Raceable Moments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brought to you by DIRK HOFMAN MOTORHOMES!*

My Tivo cut off the last several kilometers of yesterday’s stage to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. At the time, it was frustrating, and I cursed the damn thing and it’s seemingly non-existent understanding of bicycle racing, but once I was able to see the final kilometers, I realized my dear Tivo was really just trying to save me 20 minutes.

Like so many things in life, Stage 17 didn’t quite live up to the hype, at least from the heavily worked “final showdown” angle. To many, it seemed that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) had quaffed some sort of psychotherapeutic Pepto Bismol to quell the anger in his stomach. And Alberto Contador (Astana), having keyed in on the readily apparent truth that people hate it when he attacks but love hollow dramatic gestures, holstered his pistola, made the peloton wait for Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel), and gave away a stage win. Could it be that Contador is finally getting his head around this whole PR business? Because after yesterday’s charm onslaught, if he promises lower taxes and reduced unemployment, he could be well on his way to public office.

But before we get too down on Stage 17, let’s remember that it’s been one of the first excitement deficiencies of this Tour. The start on the narrow roads of the Netherlands, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the Ardennes all lived up to their billing, one way or another. The Alps showed us the fall of Armstrong, the struggles of Evans, and the tenacity of the French; the Pyrenees brought more of the same, plus the drama of the chain drop, the last waltz, and Jens Voigt on a circus bike. Remember last year, when nothing happened for two solid weeks? Yes, this year’s battle for yellow has been, with one glaring exception, a fairly uninspiring case of waiting and waiting some more, lasting so long that now all we have to wait for is a final time trial. And let’s face it, those final time trials are only truly climactic once every 10 years, and I’m doubting that this is that year.

Which isn’t to say that the last few days of this Tour won’t feature some interesting racing. By the time this is posted, we will have seen another green jersey showdown in Bordeaux, and depending on how the sprinters have come through the mountains, the tight battle between Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) and Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) could carry all the way to the finish of the world’s greatest criterium on Sunday. And though I like to dismiss time trials, Saturday could produce some surprises as well. I think it’s a given that Denis Menchov (Rabobank) will overtake Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel) to take the third spot on the podium, provided he can keep his TT bike upright. What I’ll be interested to see is how close he can come to Schleck and a Contador who many seem to doubt will be the same as the Contador we saw in last year’s TT closer. Nearly four minutes is a huge gulf, so I don’t expect Menchov to get across it, but the final podium spread could be a lot closer than it is now. The other thing I’ll be on the lookout for is whether Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) can improve on his current 8th place standing. While 6th place Robert Gesink (Rabobank) might be too far afield at 2:37 up, 7th place Joachin Rodriguez (Katusha) might be accessible at a 2:15 advantage.

The other final question to be answered, assuming all works out as people assume it will? How gaudy will Contador's Champs Elysees bike and kit be?


  • At 32 years old, with your Rabobank contract up, young Dutch teammate Robert Gesink sitting safely inside the top-10 on GC, and countryman Vladimir Karpets failing to live up to expectations, Mr. Denis Menchov, smile and say, “Hello, Katusha!”

  • Even if the (second) Tourmalet stage didn’t have all the action fans had hoped, at least it had a lot of hairy, nearly naked dudes. Did you see Andy Schleck crack a smile right when the Borat trio fell back? He has such a Boy Scout image, it felt almost like he knew he wasn’t supposed to smile and tried his best, but he couldn’t help it.

  • I know I said we shouldn't get down on Stage 17, but damn, if that wasn't the case for bonus seconds on mountain stages in a nutshell, I don't know what is.

  • It took a long time to dawn on me, but this year’s route gave the RV people of the Tourmalet a two-fer. Watch Stage 16, hang around, drink, or ride away the rest day, then watch Stage 17 come back the other way. End result? That mountain is going to smell like urine until about a week before the next Tour comes through.

  • Halfway up the Tourmalet, Omega Pharma-Lotto still had Mario Aerts and Matthew Lloyd in the main group with Jurgen Van den Brouke. It was an astounding effort for a team whose lack of high mountain prowess was near legend during Cadel Evans’ tenure as the GC hope, and I have to wonder if it chaps him a bit that the boys seem to have a bit more bottle now that they have a Belgian leader to support. And it’s not that Omega has a drastically improved mountain roster. Some of Evans mountain support during his tenure at Whoever-Lotto? In 2007, he had Aerts and Chris Horner. In 2008, Aerts again. In 2009, he had Matthew Lloyd and Van den Brouke. If it’s been a matter of motivating the troops, I think Evans’ performance this year will serve him well in the future.

  • Sheep! And people wonder how cycling’s different from other sports…

  • A note to ASO: You successfully manage a portable city, your own air force, a mobile circus, and what I can only assume is enough bureaucratic red tape to circle the globe. So I know you can get 10 kilometers worth of metal fencing up a mountain. Don’t get me wrong, I love those tunnel-of-humanity, wall-of-sound images from the Alps and Pyrenees as much as the next guy – they can literally give me goosebumps from 3,000 miles away. But I also like it when the riders have enough room to attack in the last 5 kilometers of a mountain stage. You know, if they decide they’d like to.

  • Though he’s won the points competition at the Giro d’Italia in the past, I never thought I’d see Petacchi really contest the green jersey at the Tour de France. It’s been refreshing over the last few years to see the super-sprinters go after the green, rather than leaving it to the more versatile O’Gradys and Frieres of the peloton. I like those guys just fine, but having the top fast men in the running lends more credibility to the jersey. Too bad that Petacchi looks to be getting sucked into a new Italian doping investigation, so it may all yet implode.

  • Hats off to Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) for giving an astute and malice-free assessment of the great chain drop issue on Versus two days ago, and for, thank goodness, asking for people to stop to all the “waiting” talk. Frankly, I didn’t think he had it in him, but he did. Carlos Sastre had some similar, if more strongly worded thoughts on this year’s great ethical debates, while Hesjedal wins the Editors Award for Brevity with his assessment of the Great 2010 Waiting Debate: “If you draw your sword and drop it, you die.”

  • While everyone was focused on the whole Schleck versus Contador etiquette issue, many (except those in Ireland) missed the great Nicolas Roche (AG2r) versus John Gadret (also AG2r) issue on the same stage. Seems that on the Port de Balês climb, Roche had a front flat, and his assigned minder Gadret refused to give up his wheel, rode on, and then attacked to top it off, riding fairly obviously for the unofficial “top Frenchman” GC placing. As Roche describes, AG2r director Vincent Lavenu was screaming at Gadret – both on the radio during the stage and on the bus afterwards – that he was supposed to help Roche defend his top-15 classification spot, not leave him on the side of the road with a flat and ride for himself. Given the situation though, I have to wonder if some of Lavenu’s scolding was done for Roche’s benefit. At a French team like AG2r, it would be understandable if it were determined that “first Frenchman” was more valuable than a top-15 GC placing by an Irishman. At the same time, Roche is shaping up into quite a talent, so Lavenu can’t afford to alienate him by backing Gadret.

  • I’ve seen a few assertions that, since the French fans are booing and whistling at Contador, it’s pretty obvious he was in the wrong. Really? Why? Because they’re French people and they’re at the Tour de France? Do you assume Americans at the Super Bowl are experts on professional (American) football? While I know there are some are particularly knowledgeable French fans, remember that for the most part, the people watching the podiums and stage starts are just that – fans, probably of widely varying degrees – or curious locals, or people on vacation, just like you or I would be if we were there. Believe it or not, being French, just like (gasp!) being Belgian, does not automatically confer immense cycling wisdom on a person, nor automatically validate (or invalidate) their opinions. I'm probably preaching to the choir, though, because if you’ve found your way to my little corner of cycling, you’re probably capable of forming your own opinion.
*Not really, but something tells me Dirk Hofman doesn't mind a little free advertising from time to time.

Invisible Men and Unwritten Rules

Before we get into the trackstanding, shadowboxing, chaindropping, non-waiting shenanigans amongst the GC contenders over the last several days, let’s spare, if we can, a moment for the stage winners.

On Sunday, Christophe Riblon (AG2r), a 29 year old Frenchman, scored what’s become one of my favorite kinds of Tour victories. In attaining his dramatic win at Ax-3 Domaines, it was, of course, admirable that he struck out in the early break, persevered, and played his cards right (and had a few cards fall his way, too). It was a great ride, and it’s by far the biggest result of his five-year professional career. And I certainly enjoy all of those aspects of his win. Going beyond the feel-good story, though, I like victories like Riblon’s for a different reason. They remind us of the existence of the unseen multitudes of the peloton, those riders who aren’t stars, child prodigies, right-hand men, countrymen, or even likely winners. Most of the time, they’re doing donkey work hauling bottles for team leaders who aren’t even top contenders themselves. But every once and awhile, one of them – like Riblon – makes himself seen.

When they do appear, it can feel as if they’ve suddenly popped up out of nowhere, like their mothers packed them into the back seat of the family Citroen that morning and dropped them off fresh at the Tour de France with a pan au chocolate in their hand and a good luck pat on the back. But we know that’s not the way it happened, and that’s part of the magic. With wins like Riblon’s on Sunday, we’re reminded that those invisible riders have, in fact, been there on the Tour all along. Though he’s probably crossed our screens hundreds of times, we never really got to see Christophe Riblon. But he was there: He rode the prologue. He descended the greasy slopes of the Stockeau. He banged over the cobbles of the north. He crossed the Alps. All in anonymity, until one revealing day on the Port de Pailhères.

So was this some sort of starting point for Riblon? Will Ax-3 Domaines be that key win that lends unstoppable momentum to some nascent morale or confidence, leading to more triumphs? Hell if I know. And back in 2004, we didn’t know how grabbing the yellow jersey for 10 days would affect little Thomas Voeckler, then the underwhelming 25-year-old champion of France. As it turned out, that little stint in the public eye – and the dogged determination he showed during it – suited Voeckler well, maybe even made him a better rider. Since becoming the spunky little brother to all of France in the 2004 Tour, he’s evolved into a capable stage winner, a hunter of mountains classifications points, and a contender in the French classics. He’s 31 now, no young pro anymore, but seeing him winning at the Tour again in the bleu-blanc-rouge today at Bagnères du Luchon was like seeing a sort of homecoming, or a flashback depending on your own personal history. I suspect it’ll feel the same if he does it again at 35, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.

As for Alexander Vinokourov’s win in Revel the day before the French double header described above, I enjoyed it. When I watch Vino ride, the expression that Bostonians had for longtime Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramirez’s sometimes questionable behavior always springs to mind: "it’s just Manny being Manny." Saturday’s ride was just Vino being Vino: impulsive, exciting, and committed. It’s something the grand tour formula of recent years has often been missing. As for those who don’t find much to love in the win given his history, I get that. The way I see it, though, the sport's governing body can set rules and demand that those caught breaking them serve suspensions as punishment. But it can’t demand remorse. I suppose fans can demand it in their own way, and in Vino’s case, a good number certainly are. But if that remorse isn’t genuine, what’s the point? Frankly, I just appreciate that he’s not bullshitting us with the daily self-flagellation of faux regret. We all know what happened – I just assume get on with it.

