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
The cliché says you can’t win the Tour de France in the first week, but you can certainly lose it. It’s a shame really, because so many pro teams organize their season around the Tour, the possibility for stage wins, for sponsor publicity, for glory. Something simple like the swerve of a car or a wet bend in the road can play havoc with a pack of riders grand tour thick and first week nervous.
Those who lost the Tour in the first week are easy to list: Alexandre Vinokourov and Team Astana, Alessandro Petacchi, Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Team Radio Shack, Tom Boonen and his QuickStep squad, and Bradley Wiggins.
Aging Vinokourov fractured his pelvis in a gruesome looking crash over a concrete barrier and down into a ditch. The sight of his teammates gathered around, along with a team doctor, carrying him back up onto the road, signaled the end for the Kazakh team. Vino went off to hospital. The rest rode desultorily up the road to chase onto the neutralized peloton. Even Roman Kreuziger, who might have pretended to be riding for GC, injured his wrist earlier in the week. Not sure what the boys in electric blue and yellow will do for the next two weeks, but we will see.
Another elder statesman of the road, Alessandro Petacchi, has managed to be involved in exactly nothing in the opening stanza. Tipped as an outside bet to nick stage wins off Mark Cavendish, the Italian has instead been conspicuous only by his absence.
Team Radio Shack are going only slightly better than Team Astana. One possible GC man, Jani Brajkovic, crashed out with a concussion and a broken collarbone on Stage Five. Chris Horner left the race two days later also with a dramatic head injury. Levi Leipheimer has been on the deck as often as Captain Ahab, falling out of GC contention, and then Andreas Klöden, the Shack’s one remaining hope, injured his back on Stage Nine. They’ll drag themselves to the finish, but this, apparently, will not be the year Johan Bruyneel forgets his old buddy Lance.
QuickStep are never in France riding for the general classification, but with major crashes leading to the abandonment of Tom Boonen, their best hope for a stage win, and heavy injuries to Sylvain Chavanel, their strongest breakaway chance, QuickStep will likely be walking away with nothing in 2011.
Team Sky also lost their main GC hope when Bradley Wiggins did his collarbone on Stage Seven. With Geraint Thomas, Stage Six winner Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Rigoberto Uran still in the race, Sky has plenty left to ride for, but conceding the GC battle must hurt a team whose stated goal is to win the Tour with a Briton.
There is also a small group whose fate is still too hard to discern.
Much has been written over the past week about Alberto Contador’s misfortunes and seeming vulnerability. When he lost more than a minute on Stage One, commentators were already saying his race was over, but these storylines are predictable. In truth, an on-form Contador can pull back his current deficit in a single Alpine attack. More worrying for the Spaniard is that multiple crashes have left him battered and bruised, especially a bad right knee which could steal his explosiveness in the steeps. Furthermore, his SaxoBank-Sungard team never seems to be with him. Even when he’s tucked into the peloton, his support team is seldom in evidence. Will they be there when he needs them most, in the Pyrenees and Alps?
Another too soon to tell is Ivan Basso. The Italian decided to forgo a defense of his Giro d’Italia title to focus on the Tour, and now, at the end of the first week, Basso has managed to remain upright, but he is 3:36 down on GC, and he’s a crappy time trialist. You can count three or four GC faves Basso will outclimb when the road turns up, but the podium will be a big stretch.
Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. On the one hand, first week drama is always good for the Tour as the real fireworks seem to fly on the climbing stages of weeks two and three. However, the riders and teams are feeling as though the course is too dangerous, and some high profile crashes and injuries reinforce the notion that the new game in grand tours is putting the participants through the wringer.
Multiple accidents involving caravan vehicles call into question the Amaury Sports Organization’s ability to manage all the moving parts, and cramming 22 teams of 9 riders each through some of the tiny roads of northern and central France looks like a not very good idea too. Fans, especially those who’ve never crashed, seem to love the carnage, but in the end, we all want to see the race decided by the quality of the riders, not by simple attrition.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In light of the reports regarding Alberto Contador’s imminent, one-year vacation, we’re thinking double extra hard about different ways to clean up the sport. The other day we discussed the need for greater decisiveness from the UCI and more draconian application of the rules.
Who really has the power in pro cycling? It’s an imprecise question. It yields some obtuse answer about the various parties involved, the UCI, the state federations, the Pro and Pro Continental teams, the sponsors and the race organizers. Assign percentages. Divide and debate.
A more precise question is: Where’s the money?
It is true that the UCI, federations, teams and sponsors all have an interest in clean racing, but it is also true that each of those stake holders has some motive for winning, regardless of the methods. The UCI needs champions in order to grow the sport. More than that, they need spectacle and drama. They need superhumanity. Obviously, doping scandals hurt their brand, but what weapons have they got? We’ve already talked about how ineffective their current approach has been, suspend and litigate.
