So, where were we before that little side trip into the shady world of business dealings, paper trails, and speculation? Oh yeah: we were in the midst of the week of slamming doors at the Tour de France. After beginning in Rotterdam widely hailed as one of the “most open” Tours in recent history, and remaining more or less that way for just about a week, things have become decidedly more closed since last Sunday.
First to have the GC door closed in his face was Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who’s unceremonious demise on Sunday’s Stage 8 to Avoriaz we’ve already addressed. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Cadel Evans (BMC) also saw his Tour hopes slammed shut the same day, despite riding his way into yellow at the end of it. The damage from his early crash went well beyond the visible grazes that he seemed to shrug off, and two days later, the chipped elbow he'd quietly sustained left him to a brave, emotional, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle on Stage 9 to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. By the finish line, his jersey was eight minutes gone.
Not that it was any consolation for Evans, but he wasn’t alone in getting locked out on Stage 9, as Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) played a brief game of cat and mouse before joining forces to all but eliminate the rest of the GC contenders. From grand tour mainstays like Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), to outsiders like Brad Wiggins (Sky) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), to upstarts like Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma), everyone got popped for a few minutes by the dynamic duo, with very few visible prospects for getting the lost time back between here and Paris. And bang, the "open Tour" became a two man race for GC, barring any surprising turn of events.
The last door slamming of the week was also the most obvious, when in the Stage 11 sprint HTC leadout man Mark Renshaw slammed the door on Garmin's Tyler Farrar so hard that I’m surprised Farrar doesn’t have a broken nose to go with his wrist. Within a half-hour of the finish, Renshaw’s move gave us a metaphorical door slamming two-fer, as the officials sent him packing from the Tour with a hearty “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”
As the saying goes though, god, or race officials, as the case may be, never close a door without opening a window, and this week’s various slammings will also open up some different opportunities in the final week. A more stable GC race could let the opportunists play a freer hand, Armstrong’s weeklong time-hemorrhaging effort may give him some breathing room for a final send-off stage win, the ejection of Mark Cavendish’s pilot fish might lend a different look to the sprints, and Contador and Schleck’s narrowing of the field sets us up for some great potential mano-a-mano battles in the Pyrenees.
- Why the 2010 Tour was billed as an “open Tour” for GC purposes in the first place, and whether that was accurate, is debatable. From where I’m sitting, I’d say there were two contributing factors. First, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bill every Tour as “open,” because it’s hard to boost readership/viewership/enthusiasm by advertising an unabashed trouncing. (Though I suppose you could argue that Versus did just that from roughly 2000-2005.) This year, there were just enough reasonably adept GC contenders to make the label a little more believable. Second, it seemed like in the weeks leading up to the Tour, a Contador win seemed to have become such an unconscious foregone conclusion that people stopped talking about him altogether – that is, in the talk about all the possible challengers for the crown, the current wearer of it was largely forgotten. I’m not saying Contador’s a shoo-in in Paris, but the extent of his previous domination seemed to be largely forgotten during the “open Tour” buildup.
- I made some smarmy comment awhile back about how FDJ was a long-running team because they fly their national sponsor’s flag at national French Cup races all year, every year, and not because Sandy Casar manages to bag a Tour stage every eight years or so. Well, shut my mouth…
- Watching the scenery roll by in the Alps, instead of paying attention to the racing like I should, I’m was struck with three thoughts: 1) I need to buy an RV dealership in France. 2) Who are these people who cheer from inside their cars and RVs? If you’re not even going to get out of the damn car for the three minute span when the leaders and the peloton go by, why the hell have you been sitting on some godforsaken mountain for two days? 3) The guy inside that no-mold water bottle costume must just be dying of the heat.
- I’m sure a lot of people saw Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne) hand fellow Spaniard Contador (Astana) a bottle as Contador and Schleck came ripping by him on Stage 9. In a sport where a lot of little favors are done along national lines, all I can say is, poor Andy Schleck. Not a lot of company from Luxembourg with his brother and Kim Kirchen on the bench and Benoit Joachim missing in action.
- There are a lot of complaints flying about Euskaltel-Euskadi riders not knowing how to ride bikes. By and large that may be true, but Sammy Sanchez is certainly an exception.
- In the closing kilometers of Stage 10, I was all-in for Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne). It’s not that I have any extensive knowledge of his abilities in that situation versus those of his breakaway companion Sergio Paulinho (Radio Shack). It’s just that I make such bets according one simple maxim: never bet against an Eastern European in the long break. Especially an Eastern European with a flowing mullet waving in the breeze. Sure, it’s wrong every once in awhile, as Paulinho proved, but on the average, it works out pretty well. I’m hoping notorious headbanger Pavel Brutt (Katusha) will put me back on even terms next week.
