Perhaps we should discuss this elephant, the Tour de France, camped in our virtual living room. We have not been writing about the pros so much lately. This is less a conscious decision, and more just a reflection of natural inclinations. We are less interested in the pros generally and the Tour specifically, Padraig and I, than we have been in a loooongg time.
And why is that? Sadly, it seems to be a result of doping burnout. Perhaps we labored under a set of willful delusions, even after we knew how widespread doping was in the pro ranks, that allowed us to parse out teams and characters whom we like and on some level believed in. Thinking back on many of the posts and comment threads here on RKP over recent years, much of the discussion centers not on whether doping has been endemic, but rather on who is and who isn’t believable.
But when things came to a head last year, and confessions began flowing like champagne at a wedding, our ability to single out and separate the good guys from the bad guys was badly hampered. Seemingly good guys, minor players, had done bad things. We knew, but didn’t want to know. We thought we had accepted it, but we hadn’t. Our skepticism about the pro peloton was shown to be too conservative, not too cynical. Our ability to be entertained by the drama was overtaken by the burgeoning farce.
And so…this elephant.
Normally, this Group Ride would center on predictions for the race. Froome or Contador? What will Evans make of himself here in the twilight of his racing career? Which of the young pretenders will distinguish himself? Is Andy Schleck back, at last? Will he even finish? Those are just the tip of the French iceberg.
In some diminished way, we are interested in the answers. When you have cared so much for so long, it is hard to let go of the reflexive curiosity, the desire to engage friends in a serious discussion about a not-serious thing. But for us, the heat’s just not there, and we find ourselves far more interested in our kids’ riding or in the bikes and routes and stories of our friends.
Still, this week’s Group Ride is about the Tour de France. How do you feel about it now? Do you care who wins? If not, why not? You can tell us, Froome or Contador. You can answer any of the questions above, if that’s where you’re at, or maybe you can help us explain this feeling which is, in many ways, worse than the anger we used to indulge over the bad behavior of small and distant men. What is this new indifference, and will we, some of us, most of us, get back to that place of caring passionately?
The Tour is coming. You know this, because the weather is hot and when the weather is hot (or cold for you Aussies and other Southern Hemispherics), and you’re a fan of bike racing, you can more or less feel in your bones that the Tour is coming.
We’ve already more or less discussed the contenders. The quick wrap on them is: Cadel Evans will win because he knows how and has a good team and will peak at the right time. Unless Brad Wiggins wins because he has been absolutely flying and Sky is a super strong team also. Unless someone else wins. All the others are dark horses and thus super fun to imagine standing on the final podium. Andy Schleck is not a contender, nor is he a dark horse. He’s a spectator, which is too bad.
So we’ve covered the contenders, and we’ve talked about the Hump, that mystical mixture of confidence, luck, maturity and talent that finally puts an already strong rider onto the podium in Paris. If you have not won the Tour de France, and you want to or think you can, you will know, in your heart, that you will have to race better than you ever have at any other time in your life. You will have to surpass yourself.
This week’s Group Ride explores the strategies a potential champion, or any rider really, might use to surpass themselves. What are the mental tricks we employ to go farther, faster and better?
One idea I have worked with a little bit recently is something I call the Doppelganger Challenge™. It is a variation on the competing-against-yourself strategy, but there’s a twist.
It goes something like this. I set out on a ride, and I don’t feel my best. I begin to wrestle with my conscience over whether I’m going to press on to meet whatever goal I have for the ride, or whether I’ll turn around and go home. Most of the time, in my case, my goal is simply to finish whatever distance I’ve set out on, so I set the bar pretty low. That makes the mental wrestling match even more intense, because I quickly conclude that turning around and going home is pathetic (even if it is sometimes the right thing to do).
The trick with the Doppelganger Challenge™ is to imagine that someone just like me, with the same body and lack of talent, is racing against me. I ask myself, “Will that person give up? How hard will they go? Maybe they’re mentally strong, so I need to push myself to match them. Often, when I compete against that false stranger, I can do more than I would have on my own.
I’m not sure Cadel or Bradley or any of the other Tour riders will need to employ this strategy. I will hope to collect royalties from them if they do, but getting back to the task at hand, what do you do? What are your tricks? How do you work around the mental hurdles that arise? Tell me how to win, even if winning just means getting home before I fall over in the pedals, drooling on the hot asphalt.
Photo courtesy of Matt O’Keefe.