And now, on to debates over gentleman and scoundrels, chivalry defrocked, and traditions of the ages rent asunder. Or maybe we'll just talk about that whole dropped chain thing. I haven’t really decided yet.


  • Earlier in the Tour, I’d noted that I hoped Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) wouldn’t win a farewell Tour stage because I couldn’t face the inevitable years of “was it a gift?” debates to follow. And I have to admit, I was so focused on my fear of that debate that I was blindsided when, by noon today, I was hit by the unexpected launch of must be at least six years worth of “should he have waited?” online blather. Well that’s just great. Now we have that and global climate change to look forward to.

  • Me? I’m not terribly offended by the way things went down on the Port de Balês today. It is certainly regrettable that Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) lost time and his yellow jersey due to a mechanical problem. And yes, I said “due to a mechanical problem,” and not “due to the scurrilous treachery of that bastard, non-English speaking Spaniard, Alberto Contador” for a reason.

    Look, I understand that the whole chivalry and etiquette aspect of cycling is a dear tradition, and many of us, me included, take pride in that element of our sport. It's refreshing that ours is not a win-at-all-costs game. But it is still a sport, not a tea party, and maintaining proper manners at all times really isn’t the primary goal. Which is to say that, on occasion, I think we tend to get so caught up in our precious “unwritten rules” of cycling we forget how those rules mesh with what’s going on out on the road. We expect certain behaviors from riders in certain situations that we, as fans, have reduced to some trite phrase, like “wait for the yellow jersey.” But for riders, those situations are considerably more immediate, more complex, and more weighty. Adding to those unrealistic expectations, in the wake of events like today’s, there’s often a rush to regurgitate highlights of relevant case law and apply it to the current situation – all without considering what the situation on the road was when those gentlemen of yesteryear waited, or didn’t wait, as the case may have been. Point in the Tour, point in the stage, state of the race, parties involved, parties’ past history, time gaps at the moment – all conveniently ignored in the name of trying to find the angle that supports whatever conclusion has already been formed about the current situation. It all just creates a self-reinforcing cycle of unrealistic etiquette expectations on riders who are, after all, riding at anaerobic threshold and trying to win a goddamned grand tour.

    So where should we draw the line on etiquette, specifically on the whole “waiting for yellow” debate that seems to be all the rage? Here’s what I think. If everyone’s rolling piano down the Normandy coast and the yellow jersey flats or rides himself into a ditch with 70k to go? Yeah, ease off the pedals a bit until he’s back on, or at least don’t attack looking for some GC seconds. But if you’re 3k from the top of the final climb of the second stage in the second set of mountains, the win is on the line, and the attacks have started? I’m sorry, but at that point it’s game on and you can't expect too much courtesy. If the situation allows, it would be nice to call a little truce, but I’m not so sure there’s dishonor in not doing it when the momentum of the race has swung so drastically towards fighting out the finale. At some point, you just have to let the boys race their bikes, and stop worrying about who didn’t fold their napkin the right way before they put it back in their lap.

    Even those more lenient guidelines, of course, assume that the riders involved know enough about what the hell is going on to make a conscious decision. And that’s a big assumption. When you’re on the rivet, crosseyed and flying up some thin-aired mountainside, simultaneously looking for seconds against the guy in front of you, guarding your own seconds from the two guys behind you, and launching your next move, I’m guessing things aren’t quite so clear as they are when you’re drinking a beer and watching the eighth slow-mo replay of the incident on your trusty Tivo. Yes, yes, they have radios, da da, da da, da da, and as much as “radio not working” is often used as an excuse for inappropriate behavior, the whole television-to team director-to rider relay system isn't nearly so perfect as some like to imagine. And the riders having the relevant information doesn't always mean they'll arrive at the same decision we would.

  • You know what I think the really unfortunate part of today’s scandal-ette was? (I’ll warn you, my view won’t be the same as Andy Schleck’s.) I think it’s unfortunate that Contador gave people who’ve bought into two years of the Armstrong/Bruyneel “Contador’s a jerk” drumbeat something to grab onto. Do I believe Contador's actions today were some cheap, underhanded move? No, but if you’ve been conditioned to think he’s a cheap, underhanded guy, it was certainly close enough to confirm those beliefs, as well as sway a few folks on the fence, too.

  • Interesting to note that reaction to the incident from the sport's old hands -- riders like Bernard Thevenet, Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon, and even Schleck DS Bjarne Riis -- was a decided "ehhhh...it wasn't that bad." So much for "this never would have happened in the old days."

  • SRAM has boots on the ground at the Tour de France, outfitting relevant folks on their sponsored teams with snazzy limited edition yellow-accented Red groups and doing all those other sponsor liaison types of things, I assume. In between exchanging pleasantries with the talent, however, might I suggest that they stop by the Saxo Bank mechanics' truck and start slapping some folks around? Between Cancellara and Breschel's brake rub issues at the Classics and Schleck's little issue today, they're kind of taking a beating on PR.

  • I thought I’d make a little addendum to the part way above about Riblon and invisible riders, just to acknowledge the fact that riders that are invisible in some countries may not be so invisible in others. For all I know, Riblon is the Brent Bookwalter (BMC) of France, writing an online diary or doing interviews in his regional or national press that have had people checking the paper every morning to see how he fared that day. Now that we know about Riblon, maybe we’ll hope that someday soon, Bookwalter will suddenly be revealed to the French. He certainly woke up the Italians a few months ago.

  • I have to hand it to them, Versus is nothing if not adaptable in their pandering. With their big draw Armstrong down on the standings and leaving this big attack everyone’s expecting mighty late, the American channel has quickly adopted a strategy to really focus on the teams competition, where Armstrong’s Radio Shack squad is apparently locked in a tight battle with Caisse d’Epargne. We’re not sure yet if Caisse is aware they're locked in a battle, or whether they're just trying to win a stage -- nobody's bothered to talk to them about it, preferring instead to let Bruyneel bloviate on a new topic. That's really just me being facetious, though: there's actually a pretty good chance that the Spaniards at Caisse has heard of the teams competition, and since, as Phil Liggett was fond of pointing out until just a week or so ago, it's just sort of a booby prize that only Spanish teams ever really take an interest in. Anyway, with limited RadioShack straws left to grasp at, the teams competition is suddenly the biggest thing going on Versus, including much posturing about Armstrong’s role in it. If Armstrong is seeking to play a role in an unprecedented intentional, non-Spanish assault on the teams classification, he’s been a late convert to the cause. The teams competition takes the times of the teams’ top three riders on each stage, and today’s stage marked the first time since Stage 9 that Armstrong was one of RadioShack’s top three riders on a stage. (For the record, Armstrong was RadioShack's was second man on Stage 9; eighth man on 10, sixth man on 11, fifth man on 12; seventh man on 13; fifth man on 14; and third on 15.)

  • For me, Denis Menchov (Rabobank) has been one of the unsung revelations of this Tour. Yes, he’s won three grand tours already, so it’s tough to be a revelation, but his ability to follow the sharp accelerations of riders like Contador, Schleck, and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in this Tour feels like a new addition to the skillset of one of the more time-trial dependent GC riders. If Contador and Schleck haven’t learned anything from their absurd level of man-to-man defense the last couple of days and keep screwing around, they could well let Menchov back in the race before the time trial. The rumour mill says Contador isn’t as sharp as last year, and if that’s the case in the TT, this week’s Menchov could pull of a surprise.

  • Today’s Official Service Course Gerard Vroomen Twitter watch was a mixed bag, as he first took a well phrased stab at Contador: “Contador just gained a great chance to win, but he lost the chance to win greatly.” But later, he mellowed a bit, conceding, “Alberto has a tiny point: Schleck didn't wait for him after the cobblestone crash so complaints about fair play ring hollow.” Damn it, Gerard, you’re taking the fun out of it.

Door Prizes

So, where were we before that little side trip into the shady world of business dealings, paper trails, and speculation? Oh yeah: we were in the midst of the week of slamming doors at the Tour de France. After beginning in Rotterdam widely hailed as one of the “most open” Tours in recent history, and remaining more or less that way for just about a week, things have become decidedly more closed since last Sunday.

First to have the GC door closed in his face was Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who’s unceremonious demise on Sunday’s Stage 8 to Avoriaz we’ve already addressed. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Cadel Evans (BMC) also saw his Tour hopes slammed shut the same day, despite riding his way into yellow at the end of it. The damage from his early crash went well beyond the visible grazes that he seemed to shrug off, and two days later, the chipped elbow he'd quietly sustained left him to a brave, emotional, and ultimately unsuccessful struggle on Stage 9 to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. By the finish line, his jersey was eight minutes gone.

Not that it was any consolation for Evans, but he wasn’t alone in getting locked out on Stage 9, as Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) played a brief game of cat and mouse before joining forces to all but eliminate the rest of the GC contenders. From grand tour mainstays like Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), to outsiders like Brad Wiggins (Sky) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), to upstarts like Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma), everyone got popped for a few minutes by the dynamic duo, with very few visible prospects for getting the lost time back between here and Paris. And bang, the "open Tour" became a two man race for GC, barring any surprising turn of events.

The last door slamming of the week was also the most obvious, when in the Stage 11 sprint HTC leadout man Mark Renshaw slammed the door on Garmin's Tyler Farrar so hard that I’m surprised Farrar doesn’t have a broken nose to go with his wrist. Within a half-hour of the finish, Renshaw’s move gave us a metaphorical door slamming two-fer, as the officials sent him packing from the Tour with a hearty “don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.”

As the saying goes though, god, or race officials, as the case may be, never close a door without opening a window, and this week’s various slammings will also open up some different opportunities in the final week. A more stable GC race could let the opportunists play a freer hand, Armstrong’s weeklong time-hemorrhaging effort may give him some breathing room for a final send-off stage win, the ejection of Mark Cavendish’s pilot fish might lend a different look to the sprints, and Contador and Schleck’s narrowing of the field sets us up for some great potential mano-a-mano battles in the Pyrenees.

  • Why the 2010 Tour was billed as an “open Tour” for GC purposes in the first place, and whether that was accurate, is debatable. From where I’m sitting, I’d say there were two contributing factors. First, it’s in everyone’s best interest to bill every Tour as “open,” because it’s hard to boost readership/viewership/enthusiasm by advertising an unabashed trouncing. (Though I suppose you could argue that Versus did just that from roughly 2000-2005.) This year, there were just enough reasonably adept GC contenders to make the label a little more believable. Second, it seemed like in the weeks leading up to the Tour, a Contador win seemed to have become such an unconscious foregone conclusion that people stopped talking about him altogether – that is, in the talk about all the possible challengers for the crown, the current wearer of it was largely forgotten. I’m not saying Contador’s a shoo-in in Paris, but the extent of his previous domination seemed to be largely forgotten during the “open Tour” buildup.

  • I made some smarmy comment awhile back about how FDJ was a long-running team because they fly their national sponsor’s flag at national French Cup races all year, every year, and not because Sandy Casar manages to bag a Tour stage every eight years or so. Well, shut my mouth…

  • Watching the scenery roll by in the Alps, instead of paying attention to the racing like I should, I’m was struck with three thoughts: 1) I need to buy an RV dealership in France. 2) Who are these people who cheer from inside their cars and RVs? If you’re not even going to get out of the damn car for the three minute span when the leaders and the peloton go by, why the hell have you been sitting on some godforsaken mountain for two days? 3) The guy inside that no-mold water bottle costume must just be dying of the heat.