The federations also want champions, riders from their countries standing atop podiums. They want clean athletes, but they only really need their athletes to be cleaner than the others. They also have no real power, just a smaller player in the suspend and litigate system.
The teams are the most compromised. They need to appear to be clean, but if they don’t win races, it doesn’t matter much whether they’re clean or dirty as a dormant coal mine. They lose sponsorship either way.
The sponsors have money, it’s true, but they’re in the same boat with the teams. They want the publicity that comes from winning races. They want a spot in the Tour caravan. Doping scandals may or may not hurt them. Festina reported selling more watches in the year following their team’s expulsion from the 1998 Tour.
That brings us to the race organizers. It brings us to the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO).
As most folks know, the ASO runs the Tour de France, the biggest cash cow in the sport. What they may not know is that they also own and/or operate the Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Paris-Nice, Critérium International, Paris-Roubaix, Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta España, Tour de l’Avenir and Paris-Tours. In short, ASO is the gatekeeper. More than anyone else, they have the power.
So what if the ASO implemented its own anti-doping policy, some more clearly stated variation on what they do now. Yes, Tour director Christian Prudhomme has been sending the teams messages for years. Embarrass the Tour and you become persona non grata in France, in July. But the rules aren’t written, and they’re not hard or fast.
If the ASO made the simple policy of barring riders who had tested positive from competing in any other of their races, it would send a shock wave through the peloton. Gone would be David Millar, Ivan Basso, Alexandre Vinokourov, et. al. It would be a loss, but it would be a tolerable one to get our sport back from middle pages of scandal-addicted newspapers.
Not being able to race in ASO races would decrease even the most talented rider’s value so significantly as to virtually end their careers. Am I really going to pay Vinokourov’s salary only to have him compete in the Giro and some subsection of the rest of the season? And what if Giro director Angelo Zomegnan buys into this approach? To borrow and phrase from another sport, game, set, match. Over.
I am sure that the deal hammered-out between the UCI and race organizers to guarantee selection to the biggest races for the entire list of ProTeams contains some provision for teams who harbor convicted dopers. I would argue that there is almost no way, under law, for the ASO to be compelled to allow the participation of riders whose presence might devalue their primary assets.
The ASO could make this happen. But will they?
Over the last decade, the ASO has acquired a number of big races, expanding their cycling portfolio to its current size, and glancing down the list you will see three of the seven spring classics, two of the three grand tours, the most prestigious one week stage race (Paris-Nice) and one of the big fall classics (Paris-Tours). How many more races would they need before they could effectively take cycling private, marginalize the UCI, and run their own show? It seems outlandish, but … outlandish is what cycling does, isn’t it? Perhaps it will take a paradigm shift like this, a breakaway if you will, to win the race against doping. Perhaps this is our last, best hope.
I already have Grand Tour hangover, that malaise that settles in when there isn’t a daily race to follow by television/live web feed or text updates. This just-finished Giro d’Italia was simply the best three-week tour in my memory. Constant lead changes, ferocious crashes, valiant and successful breakaways, the GC boys spinning away at the steepest climbs in Europe—these are the things that cycling fans want to see, and this year’s Giro delivered them all in spades.
Ivan Basso, he of the curiously rehabilitated reputation, earned what had to feel like a highly redemptive maglia rosa. Between a wishy-washy half acknowledgment that his previous approach to high-end racing had left something to be desired and signing up with Dr. Aldo Sassi, the hottest trainer in the pro peloton, Basso is back in a big way, not to mention his Liquigas squad, who came in as contenders and rode away as champions, with Basso on the top step and Vincenzo Nibali in third. Basso danced in the pedals when he had to, but his team also did an excellent job of sheltering him from wind and the predations of three weeks in the saddle.
Nibali and Basso showed that having multiple captains can work on the road, and also that the younger rider will, eventually, win a Grand Tour, perhaps with Basso as his super domestique. Stranger things have happened on teams not called Astana.
Pre-race favorite Cadel Evans fared not so well, ending in 5th place in the general classification, though he consoled himself with the points jersey. Evans did the World Champion’s jersey proud by racing strong, attacking when he could and generally behaving as though he belonged on the front of the pack. Unfortunately, his BMC squad was nowhere when Evans needed them most. Evans’ former Lotto team perfected that trick. BMC just picked up where they left off. You have to wonder what might have been for the scrappy Australian had he been paced into the big climbs as Basso was.
