Raceable Moments

Educators have a concept they call “teachable moments” –when classroom discussion takes an unexpected turn that the teacher can use to teach students about something they’re genuinely interested in. By definition, teachable moments aren’t a part of the lesson plan, and they’re not an everyday thing, but they’re an important, flexible element of an educational system that’s become increasingly rigid with the current addiction to standardized testing.

Bicycle stage racing’s become a little bit like education over the past few decades. Grand tours that used to be widely variable three-week brawls have become standardized tests, with GC contenders staying within well-established parameters for success: take time in the high mountains and in the time trials. Attack late on the last climb of the day. Race for maybe 200 kilometers, sit behind the team for the other 3,000.

But, just like education’s teachable moments, under the right circumstances, stage racing can still present opportunities for beneficial improvisation, raceable moments when GC riders have a chance to do something outside of the usual curriculum. Something that adds value and depth to the race. And I think that’s what made the 2010 Tour better than the last several editions – it presented more potential raceable moments. Some were ultimately seized and exploited, like Contador’s attack on the final climb to Mende, or Cancellara and Schleck’s rampage through the Stage 3 cobbles. Other chances, like Stage 2’s lumpy trip through the Ardennes, were passed over, but the route at least tempted GC riders to come out and play with nary a high mountain or disc wheel in sight.

It was still a far cry from the 1970s, when Merckx and the other giants of the road would occasionally club each other senseless on stages that modern GC contenders are content to leave to sprinters and breakaway artists. Racing has changed enough, and the fields are so much deeper now, that we’re unlikely to ever regain those days. But with thoughtful, innovative route planning, we can take small steps back in that direction.

In terms of raceable moments, this Tour also wasn’t yet on par with the Giri d’Italia of the last several years, which have taken GC battles to new modern-day highs with a mix of challenges, from creative mid-mountain days to throwback-length time trials. But the Tour is getting there. Last year’s tinkerings, concentrating the action in the final week at the near-total expense of the first 14 days of the race, demonstrated a well-meaning interest in shaking things up; it just didn’t work out terribly well in practice. This year, things worked out a little better, even if there was still heated debate over what, exactly, belongs in a grand tour.

After a predictable decade or two, ASO is finally starting to break the Tour out of its mold. If we’re lucky, the GC riders will follow.

  • The fact that Alberto Contador’s (Astana) winning margin ended up being 39 seconds over Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) is unfortunate, because the knee-jerk reaction inevitably has been and will continue to be to consider those "the same 39 seconds” that Contador gained in the now-infamous chain-drop attack. But they’re not the same 39 seconds, or at least not all of them are, anyway. If anyone bothered to look closely enough, a few of those seconds might turn out to be some of the 10 that Contador pulled back on Schleck on Stage 12 to Mende. Others might be leftovers from the 42 Contador put into Schleck in the prologue, or from the 31 he clawed out of the final TT. It’s hard to tell which seconds came from where, though, because they’ve long since been thrown in the pot with Schleck’s 10 from Morzine and his 73 from Arenberg, shaken up, and drawn back out, one by one. It doesn’t help that one of the damn things looks just like the next.

    Which is all a long way of saying that the final margins in a grand tour don’t come from any one day, or place, or attack. They come from three weeks of give and take, where the seconds ahead or behind on any given day contantly reshape the tactics on the road. Simply put, had Contador not taken those 39 seconds on the road to Bagnères-de-Luchon, the following stages wouldn’t have been ridden in the same way, just as, if Schleck hadn’t taken a yawning 1:13 over the cobbles, Contador’s much-debated attack might never have happened at all. To take the final margin of victory and cast it as coming from a specific time and place in the race is to completely misstate the nature of stage racing in general, and grand tours in particular.

  • At the time, people talked about Contador’s pursuit of those 10 seconds over Schleck on the climb to Mende (at the expense of a potential Vinokourov stage win) as smacking of insecurity and preemptive desperation. The drumbeat of that week was that Contador should have been content to just hold his roughly 30 second deficit to Schleck until the final TT, given his superiority in that discipline.

    Contador can’t win, can he? Had he just said, more or less, “I’m not worried about 30 seconds -- I’ll just hammer Schleck flat in the TT” he’d no doubt have his existing cocky label polished up and rehung around his neck. But when he goes on the attack to try to cut the deficit, he’s labeled as desperate and insecure. Scylla or Charybdis, take your pick.

    To my eye, Contador's move to take a little opportunistic time on the the climb up the “Col du Jalabert” smacked not of insecurity, but of a certain strategic self-awareness. Yes, based on past performance, Contador was the far-superior TT rider, but to count on (1) maintaining the same gap through the remaining Pyrenean stages when Schleck was clearly climbing well, and then (2) easily making up the time in the TT would have been pretty dismissive of not only Schleck, but also the fickle hand of fate. Thirty seconds is easily lost with a flat tire or a dragging brake, and there is no “wait for the yellow” guideline in a time trial (no matter how badly I’m sure people want there to be one). And the final TT – the one that Contador should have allegedly been content to spot Schleck half a minute in – revealed that even if the attack to Mende was a fit of desperation, Contador had his head in the right place in scrapping for seconds. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

  • On Saturday, I think we saw Schleck ride like we wished he’d ridden on Friday on the Tourmalet. Before that final mountain stage, Schleck said that he would risk losing his second place to try to win the Tour, but, while he apparently “surged” a number of times, I don’t think anyone really saw that risk-it-all philosophy materialize. On Saturday, though, the guy threw everything he had at the wall, and for a while it was looking like it might be enough. Someday, it might be.

  • In that same time trial, I’m also betting a lot of people saw Contador do the ride that they wanted to see from him – the one that made him look human. People will make a lot out of Contador’s vulnerability this year versus his invincibility last year, and read into it what they will about the great doping questions of the day. I’ll come at it from a much simpler perspective – I just like a race where everyone looks a little bit beatable more than one where they don’t.