  • I’m sure a lot of people saw Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne) hand fellow Spaniard Contador (Astana) a bottle as Contador and Schleck came ripping by him on Stage 9. In a sport where a lot of little favors are done along national lines, all I can say is, poor Andy Schleck. Not a lot of company from Luxembourg with his brother and Kim Kirchen on the bench and Benoit Joachim missing in action.

  • There are a lot of complaints flying about Euskaltel-Euskadi riders not knowing how to ride bikes. By and large that may be true, but Sammy Sanchez is certainly an exception.

  • In the closing kilometers of Stage 10, I was all-in for Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne). It’s not that I have any extensive knowledge of his abilities in that situation versus those of his breakaway companion Sergio Paulinho (Radio Shack). It’s just that I make such bets according one simple maxim: never bet against an Eastern European in the long break. Especially an Eastern European with a flowing mullet waving in the breeze. Sure, it’s wrong every once in awhile, as Paulinho proved, but on the average, it works out pretty well. I’m hoping notorious headbanger Pavel Brutt (Katusha) will put me back on even terms next week.

  • As for Nicolas Roche’s (AG2r) late move in the fairly cruise-ey Stage 10 procession behind Kiryienka and Paulinho, I have to agree with Whit – it was a little cheesy. Not illegal, not baffling, not unforgivable, just…cheesy.

  • Yeah, yeah, most people think Renshaw’s Stage 11 ejection was about the head butts. It’s a reasonable stance, especially since that’s the cause officials cited in their early quotes on the ejection. While Renshaw giving Dean the noggin was pretty damn noticeable, I’m betting he could have gotten away with it if he stopped there. Boys will be boys. But when he looked at Farrar and then rode him into the barriers, I’m guessing the balance tipped against him. Neither infraction might have been enough on its own, but together, they made a defensible case for an early exit.

  • The Renshaw ejection is obviously a hot topic, mostly on whether sending him packing was justified or not, but also regarding what the penalty system should be. As many have rightfully pointed out, relegation is irrelevant to a leadout man, so what are you left with? I’ve seen arguments from several different sources for a more formalized sort of yellow card/red card system where warnings or fines (the yellow) would precede stiffer penalties like ejection (the red). I don’t think that, or similar approaches, will work for cycling. First and most obviously, it won’t work because the system simply institutionalizes the idea that you get one “freebie” before real consequences kick in, even if that freebie costs the team some Swiss francs. That means riders would go into a race like the Tour knowing that they had one good, solid hook to throw when they decide they need it most – it becomes a tool rather than a penalty. So, let’s see, one free chop times how many guys in a leadout?

    Secondly, the soccer/football approach doesn’t really work with the nature of cycling. Yes, races have officials, but we don’t call them referees for a reason. It’s not a field sport, and you can’t just blow the whistle and stop the action to give someone a talking to, show the yellow, and then play on. Cycling is fast, linear, and kinetic, and the approach just doesn’t transfer – a guy could go from his first to his second offense in a split second. And sometimes, a warning just isn’t appropriate when someone makes a move that could potentially end the races or careers of 100 other guys. You can abuse people pretty badly on a soccer pitch, but certainly not that many at once, and not at those speeds. Cycling needs to have the nuclear option available for first offenses if they’re egregious enough to warrant it.

    Since what we’re looking for is not necessarily punishment, but a deterrent, I’d argue that the swift and, at times, seemingly random hand of justice that we saw deployed yesterday is probably best for keeping racers in line. When you draw the line too sharply, you just tempt people to get as close as possible to it without going over, but if they’re never quite sure exactly where the line is…

  • One idea that keeps popping up about the Renshaw ejection strikes me as particularly silly (even if several pros have made it): that it’s unfair that Renshaw was ejected for his actions in the sprint while Barredo and Costa were merely fined for their post race brawl a few stages ago. The two incidents are so far apart on their (de)merits I can’t believe people are drawing the comparison, but let’s put it to rest anyway: The fight was after the stage, on foot, affected only the two jackasses involved, and basically only provided a bit of comic relief at said jackasses’ expense. The actions in yesterday’s sprint, by contrast, came during the stage, at 60+ kilometers per hour, endangered about 100 people besides the jackasses involved, and potentially altered the results of the stage. The fight was an issue of “conduct unbecoming.” Renshaw’s actions in the sprint were an issue of race safety as well as of the competitive integrity of the Tour. Are we really trying to say they’re of the same caliber?

  • For those of you who might counter that Barredo-Costa Slapdown 2010 is going to ruin the image of our dear fairest cycling…have you seen other sports?

  • Off we go into the Massif Centrale, and on that topic, John Wilcockson’s finally written something I can agree with. When he’s not focused on Armstrong, he can be really good.

  • So was Brad Wiggins’s move from Garmin to Sky good or bad? If you want to argue that it was a bad choice, you’d could say that his fourth place last year proved that Vaughters and the Garmin staff knew the best way to bring him to the Tour, and that he should have stayed. If you wanted to argue that it was a good choice, you could cite the fact that by moving to Sky, Wiggins smartly netted himself a lot of cash based on a fourth-place Tour performance he wasn’t likely to repeat. Based on a loose sense of history, I’d say Wiggins has, at most, two more Tours after this one to climb back inside the final top 5 before the “podium contender” status and paychecks depart for good.

  • The Service Course’s Gerard Vroomen Twitter-watch continues, and got considerably more interesting in the wake of the Renshaw objection, when he called HTC-Columbia to the carpet for dangerous sprinting. So let’s see, that’s taking shots at Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne, HTC-Columbia, and, just after the World Cup, the entire nation of Holland. The guy’s kind of growing on me.

The Distance from Les Arcs to Avoriaz

The comparisons are surely looming, if they haven’t come already, between Miguel Indurain’s dramatic collapse on the stage to Les Arcs in 1996 and Lance Armstrong’s on the road to Avoriaz yesterday. And not without reason. Both men, obviously, were the dominant Tour de France riders of their generations – one was the man most people believed would finally break the five Tour barrier, the other is the man who actually did it. And the similarities between the breakdowns in their final Tour appearances are indeed striking. Both met their downfall not deep into the race, but on the first true mountain stage – Stage 7, from Chambery to Les Arcs for Indurain, Stage 8 from Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz for Armstrong. Both stages were in the Alps, and though they occurred about 170 kilometers and 14 years apart, both men lost the same 12 minutes, give or take. And both days were remarkable in that the grand champions were not just left behind by some remarkable challenger, nor by an upstart playing the giant-killer, the David to their Goliath. They were left behind by everyone.

Given the similarities, it is almost inevitable that people will note the two days' similar look and that ultimately, both men's Tour de France Waterloos will be remembered as being much the same. There’s really no point in fighting it. But it is important that now, in the moment, we should acknowledge that they are not the same in at least a few fundamental ways. Most obviously, when Indurain finally cracked, he was still the favorite, the highest-value scalp in the race and the keystone that anchored his competitors’ tactical schemes. Armstrong, while still a valued scalp, started the race as an outsider for the win, a man understandably made mortal by the simple inevitable force of time, if nothing else.

As their spots in the competitive hierarchy differed when the big cracks came, so did the impact. While the memory has been blunted by age, Indurain’s demise was much more of a surprise at the time -- unlike Armstrong's, it wasn't preceded by a third place the previous year. But more importantly, it left a much bigger hole. Bjarne Riis and Jan Ullrich stepped into the vacuum in 1996, and the rest is history, as both men went on to become major forces in the sport for the next decade. Armstrong’s departure from Tour contention in 2010, by contrast, leaves no vacuum at all, except perhaps in the hearts of some cycling fans and Phil Liggett. The reason that’s so is at least partially due to the arc of Armstrong’s career, and namely the rich crop of grand tour contenders that have flourished in the three-year absence of his considerable shadow. Nothing much was able to sprout under Indurain’s continuous shade, and a lot of what was already growing – Greg Lemond, Tony Rominger, Charly Mottet – wilted over his five years of dominance.

But the most dramatic way in which Armstrong’s collapse differs from Indurain’s is that Armstrong’s was, in a sense, more voluntary, or at least a more known risk at the time it occurred. Indurain’s day at Les Arcs was simply a marked endpoint to a career – the point at which, for whatever reason, whatever it was he’d had just suddenly left him. He just rode until he didn’t have it anymore, then retired. Not so Armstrong. On his retirement in 2005, Armstrong had managed to get out of the game before that moment struck, and left the sport without giving it the sweaty-faced, fall-of-a-champion, the-king-is-dead snapshot to go with the written obituary. It was remarkable – a degree of restraint rarely seen in cycling.

As we all know by now, though, retirement didn’t take, and Armstrong returned to the sport after a three-year hiatus. He did so of his own accord, and being Armstrong, people ascribe that decision to any number of things from one end of the spectrum to the other – from charity, selflessness, and passion to jealousy, vanity, and greed. I’m not going to wade into that swamp, but one thing’s for sure: when he returned to the sport last year, Armstrong had to know he risked erasing the triumphant memory of his first departure and replacing it with this very moment from his second. And here we are.

The irony is that, after so many years of victory and that first smooth exit, it may well turn out that the dismal ride to Avoriaz was exactly what Armstrong needed to leave the sport on a high note, and I suspect he knows it. Even the early signs point to yesterday’s stage becoming the sympathetic moment in the career of a man who had, over a decade, inspired a number of emotions – among them respect, fear, love, and hate – but never anything that would likely be called “sympathy.” In the coming weeks, I suspect he’ll drive those feelings home by playing the loyal, bottle-toting teammate to Levi Leipheimer. In other sports, it might be seen as a sad or shameful slippage down the lineup, the old quarterback dropping from starter to second string. But this is bike racing, and while cycling fans love a winner, they also demand that bit of humanity and humility to go along with the accolades. Indurain had that in spades, even before that day in 1996 when the Tour suddenly passed him by. Armstrong never did, though, and you can bet that he'll seize this second opportunity for all its worth.

People often write that it’s just the French fans that like that sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s true. I should know for sure in a few weeks.


  • How else are Indurain and Armstrong’s collapses different? Well, while people might have cheered Indurain’s downfall for competitive reasons, very few cheered it at a personal level. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case with Armstrong. To be fair, though, Indurian probably didn’t have quite so many mourners, either.

  • Yes, yes, all the above completely ignores all the dope allegations and insinuations that surround both Indurain and Armstrong, as well as Riis, Ullrich, and everybody else who’s so much as touched a bicycle since the early 1990s. Doping is an important issue, but sometimes, if you want to write about some other aspect of the sport and not get completely bogged down, you just have to leave doping aside for a few minutes. It would be an absolute pleasure if doping was so rare that you could mention it every time it was warranted, but unfortunately, its pervasiveness means that if you didn’t leave it out of the equation from time to time, you’d never write anything about cycling under 10,000 words. You might well go crazy to boot.

