Charlie Don’t Surf

And Leipheimer Don’t Jump

Cyclists have as many words for minutely different types of strength as Eskimos do for different types of snow, but a professional rider’s specialty, and their success at it, often boils down to whether they’re very, very fast for a short time, or just very fast but for a longer time. To try to figure out which a rider is, you can phrase the question any number of ways: Is he a climber or a time trialist? Is he fast, or is he strong? Is he a sprinter or a classics rider? Is he a turbo, or a diesel? The questions vary slightly, depending on whether we’re in classics season or in the midst of the grand tours, but they’re all looking for the answer to the same equation – where, on the spectrum between what we’ll call “fast” and what we’ll call “strong,” does he fall?

(Yes, indeed, we’re oversimplifying, but for a reason. There are finer distinctions, of course, depending on terrain and roles – though both short and very, very fast, a sprinter’s violent acceleration is differently calibrated than a pure climber’s stabbing attack, for instance. But where a rider sits on the spectrum compared to rivals within his specialty can tell you a good bit about how a race will likely go down.)

Different specialties within the sport require different balances of power – those often vague waypoints on the fretless fast-strong continuum. And to keep things interesting, the balance points aren’t necessarily static – some riders are able to sacrifice the “jump” needed for a bunch sprint for the mystical “force” required for the cobbles, others can barter “explosiveness” in the hills for the “strength” needed for a flat 40k time trial. Sometimes it happens through training, sometimes it just seems to come with age, sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, but as every rider knows, you can’t have it all at once. Nobody knows that better than GC riders, who slide around the continuum more than most, trying to find that sweet spot that will bag them a grand tour title.

As with anything, there are limits – no rider who is naturally bent too far towards one end of the spectrum can hope to force himself very far towards the other side, no matter how hard he works at it. You can’t fight nature, and they can only seek their best achievable balance. For GC riders’, the specially tailored version of the fast-strong continuum is labeled, at either end, “attacking climber” and “time trial monster.” The reality is that mostly, GC riders are very good at both, often among the top riders in either specialty. But they’re always a little bit, or in some cases, a lot, farther towards one end or the other. The best reach a high white note of balance that lets them make and match the killing accelerations in the mountains and also slay their opponents against the clock. The names of those who achieve it are written in the recordbooks, but more numerous in those same books are the names of those who simply came closer to the balance than the competition on hand.

Which brings us to the point of today’s sermon: Leipheimer don’t jump. That, of course, is not news, and to his credit he’s always been remarkably open about it. The real question was, at what point would Leipheimer’s best attainable spot on the continuum – the one that lets him be very strong in the TTs and climb fast and steady, but not match any sort of acceleration – come to be seen not as a “vulnerability,” but as the absolute, immutable roadblock that would forever prevent him from achieving a grand tour win? I’d say that point was reached on Stage 16 of this year’s Giro d’ Italia, from Pergola to Monte Petrano. Earlier, I’d speculated that this stage would see those who could throw down sharp attacks do so, and then we’d see if a Leipheimer/Armstrong tandem could diesel their way back up in time to save their day. The first part happened, with Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) opening the attacks. Danilo DiLuca (LPR) and pink jersey Denis Menchov (Rabobank) sprang away in pursuit, preserving their GC spots from the surprising and sudden danger presented by a very sharp Sastre. Leipheimer, well, he didn’t. As he always does, he rallied a bit and rode a great tempo up the remainder of the final climb, but so did everyone else of importance. The problem was, with those opening salvos in the initial kilometers of the climb, the minutes he needed had already gone up the road, and while his climbing tempo is fast, it isn’t that fast.

Leipheimer is obviously out of contention now for the Giro, but why say that his lack of acceleration will be the roadblock to any future grand tour success? Well, for obvious reasons, I’m guessing he won’t get much of a chance at freedom in the Tour de France. And, in the unlikely event that he chooses to ride a three grand tour season, anathema to Americans, he’d just close out the year at what may be the biggest festival of acceleration you could ask for – the Vuelta. Though he’s come closer there than elsewhere, with Alberto Contador (Astana) potentially doubling up, a healthy Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia) possibly back in action, and about a dozen other jumpy Spanish climbers hopping around like jackrabbits, it doesn’t seem like the best opportunity. Of course, those guys can’t usually time trial, so there you go again… But after the Vuelta, time just keeps marching on, if you know what I mean.

