Hors Delay

Au soleil, sous la pluie, a midi ou a minuit
Il y a tout ce que vous voulez aux Champs-Elysees
- Joe Dassin, Les Champs Elysees

By now, the morning after a veritable army of French public servants have swept and sprayed the detritus of the 2009 Tour de France from the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, you’ve probably watched, read, and heard just about all you can stand about the race. Every angle of every stage has been analyzed, every alternative outcome dreamed up and debated, every quote taken out of context and scrutinized, every over-the-top paintjob and shiny new bauble photographed, measured, and spun. I know that I, for one, feel sort of overstuffed, like I’ve put on a protective and nourishing layer of cycling-coverage blubber to feed off of until the Giro di Lombardia in October, if not longer.

That said, I still have a need for closure, or maybe it's just the need to force dessert on already bursting dinner guests, I don’t know. So without further adieu, here’s the Service Course’s parting shots from the 2009 Tour de France:

  • Some folks have read what I’ve written over the last several weeks and concluded that I don’t like Lance Armstrong (Astana). I can understand that, but as I see it, like or dislike doesn’t really enter into it. I’ve primarily commented on two issues regarding Armstrong. The first is the media campaign Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel have waged against Alberto Contador before and during the Tour de France. True, I found the whole thing weird, questionably effective, and distasteful – but not so much because of what they said as the fact that so many people, including many who should know better, bought into it and poured gas on the flames on their behalf.

    The second issue I commented fairly frequently on was the expectation of how Armstrong would fare at various points in his Tour return. Simply put, I wasn’t entirely convinced that, at 37 years old, with 3 years out of competition, and coming off a broken collarbone, he was going to come back and contend for the win as so many seemed to assume, with some fervor, that he would. Frankly, I'm not sure he was sure either. In the end he didn’t really contend for the win, but what he did do given his circumstances was very impressive – moreso than I expected, to be honest. Chapeau. The more impressive thing, though, was that, for all the backbiting and polemics, Armstrong never for a second rode against Contador. When the interpersonal warfare is already that open, not crossing that line shows a considerable amount of restraint.

  • OK, OK – one more thing regarding Armstrong. It remains my official position that the infamous, twitterific “Contador dropping Kloden” issue on Stage 17, while maybe not the ideal move by Contador, didn’t really matter on the stage, had no effect on the overall, and wasn’t worth all the hubbub. But I’m curious – as much attention as that move was given, why has nobody pointed out that the reason Contador and Kloden were facing both Andy and Frank Schleck instead of just Andy was that Frank jumped away while Armstrong was messing around playing brakey-checkey with Brad Wiggins (Garmin)?

  • People will interpret this as they will, but really, isn’t it just less awkward for everyone that way?

  • Speaking of awkward, does anyone know if Contador is going to ride the Vuelta? I’m guessing if he does, it’ll be Alain Gallopin behind the wheel of the car, and Johan Bruyneel will be nowhere to be found. Or, Bruyneel will be at the Vuelta, but only to sign riders for Team Radioshack. He always has had a thing for Spaniards. Must have been all that time at ONCE.

  • During our Friday-Sunday siesta, Mark Cavendish (Columbia) picked up a few more stage wins. One of them was in Paris yesterday and the other was somewhere else on Friday – after awhile it just gets tedious to keep track of the details. But I do know that the final tally was six stages (or 28.57% of the stages on offer), which has to be inching towards some sort of modern, post-Merckx-and-Maertens era record. Anyway, anything that can be said about Cavendish winning stages has been said at least twice by now, so I’ll shut my trap on that.

  • In between that Cavendish stage sandwich, Phil and Paul’s favorite name, Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) won on the Ventoux. That, of course, is awesome, both because it was a good ride and because it will give them a reason to say “Juan Manuel Garate” every time they spot him in the peloton for the remainder of his career. I have to admit, it does roll off the tongue. I like Jussi Veikkanen (FdJ) for the same reason, and I'm not just saying that to pander to our Finnish demographic.

  • Garate’s win saved an otherwise dismal Tour for Rabobank, but you have to wonder about the team’s long-term prospects. Long the pride of the Netherlands, the team’s current GC guy is Russian, and the other guys who actually win races for them are Spanish. It hasn’t really been that long, but the days of Boogerd, Dekker, Van der Poel, and the like are getting to feel pretty distant. With their first Tour de France under their belt, is Skil-Shimano setting up to become the defacto home team, with Rabobank just becoming the mercenary ProTour squad that lives there? Maybe Lars Boom and Robert Gesink can fuel the Dutch revival, as long as the team gets that whole Hemopure issue sorted out.

  • Garate saved Rabobank’s Tour, but nobody did a damn thing to save Quick Step’s. Although I did enjoy several stages of daily updates on the delicate and evolving state of Tom Boonen’s bowels, that certainly didn’t earn them any wins or money. In fact, it may have cost them some Swiss francs, depending on how and where Boonen chose to relieve his afflictions. After all the hubbub about whether Boonen was in or out, and then the disappointing and abbreviated performance once he got there, Allan Davis must be one bitter man.

  • If we can jump back to the Ventoux for a second, can someone explain to me why Tony Martin (Columbia) looked dead during the entire ascent? Don’t get me wrong, he rode superbly, especially considering that he was called on to lead out Cavendish in Mark Renshaw’s absence the previous day. He just did not look, you know, “among the living” as he rode up the climb, what with his eyes rolling back in his head and whatnot. It was kind of freaking me out.

  • Did you catch the Versus coverage on Friday’s Stage 19? There were some great moments in there, but the best, bar none, was when Phil was doing a prewired in-car interview with Cervelo DS Alex Sans Vega and asked him what the status of the injured Jens Voigt was. Which would have been a good question, except that Voigt rides for Saxo Bank, not Cervelo. Man, that double-whammy Sastre+Cervelo defection from CSC/Saxo Bank really screwed with Phil’s head - it was the second or third similar slipup that I saw. In the interests of full disclosure though, I was once a question into an interview with Brad McGee when I realized I was thinking of Scott McGrory's palmares when I was formulating the question, so I shouldn’t throw stones. Fortunately, McGee, like Vega, was kind enough to play along until I got my head right.

  • Last year, with co-conspirator the Unholy Rouleur, we did a little examination of Tour related wine and cheese. This year felt more like an examination of whine and excuse me’s. This Tour had more apologies than a game of Sorry. Let’s recap the highlights: Armstrong apologized to Carlos Sastre and Christian Vandevelde for calling last year’s Tour de France a joke in the prelude to a new biography; Mark Cavendish apologized to Thor Hushovd for calling him a big whiney baby-man after Cav pushed him into the barriers; and Carlos Sastre apologized for apparently being rude to nearly everyone he encountered. There are a few others I’m forgetting – sorry about that.

  • Once person not apologizing is Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), who says he thinks less of the media than he does his own feces. Judging by what we know of Evans, that might not be too much of an insult, as I’m sure he believes his own feces to be quite attractive and free of harsh odors. That's more than most people think of journalists, and we know it. But come on, Cadel, when you’re second overall on GC for a few years in a row and then can’t get yourself out of the grupetto the next, people are going to ask you why.

  • With the Tour over, much discussion is now likely to revolve around who will ride for Radio Shack next year. Contador pretty much ruled that out yesterday. Thank god.

  • Do you remember those Saturday Night Live sketches where Jon Lovitz plays the Master Thespian? I sort of half expect the whole Contador-Armstrong fight to end with one of them turning triumphantly toward the camera and booming out, "But I was only acting!" Then Contador turns around and signs with Radio Shack.

  • Well, I’m beat. I’ve been trying to keep up the posting frequency during the Tour more as a challenge to myself than anything else. Now I know what the riders mean when they say they’re having a jour sans, or that they just want to make it to Paris. Or at least I know what the journalists on the Tour mean when they say it’s exhausting, and that the whole thing seems sort of silly sometimes. Anyway, the response to the site during the Tour has been fantastic, and I really appreciate all the visits, comments, and emails over the past few weeks. Thank you. And by all means, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here, please recommend the site to a friend or stick a link on your site.

  • Oh, and the song quote at the top? Joe Dassin's little ditty is the traditional way to get closure on your Tour de France. So here you go:


By now, they’re holding on by the barest of threads, hollow-eyed and jittery, discolored and discomforted by knotted stomachs, blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight. They are those journalists who have written so much, so exclusively, about cycling’s doping problems that the very topic has become their addiction, their habit. Devoid of a score this spring until Toni Colom was kind enough to give them a quick taste, they came to the Tour de France desperately in need of the big fix, and it’s no secret that the Tour is the biggest open-air market in town. But so far, the village has been dry of good dope, so now they’re hunting around for whatever they can get.

They descended on Monaco so hopefully, with their carefully packed works –laptop, recorder, camera – ready to pull out with shaking, eager fingers if one of their connections came good, relieving the sickness and bringing them back to life. But until that happened, the gear would stay tucked safely out of sight, clean and unused. And there it still sits, despite all the other newsworth things that have gone down. That’s because, despite the veritable three-ring circus around them, like any junkie they don’t notice a damn thing that can’t somehow be connected to the score. Those things they do notice – the exceptional performance, the breakout ride, the sudden illness – will be set in that context, one that doesn’t for a second consider careful training, undiscovered talent, or hard luck, but concerns itself only with an ever-present, all-encompassing underworld where deception is the rule rather than the exception.

Ah, junkies, to be sure. Which is not to say they have no point, no purpose or no value. William Burroughs, after all, was a proud and self-confessed junkie, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t produce some groundbreaking work on the object of his addiction. So have those most famous of cycling journalism’s dope addicts – Walsh, Ballester, Kimmage, and now Lemond – produced noteworthy work on their obsession. Yet, for any number of reasons, they’re either disregarded as nutters or hailed as infallible bastions of the one, true word. As with most things, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.

