Some Nerve

You know how there are some days on the Tour, like this past Tuesday, where even though it’s not really a rest day, everyone’s tired and sort of just soft-pedals it anyway? That’s kind of how I’m feeling at this point in the Tour – a little stiff, a little drowsy, and not quite feeling it. Besides, with a rain and wind scheduled for an already tough stage through the Vosges today, shouldn’t we all be resting up?

But we still have to keep up with the race, don’t we, and Thursday’s Stage 12 turned out to be a pretty good one, with Nicki Sorensen (Saxo Bank) taking the win from the long break. Sorensen put on a clinic in smart riding and good, if unconventional timing. He cut the lead group of seven down to a more nimble two – himself and Sylvain Calzati (Agritubel) – as the race hit the final 20 kilometers into the finish. Earlier than most would expect, but it certainly never looked like he didn’t have the legs to pull it off. He was also smart enough to realize with 5 kilometers to go that Calzati was becoming dead weight and got rid of him before Calzati could accidentally drag them both back into the chase. But you’ve either watched the stage on TV or read about all that by now.

What I thought was interesting was the message that Columbia sent on Stage 12. As they again faced other teams’ unwillingness to help run down the break(only to be mugged by Mark Cavendish at the line), Columbia gave an ultimatum of sorts: put your men in the chase, or we’ll leave the move out there and your sprinter will have no chance at all. They had vocalized and demonstrated the sentiment earlier in the Tour, notably on Stage 3, but today the team showed just how strong their will was. As the break rolled closer and closer to the finish, all eyes were on the boys in yellow and white, waiting for them to acquiesce, get to the front, and do what everyone expected them to.

But they didn’t. And neither did anyone else. And while Cavendish didn’t win, neither did Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Danielle Bennati (Liquigas), or Tyler Farrar (Garmin). Sure, sprinting against Cav is a tough proposition, but your odds of winning are still better sprinting against him than if there’s a break up the road. More importantly, all of those guys could use the win more than Cavendish and Columbia, and there’s precious few stages left to do it in.

That all got me wondering if there’s a dual purpose in the other teams’ willingness to play an increasingly intense and self-destructive game of chicken to get Columbia on the front. Obviously, if you can wear out their team day after day, there’s a better chance they’ll either slow down or make a mistake in a finale, coughing up a sprint stage win in the process. But as we noted yesterday, Columbia has a number of dangerous riders serving as Cavendish’s leadout men rather than of an anonymous crew of drones who you’ll never need to deal with on other stages. So, if you can con them into working harder on Cavendish’s behalf, there’s a better chance of wearing out guys like white jersey-holder Tony Martin, or guys who could pick up a mid-mountain or transitional stage, like Kim Kirchen, George Hincapie, or Maxime Monfort. Basically, if you can force Columbia to the front, it’s a twofer – increase your chances of beating Cavendish, and wear out the rest of their team for the stages where Cavendish won’t be a factor. Of course, since Columbia has already mopped up four stage wins, they’re holding a better hand than most teams, and as they demonstrated today, they’re not in a position to be pushed around.

Race Radio
  • I hope that dog the commissaire’s car hit is OK, but it didn’t look good. I’m not sure what would possess someone to let their leashed dog mosey out into the path of the Tour de France, and it’s not as if you can’t hear it coming. Then again, I’m not sure what’s wrong with plenty of people.

  • On the Versus coverage, Jonathan Vaughters noted that David Millar (Garmin) lost his Garmin GPS unit in a crash yesterday, and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) saw it, picked it up, and brought it back up to him. Apparently, the Garmin guys gave Cancellara a Garmin watch as a thank you for good citizenship. There’s a tendency to think that, with multimillion dollar budgets and equipment sponsors, teams treat everything as disposable. They don’t.

  • Maybe it’s just that French summer sunlight coming at just the right angle, but in the pre-race interviews, Armstrong looks like he’s going a little gray. With the life that guy’s led, I’m surprised he doesn’t look like Betty White yet. He's already sporting enormous casual sunglasses, can Solar Shields be far behind?

  • It was a publicity balloon that deflated, landed in the bunch, and caused a crash and the neutralization on Wednesday? Seriously? My parents made fun of me because I was afraid of blimps as a child, but I’m feeling pretty vindicated right now. Or terrified, I’m not sure which.

  • Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) used Thursday's stage to set himself up nicely for a run at KOM title. He wisely used the stage to play catchup on points before the race moves into the high mountains, where he could make bigger gains. Nice to see actual climbers instead of hill sprinters contesting the polka dots.

  • You have to love Johan Vansummeren (Silence-Lotto), who noted that one nice aspect of winning the most aggressive rider prize for his daylong break on Wednesday was getting to kiss Gert Steegman's (Katusha) girlfriend on the podium.

  • The UCI reversed it's decision to again ban the use of team radios on today's stage to Colmar. It's a good decision in the end, but the UCI is certainly working hard to keep its reputation for twisting in the wind intact.

  • The late-ish breaking news is that Levi Leipheimer (Astana) is out of the Tour with a broken wrist. While I don’t buy Bruyneel’s assertion that he “could have won the Tour,” it is a pretty big loss for the team. With at least four guys theoretically strong enough to ride in the front group in the mountains (Contador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden), Astana could have one super-domestique to look after both Armstrong and Contador, potentially letting them continue to split leadership duties. While I suppose it’s fair to assume that Haimar Zubeldia could make the front group as well, the loss of Leipheimer could affect Armstrong more seriously than Contador. If we look back to the stage to Arcalis, it was Leipheimer bringing Armstrong back up to wheels after attacks, and Leipheimer’s ability to set a very high but steady pace to discourage attacks on the big mountains would have been more useful to Armstrong than Contador. Finally, Leipheimer was serving as Armstrong’s “amen brother” chorus in all the interview sniping at Contador after Arcalis, so I think it’s fair to assume that Armstrong has lost a loyalist.