As some of you know, I spent most of last week flat on my back contemplating my robotic mortality and cursing whatever pig-robot (pigbot?) had found a way to infect me with its H1N1 virus. For the most part, during this time, I cut myself off from media. No TV. No interweb.
And yet, some time, mid-week, an email from my friend Gustavo at Embrocation Journal snuck through. What did I think, he wanted to know, of the Tour de France invites from ASO this year. More specifically, he wanted to confirm that I was as angry as he was that Vacansoleil and some of the other small teams (Skil-Shimano, Saur Sojasun) that have so animated the first months of the season failed to make ASO’s grade while underperforming pro teams coasted in on their good looks and the pre-existing agreement the UCI and ASO have to admit 16 of the ProTour teams to the Grand Boucle automatically.
Even in my weakened state, I was able to give Gustavo what he wanted, a frank and terse evaluation of some of the ProTour’s lesser lights, a caustic dismissal of ASO’s motives and a side swipe at some of the peloton’s new entrants.
And as I’m just getting back on my feet this week (or back on my pedals as the case may be), I thought I’d trot out some of my ideas and see if we can’t get some discussion going.
First, let me say I can’t contrive a reasonable argument for excluding Vacansoleil from the Tour. The small, Dutch Pro-Continental team, in just its second year on the road, has won the overall of the Tour of Qatar with Wouter Mol, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with Bobbie Traksel and two stages of the Étoile de Bességes with Borut Bozic. Those are their wins, which tell only half the story. Vacansoleil’s riders have placed highly throughout the early season and pushed the big teams at every opportunity. They have done everything you would want a wild card Tour invitee to do and then a bit more.
Instead, ASO picked Garmin-Transitions, Team RadioShack, BMC Racing Team, Team Sky, Katusha and Cervelo TestTeam as their wild cards. If you run through this list, write down their major results for 2010 and then compare them to Vacansoleil, you’ll get very little in the way of difference. Some have won a little more. Some have won less. What you won’t see, but probably know, is that each of these teams has a great deal more money than the Dutch outfit. They’ve signed stars, so ASO imagines they’ll bring more attention to the Tour, as if the Tour suffers for a lack of attention.
Of the wild cards here, the one that actually rankles me most is RadioShack. The Shack have done a lot of not much this year. Every time their leader finds his way onto a television camera he is telling you why the race he’s about to ride is really just a tune up for the Tour and how he’s not going to push himself very hard or be very bothered by not getting a result. Meanwhile, his teammates wrack up no wins. Team RadioShack reminds me a bit of the Jackson’s Victory Tour, a money-spinning gallop across the globe by a former champion and his over-the-hill friends.
Ooooh, that’s harsh.
Still, the Shack’s value to ASO lies completely in the false rivalry between Armstrong and Contador. It’s a story that sells sponsorships, I suppose. And magazines. And yet, does anyone think Armstrong will get near el Pistolero in France this summer? The former champ has had a pretty poor buildup this season. He’s been sick. He’s been tired. And he’s been old. There are half-a-dozen riders or more that will finish above the marketing juggernaut come the final day in Paris.
On top of their lack of results, the Shack have gone about their business in that age-old Armstrong-Bruyneel way, i.e. with very little regard for any race that isn’t called the Tour de France. They’re not even racing the Giro! They’ve chosen the Tour of California “instead.” The ToC is a great race, an up-and-comer, a suitable rival for Paris-Nice and the other one week stage races, but one thing it is NOT is a good reason to skip the Giro d’Italia. A team with a budget like the Shack’s really ought to be able to contest both races anyway.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I don’t think the Shack deserves its Tour invite simply based on Armstrong’s legacy with the race and the money he’ll bring to its organizers. In the real world, those are entirely valid reasons for their inclusion. But from my perspective, they stink.
That brings us, rather unceremoniously, to the rest of the truth of this situation, which is that there a number of ProTour teams that just can’t pull their own weight. I’d name Team Milram, Footon-Servetto, Euskaltel-Euskadi among those. Because the UCI paved the way for guaranteed invitations to a group of ProTour squads in a 2008 accord that helped avoid a complete debacle in which ASO took its races and went home, they’re all in, but, if the ProTour had a minimum win number (say 10 races of a certain ranking per year), you’d see more licenses available for teams that win, but I am far from the first to suggest the UCI need a better system for promotion and relegation of pro teams.
Starting in 2011, only the first 17 teams in the UCI rankings at the end of 2010 will get guaranteed Tour invites, with the rest filled at ASO’s discretion. This may be a more equitable way of slicing the Tour pie, but, by and large, what you will end up with is still a race full of the wealthiest rather than the fastest teams. The rest can, perhaps, call Vacansoleil and book one of those summer holidays they sell when they’re not riding bicycles.
