It might be that turning one’s attention to the Tour de France in July is inevitable for the dedicated cyclist. If it’s July, we’re watching the Tour. So being among other cyclists for me means conversations that are as likely to include talk of the Tour as they are talk of the weather.
The conversations are different this year, as compared to other years. This is the first Tour in the wake of USADA’s Reasoned Decision, the first Tour since Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race,” the first Tour since the fall of Lance Armstrong. As a result the viewing public no longer seem to be willing to watch with the general belief that the peloton is clean, that we can watch first and worry about positive tests if or when they turn up. We seem to be asking questions first and watching second.
And of course, the question on everyone’s lips is whether the yellow jersey is clean. It may be that Chris Froome is clean. It may be. However, we, the cycling fans that watch the Tour, are unsure what to believe. The old practice of accepting a rider as clean until a positive test has burned us badly. So while UCI head Pat McQuaid loves to tout just how much better the testing is now than it was when he assumed the office of the president. That may be, but if you’re injured in a car accident, the surgeon asks himself not whether the bleeding is less, but whether the bleeding has stopped. Imagine a doctor coming to you and saying, “Good news, you’re bleeding much less today.”
McQuaid just doesn’t understand that’s not acceptable. We don’t want a pretty clean sport, we want a clean sport. Reasonable people will understand that some riders will always cheat, always seek a shortcut to glory. The assurance we need is that the sport’s governing body is doing all they can to pursue a clean sport. It’s apparent that for many years the UCI has simply wanted the appearance of a clean sport, and this distinction helps to explain why in 2010 the UCI waited until October to reveal that Alberto Contador had tested positive at the Tour de France.
Following the stage 11 time trial, Froome has a lead of 3:25 over Alejandro Valverde. But within a minute of Valverde are Bauke Mollema, Alberto Contador, Roman Kreuziger and Laurens Ten Dam. Froome’s gap begs questions in this era. In watching the coverage we’ve seen how he amassed his gap, but we’re asking not how he got his gap, but what allowed him to get his gap.
The tragedy here is that Froome is being painted with a doper’s brush even though he’s never tested positive. Sure, we can talk about his third-fastest ascent of Ax 3 Domaines, but he’s not new to climbing with stunning talent in a Grand Tour. If Froome goes on to win the 2013 Tour, the ineffectiveness of the UCI will have cheated the rider of his deserved glory and us of the enjoyment of watching a true champion crowned.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
My takeaways from the first week of the 100th Tour de France are as follows: 1) Corsica is beautiful, and despite the narrow, nervous, crashy, not-altogether-organized nature of the opening stages there, I need to put it on my “Places I Need to Ride My Bike” list; 2) As always, there are some tough sons-a-bitches in that peloton, including three of my favorites, Ryder Hesjedal, Ted King and Geraint Thomas; and 3) the sprint competition is going to be more fun to watch than usual, with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Mark Cavendish all taking sprint wins (and intermediate points) through the first week.
When you toss in that Daryl Impey has just become the first African to wear the yellow jersey, it is hard to argue that this version of the Grande Boucle lacks for drama, grit and flair.
You will note that I have not yet even mentioned the GC competition (Impey is in yellow, but he is not in the GC mix). On that score, rather than attempting anything resembling expert prognostication, a task better left to the right honorable Pelkey and/or his Irish partner in crime, I will only say that Nicolas Roche, Roman Kreuziger, Alejandro Valverde and a whole gaggle of Garmins are still comfortably within touching distance of the top.
That means, to me, that weeks two and possibly three will have more real players involved in the struggle for the jaundiced shirt than past iterations of this race have allowed. So that’s cool.
This week’s Group Ride asks, what is the story of this Tour for you so far? What are the surprises? What magic is yet to come? Take this wherever you want, the Tour does not submit itself to easy reduction. We could, quite possibly, talk about this all day. So start now.
Bradley Wiggins is remaking the Tour de France in his own image. He has illustrated that there’s no such thing as an incumbent at the Tour de France, and all who hope to pull on the Golden Fleece must make their well-timed move with confidence, and after considerable preparation.
