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
Joop Zoetemelk finished on the second step of the Tour de France podium six times. He won once, in 1980. And like Raymond Poulidor, who is known as the Eternal Second, many believe he could have won more races if he’d attacked more, if he’d been more ruthless, but Zoetemelk wasn’t an aggressive rider. He didn’t choose to win. When the race was on the line, he was as likely to let the moment pass as riders like Hinault and Merckx were to attack.
Today, in Boston, it was as hot as the devil’s undercarriage. I pushed away from the office into the murky swamp of the city and made the crucial mistake of jumping onto the wheel of a fellow apparently in a big rush to get someplace else. We rode fast. I thought, “It’s too hot to be riding this fast,” but then I kept pedaling until I washed up on the shore of the steep hill that leads to my house, mostly spent, soaked in sweat, and unable to pull any more air out of the air.
Sometimes, the indecision that might have cost Zoetemelk greater success is the same indecision that keeps a rider in a race he ought to abandon. Think of Cadel Evans, with a broken elbow, hauling the world champion’s rainbow jersey over cols and up monts at this years Tour, or Tyler Farrar sprinting on a broken wrist. Maybe even remember Tyler Hamilton finishing the 2003 Tour in 4th place after cracking his collarbone on stage one. These guys haven’t decided to finish the race. They’ve just put off deciding to quit until the finish line slides past.
Zoetemelk was a classy rider. In the high mountains he floated, his wispy form disappearing up around the next switchback as lesser men toiled away below. Despite his lack of aggression, he still won Fleche Wallone, Paris-Tours, Paris-Nice, the Dutch national road race championship twice, the world championship at the age of 38, Amstel Gold at 39. He’s a legend. Indecision may have cost him some wins, but he still managed.
I arrived in my driveway completely spent, sweating from every pore, absolutely gasping, but still trying not to look too pathetic in case the neighbors were watching. After dismounting, I sat next to my bike, in the garage, trying to compose myself before entering the house. It took a while. And then when I did go inside, it took another twenty minutes before I was convinced I wasn’t maybe having heat stroke.
They say the only reason Zoetemelk ever won the Tour is that his DS told him he had to. There was no one else. He would never have forced himself on the race. He was under orders.
When Louison Bobet finally hung up his Tour hopes, after a series of miserable stages in 1959, he was asked why he kept riding when he knew he couldn’t win. He said, “I’d never climbed the Col de l’Iseran. It’s the highest road in Europe. I wanted to ride up there.” He quit on the descent of the Iseran, on his terms. What looked like indecision was actually a declaration of intent.
It’s only supposed to get hotter here in Beantown. This was the second day of our heat wave. The humidity will get worse. The mercury will rise. It’s supposed to break on Friday, when Hurricane Earl arrives with torrential rain. When I was finally convinced I wasn’t dying, I thought, “Screw that. I’m done riding for the week. It’s only going to be more misery.” But we’ll see what happens. Sometimes he who hesitates is lost. Sometimes he who hesitates is simply enduring, until better days come.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International