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.
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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
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
If you were a pro cyclist, you’d probably have some mixed feelings about the holiday season. The late fall and early winter represent rest time. You can eat some food. You can leave the bike in the garage. You can see your family and friends. The holidays are the culmination of that well-earned rest.
What comes next is training camp.
The Tour Down Under is nigh. Oman and Qatar will follow. These are races that serve as showcases for new talent or simple opportunities for veterans to reaffirm their talent. Maybe they’re coming back from injury. Maybe they just want to remind everyone they haven’t retired yet.
The journalists will begin warming up again, too. You’ll start seeing stories about racers who had bad 2011s, and how they’re completely rejuvenated and ready to go for 2012. Reshuffled teams will all be on the press offensive, singing songs of harmony and united purpose. It’s all so glow-y and optimistic.
I have spent this “off season” (like much of cyclo-manity) sucked into cyclocross. There was a bandwagon. I hopped on. It was a fun ride.
But now I find my mind turning to the road season ahead. What can we expect from Mark Cavendish in the World Champion’s jersey? From Team Sky with Wiggins and Cavendish and Chris Froome and Flecha and Gerraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson-Hagen? How will the team chemistry play out at BMC with Hushovd and Gilbert and Evans all tugging at the reins? What of Radio Shack-Nissan-Trek-Leopard-Schleck? And then there’s the Belgian super squad Omega Pharma Quickstep, now with 100% more Leipheimer.
This week’s Group Ride shifts focus back to the road. What are you most looking forward to about the 2012 road season? What storyline are you most interested in? What surprises do we have in store?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
What is wrong with the Vuelta a España? No. Seriously. What is wrong with this race? It’s a grand tour for crying out loud. It takes in some of the most beautiful roads in Europe, in a country with a rich cycling culture, passionate fans, great food, etc., etc. And yet, the Vuelta is a second tier race.
You know this is true because you’ve read the previews that highlight guys like Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Igor Anton and Joaquim Rodriguez as potential winners. None of those guys is a world beater. Nibali is defending champion, but this year’s Giro showed just where the young Italian is in the grand tour pecking order, close but not quite at the top. The top Spanish rider, Alberto Contador, prioritized the Giro and Tour ahead of his home country’s race. What does that say?
Perhaps the Vuelta’s diminished shine has something to do with its timing. We’ve already had two grand tours, and most of the big riders are thinking about the world championship now. Would a move back to the beginning of the racing season return the Vuelta to its previous stature?
The proliferation of shorter stage races (e.g. California, USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Romandie, Eneco) also clearly has an effect on our appetite for more stage racing this time of year.
Finally, there seems to be a finite amount of oxygen for grand tours, and the bigger the Tour and Giro get, the less air remains for the Vuelta. Say what you will about Angelo Zomegnan’s recent Giri (the man just lost his job), but that race has been fantastic in recent years, and the Tour remains the Tour, the ne plus ultra of the cycling year.
So, tell me, what is wrong with the Vuelta a España? Is it timing? Is it organization? Do we even need three grand tours? Would more prize money ensure more big name participants? If you were Javier Guillen, the director, what would you do differently?
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
No one, it seems, is faster than a Cavendish scorned. Written off the day before, Mark Cavendish stormed to the line in Stage 5 without his
security blanket lead out train. He pulled a real Freire out there, freelancing on Geraint Thomas’ wheel, before blasting past Philipe Gilbert. Honestly, who blasts past Philipe Gilbert? If I were HTC-Highroad directeur sportif Rolf Aldag I’d walk to the back of the bus each morning and slap the young Briton across the face. It’d be a win-win.
Here is some more advice for open-minded managers and DSs:
Bjarne Riis just shouldn’t speak to Alberto Contador. Not until they’re riding into Paris anyway. Learn the lessons of the past Bjarne, and shut your pie hole. Cast your mind back just two short years. Another guy with a big mouth, Johan Bruyneel, was running Contador’s team that year, and he, in an effort to produce an eighth Tour win for one Lance Armstrong, effectively snubbed the mercurial Spaniard.
Oh, Bjarne. Just remember the look on Lance’s face as he stood on the third podium step and go whisper something encouraging in Richie Porte’s ear, in English.
Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevre has one very discouraged and somewhat damaged Tom Boonen on his hands. Now that Boonen isn’t sure he likes sprinting so much anymore, you have to wonder why Tornado Tom is even at the Tour. Quick-Step are stage hunters at a race like this. They have NO real climbers. So you’ve got to do whatever it takes to shake Boonen’s cage. Maybe have breakfast with Philipe Gilbert, or accidentally call him Fabian over the race radio. Desperate times.
If Leopard-Trek’s Kim Andersen had any sense at all he wrote down every bat-shit crazy thing Bjarne Riis said over their long stint together at CSC/Saxobank. He’s going to want to go back through those notes now to see if there is ANYTHING that will get the Brothers Schleck out on the attack. Those boys can climb, but they never seem to start until someone else is up the road first.
Perhaps mention to Andy that he has never, actually, you know, sort of, won a stage race. Yeah, yeah, he probably knows, but it might help if you let him know that YOU know.
Finally, based on their team performance thus far, there is really nothing I can tell Jonathan Vaughters that he hasn’t already thought of, other than hire a credible GC rider. Of course, the story of the first week has been Thor Hushovd and the sheer class he’s demonstrated in the team time trial and then in the lead out for the Stage 3 sprint, taken by teammate Tyler Farrar. It’s a charming departure from the minor hissy fit he pitched after being forced to watch teammate Johan van Summeren win Paris-Roubaix.
Vaughters’ master stroke was in having Hushovd cross the line first in the TTT, allowing the Norwegian to don the maillot jaune. Hushovd just wants to feel special, and what, in all of cycling, is more special than pulling the yellow jersey over the world champion’s stripes? Nothing is the answer. There is nothing more special than that. And now the Mighty Thor will do whatever you ask of him, and that is worth everything. Way to go, JV!
Now lose the sideburns. You look like someone’s creepy uncle.
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