There can be little doubt about Wiggins’ preparation. In early March he won Paris-Nice, wearing the leader’s jersey for all but the prologue and opening stage, and taking out the final time trial—a mere 9.6km, but battled uphill. Next, at the end of April, he scored a win in the opening road stage of the Tour of Romandie, which allowed him to take the leader’s jersey once again. Luis Leon Sanchez did take the jersey off the Brit’s shoulders for a day, but in the final time trial Wiggins trounced Sanchez, taking back the yellow jersey and becoming only the second rider in 20 years to win Paris-Nice and Romandie in the same season.
Wiggins then confirmed that he was no spring champion with his performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last year before crashing out of the Tour. Wiggins finished a single second down on Luke Durbridge in the brief prologue. Again, Wiggins took the leader’s yellow jersey following the opening road stage and held his one-second lead over Cadel Evans until the time trial. Of course, Wiggins killed it in the time trial; so great was his speed that he warped the space-time continuum to the point that he finished before Evans even started. Okay, not quite.
That time trial performance deserves a bit more scrutiny; we’ll get to it in a minute. Naturally, Wiggins went on to win the Critérium du Dauphiné and in so doing became the first rider in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the same season. Statistically, that makes him a pretty serious outlier, a less-than-1-percenter. As it is, only two riders have won both the Tour of Romandie and the Tour de France in the same season: Stephen Roche did (in 1987, natch) and Cadel Evans did it last year.
Here’s where a discussion of peak form comes into play. For Paris-Nice, Wiggins’ stiffest competition came from Lieuwe Westra, the Dutchman riding for Vacansoleil. The closest competition Wiggins had from a certified Tour de France GC contender was Andreas Klöden in 18th place, more than six minutes down.
At Romandie the Brit faced guys like Sanchez, Andrew Talansky and Rui Costa. Real Tour GC guys like Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger were showing up in the top 10, but were nearly a minute down.
At the Dauphiné Wiggins faced serious competition from guys like Michael Rogers and Cadel Evans, guys tuning up for the Tour de France. Despite giving up a few seconds to Rogers and 10 seconds to Evans on the final stage, Wiggins took the Dauphiné by 1:17, his largest margin to that point in the season. It’s possible that Wiggins wasn’t on peak form in March at Paris-Nice, but there is no doubt he was on better form than other riders with Tour aspirations. It’s hard to say he wasn’t on something approaching peak form at Romandie: he was definitely revved higher than his peers. But the Dauphiné? Few guys ever get the opportunity to show the kind of form at the Dauphiné that Wiggins displayed. How could that not be peak?
Here’s what leaves me scratching my head: The Dauphiné TT was 53km. Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans. In yesterday’s stage 9 TT, Wiggins put 1:43 into Evans, but the length of the event was only 41.5km. It shows that he is on even better form now than he was at the Dauphiné.
I’ve been thinking that Wiggins has been riding a wave of peak form dating to Romandie, the last week of April. That puts him in his 10th week of peak form. I’ve been telling people Wiggins will flame out, pointing out how no one in history has ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
That bears repeating: No one, not even the insatiable Cannibal himself, ever won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de France all in the same season.
Clearly, he’s not days from flaming out based on his ride in stage 9. But his form is too amazing to ignore, and by that I mean his form has been so good for so long that people are taking notice of more than just him winning. His form has crossed that threshold into being conspicuous. People are wondering if he might be doping.
It’s a shame, really. Everything we know about Sky is that the program has been, like Garmin-Sharp, at the very vanguard of clean cycling. Much of the brouhaha surrounds accusations by l’Equipe, the French sports daily known for having sourced information on positive EPO tests by Lance Armstrong. The Texan’s methods notwithstanding, l’Equipe has been just partisan enough in their reporting that it’s fair to wonder if they wouldn’t chase after any cyclist whose first language is English.
But the trajectory Wiggins is on is just the sort of physical miracle that draws attention. To use a literary term, his form has bumped up against our suspension of disbelief. And here’s a corollary to l’Equipe‘s susicion: at Romandie, Sky teammate Chris Froome finished the TT 39th, 1:45 down on Wiggins. At the Dauphiné Froome was sixth, 1:33 behind, and only 10 seconds faster than Evans. However, in stage 9 of the Tour, Froome was a stunning second, 35 seconds behind his team leader and 1:08 faster than the Tour’s defending champion.
Wiggins needs to understand that rides of that caliber don’t just suggest questions, they beg them. For my part, I sincerely hope he’s clean, because as long as he keeps winning the questions will keep coming and the quotes will be unpublishable in most locations. Hilarious, but unpublishable. His could be an unhappy tenure at the top.