  • I have no doubt that Armstrong’s difficulties yesterday were genuine, mostly because I’m not among the legions who like to think everything the man does is some meticulously calculated tactical ruse. I do wonder, though, if once he found himself in deep trouble, he eased back even more, hoping to dump enough GC time that he’ll be allowed a bit of leash to go for one more stage win down the road. Comments from the capos would indicate that a little complicity might not be out of the question. Honestly, I hope he doesn’t get in that position, not out of malice, but because if he gets a final stage win, I can’t face an eternity of huffy “was it a gift?” arguments.

  • I think Armstrong and Chris Horner (RadioShack) need to have a chat and get their stories straight. To his credit, Armstrong went with a pretty modest “had a bad day, and my crash was my fault.” Horner goes with an Armstrong bonk on the climb, and a pileup leading to Armstrong’s roundabout crash. If there was a bonk, I suspect Armstrong wouldn’t mention it in order to avoid the inevitable Twitter-sniping he’d receive as a result of his own infamous “much to learn” message after Contador bonked in Paris-Nice last year.

  • Speaking briefly above of the Riis/Ullrich ascendancy in 1996, I’m reminded of the fact that the Telekom team was still in its relative infancy in 1996, having only been allowed a Tour start as a composite squad with Italian outfit ZG Mobili the year before. How strange does the idea of a composite squad in the Tour sound now? I sort of miss that devil-may-care approach to team selection that came before the ProTour debacle began. Yeah, the sponsors want guarantees of what sort of race exposure they’ll get for their Euros now, and rightfully so, because they’re coughing up a lot more of them than they used to just to get their names on a shirt. But the more stringent invitation rules have strangled a lot of the offbeat team selections that added some fun to the races. Here’s hoping Colombia es Pasion gets their wish for a pro-continental license next year. I hear everything 1980s is making a comeback – why not Colombians in the Tour de France?

  • If you’ve been following the Floyd Landis accusations/investigation story, you’ve probably seen at least one of the New York Daily News stories, if not more. It’s not luck of the assignment desk draw that Nate Vinton is the guy doing the coverage, or if it is, it’s an amazing coincidence, since he used to be a VeloNews staffer. Looking at the articles he’s writing there versus what his former colleagues in the cycling press are doing is probably a good illustration of what Josh Kadis brought up in the previous post’s comments: namely, that mainstream media outlets are often more vigorous pursuing these stories than the specialty cycling press. Whether the cycling press really can’t take a harder look (due to the need for constant, ongoing access to riders and officials, as well as support from industry advertisers), just doesn’t want to, or is incapable of it, warrants examination. But not by me, or at least not right now…

  • Just saw that Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) won’t be starting Stage 9 tomorrow due to a broken hand. So, the mullet was the source of all his powers.

  • I didn’t think Andy Schleck’s victory salute was that bad, probably because I like them a little spontaneous, and he seemed refreshingly unprepared for the eventuality of a stage win. Whatever you want to call what he came up with – I’ve seen “punching the speed bag” as well as “angry chimp” – it’s a nice change from the other options: a) the over-rehearsed three-act-play that requires subsequent explanation in the media; b) the tasteful if rather staid two-hands-in-the-air; or c) variations on the always popular “arrogant prick.”

  • All this talk of Sunday’s stage, and nary a word of Cadel Evans (BMC) status as the new race leader. It’s out there, of course, but compared to the hand-waving and hand-wringing over Armstrong’s losses, Contador’s non-response to Schleck’s attack, and Schleck’s subsequent maiden Tour stage victory, Evans’s yellow jersey feels a little lost in the shuffle. Even if flying under the radar isn’t ideal for his sponsors at the moment, I’m guessing Evans is pretty happy with the low-profile. He always seems at his best when he’s not under scrutiny.

  • On a similar note – if we can just rewind to Saturday’s long-forgotten stage for a moment – how many new fans does Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) have now? When people talk about riding with guts and passion, that’s what they’re talking about. Patrick Lafevere is a fool if he hasn’t locked the guy down for two more years over the rest day.

Of Miles and Shoes

Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes.
Then, when you criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.

- Ancient Proverb

The much anticipated Stage 3 cobblestones have come and gone, and with another win by Petacchi in Stage 4, a redemptive Stage 5 victory for Cavendish, and the Alps looming, all the chatter about whether or not cobblestones belong in a grand tour has died down a bit. Perusing the media just two short days on, you hear a lot less about Jens Voigt’s criticism of the organizer, about protests and apologies, about the injustice of it all. But while the peloton seems to have literally and figuratively moved on, a thousand online and group-ride debates still rage over about whether the Tour peloton were being a bunch of sissy boys about the whole thing. And wherever such debates rage, so rages the sub-debate over just who is or isn’t permitted to call them a bunch of sissy boys.

The formula, by now, is predictable: A professional cyclist speaks out in the media or in his diary or on Twitter, maybe calls a stage too hard, a competitor's move reckless, a finish too dangerous. Or maybe he’s had an off day or an off year, performance-wise. His statements or poor form become the issue of the day in one online forum or another, be it newsgroup, message board, blog, or media outlet. If a rider complains, one reader will agree, another will disagree, and yet another will disagree and call the rider a whiny little girlie-man to boot. If results are the issue, someone is sure to note that the rider is overrated if they’re feeling kind, or, if they’re not, that he sucks. And as soon as those sentiments hit the server, as if by some modern miracle of automation, the inevitable responses will spring back, “He’s a professional. What have you done in the sport? Pack fodder in a few Cat. 3 crits? If you rode with him, you’d be dropped in the first five minutes. Who are you to disagree? To criticize? What gives you the right?” And on and on and on.

And that perspective, my friends – that notion that the fans have no right to disagree with or criticize the professionals because they are not, themselves, professionals – is bullshit. Yes, they’re professional cyclists, meaning they get paid to ride a bicycle because they’re very, very good at it. They’re better than most of us could ever hope to be. But that doesn’t mean people who aren’t as good at riding a bicycle or who haven’t ridden a mile in their shoes don’t get to disagree with them or otherwise opine on the subject of bicycle racing. Professional cyclist is just what the name implies – a profession – and freedom from the criticisms of the lay public isn’t a privilege that cycling or any other profession, from paperboy to pope, gets to enjoy.

For instance, I am, on certain increasingly rare and unimportant occasions, a professional writer on cycling, as are the many people now covering the Tour de France. And occasionally, when the racers disagree with what’s been written or how it’s been written, they let that dissatisfaction be widely known, often in fairly blunt terms. Now, these men, while they are terrific cyclists one and all, are not journalists. They might not know all the intricacies of the profession or the rules that govern it, understand its daily trials and tribulations, or care about how or why certain things get written. And most of all, they might not be able to produce particularly compelling copy themselves. But they certainly feel free to see some professional journalist’s finished product and call it shit. And they should – because being able to write better than me or any other cycling hack isn’t a required qualification to critique or disagree with the work, or indeed to aim some barbs at the writer themselves. You just have to be a consumer of the product. Sometimes the rider’s opinion will be right, sometimes it’ll be wrong, sometimes it’ll be neither here nor there, but that’s not really the issue. Nobody tells them they have no right to disagree with the journalist because they are not journalists themselves.

Let’s speed this up a bit in the name of getting on with things: I don’t have to be as good as Matisse to not like a painting; I don’t have to be Secretary of State to disagree with foreign policy; I don’t have to be a better director than Coppola to think a movie is terrible; and I don’t have to be a web designer to think a site looks horrible. Why should I have to be a professional cyclist to suggest that neutralizing a stage finish wasn’t the right move, or that, contrary to Jens Voigt’s opinion, a few cobblestones might be OK in a grand tour? Participation in the debate only requires an interest and an opinion; it doesn’t require a UCI license. Or tact, intelligence, or common sense, for that matter.

You can argue, of course, about whether the opinions expressed are valid or not. In fact, I encourage you to do so, early and often, because it’s that sort of fan interest that fuels professional sports and keeps them vibrant. And frankly, I don’t know why some people spend so much time trying to quash some lively debate in cycling by holding up a given pro’s take as an unimpeachable verdict on an issue. I’m not saying people need to be rude in their criticisms of the men who make the sport what it is, or that the pros’ opinions shouldn’t carry due weight. But all that second-guessing, critiquing, and maligning of poor performances by armchair shlubs is the lifeblood of sports like professional soccer and football (yes, yes, that’s “football” and “American football” if you’re not from here). So cycling might as well embrace it, or at least not be offended by it, instead of reflexively and viciously defending the honor of a bunch of pro riders who don’t care terribly much what we’re saying anyway, and who are actually better served in the long run by the fans having the discussion, even if that discussion happens to currently center on how we think they suck and couldn’t sprint their way out of a wet paper bag.

In closing, I’ll just add that I think part of the “mile in his shoes” problem in America is that cycling is very much a participant sport here. In the U.S., if you’re a pro cycling fan, chances are you spin the pedals a bit yourself, and that somehow tends to cloud some folks’ ability to accept that what they see on TV is different from the cycling they do. And it is – even if you race every weekend, and even if you're pretty good at it. As indicated by the fact that it’s on TV, professional cycling is a spectator sport, just like football and baseball and hockey and any number of other sports where fans aren't expected to actually be a professional before voicing a contrary opinion. So when people are having a good time talking pro cycling, about who’s great and who sucks and who’s just being a wimp, it’s just not the same context as talking trash about a guy who will destroy you on the Sunday ride. In that context, a swift “well, he’ll drop your sorry ass” is a perfectly acceptable retort. In professional sports, though, it’s just not a valid part of the athlete-fan relationship.


  • Though it’s died down for now, the debate about cobbled and other “freak stages” in grand tours will re-emerge eventually, either with regard to this Tour or some future grand tour. And it’ll keep coming back, because both the pro- and anti- crowds have valid points. Yes, the cobbles make the race more of a crapshoot due to frequent mechanical problems and service access issues, and maybe it’s best not to increase the weight of fate's already heavy hand in stage racing. And yes, while the cobbles certainly don’t suit some riders, it’s equally true that the mountains don’t suit others, so why favor one group over another? It goes on and on, but whichever side you come out on, it’s hard to deny that Stage 3 was anything less than riveting. Frankly, if I wanted to show someone the visual power of bike racing, I’d show them that stage. Something about the camerawork in the finale – even after the cobbles had passed – really highlighted how hard and fast and desperate and captivating the closing kilometers of a bike race can be. You could sense the frantic speed and the pain as each group jumped out of the closing corners and drove for the finish – it was a rare and beautiful combination of the fractured, hard-hitting nature of a classic and the clawing-for-every-second pressures of stage racing. I don’t know if such a stage will happen again, or even if it should, but damn it was good.

  • In a way, the issue over the cobbles strikes me as similar to Al Gore’s recent sexual harassment troubles. Gore allegedly hired a high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuse, and then pressured her to provide the illicit services that are known to be oftentimes provided by high-priced, in-room, late-night masseuses. But, as it turns out, Gore’s late night masseuse was not that sort of late night masseuse, and was quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Similarly, ASO called up a group of riders to ride a bike race, and then pressured them to ride over cobblestones, a service known to be oftentimes provided by professional bike riders. But, as it turns out, some of the riders ASO called are not that sort of bike rider, and were quite offended at the prospect of providing such services. Both Gore and ASO thought they’d called someone who’d be amenable to the doing the job for a given price, but in demanding what they did, experienced significant backlash. Really, the only difference is that ASO still got what they were looking for, and all Gore got was a scandal.