Leipheimer’s not the first victim of getting caught at that damning spot on the continuum, of course. Look at Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), for one. And indeed, for years of Tours de France, the point on the spectrum where both find themselves wasn’t a bad spot to be in at all. In the Armstrong era, grinding, not explosiveness, seemed to be the key to victory, or at least contention. Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Andreas Kloden? All fantastic time trialists and strong climbers, but explosive high-mountain riders were never among the true challengers, though Iban Mayo looked to be for a very short time. And in those sorts of races, Leipheimer probably would have a fair shot (critics will, rightfully, point out that he had leadership of both Rabobank and Gerolsteiner during those years and failed to produce, though I’d argue longer experience has been key to his recent successes). Now, though, the formula for Tour candidates seems to be changing, with more snappy mountain riders making bigger impressions on the overall – riders like Contador, Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), and, obviously Sastre. With his ride in the Giro, Menchov seems to be only one of the riders from the traditional mold to approach the high white note – seemingly sitting on the perfect balance of speed in the mountains and strength against the clock. Basso also had it once, whether he will again remains to be seen.

Race Radio
  1. All this coverage of the short climbing stage to Blockhaus, and not a single picture of the actual World War II German-built bunker at the top? Come on. As a former history major and the son of an architect, I was all set to combine my love of cycling with gawking at a bit of history and some early inspiration for brutalist architecture. Oh well -- I suppose the lack of photos has something to do with the top 3k or so of the climb being snowed in. The stage itself was certainly brutal for its length, with Carlos Sastre sinking again just as fast as he’d risen on Monday, Armstrong looking rough, and DiLuca making Menchov look winded for the first time in awhile. Good on Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) for winning, and for recognizing his narrow speciality – freak stages.

  2. DiLuca continues to impress with his ability to grovel for seconds wherever he can, attacking Menchov on the Blockhaus finish and grabbing himself another 13 seconds on GC. While his true chances are very slim, the way he’s riding, I’m not ready to count him out quite yet. Unrealistic? Maybe, but to put it in the typical language of non-native English speaking riders, he “likes to make a show for the fans.” I like that.

  3. Will Menchov become the first rider to be both awarded and stripped of a grand tour win as the result of a doping scandal? Unfortunately, maybe. As is our (young, ever-evolving) policy here at the SC, we’ll just keep writing about the performances like they’re real, until someone with some sort of authority tells us they’re not with some degree of credibility.

  4. You know you’re in the waning days of a grand tour when you start looking at the other jerseys. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick.Step) and Francesco Masciarelli (Acqua & Sapone-Caffe Mokambo) are locked in a battle for the young rider jersey, with the surprising Masciarelli only two minutes adrift. The Italian looks to be on the upswing, so tomorrow’s finish atop Vesuvio could be his chance. On the other hand, Belgium must be excited about the prospect of a new GC contender in Seeldraeyers, since things haven’t been working out too well for them on that front for the past 30 years or so. Like the battle for pink, it's a two-man game, with the next rider something like 15 minutes down.

  5. In the mountains classification, former Giro winner Stefano Garzelli (Acqua & Sapone) looks to have things all sewn up, even if his country hates him for outsprinting DiLuca for second place on the Blockhaus stage (thus eating bonus seconds DiLuca could have used). Whatever – Garzelli wanted the points, and I’m glad to see he’s found something to do in his dotage. Beats playing bocce.

  6. Speaking of Garzelli’s success, is it feeling a little old in here, or is it just me? I mean, Garzelli, Sastre, DiLuca, Menchov, Leipheimer? What’s happened to riders in their late 20s, the alleged peak of grand tour prowess? Mick Rogers (Columbia), at 7:05 back isn’t flying the flag terribly high.

  7. On a non-Giro note, I’ll be providing some straight-up, button down, race coverage reportage for VeloNews for this weekend’s Air Force NRC races in Arlington, Virginia. That’s the Clarendon Cup crit (former CSC Invitational, former U.S. Postal something-or-other, and originally…the Clarendon Cup) on Saturday, and the Air Force Cycling Classic circuit race on Sunday. Say hello if you see me.