star at his nadir, or else a demonstration of the enormous lengths Bruyneel will go to, to camouflage his team’s strength.
This week’s Group Ride is a real pot boiler. Let’s not go all in on maillot jaune predictions just yet. Let’s try to really evaluate the contenders instead. Other names in the hopper are: Nibali, Menchov, Valverde and Sanchez. Who else? And why?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
On any stage of the Tour de France, a rider can be excluded from the race for not finishing within a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time. It’s a cruel way to find out your race is over, a bureaucratic broom wagon letting you know you’re done. In this year’s event, Vasil Kiryienka, William Bonnett, Denis Galimzyanov, and Björn Leukemans fell prey to the clock.
This Tour de France also called time on the career of Alexandre Vinokourov. Past his prime when he returned from a two-year doping suspension, Vino clung to the idea that he could still pull off one last, big win. The Stage 9 crash that hurled him off an embankment and broke the head off one of his femurs told the aging Kazakh everything he needed to know about his future in the cycling game.
Less dramatic in their exits from the pool of potential Tour winners were Levi Leipheimer, Ivan Basso and Christian Vande Velde. All of them strong. All of them great on their day. None of them able to put together enough good days to live the dream. Of the three, only Basso has ever actually won a grand tour, two Giri d’Italia, but will Liquigas bet on Basso for the Grand Boucle again next year, or has the home truth that a pure climber of Basso’s quality can’t win the modern Tour without being able to time trial well (Are you listening Andy?) finally sunk in? Basso will be 34. He won’t be getting faster against the clock. Perhaps the organizers of the Giro will craft a hilly, swan song course for him next year, but don’t count on it.
Leipheimer was 3rd in the ’07 Tour, and he has a pair of Vuelta podiums to his credit, but at 37 we can now stop talking about his chances to succeed Armstrong as the next American winner. Both he, and Vande Velde for that matter, likely suffered for overlapping with the Texan, never getting quite the support they might have deserved in their strongest years. Vande Velde’s best Tour finish was 4th in ’08, before crashes began robbing him of the biggest race days.
Two other riders now outside the time limit are Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre, both grand tour winners in their prime. Their Geox-TMC squad didn’t merit a Tour invite in 2011, which leaves Menchov 33 and Sastre 36, out to pasture, regardless of who is paying their salaries next year. The Tour waits for no one.
Finally I would offer, perhaps controversially, the Schleck brothers. Many people take it as a given that Andy will, one day, stand atop the podium in Paris, and anything is possible (Just ask Carlos Sastre). But, pure climbers seldom win the Tour de France, Sastre, Pantani, Van Impe, Bahamontes, Zoetemelk. There are few enough that you can name them off the top of your head and explain the odd circumstances that allowed them to win.
Sastre and Pantani stand alone in the modern era when the team concept, centered around defending and neutralizing many stages, led to an ability to win with calculated bursts of aggression rather than three weeks of strong riding. Sastre probably owes much of his ’08 win to the absence of a single dominant rider (a la Armstrong) and the tactical nous of Bjarne Riis. Pantani, a serial attacker, won in the brief space between Indurain and Armstrong, again when there was no one dominant rider to let the peloton know when to chase and when to sit in.
Today, without a strong time trial, that top step can be extremely elusive, though still possible with the right tactics. What is clear from the 2011 race though is that the Schlecks currently lack the tactical acumen to pull it off as well. It is not possible for pure climbers to sit in the pack on a long mountain stage. All applauded when Andy attacked early to put time into all his rivals on Stage 18 to the Galibier, but by then it was too late. He and his brother, who made every elite selection of climbers throughout the race, had already passed up opportunites as Superbesse, Luz-Ardiden and Plateau de Beille.
Rather than looking around to see what Contador, Evans and the rest might be thinking, Schleck ought to have been on the attack early and often. In fact, it wasn’t until a late race consultation with Francesco Moser that Schleck the younger dared to risk showing his hand, which tells you everything you need to know. The Schlecks don’t just lack time trialling ability. They lack courage.
Think back to Liege-Bastogne-Liege when the brothers were off the front with Philippe Gilbert and couldn’t find a way to beat the mercurial Belgian. When you’re two up in the final kilometer, you have to win. Unless you just don’t know how.
