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
Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
No bad guy? No bad guy? Are you guys kidding me? With no bad guy, there’s no good guy. If everyone’s a good guy, then no one is. They’re just guys. Who wants to watch a bunch of guys riding bikes? BO-RING!
I liked what Big Mikey said:
This isn’t about legal law, as both parties worked out a compromise due to the fact that GS was going to lose BW to Sky due to the (lack of) enforceability of the contract per European contract law (imagine that), this is about perception and behavior. And while Vaughters was mostly restrained, Wiggins let slip some less than exemplary behavior/comments. A very nice touch given that Garmin worked hard to support his fourth place in the TdF. They gave him the shot to focus on the tour, and he repays it by acting like an entitled brat.
If we combine what Padraig and SingleSpeedJarv had to offer, about Wiggins being unhappy at Garmin even before Sky came into the picture, then we can, to some extent, let Brailsford off the hook, though I can promise you Andrei Tchmil will NOT be letting Brailsford off the hook (for poaching Ben Swift, a Katusha rider until Brailsford turned his head). Not Tchmil’s style to forgive and forget. You can just go ahead and assume that Katusha won’t be taking any turns on the front of the peloton if Sky will benefit in anyway.
So Wiggins wanted out of the contract that suited him pretty well less than a year previously? OK. He doesn’t like the Garmin way. Sometimes things don’t work out. Sky came along at the right time with a boatload of cash to emancipate him from the servitude that all but put him on the Tour de France podium. Fortuitous, not just for Wor Bradley, but also for Jonathan Vaughters who ended up having a tantrum-throwing prima donna taken off his hands and replaced with a fat check.
All is possibly well that ends well, except that, in order to extricate himself from what was, to him, an untenable situation, young Mr. Wiggins felt it necessary to disparage Garmin in the press. There were several allusions to the team not preparing its riders properly for racing success. There was the infamous ‘I need to be at Manchester United, and currently I’m at Wigan,” line, which, for those not steeped in British football culture, basically means “Garmin is bush league, and Sky are pros,” an odd assertion to make about a team that had, at that point, not yet raced a bike in anger.
So this scribe’s personal take (in case it wasn’t obvious) is that, though all parties seem to have made out alright in the end (even though I’d bet the above-pictured Vaughters would have preferred to show up in France this summer with TWO GC threats rather than just one), Brad Wiggins acted like a first class ass hat throughout the affair.
Rather than effecting his transfer with discretion, class and bonhomie, he alienated his team manager, teammates and probably some fans, by turning a private business deal into a public spectacle. If he wins the Tour for Sky this summer, then we’ll probably all just salute his hard-headed competitiveness and forget that he acted like a jerk. If he fails to podium, then we’ll all shake our heads at yet another ego-case crashing and burning on the fumes of his own ambition. If he fails to podium and Christian Vande Velde does make it onto the hallowed steps, well, I can’t wait to see what the French press writes about that.