Frankly, I don't know what to think about the 2007 Tour. We saw some great racing in both the Alps and the Pyrenees. Aggressive riding and attacks by all the favorites marked the march across the mountains and the rain-soaked first time trial produced more drama as well. But, in the end, I just don't feel like there was a real winner of this year's Tour. Don't get me wrong, Contador, Evans and Leipheimer rode really well and deserve plaudits for their efforts. They were clearly the strongest riders who finished the Tour. But kicking Rasmussen out when he was clearly the dominant rider just makes the final outcome in Paris unsatisfying.
Maybe we can give an honorable mention yellow jersey and all three podium finishers could wear one. As I said in an earlier blog when referring to Levi and his riding in the Pyrenees and time trial, he earned his podium position. I feel the same for the gritty riding by Evans and the incredible accelerations of Contador. All three of these riders deserve to be on the podium. But, does one of them deserve to stand on the top step?
BTW, a lot of journalists are saying that Contador is an unlikely winner. If you read my pre-Tour prediction article on this site, you will notice that I predicted that Contador was a lock for the white jersey, and that even though he might have to work for Levi, he was also a contender for the overall. Hey, that's why they pay me the big bucks.
So what is going to happen with the Tour? As I said in my blog yesterday, things will get worse before they get better because the first item on the agenda is for the Tour organization (ASO) to define its relationship with the UCI. In all probability this will result in WWIII and the Tour will probably make serious moves to distance itself from the UCI. ASO has a huge sports property and clearly feels a need to protect its viability. To save the Tour, ASO feels that it needs to divorce itself from the UCI.
As far as the doping problem goes, I see this as two separate problems. First, there are the systematic doping programs that some professional teams employ. These systematic programs need to be dismantled much like what Bob Stapleton is attempting to do at T-Mobile. Secondly, there are the individual riders who operate outside the purview of their team. This is a much more difficult problem and the only current solution is more out-of-competition testing. I think it will be easier for the teams, if they really want to, to clean up their own internal doping programs, I am hoping that more out-of-competition controls will catch the lone wolves.
Hey, don't give up hope. The Tour has been around for 100-plus years. It has survived two world wars and a 20-plus-year drought of no French victory so it will survive. I haven't given up hope and neither should you!
With all the excitement surrounding Vino and the Chicken, a few of my blogs got sidetracked. Hey, there was some good stuff in there, if I do say so myself. Read on.
I talked with Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre about Tom Boonen and his quest for the green, sprinter's jersey, something Tom has tried hard to win for the past four years, but has come up empty each time. Lefevre noted that in the past Tom was down to 174 pounds for the Tour trying to be lighter to be able to get through the mountains. Patrick felt, looking back, that was too light for Boonen; after 10 days he was finished. This year Boonen was up to 181 pounds which is the optimal weight for him.
Lefevre also remarked that in the last several years Tom has had a lot of pressure on him to win. He raced too many races. This year, after the classics, Lefevre told Boonen to take some time off to rest but also to take off the pressure. And apparently, as Belgium's most popular cyclist rides down the Champs Elysees in green, the plan worked!
How about Levi in the final TT? Leipheimer told us at the Discovery Channel pre-Tour press conference that he was planning on peaking in the third week of the Tour and he did just that. And he almost snagged the yellow jersey. As Hannibal Smith used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together." More importantly, because Rasmussen's departure opened a slot on the podium for Levi, it was critical that Leipheimer ride well to prove that he earned, rather than inherited, his podium spot. Levi's ride on the last Pyrenean stage coupled with his TT win clearly proved he earned third place.
There's going to be a major war between the ASO, the company which owns the Tour, and the UCI. This feud nearly crippled pro racing early this past spring. After the doping scandals at the Tour, you can rest assured that Mssrs. Prudhomme and Clerc are not going to let the UCI control their race. Frankly, the UCI has been extremely two-faced when dealing with the doping problem and they have no leg to stand on to defend themselves. However, the UCI being the UCI, they will attempt to defend their actions and the rift will cause even more damage to the sport of cycling. Stay tuned; it will get worse before it gets better and I am not talking about the doping problem.
Talk about irony. In all likelihood, Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador will win the 2007 Tour de France. Not to take anything away from the Spanish rider's efforts, but his victory is due to Michael Rasmussen's departure because of the Rabobank rider's suspicions of doping. Discovery Channel is in the final year of sponsoring Contador's team. For the squad to continue in 2008, they need to find a sponsor to the tune of about $15 million a year. Unfortunately, because of all the doping scandals in the sport, the Discovery Channel team has been unable to find a replacement sponsor.
