For weeks it’s been a struggle to identify what’s been interesting in this Tour de France, and now, after three short days, we’re left such an abundance of material it’s hard to know where to start. However, after witnessing, and indeed participating in the chorus of fan griping about this year’s signature Delayed Gratification route, I’m not going to risk drawing that sort of heat. So we’ll start with yesterday’s splashy stage to Verbiers, and work our way back to Friday’s fairly uneventful stage to Colmar. That way, this post can mirror the Tour de France we’ve all wanted – one that starts with all sorts of sound and fury, then gradually fizzles out until nobody really cares how it ends, only that it does.
Stage 15 to Verbiers
- Isn’t it amazing how, when you put off something that’s utterly predictable for long enough, it can become surprising when it happens? Kind of like when a celebrity dies at the age of 96: “He’s dead? Really?” So it was when Alberto Contador (Astana) left everyone in the dust on the final switchback climb to Verbier to take the stage win and the yellow jersey. Congratulations to him for gutting out all the talk and all the miles to get to that point – you could see the emotion on his face on the podium.
- It was a good thing they showed Contador on the podium at the end of the coverage, because the cameras and commentary were so focused on Armstrong that by the end I’d forgotten who was winning. Armstrong acquitted himself well given his individual circumstances, and that’s not surprising for anyone familiar with him. What was truly impressive was how quickly a fawning media that had been pushing his GC chances and preaching that he “hadn’t lost a step” effortlessly downshifted into continually reciting the full range of those adverse circumstances: “Well, he is 37. Almost 38. And he’s been three, no, four years out of the sport… Collarbone... Team strife…” Yes, guys, those are all legitimate reasons that he was unlikely to be the top guy at this year’s Tour -- and most reasonable, objective people were aware of them before yesterday.
- Do I believe that people like Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen really believed before yesterday that Armstrong would win the Tour? I don’t know. I do know that they're aware of the audience they’re speaking to with Versus coverage, and their job is to give the people what they want. But I also think they might have started to believe what they were saying, and nobody likes a guy who’s a dealer and a junkie at the same time. It’s not good for business. Now they’ll keep busy reassuring the American public, if not themselves, that he really is still the greatest, so no need to worry about that.
- If you or I looked at a woman on the street the way Contador looked at Lance Armstrong (Astana) and Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) before he attacked, we’d get slapped. Just saying.
- Just a coverage note: When everyone that was in a group with Armstrong is now up the road from Armstrong (and Kloden), that’s not “riders from the Armstrong group coming across,” that’s Armstrong getting dropped. Guys, it’s OK – it happens in bike racing. Armstrong knows it. You can say it.
- Armstrong himself was very upfront about saying that he believed Contador was the strongest and that he most likely wouldn’t win the Tour now. Armstrong’s nothing if not PR savvy, so I’ll be looking for the PR-inspired ride to begin on Tuesday, when I predict you’ll see him playing an artificially obsequious, almost cloyingly helpful domestique to Contador. Which is not to say he won’t be truly helpful. The world has seldom, if ever, seen an athlete so much in control of his image, and to try to cement a good-teammate legacy, I think it’s reasonable to think that he’ll pour all his ample resources and knowledge behind helping Contador win.
Enough about all that though. As I said, the fact that Armstrong couldn’t match Contador and some others yesterday isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who didn’t have their head up their ass. How did everyone else do?
- A. Schleck and F. Schleck both did well by doing what they could do to limit the damage from Contador. Andy did a fair job of it, coming closest to matching Contador, dropping a lot of other capable folks, and riding himself into the white jersey to boot, though that will be small consolation. Frank gave him great support early on, but wasted a lot of energy trying unsuccessfully to get up to his brother on the later slopes. If you can’t make that sort of junction quickly, chances are you’re not going to be much help when you get there, and Frank should have probably dialed it back earlier to rest up for Tuesday and Wednesday. Andy’s not giving up yet, which is good, because otherwise we’d have effectively seen a three-stage Tour: the opening TT, the TTT, and Stage 15.
- Brad Wiggins (Garmin)? On a mountain stage? What the hell? Time trialist Wiggins has obviously made a tremendous leap as a climber this year, which is kind of funny since he was pretty incredulous when climber Contador beat him in the opening time trial at Paris-Nice. And it looks as if, like Contador at Paris-Nice, Wiggins has had to address the inevitable dope rumors about his marked improvement in an area that has not traditionally been his specialty. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh? Anyways, between Wiggins and Cavendish, this may be the biggest impact a Madison pairing has ever had at the Tour de France. If this trend and the trend towards senior citizens riding the Tour continue, expect Bruno Risi to vie for a top-5 GC placing next year, while Franco Marvulli goes for the points jersey. Seriously, though, people have pointed out that the French are having a great Tour. In all fairness, Great Britian is having a better one.
- Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) was both right there and nowhere at the same time on the way to Verbiers. It was a good ride, but not twice-second-and-still-a-contender good. Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but Evans better start reconciling himself to a salary cut when his current contract is up, and/or start practicing his bottle-carrying abilities. I just don’t see him getting paid as a sole GC leader after this year.
- Like Evans, Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), to his credit, rode like Carlos Sastre almost always has -- strongly and consistently. It’s just that last year it was good enough to win the Tour, and this year it isn’t.
- At the midpoint of the climb, I was starting to think that Liquigas wasted a lot of effort on the approach for nothing, but Vincenzo Nibali made good on their work. If Liquigas keeps its lineup intact, and doesn't pursue some Ivan Basso-centric strategy for next year, Nibali, Kreuziger, and their support crew could make the grand tours pretty interesting next year.