Yes, they sometimes seem to have an irrational tenacity and preformed conclusions that can quickly erode their credibility. Despite those issues, however, they’ve also done some informed work that can’t be ignored simply because of their own dogged pursuit of the topic. But I’m not interested in writing some endorsement or refutation of any of their work – everybody will pretty much take what they need from it and leave the rest, anyways. I’m more interested in the how and why of journalists and former riders turning into tunnel-vision dope addicts. There are a multitude of personal reasons it can happen, of course – Kimmage’s drive seems to come from the ugliness he perceived firsthand as a rider, Walsh often cites a fundamental need for honesty embodied by his late son, Lemond seems to need continual reassurance that he was as good a rider as he believes, and Ballester, driven from a top cycling spot at L’Equipe over his pursuit of the dope issue, seemingly needs to convince himself and everyone that he was right to pursue it.

All of those are good enough reasons, I suppose, but I’m more interested in the more broadly applicable and much simpler reason that will be coming into play right now, as writers seek the right phrases to sum up the 2009 Tour de France: fear. I believe that most journalists, good ones, anyway, have an innate fear of being wrong. They dread the moment they received that “Aha!” email, letter, or phone call, telling them that yesterday’s story is wrong, erroneous, a sham, despite all the work they put into researching and writing it. They’re terrified of that one, unknown-to-them fact that might emerge just after the presses roll, changing the entire plotline, turning their story upside down, making a mockery of what they thought was the truth they were reporting. They fear looking stupid, or incompetent, or naive. That sort of fear can be positive -- it can drive hard and careful work; it can also be crippling.

For journalists covering cycling, that killer fact looming just over the horizon happens to be a little less of an unknown than is typical, and the “known unknown” of the doping spectre will have a chilling effect on some of the writing used to describe this Tour de France and its seemingly inevitable winner. Few will stray too far in their praise for him, his performances, and for those of his most vigorous challengers. And that known unknown will, as always, have a downright cynical effect on the writings of the dope junkies, who, until the cold, hard positive dope test they’re pining for comes down the pike, will have to content themselves with a simple, “it can’t be true.” It’s unfortunate, if understandable, that nothing that’s seen in cycling can be admired, believed, or even accepted, simply because the minute that test comes back from the UCI, anyone who’s put their admiration of a hard attack on paper or been impressed by a good time trial will feel they’ve been played for a fool.

But if you only write about the dope, and how it’s everywhere and everyone is doing it and nothing can be trusted, you avoid all that fear. Writing those articles is a safe bet – people may think you’re a little single-minded and fairly paranoid, but it’ll be very, very hard to ever prove you wrong. So the message becomes, “He’s doping, and you’re just all too foolish to see it. They just haven’t caught him yet.” Many times, nothing ever confirms the declarations of suspicion, leaving the “haven’t caught him yet” to quietly cover the writers' reputations in perpetuity. But on those occasions when the proof comes in a positive test, they’ll be right there with the “I told you so. How could you have believed?” The beauty is that you can keep that act up as long as you want to. Nobody, after all, is ever truly proven clean – at best, they’ve just “never tested positive.”

The fact that I’m pointing out these fears in no way means I’m immune to them – I fear the “gotcha” as much as anyone else. But I’m also steadfastly trying not to give into that fear. I’m not blind to the problems in the sport, but I refuse to let them consume every moment I watch it. I could take the guarded approach, or the cynical one, and view everything I see through that lens. It’s tempting at times. But then I realize that if I did, I’d never be wrong, but I wouldn’t enjoy the sport very much, either. So for me, I'll write what I see and think, and I'll somewhat grudgingly place my faith in the testing process. It's not a perfect approach, but it beats the alternative.

Race Radio
  • Not much in this post about yesterday’s Stage 18 time trial, was there? Unless you read between the lines, I suppose, and those lines are pretty far apart. Anyway, long time readers will know that I don’t have a terribly long attention span for time trials, so I'll leave you to find most of what you need to know in the results or, if you’re really into it, in the time splits.

  • Many are decrying Contador’s refusal to answer dope questions from LeMonde at yesterday’s press conference. Having read the questions, I don’t blame him a bit. First, there’s no satisfying answer to “explain, you dirty bastard, how you can be so good” – whatever he could have answered, people who wanted to believe him would, and people who didn’t want to believe him wouldn’t. As for the VO2 max question, related to the questionable physiological/topographical theories Greg Lemond’s been writing in LeMonde, there’s no good answer to that one either. If Contador’s number is too low to fit Lemond’s calculation for how fast he believes a person should be able to go, it’s because Contador is doping. If Contador gives a number that would make his performance believable according to Lemond’s equation, well, I’m pretty sure that would somehow be because he’s doping, too, or lying, or both. So there’s all that, and then there’s the risk of providing answers that will be subsequently dissected, endlessly scrutinized, and variously interpreted – all after being translated on the spot into a dozen languages other than the one you answered in, which is also different from the language it was asked in. If I were Contador, I wouldn’t like those odds either, even if the strongest thing I’d ingested all year was a glass of iced tea.

  • As predicted, the battle for the podium seems to be the best thing going with the Ventoux roaring up tomorrow. Contador (Astana) and A. Schleck (Saxo Bank) are looking pretty secure, climbing as they are. What will be interesting will be the Armstrong (Astana), Wiggins (Garmin), F. Schleck (Saxo Bank) battle for the final step. There are so many variables in play that it’s hard to know where to start. While Wiggins suffered on the multi-pass day on Wednesday vis a vis Armstrong, the Ventoux is only a single peak, and Wiggins looked OK on a similar day at Arcalis. Of course, Arcalis was not the airless, exposed slope of the Ventoux, either. Armstrong had stated that if he had a single second over F. Schleck after the time trial, he’d feel secure against him on the Ventoux. I thought that to be optimistic, and he has more than that one second in hand, but I’m still not sure the older Schleck is out of the picture. And while I railed against the mechanics of the Astana 1-2-3 scenario yesterday, there is a chance that Astana could use a now-secure Contador to help Armstrong get the Ventoux win he’s missing. That, of course, brings up yet another variable – the prestige of a Ventoux win in the Tour, which could introduce the influence of non-GC stage threats like Kreuziger, Nibali, and Pellizoti into the GC battle.

  • Yesterday was a pretty good site traffic day, thanks in part to someone posting a link to yesterday’s post on a cycling message board in Finland. Unfortunately, I don’t speak the language, so I can’t tell if there are a few hundred Finns who think I’m brilliant, or a few hundred Finns who are laughing at the raving American moron. Judging by how the whole Contador/Astana issue is polling in English, I’m guessing it’s actually about half-and-half. Anyway, hello Finland!

The Bitch(ing) is Back

In the end, the great Astana “all-behind-Alberto” unification lasted all of three days, Monday’s rest day included. And once again, the team’s young star and current race leader is drawing his team’s ire for racing his bike to win.

On yesterday’s Stage 17 to Le Grand Bornand, Contador found himself in an elite four-man group along with the brothers Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Astana teammate Andreas Kloden. Out of that two-on-two matchup, Contador had the nerve to attack with two kilometers remaining on the final climb, presumably in an attempt to gain more than the two minutes worth of padding that separated him from the other GC contenders. Contador’s brief acceleration unshipped Kloden, which (despite the fact that Contador gained time over Brad Wiggins, increased his overall lead, and finished together with his other main extra-team rivals) was enough to set the Astana chapter of the U.S. Postal Alumni Association a-grumbling to anyone who would listen.

No sooner had the Astana boys settled in for their massages than Armstrong was Twittering snarky messages about being allegedly vexed by the move: “Getting lots of question why AC attacked and dropped Kloden. I still haven't figured it out either. Oh well.” Not to be outdone, DS Johan Bruyneel wasted no time in airing the team’s dirty laundry, telling reporters that he told Contador not to attack, but that he did anyway.

For what it’s worth, Contador told a slightly different story, noting that he checked with Bruyneel on whether or not to attack, and Bruyneel told him to ask Kloden, who gave the green light. (Kloden, for his part, comes off looking the best for simply saying nothing at all.) Now, I’m not claiming Contador’s was the most brilliant move, since it ultimately left him isolated against two Saxo Bank riders (though there was little they could have accomplished at that point, and from the looks of it, Kloden wasn't likely to be much help). No, the move wasn't without its problems, but the problems with his team’s reactions to it are far more serious.

Problem 1: No Manners

What happened to even the barest semblance of being on the same team? Of sticking up for your guy, or at least not tearing him down in public? You don’t do it because you like him, or because you’re friends, or even because you want him to win – you do it because you’re on the same team, and right now, it’s supposed to be your team versus the rest of them. It’s part of the job you get paid to do, and part of being a professional is keeping gripes you have about your teammates internal, not airing them to the media or taking them directly to your fans. Everyone slips up on that now and then, but none seem to do so as regularly, pointedly, and maliciously as Astana. For a group that’s rattled on so much about respect over the years, they’re showing precious little of it now that someone else is deserving of it.

Problem 2: Not Reading the Job Descriptions

They’re mad at the race leader for dropping his domestiques? Are we really making this argument again? Listen, Kloden is a high-functioning domestique, but make no mistake, when he’s riding with Contador or Armstrong, that’s his role. Getting dropped is what domestiques are there for, and we have to get over this notion that Contador should be waiting for his at every fork in the road. You don’t hear anyone complaining about how Mark Cavendish (Columbia) rudely dumps Mark Renshaw at the finish of every sprint. Or how Armstrong should have waited up for little Ty-Ty in all those early Tour de France wins. Complaining that your leader, in the yellow jersey, is making it too tough for the help to keep up is like complaining about the Apollo capsule dropping the Saturn V rocket on the way to the moon. It’s absurd.