Other talents also announced themselves. Young Richie Porte of Saxo Bank and Matthew Lloyd of Omega Pharma-Lotto, both Australians, forced themselves onto the scene with some daring rides and some stiff defenses of colored jerseys. This writer really enjoyed watching them ride and make names for themselves over the withering efforts of older riders like Alexandre Vinokourov and … um … well … I’m just glad Vinokourov didn’t win anything.
Mention must be made, finally, of David Arroyo. The 30-year-old from Caisse d’Epargne emerged from the shadows of his better known teammates to take the biggest prize of his career, a second place in a Grand Tour. The Spaniard was gutsy all through the Giro, and dug deep to defend the maglia rosa when he had it. In the end, Basso was too much for him, but Arroyo has laid down a marker with team management, now that Alejandro Valverde has been consigned to a two-year ban.
As regards the questions floated in the Group Ride, let me just float some opinions on questions not already addressed above. First, Italian podium girls are not hotter than French ones. They are equally hot. If my VO2 Max wasn’t closer to my shoe size than to the population of your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, either one would serve as ample motivation to earn a post-race peck.
The Tour of California, for me, detracted from the Giro, which is deeply unfortunate because the ToC is a great race. Still, what if George Hincapie had been riding for Cadel Evans instead of riding loops around downtown LA? A concurrent ToC forces the big teams to make decisions that hurt cycling fans. Scheduling fail.
Andre Greipel definitely deserves to ride the Tour de France. Just not for HTC-Columbia. For sale, one rather large, scary-looking German dude. Real fast on a bike. Somewhat whiny. All serious offers considered.
I don’t know what happened to Team Sky under the blazing Tuscan sun (and rain). Bradley Wiggins pulled a real Sastre on this one, disappearing almost before he’d even really announced his presence. Perhaps the couch cushions on the super plush Sky bus are just a bit too comfy. Perhaps their espresso maker went on the fritz. Or perhaps they really were just out on a training ride. Doubt it though. I think they just sucked.
That brings me to old Charlie Sastre, who I maligned in the last paragraph. I like Charlie. He just keeps riding and riding, and yeah, that Tour de France win was probably as good as it gets for him, but damn it, you gotta respect a guy who can finish 21 Grand Tours. You just gotta.
And with that, I officially turn the page on the Giro and begin to stare out of windows wondering how in hell Christian Prudhomme can possibly put on a TdF better than what we’ve just seen.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The Spring Classics season is over. And now that I’m done crying in my espresso over it. It’s time to shift the mental gears for Grand Tour time. Ignore that grinding sound. My mechanic said it would work itself out, eventually.
And so, let’s take the Group Ride away from race predictions. Who really feels predictively competitive about the Tour of Romandie?
No. This week, in the aftermath of Alexander Vinokourov’s win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Mark Cavendish’s profane victory salute in Romandie, I’m thinking about character. I am looking at today’s pro peloton and wondering who the real good guys are. Who, amongst our champions, has the character to go along with his victories? Who has the poise? Who has the class?
Of course, we’ve always had our villains, and I believe they’re a necessary part of the equation. They bring brashness and audacity (Cavendish). They play as foils (Vinokourov) to the good, clean talents pedaling for glory. The bad are often more entertaining than the good, and we all like to be entertained.
What I want to know this week is who you admire? Who will be remembered, not just for their palmarés, but also for the manner in which those victories were won?
My mind goes immediately to a rider like Jens Voigt, the breakaway artist loyal to his team, who suffers with a smile on his face, who makes the hardest parts of bike racing look like fun and respects the riders around him for their power, intelligence and effort.
Then there’s Phillipe Gilbert, outspoken about clean racing, a hard rider on a weak team, an intelligent and humble champion, who can beat stronger riders with his mind, rather than his radio.
There are other worthy riders, of course, but I’ll let you name them.
Image: John Pierce, Photosp0rt International
Alexander Vinkourov’s victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was met with boos and questions. It comes less than a year following his return to cycling after a two-year suspension for doping during which time the rider shed no light on his past. Vinokourov has voiced his displeasure with the reaction to his success, and released a letter voicing his views, which you can read here.
Padraig has also written a post concerning the convicted doper’s win at one of the five Monuments.
Yesterday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege gave us almost everything we look for from a Spring Classic, crashes, attacks, splintering chase groups, breakaways, and an unlikely winner. The name of that improbable champion was the one thing that left something to be desired in the minds of many cycling fans. You could tell from all the booing at the finish line and the wave of articles questioning the result, based on that rider’s checkered past. Despite a stunning and classy win, cycling just isn’t sure about Alexander Vinokourov.
