So here we sit in that yawning chasm between the end of the Tour de Suisse and the start of the Tour de France. Everything’s gone relatively quiet – the roster selections have been made, the contenders have retreated to make their final preparations in private, and big action on the road is minimal. We read the results of the national championships as they trickle in, of course, but none of that is even real until you see the jerseys on the road.
Staring across time towards the Tour is like watching a storm roll in across the water. You know what’s coming, but in the waiting there’s a sense of quiet and foreboding so imposing that you yearn for anything to break the silence – a passing car, a nearby conversation, a barking dog. But no matter what noises emerge to crack the muffled softness of that silence, nothing can relieve the underlying tension until the storm itself, with all its thunder and wind and force, hits shore. The rest is just distraction.
But for the cycling press, from mighty L’Equipe down to poorly formatted blogs, distraction is kind of the main business, and these two weeks are prime season. The dead air of the pre-Tour lull is ripe for filling with predications, retrospectives, opinions and god knows what else, all seeking to fill the informational void until the Tour itself hits shore and sets the underlying energy free.
With so much information blowing in the breeze in these pre-Tour days, it’s hard to find the common thread that would string it all together into any sort of narrative, so frankly, I quit trying. Here’s what’s struck me while watching the storm blow in.
With the exception of the politic-ed out Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), this year’s Tour will feature a battle of the sport’s major sprint stars. In theory, at least. Though it looks like most of the fast men will make it to the start, there are plenty of questions remaining about what we’ll actually see as things barrel into the final 200 meters.
- Will Tom Boonen (Quick Step) show up? It’s both a literal and figurative question. He’s having some knee trouble that’s putting his Tour start in doubt in the real sense. In the figurative sense, Boonen’s last several Tours haven’t exactly been spectacular. While his motivation should be high after a great but win-free classics season, he’s not the pure sprinter he used to be. Fortunately for him, a green jersey run is about more than winning the bunch kicks, so he could still be in with a chance.
- After a slow start, can Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) live up to the expectations created by both his past performance and his present mouth? Will the ill-will of the Tour de Suisse have faded by the start in Rotterdam?
- Will Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transistions) get his Tour stage win? He’s hot off a win at the Delta Tour Zeeland, which could indicate he’s building back up after nabbing two stages at the Giro d’Italia. If he can pull off a Tour stage, he’ll join teammate Dave Zabriskie on the list of Americans who’ve won stages of all three grand tours.
- Which of the second line sprinters will steal some of the limelight? Saxo Bank’s rising classics star and fast man Matti Breschel? Lampre young ‘un Francesco Gavazzi? Some French guy?
- Which leadout man is most likely to take a sneaky stage win while his leader sweeps his wheel for him – Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions), or Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia)?
- Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is likely staring down the barrel of his last Tour. Will he be able to go out on a good note after a year of injuries and setbacks?
- Anyone seen Thor Hushovd lately? Anyone?
- Will Oscar Friere (Rabobank) get one more stage? Though he doesn’t have the top end that a lot of the sprinters have, in a tricky finish run it’s hard to count him out. With his classics experience, he’s likely to be in the mix on the early northern stages, where he may be more likely to win from a small group or reduced bunch.
Help at Last?
For me, the big takeaway from the Tour de Suisse wasn’t the success of Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) or the Radio Shack squad’s apparent depth. It was Steve Morabito (BMC) and the BMC team. Morabito ended up fourth overall, but more importantly he finished in the contenders group three seconds back from winner Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the climbing stage to the Schwarzenberg, then followed that up by finishing seventh in a group :43 back from Robert Gesink (Rabobank) on stage 6 to La Punt. Add Morabito’s performance to Marcus Burghardt’s wins on two rolling stages, Mathias Frank’s wins in the KOM and intermediate sprints competitions, and solid performances from rouleurs George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan, and it starts to look like Cadel Evans could finally go into a grand tour with some legitimate support when it counts. Sure, Tour de Suisse is BMC’s defacto national tour, so you’d expect them to put some effort in, but the fact that Evans wasn’t there reveals where their real priorities very justifiably lie.
While we’re on it, you know who else might finally have some help in the mountains? Denis Menchov (Rabobank). The oft-overlooked Russian is putting all his eggs in the Tour basket this year, and might finally have some high-mountain companionship from Robert Gesink, who’s finally starting to live up to the potential we’ve caught glimpses of in the last few years.
How Soon They Forget
Speaking of Evans…Armstrong, Contador, and various Schlecks are all on everyone’s lips, given the recent conclusions of the Dauphine and Suisse. But geez, doesn’t anyone remember the Giro a month back? Sure, the Dauphine and Suisse are obviously fresher in our minds, but the Giro showed us a few relevant points too, and in a fairly spectacular fashion. For prognosticating purposes, the Giro also carries the added weight of being a three-week race. A couple of Giro takeaways, lest we forget:
- Evans is obviously a new man this year, and could find himself right in the mix if his team shows up (see above). It’s probably also worth noting that while the lack of TT kilometers in this Tour will count against him vis-à-vis challenges from the Schlecks, with his experience and his teams, he could also be a big gainer in the early stages in the low countries. It’s also important to note that Evans had some surprising standout performances on the Giro’s steep ramps, a promising sign given that the Pyrenees will play a crucial role in this year’s Tour.