Problem 3: The Podium Sweep Delusion

Bruyneel’s criticism of Contador (this time) largely consisted of the questionable assertion that Contador ruined the team’s chance at a podium sweep by dropping Kloden before the Schlecks got a chance to. Let’s start with the fact that regardless of how tight a leash they manage to put on Contador, that just wasn’t going to happen. While he’s rapidly proving himself to be the most professional guy in the Astana outfit, Kloden isn’t going to go anywhere in the mountains without a Schleck or two getting there two minutes before him, all things being equal. Yes, the man can time trial, and the Schlecks are indeed kind of terrible at it, but after the Annecy time trial the Schlecks still have the Ventoux to take what they need out of Kloden, and they’ll have the advantage of not having to haul Armstrong up the mountain. And even if Kloden gets the job done while serving both Contador and Armstrong, the sweep scenario still assumes that Armstrong can also get the job done, which is still up in the air after a few hard days in the mountains. If he can't, will that be Contador’s fault, too?

In addition to being a plan destined to fail, screwing around trying to execute the podium sweep delusion could potentially cost the team the outright victory. Look, typically there isn’t much I can tell a director who’s won 12 or so grand tours, but today is an exception to that. So to Bruyneel, I say this: don’t get cute. Yes, I know you’re Belgian, so you probably get cold sweats just thinking about those podium-sweep finishes that Patrick Lefevere used to engineer in the northern classics. But this is the Tour, not the classics, and there are a lot more competing goals in the Tour that could roll right in and make a mess of your carefully orchestrated plan. And regardless of the reputation you’ve forged and all you've accomplished, there is really only so much you can plan for and control, so you better focus on the primary goal.

In his efforts to keep all his ducks lined up neatly in a row, Bruyneel is in danger of ignoring the need to solidify Contador’s less-than-secure margin and blowing the whole thing. At the start of yesterday’s stage, Contador sat 1:46 ahead of Wiggins and 2:26 ahead of Andy Schleck. Two minutes is forgetting to drink in today’s time trial. Two minutes is a bit of inattention on Friday’s transitional stage. Two minutes is a bad patch on Saturday’s Ventoux. It would be a real shame to sacrifice the final yellow jersey because you held Contador back in order to set Armstrong and Kloden up for the podium.

There’s one final disconcerting element to Bruyneel’s sweep idea: if he’s really so confident of his own abilities and those of his aging riders that he thinks he can successfully stage-manage a 1-2-3 finish in the midst of the biggest crapshoot finale the Tour de France has ever seen, he’s truly gone around the bend. But I don’t really think he has. With the announcements of new teams and sponsors, Armstrong at the Tour in 2010, Bruyneel’s separation from Astana, and the rumors of Contador’s Formula One sugar daddy, I think Bruyneel’s just starting next year’s round of screwing with Contador a bit early. I also think he knows damn well he couldn’t have a podium sweep, but that’s not going to stop him from blaming Contador for ruining it.

Race Radio

  • If Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) isn’t wearing a red number today, there’s something wrong with the world. That was the most beautifully ridiculous ride I’ve seen by a green jersey contender, ever. With any luck, Hushovd’s little points-collection outing will shut Cavendish’s trap for a few days. Probably not, though.

  • In the midst of all this griping, I should probably also express my appreciation for the Schlecks. Someone needs to try to beat Contador besides his own team, and they’ve been more willing than most to give it a solid try. They’re not afraid to put the team on the front, and they’re not afraid to attack and see if it sticks. You know, not afraid to race.

  • Are the Astana mechanics in some sort of competition with the Mavic guys to see who can do the slowest wheel change without the rider actually punching them? Mavic set the bar with a downright leisurely change for Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) several days ago, but I tend to give neutral support a little slack since they obviously can’t have wheels gapped specifically for each team in the race. That said, it was still a crap change. Not to be outdone, Astana did everything but have a smoke before they got down to getting Contador’s wheel changed on one of the early slopes today. Sure, the pressure wasn’t really on at the front, but let’s show a little spirit here, boys.

  • Speaking of mechanics, did you catch the Cervelo mechanic pulling alongside Carlos Sastre and emptying a can of spray lube onto his chain? And his derailleur? And his frame? And his rims? That last target must have made for an exciting final descent, but I suppose Sastre is looking for speed anywhere he can get it these days.

  • I don’t know if someone lubed Denis Menchov’s (Rabobank) rims or not, but the guy’s been sliding along every piece of asphalt he can get his ass on. Is the medicine for vertigo on the banned list or something?

  • You know what I want to see? The complete list of all the inappropriate, lewd, offensive and profane messages people have submitted to the Nike Chalkbot. The ones that make it on the road may be inspirational, but I guarantee the rejects are funnier.

What's Up, Doc?

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.

Race Radio
  • 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.

After the Flood

For weeks it’s been a struggle to identify what’s been interesting in this Tour de France, and now, after three short days, we’re left such an abundance of material it’s hard to know where to start. However, after witnessing, and indeed participating in the chorus of fan griping about this year’s signature Delayed Gratification route, I’m not going to risk drawing that sort of heat. So we’ll start with yesterday’s splashy stage to Verbiers, and work our way back to Friday’s fairly uneventful stage to Colmar. That way, this post can mirror the Tour de France we’ve all wanted – one that starts with all sorts of sound and fury, then gradually fizzles out until nobody really cares how it ends, only that it does.

Race Radio

Stage 15 to Verbiers

  • Isn’t it amazing how, when you put off something that’s utterly predictable for long enough, it can become surprising when it happens? Kind of like when a celebrity dies at the age of 96: “He’s dead? Really?” So it was when Alberto Contador (Astana) left everyone in the dust on the final switchback climb to Verbier to take the stage win and the yellow jersey. Congratulations to him for gutting out all the talk and all the miles to get to that point – you could see the emotion on his face on the podium.

  • It was a good thing they showed Contador on the podium at the end of the coverage, because the cameras and commentary were so focused on Armstrong that by the end I’d forgotten who was winning. Armstrong acquitted himself well given his individual circumstances, and that’s not surprising for anyone familiar with him. What was truly impressive was how quickly a fawning media that had been pushing his GC chances and preaching that he “hadn’t lost a step” effortlessly downshifted into continually reciting the full range of those adverse circumstances: “Well, he is 37. Almost 38. And he’s been three, no, four years out of the sport… Collarbone... Team strife…” Yes, guys, those are all legitimate reasons that he was unlikely to be the top guy at this year’s Tour -- and most reasonable, objective people were aware of them before yesterday.

  • Do I believe that people like Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen really believed before yesterday that Armstrong would win the Tour? I don’t know. I do know that they're aware of the audience they’re speaking to with Versus coverage, and their job is to give the people what they want. But I also think they might have started to believe what they were saying, and nobody likes a guy who’s a dealer and a junkie at the same time. It’s not good for business. Now they’ll keep busy reassuring the American public, if not themselves, that he really is still the greatest, so no need to worry about that.

  • If you or I looked at a woman on the street the way Contador looked at Lance Armstrong (Astana) and Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) before he attacked, we’d get slapped. Just saying.

  • Just a coverage note: When everyone that was in a group with Armstrong is now up the road from Armstrong (and Kloden), that’s not “riders from the Armstrong group coming across,” that’s Armstrong getting dropped. Guys, it’s OK – it happens in bike racing. Armstrong knows it. You can say it.

  • Armstrong himself was very upfront about saying that he believed Contador was the strongest and that he most likely wouldn’t win the Tour now. Armstrong’s nothing if not PR savvy, so I’ll be looking for the PR-inspired ride to begin on Tuesday, when I predict you’ll see him playing an artificially obsequious, almost cloyingly helpful domestique to Contador. Which is not to say he won’t be truly helpful. The world has seldom, if ever, seen an athlete so much in control of his image, and to try to cement a good-teammate legacy, I think it’s reasonable to think that he’ll pour all his ample resources and knowledge behind helping Contador win.

Enough about all that though. As I said, the fact that Armstrong couldn’t match Contador and some others yesterday isn’t terribly surprising to anyone who didn’t have their head up their ass. How did everyone else do?

  • A. Schleck and F. Schleck both did well by doing what they could do to limit the damage from Contador. Andy did a fair job of it, coming closest to matching Contador, dropping a lot of other capable folks, and riding himself into the white jersey to boot, though that will be small consolation. Frank gave him great support early on, but wasted a lot of energy trying unsuccessfully to get up to his brother on the later slopes. If you can’t make that sort of junction quickly, chances are you’re not going to be much help when you get there, and Frank should have probably dialed it back earlier to rest up for Tuesday and Wednesday. Andy’s not giving up yet, which is good, because otherwise we’d have effectively seen a three-stage Tour: the opening TT, the TTT, and Stage 15.

  • Brad Wiggins (Garmin)? On a mountain stage? What the hell? Time trialist Wiggins has obviously made a tremendous leap as a climber this year, which is kind of funny since he was pretty incredulous when climber Contador beat him in the opening time trial at Paris-Nice. And it looks as if, like Contador at Paris-Nice, Wiggins has had to address the inevitable dope rumors about his marked improvement in an area that has not traditionally been his specialty. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, eh? Anyways, between Wiggins and Cavendish, this may be the biggest impact a Madison pairing has ever had at the Tour de France. If this trend and the trend towards senior citizens riding the Tour continue, expect Bruno Risi to vie for a top-5 GC placing next year, while Franco Marvulli goes for the points jersey. Seriously, though, people have pointed out that the French are having a great Tour. In all fairness, Great Britian is having a better one.

  • Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) was both right there and nowhere at the same time on the way to Verbiers. It was a good ride, but not twice-second-and-still-a-contender good. Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but Evans better start reconciling himself to a salary cut when his current contract is up, and/or start practicing his bottle-carrying abilities. I just don’t see him getting paid as a sole GC leader after this year.

  • Like Evans, Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), to his credit, rode like Carlos Sastre almost always has -- strongly and consistently. It’s just that last year it was good enough to win the Tour, and this year it isn’t.

  • At the midpoint of the climb, I was starting to think that Liquigas wasted a lot of effort on the approach for nothing, but Vincenzo Nibali made good on their work. If Liquigas keeps its lineup intact, and doesn't pursue some Ivan Basso-centric strategy for next year, Nibali, Kreuziger, and their support crew could make the grand tours pretty interesting next year.
  • Denis Menchov (Rabobank)…wait, what? Who?

