So Alberto Contador won the Tour de France by a margin slimmer than many said was possible, a margin equal to what he clawed out with the aid of Dennis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez on stage 15. We can argue about all the places each rider gained or lost time, but really, the race comes down to two fateful events: Schleck’s mis-shift on 15 and his later 39-second gap in the final time trial. The symmetry of the two events is more difficult to ignore than the economy.
And just to be ultra-clear about this, yes, I’m saying that without help from both Menchov and Sanchez, Contador wouldn’t have won the Tour.
I should also point out that even though he twice went for stage wins for himself, Alexander Vinokourov proved to be both valuable and loyal to Contador in the mountain stages. Vinokourov sat on Schleck on stage 15 and never rode for himself by taking a pull at the front of the group. He’ll always be an unpredictable element in my mind, but he demonstrated his value to the Astana team repeatedly. He deserves to be recognized.
But individual performances aside, if we back up and look at the 2010 Tour de France as an elaborate chess game involving 22 players, some interesting questions emerge.
First, what the hell has Johan Bruyneel been thinking? He fielded the most experienced team in the Tour de France, sure, but it was also the oldest team by an Egyptian pharaoh. The most youthful element of the team was the management company’s formation documents. Even if we accept the possibility that the fight went out of Armstrong following his daily crashes so that by the time the time trial came around, he really wasn’t trying—which is why we didn’t see the form necessary to win the race overall anywhere in the same time zone as him—we should still ask the question: Why did no one else other than Chris Horner ride like his career was at stake?
Speaking of recognition, let’s hope that Horner feels some satisfaction and vindication at his stellar ride. It’s one of the best performances by a rider over the age of 35 ever at the Tour, and is his single best performance there. It was his misfortune to sign for a French team when he first went to Europe and his worse fortune to have his career coincide with Armstrong’s. Had he hit Europe five years earlier than he did, he could have led Motorola in its quest to do something significant in a Grand Tour. Or not. There have long been reports that Jim Ochowicz (director of Motorola and now one of the powers that be at BMC) had issues with the formerly feisty San Diegan.
Back to Bruyneel. His reputation as a kingmaker able to deliver a worthy rider to a Grand Tour victory has suffered its first setback. Even with the triple-barrel shotgun of Armstrong, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer he was unable to deliver any one of them to the top 10. Horner’s performance was the sort of showing that the French teams generally hope to luck into but can plan no better than a chimp considering retirement.
With that much talent and so little to show for it, the brass at The Shack might be understandably perturbed.
This time last year many of us were beginning to rethink what might be possible age-wise in a Grand Tour. Now, the near complete waterlogging of Radio Shack has most cycling fans thinking that, yes, age really does slow you down. Too much to deliver a win on the world’s biggest stage.
And cast in the light of failure, Armstrong seems less ambitious, less hungry, less focused on highlighting the cause of cancer than just gluttonous, a corpulent ego.
But that’s how we play it isn’t it? When our heroes fall, we pounce.
But even if the Radio Shack board is less than thrilled, imagine what’s going on in the boardroom at Sky. Isn’t the question there whose head rolls first?
Seemingly a world away, Bjarne Riis has proven that he knows how to bring the race to anyone he wants. He’s delivered Tyler Hamilton, Carlos Sastre, Ivan Basso and Andy Schleck all to podium finishes at Grand Tours, though his record of wins (just two) is rather slim despite the obvious strength of his team.
Yvon Sanquer, a name you may not be very familiar with even after his team’s success, is the director of Team Astana and has kept a profile nearly as high as that of newly mown grass. His previous best result as a team director was after being brought in to rescue Team Festina (not unlike what he was asked to do with Astana) and his riders (mostly Marcel Wüst) were able to take a stage of the Tour de France along with four stages of the Vuelta plus some stages at lesser stage races. Before 2010, his riders’ closest association to the winner of a Grand Tour was if they had chatted with him.
And yet, somehow Sanquer brought together what seemed to be an underpowered team and saw to it that Contador was rarely without help in the mountains.
Despite the Astana team performing as if it were still run by Johan Bruyneel—admit it, it was an impressive performance that very few thought could truly deliver the goods as a cohesive unit this past January—I am surprised by the number of people I hear from who just plain don’t like Alberto Contador. To the degree that maybe many cycling fans were less than enthusiastic about him, it seems that even if his counter attack on stage 15 didn’t rile people, the fact that he lied about not knowing what was going on with Andy Schleck seems to have sent some fans around the bend. I’ve not been a fan of some of his tactics, and have thought some of his interviews with the Spanish media were whiny and meant to play the pity card, which strikes me as unseemly—like the Super Bowl winning team sniffling about playing hurt, but it struck me as insulting to fans everywhere for him to claim he couldn’t tell there was anything wrong with Schleck.
