Christmas Eve and all through Rotterdam, most creature are stirring, riders, sporting directors, mechanics, soigneurs, journalists and fans. And old Chris Prudhomme, with his staff in the thousands, is just settling in for three weeks of chaos. The cobbles are dusty, and the Alps, they are high, the Pyrenees waiting to make riders cry. And all over the planet, folks like you and me, are drooling in wonder at the spectacle to be.
Yeah. Sorry about that. How else to quantify the anticipation and expectation we feel on this last day before the Grand Depart? This race we’ve talked about nearly every day since the last version ended is finally upon us again.
The story lines are legion already. Lance v. Alberto, whether you believe there’s even a contest there, no one will stop talking about it, especially on American television. The Schlecks and Saxo Bank seem to be breaking up, but in the meantime, they may have the strongest team with which to attack the general classification. Mark Cavendish v Thor Hushovd is on again, but we have to wonder if Tyler Farrar will crash their little party. And what of the Italians? BMC and Cadel Evans? Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky?
Do I dare even mention the white elephant in the room, Floyd Landis?
We have argued here, in the past, that the Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world, arguably the biggest sporting event, because it tells the best stories. No other event cultivates and propagates its history so effectively, and so no other race captures our attention so completely.
Just in enumerating the stories already simmering in advance of the Prologue, we can see some of what the 2010 Tour de France will be. But, with history as our guide, we also know that it will be all of that and more.
This week’s Group Ride is about stories. What do you think the most compelling plot line of the 2010 Grand Boucle will be? Is it something already on our minds, or is it a thing that will come to light as the race goes on? Will it be the end of a veteran, or the emergence of a new star? Will it be the racing, or the personal squabbles that invariably go along with it.
Think of this as our prologue. Three weeks to go.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
The question is not whether or not Alberto Contador is the favorite for the upcoming Tour de France. The question is who will challenge him and how?
Because there is only one ITT in this year’s Grand Boucle, it could be argued that Andy Schleck’s inherent disadvantage is not as great as last year’s. Will it be enough to cut the 4 minutes 11 seconds he lost to Contador in 2009? Maybe, maybe not. What will certainly be key to Schleck’s ascendancy is brother Fränk’s ability to break Contador’s rhythm in the high mountains. Still, Astana has proven themselves capable of competing in the big races, and el Pistolero will have help from Alexandre Vinokourov in July.
Lance Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad will have added incentive to top the podium next month. First of all, their captain isn’t getting any younger. This is quite probably his last crack at the maillot jaune. Second, having been snubbed by Unipublic for the Vuelta, the Shack has no reason to hold back Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Kloeden in France. All three of those riders have the ability to climb at the pointy end of things, giving the Lance every advantage against Contador, especially if he can get his time trialing on line. Of course, so far he has sucked this season. Is he sandbagging or just getting old?
According to my friend Jarvis, Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins don’t really think they can win the Tour this go round. Jarvis’s ears are closer to the ground in the UK, so let’s assume he’s right. Wiggins probably doesn’t have the form or the support to equal his fourth place from ’09 anyway.
That leaves us with the Italians, and Liquigas may well have the best chance against Contador and the Astanas. Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, Robert Kiserlovski et. al. come into the Tour brimming with confidence. Basso seems back to top form after his Giro victory. Sagan has been the young revelation of the season, and Nibali has shown himself capable of riding with the best GC riders in the world. Will Basso turn super domestique for Nibali? Does Sagan have any more gas in the tank to help out? Liquigas have, thus far, shown that they can ride as a team, which, in the end, may be their best asset.
Here at Red Kite Prayer, we enjoy pro racing. If the Tour plays out as we all expect it to, it will be the best summer entertainment on offer. Having said that, RKP celebrates the survival of the breakaway. May we all hope for a dark horse, or whole herd of dark horses, to stampede the French countryside next month.
The middle of June. The precipice. The brink. Just a few weeks left to tune up for the Tour de France, which means that all the “just riding this race as training” is almost over. Top Tour contenders will be getting in their last minute collarbone fractures at the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. Aerodynamic positions are set. The UCI is getting its crack Reject-a-Bike squad ready for the time trials, and the AFLD and UCI are ratcheting up their those-guys-don’t-know-what-they’re-doing rhetoric in anticipation of some really wearisome l’Equipe headlines.
At this stage we are beginning to draw up our list of favorites, a list that must begin with Alberto Contador and include Andy Schleck, but from that point breaks off and meanders through the peloton with a lot of maybes and possiblys.