- Denis Menchov (Rabobank)…wait, what? Who?
Stage 14 to Bescanon
- The action on this stage, of course, was all the grumbling about why Garmin put men on the front to chase the breakaway that would have given George Hincapie (Columbia) the yellow jersey, for a day, at least. If you haven’t caught up on the stage and on all the finger-pointing afterward, here’s a good recap. You know, it’s easy to dismiss this as just a lot of talking – it’s a sport, Astana, Columbia, and Garmin are three different teams, and nobody’s obligated to calculate things down to the second to give Hincapie anything. But after a week of not-much-to-talk-about, the whole debate was a godsend.
- Like most, I tend to see it as Garmin not wanting another American/American team in the jersey. It seems petty and ridiculous, but one of the first rules of cycling, and the Tour in particular, is to not do any work unless it’s absolutely necessary. And for Garmin, this wasn’t absolutely necessary from a sporting perspective, so there had to be some other motivation. Garmin DS Matt White claims they were at the front because they’d been caught out twice in late-stage splits and didn’t want to get caught again. That’s good logic for being near the front, but not on the front, and White knows it. Their GC threats Wiggins and Vandevelde could have just as easily been perched behind Ag2r, or just kept Armstrong within a few bikes’ distance and been fine.
- The most telling evidence that Garmin’s stated motivation wasn’t the true motivation? This, from Armstrong in the linked article: “I asked (David) Millar, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’’
- The whole brouhaha really made it apparent that there are three teams vying for “America’s team” status. I suppose that’s good in a way similar to what we talked about a few weeks ago. If the petty bickering between the defacto “national teams” gets to the same level as it does in, say, Belgium, then something must be going right for American cycling.
- After the stage, a disappointed Hincapie seemed to think it was Astana that had done him wrong, but I actually do believe that they rode simply to control the gap, and that they left plenty of room for Hincapie to get the jersey. As Bruyneel and Armstrong pointed out, that would have put a non-threatening rider with a strong team in yellow ahead of Sunday’s stage – a perfect scenario for Astana.
- Many have pointed out that the leadout Columbia gave Cavendish for the field sprint and green jersey points likely didn’t help Hincapie’s chances either. However, if you look at the approach versus their previous leadouts, you could see the sandbagging they were doing. And if they hadn’t taken control, I think someone else would have, and it would have been faster. I also think that same sandbagging is what got Cavendish relegated later. I don’t think he intended to put Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) into the barriers, but some things, like sprints, can only really be done at full speed, and when you try to do them slowly, it ends badly.
- If you watched the Versus interview with Hincapie the following day, you know why Hincapie is a pro’s pro. While he stated, and showed, how disappointed he was not to have grabbed yellow, he didn’t point fingers, didn’t put on a bunch of “I’ll get revenge” theatrics, didn’t rise at all to the bait he was offered. Instead, he turned his answers to the great results the team has had at the Tour, and his desire to keep working for the team’s chances. The whole situation served to starkly illuminate the fact that Hincapie is likely winding down his career, and when he’s gone, I’ll miss him.
- By the way, Sergui Ivanov (Katusha) won the race with a great attack from the break in the waning kilometers. What can you say? The guy is an ox, and is proving to be a far better investment than the reams of foreign talent that his Russian Katusha team hired on for its first season. As the Russian who's delivered the Russian government its only classic win and its only Tour stage so far, life back home must be looking pretty good for Ivanov right now.
- Speaking of Katusha’s foreign talent, I love that every time they show Pippo Pozzato on screen, there’s something untoward going on. A few days ago, it was him trying to re-dress himself on the bike; this time, it was a group of riders peeing in the background. I can’t wait for Tuesday’s alpine stage, when there will no doubt be mountain goats humping in the background as he’s dropped from the front group.
Stage 13 to Colmar
- Nice victory by Heinrich Haussler, who’s certainly had a breakout season this year. A lot of people grumble about just how that breakout may have been achieved, and this stage win set those people grumbling even louder since it came in the hills and Haussler is not exactly noted as a mountain climber. Now, I don’t know either way, but looking at just this stage, a classics-ish rider winning a lumpy mid-mountain stage from the long break just doesn’t really rise to the level of throwing the “d” word around. Kind of like Hincapie winning that mountain stage a few years back – yes, it’s outside what you’d expect given the rider’s history, but viewed against the actual situation on the road, it’s not extraordinary.
- Oh, yeah – turns out Julian Dean (Garmin) and Oscar Friere (Rabobank) got shot during this stage. I did not expect that. Word has it that some kids with an air rifle have been apprehended, and will be given a firm “you’ll put your eye out” lecture. Fortunately, Dean and Friere seem to be fine. It’s certainly not a good thing, but frankly, given the nature of the Tour de France and the nature of young men, I’m kind of surprised that similar things don’t happen more often.
- Christian Vandevelde (Garmin) to Frankie Andreau on whether or not he’d attack on the Category 1 Platzerwasel climb: “No, no. I’m not going to go on the Schnitzel.” Well played, VDV.
Thanks for reading – I think the lesson I’ve learned this year is that I can’t take the weekends off during the Tour de France. On a weekend like this past one, there’s just too much to catch up with come Monday to do it justice, but hey, we gave it a shot. Now that I’m caught up, though, I’m looking forward to seeing if the sting in the tail of this Tour will make all the waiting of the last few weeks worth it.