Despite suspicions that the apparent turmoil at Team RadioShack-Nissan was just that, apparent, a bit of strategic misdirection from Johann Bruyneel ahead of the Tour, Andy Schleck has now pulled out of the Grand Boucle with a fractured tailbone. Bruyneel has been targeted in a USADA investigation into systematized doping, and team owner Flavio Becca has, allegedly, withheld the riders’ May salaries (via Inner Ring) to express his disappointment with overall performances.
Now the Schlecks, who have publicly fallen out with Bruyneel, are rumored to be looking for a new team, possibly a return to Bjarne Riis’ SaxoBank squad. What?
We have been here before, with the ridiculous game of musical chairs that saw the Luxembourgers leave SaxoBank to start Leopard-Trek, while Alberto Contador joined Riis and won the Tour (later to be DQ’d for doping). Both of those teams lined up against Radio Shack, then under the leadership of Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong, which subsequently merged with Leopard-Trek. All those deals were undergirded by competing sponsorship dollars from Specialized and Trek, each of whom desperately wants a TdF winner on their machines. There just weren’t enough serious Tour contenders around to support three teams after Armstrong finally quit, so that merger made some sense, except that Cadel Evans won the last Tour for Andy Rihs and BMC.
You know what, forget musical chairs. This is a freaking Russian novel with too many characters, too many plot lines and too much melodrama.
Obviously (maybe), the Schlecks can’t go back to Riis, who just re-signed Contador to a three-year deal. The other rumor is that they’ll go to Astana (the former home of Contador and Armstrong), but that will only put Vincenzo Nibali in an awkward spot. He just signed on to be their main GC man.
As with all big name/money transfers, nothing is clear this time of year. It’s our Russian novel, written with a stick, in sand, too near the tide line.
This week’s Group Ride asks a series of crazy questions: Will the Schlecks leave the Shack? If so, does it even make sense for Flavio Becca to own a cycling team with or without RadioShack also involved? And who benefits most from the chaos? Bjarne Riis and the soon-to-return Contador? Team Sky, with Bradley Wiggins coming on song at possibly the right time? Or someone else? BMC? Look into your crystal ball, get out your Russian-English dictionary, take a wild stab. How will it all play out?
There was a time, not very long ago, when the average fan’s perception of Cadel Evans was not entirely favorable. Clearly a huge talent, Evans’ demeanor suggested a lack of maturity, a tendency to whine and the distinct impression that the biggest prizes would elude him. Perhaps it was the influence of the late Aldo Sassi, perhaps it was winning a World Championship, perhaps it was getting married, but Evans finally got himself over the hump.
It was a patient and tempered effort that saw the Australian win last year’s Tour de France. Where once he might have bemoaned his bad luck or chided his teammates for not being more helpful, Evans finally assumed responsibility for his own destiny. Think back to Stage 18 of that Tour when he responded alone to the attack of Andy Schleck, dragging the Luxembourger back by sitting on the front of a chasing group, grinding out the gap and keeping Schleck in his GC sights. He neither panicked, nor asked for help. While it was the Stage 20 time trial that finally put him in yellow, it was the bravura performance on the way to the Galibier that won him the Tour.
Just how Evans transformed himself from a not-entirely-convincing contender to a worthy champion is a mystery. Somehow he dragged himself over that hump. From my perspective, the hump is as important as it is hard to define.
Following on from last week’s Group Ride, can we ask: Is Brad Wiggins over the hump? He’s won a handful of one week stage races, including this season’s Paris-Nice and Dauphiné. He has World Championships on the track, and time trial medals from World Championships on the road. He is highly accomplished. There is no doubt. But can he win a Grand Tour?
Third at last year’s Vuelta, fourth in the 2009 Tour, he is nearly there. But the distance between third and first in Paris is more than the two foot rise from the third podium step to the first. There is a mile of luck and a bit more in experience necessary to bridge that gap.
If you look at Wiggins, tilt your head to one side and squint just right, you can imagine that all the bluster he summons in the press, the sarcasm and arrogance that some interpret as supreme confidence, is just the opposite. It is the demeanor of an elite athlete still harboring doubts about his ability to mount those last two steps and a resentment perhaps that, despite already achieving so much, he is expected to do more.
Andy Schleck, who has now withdrawn from the 2012 Tour, finds himself in the same purgatory as Wiggins. “Winner” of the 2010 Tour after Alberto Contador’s doping conviction, Schleck has never won a stage race on the road as a full professional. He has done everything but, standing on consecutive podiums, winning white jerseys, taking stage wins, but never bridging that last, narrow gap, never making it over the hump.
What’s it about? Is it an unwillingness to improve his time trialling skills? Despite hemorrhaging time to his opponents in every time trial he rides, he steadfastly refuses to do the basic work to be better, or even in some cases to pre-ride the courses to know what challenges await him. Is it maybe a reluctance to attack? How many times have we seen young Andy looking around an elite group, waiting for someone else to make a move? Or are all of these things together indicative of being stuck in second place without the maturity to accept and conquer his shortcomings?