  • Central to the argument over the cobbles seems to be the increased risk of injury due to their inclusion. I haven’t reviewed the daily Tour dispatches, so I don’t know all the details, but I didn’t get the sense that Stage 3 actually produced any more injuries than any other randomly selected day on a grand tour. Yes, Frank Schleck’s (Saxo Bank) three-point collarbone break was fairly spectacular, and though it’s less discussed, David Le Lay (AG2r) also snapped a clavicle on the day. That’s not a great day out, but when you consider Amets Txurukka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) snapped his collarbone on Stage 4 with no help from cobbles, just as Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia) did on Stage 1, and that Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon) both augured themselves into the ground and early retirement in the prologue, Stage 3 hardly seems to have produced a disproportionate injury report.

  • Frank Schleck's injury is obviously unfortunate, both because it must have been tremendously painful for him and because he'd been looking like the stronger of the two Schleck brothers through the Tour de Suisse this year. That said -- and I'm sure I'll enrage legions of Jens Voigt-o-philes -- I though Voigt's reaction to Schleck's injury was a little overwraught. I respect his obviously genuine emotional reaction to his teammate's injury in the immediate aftermath, but from the way he was talking, you'd think Schleck had just shuffled off this mortal coil, rather than shuffled off to the local hospital for an x-ray.

  • So, how’d that “we'll put time into Alberto Contador (Astana) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the cobbles” plan work out for everybody? Both men produced stunning and unexpected rides, capitalizing on the good work of teammates Alexander Vinokourov and Fabian Cancellara, respectively. I doubt either of them will be racing the northern classics next year, but both of them knuckled down and did what they had to do with no whining. I like that.

  • Speaking of no whining, how about this year’s edition of Cadel Evans (BMC)? As a former mountain biker, classics winner, and one of the standout riders of the brutal strade biancha stage at this year’s Giro, Evans’s Stage 3 ride wasn’t as surprising as those of Contador and Schleck, but it was still impressive. Interviewed after yesterday’s stage, Schleck was dismissive of Evans’s chances for the overall, theorizing that Evans would not stay with the leader in the mountains. Schleck might turn out to be right, of course, but I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Evans. He’s been a changed man since his world championship win last season, looking more aggressive on the bike and less aggressive off of it. So far this year he’s been sharp in every terrain and in all conditions, his supporting cast at this year’s Tour is stronger than it was either in past Tours or this year’s Giro, and he’s come through a brutal first week unscathed. I think he’s less of a dark horse than some might imagine, and this is coming from someone who has a really, really good time making fun of Evans from time to time.

  • Enough about Stage 3, how about 4 and 5? Well, Stage 4 felt like a deep breath after three days of relative chaos, and the most interesting stat of the day, if we had it, might have been the number of linear feet of bandages and netting in use. Petacchi won, which you knew already, and almost immediately the talk began over whether he’d drop out prior to the Alps this weekend. With that, for a fleeting minute, it felt like the early aughts again, a time when the discussion at the end of the first week of every grand tour focused on when the Italian sprinter du jour – be it Cipollini, Quaranta, or Petacchi – would head home. Stage 5 quickly snapped us out of that semi-bygone era and back into the present epoch of Anglo sprinters, with Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) finally pulling it back together and scoring his first win of this Tour. I know there’s a lot of dislike for the guy, some deserved, some undeserved, but he’s had a tough year personally and professionally, and it showed in his emotional reaction to the win. Chapeau. Now we’ll get to see if it was a momentary return, or whether the mojo is really back. I’m betting on the latter.

  • Man, Cervelo’s Geraard Vroomen really, really talks a lot of smack about other teams in his Twitter feed. So far, he’s scolded Saxo Bank’s Bjarne Riis for being underhanded and self-serving in the Stage 2 neutralization, then called out Caisse d’Epargne for drawing out the Valverde case and then having the nerve to note that cycling’s doping scandals are making it hard to find a sponsor. I’m not saying he’s wrong, or advocating some sort of gag order on team owners airing their thoughts, but man, cycling’s a small world, and some of that might come back to bite you, either on the road or at the negotiating table.

  • I’m not that into the whole Armstrong-Contador rivalry thing, largely because I think it’s tremendously overblown, especially with regard to its effect on the outcome of this year’s Tour. However, a lot of people enjoy examination and embellishment of Armstrong’s well-publicized “mental game,” so I’ll say this: if there is indeed a mental game to speak of, I think Contador has the upper hand. Between meaningful actions like the time gained on Stage 3, and mostly meaningless actions like popping up at the RadioShack bus bearing thank-you gifts from last year’s Tour, Contador’s manage to take a few well-placed jabs at Armstrong and still come out looking like a nice guy. Impressive. I just hope Contador’s not wasting any energy thinking about it.

  • Fellow Versus watchers: is “Cenegenics” some undercover mix of HGH and testosterone? Because that’s what it sounds like from the purported benefits. If so, they’ve really spent their marketing dollars wisely.

  • Is it just me, or does Garmin-Transition’s DS Matt White look about 5 years older than last year? Maybe he should try Cenegenics.

  • Not that they need any help from me, but if you’re not reading Procycling’s Daily Dispatches on cyclingnews.com, you’re missing out on one of the more entertaining daily Tour fixes.

Low Country Laments

So, who wants to place a bet on the next time you’ll see a grand tour start in the low countries once any current contractual commitments are fulfilled? I’m betting the latter half of the decade at the earliest.

For the opening week of two grand tours in a row now, there’s been carnage predicted and carnage fulfilled on the narrow roads of the Netherlands and Belgium. Various riders have either stated or tweeted their dissatisfaction with the decisions made on starting points for this year’s Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, and if I were lying there in some under-air-conditioned hotel, glued to my sheets by my own puss and blood with 180 miserable kilometers in my legs, I’m sure I’d be inclined to agree. But in observing the events of the last couple of days from a safe and comfortable distance, I can’t help but think that many of the incidents that have left skin on the pavement in this Tour haven’t been due to the ills typically associated with northern racing – narrow roads, street furniture, and wind. While that was the case with many of the prominent Giro crashes, the northern leg of the Tour has largely featured mishaps that could have happened anywhere. (Please note, this sentiment does not apply to today’s Stage 3 to Arenberg.)

On Stage 1, a bunch of big riders including Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), and Andreas Kloeden (RadioShack) were grounded by a dog that ran into the pack. Then, as the peloton entered the final kilometers of the stage, another group couldn’t sort out a hairpin corner and went down, sweeping riders on the outside along with them. A crash allegedly caused by a narrowing straight blocked the road entirely inside the red kite, while in the final 200 meters, Lloyd Mondory (AG2r) got a little giddy and rode himself into Tyler Farrar’s (Garmin) back wheel, taking himself down and saddling Farrar with an extra bicycle to haul around. Now, you could maybe argue about whether people should bring their dogs to the races, what the regulations for finishing straights should be, or whether the hairpin should have been included that close to the finish, but the fact is that neither the dog nor the hairpin nor the finishing straight were inherently Belgian or Dutch – they could have just as easily been in France, Italy, or anywhere else.

On Stage 2, the trainwreck descent of the Stockeau was, again, not caused by the conditions associated with racing in Belgium, but by a combination of a road frequented by diesel vehicles, rain, and a freakish accident in which a camera bike crashed and managed to spill oil and/or gas down the descent. Yes, the road was narrow, and it was a fast descent, but if you think the same thing can’t happen in the Massif Central or the Côte d’Azur, I’d suggest you have a bit of anti-lowland bias. But like I said, if I’d just deposited most of my left asscheek on some godforsaken Wallonian hillside, I’d probably be cursing those beer-brewing, chocolate-making, lace-working bastards, too.

(I’m just kidding, Belgium. I could never stay mad at you.)

Broomwagon: Stage 1 Edition
  • Day late and a dollar short on this one, so I’ll keep it quick: there was a bunch of riding of the type you’d expect on a flat first stage, including the obligatory wandering dog. Then, with around five kilometers to go, everything went batshit crazy. Guys crashed in a hairpin, then in a wide open finish straight, then again about 200 yards later in the wide-open finish straight. As he did in the infamous Tour de Suisse stage, Alessandro Petacchi won, because although he’s old, he apparently has about eight eyes spaced evenly around the circumference of his head. I have to admit, I didn’t see Petacchi factoring in this year. Chapeau.

Broomwagon: Stage 2 Edition

  • I have mixed emotions about yesterday’s general truce/regrouping called by then yellow-jersey Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank). On one hand, it seems fairly self-serving for a non-overall contender to use the rights traditionally afforded the yellow jersey to safeguard the race of their team’s actual GC contender(s). On the other hand, there were so many teams and riders affected by the Stockeau crashes that the order came close enough to being an altruistic move to pass the sniff test. And I get that after a day like that, everyone’s just kind of tired of risking their necks, regardless of why it got risky in the first place. The idea probably wasn’t a tough sell. Obviously, there were losers as a result of the decision. Cervelo Test Team was the most vocal, and had every right to be since they had both their stage contender Thor Hushovd and their GC rider Carlos Sastre in the front group. Quieter about the whole thing was Cadel Evans (BMC), who was also in the front group and in a position to gain time, having apparently overcome his tendency to be a little bit on the crash-ey side. Every bit of etiquette has winners and losers, though, because someone can always gain an advantage by not going along with it, so I suppose you just have to have faith that what goes around will come around. Along those lines, I think the regroup was a net gain, both for a beat-up peloton and for the prospects of a competitive Tour, if not for Cervelo and the soggy fans on the roadside.

  • While on the balance I’m OK with slowing down for the regrouping, I do think negotiating a non-sprint was a bit of an unnecessary flourish. Sure, the leadup speedup might have re-dropped some of the injured parties, but compared to the savings they’d already realized by the slowdown, those parties wouldn’t have had much room to complain – they’d be losing seconds instead of minutes. And, again, the finish straight was pretty dry and wide as a motorway for a considerable distance before the line, so I think they should have let Hushovd and any remaining sprinters have at it. The greatest danger would likely have been the presence of non-sprinters looking to mix it up in the diminished sprint, but you can pretty much get that on any given day.

  • I think that Phil Liggett, not surprisingly, contributed to a bit of the U.S. fans' ill will towards yesterday’s neutralized finish by repeatedly referring to it as a “protest.” Granted, I wasn’t there, but it seemed more precaution than protest. Or maybe that’s just me being hopeful, because there’s been a little too much protesting for me lately.

  • One thing about the Stage 2 slow-down is for sure: Fabian Cancellara will now forever be remembered as a gracious and magnanimous patron of the peloton, fit for a helmet topped with a laurel crown. How do I know? Because historically, Shakespeare's version of Mark Antony was dead wrong, at least when it comes to some aspects of cycling: it’s the good that men do that lives after them, while the evil is oft interred with their bones. People still remember Tyler Hamilton’s dramatic arm-waving slowdown of the front group after Armstrong hung himself up on a purse a few years back (though they’ve obviously not forgotten Hamilton’s evils just yet). They remember Armstrong waiting for Ullrich, and debate endlessly whether Ullrich waited for Armstrong a few years later. These things are etched into the chivalrous history of the sport by those who are, well, really into that stuff. The other side of the coin? The ones that are interred? Passage du Gois, 1999, anyone?

  • Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank) was quick to hand over his bike to Andy Schleck during the Stockeau massacre, which doesn’t really warrant mention, since that’s sort of his job. But when you’re Matti Breschel, you never know what the hell you’re going to get from the roof rack. Come to think of it, does Breschel ever do a race where he doesn’t change bikes?

  • I’ve seen a few questions asking why, on the Stockeau, Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) was on the side of the road, but looked to be trying to get a Focus bike back in working order rather than the Specialized he was issued. It’s because it wasn’t Frank Schleck, as Versus commentators stated and splashed across the screen. It was Niki Terpstra of Milram, whose Dutch national champion’s jersey admittedly looks a lot like Schleck’s Luxembourg one, and who did not start Stage 3 due to illness. I point this out not to be an ass about a simple, understandable, in-the-moment misidentification by the commentary team, but to answer the question above and illustrate a broader point: When I’m doing race coverage, or writing about it here, I howl all the time about the importance of a start list matching rider numbers to riders. This is why. If it’s hard to distinguish two national champions riding in the Tour de France, what are the chances of distinguishing between the 35 unknown Australian continental team riders in an NRC crit?

  • Speaking of everyone looking like a Schleck, watching the Tour coverage I’ve been shocked, in a not shocked at all way, about the lack of regard given to Contador and some of the other GC contenders. For instance, even after building up the Armstrong/Contador rivalry, Versus can’t seem to bother to update on his whereabouts with any consistency. There is, however, a laser-like focus on the locations and sightings of various Schlecks, Vandevelde, sometimes Wiggins, and obviously Armstrong. Hey guys: Evans, Basso, Menchov. Remember them?

  • I like watching Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) ride, and I’m glad he won Stage 2, regardless of the circumstances. There were a painful few years there in the early 2000s when he was heralded as the next French Tour winner, followed by the inevitable few years when people found him to be a profound disappointment because he couldn’t carry the albatross they’d tied around his neck. The loss of those misguided GC years now seems even more unfortunate, as it’s pretty apparent he’s fantastically suited to being a classics rider and stage race aggressor. But letting bygones be bygones, I’ve enjoyed seeing his re-emergence over the last few seasons, including what seems to be a blossoming specialty in crappy condition wins.

  • Stage 2 couldn’t have been bigger for Quick Step, could it? Lost in all the chatter about the Stage 1 crashes, the Stage 3 cobbles, and the GC battle was the fact that Stage 2 was an important day for the stalwart classics squad. After the pre-Tour withdrawal of their big draw, Tom Boonen, Stage 2 was the team’s chance to make good on home soil and begin vanquishing memories of a solid but winless classics season and last year’s dismal Tour. It was Chavanel who came through bigtime, and from a publicity perspective, it couldn’t have worked out better: in a French stage race in Belgium, the Belgian home team wins with a French rider, giving press and fans in both countries have something to love, and allowing the race organizers to feel good about a French win on an otherwise dismal day. Add in fellow Frenchman Jerome Pineau’s grab of the race’s first polka dot jersey, and it would be a day that would turn around many other teams’ seasons. The sad truth though is that without that April win, even a stage win, yellow, and polka dots might not be enough to salvage Quick Step’s year.

Broomwagon: Doping, dimwits, and other pertinent issues

  • How does the same publication that employs Bonnie Ford publish this Rick Reilly piece? It’s like a “spot the errors and distortions” puzzle. I’ll get you started: Postal wasn’t a sponsor in 2006, Discovery was, and in that year, Leipheimer rode for Gerolsteiner, not USPS/Discovery, and Armstrong did not ride the Tour. Landis complained about his bike at Postal (Trek) – he was riding a different bike by the time he was in yellow for Phonak. And on, and on. Now that you know the game, I’ll leave the rest to you…

    Seriously, someone put a fact checker on Reilly. We’re not talking about who or what he or you or I believe about the case – Reilly’s piece is theoretically just trying to recount what Landis has said along with basic indisputable timeline items. And he’s doing such a horrible job at it, it’s difficult to think he doesn’t have an agenda. Impossible, in fact.

  • For me, the most surprising aspect of the now infamous Wall Street Journal article had to do with Landis’s assertion that when he was at Phonak, he would coordinate with riders from other teams to arrange purchases and deliveries of blood and/or dope, including Levi Leipheimer. No, it’s not that I’m blown away by the idea that Leipheimer might have charged; I’m surprised by the idea that Gerolsteiner didn’t have its own organized doping program. Given the number of Gerolsteiner boys who rang the bell before the team’s related demise, you’d think something had to be going on on the team level. But I suppose it just goes to show you that Festina ’98 was kind of an anomaly, which makes sense: it’s not organized doping that typically gets you nailed, it’s disorganized doping. Maybe I was too harsh in thinking that Gerolsteiner director Hans Michael Holzer’s Sgt. Schultz “I know nothing!” act was a crock. Sorry, Mickey.

  • Speaking of Mickeys, Mike Sayers, a.k.a. Mickey Havoc, is directing at the Tour for BMC, and I’m glad to see it. When I was covering my first international race at Het Volk, Sayers was a sight for sore eyes being 1) someone I easily recognized who was 2) not surrounded by a mob and who 3) I knew spoke English. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was the warmup interview that let me get my day going. Nice to see him working at the top level of the sport.

  • Anyone notice that after eschewing the tradition/privilege for much of his Tour winning first career, Armstrong is all over the rainbow stripes on the jersey sleeves since his comeback?

I’m told there may have been cobblestones today. More on that later. For those looking for faster turnaround missives, consult the Twitter.

Bank Heist

“My daddy was a bank robber,
But he never hurt nobody.
He just loved to live that way,
And he loved to steal your money.”
- The Clash
Daddy Was a Bank Robber

For the second time in two years, Bjarne Riis’ team is at the business end of a holdup, and this time it’s an inside job. As has been widely reported and confirmed by Riis himself, longtime Riis DS Kim Anderson is taking Andy and Frank Schleck and constructing a Luxembourg-based team around them for 2011. With no sponsor lined up for next year and the defacto rider-release deadline of the Tour de France upon us, Riis seems resigned to shrugging his shoulders and emptying the drawers.

In 2009, when the startup Cervelo Test Team burst through the front door of Riis Cycling and lifted, among other things, reining Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, DS Scott Sunderland, and bike sponsor Cervelo, Riis could comfort himself with the fact that, while they grabbed a lot of loot from behind the counter, they didn’t get into the vault. And behind that sturdy door, Riis still had the core of his squad safely intact. When Cervelo and CSC departed, Andy and Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Jacob Fuglsang, and Jens Voigt were more than enough to bring on Specialized and Saxo Bank to foot the bills.

This time, though, Anderson came in with the combination to the safe tucked in his back pocket, and now the door is swinging wide open and the shelves are quickly being picked clean. Yes, only the Schlecks have been linked so far. Fabian Cancellara has remained notably silent, and Jacob Fuglsang and Matti Breschel have stated that they’d like to stay with Riis, but also that they’d really like to get paid next year. Obviously, losing his two biggest grand tour names when he’s headed into the Tour de France with no sponsor locked down for next year puts Riis in a hell of a difficult position.

I’ve heard talk that the Schleck’s departure would give Riis the room – both funding-wise and team leadership-wise – to pursue someone like an Alberto Contador. I don’t think that’s quite the right way of looking at it, though I admire the optimism. I think that the truth is that Riis now finds himself in a Catch-22, where he doesn’t have the funding to promise a GC star, and he doesn’t have a GC star to promise the funders. It could be worked out – more difficult circumstances have certainly been resolved – but someone would have to take a pretty big leap of faith, and in a tight sponsorship climate, I don’t see riders or sponsors being terribly anxious to risk next year’s profits just to help Bjarne out of a jam. In effect, with no sponsor and no Schlecks, Riis is stuck with two variables, when he desperately needs a constant to solve the equation.

Ah, but what of Cancellara, you say? Motorized bike or not, he’s been one of the stories of the last half-decade. A multi-classic winner, the dominant TT rider of his generation, versatile, handsome and intelligent, and, as of today, current yellow jersey wearer in the Tour de France – he’s a sponsor’s dream. If Tom Boonen, with a supporting cast like Stijn Devolder and Wouter Weylandt, can justify the existence of Quick Step, why shouldn’t Cancellara, backed by Breschel, Fuglsang, and the rest be able to drum up some funding for Riis?

There’s a couple of answers to that question. The first one is easy – because for the last six months, Riis has offered sponsors those names plus the Schlecks, and the sponsors haven’t bitten. I doubt the absence of the Schlecks will increase sponsor interest. The second answer to why Cancellara probably isn’t enough to shoulder a team as Boonen does? A Swiss star winning Belgian races for a Danish team, good as he may be, just doesn’t attract the national pride funding that a Belgian superstar riding the big Belgian races for a Belgian team does.

There are, of course, fairly big teams built on less – AG2r and Lampre spring to mind. But those teams – like the aforementioned Quick Step – also campaign heavily on their national calendars. They’re active national teams at home that also happen to operate at the ProTour level, and as a result they’re appealing to national companies with sponsorship dollars. While it’s often one of Riis’s teams’ greatest assets, when it comes to the sponsor hunt, the internationalism of his squads can also hurt them. At the same time his squads belong to many countries, they also belong to none. Sure, Riis’s squads have always been committed to contesting Danish races, but compared to the Italian calendar or the French Cup series, there’s not a lot there – race wise or exposure wise – to base a sponsorship on. So to bankroll his top-flight, United Nations of a team, Riis needs a sponsor with international interests and deep pockets, and a lot of those companies aren’t feeling too flush right now. Or are feeling like they shouldn’t be looking too flush right now. Reality or perception, the result is the same.

Why do Riis’ squads seem to invite such raids? If you follow the broken window theory that floats around law enforcement, you might look for the broken window or the cracked tailpipe, that little tell-tale sign to would-be thieves that indicates a likely target. From where I sit on the outside, I don’t see that broken pane in Riis’ squads – his stars have, with a couple exceptions, almost always been PR dreams come true, and the team’s image is one of camaraderie, teamwork, and mutual admiration. There’s been precious little whining from riders about management, and little public scolding of riders by management. The most vocal rider gripe about the organization has been Matti Breschel’s exasperation at the inability to get a working bike at the Tour of Flanders.

What goes on behind closed doors, or what gets whispered in the hallways of team hotels, I have no idea, but to me, it seems that Riis’ teams are ripe for this sort of thing for a nearly opposite reason – everything works pretty well. The reason it works well is the people, and when people are successful, they tend to have options. Riis has capable and ambitious riders and staff, so it’s natural that from time to time they have big ideas of their own, and they pursue them. His riders, in turn, have been instilled with a team-player mentality, which makes them attractive targets for acquisition, as does the fact that Riis’ boys never seem to light up the doping lamp (no, not even Basso). They’re rarely trouble makers – not fight pickers or dirty sprinters or party boys. And, of course, they’re talented, and talent is ultimately the money in the bank or professional cycling. So when that bank gets robbed from time to time, it’s no surprise. Hell, it may even be flattering, though I’m not sure Riis sees it that way at the moment.