Stage 14 to Bescanon

  • The action on this stage, of course, was all the grumbling about why Garmin put men on the front to chase the breakaway that would have given George Hincapie (Columbia) the yellow jersey, for a day, at least. If you haven’t caught up on the stage and on all the finger-pointing afterward, here’s a good recap. You know, it’s easy to dismiss this as just a lot of talking – it’s a sport, Astana, Columbia, and Garmin are three different teams, and nobody’s obligated to calculate things down to the second to give Hincapie anything. But after a week of not-much-to-talk-about, the whole debate was a godsend.

  • Like most, I tend to see it as Garmin not wanting another American/American team in the jersey. It seems petty and ridiculous, but one of the first rules of cycling, and the Tour in particular, is to not do any work unless it’s absolutely necessary. And for Garmin, this wasn’t absolutely necessary from a sporting perspective, so there had to be some other motivation. Garmin DS Matt White claims they were at the front because they’d been caught out twice in late-stage splits and didn’t want to get caught again. That’s good logic for being near the front, but not on the front, and White knows it. Their GC threats Wiggins and Vandevelde could have just as easily been perched behind Ag2r, or just kept Armstrong within a few bikes’ distance and been fine.

  • The most telling evidence that Garmin’s stated motivation wasn’t the true motivation? This, from Armstrong in the linked article: “I asked (David) Millar, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’’

  • The whole brouhaha really made it apparent that there are three teams vying for “America’s team” status. I suppose that’s good in a way similar to what we talked about a few weeks ago. If the petty bickering between the defacto “national teams” gets to the same level as it does in, say, Belgium, then something must be going right for American cycling.

  • After the stage, a disappointed Hincapie seemed to think it was Astana that had done him wrong, but I actually do believe that they rode simply to control the gap, and that they left plenty of room for Hincapie to get the jersey. As Bruyneel and Armstrong pointed out, that would have put a non-threatening rider with a strong team in yellow ahead of Sunday’s stage – a perfect scenario for Astana.

  • Many have pointed out that the leadout Columbia gave Cavendish for the field sprint and green jersey points likely didn’t help Hincapie’s chances either. However, if you look at the approach versus their previous leadouts, you could see the sandbagging they were doing. And if they hadn’t taken control, I think someone else would have, and it would have been faster. I also think that same sandbagging is what got Cavendish relegated later. I don’t think he intended to put Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) into the barriers, but some things, like sprints, can only really be done at full speed, and when you try to do them slowly, it ends badly.

  • If you watched the Versus interview with Hincapie the following day, you know why Hincapie is a pro’s pro. While he stated, and showed, how disappointed he was not to have grabbed yellow, he didn’t point fingers, didn’t put on a bunch of “I’ll get revenge” theatrics, didn’t rise at all to the bait he was offered. Instead, he turned his answers to the great results the team has had at the Tour, and his desire to keep working for the team’s chances. The whole situation served to starkly illuminate the fact that Hincapie is likely winding down his career, and when he’s gone, I’ll miss him.

  • By the way, Sergui Ivanov (Katusha) won the race with a great attack from the break in the waning kilometers. What can you say? The guy is an ox, and is proving to be a far better investment than the reams of foreign talent that his Russian Katusha team hired on for its first season. As the Russian who's delivered the Russian government its only classic win and its only Tour stage so far, life back home must be looking pretty good for Ivanov right now.

  • Speaking of Katusha’s foreign talent, I love that every time they show Pippo Pozzato on screen, there’s something untoward going on. A few days ago, it was him trying to re-dress himself on the bike; this time, it was a group of riders peeing in the background. I can’t wait for Tuesday’s alpine stage, when there will no doubt be mountain goats humping in the background as he’s dropped from the front group.

Stage 13 to Colmar

  • Nice victory by Heinrich Haussler, who’s certainly had a breakout season this year. A lot of people grumble about just how that breakout may have been achieved, and this stage win set those people grumbling even louder since it came in the hills and Haussler is not exactly noted as a mountain climber. Now, I don’t know either way, but looking at just this stage, a classics-ish rider winning a lumpy mid-mountain stage from the long break just doesn’t really rise to the level of throwing the “d” word around. Kind of like Hincapie winning that mountain stage a few years back – yes, it’s outside what you’d expect given the rider’s history, but viewed against the actual situation on the road, it’s not extraordinary.

  • Oh, yeah – turns out Julian Dean (Garmin) and Oscar Friere (Rabobank) got shot during this stage. I did not expect that. Word has it that some kids with an air rifle have been apprehended, and will be given a firm “you’ll put your eye out” lecture. Fortunately, Dean and Friere seem to be fine. It’s certainly not a good thing, but frankly, given the nature of the Tour de France and the nature of young men, I’m kind of surprised that similar things don’t happen more often.

  • Christian Vandevelde (Garmin) to Frankie Andreau on whether or not he’d attack on the Category 1 Platzerwasel climb: “No, no. I’m not going to go on the Schnitzel.” Well played, VDV.

Thanks for reading – I think the lesson I’ve learned this year is that I can’t take the weekends off during the Tour de France. On a weekend like this past one, there’s just too much to catch up with come Monday to do it justice, but hey, we gave it a shot. Now that I’m caught up, though, I’m looking forward to seeing if the sting in the tail of this Tour will make all the waiting of the last few weeks worth it.

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.

Repetition is the Mother of Learning

Repetition is the mother of learning. That’s what my Russian teacher used to say when he made us repeat basic phrases again, and again, and again. Except he said it in Russian. I don’t speak any Russian anymore, and I’m betting Mark Cavendish (Columbia) doesn’t either, but that’s not stopping him from using repetition to teach his competitors a lasting lesson or two. The first lesson, already driven home by the time Wednesday’s stage rolled out, is that he is undoubtedly the dominant sprinter of the season. The second lesson, reinforced yet again by his Stage 11 victory, is that he’s no longer the guy who goes shooting backwards whenever there’s any sort of elevation gain.

It’s a popular theory, of course, the one that says that any hill in a key spot will be Cavendish’s undoing, his Achilles heel. It does have some basis in the history of his early career, and he’s certainly not a proven sprinter on uphill finishes like Oscar Freire (Rabobank), but the notion is becoming more and more dated as the season presses on. In Milan-San Remo, plenty doubted that he’d make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio, but he did, with flying colors, and won on the other side. That performance proved that he can get over the hills on the way to a flat sprint, but still, they wondered, could he actually sprint on an uphill?

Nobody seemed to really know coming into largely flat today’s stage from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau whether Cavendish’s legs could handle the incline. While few would flat-out bet against the man from Man, many sprinters were seeing the little rise to the line as the key to breaking the stranglehold Cavendish has held on the sprint stages. After all, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) and Freire had fought out the victory on the twisting uphill grind into Barcelona, where Cavendish was nowhere to be found. That performance spoke more to the versatility of that pair than the abilities of a pure sprinter, however, and Wednesday’s finish was nowhere near as extreme. Deep down, I’m sure they knew their chances on Stage 11 were still slim, but when you’re being manhandled the way the other sprinters have this Tour, you have to try to find hope where you can get it. A little bit of that hope must have died when Cavendish timed it all right and took his fourth stage win – on the uphill.

Despite all that, I have no doubt that the next time there’s a stage with a little hill near the finish, or with a haul to the line that’s not billiard table flat, the “Cavendish can’t go up” idea will emerge again. Sometimes, it takes a few repetitions to really get it.

Today’s sprint also showed that, while much is made of Cavendish’s kick, his elbows are pretty good, too. Hushovd was kind enough to leave Cavendish a little room as he came around, but Cavendish bought himself a few more inches with a well-timed bump just as he began to move out of Renshaw’s shadow. Considering the difference in mass between the two riders, Hushovd seemed surprisingly willing to yield the space, and I’m surprised he didn’t work a little harder to box Cavendish in behind Renshaw and against the fence.

That said, if Hushovd had pinched Cavendish off, I still don’t think he would have won the stage. In the finale, Tyler Farrar (Garmin) easily came around Hushovd, despite the fact that he had to practically ride sideways as the sprint began to get around a fanned-out Renshaw-Cavendish-Hushovd line. That took him to the left side of the road, just as the road took the last right-hand bend, leaving Farrar to ride all the way back across the road to make the turn. If you reduced the number of riders he had to ride around by even one, the reduction in side-to-side riding distance might have been enough to finally get Farrar across the line first. Unfortunately for him, that’s just me speculating, and not what actually happened. Even without a win, though, this Tour has been a breakout for Farrar.

Race Radio
  • It was surprising to see Johan Vansummeren (Silence-Lotto) in the break today, given that the team has precious few resources to help Cadel Evans later in the race, and Vansummeren is one of their stronger assets. I’m not sure if that means that Lotto is looking for other ways to get their Tour money’s worth besides Evans, or if Vansummeren just asked for a little chance for himself since the Alps are a week away. Either way, I always like seeing Vansummeren ride.

  • On the approach, Columbia did a great job not giving anyone anything for free by jamming everyone up the left side of the road. Now that’s putting it in the gutter.

  • The thing that strikes me about Columbia’s well-drilled leadout is how star-studded it is when contrasted with the comparatively anonymous but purpose-built trains of Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Pettacchi. While they were great leadouts, riders in those squads rarely scored big results of their own, while Cavendish’s train is a group of riders who are standouts in their own right. You wouldn’t think that two world TT champions, a perennial classics contender, a Fleche Wallonne winner, and several others who could be stage contenders themselves could all pull together into what looks and functions like a dedicated leadout team. That they do speaks to something, I’m just not sure what. Cavendish’s ability to deliver on their work? Stapleton’s management? A collective lack of ego?

  • Now that I’ve seen Liquigas try to organize a leadout on an open, flat, straight road, I’m no longer wondering why Danielle Bennati’s nowhere to be found. Those guys don’t need radios to find each other; they need GPS.