It is incredibly ironic that the situation which will most likely bring the team the Tour's yellow jersey, may also lead to be the demise of the very same team. It just doesn't get anymore Shakespearean than that. Would the team rather have the yellow jersey or a new title sponsor? What a dilemma.
Given that the Discovery Channel team may not exist next year, several of its American riders have signed letters of intent to ride for ex-U.S. Postal and Credit Agricole rider Jonathan Vaughters' new European pro team. Currently, Vaughters is the director of Team Slipstream, which is registered as a UCI Continental team. Because they are a continental team and not a pro tour squad, Vaughters must fight to get his riders entry into Europe's best bike races. With the addition of some high-profile riders, Vaughters could make a bid to become a Pro Tour team. Hey, Astana's Pro Tour license may be up for grabs.
Jonathan is reported to have a budget of about $5 million, a full two-thirds less than the needs of the Discovery Channel squad. It was reported this week that George Hincapie, David Millar and David Zabriske have signed letters of intent to switch to Vaughters' team for 2008. Rumors have also linked Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Christian Vandevelde. It seems like as one door closes another one opens. Of course, the best scenario is one that has all doors opening for cycling and the teams having to choose which sponsors they want.
So, as Contador gets one step closer to the top spot on the podium in Paris, the sponsorship woes of Discovery Channel and several other teams are very real, due in large part to the Tour's doping scandals which put Contador in yellow in the first place. Did everyone get that? Do I need to type more slowly? Do I need some descriptive pictures or diagrams?
Just when you thought the Tour couldn't get any weirder, Michael Rasmussen has been asked by his Rabobank team to leave the race and the wearer of the yellow jersey has departed. The request comes after revelations that the Danish rider holds a Mexican racing license and hasn't had an out-of-competition drug test in two years. Because, this year, Rasmussen is a member of the Danish national team he also comes under their scrutiny and has missed at least two out-of-competition tests requested by the Danish national cycling federation.
Rabobank team officials deny that the Tour organizers put any pressure on them to expel Rasmussen, but on Tuesday, the Tour bosses said, "Michael Rasmussen should not have started the Tour. We should have refused him entry into the Tour." It is clear from the expulsion of both the Astana and Cofidis teams in the wake of positive tests by riders from those squads that the Tour organizers are taking a very strong stand on doping, a policy which can best be described as "zero tolerance".
Frankly, I am stunned. It is hard for me to believe that the Rabobank team decided, on their own accord, to throw away an almost certain Tour victory. In the short term this is a disaster for the team and its sponsors, most notably the Dutch bank Rabobank. However, in the long term, given the comments made to me by Tour boss Christian Prudhomme about running the Tour next year under the Tour's rules, the team is risking a possible non-participation in next year's race, and future Tours for that matter, if it doesn't deal with this situation quickly and effectively.
Let's face facts: For most professional cycling teams, the Tour is far and away the most important race on the cycling calendar and in most sponsor's eyes; it is critical for justifying the huge budgets of $8,000 to 15,000,000 a year for a top-flight professional cycling team. So, it would appear that Rabobank was caught between a rock and a hard place and decided to look to the long term rather than the short term.
However, the other side of the whole doping saga of the Tour, which really should be the subject of another blog, is the rider's rights. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code says that a rider is positive only after both their A and B samples have tested positive. In both the cases of Vinokourov and Cofidis rider Cristian Moreni, whose positive test for testosterone was announced on Wednesday, the B sample testing has yet to be conducted. What if, for example, Vino's B sample test comes back negative. Vino's courageous performance and two stage wins, plus the opportunity for his Astana team to shine have been unjustly taken away.
I am all for fighting doping with as much energy and resources as possible, but just like our Bill of Rights, the organizers of cycling must not deny the athletes their rights. The sport needs to win the fight against doping. I am just hoping that a "ends justifies the means" attitude does not descend upon the sport. If that happens we may win the battle, but lose the war.
Bob Stapleton has been on an e-ticket ride in this year's Tour. The head of Team T-Mobile has experienced the full range of emotions, from a stage win to the yellow jersey to the team leader crashing out to a doping scandal. And the Tour still has four days to go! It would be easy to understand if the California resident hopped a plane in Paris and didn't look back. But then, you don't know Bob.
