If you’re like many Americans my age, your initial image of the Alps, and of the Saint Bernard region and its associated dog breed in particular, was formed by Warner Brothers cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Pepe Le Pew, Elmer Fudd and the like. In those documentaries, clever heroes and hapless villains wearing feathered green felt hats were constantly buried in ill-timed avalanches, only to be thawed out by a Saint Bernard with a cask of brandy strapped under its chin. Occasionally, having sampled the goods en route, the dog was already drunk and hiccupping by the time he arrived to make the rescue, leaving only a single drop brandy for the frozen victim. There was usually some sort of yodeling or an alpenhorn involved, too. You know – quality children’s entertainment.
Kids’ cartoons have gone steadily downhill in the intervening years, and now they’re a half hour long, computer animated, and find less hilarity in attempted homicide, drunkenness, and bombings than they did back then. Over that same time period, my interest in cycling and subsequent Tour de France and Giro d’ Italia viewing have changed that early impression of the Alps somewhat. Now, when I think of the Alps, I think of summer instead of snow, pop-top VW campers instead of skis, and semi-malicious, sweaty drunks instead of kindly-if-overindulgent rescue dogs.
Every once in awhile, though, the Tour does give me flashbacks to those early Looney Tunes impressions of the Alps, like when riders who look like Elmer Fudd are competing, when people get shot to no lasting effect, or when, on Monday, they awarded Alberto Contador (Astana) an actual living Saint Bernard. Yesterday’s Stage 16 from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice had an air of Looney Tunes about it as well, in that a bunch of things happened, some of the action was frantic, some people were harassed, some were hurt, and in the end, everything was pretty much right back where it started. So, let’s all picture Levi Leipheimer tootling on an alpenhorn as we go over yesterday’s madcap action.
- The GC remained pretty stable yesterday once everything settled out on the descent of the Petit Saint Bernard. Of course, Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and both hemorrhaged more time, but is that really news at this point? Menchov dumped 15 minutes and change to the yellow jersey group, while Evans made a far more respectable showing, losing just a little under 3 minutes to the guys he thought he’d be competing with. Evans’ best shot at glory now is to rest up for the Annecy time trial. Menchov, on the other hand, seems to be irretrievably slow, so I’m not sure there’s any saving this Tour for him.
- The real beneficiary of Evans well and truly exiting the GC race was Bradley Wiggins (Garmin), who holds the most tenuous claim on a final podium spot at this point, and stands to benefit most every time a potential threat is picked off. After Stage 16, Wiggins’ best hope is for Lance Armstrong (Astana) to not recover well and drop (or not gain) time in today’s stage to Le Grand Bornand and to stay near Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) at the finish. Then, depending on how that shakes out, he’ll likely need to recover and/or bank time on both those riders in the Stage 18 TT in Annecy in order to hold an advantage going into the Mont Ventoux summit finish on the penultimate day. That’s a pretty tall order, and that’s not even bringing Liquigas’ motivated Vincenzo Nibali into the mix. Wiggins’ surprising quest for the podium could be the most interesting saga of the closing days, carrying as he does the historical podium hopes of a nation on his skinny cyclist shoulders.
- Brad Wiggins: the answer to the question, “What would it look like if Pete Townshend rode the Tour de France?”
- Armstrong’s surge on the slopes of the Petit Saint Bernard to get himself back up to the yellow jersey group deserves some mention. While he didn’t look as comfortable doing it as the Armstrong of old, he still did it, which is more than younger men like Evans can say. And he made it across the gap pretty quick, though it probably helped that by that point Andy Schleck knew he wasn’t going to get rid of Contador and had settled down a bit. Whether or not the move was totally useless as well as impressive is debatable. Most of the folks that Armstrong dramatically left behind came back up to the yellow jersey group before or on the decent, so he could have potentially just stayed where he was and saved some energy. On the other hand, his arrival in the yellow jersey group to reinforce teammates Contador and Andreas Kloden pretty much removed any remaining impetus of the others in that group and resulted in a marked slow-down. If Armstrong hadn’t come up and sucked the wind out of their sails, the front group might have kept the pace up a bit more, and that second group may have never come back. I guess we'll never know, but I'm sure dedicated Armstrong tifosi were thrilled with the move, and maybe that sort of thrill is all the sport is supposed to be about, anyway. I’ll be interested to see if Armstrong can recover enough overnight to ride well in today’s stage, as that’s an ability that tends to suffer with age. Though he has been impressive so far, these will be the first hard-fought back-to-back mountain days.
- In what’s likely his last Tour de France, the last active member of the infamous 1998 Festina squad, Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) finished at the front of the yellow jersey group yesterday. I’m not sure why I find that particularly notable, but I do. Maybe it’s a matter of durability, or something about redeeming yourself by just keeping at it, I don’t know.
- Like most everybody, I’m glad to hear that Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) is relatively OK and recovering from his terrible high-speed crash near the top of the final descent. In a way, it’s sometimes good to see riders writhing in pain after a crash. The absolute motionless that Voigt displayed is far more troubling. When I initially watched the crash, the way his body seemed to pitch awkwardly forward made me think something on the front of the bike had broken - a handlebar, stem, or steerer tube. But in slow-motion viewing, you can see that he hits a sudden dip in the road which knocks his left hand off the bars, which then leads to a loss of control as the bike settles back down after being unweighted by the dip. I know we’re all hoping Voigt heals quickly, but I don’t think anyone will miss him more than Andy Schleck.
- Can someone tell me what the hell that enormous dome thing is on the roof of the Ag2r car? Yes, I’m assuming it has something to do with radio communications, but who the hell are they radioing with that thing? Marvin the Martian? Expect Rinaldo Nocentini to come down with radiation poisoning in the near future.
- Phil and Paul briefly mentioned it, but on descents like yesterday’s 30 minute trip into Bourg-Saint-Maurice, riders’ forearms get pretty beat up from the braking and bumping. It’s not usually a factor in road cycling, but what they’re describing is known as “arm pump” in the downhill mountain bike world, where it’s far more common. Marla Streb explained it to me once in far more colorful language, but here’s a more clinical description from Brian Lopes.
- My wife is continually worried that the spectators on the mountaintops are going to unintentionally unseat or intentionally maul the riders. Her other observation on the crowded roads on the mountain stages: "Those fields must just be full of urine. Am I the only one that sees that?"
- If they’re going to give out live dogs on some stages, I think Credit Lyonaisse should go all the way and give out live lions instead of stuffed ones on the podium. After all, between the shaving, lycra, drug problems, weird accents, gold chains, and mullets, professional cycling is really only one set of cheek implants away from being Siegfried and Roy, so we might as well start collecting the animals now.
- Speaking of people who look like they could be lion tamers in a Vegas show, Danilo DiLuca (LPR) got popped today, or a few months ago, depending on how you look at it. That’s not Tour related. I just thought you should know.