One rider who appears to have been born over the hump is Alberto Contador. Discount him as a doper if you will, but that seems too facile when you consider the mental approach and discipline the Spaniard has taken on his way to a string of impressive, if tainted, Grand Tour wins. He has been audacious when audacity was called for, calm when when he needed to be, strong when he was under attack from within his own team and imperious when accused of cheating. He is a rider of great talent, but also of supreme self-possession, and that, in essence, is what the hump is about. To be self-possessed is to understand your own outer limits, to accept that there is no one else who can take you there, and to have the focus to get there.
Now, it will be easy to read this post and flame it, just as it was easy for me to say that the guys who’ve won the Tour are over the hump and those who haven’t aren’t. In elevating Contador, who is cooling his heals after a doping positive, I am praising the wrong man. And yet, I can’t escape this feeling that what separates Evans and Contador from Wiggins and Schleck is not physical. There is something more. It falls under the umbrella of maturity and mental toughness, of luck and tactical nous. To win the Tour de France, the stars must align, but you must also be ready for them to align.
Until then, you train in Mallorca, you screw around with your nutrition, your race schedule and your bike set up. You change teams. You change coaches. You train on feel or you devote yourself to studying power numbers. You weigh your food on a scale. You switch roommates.
All just hoping to get over the hump.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
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
The Spring Classics season is over. Shit. And true to form it offered up some legend-burnishing performances (Boonen’s Flanders/Roubaix double) and some jaw-slackening surprises (Gasparotto at Amstel Gold).
The big winner, Tommeke Boonen, just put the cherry(s) on top of what has already been a peach of a season for Omega Pharma-QuickStep (OPQS). They’ve gotten wins on the road from Francesco Chicchi, Levi Leipheimer, Gerald Ciolek, Peter Velits, Michal Kwiatkowski, Julien Vermote, Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel as well; 2011 Time Trial World Champion Tony Martin hasn’t even pitched in yet, quite possibly because he had an altogether too close encounter with a car while training earlier this month.
Other big winners must include Green Edge, who put Simon Gerrans on the top step of the podium at Milan-San Remo, and Astana who took the final prize of the spring at Liege-Bastogne-Liege with Maxim Iglinskiy.
BMC showed well with Alessandro Ballan on podiums at both Flanders and Roubaix, but for a team of this caliber (and payroll) a pair of third places and a lot of anonymous rides from last year’s rider-of-the-season, Philipe Gilbert, has to be seen as an abject failure.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek-Jingleheimer-Schmidt will also feel about as happy as kid who’s dropped his ice cream after watching Fabian Cancellara face plant in the feed zone at Flanders, shattering his collarbone and a potential rematch with Boonen over the the cobbles of le Nord. In the Ardennes, where the Schleck brothers made most favorites lists, the team fired nothing but blanks.
More could have been expected from Team Sky and perhaps Katusha also, but the Spring seldom runs to script.
This week’s Group Ride looks back wistfully at the just-done spate of races and asks: Who were your winners and losers? What did you love? And what did you hate?
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
As teams at the fringes of the ProTour struggle to find and keep sponsors, a few super teams have risen to the top of the sport. BMC, Team Sky and RadioShack-Nissan have thrown their large budgets at cadres of the best riders, and conventional wisdom suggests these are the teams who will be vying for the lion’s share of the podium spots in the year’s biggest races.
But things seldom go to script in top level racing. Despite the financial clout wielded by the super teams, talented racers from other squads will certainly muscle their way into the spotlight.
For example, BMC have Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd for the Spring Classics. Fabian Cancellara rides for RadioShack-Nissan. Those three riders will go on every favorite’s list for each of the big spring flings. But OmegaPharma-Quickstep believe their one-two punch of Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel can pull off big results, surrounded as they are by northern European strong men.
No conclusion is forgone, unless of course the Schlecks are involved in a two-up sprint against my grandmother, in which case grammy is going to need some help shaking up that magnum of champagne.
All kidding aside, there are dark horses that aren’t so dark. Who are they?
It would be ridiculous to call Alberto Contador a dark horse, but, assuming he’s not suspended, he’s the prohibitive favorite to win the Tour de France this summer. BMC’s Cadel Evans, RS-N’s Schleck brothers and Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins will have their work more than cut out for them, and that is pro cycling’s top prize.
If Boonen were to take either Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, or as last year, Garmin-Baracuda were to pull of the tactical coup they executed at Roubaix last season, that would take another shiny bauble off the table.