Unlike most team managers, Stapleton didn't come to the sport of cycling as a former professional racer. Though he can definitely ride a bike, including conquering such Tour landmarks as the Col du Tourmalet, Bob is a businessman first and rider second. In the '90s, Bob and two friends, Don and Tim, founded a small cellular telephone company Voicestream which quickly grew into a major player in the American cell phone market. T-Mobile of Germany bought VoiceStream to form T-Mobile USA and Bob suddenly found himself with both a lot of time and money.
Stapleton got his start in team management directing the efforts of the professional women's T-Mobile team, but when the men's professional squad was rocked by major doping scandals last year, T-Mobile corporate HQ asked Bob to step in and straighten things out. T-Mobile wanted someone outside the sport's traditionally inbred culture to make the changes necessary to clean up the team's image.
Bob was instrumental in implementing a comprehensive in-house medical control program and has been working hard at bigger-picture issues such as selling the sport of cycling to new corporate sponsors. However, admissions of doping by such ex-T-Mobile riders as 2006 Tour de France champion Bjarne Riis and super sprinter Erik Zabel have made it seem like three steps forward and two steps back for the soft-spoken Californian's efforts. With rumors that T-Mobile might be pulling its sponsorship of the team, here's hoping that Stapleton gets a fighting chance to clean up the team and the sport. Cycling needs more guys like Bob.
It has been such a crazy last 24 hours at the Tour, I should probably explain yesterday's remarks made to me by Christian Prudhomme that next year the Tour will follow the Tour's rules. Basically, the Tour organization wants complete control over which riders it will allow to participate in its race. If any rider is suspected of not being clean, organizers want to be able to exclude that rider from participating, something they cannot presently do under the guidelines with which the UCI governs the sport of professional cycling. For example, it has come to light that Vinokourov was one of the so-called "men in black," a rider who was suspected of using doping products. If the Tour had been following its own rules and not the UCI's, they could have excluded him solely on suspicion and the current scandal would have been avoided.
As for today's race:
Levi was the man. He did everything he possibly could within himself to distance himself from Cadel Evans and try to climb onto the Tour podium. It was an incredibly gutsy performance. Let's hope he can uncork a great performance in the time trial and take that podium position from Evans, which he so deserves.
Oops! One day I am writing about how I like the Team Astana jerseys and how they look good at the front of the race, and the next day, the whole team has been tossed from the Tour in the wake of Alexandre Vinokourov testing positive for non-homologous blood doping after his win in the time trial in Albi. This is the same offense for which Tyler Hamilton tested positive in 2004; the fact that the doping lab was able to turn around the test in just two days, undoubtedly indicates that the Kazakh rider was being closely watched.
Based on the result of Vinokourov's test, Tour officials asked Team Astana to leave the Tour and they accepted.
The news of Vinoukorov comes on the heels of the morning's press conference where yellow jersey-wearer Michael Raasmussen clarified his situation with the Danish Cycling Federation. As a member of the Danish National Team, Rasmussen is required to be available for out-of-competition testing. This year, he has missed two such tests--which would normally mean that he is disqualified from racing. However, Rasmussen holds a Mexican racing license, an option he has because his wife is Mexican. Rasmussen admitted today that he has not had an out-of-competition test from the Mexican Cycling Federation in two years.
When the Tour organizers heard this new information, their response was quick. "Michael Rasmussen should not have started the Tour. We should have refused him entry into the Tour," noted Tour bosses Christian Prudhomme and Patrice Clerc. But, they were quick to add, "this sport deserves all we can do to save it."
Oh me, oh my! This news is too fresh to completely understand all the implications, but having arguably the two highest-profile riders at the Tour tainted by doping is a sad, sad day for the sport.
ps - after the Tour press conference, I talked with Christian Prudhomme one-on-one and he told me that next year the Tour de France would be run under the Tour's rules, indicating that they would not follow the rules of the Union Cycliste International(UCI) which currently governs the sport of professional cycling. This particular issue has been a bone of contention during the long-standing fued between the Tour organizers and the UCI.
Does the peloton really need race radios? Every rider wears one; they are used to communicate with the team director in the support car. The excitement generated by the likes of Vinokourov, Contador and Rasmussen at the Tour belies the fact that a lot of pro racing has become boring. The riders have become robots, pedaling along waiting for the orders from the team director to attack or chase. Most of the directors have satellite TV in their autos, so they can follow the race and react in an instant. The result is almost always predictable. There are few surprises.