Which brings me to Jonathan Vaughters. Of the teams bidding for Contador’s services last year, Vaughters’ Garmin-Transitions formation was one of the teams in the running to sign the diminutive Spaniard. There are reports that after all of his efforts to leave Astana he is now considering a new contract and staying.
Contador would do well to leave, so long as he left for Vaughters. Of the many team directors at the Tour de France, Vaughters is the one that seems to have an uncanny ability to help riders achieve greatness in the GC that he never could reach on his own. In three years of competing in the Tour de France Vaughters has delivered three different riders to top-10 finishes, first with Christian Vande Velde’s fourth place, then Bradley Wiggins fourth and now Ryder Hesjedal’s seventh place. In each case the riders were uniformly believed to be talented, but no one—other than Vaughters—considered them real GC vehicles on which to pin a team’s hopes.
Sanquer’s success with Contador suggests competence, nothing more. After all, if you can’t guide a previous Tour de France winning to yet another victory, what kind of team director are you?
Bjarne Riis has consistently put together one of the strongest, most cohesive teams on the planet. That he hasn’t won more may be a question of formula more than anything else. The question seems to be, ‘Why didn’t he win?’ rather than, ‘What’s it going to take to secure another win?’
Bruyneel is the great curiosity this year. He’s ripe for criticism. How should he deflect the charge that he went with Armstrong less for career than paycheck? If he didn’t go to Radio Shack for the paycheck, then why? It’s hard for Bruyneel to charge that Vinokourov is a more tarnished rider than some he has worked with. Contador clearly has a greater future than Armstrong does. Maybe the question is just how loyal a guy is Bruyneel. Some folks are loyal to a fault. Could it be so with him?
Even if he didn’t go to Radio Shack just for a bigger paycheck that is virtually guaranteed not to dry up mid-way through the season, where does he rank his ambitions as a director? Twelve of the team’s 26 riders have had their 30th birthday. Six of them are older than 32. The only rider on the team who is showing talent and is early in his career is Janez Brajkovič. Taylor Phinney doesn’t count because he’s only a staigiaire.
How else do you wind up with that many riders in need of a retirement party than by selecting a crew that can be depended on being utterly devoted to Armstrong? Now, there’s nothing wrong with being committed to supporting your team leader, but it is fair to ask how smart it is to construct a team for a single year’s performance. Even if Leipheimer, Klöden, Horner and Rubiera plan to ride Grand Tours next year, how capable will any of them be? Horner is the only guy I’d bet on as a good support rider for the simple reason that he is obviously still proving his value and talent long after most guys have quit.
You want to make the 2011 Tour de France really interesting? Get Vaughters to sign Horner.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The last ten days have surprised me for one unusual piece of news after another. I’m not normally one to write the grab-bag post, but because so many disparate pieces of news have elicited the same reaction in me, I figured the uniformity of my reaction is enough to include them in the same post.
I’ve followed discussions about rate of ascent (VAM) on Tour climbs with some interest. While I have found some of the numbers reported troubling, I haven’t been willing to place too much faith in those numbers because it’s hard to be certain of just where the climb starts and finishes are, which can throw off the math in the calculations. And even if you trust the calculations, I haven’t yet seen an argument connecting the dots in a way that lead to an inarguable conclusion that normal biology can’t produce a particular performance. That is, I hadn’t seen one until I read this post on the Science of Sport blog. It connects the dots in a very convincing way. Because we are getting more and more information about riders as they race, in the future it will be possible to look at a rider’s performance on a climb in a very objective manner and the math that Ross Tucker provides will help us sort the fiction from the clean.
Some folks I’d prefer would shut up, have been making headlines. On their own, they don’t merit posts, but Michael Ball and Rudy Pevenage both elicited a “You’re kidding.” from me but for entirely different reasons. One wonders why Pevenage decided it was time to admit his involvement in organizing Ullrich’s trips to Spain to see Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes now, yet more curious is why he thought he needed to tell us this little factoid. It’s not much of a confession as most everyone was satisfied that Ullrich was involved in Operacion Puerto; who served as travel agent is inconsequential, and Pevenage’s moral relativism—“It was normal”—isn’t washing.