  • Wait a minute, what the hell was that? The Tour de France started today, and the Service Course is talking about last week’s Saxo Bank/Schleck thing? Indeed I am. What can I say, it was a busy week, and though I started this post earlier in the week, I didn’t quite get it done for Friday. And yes, that’s partly because I got to be one of the cool kids and go to the opening of the Rapha Cycle Club in New York on Thursday night. (I’m just kidding – I will never be one of the cool kids. But I did go to the opening, and it's a nice little place. If I lived in the NYC vicinity, I’d definitely stop by to have an espresso and check out a Tour stage with like-minded people. I’d probably also put some more fingerprints on their H van, for that matter. If you're apprehensive about going due to whatever you believe Rapha to be, don’t be afraid – you don’t turn sepia-toned when you walk in, and nobody makes you write essays about suffering. I checked.)

  • When deciding to further fragment the former CSC, current Saxo Bank, doesn’t anyone think of poor Phil Ligget? The guy had enough trouble keeping Cervelo and Saxo Bank straight after the split – going so far as to check in with Cervelo DS Alex Sans Vega on the condition of the injuried Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) in a live, on air interview during last years’ Tour. If Riis pulls it together and there are three branches to the former-CSC family tree next year, Ligget’s head may finally explode.

  • I’m happy that the Tour is finally underway, but longtime readers will know I have trouble mustering much to say about prologues. In all but the most egregious cases, the gains achieved are superficial and the losses trivial, and while prologue results might often correlate pretty well with final podiums, I still don’t feel that one has a whole lot to do with the other. I guess it's the thousands of miles and two mountain ranges in between the two, but whatever, that's just me. The next few days, though? I’ll be loving it, and with pieces of Paris-Brussels, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Paris-Roubaix scattered throughout the route, I’m betting Cancellara will be loving it, too. There really couldn’t be better terrain for him to potentially win a stage in yellow.

  • You know who else will be loving this Tour? SRAM. For the (relatively) new player on the block, there’s no denying those guys have put their money in all the right places.

  • As for all this Wall Street Journal article brouhaha, somebody better be working on a good conspiracy video or article about how WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Sky Broadcasting, which bankrolls the Sky team of Bradley Wiggins, and therefore it’s obvious that Murdoch is paying Landis to spout this stuff and using his paper to lend credibility to it, all with the intent of bringing down Armstrong and aiding Wiggins’ Tour chances. Because if nobody’s on that yet, the Armstrong army is really falling down on the job.

Minding the Gap

So here we sit in that yawning chasm between the end of the Tour de Suisse and the start of the Tour de France. Everything’s gone relatively quiet – the roster selections have been made, the contenders have retreated to make their final preparations in private, and big action on the road is minimal. We read the results of the national championships as they trickle in, of course, but none of that is even real until you see the jerseys on the road.

Staring across time towards the Tour is like watching a storm roll in across the water. You know what’s coming, but in the waiting there’s a sense of quiet and foreboding so imposing that you yearn for anything to break the silence – a passing car, a nearby conversation, a barking dog. But no matter what noises emerge to crack the muffled softness of that silence, nothing can relieve the underlying tension until the storm itself, with all its thunder and wind and force, hits shore. The rest is just distraction.

But for the cycling press, from mighty L’Equipe down to poorly formatted blogs, distraction is kind of the main business, and these two weeks are prime season. The dead air of the pre-Tour lull is ripe for filling with predications, retrospectives, opinions and god knows what else, all seeking to fill the informational void until the Tour itself hits shore and sets the underlying energy free.

With so much information blowing in the breeze in these pre-Tour days, it’s hard to find the common thread that would string it all together into any sort of narrative, so frankly, I quit trying. Here’s what’s struck me while watching the storm blow in.

Sprinter Showdown

With the exception of the politic-ed out Andre Griepel (HTC-Columbia), this year’s Tour will feature a battle of the sport’s major sprint stars. In theory, at least. Though it looks like most of the fast men will make it to the start, there are plenty of questions remaining about what we’ll actually see as things barrel into the final 200 meters.

  • Will Tom Boonen (Quick Step) show up? It’s both a literal and figurative question. He’s having some knee trouble that’s putting his Tour start in doubt in the real sense. In the figurative sense, Boonen’s last several Tours haven’t exactly been spectacular. While his motivation should be high after a great but win-free classics season, he’s not the pure sprinter he used to be. Fortunately for him, a green jersey run is about more than winning the bunch kicks, so he could still be in with a chance.

  • After a slow start, can Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) live up to the expectations created by both his past performance and his present mouth? Will the ill-will of the Tour de Suisse have faded by the start in Rotterdam?

  • Will Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transistions) get his Tour stage win? He’s hot off a win at the Delta Tour Zeeland, which could indicate he’s building back up after nabbing two stages at the Giro d’Italia. If he can pull off a Tour stage, he’ll join teammate Dave Zabriskie on the list of Americans who’ve won stages of all three grand tours.

  • Which of the second line sprinters will steal some of the limelight? Saxo Bank’s rising classics star and fast man Matti Breschel? Lampre young ‘un Francesco Gavazzi? Some French guy?

  • Which leadout man is most likely to take a sneaky stage win while his leader sweeps his wheel for him – Julian Dean (Garmin-Transitions), or Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia)?

  • Robbie McEwen (Katusha) is likely staring down the barrel of his last Tour. Will he be able to go out on a good note after a year of injuries and setbacks?

  • Anyone seen Thor Hushovd lately? Anyone?

  • Will Oscar Friere (Rabobank) get one more stage? Though he doesn’t have the top end that a lot of the sprinters have, in a tricky finish run it’s hard to count him out. With his classics experience, he’s likely to be in the mix on the early northern stages, where he may be more likely to win from a small group or reduced bunch.

Help at Last?

For me, the big takeaway from the Tour de Suisse wasn’t the success of Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) or the Radio Shack squad’s apparent depth. It was Steve Morabito (BMC) and the BMC team. Morabito ended up fourth overall, but more importantly he finished in the contenders group three seconds back from winner Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the climbing stage to the Schwarzenberg, then followed that up by finishing seventh in a group :43 back from Robert Gesink (Rabobank) on stage 6 to La Punt. Add Morabito’s performance to Marcus Burghardt’s wins on two rolling stages, Mathias Frank’s wins in the KOM and intermediate sprints competitions, and solid performances from rouleurs George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan, and it starts to look like Cadel Evans could finally go into a grand tour with some legitimate support when it counts. Sure, Tour de Suisse is BMC’s defacto national tour, so you’d expect them to put some effort in, but the fact that Evans wasn’t there reveals where their real priorities very justifiably lie.

While we’re on it, you know who else might finally have some help in the mountains? Denis Menchov (Rabobank). The oft-overlooked Russian is putting all his eggs in the Tour basket this year, and might finally have some high-mountain companionship from Robert Gesink, who’s finally starting to live up to the potential we’ve caught glimpses of in the last few years.

How Soon They Forget

Speaking of Evans…Armstrong, Contador, and various Schlecks are all on everyone’s lips, given the recent conclusions of the Dauphine and Suisse. But geez, doesn’t anyone remember the Giro a month back? Sure, the Dauphine and Suisse are obviously fresher in our minds, but the Giro showed us a few relevant points too, and in a fairly spectacular fashion. For prognosticating purposes, the Giro also carries the added weight of being a three-week race. A couple of Giro takeaways, lest we forget:

  • Evans is obviously a new man this year, and could find himself right in the mix if his team shows up (see above). It’s probably also worth noting that while the lack of TT kilometers in this Tour will count against him vis-à-vis challenges from the Schlecks, with his experience and his teams, he could also be a big gainer in the early stages in the low countries. It’s also important to note that Evans had some surprising standout performances on the Giro’s steep ramps, a promising sign given that the Pyrenees will play a crucial role in this year’s Tour.

  • Everybody’s banging on about Radio Shack and Saxo Banks’ depth, and with good reason, but good lord, does anyone remember how Liquigas looked in the Giro, on a course where team strength wasn’t supposed to matter? I don’t believe they’ve announced their team yet, but Liquigas looks to be just as strong for the Tour as they were for the Giro, if not stronger. While Basso’s chief Giro lieutenant/co-captain Vincenzo Nibali is taking a break after this weekend’s national championship, the team will likely bring in Czech stage race hope Roman Kreuziger, and possibly wonderboy Peter Sagan as well. Mix in Giro standouts Sylvester Szmyd, Valerio Agnoli, and Robert Kiserlovski, pick three more depending on who’s good, and you have a team that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.

Something About Radio Shack

Radio Shack announced its Tour de France lineup on Monday, beaming out a roster that contains few surprises but still manages to be shocking when you see it written down. Quite simply, it may be the oldest Tour de France squad in history, though I’ll leave it up to the real number crunchers to verify that.* Yes, for the first time in decades, an American team has fielded a squad that can answer that most American of questions: Where were you when Kennedy was shot?

Overall, the team weighs in at an experienced-but-reasonable average age of 32.5, but that’s thanks to a foursome of 30 year old workhorses – Yaroslav Popovytch, Sergio Paulinho, Gregory Rast, and Dmitri Muravyev – as well as a substantial contribution from young Jani Brajkovic’s 26 years. But the RadioShack power elite – headed by Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, and Levi Leipheimer – comes in at a whopping 36.75 years old. (If you don’t want to consider Horner and his 38 years as part of that group, fine, but eliminating him only brings the average age to 36.3.)

With an average age like that, people will rattle on about all sorts of legitimate ways to beat RadioShack, like frequent tempo changes on the climbs or making the race hard on back-to-back days to make recovery a key issue. But that’s all bullshit. If you want to beat a team of old guys, you have to look beyond cycling for your tactics. So here’s the Service Course advice for challenging Radio Shack at this year’s tour:

  • Keep a jersey pocket full of butterscotch candies, and throw them to the side of the road on climbs. Butterscotch is like old person flypaper.

  • Start a whisper campaign aimed at getting the UCI to classify Rascal scooters as “motorized doping.”

  • Have the UCI outlaw the wearing of tall black socks with shorts. By prohibiting the time-honored old person dress code, you’re sure to disrupt their mental game.

  • Air reruns of Matlock during time trials. Late starthouse appearances will surely ensue.

  • Get Cialis listed as performance enhancing substance. The cycling kind of performance enhancing substance.

  • Switch labels on denture cream, chamois cream.

Extremely cheap and largely hypocritical potshots aside, it’s a hell of a strong team. Just, you know, old, which as I said, isn’t shocking. So what is shocking about this team? No Spaniards. Starting in 2001, when Bruyneel began having to replace departing American climbing talents like Jonathan Vaughters, Kevin Livingston, and Tyler Hamilton, Spaniards became a mainstay of Bruyneel/Armstrong collaborations. For awhile in the early-mid 2000s, the team was probably the best Spanish team in cycling. This year, Haimar Zubeldia was the last likely Spanish hope for a Tour start, but since he’s out with a broken wrist, the Portuguese Paulinho is the lone Iberian representative on the squad. Of course, Zubeldia is a Basque, so despite his passport and the little Spanish flag next to his name on Versus, he might not consider himself any more Spanish than Paulinho. In fact, by hailing from Texas, Armstrong might be the closest thing to a native Spanish-speaker on the squad.