Personally, I would like to ban race radios. Lest you think I am flip-flopping, I first wrote about my dislike of the radios way back in 1993, when they were first introduced by Motorola with its Peloton Communication System. Motorola sponsored a European professional team back then. One of its riders was a 21-year-old Texan named Lance. Unfortunately, Motorola management did not appreciate my stance and when I visited the team on the first rest day in Grenoble, I was politely asked to reconsider my opinion. Well, it has been 14 years and I still don't like radios.
The teams will argue that the radios make riding in the pack much safer. If a rider has a problem he can contact his director over the airwaves rather than go back between all the team cars risking an accident. Yes, this is one valid reason, but the riders still have to go back to their cars to pick-up/drop-off equipment and fetch food and water. So, I am not convinced that it is critical to reduce trips back to the cars.
A lot of the riders don't like the radios either. Back in the day, part of being a pro was reading the race. You had to be at the front to make sure none of the danger men slipped away. Conversely, if you were pretty crafty, you might be able to attack and get away with little notice. Now, information on who is up the road is right there on the TV in the director's car. So, riders just sit in the pack waiting to be told what to do. It's all about horsepower below the waist and not above the neck. How do you all feel about race radios in the peloton?
I have about as much fashion sense as a wet paper bag, but I still know what I like and don't like. When it comes to the cycling kits (that's English for "uniform") the Tour riders are wearing, Team Astana wins my vote for best dressed. That light blue strip (that's English for "kit") is easy on the eyes which, given that the Astana boys seem to be in all the moves at the front, is a good thing. The yellow jerseys and shorts of the Saunier Duval-Prodir squad is also one of my favorites. And since we are in France, I have to admit that the AG2R boys are styling.
The worst-dressed list is headed by the Euskatel-Euskadi team of Basque riders. These guys took a very nice-looking strip and turned it into a fashion nightmare. If you are going to do orange, which is the primary color of the Basque flag, you have to go bright and bold like the previous Euskatel jerseys. It seems like they toned down the brightness a bit--not good. But it's the shorts that really blow. The orange patch in the back makes the riders look like they are wearing fanny packs. OK, I know some of you out there wear fanny packs when you ride but this is the Tour where they have support vehicles and domestiques to carry everything.
I still haven't warmed up to the new Discovery clothing. Props to the boys for going green and addressing global warming, but I'm so used to the old kit it just doesn't seem right. Of course, when your sponsor's logo is black-and-white, you're behind the eight ball before you even get started. I am convinced we will have one, possibly two, Disco riders on the podium in Paris so I guess I'd better learn to like their new kit.
Well, if you haven't figured out by now that I have no eye for fashion, please chime in and let me know whose kit you like and don't like. Obviously, there are no winners or losers, or I would be out of here.
Some race commentary
Vino continues to make us all feel bad for his early race crash and what might have been. If you haven't warmed up to the Kazakh's aggressiveness, check your blood pressure. I saw his right knee wound, sans bandage, and it looked really ugly. Luckily for me, dinner isn't for a few hours.
The Contador-Rasmussen tete-a-tete was incredible. Rasmussen told the French press after the stage that he knew he had to go with each attack because George Hincapie was still up the road, and if Contador got up to him solo it could have gotten ugly.
I feel sorry for Levi. He was stuck in a no-win situation. Maybe he didn't have the legs to go with Contador or counterattack once Rasmussen and his teammate were away, but if Levi wants to get on the podium, he is going to have to put Cadel Evans in his rear-view mirrors on the final mountain stage since Evans appears to have better TT form.
There was no room at the inn for Bruce. I arrived at my hotel in St. Girons (Hostelier La Rotonde so you can avoid it) and the hotel manager told me that hotel was full. The conversation went something like this:
Bruce: I have a reservation.
Hotel Manager: The hotel is full.
Bruce: Yes, but I have a reservation.
HM: there are no rooms available in this town because the Tour de France is coming.
Bruce (holding a paper copy of all correspondence with the hotel): look at these emails. They say
I have a reservation. Less than two weeks ago, I re-sent you an email to confirm my reservation and
you replied that I had a reservation!
HM: I am sorry there are no rooms at this hotel.
Bruce: But you say here in this email that I have a reservation.
HM: I am sorry there are no rooms in this hotel!
BTW, this is a pretty common occurence in France, especially during the Tour (which is why I confirmed it). If a hotel can rent a room for a longer period than one night, they conveniently lose your reservation so they can make more money.
Anyway, I ended up in the little town of Oust which has one hotel and it had rooms because nobody stays there unless they can't get a hotel room in St.Girons. Hey, but the silver lining is that I met Iniki, a 16-year-old bike racer from Pamplona--you know, where they run the bulls. He was so full of enthusiasm and energy, he put me back in a good mood.