To be sure, there is still time for Andy, and even Fränk, but there is a big gap in their skill sets, and time is running out.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Well, the 2011 Giro d’Italia is in the books, the most epic, epicness in the history of epic epics. Race director Angelo Zomegnan took a page from Tour de France founder Henri Desgranges’ playbook and turned his race into more of a survival event than a bike race, with many racers and directors saying this version was just too hard. What I think they meant is that it was just too hard for everyone who wasn’t named Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador - He’s the elephant in the living room or, perhaps more specifically, the pistol in the peloton. He completely dominated. He never looked troubled. He never looked challenged. He seemed to attack at will, often on whim or simply through appetite (the sort that earned a certain Belgian a not-always-complimentary nickname). The Spaniard’s performance was thrilling in a way, his signature attacks both completely fluid and completely explosive.
Of course, the flip-side to Contador’s ride is the lingering doubt that he’s clean. Whether it’s the doping case that will never end, or the whirling dervish of the Armstrong affair that is tarring all of our dominant riders with a tainted brush is hard to say. Regardless, it’s hard to believe in Contador’s flavor of dominance, whether that doubt has any basis in reality/science or not.
Michelle Scarponi – It must be hard to finish second and have everyone ignore you, but of all the GC hopefuls Scarponi made the absolute best pretense of trying to stay with Contador, chasing him off the front, if only to drop back. That so much was said about Vincenzo Nibali is a good indication that the rider who topped Nibali by 46 seconds was a worthy runner up.
Vincenzo Nibali – All of Italy seemed to be pulling for the “Shark,” but he didn’t have it. Known as perhaps the best descender in the pro bunch, Nibali had almost zero pop in his legs when it came to riding up hill. What made the Liquigas rider’s Giro interesting and admirable to me was the way the constantly rode within himself. He didn’t make any suicide attacks. He stayed patient and limited his losses to a clearly superior opponent. It wasn’t always exciting to watch, but it was good, smart racing.
John Gadret - My previous estimation of Gadret was based on his woeful lack of team spirit in supporting Nicolas Roche at the last Tour de France. I thought he was a punk, and he may well be, but in this Giro he showed a massive leap in ability, sticking with the world’s best climbers on some of the world’s toughest climbs. Maybe the French are rising again. No. Probably not.
Jose Rujano – If we turn slightly to our left, Rujano’s doping past will sit just out of our peripheral vision, and we’ll be able to view his 2011 Giro as a massively entertaining ride by a guy very few thought would ride at this level again. Perhaps he has earned himself a move up from Androni-Giacatolli to a bigger squad who can deploy him in the mountains of other grand tours.
Denis Menchov/Carlos Sastre – When Geox-TMC, the team of former grand tour winners Menchov and Sastre, weren’t invited to the Tour de France, I was one of those who thought ASO had screwed up, picking crappy French teams instead of this Spanish squad fronted by this unlikely pair. The Giro was, as a result, their everything, and the ASO is vindicated. Sastre was no where. Menchov was a shadow.
Honorable Mentions – Roman Kreuziger moved to Astana to get his chance at grand tour leadership. Liquigas was always going to go with Nibali and Ivan Basso, so that seemed like a sensible move. Kreuziger didn’t quite make the cut this time out. He remains a potential GC rider, rather than a real threat.
Christophe Le Mevel started strong, finished weak, but did Garmin-Cervelo proud, and provided another glimmer of the idea that French cyclists might be returning to grand tour podiums again one day. Maybe.
Peter Weening, the giant Dutchman, pulled a real Voekler and not only pulled on the maglia rosa in the first week, but then had the temerity to defend it.
Mark Cavendish came, saw, sprinted and then left. It’s sad to me that modern grand tour sprinters do this so often, but this is the world we live in. Specialization is king.
Final thoughts – They say the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world and that the Giro is the most beautiful. It would seem that Angelo Zomegnan is looking for more ways to draw even with his counterpart in France, Christian Prudhomme. They are both operating in the environment of modern cycling, which seems to be as much about which riders might be suspended as what the race route looks like. The 2011 Giro was an effort, I believe, to reassert the primacy of the race. In crushing all comers, Alberto Contador undid much of Zomegnan’s plan, and that is too bad.
(Just to be clear, I have no idea whether Contador is clean or not. I am only saying that the ongoing case related to last year’s clenbuterol positive creates doubt in the minds of many.)