Far be it from me to disagree with Paul Sherwen. That guy has probably raced more pro races than I’ve seen.
Having said that, Sherwen’s take on Alberto Contador’s Stage 7 attack at Paris-Nice last weekend really surprised me. As the stage played out and the GC boys came to the front, Contador attacked in a group that included his two main rivals, Alejandro Valverde and Luis León-Sánchez, both from Caisse d’Epargne.
Sherwen thought it unwise for Contador to drop all his teammates, isolating himself with a pair of riders less than a minute behind him on GC. At first blush, this is an entirely reasonable criticism, and one that highlights the weaknesses of Astana’s roster and maybe, on some level, Contador’s tactical naivete.
To me, however, it seemed like a smart move, and one that demonstrated that Contador has learned much from his Grand Tour wins. It was just last summer, after all, that el Pistolero found himself alone with the Schleck brothers on a steep Tour climb, watching as they took turns trying to break him with attack after attack. He was able to hang in that day, but rivals took note. It might not be possible to beat the diminutive Spaniard one-on-one, but there is greater strength in numbers.
And so, coming to the pointy end of Paris-Nice, Contador did the simple math. The Caisse boys were clearly going to attack. None of his teammates would be able to stay with them, so rather than sit back and defend, he went on the attack, effectively preventing either Valverde or León-Sánchez from imposing the pace.
It was a blistering attack. His rivals sat on and let him work, probably hoping he’d punch himself out, but he played it perfectly, holding his speed high enough to discourage a burst from either one, while still riding within himself.
What Sherwen seemed to assume was that there was someone other than Contador on the Astana bus who could stay with Valverde and León-Sánchez on the attack. That was clearly not the case. What el Pistolero knew that Sherwen didn’t is that neither of the Caisse riders could stay with him on the attack either.
It was bold, smart and decisive. And it put him on the top step of the podium.
At this summer’s Tour de France, the GC competition will be much stiffer than it was at Paris-Nice. The Shleck brothers will be there. Cadel Evans with his new BMC team. The Shack and their geriatric posse. The chances of a strange alliance coming together are good. That sort of thing is Johan Bruyneel’s stock-in-trade.
In short, the world’s top stage racer just won’t be able to attack for three weeks. What worked on the road into Nice, won’t work in the French heat, day after day, up Alps and down Pyrenees. But then, come the summer, the Astana bus should have Alexander Vinokourov on it. David de la Fuente will be there for the mountains, too. Maybe also Oscar Pereiro and some of the other riders who’ve been busy at Tirreno-Adriatico, or Maxim Iglinsky who won this year’s Eroica.
If anything, Astana have proven this spring that they have the peloton’s strongest man AND a team that can support him, if and when he needs it, which, despite Paul Sherwen’s doubts, he didn’t on Sunday.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There’s a reason races have finish lines. It’s so the riders know when they can stop riding and everyone else knows who won. There are a few of us, myself included, who really think Alberto Contador is going to win Paris-Nice, but there remains the issue of that pesky finish line that’s got to be crossed.
And between here, where we are now, which is to say perched between Stages One and Two, all the GC boys packed together, and that big banner that signifies the end, are a million and two opportunities to lose the race. In fact, just today the Pistolero took a spill on the pavement that called into question, for me, his team’s ability to keep him out of harm’s way. Because the aforementioned contact between world’s greatest stage racer and asphalt occurred within the final 3k of racing, Contador was given the same time as the group he was riding in, so no major time loss. But other favorites, like Alejandro Valverde, Lars Boom and Luis León-Sánchez managed to stay far enough out in front to avoid trouble.
Not EVERYONE thinks this is Contador’s race to lose though. Randomactsofcycling thinks León-Sánchez will take the title, and Soleur and James can see Chavanel in yellow. No one picked Lars Boom. Except Lars Boom. Long live the underdog.
While Paris-Nice grinds slowly southward, the Montepaschi Strade Bianche, aka L’Eroica, wound its way across Tuscany, crunching across the legendary white gravel roads near Siena. L’Eroica is a tune up for Tirreno-Adriatico, but it is also Italy’s answer to the cobbled classics of Northern Europe.
Accordingly, many of the classics specialists showed up, hoping to add a win in this race, which is rapidly emerging as a big event on the calendar. They all lost to Maxim Iglinsky, whose biggest win to date is a stage at the Dauphiné in 2007. Iglinsky’s win puts paid to the notion that Astana’s Kazakh contingent is just pack fodder.
Hopefully, this race is going to get more coverage in coming years.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International