From last year’s podium there is Lance Armstrong to consider. The now 38-year-old former champion and globe-trotting cancer fighter has had an early season to forget, one in which he made the biggest news by being accused of serial doping. Again. Between injuries, illnesses and general lack of form, you have to wonder if the Lance v. Alberto narrative we’re bound to have crammed down our collective throats is even worth spinning in the first place.
Then there’s Bradley Wiggins. Team Sky’s million dollar baby has thus far flattered to deceive in the black and blue of his new squad. With a nose for the controversial headline, Mr. Wiggins’ 2010 has been remarkable for an utter lack of remarkableness. He can’t possibly sneak up on the competition this year, but could expectations for the Brit be any lower?
And what of the Italians? Ivan Basso won the Giro going away, but could he possibly be strong enough to do the double? Or will he turn super domestique for Vincenzo Nibali, the young talent who served him so well on their native roads?
World Champion Cadel Evans can’t be discounted entirely, but the Giro might have proven that BMC don’t have the riders to support a Grand Tour winner. Evans has done the rainbow stripes proud, but the last time the World Champ won the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1981, nearly thirty years ago.
You’ve also got riders like Denis Menchov, last season’s Giro winner, moving his focus to the Tour in an attempt to round out his palmares. In a similar situation to Evans, you have to wonder if Rabobank have the riders to deliver Menchov to the top step. The Russian also has an amusing habit of falling off his bike, which is usually a bad idea in July in France. Ask Joseba Beloki.
This week’s Group Ride looks at the favorites for the maillot jaune and wonders who is in the best form and why? Is it one of the riders mentioned above or is there an outsider you think has the goods? Has Contador done too much with wins in Volta ao Algarve, Paris-Nice and Vuelta a Castilla y León, not to mention his current escapades at the Dauphiné? Will Andy Schleck’s knee be strong enough to let him dual with Contador in the high mountains? Let the pre-race chatter begin.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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
Putting aside the controversy du jour/semaine/mois/année, can we all just agree that this Giro d’Italia has not only been the best race of the 2010 season, but the best Grand Tour in recent memory? Can we? If not, there’s a comments section. Lodge your protest there.
For me, this race has been a huge breath of fresh O2. Between successful breakaways (enough that I’m questioning my stance on race radios) and unexpected results (Richie Porte anyone?) and strong men on steep hills, I am beginning to think that Angelo Zomegnan (race organizer) is something of a genius. And they haven’t even crested the Gavia yet!
This week’s Group Ride is sort of a compendium of questions. Where does this Giro stack up against other recent Grand Tours? Why do you think this one has been so good? If Ivan Basso wins the overall, how will you feel about that? Do you think someone else will take the GC? Are Italian podium girls prettier than French ones? Has the Tour of California hurt or helped the Giro? Does Andre Greipel deserve to ride the Tour de France? What happened to Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins? Does it matter? What did you think of the Dutch prologue? Too much road furniture? Has Carlos Sastre’s 21st Grand Tour been disappointing, or is Charlie just passed it now?
Let’s talk about it. Let the craic ensue.
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.
I’m really not sure how we’ve come this far without hashing and rehashing the Bradley Wiggins transfer until we were all sick to death of it. And so, without further ado, let’s make some hash!
What I want to know is: Who is the bad guy?
As you may well know, Bradley Wiggins had a big 2009, converting himself from track legend to Tour de France contender just by putting down the lager and coming into the season a few kilos lighter. After his surprise fourth place in France, there were rumblings and grumblings and rumors that he would move to the brand new Team Sky, under the tutelage of his British Cycling mentor Dave Brailsford. Of course, he had a contract with Jonathan Vaughters at Garmin, and most of the fall was spent determining whether having a contract meant anything in the grand scheme of things.
By now, we know that Vaughters let Wiggins go, reaping some unnamed bounty in “transfer fee” from Sky. Vaughters, while mostly keeping his powder dry, refused to get too snipey about the whole thing, but let it be known that he was “disappointed” to lose his rider. If there were other, more bitter comments, I missed them.
Wiggins, who made no secret of his desire to leave Garmin and let slip with some not-very-nice comments about the holders of his contract, got what he wanted, and so did Brailsford, who also got into some not-so-nice with Team Katusha’s Andrei Tchmil, over the transfer of Ben Swift.
The whole thing revolves around what contracts are worth, how riders should conduct themselves, whether cycling should be prone to the same transfer sagas that rule the football (soccer) world and whether, to modify a phrase, “money makes right.”
The question I put to you this week is: Who is the bad guy and why?
D) None of the above
E) Lance Armstrong
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International