  • Did you see Nocentini boogie-ing his way solo up the outside about 3 kilometers from the finish? Now there’s a guy who’s not taking any chances with his yellow jersey: No teammates around to usher me to the front? Ah, screw it, I'll do it myself...

  • No sooner to we mention the relative anonymity of Yauheni Hutarovich (FdJ) here on the Service Course than he bags himself a third place on Stage 11 amidst some pretty exclusive company. With results like that, people will stop getting him mixed up with Pippo Pozzato (Katusha) any time now.

  • Since, by having a blog, I’ve effectively caught up with the en vogue medium of six years ago, I’ve gone the extra step of establishing a Facebook page for it. Now I’m only two years or so behind. If you're into that sort of thing, stop by and tell me what I'm supposed to do with it. Permanent link is up there at the top left.

Clockwork and Clock-Watchers

Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) delivered another sprint win today, but that faint noise you heard wasn’t the tick, tick, tick of his clockwork reliability in the sprints. It was the click, click, click of fans changing the channel or moving on to the next Web site out of absolute, mind-numbing boredom. With any luck, a few of them will tune back in by the time the race hits the Alps in a week’s time.

Viewed in isolation, Tuesday’s Stage 10 was just one of those things that happens in almost every grand tour, that day when nobody feels like racing and other motivations, like GC, are lacking. Granted, a decent portion of the peloton had a bit of a bee in their bonnets about the ASO/UCI team radio ban, but word was that there was no coordinated slow-down in place. And if you’re protesting but won’t admit it, it’s not a terribly effective protest. Regardless of motivation, yesterday’s stage was one of those that makes you question your will to live, or at least your will to watch bicycle racing on television. It happens.

But in the context of this tour, Stage 10 may just be the straw that broke the camel’s back for fans who were on the fence about whether they wanted to follow the race closely or not. Faced with a GC battle that’s gone nearly nowhere for the entire first half of the race, fans had just about convinced themselves that they could seek solace in enjoying the individual stages. Until yesterday. The fact is, individual stages will never hold the excitement of a one-day race, because, well, there’s always tomorrow to try again, and the long-term motivations of a grand tour will always continue to influence – and often deaden – the action on the road. The really troubling thing about yesterday’s stage, though, is that the race isn’t likely to get much better until the race hits the Alps next Tuesday, and another week of rolling around, even considering what could be some decent transitional stages, is a bit too long. Sure, this Tour’s final week could be a real barn-burner, but will anyone still be awake to notice the flames?

There will be, of course, those that claim yesterday’s action, or inaction, was not just a normal, slow day, but rather the result of the decision to suspend use of team radios for the day. They’ll argue that since teams had slower access to information, they gave the break almost no leash in order to play things safe, and that this, surely, will be the shape of things to go if radios are eliminated for good. But those people would be wrong.

A single-day experiment like yesterday’s, particularly on a flat stage with no natural selection points, was just something to be endured, not any indication of what would happen if radios were permanently eliminated. Teams could just sit in and relax, keep the break close, and play it safe, secure in the knowledge that everything would be back to normal tomorrow. Like I said yesterday, if radios axed for good, racing would undergo an uncomfortable adjustment period, where many races could indeed look like yesterday’s. But after that, after everyone realizes that only sprinters will win if the break never goes away (and only a few teams have sprinters that can win), after they realize that riding to keep the race together over hilly terrain will kill everyone by the 80th kilometer, and after they realize that fans will only tolerate slow racing for so long, the sport will adapt. After all, 20 years ago, there was some good, tactical racing, and despite the absence of radios, they never decided to just all hang out together and keep it at 38 kilometers per hour. Once riders are used to racing without radios, with the slightly different techniques and tactics that requires, they’ll go back to racing again.

Race Radio
  • Stage 10 may have been 188.5 kilometers of sheer torture, but the last 5 kilometers were fantastic. During the stage, there was talk that Garmin was going to try to beat Cavendish by going extra-long for the sprint – like from 700 meters. That’s more of a late-race attack than a sprint, but I was shocked when, in the final kilometer, Tyler Farrar (Garmin) appeared to be going for it on the overhead shot. He blew through the Columbia train and seemed to knock Cavendish off his wheel through a few of the closing curves. Then, mysteriously, he seemed to yield Mark Renshaw’s wheel back to Cavendish and then slot in behind Thor Hushovd (Cervelo). If he gave the longball a shot and just didn’t have the legs, then nice try – if what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to try something else, and he did. It didn’t work out, but you know you’re not going to come around Cavendish, so why not? You can see a bit of it here starting at about 2:28. [Correction -- Thanks to commenter Martin for pointing out that it was Garmin's Julian Dean breaking up the Columbia train, with Farrar glued to Hushovd for the duration. Still a nice example of Garmin trying a different approach.]

  • Cavendish, Hushovd, Farrar. What’s happened to the other fast guys? Looks like Danilo Napolitano (Katusha) headed for home last night, and Oscar Freire has been shut out so far, and Danielle Bennati (Liquigas) has been near invisible. Sure, they're somewhere to be found behind the three listed above, but haven't made much of an impression challenging for the win, save Freire on Stage 6. Tough business to be in these days.

  • I’m not one for goofy victory salutes, but I was O.K. with Cavendish’s talking-on-the-phone victory salute in his last stage win since it was an homage to a generous new sponsor. The sunglasses thing yesterday was just pathetic. Not only is it going to get him slapped with the “cocky” label again, it looked like he forgot about it until after the line, remembered, then clumsily almost dropped his green Oakleys, leaving them to be trampled into dust by the peloton. Well-executed showboating can be entertaining. Poorly executed, not so much.

  • On yesterday’s Versus coverage, American viewers were treated to a premier Phil Liggett senior moment, during which, for about 30 full seconds, he repeatedly misidentified Italian Pippo Pozzato, who is famous and rides for Katusha, as Belorussian Yauheni Hutarovitch, who is not famous and rides for Francaise des Jeux. Or maybe he called him Horrach, who at least rides for Katusha – by that point, I was getting a little confused myself. Anyway, Pozzato looked to be removing an undershirt, or was just sorting himself out after relieving himself in someone’s lawn, who knows, but the camera was on him and him alone for quite awhile. If the hair, race number, Katusha shorts, Italian champion stripes on the helmet, and the enormous “Only God Can Judge Me” tattoo across his back wasn’t enough to I.D. him, I don’t know what would be.

  • No French win on Bastille Day this year, though with the Tour success the French are having so far, I doubt they care. One thing’s for sure, though – now that the two “little” French teams, BBox and Agritubel, have both netted significant victories, the pressure will be on for Cofidis and Francaise des Jeux to show something, and quick.

Radio Clash

Apparently, Astana has involved itself in the team radio controversy by organizing a petition against the Tour’s plan to ban team radios on several upcoming stages. Can Astana stand to just stay out of anything? And a petition? Are we in junior high? Are you trying to get teachers to give less homework? Fighting for better food in the cafeteria? For god’s sake, we’re adults – go talk to people instead of having all your friends sign some grimy piece of notebook paper.

Anyway, none of that matters, because you’ll be delighted to know that the Service Course has solved the great professional cycling radio controversy. Don't worry, I don’t suggest going without radios altogether. As the team directors howl every time the debate resurfaces, street furniture has proliferated throughout Europe since the dawn of the team radio age, and the radios are a valuable way to warn riders of approaching hazards. The directors, desperate to keep their voices buzzing in the ears of their charges, have latched onto that “safety” aspect as the most effective argument in favor of keeping radio use intact, but frankly, I just don't see why it has to be the dulcet tones of Brian Holm, Johan Bruyneel, or Matt White telling you there’s a traffic island or a roundabout coming in four kilometers.

So, let the riders keep their receivers and earpieces, but have some neutral party from the race organization or the UCI broadcast information about breaks, gaps, course conditions, and any hazards to all the riders. After all, the directors are either repeating that information from race radio or reading it out of the race bible anyway. It's not exactly a trade secret. By going to neutral safety and race updates, we can get the directors sportif out of the riders' ears and have more interesting, less calculated racing, but still avoid the risk of half the peloton splattered on the statue of some obscure archduke as they plow their way through town. (Additional hollow selling point: “It’s more fair, since everyone has exactly the same information!” Thank me later, UCI.)

Yes, as the directors rightly argue, it probably is a little more dangerous for riders to drop back to the cars to get periodic instructions rather than simply having them beamed directly into their frontal lobes. But when those same directors aren’t constantly watching TV and fiddling with the radio mic, the caravan will be a much safer place, so maybe it all evens out. And when the riders ditch the radios and earpieces for the UCI Broadcasting Service after a few months, you’ll know it was never really about safety, anyway.

Listen, despite my griping about Astana and their petition, I do agree that the decision to ban radios for two stages of the Tour, including today’s stage, is a little silly. As usual, the UCI is demonstrating a dangerous inability to make and enforce a consistent set of rules. As the international governing body, that means deciding on one set of rules that are applied to each event – in this case, radios or no radios – not abdicating again and again to the discretion or whims of individual organizers.

I think that, whatever the ultimate decision on radios is, teams, riders, and racing will adapt. But if the rules change every weekend depending on the race, that adaptation will never occur, which will make races both with and without radios more dangerous. ASO’s decision for this year’s Tour de France – to have two sets of rules during a single event – takes that lack of consistency to even greater heights and, in that context, smacks of gimmickry. The directors are right to question the decision to conduct this experiment at the Tour, even if their chosen argument in favor of keeping radio contact with their riders is easily addressed in other ways. Hopefully, once the teams are done settling the immediate issue, they’ll realize that what’s needed is a broader and lasting solution to the issue, and work to steer the UCI away from its piecemeal and deferential approach. I like my solution, but really, I’ll settle for almost any outcome that’s fairly and consistently applied.

Pyrenean Procrastination

Why take three days to post something about the Tour de France’s trip through the Pyrenees on Stages 7, 8, and 9? Because I take weekends off, and nothing happened anyway.