Michael Ball, ex-pricey jean entrepreneur and director of Rock Racing—the only professional cycling team to model its organization after the Bad News Bears—was served with a search warrant. Presumably, the warrant is as a result of Floyd Landis’ confession, as it was filed by investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is remembered for bringing the house of BALCO down. If Novitzky smells smoke, there’s a conflagration.
Ball, who briefly employed Pevenage in 2008, congratulated Landis on coming clean, telling the New York Daily News: “Floyd is in a better place. Someone needed to come clean who was on the inside, who had lived it.”
However, what made my jaw drop was his crazy claim that, “I was in the sport for three years and I saw what went on. But not on my team, because I wouldn’t allow it.”
Really? I assume by “what went on” he means doping. Has he already forgotten about Tyler Hamilton’s positive test? If there’s one thing we’ve learned about doping it is that those closest to the riders sometimes do not know, so for Ball to suggest he knows something about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by pro riders he didn’t sponsor means that he thinks we’re dumber than he.
Speaking of Landis, his latest accusation, this one printed in the Wall Street Journal, is that he couldn’t get an extra bike to train on because Armstrong was busy selling bikes to—gasp—buy drugs. Here’s a newsflash: Teams have sold off bikes at the end of the season for ages. That Landis expects us to believe that just because he couldn’t account for the presence of 60 bikes it means they were sold to pay for doping. In addition to claiming that that Johan Bruyneel admitted the bike sales were paying for drugs, he has also claimed he paid for the drugs he took. Unridden team bikes won’t carry any sort of multiplier with collectors, so those bikes would have gone for roughly $5k apiece. The only bikes that carry any sort of multiplier would be those ridden by the team stars and having spoken with collectors, I can say Lance’s bikes weren’t going for $20k, even with the aid of photographic provenance. Even if the accusation is proven true, it really adds nothing significant to his story, which makes us wonder why he’s talking.
Speaking of bike sales, a week ago Campagnolo announced it would begin offering industry deals to verified industry employees. For those of you who have never worked in the industry, I can tell you this is the single most surprising piece of news in this post. As a shop employee I remember checking with multiple distributors to see who had the best prices on Campy any time I needed—er—wanted to purchase new gear. The difference in price between different distributors could mean saving as much as five percent which was what passed for a discount for us wrenches. It has been my understanding that Campy USA wanted to do this for ages, but Italy finally listened and came to appreciate that having shop staff riding their components could make a difference in how often they wind up on a custom build. Bravo to Campy.
And while I’m still mystified that anyone would try to defend Mark Renshaw head-butting Julian Dean and then shutting the door hard on Tyler Farrar, we’ve continued to get other head-scratching moments every day at the Tour de France. Take Alexander Vinokourov. Let’s be honest; he has a reputation for being a rogue rider, which is why his declaration that he would dedicate his effort to supporting Astana team leader, Alberto Contador was met with at least a bit of skepticism.
So what does Vino do? He goes off on a breakaway in the final kilometers of the climb to Mende. Let’s be clear, if you’re sole mission is to support your team leader, then you’re not heading out for stage wins—that’s a big, big effort and burns more than a few matches. But once gone, why not give the guy some rope, right? But Contador chases down Joaquin Rodriguez, and then proceeds to take a very strong pull.
As I’d been saying all week, I couldn’t stifle myself from saying, “Really?”
Was Contador teaching Vinokourov a lesson? Or was he really that nervous about Andy Schleck that he felt compelled to gain every second he could? It’s fair to wonder if Rodriguez had enough gas on his own to catch Vinokourov. At the point Contador began his chase of Rodriguez he knew that he couldn’t gain all that much time, certainly not enough to gain the yellow jersey. While Vinokourov has never been my favorite rider, but Contador managed to make me feel some sympathy for the win he was denied.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get weirder, Vinokourov takes off on yet another flyer. And fortunately for his efforts, he got the win in Revel. However, after taking breakaways two days in a row, does anyone—John Lelangue especially—think that Vinokourov will really have the gas necessary to work for Contador through the Pyrenees?
If he does have the reserves to provide support to Contador, it will be an impressive piece of riding. Impressive, and for this writer, suspicious. If he doesn’t, then his pledge to support Contador will have been proven to be BS, and Contador’s chase will be hard to criticize.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International