There seem to be two strains of thought as regards the ongoing exploits of Mr. Vinokourov. There are those who view him as an unrepentant doper, a rider who cheated, never confessed and then came back at the top level to plunder anew. Then there is an admittedly smaller group who say the Kazakh has paid his dues, served his suspension and is, therefore, entitled to continue with his career.
I find myself curiously caught between the two. Ambivalent.
Certainly, I have sympathy with the skeptics. I have always been a believer that how you do something is at least as important as having done it. And so, when I ponder the growing field of convicted dopers returning from suspension, I am able to draw some distinction between David Millar, honest, contrite, outspoken and humble, and someone like Vinokourov, who has been seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of his transgressions. He has been neither contrite nor humble. Having served his time, he is back to feed at the trough. Full stop.
But is that a valid distinction?
Millar and Vinokourov both cheated. Both served suspensions. Both have, theoretically, changed their behavior to that prescribed by the governors of the sport. Those are substantive changes, no matter how they’re effected.
Does it matter that Vinokourov has not become an outspoken critic of doping within the sport? If each returning rider cast himself in this role, would the gesture become hollow? And is the sword not, in fact, double-edged? Would the same people who pillory the Astana rider for not being contrite enough, call him a hypocrite if he spent too much time extolling the virtues of clean sport? Quite how Millar has turned this trick for himself is a bit of a mystery, but, by all accounts, the British rider has always been more charming than his Kazakh counterpart.
At root, are we, as fans, entitled to more bowing and scraping? Or are the sport’s laws and punishments enough?
I don’t know. I ask myself if I’m not maybe simply biased toward riders I like better on the bike. I can forgive Pantani his transgressions, to some degree, because he gave us such drama. Danilo DiLuca also falls into this category maybe. But the less emotionally compelling riders like Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde (unconvicted) or Jan Ullrich suffer a greater wrath. They cheated, AND they failed to entertain properly. This double transgression may be the real problem.
Today, Vinokourov has come forth with an open letter that seeks to address his situation more fully. It’s hard to read it and not feel an ounce of compassion for the man, who, at 36, is only trying to salvage something of a damaged career.
Would we prefer that he simply go away? For doping to go away, do the dopers all have to go, permanently? If so, we need to change our rules and procedures. Now. Before this dynamic plays itself out into absurdity.
The whole situation brings to the forefront some of the central challenges for the UCI going forward, how to reintegrate the sport’s transgressors and how to convince cycling fans that the punishments doled out are proportionate to the crimes being committed.
What we are seeing with Vinokourov is that, though the UCI has sanctioned his return, the tifosi have not, and neither have the cycling press. Perhaps these are just the consequences. You can cheat, and you can go away for two years, and you can come back, but all that will be left for you are these begrudged victories. You can stand on the podium and kiss the girls and hold the bouquet. You can even pocket the prize money, but you will never be allowed to win again.
Is that fair? I have no idea.
Let’s just get this one thing straight before we go any further. Alberto Contador does NOT hug teammates he doesn’t like. If the 2009 Astana saga didn’t teach us that, then we learned nothing at all. So, all you conspiracy-theorists who think Vinokourov attacked his teammate when the aforementioned teammate wasn’t expecting it, I’m sorry. Circumstances on the ground just don’t confirm that theory.
If anything they suggest that Astana and Contador have now learned how to use psychological misdirection to spring a surprise on the peloton. Be afraid, Johann Bruyneel. Be very afraid.
Right, so now, onto the race.
Wow! Even watching the emotionally flat, Sporza web-feed in Flemish I was excited by this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege. There were the Schlecks mixing it up at the front of the race. There were attacks galore from all and sundry. There was Alejandro Valverde sucking on Phillipe Gilbert’s wheel. And Gilbert! Was anyone NOT rooting for this guy to catch the break?
Alas, he just left it too late.
Even as they came inside 2k to go, I thought maybe Kolobnev was going to pull a Tchmil on Vinokourov, storming away at the death in that impassive Russian way. But no, instead we got Vinokourov, some people’s villain, whipping the crowd into the sort of frenzy usually reserved for professional wrestling events.
It was a beautiful race, if not a wholly pleasing result. Despite all that, we’ve gotten 24 solid hours of hand-wringing drama out of it, so, to my mind, a fitting end to the Spring Classics season.
No one predicted a Kazakh victory, so we remain awash in stickers at RKP HQ. No worries. There will be plenty more opportunities to win.
As to the many recovery solutions you proffered, some were funny, some were old-school reliable and a few had the novelty of a new group from Campagnolo: attractive, yes … but reliable? We’ll let you know how a few of these work out. Not trying the milk bath, though.
Next up is what I’d call the season’s taint race, the Tour of Romandie. It taint a classic, and it taint a Grand Tour, a dubious distinction indeed.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International