When this year’s unconventional Tour route was unveiled at the usual lavish ceremony, it impressed observers with the idea that the GC would remain suspenseful until at least the Stage 18 Annecy time trial, and most likely until the vicious Stage 20 ascent of Mont Ventoux. However, between all the champagne and the flashbulbs, what most failed to note was that those two late decisive stages would result in absolutely nothing happening for the first two weeks of the race. Well, with one mountain range down, we’re all well aware of that now, aren’t we?

That’s not entirely fair, of course. While the GC contenders bided, and bided, and bided their time, three riders took outstanding stage wins, a lot of people worked their tails off, and if you ignored the GC battle, or lack thereof, there was some pretty good bike racing in there. And hey, there's always the Alps. Something might happen there, I guess.

STAGE 7: Barcelona to Arcalis

Astana on Arcalis
So, if Lance Armstrong (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his and the team’s energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s smart, heads up riding.

If Alberto Contador (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s worth several interviews worth of indignant grumbling about how it assuredly wasn’t “part of the plan."

That sounds about right.

For something that took only a few minutes and netted less than 20 seconds, Contador’s little escape has drawn a lot of reactions, particularly regarding what it would "do to the team." VeloNews’ John Wilcockson called the move “showboating,” and noted that Contador lost “the respect of most of his teammates.” Bob Roll has been prattling on about the horror and betrayal of a rider attacking on the final climb after his team had ridden tempo all day to discourage other attacks (where have I seen that tactic before?). And Axel Merckx commented via twitter that it was a good attack, but that you need a team to win the Tour. Look guys, I love you all, but what team have you seen that’s riding for Contador anyway? I think he’s realized that the best that following orders will get him is a cut of someone else’s prize money, and even that’s a long shot.

Personally, I’m all for Contador having shaken things up, if only because it revealed that the Astana strategy may be to just ride tempo all the way until Stage 18, and use any energy saved to sow discord in the press and make home videos.

Maybe Adjust the Spare Bike Before You Put It On the Roof
We got to see Levi Leipheimer getting his “seat adjusted” while hanging onto the team car with about 11 kilometers to go to Arcalis, a few kilometers after he unceremoniously splayed himself on the ground along with Cavendish and a few others. Hey Levi, didn’t you get dinged for something similar two years ago? Didn’t that time penalty end up being the difference between second place and third?

The Fashion Report
I know I’m going to be going against the grain here, but I find myself really liking Ag2r’s revised jerseys. While the old jersey design was just another blue and white abomination, the new ones, together with the all-black shorts with white lettering, have a sort of understated retro flair. They're not smack-you-over-the-head retro like Ullrich's Bianchi jersey, but they wouldn’t look out of place, say, riding next to Sean Kelly at the 1986 Paris-Roubaix. That said, I have no idea what that logo is, or what it’s supposed to make me buy (or, in the new lingo, “raise awareness for”)

No, no. The Other Feillu
Way up ahead of all the Astana histrionics, Brice Feillu (Agritubel) won his first professional race on the first mountain stage of his first Tour de France in his first year as a professional. Considering the press have been hyping Remi Di Gregorio (FdJ) as the next great French climbing sensation for two years now, and he’s produced nothing, that’s not too shabby. The name Feillu is more familiar on the flat stages, where older brother Roman contends for the bunch sprints. One climber and one sprinter? Either there are some odd genetics at work in that family, or the milk man has a hell of a finishing kick. Also, now I suppose I have to apologize for calling Agritubel a charity case a few days ago. That’s just great.

STAGE 8: Andorre-la-Vieille to Saint-Girons

There’s really not terribly much to say about this one. I thought Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r) had timed it perfectly with his late race attack of the break, but it was nice work by Luis Leon Sanchez to chase at just the right time to bring it back and then shame Sandy Casar (FdJ) in the sprint. Ag2r and Nocentini also deserve some credit for preserving his yellow jersey – there wasn’t a lot of pressure being applied, but it was sort of assumed he’d just drift off of his own accord, especially after riding in the long break the day before.

The only real GC action, in fact, came from some moderate accelerations by Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank early on. They seemed to be trying to force Astana to chase Andy, since he’s a contender, and therefore force Astana into the yellow jersey before they wanted to. That would make Astana do more work during the following days, and potentially slit each others' throats during the following nights, either of which may or may not be detrimental to their race. It didn’t work, but it was an interesting tactic, and for a few brief minutes I was excited that someone involved in the GC fight was doing something that looked like racing.

Finally, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) grabbed the green points jersey from Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) by taking intermediate sprints before the heavy climbing started. Like I said – Hushovd is savvy and experienced, which should make his green jersey duel with Cavendish’s pure speed an interesting one to watch.

STAGE 9: Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes

I couldn’t help but think that, as it passed through Lourdes at the 139 kilometer mark, this stage really should have taken a right and headed down to Hautacam for a summit finish. As it was, after the potentially crippling Aspin-Tourmalet tandem, we got a 70 kilometer downhill romp into Tarbes, which pretty much sucked any GC interest right out of the stage before it even started. Nothing says “mountain stage” like a 75-rider peloton steaming into town. I think Lance Armstrong (Astana) summed it up best when he told VeloNews, “The tempo was pretty regular as no one really attacked.” Yup.

Fortunately, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox) made it three-for-three for the long break in the Pyrenees, and added some actual racing action to the stage by outlasting the veritable avalanche of riders pouring down at top speed from the Tourmalet. Fedrigo showed great patience and nerve when Pellizotti jumped him into the final turn at 200 meters out, calmly picking up the wheel on the exit and sitting on the Italian for a few meters before re-accelerating to take the sprint. As many have noted, the French are having a great Tour, but it’s also worth noting that this is the second win for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s oft-maligned Gallic-centric squad.

The other standout ride on this stage came from Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate, and this time he stood out because it was actually a good ride, and not just because Phil and Paul love to say “Juan Manuel Garate.” The Spaniard spent the morning in the first chase behind the break, and then spent many of the latter kilometers on the front trying to pull back Fedrigo and Pellizotti in hopes of an Oscar Friere sprint win. Most impressively, he did it all without changing facial expressions.

Slip Slidin’ Away

Mick Rogers (Columbia-HTC) can’t catch a break at the Tour de France, can he? Two years ago, Rogers, riding for T-Mobile, was leader on the road, and riding strongly in the key break of the day on the big mountain trip from Le Grand Bornand to Tignes. But when fellow breakaway David Arroyo (Caisse d’ Epargne) overcooked a turn and went over the guardrail on the high-speed descent of the Cormet de Roselend, Rogers followed, hitting the rail that Arroyo managed to avoid. Though he initially rejoined the lead group, he later abandoned from the pain of a dislocated shoulder.

The loss of Rogers that day was just one element in a disastrous day for the new-look T-Mobile squad that would morph into Columbia the next year. On the road to Tignes, the team also lost then-budding sprinter Mark Cavendish, as well as strongman Marcus Burghardt, completing a striking three-man reduction of forces in a single day. Adding insult to injury, the team’s young German hope Linus Gerdemann surrendered his yellow jersey to Michael Rassmussen (then Rabobank), who also took the stage win in Tignes.

Yesterday, riding his first grand tour since that day, Rogers again hit the deck, ending his GC chances as he finished some 13:14 down on the lead group containing all the major GC contenders. Rogers’ fall this year was certainly less spectacular, coming in a pileup on a greasy roundabout 30 kilometers from the Stage 6 finish in Barcelona.

Though it likely won’t be much consolation to Rogers right now, compared to that day in 2007, things are looking far better, if a little sore, for Bob Stapleton’s team. First and foremost, Rogers completed the stage, and took the start of the stage to Andorra Arcalis this morning. If he can ride out the Pyrenees and heal up a bit, Rogers could still manage to do something for himself later in the race, perhaps in a break on a transitional day.

More likely, however, he’ll be put back to work helping Cavendish preserve his green jersey to Paris. After Thor Hushovd’s (Cervelo) win in yesterday’s uphill sprint on the Montjuic climb, where Cavendish finished 16th, the Norwegian now sits just one point behind the Manxman in the points competition. While Cavendish undoubtedly has the quicker kick in pure fast finishes, Hushovd has experience on his side, having won green in 2005. He's diligent in picking up intermediate points, and also proved he has the resilience to win on the far side of the Tour’s mountains by winning the Champs Elysees stage in 2006. Cavendish may well have that ability as well – it’s just unproven at this point. Either way, though, Cavendish will need the help of his team to either win or eat up intermediate points and keep them out of the hands of the savvy Hushovd.

To that end, compared to the Stage 8 meltdown in 2007, the team has done well to survive a dangerous day with all nine of its men in the race. That’s important for Cavendish’s chances at green in Paris. However, it’s also important to note that, of those nine, there’s not a one of them who isn’t capable of winning a stage, particularly after the GC battle shakes out a little bit more after the first few days in the mountains.

Until Stage 6, it had been a dream Tour for Columbia-HTC, with two stage wins, a good lead in the green jersey competition, the white jersey on Tony Martin, and a stunning show of strength on Stage 3. Now, with their first remotely bad day behind them, it will be interesting to see where they go from here.

Race Radio

  • It’s irrelevant, but looking at yesterday’s finish, I couldn’t help but think that it was tailor-made for an Alejandro Valverde stage win on Spanish soil. Of course, Hushovd winning might indicate that the climb was a little bit too easy for that to have happened, but I guess we’ll never know, will we?

  • I noted a few weeks ago that Garmin has reached the point in its developmental timeline where scrappy near misses weren’t going to cut it anymore. After David Miller’s (Garmin) solo ride into Barcelona yesterday, I may have to scale that thought back a bit, though I’m not going to retract it entirely. Sure, the move came to nothing, as many such moves do, but Miller had the guts to take the reins pretty far out and kept the race interesting. If he’d been eaten up with his former breakaway companions, those kilometers between the last climb and the finish hill would have been just another run-in. Well, except for all the crashing, of course.