Thanks to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and their geologically-timed appeals process, Zomegnan’s problem now becomes Prudhomme’s. How to keep the focus on the racing, when the racers themselves inspire such doubt. Perhaps one day we’ll look back on this time as the “Age of Asterisks,” a time when you couldn’t be sure what race you’d seen until the various governing bodies had a year or two or three to digest what happened and the lawyers had come up with acceptable compromises in Swiss conference rooms.
Regardless, this Giro d’Italia made a valiant effort at challenging the riders in unconventional ways, pushing them well outside their comfort zones. Was it too hard? Clearly, for some, it was. For the rest, it was a great race.
Big points have to go to the organizers for handling the tragic death of Wouter Weylandts with dignity and a minimum of controversy. Their modification of the stage that included the descent of Monte Crostis was another testing moment that passed with relatively few problems. These challenges are testament to the ability of a cycling organization to make good, effective decisions under time constraints.
The ASO, the UCI and the various national federations would do well to pay attention.
The Giro d’Italia starts Saturday, and this time out everything is BIG. The peloton, at 207 riders, is well beyond the normal size, as are the climbs (see Mt. Etna stage above), with seven mountain top finishes. This a race for the featherweights and survivors. Someone is probably taking odds on how many sprinters will even finish. My buddy DNF will definitely be there.
Here is my list of favorites: David Arroyo (Movistar), Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre (GEOX-TMC), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Alberto Contador (SaxoBank-Sungard), Tiago Machado (RadioShack), Stefano Garzelli (Acqua e Sapone), Danilo di Luca (Katusha), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), Giovanni Viscontini (Farnese Vini-Neri Sottoli).
Contador’s presence at the Italian race, for the first time since he won it in 2008, shakes up the general classification. 2010 champion Ivan Basso skips this Giro to focus on the Tour, so that leave his Liquigas teammate Nibali to battle with the Spaniard. 2009 winner Denis Menchov will hope that his Geox-TMC squad has the gas to keep him in contention. Will a rapidly aging Carlos Sastre be able to help?
Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, finally given a grand tour leader’s role, has a lot of questions to answer about his true top end capabilities, and the pack of skinny Italians who might normally crowd the podium (di Luca, Grazelli, Viscontini and Scarponi) will likely struggle to keep pace with Contador and Nibali.
While most observers ooh and aah over the total number of climbs in the race, the real issue will likely be recovery. It is one thing to climb strong for a week. It is quite another to do so consistently day after day. There will be no safety for the maglia rosa, as the course just provides far too many opportunities for rivals to put in attacks.
Patience and consistency, consistency and patience. And luck. Don’t forget luck.
Of course, it is far too early to begin picking an overall winner, but let’s try something different for this week’s Group Ride. Stage One is a Team Time Trial. Who will win it? AND…who will be in the pink jersey on the first rest day?
Stickers for correct pickers.
In a departure from recent tradition, Christian Prudhomme released the list of Tour de France team invitations early. Twenty-two teams were on the list, the eighteen ProTeams and four wild cards, all French. The managers of FDJ, Saur-Sojasun, Cofidis and Europcar must have been giggling over their morning croissants. Mauro Gianetti at Geox – TMC, excluded from the race, despite having former Tour winner Carlos Sastre and regular podium finisher Denis Menchov on their roster, was not nearly so pleased.
Prudhomme insisted his team selections were about supporting French cycling, but not everyone bought that explanation.
As John Wilcockson wrote for VeloNews, Geox-TMC’s summer vacation is less about Prudhomme favoring French teams, but rather more about old vendettas against Giannetti. The Italian had managed the Saunier-Duval team of Ricardo Ricco, the Italian climber banned for two years, busted at the 2008 Tour. No matter that Gianetti immediately fired Ricco, the Geox-TMC boss in persona non grata for Prudhomme and ASO.
Is it odd then that BMC rides so many ASO events, despite their connection to the Phonak team, also run by Andy Rihs? Phonak won the 2006 Tour with their leader Floyd Landis. Has there been a more embarrassing event in recent Tour history than Landis’ disqualification?
This week’s Group Ride asks the following: Is Geox-TMC’s exclusion fair? Does the invitation of demonstrably weaker French teams hurt the race? What do you think about ASO punishing teams for the behavior of past riders?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International