- As for Nicolas Roche’s (AG2r) late move in the fairly cruise-ey Stage 10 procession behind Kiryienka and Paulinho, I have to agree with Whit – it was a little cheesy. Not illegal, not baffling, not unforgivable, just…cheesy.
- Yeah, yeah, most people think Renshaw’s Stage 11 ejection was about the head butts. It’s a reasonable stance, especially since that’s the cause officials cited in their early quotes on the ejection. While Renshaw giving Dean the noggin was pretty damn noticeable, I’m betting he could have gotten away with it if he stopped there. Boys will be boys. But when he looked at Farrar and then rode him into the barriers, I’m guessing the balance tipped against him. Neither infraction might have been enough on its own, but together, they made a defensible case for an early exit.
- The Renshaw ejection is obviously a hot topic, mostly on whether sending him packing was justified or not, but also regarding what the penalty system should be. As many have rightfully pointed out, relegation is irrelevant to a leadout man, so what are you left with? I’ve seen arguments from several different sources for a more formalized sort of yellow card/red card system where warnings or fines (the yellow) would precede stiffer penalties like ejection (the red). I don’t think that, or similar approaches, will work for cycling. First and most obviously, it won’t work because the system simply institutionalizes the idea that you get one “freebie” before real consequences kick in, even if that freebie costs the team some Swiss francs. That means riders would go into a race like the Tour knowing that they had one good, solid hook to throw when they decide they need it most – it becomes a tool rather than a penalty. So, let’s see, one free chop times how many guys in a leadout?
Secondly, the soccer/football approach doesn’t really work with the nature of cycling. Yes, races have officials, but we don’t call them referees for a reason. It’s not a field sport, and you can’t just blow the whistle and stop the action to give someone a talking to, show the yellow, and then play on. Cycling is fast, linear, and kinetic, and the approach just doesn’t transfer – a guy could go from his first to his second offense in a split second. And sometimes, a warning just isn’t appropriate when someone makes a move that could potentially end the races or careers of 100 other guys. You can abuse people pretty badly on a soccer pitch, but certainly not that many at once, and not at those speeds. Cycling needs to have the nuclear option available for first offenses if they’re egregious enough to warrant it.
Since what we’re looking for is not necessarily punishment, but a deterrent, I’d argue that the swift and, at times, seemingly random hand of justice that we saw deployed yesterday is probably best for keeping racers in line. When you draw the line too sharply, you just tempt people to get as close as possible to it without going over, but if they’re never quite sure exactly where the line is…
- One idea that keeps popping up about the Renshaw ejection strikes me as particularly silly (even if several pros have made it): that it’s unfair that Renshaw was ejected for his actions in the sprint while Barredo and Costa were merely fined for their post race brawl a few stages ago. The two incidents are so far apart on their (de)merits I can’t believe people are drawing the comparison, but let’s put it to rest anyway: The fight was after the stage, on foot, affected only the two jackasses involved, and basically only provided a bit of comic relief at said jackasses’ expense. The actions in yesterday’s sprint, by contrast, came during the stage, at 60+ kilometers per hour, endangered about 100 people besides the jackasses involved, and potentially altered the results of the stage. The fight was an issue of “conduct unbecoming.” Renshaw’s actions in the sprint were an issue of race safety as well as of the competitive integrity of the Tour. Are we really trying to say they’re of the same caliber?
- For those of you who might counter that Barredo-Costa Slapdown 2010 is going to ruin the image of our dear fairest cycling…have you seen other sports?
- Off we go into the Massif Centrale, and on that topic, John Wilcockson’s finally written something I can agree with. When he’s not focused on Armstrong, he can be really good.
- So was Brad Wiggins’s move from Garmin to Sky good or bad? If you want to argue that it was a bad choice, you’d could say that his fourth place last year proved that Vaughters and the Garmin staff knew the best way to bring him to the Tour, and that he should have stayed. If you wanted to argue that it was a good choice, you could cite the fact that by moving to Sky, Wiggins smartly netted himself a lot of cash based on a fourth-place Tour performance he wasn’t likely to repeat. Based on a loose sense of history, I’d say Wiggins has, at most, two more Tours after this one to climb back inside the final top 5 before the “podium contender” status and paychecks depart for good.
- The Service Course’s Gerard Vroomen Twitter-watch continues, and got considerably more interesting in the wake of the Renshaw objection, when he called HTC-Columbia to the carpet for dangerous sprinting. So let’s see, that’s taking shots at Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne, HTC-Columbia, and, just after the World Cup, the entire nation of Holland. The guy’s kind of growing on me.