  • I wonder if Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) is starting to wish he’d lost that court ruling that let him start the Tour this year. He took another tumble on the way into Barcelona, and while he hasn’t experienced anything catastrophic, the number of small incidents must be wearing on him. So far, Boonen must feel like he's been getting shot with one of those beanbag guns the police use. Yeah, it doesn’t kill you, but it’ll sure piss you off and make you wish you’d just stayed home.

  • Boonen’s crash held up another of the Tour’s hard luck men, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who tossed another 1:02 into the wind by day's end. I doubt that really matters to Menchov though – to be stuck behind that crash, he would have to have been riding pretty far back, like you would if, you know, you didn’t give a shit about your chances. Right now, his only chance at Tour glory is to drop enough time that he’ll be released for a stage win in the final week. And in that respect, he’s doing a bang-up job.

  • Did you see those crowds? From at least 15 kilometers out, it was at least one or two people deep on both sides of the road, and thicker on the corners and final climb. Stages outside of France always seem to do better in that respect – more of a novelty I suppose, and the locals know there’s a slim chance of the race returning any time soon. Of course, it also helps to have native sons of note in the race, as Spain does with Contador and Sastre. The Germans always turned out for Ullrich and Zabel as well.

The Perpetual Neo-Pro

Can it be that Thomas Voeckler (BBox) is really 30 years old? Voeckler turned professional in 2000 at the age of 20, but only entered the broader public consciousness with his stint in the yellow jersey during the 2004 Tour. The product of a fifth stage giveaway break with no true contenders, Voeckler’s scrappy and surprising defense of that jersey for ten days, and the white jersey for four more, made him the talk of the Tour, especially as the GC was largely believed to be a foregone conclusion. Voeckler has never been a GC contender at the Tour, a fact he likely knows better than anyone, but that’s never kept him from seeking out more modest successes in July. In 2005, he grabbed the polka-dot jersey for a day, and last year, he nabbed that jersey again, this time holding onto it for several early stages. But yesterday, Voeckler finally grabbed the prize he wanted – his first Tour de France stage win. And to be honest, he doesn’t look to have aged a day since 2004.

Since that 2004 Tour, Voeckler has taken hold of the “scrappy underdog” label he earned there and parlayed it into a career as France’s lovable little brother of the peloton, a marked cultural break from that country’s prior love affair with the far oilier visage of Richard Virenque. To play the role to perfection, Voeckler has always carefully ensured that he has his heart firmly and self-consciously tacked to his sleeve and a slightly pained, earnestly Boy Scout-ish “I’m really trying my best” expression slapped across his mug whenever the going gets remotely rough. If it weren’t for the layer of stubble that occasionally appears on his chin, a close-up of his pain face could easily be mistaken for a junior taking his first road race ass-kicking.

While the facial contortions always seemed a bit contrived to me, they've certainly seemed to help Voeckler’s public image. But I’d also argue that his image has masked what has been a solidly good – if not flashy – professional career. By the time he wore yellow, he had already won the overall and two stages at the 2003 Tour of Luxembourg as well as the 2004 French national championship, along with a few more minor races. A quiet 2005 followed his Tour breakout, but since then he’s amassed a steady stream of wins in short French stages races, including the overall at the 2006 Route du Sud, the 2007 Tour du Poitou Charentes and the KOM at Paris-Nice, the 2008 Circuit de la Sarthe, and the 2009 Tour du Haut Var and Étoile de Bessèges. He’s also racked up a few stage wins, as well as solid French Cup wins in the 2007 Grand Prix Plouay, the 2008 Grand Prix de Plumelec, and the 2009 Trophèe des Grimpeurs.

No, it’s not the palmares of a superstar, littered with monuments and grand tours, but at 30 years old and in his 10th year in the professional ranks, Thomas Voeckler is no longer the aw-shucks-just-glad-to-be-here caricature of youthful enthusiasm he used to be. He’s a guy who knows how to win bike races, wrapped in the skin of a neo-pro. But while he’s getting older, and better, his expression (a genuine one this time) at yesterday’s finish showed that he still has his enthusiasm for the Tour, and for taking a chance for the big payoff, and I’m glad he finally got it. And when he finally retires – I’m guessing at age 36, at least – it will still come as a shock, if only because we won’t want to believe we’ve aged so much since little Tommy Voeckler wore yellow.

First Cuts

OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t fully account for how much the team time trial would shape the general classification in this year’s Tour, largely because, in a blatant and shocking display of cowardice, I’ve avoided making any GC predictions at all. But just looking at what yesterday’s throwdown did to Cadel Evans’ overall chances was enough to reawaken me to the power and influence of the TTT now that it’s no longer neutered by the fixed time gaps used in its two prior Tour appearances.

Silence-Lotto’s dismal 13th place performance has left Evans sitting in 35th position at this point, though, as always, the placings following the TTT don’t mean much. What does matter, though, is time, and Evans now finds himself 2:59 adrift from the lead, 2:36 of which were lost in yesterday’s team time trial. The big sites can calculate how far back on the true contenders he is for you, but I'll go ahead and tell you it isn't pretty, and for a guy who came second in last year’s Tour by less than a minute, that’s a pretty big blow.

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has never struck me as a particularly emotional man, but if Evans is looking for a shoulder to cry on, Menchov might be a good place to start. The reigning Giro d’Italia champion had a fairly mediocre opening time trial, bled a few more seconds on the great stage 3 breakaway, and then threw himself to the pavement early in the TTT. With its principal motor apparently rattled, Rabobank never really seemed to recover. The team was never expected to be among the top four teams in the TTT, but it should have been fairly close – not finishing 11th and dropping 2:21 in the process, leaving Menchov a yawning 3:52 from the front of the race. Maybe it’s bad juju from having a Russian leader and a Spanish sprinter, or maybe it’s something else, but the Dutch TTT mystique of decades past seems to have finally and completely worn off. Between Rabobank’s 11th place and Skil-Shimano’s DFL, Peter Post must be ready to slap someone.

Losing a couple of minutes early in the Tour de France is, generally speaking, nothing to get terribly weepy over – it’s a long race, and there’s still all of the mountains and another TT left to come. But if you look specifically at the riders expected to fight out the overall, and their capabilities, yesterday’s TTT was likely the death knell for Evans’ and Menchov’s chances. Both riders fall solidly on the time trialist end of the climber-time trialist GC spectrum, and in losing time to riders like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong (both Astana) in the first two races against the clock, and to the Schleck brothers (both Saxo Bank) in the TTT, their serve has effectively been broken. Now, the other contenders will enter their preferred hunting grounds in the Pyrenees and the Alps, and Menchov and Evans will likely adopt their usual “minimize the losses” mountain strategies. Unfortunately, when you’re already behind, minimizing your losses isn’t much of a strategy at all.

Race Radio
  • Rabobank’s bike sponsor Giant may be at the cutting edge of TT bike design, but after Menchov’s last-kilometer crash in the Giro and his solo flailing into the barriers yesterday, they may want to start looking into adding some sort of gyroscope inside that enormous nosecone. Either that, or make Menchov start paying for his own bikes – those things aren’t cheap, you know.

  • It was pretty clear last year that Evans would benefit from less public and media scrutiny during the Tour de France, and this year he's certainly gotten back some of the anonymity he wanted. Unfortunately, while the return of some big names takes some of the heat off, they also seem to be taking some of the top placings off as well.

  • Yesterday’s heads-up riding award goes to Silence-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broek, despite the fact that he wasn’t riding at all when he won it. Van den Broek touched the wheel ahead of him and went down while sitting in second-last wheel, but while sliding at 45kph flat on his back, he managed to look up at the guy behind him, see that he needed room to get through the bike-and-rider mess on the road, and calmly roll himself out toward the curb. That’s some composure while there’s a cheese grater being taken to your spine, and it was probably the highlight of the event for Silence-Lotto.

  • The heads-down riding award goes to BBox Bouygues Telecom for their en masse entry into a ditch on a high-speed right-hander, a veritable wheeled rodeo rendered even more visually spectacular by the enormous cloud of dust it generated. BBox is going to take a lot of flack for that one, but it’s probably a bit overstated. The TTT, more than any other road discipline, requires a laser-like focus on the wheel in front of you, and trust that the person guiding that wheel will pick the right line and speed. When they don’t, there’s a tendency to follow that wheel ahead right to its demise. So while someone certainly screwed up, it’s probably unfair to portray all of BBox as non-bike riding clowns. Besides, if Saxo Bank hadn’t managed to correct as they headed towards the same fate, everyone would have been blaming the course design for the crash, not Cancellara and co.

  • I was surprised to see Mark Cavendish leading Columbia-HTC across the line. At best, pure sprinters can be moderately helpful in a TTT; sometimes, they’re innocuous dead weight; and occasionally they’re just lucky to make the time cut after they’re dropped. But you don’t typically expect to see them powering on the front of a top-five team during the final kilometer. Cavendish seems to place a great deal of value on the work his teammates do for him, so maybe his hard ride yesterday was a bit of payback. While we’re at it, we should mention Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) as another sprinter who can pull his weight.

  • There were numerous falls yesterday, but worst off seems to be Skil-Shimano’s Piet Rooijakkers, who broke an arm. I just hope it wasn’t his punching arm.

Change of Winds

“To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery on the street, no arch-criminal behind it all. If you got a dead guy and you think his brother did it, you're going to find out you're right.”

- Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects

As a conspiracy theorist, I’m not much good. Whether that’s due to a certain lack of creativity in analyzing the news or because I simply don’t look good in tin foil hats, I’m not quite sure. Whatever the reason though, my take on the great Columbia-instigated, Astana-fueled, Lance Armstrong-benefiting, Contador-rattling crosswind breakaway yesterday is surprisingly simple.

I don’t think, as some have postulated, that George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) tipped off Armstrong that his team was going to drill it when they did, and if Hincapie did look to help out an old friend, he probably didn’t need to. Throughout his career, Armstrong demonstrated a well-honed ability to be in the right place at the right time, and not get stuck behind stupid field splits or crashes. Athletic ability may decline at Armstrong’s age, but, if only for my own sake, I’d like to think the mind holds on a few more years, and Armstrong’s is still sharp. On the coverage, you could see him moving rapidly up the left side some 8 kilometers before the right hand turn that took the peloton into the crosswinds.