- Everybody’s banging on about Radio Shack and Saxo Banks’ depth, and with good reason, but good lord, does anyone remember how Liquigas looked in the Giro, on a course where team strength wasn’t supposed to matter? I don’t believe they’ve announced their team yet, but Liquigas looks to be just as strong for the Tour as they were for the Giro, if not stronger. While Basso’s chief Giro lieutenant/co-captain Vincenzo Nibali is taking a break after this weekend’s national championship, the team will likely bring in Czech stage race hope Roman Kreuziger, and possibly wonderboy Peter Sagan as well. Mix in Giro standouts Sylvester Szmyd, Valerio Agnoli, and Robert Kiserlovski, pick three more depending on who’s good, and you have a team that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Something About Radio Shack
Radio Shack announced its Tour de France lineup on Monday, beaming out a roster that contains few surprises but still manages to be shocking when you see it written down. Quite simply, it may be the oldest Tour de France squad in history, though I’ll leave it up to the real number crunchers to verify that.* Yes, for the first time in decades, an American team has fielded a squad that can answer that most American of questions: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?
Overall, the team weighs in at an experienced-but-reasonable average age of 32.5, but that’s thanks to a foursome of 30 year old workhorses – Yaroslav Popovytch, Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast, and Dmitri Muravyev – as well as a substantial contribution from young Jani Brajkovic’s 26 years. But the RadioShack power elite – headed by Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, and Levi Leipheimer – comes in at a whopping 36.75 years old. (If you don’t want to consider Horner and his 38 years as part of that group, fine, but eliminating him only brings the average age to 36.3.)
With an average age like that, people will rattle on about all sorts of legitimate ways to beat RadioShack, like frequent tempo changes on the climbs or making the race hard on back-to-back days to make recovery a key issue. But that’s all bullshit. If you want to beat a team of old guys, you have to look beyond cycling for your tactics. So here’s the Service Course advice for challenging Radio Shack at this year’s tour:
- Keep a jersey pocket full of butterscotch candies, and throw them to the side of the road on climbs. Butterscotch is like old person flypaper.
- Start a whisper campaign aimed at getting the UCI to classify Rascal scooters as “motorized doping.”
- Have the UCI outlaw the wearing of tall black socks with shorts. By prohibiting the time-honored old person dress code, you’re sure to disrupt their mental game.
- Air reruns of Matlock during time trials. Late starthouse appearances will surely ensue.
- Get Cialis listed as performance enhancing substance. The cycling kind of performance enhancing substance.
- Switch labels on denture cream, chamois cream.
Extremely cheap and largely hypocritical potshots aside, it’s a hell of a strong team. Just, you know, old, which as I said, isn’t shocking. So what is shocking about this team? No Spaniards. Starting in 2001, when Bruyneel began having to replace departing American climbing talents like Jonathan Vaughters, Kevin Livingston, and Tyler Hamilton, Spaniards became a mainstay of Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations. For awhile in the early-mid 2000s, the team was probably the best Spanish team in cycling. This year, Haimar Zubeldia was the last likely Spanish hope for a Tour start, but since he’s out with a broken wrist, the Portuguese Paulinho is the lone Iberian representative on the squad. Of course, Zubeldia is a Basque, so despite his passport and the little Spanish flag next to his name on Versus, he might not consider himself any more Spanish than Paulinho. In fact, by hailing from Texas, Armstrong might be the closest thing to a native Spanish-speaker on the squad.
* If you did want to figure out what the oldest Tour team ever was, I’d start by looking at the immediate post-WWII Tours, when lots of the pre-war stars gave it a final shot, and much of the younger generation had been, well, killed.
The Dope Test Flap
There’s big news this week in acronym city, where at the order of WADA, the UCI will be conducting special dope tests at ASO’s TdF at the request of AFLD. You can view a nice bulleted outline of the situation and the decision here (thanks to @cyclingfansanon for the link). While nobody enjoys an inter-agency procedural eye-gouging match as much as I do, the real news to come out of this whole kerfuffle has been insanely understated – namely that AFLD claims to have information from customs/border agents and other law enforcement that seems to justify targeted testing of certain riders at the Tour. Uhh…that could be big news. Like Willy Voet big news.
Barry Finally Gets His Tour
Team Sky released its Tour de France roster this morning, an affair I’m sure my UK friends will thoroughly dissect within a matter of minutes, so I’ll leave it to them and just comment on one small part of it. For me, the biggest news was the selection of Mike Barry to ride his first Tour. You already know Barry through his writing, of course. But in addition to his abilities in capturing the sport from the inside, he’s also a very capable domestique who’s been worthy of a Tour ride for years, as proven by his service at the classics and various Vueltas and Giros. But riding as he did for Bruyneel’s deep Tour-winning teams, he never quite got the call-up earlier in his career. Maybe, as a Canadian, he just didn’t speak enough Spanish, who knows.
This year, though, he’s finally getting his shot, which is good, because it was feeling a bit like now-or-never time. I’m glad for him. Yes, I know he came up in Floyd Landis’s doping allegations, but he was also my next door neighbor in a sublet in Boulder about 11 years ago, when he was with Saturn and his wife Dede was still racing. I didn’t really know him, or her, and still don’t. I was just interning at VeloNews then, and figured the last thing I’d want to have next door if I were a pro cyclist was some cycling writer chatting me up every day when I got home. So I kept my distance. But Mike and Dede were always friendly, with a hello in the stairway or a wave as we passed coming and going on bikes. Like a lot of the people mentioned in various dope stories, they’re real people for me, and I try to remember that. The whole Landis thing will sort itself out, and we’ll all be happy or vindicated or disappointed or otherwise affected by what we find out about a lot of people. But that can wait. For now I’ll wish Barry all the best in his Tour debut. It’s about time.