Mark Cavendish will be the favorite for Milan-San Remo glory, but does anyone think Matt Goss and Greenedge won’t be there to contest? This week’s Group Ride asks: Who are the riders who will ruin the party for the super teams? Who are the dark horses? And where will they win?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
There is nothing actually very special about the end of the year. The moon has completed yet another revolution of our green planet, true, but it does that all the time. We humans who track our whereabouts in time by the movement of the celestial bodies have simply decided this is the end. We’ve come around the sun again. We made it! Except, quite where the beginning and end of that orbit are is pretty subjective.
Nonetheless, in our tiny, human way we mark the passage with all sorts of big talk. We do year-end awards (look for ours soon), stories-of-the-year stories. We make lists. Even though time marches on, and the borders are arbitrary, we do this.
And so you have been reading all sorts of retrospectives of 2011, many of which mention names like Gilbert, Cavendish, Evans, Contador and Schleck. Those guys all had big years. I know. I watched. On TV.
Too some extent, the riders in the pro peloton are no more real than the characters in my wife’s favorite television programs. Our paths don’t cross. I don’t know them in anything more than a two-dimensional way.
What is far more tangible for me is MY cycling year, not theirs. This year I rode D2R2 for the first time, bought my first new mountain bike in 15 years, started a new Saturday morning group ride, showed my son proper wheelie technique, bought my wife her first road bike, and took a job, a full-time job, in the cycling industry.
Those were the top stories of 2011 for me. This week’s Group Ride, the last ride of the year, asks the question: What were the top stories of YOUR cycling year?
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot!
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
David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest” is a sprawling, impossible novel, 1079 pages long with hundreds of foot and end notes that break up and expand on the multiple plot lines. It chronicles the tragi-comic exploits of a Canadian separatist group, a prep school tennis player and a half-way house addict, among others. It’s a book that bites off far more than any one novel could chew, but it is absolutely and stunningly brilliant.
The Tour de France is an impossible bike race—21 stages, thousands of kilometers, high mountain passes, time trials, bunch sprints. When Henri Desgranges concocted it, it was as the most audaciously challenging sporting event on the planet, like nothing sporting cyclists had ever attempted. And from its inaugural year, it has always sought to fulfill bike racing fans’ wildest dreams, an infinite jest.
In Foster Wallace’s book, there is a video cartridge, referred to as “the entertainment,” which is so compelling that it completely incapacitates anyone who sees it. It literally blows their minds. “The entertainment” is a comic element, but only because it doesn’t exist. There is no one perfect entertainment.
One of the things I don’t like about grand tours (I know, blasphemy!) is that they attempt too much. There are 21 races within the one race, but there are also mountains, points and young rider competitions going on simultaneously. There is the team competition. There are intermediate sprint points, combativity prizes. There is so much going on, there are so many opportunities to win SOMETHING, that it can begin to feel like a cub scout jamboree. Everyone leaves with a prize, and so, some years, none of the prizes seems to hold any great value.
The 2011 Tour de France was not one of those grand tours. The general classification battle between the Schlecks, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voekler and Alberto Contador inspired each of those riders to amazing rides. But also we watched Phillipe Gilbert storm the green jersey, before Mark Cavendish took it back. All the while JJ Rojas stole points to remain close. Andre Greipel took a stage off his former teammate/nemesis, as well. In the climber’s competition, we watch Johnny Hoogerland write a modern cycling legend, climbing out of a barbed wire fence to pull on the polka dots. Garmin-Cervelo won the team competition by animating the first week of the event and then launching Tommy Danielson into the top ten.
Did a day go by without some great story being told in carbon fiber, sweat and chain grease?
When I was younger I was a much more earnest reader of serious fiction, and I plowed through “Infinite Jest” over the summer of 1997. I loved it, but holy shit, that’s a book you can’t recommend to anyone else without looking like a pretentious jerk. Anyone who publishes a novel in excess of 1000 pages is taking a big gamble. If it fails, it’s an epic failure, and, if we’re honest, sometimes the Tour de France fails. This was not one of those times. In the wake of Angelo Zomegnan’s kamikaze Giro d’Italia, Tour director Christian Prudhomme needed to deliver a legitimate epic.
And, like Foster Wallace, he did, combining compelling characters with clever plot twists and iconic settings. It would be a stretch to call the Tour de France an infinite jest, but its perseverance, and the sheer quality of this year’s version, in the face of the ignominy of the last decade, suggest there is something enduring to the grandest of all bike races, something ineffable that holds our attention, even when common sense might suggest we turn away.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International