I also don’t think that Armstrong set out that morning to shiv his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, but hey, when a prison riot breaks out, it’s a good chance to take care of some business, no? While there may not have been a plan in place to put time into Contador and make an early play for team leadership, I do think Armstrong knows an opportunity when he sees one.

The most visible evidence of exploiting that opportunity was the decision to send Astana workers Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovytch into the rotation in the break over the last 10 km, helping preserve the gap to the rest of the field, Contador included. The less obvious sign that Armstrong was seizing an opportunity, rather than just covering a move or protecting himself, is a bit more speculative. Armstrong clearly knew enough to get himself to the front before the peloton made that right hander into the crosswinds, and he had time to get himself and two domestiques up there before the deal went down. What he seemingly did not do was get on the radio to inform the team’s top-placed GC rider to get to the front as well, which is what you would probably do if you were taking the “all for the team” approach to the race.

None of that, of course, was typical behavior of a unified team. Sure, Astana is still polling “undecided” as far as leadership duties are concerned, but Contador’s stomping opening time trial should have earned him a bit of relaxation for a few days, at least until some natural obstacle like a hill or another time trial sorted things out. But a tactical assault on what should have been a GC-irrelevant day, partially fuelled by your own team, is a little bit of a different story than the Astana party line of riding for “whoever’s strongest.” Whoever's smartest, maybe.

So, as most do, I’m willing to believe that yesterday’s shenanigans were an Armstrong play for the top spot, or at least the upper hand in the inter-team mental game. In that respect, they seem to have been reasonably effective. But I’m less inclined to imagine that there was some elaborate, premeditated plan involving blood-is-thicker-than-water and friends-are-thicker-than-teams tipoffs and whatnot. As much as people have been convinced over the years, rightly or wrongly, that every move Armstrong makes is carefully considered, thoroughly vetted, meticulously calculated, and ruthlessly executed, sometimes a bike race is just a bike race. And even without all the perceived maneuvering and head games, Armstrong is damn good at winning bike races.

In closing, and if I can at least wear a tin-foil beanie for a moment, it’s also very possible that it was just a calculated but ultimately harmless move for temporary glory, and that both Armstrong and Contador knew it at the time. With the team time trial today, and Armstrong Astana’s top placed GC rider, there’s a very good possibility that Armstrong will find himself in yellow at the end of the day. That would allow Armstrong, who, remember, will ride into the mountains as a 37-year-old former retiree, at least some token time in yellow for the masses before Contador enters his stomping grounds. Or maybe not – I think the aliens may be scrambling my thought waves.

Race Radio

  • Oh, by the way, Mark Cavendish (Columbia) won again yesterday, so good on him. Yes, the talking-on-the-phone victory salute was cheesy, but I have to give him credit for keeping his head well enough to give new sponsor and cell-phone manufacturer HTC their money shot. The kid knows who pays the bills.

  • With Bjarne Riis spending less time in the team car, has Saxo Bank lost its institutional memory? They’re about the last team I would have expected to get caught out by the whole-team crosswind acceleration, since they practically introduced it to modern cycling back at the 2005 Paris-Nice. Yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara did well to get himself into the move, but his overall chances are somewhat limited, and the Schlecks can’t afford to toss away stupid time like they did yesterday.

  • Several reports noted that Columbia-HTC was made aware of the turn into the crosswind section by Eric Zabel, who serves as a consultant to the team and coach to Cavendish. Zabel apparently rode the closing kilometers of the course and called in course conditions to the team car. It makes for a more interesting and earthy tidbit that it was the legendary Zabel that provided that key piece of information from the seat of a bicycle, but the truth is, every team sends a ton of people and equipment up to the finish of every stage, and you don’t have to be on a bike to know which way the wind blows. The other teams need to tell the soigneurs to pay attention while they’re driving from the second feed zone to the finish.

  • Skil-Shimano did well to place four men in the break, and they were up there pounding it out with Columbia for the duration. They even tried their hand with a last minute attack. I know a few people are trying to figure out what their motivation was, and again, I think it’s simple. When you’re a wild card team with no GC threat, your job is to show up and ride hard. So far, they’ve been doing a far better job of it than eternal charity case Agritubel.

Sticking to the Script

Most Tour de France previews, at least those that are published on nice glossy paper, are outdated by the time they hit readers’ mailboxes. That’s not an indictment of the work that goes into them, or of anything really, it’s simply a matter of long printing lead times combined with the reality of Tour rosters, politics, and court cases that continue to evolve right up until that first rider rolls out of the giant hot dog explosion. (Or is it some Birth of Venus thing? I’m torn.) Sure, there’s a good chance the dates and route maps printed in those previews will still be accurate when July rolls around, but the rest is a little more speculative.

Take the 2004 Tour, for instance, when Matt White, warming up for his prologue ride, slid out on an electrical cable cover and broke his collarbone, sending reserve rider Peter Farazijn on a police-escorted 200km road rally across Belgium to fill in. Farazijn is probably the only rider in the modern era to start the Tour with a few beers in him, and for that alone we love him, but that’s not the point. The point is that every magazine is obligated to do their preview and to speculate about rosters and the roles each rider will play, but doing so is like laying down a bet on the Superbowl after the first playoff game. You have a little information, and you have to try to pick a winner. Unfortunately, you’re just not quite sure who’s playing yet.

But the first two days of this year’s Tour? Those were a gift to those poor sots who, with some hesitation, put their pencils down back in May and gave the order to roll the presses. A 15.5k opening time trial? Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) sounds like as good a bet as anyone. Second stage likely to end in a sprint? Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) is pretty much the only name you should write down. Those two prognostications had all the risk of picking Armstrong as a Tour contender in the early half of this decade, but I can’t say I blame anyone for making them. They were correct, of course, and besides, there’s plenty more stages, attrition, and dramatic collapses waiting in the wings to make a mockery of late race predictions.

While the clockwork reliability of Cancellara and Cavendish certainly endears them to people like pundits, team directors, and sponsors, it doesn’t make for particularly exciting news when they win. We all expected them to win, and they did. So I don’t have much to say about that, except to say nice job and just call a bit of attention to all the hard work those guys have to do to make it look so easy come race time. I’m also going to try to avoid the trap of demanding that they notch further victories or continue to win by greater and greater margins to “keep it interesting” or “dominate.” In an era that’s conditioned to value repeat wins, I think it’s worthwhile to remember what an accomplishment each stage win is. After all, numerous bars and cafes have been opened in small European towns on the strength of a single Tour stage win, the story of which is undoubtedly recounted over the rail every year around this time.

That said, nobody will be surprised to see either man on the stage winner’s podium again later in the race.

Race Radio

  • If you’re trying to make a case that Lance Armstrong’s (Astana) opening time trial performance was a good sign (and I think you could argue either way if you were so inclined), I’m not sure comparing his performance to Kim Kirchen’s (Columbia-HTC) is the best way to go about it. Some of the other points are good, but that one rings particularly hollow, as Kirchen’s status as a GC leader holds all the same weight as George Hincapie’s in 2006. It’s a small point in the context of the article – less than 10 words worth – but the fact that it’s made at all seems a bit like “protesting too much.”

  • Really, after all these years and all those tears, nobody double checks David Miller’s (Garmin) time trial bike before the start? In a post time-trial chat with Versus, Miller noted that his swashbuckling slide around one of the TT course’s hairpins wasn’t a stylistic choice, but rather due to a malfunctioning front brake. The lack of front stopping power led him to honk on the rear brake to scrub speed, causing to a slide that probably put a nice flat spot in what I’m guessing was a pretty pricey tubular. To his credit, Miller recovered well and only mentioned the brake issue in passing, rather than whining about it.

  • If Miller finds a good mechanic, maybe he can help an Anglophone brother out and send him Mick Rogers’ way. The Columbia-HTC Australian apparently dropped his chain twice on the opening climb on the way to a 27th place finish. Miller debuted the dropped chain schtick in a TT a few years ago, and followed it up with a disintegrating disk wheel and a broken chain on a road stage. If Rogers wants to catch up to Miller in the mechanical sweepstakes, he's really going to have to come up with his own signature move.

  • TV commentators often talk about all the banging that goes on in the final kilometers of a sprint stage, but it can be hard to pick out on the live shot. Not so with yesterday’s feed of the finale, which for some reason made all the grabbing, elbowing, and head butting exceptionally clear. The overhead shot also made Cavendish’s blistering finishing kick abundantly clear for those two or three people out there who didn’t already believe in it. Once Mark Renshaw (Columbia) completed his textbook leadout and Cavendish hit the front, Cavendish just rode straight away from Tyler Farrar (Garmin), who was sitting in ideal position on Cavendish’s wheel. Usually, the guy in second wheel can at least get as far as pulling out into the wind to make a try, but not this time. That Farrar gained and held that position in a finale that could be inadequately described as a “hectic” speaks volumes of how well Farrar has come along in his abilities, but there’s not much you can do against a kick like that.

  • Skil-Shimano’s Piet Rooijakkers smacked Cavendish around a bit with 2 kilometers to go, but apparently only after Cavendish gave him a little jersey yank. In the end, most people seem content to put AG2r’s Lloyd Mondory on the tail end of the “he hit me first” blame chain and move on. Sure, none of it’s particularly sporting, but isn’t it comforting to have another Dutchman out there punching people during sprints again? Somewhere up there, Michel Zanoli is smiling.

  • VeloNews' Chuck P. has apparently been dinged from Lance Armstrong's Twitter feed. It's pretty early in the Tour for Charles to be adding such achivements to his already outstanding palmares. I just hope he's saving something for the final week.

  • Yes, I do know who won Stage 3, and how. But since this site is still just getting rolling and can use all the traffic it can get, I see no point in angering the TiVo freaks by talking about it just yet. And I apologize for calling you freaks.