* If you did want to figure out what the oldest Tour team ever was, I’d start by looking at the immediate post-WWII Tours, when lots of the pre-war stars gave it a final shot, and much of the younger generation had been, well, killed.

The Dope Test Flap

There’s big news this week in acronym city, where at the order of WADA, the UCI will be conducting special dope tests at ASO’s TdF at the request of AFLD. You can view a nice bulleted outline of the situation and the decision here (thanks to @cyclingfansanon for the link). While nobody enjoys an inter-agency procedural eye-gouging match as much as I do, the real news to come out of this whole kerfuffle has been insanely understated – namely that AFLD claims to have information from customs/border agents and other law enforcement that seems to justify targeted testing of certain riders at the Tour. Uhh…that could be big news. Like Willy Voet big news.

Barry Finally Gets His Tour

Team Sky released its Tour de France roster this morning, an affair I’m sure my UK friends will thoroughly dissect within a matter of minutes, so I’ll leave it to them and just comment on one small part of it. For me, the biggest news was the selection of Mike Barry to ride his first Tour. You already know Barry through his writing, of course. But in addition to his abilities in capturing the sport from the inside, he’s also a very capable domestique who’s been worthy of a Tour ride for years, as proven by his service at the classics and various Vueltas and Giros. But riding as he did for Bruyneel’s deep Tour-winning teams, he never quite got the call-up earlier in his career. Maybe, as a Canadian, he just didn’t speak enough Spanish, who knows.

This year, though, he’s finally getting his shot, which is good, because it was feeling a bit like now-or-never time. I’m glad for him. Yes, I know he came up in Floyd Landis’s doping allegations, but he was also my next door neighbor in a sublet in Boulder about 11 years ago, when he was with Saturn and his wife Dede was still racing. I didn’t really know him, or her, and still don’t. I was just interning at VeloNews then, and figured the last thing I’d want to have next door if I were a pro cyclist was some cycling writer chatting me up every day when I got home. So I kept my distance. But Mike and Dede were always friendly, with a hello in the stairway or a wave as we passed coming and going on bikes. Like a lot of the people mentioned in various dope stories, they’re real people for me, and I try to remember that. The whole Landis thing will sort itself out, and we’ll all be happy or vindicated or disappointed or otherwise affected by what we find out about a lot of people. But that can wait. For now I’ll wish Barry all the best in his Tour debut. It’s about time.

Tanking Up

Media outlets being in the tank for sports teams or individual athletes is nothing new, and it’s certainly not limited to professional cycling. In fact, just last week the Washington City Paper detailed the long, mutually profitable relationship between longtime NBC affiliate sports reporter George Michael and the Washington Redskins NFL franchise. It’s an interesting piece, but a little anti-climactic, both because Michael recently passed away, and because his Redskins bootlicking was so obvious you pretty much knew he had to be getting something out of it. Nobody would do that for free.

But unlike National Football League teams, cycling teams don’t typically have much cold, hard cash to throw at reporters to produce fawning infomercials about them. (At least I don’t think they do, though last year’s Versus Tour de France coverage occasionally made me question that theory.) Nor do most cycling publications have the resources or, thankfully, the ethical flexibility to pay riders for interviews (well, mostly). Nah, the currency that’s passed between the cycling media and its subjects isn’t cash, but rather the easily exchanged commodities of access and good press.

Once the initial contact and sniffing out between the reporter and rider are done, the access half of the equation follows a simple formula – write nice things (or wave your hands at the camera and mispronounce nice things) and we’ll keep talking with you. Disagree publicly, and we won’t. Do me an extra-special favor when I really need one, and maybe you’ll get that exclusive interview or insider tidbit later. Down the line, those interviews and tidbits get converted to attention-grabbing items that increase newsstand purchases, subscriptions, or page hits, thereby providing the media outlet with…cash.

In exchange, the media member that’s granted that extra level of access – the kind of access that goes well beyond dishing out a few post-race trivialities to the assembled finish line hoard or sitting for a 10 minute pre-season interview at camp – is expected to use their available pulpit to tell the rider’s side of whatever the story may be, and righteously defend him from his enemies when need be. Or at least not stir the pot in the other direction. Down the line, that lopsided coverage, if it’s done right, will result in a better and higher-profile image for the rider, which will lead to better sponsorships, endorsements, and other deals, thereby providing the rider or team with…cash.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like these arrangements hinge on some tedious written agreement that’s hashed out by contract attorneys. It’s a little more organic than that, and some outlets’ overtures towards riders are fairly aspirational – floating that over-positive story out in hopes it’ll be noticed and become the launching point for a closer relationship. It’s also worth noting that what a rider needs to grant access varies considerably. For some, just not being patently offensive to them is enough, and as long as you don’t remark repeatedly on how unattractive their mother is or the lack of intellectual prowess displayed by their girlfriend, they’ll be happy to talk. Others have to actually know and/or like you, and still others likely have to know in no uncertain terms what you’re planning to write. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how those degrees of scrutiny typically correlate to the rider’s pay grade.

Beneficial as it is for both reporter and rider, if not for the media consumer, it’s an understandable arrangement. That doesn’t make it palatable, of course, but frankly, no matter whether you like the flavor or not, it’s unlikely to change any time soon. You can do bare-bones race reporting without much rider access, because that just takes an understanding of the game, a view of the TV, and a seat in the audience at the winner’s press conference if you want to go deluxe. But actual for-profit web sites, newspapers, and magazines need more than that – they need the inside skinny, the big interview when things are falling apart, that photo shoot of a superstar’s bike room, the ride-along during the final TT of a grand tour. In the age of streaming, on-demand video of races, that stuff is what sells magazines and gets hits on web articles, not telling the public who made the early break in the stage they all watched yesterday. So they get it how they can.

Like the City Paper, though, cycling’s media consumers are pretty willing to call the media out when they hop the border between press and press agent, only we're willing to do it while the reporter is still alive. Last year, the SC was critical of what I thought was a too-cozy and one-sided handling of Lance Armstrong by the VeloNews editorial department, and Patrick Brady of Red Kite Prayer is currently taking a bit of a beating for the same perceived offense in the comments section of this article on the “Contador bought his own wheels” scandalette. In the course of that piece, Brady, in turn, insinuates that Spanish daily Marca is deeply and irretrievably immersed in Alberto Contador’s bathtub. And he’s probably right. After all, if media outlets didn’t need to say nice things to assure continued access to their target markets’ top dogs, why else would cyclingnews.com have touted Michael Rogers as a Tour hope all those years?

Anyway, since we seem to be stuck with it, I say that media and pseudo-media outlets should band together to make the best of the inevitable game of media-rider kissy face. On the cusp of a new season, what we need to do first is expand our horizons a bit, go for the less obvious partnerships. Really, where’s the fun if we’re all in the Armstrong tank, or the Contador tank, or the Boonen or Nys tank? For godssake, someone snuggle up to some of these other guys: let’s pick a neo-pro and lock him in young, rock the sport with some unrelenting and unapologetic coverage of Frederic Guesdon, or sign up to be the official undercover media mouthpiece of anyone on Footon-Servetto. That way, readers can get some balance in coverage, even if they have to visit 16 separate sites to get it.

And media members, once you pick your tank, remember: no matter what salacious or despicable act your rider may commit, no matter how big the tactical blunder, no matter how apparent the lack of fitness may be, you must vigorously defend and even promote his position and interests to the public. You must, despite any well-reasoned and fully-cited arguments against him, despite any amount – mountain or molehill – of damning evidence that comes to light, rise to protect your selected rider from the slings and arrows of an obviously fickle, ill-informed, and ignorant public. And when called upon, you must refute, point by point, the arguments made by his accusers, slanderers, and various other malcontents.

What the hell, I’ll take Filippo Pozzato.


- Does Cadel Evans even have a tank? If so, who’s in it?

- Credit Peter Hymas, formerly of the excellent Bobke Strut and lately of the much larger but less endearing cyclingnews.com, for starting the unconventional tank trend by forsaking other more talented and visually appealing riders and throwing his love behind Ag2r’s hairless spider monkey, John Gadret. That’s the spirit.

- I know I said above that I’d take up Pozzato’s cause, especially with the coming Boonen-mania of the spring classics, but Liquigas is practically advertising opportunities to jump in their tank, and a trip to San Pelligrino sounds mighty good. I hear the water there is terrific.

- Somewhere in the cited RKP article above, Brady flatly states as truth that it is “standard practice” that riders are all provided the same equipment by sponsors, noting that Trek confirmed for him that that was the case at Astana last year. In the broad sense, it’s true that all riders on a given team do receive the same equipment (e.g., you all get a Felt with Dura-Ace and Mavic wheels), but let’s not pretend that the stars don’t get special toys, which is the matter at hand in the article. For instance, Trek famously developed a special extra-narrow TT bike for Armstrong during his Tour run. He didn’t like it, and Ekimov eventually ended up riding it, but as far as I know, not everyone in the team rank-and-file had access to one. Similarly, in 2007, Tom Boonen was issued a custom aluminum version of Specialized’s usually-carbon Tarmac to correct a fit problem he was having, and more recently had custom carbon bikes made up for his spring classics campaign. In 2004, after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Stefan Wesemann showed up the next weekend for Paris-Roubaix riding a custom Giant carbon road bike with extra clearances and cantilever brakes. Nobody else on T-Mobile had one, and there were all of two made, or at least that’s what he told me. And those are just cases where the equipment actually came from sponsors – the big guns also tend to get away with playing it a little looser with the sponsor equipment rules. So, standard practice maybe, but with some considerable and relevant exceptions.

Used Car Lot

On January 23, British auction house Bonhams will be putting a suite of classic automobiles and other associated “automobilia” on the block at its Automobiles d'Exception à Rétromobile auction in Paris.

So what the hell does that have to do with professional cycling? If we’re going to rattle on about pretty metal things on display, accessible for purchase only by the fabulously wealthy, shouldn’t we at least be talking about the upcoming North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond, Virginia, and not cars?


But in the course of looking for something else (cycling related, I assure you), I came across this blog post from Hemmings Motor News, which features seven Tour de France publicity caravan vehicles from the 1950s and 1960s sold at last year's auction. In it, Hemmings manages to capture some of the flavor of the Tour’s vaunted "pastis and accordion" era through photos, some pretty good snarky commentary, and plenty of auto-gearhead details and historical notes from the auction brochure. And there's not even the obligatory lycra joke that car publications are required to make when bicycling is mentioned. Who'd have thought?

Final selling prices ran a fairly modest gamut, from under €6,000 for a 1959 Hoover vacuum-mobile, since made over as a circus promo, to just over €40,000 for a creepy 1951 candy-mobile straight out of Beetlejuice. I don’t see any Tour caravan vehicles listed for this year's auction though, which is unfortunate, since I was just starting to picture myself driving a 1973 giant sausage on a Citroen chassis down I-95 to the handbuilt bike show.

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.