  • There were a few minutes in Saturday’s TT, right about when Contador passed under the 10k to go banner, when I started to think that Denis Menchov (Rabobank) was going to pull off one of the sneakiest victories in Tour history. He didn’t, but with his podium finish, the Russian finally got the Tour monkey off his back. Hopefully, it’ll help him negotiate a better contract with Katusha for next year.

  • Today’s sponsorship report: After grabbing both the first and second spots on the podium, the folks from SRAM and Specialized are probably still drunk as monkeys and watering curbs throughout Paris right now.

  • RadioShack was triumphant in its allegedly dogged pursuit of the teams competition win, beating out second-placed Caisse d’Epargne. Contacted for comment as he was packing his suitcase, Caisse d’Epargne assistant director Neil Stephens responded, “We were second in the what now?”

  • Chapeau to Schleck for handling himself so well in difficult situations where it would have been very easy not to, especially for a 25-year-old. Through a combination of appearance and demeanor, Schleck always seems to come off as the perfect Boy Scout, with both the positives and negatives that title entails. It comes with a certain, perhaps accurate, connotation of naïveté, a perceived lack of the killer instinct, even when he's talking about the anger in his stomach. But there’s also an earnestness there, a focus on the job, and a steadfast refusal to be drawn into petty battles or jaded statements. On the balance, I’d call it a positive, because even if he never wins a grand tour, we could use a few more Boy Scouts in cycling (even if the first version didn’t turn out so well). I’ll say this for Bjarne Riis, he certainly puts together some of the most likeable teams in pro cycling.

  • You know, Footon-Servetto wasn’t that bad, and Rafael Valls probably earned himself a contract somewhere else and a possible return trip to the Tour in the future. Still horrible kit, though. Just horrible.

  • As I said, I thought it was a great Tour, but if you subscribe to cycling’ hero-and-villian roles as they’re currently cast, I could see where it could seem pretty dismal. That self-absorbed brat Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) nails down five stages, including his second straight on the Champs, while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) goes home early and empty handed. The cocky, underhanded Alberto Contador bests that nice boy Andy Schleck on GC. That allegedly dirty Eye-talian playboy Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) gets the better of earnest viking Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) in the battle for green. That must be terribly frustrating for people who need their cycling cast like a John Wayne movie, replete with black and white hats.

  • Speaking of Petacchi, he’s now completed his collection of points jerseys from all three grand tours. (2004 Giro, 2005 Vuelta, 2010 Tour) Now we’ll see if it all comes crashing down around his ears before he can even get the last one framed and hung on the wall.

  • Speaking of jerseys, what of the great RadioShack wardrobe tragedy? Frankly, I wouldn’t shed too many a tear for them – contrary to appearances, I suspect the whole thing went off exactly as it was intended. If TRS really was counting on wearing the jerseys, they would have requested UCI approval, and given the stated nature of the effort, I bet they would have received it. But they didn’t take that step, choosing instead to go the six-year-old route and get more attention by acting out. With that, they also got the added bonus of getting to look persecuted one more time for the general audience.

    I found it all pretty distasteful, and not because I’m a stickler for the uniform rules. Armstrong’s previous teams wore modified uniforms onto the Champs Elysees all the time, and nobody, me included, cared a bit. I didn’t care then because they’d earned the media spotlight by winning the race, so in my mind, they were welcome to do with that Champs Elysees spotlight as they pleased, whether that was pushing Livestrong or whatever else their sponsors wanted or allowed. But this year, the spotlight wasn’t theirs to bask in, but they tried to point it at themselves anyway, when it should have been shining squarely on Contador, Schleck, Chartreau, and Petacchi. They know it, we know it.

    Finally, the whole affair kept 161 other guys - who just wanted to get the hell to Paris and be done with the whole damn thing - waiting while they huffed around with faux offense and fumbled with safety pins. That’s just rude.

  • And yes, it will sound callous, but I’m tired of cycling being the cancer sport. And yes, I say that as someone who has the obligatory family history. But I’m not going to recite that history here as some love to do in such discussions, because validity of opinions on the matter shouldn’t be decided on some chest-puffing “who’s more cancer” contest.

  • Related to the above point, I’ve had people email or ask me in person why I and others talk about the lawsuits and other negative things about Lance Armstrong, when he’s clearly an inspiration to people who can use some inspiration. I understand why they ask, and I can only answer for myself. I write a bike racing blog, so what matters about Armstrong to me, here, is the impact of his presence and actions on bike racing. To cite the most current example, yes, there might well be value in drawing attention to the number of cancer sufferers worldwide, in showing them that someone cares. But in the context of the bike race at hand, I thought it was inappropriate, so that’s what I wrote about. I write about the dope allegations because that’s relevant to bike racing; raising money for cancer is significantly less so. Plenty of other people can and do cover the cancer angle, so I’ll leave them to it.

  • Like others, I’m feeling a little lost now that the Tour is over, and I’ll miss seeing the little red light on my Tivo light up every morning just as I leave for work. It’s tempting to wish it would go on and on, but if all-you-can-eat buffets have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be both good and unlimited.

  • Since, whether I like it or not, the Tour marks the high point of the cycling season, it’s a good time to say thanks to everyone who’s come here to read, both during this Tour and over the last few years. So thanks. And if you’re one of those who just started visiting during the Tour, I hope you’ll stick around.

  • Sometime during the past year, I’ve decided that each Tour needs to get played out the same way, so here’s this year’s version of Joe Dassin performing Aux Champs Elysees. There used to be a nice, full acoustic version out there, but it looks like it's been pulled. So, this year, we're going with the lounge lizard edition.