As two race aficionados do, we chatted about pro racing. Iniki was sorry for Valverde's poor ride in the time trial in Albi and felt Vino's ride was valiant; fighting back as he did from such a bad crash. Iniki was also impressed with Evans and thinks a podium is possible for him. We both agreed that Discovery Channel was exceptionally strong with three riders capable of doing well. Iniki told me that he had just finished a four-day stage race around Pamplona. He knew, compared to the Tour that it was nothing special, but it was his first-ever stage race and he felt he finished well.
Finally, it was time for Iniki to mount his Cervelo and head for the hills. I hope he enjoyed his ride up Plateau de Beille with all fanfare of a stage finish and that his enthusiasm for the sport never weakens!
Now for some race commentary:
What a great stage today! The attacking on the final climb was non-stop and it looked like, at one time or another, all the favorites threw at least one punch. It was great to see Levi attack; in all the years he has ridden the Tour, this is the first time I can remember seeing him go up the road. The French press were dying to know if Rasmussen gave the stage to Contador and the Chicken replied that they both wanted to win. There were no gifts given. Also, Rasmussen related his
discussion with Contador one kilometer from the finish. The Rabobank rider told Contador rather than play around for the stage finish, it was in their best interest to take as much time out of Cadel Evans as possible as he looks to be better in the TTs. You just gotta love all the strategy!
What a great Tour. I hope everyone is enjoying it as much as I am. Are you?
With rain falling at the TT in Albi, strategy is going to play a very important role. Tyler Hamilton told me after the 2003 Tour de France that the final TT, where he jumped from seventh to fourth overall was all about strategy. First off, the course was a point-to-point, and with a strong tailwind blowing all the way from the start to the finish it would mean that the overall time each rider spent on course would be less. This being the case, even though Tyler was faster than some of the riders ahead of him, with the faster overall times there was a possibility that he would not be on course long enough to gain back much time. Also, with rain coming down, taking a risk could lead to a crash.
Because the first half of the course was flat and fast, and the second half was tricky and technical, Tyler decided to race as hard as he could when there was less risk and back off when the course became more technical. His decisions paid off, though he just missed a podium place.
Lance Armstrong and his director used different tactics. To implement their plan, they would designate one rider who started much earlier than the Texas Tornado to ride the course flat out. This rider would radio back any tricky sections or sections demanding more attention insuring that Lance could give maximum possible effort at all times.
Of course, all the riders preview the course weeks or months in advance and then usually ride the route the morning of the TT just to make sure they know what is coming. Michael Rasmussen admitted that he did not preview the final TT course in the 2005 Tour. His multiple crashes and slide from, second to seventh place were the result. You can be assured he will not make that mistake again.
So what happened in Albi? Vino proved that he is a warrior. He is still in the show! Evans impressed me the most, as I said in an earlier blog, this is a man on a mission! And, the Chicken showed that he can limit his losses when it counts. It is going to be a battle royale in the Pyrenees.
A common misconception is that the strongest rider wins the time trial. Looking back at the past masters of the clockIndurain, Armstrong and Ullrichit is easy to see why there is such a perception. However form, or position on the bike, is almost as important as strength. If you aren't as aerodymanic as possible, you're wasting watts and that's costing you time.
Dave Zabriskie has won time trials (TT) in both the Tour and Giro d'Italia and is the current world champion silver medalist. It is no coincidence that his form on a time trial bike is as perfect as it gets. Last year, the Z-Man came up to my house to preview the key stages of the Tour of California. As we rode the time trial course, it was almost impossible for me to get any sort of draft! The final seven miles of the course was into a steady 20mph headwind. Most of us would blanch at the thought of finishing into such gusty conditions, but Dave, realizing what a critical role proper form plays in cheating the wind remarked that a headwind was an advantage for him. I am going to miss seeing him in the Tour's TT's, but like Michelangelo's David, he is definitely a study in form.
The spring before the 2004 Athens Olympics, Dede Barry, wife of T-Mobile rider Michael Barry, traveled to the testing track operated by the power people at SRM for analysis of her TT form. With some minor adjustments to her position on the bike, Dede was able to generate about 30 more watts--a whopping 10 percent improvement in her power output. Barry went on to win the silver medal in the TT in Athens capping a stellar career as one of America's most accomplished female racers.
Recently, we have seen that Levi Leipheimer has adopted Floyd Landis' unconventional, hands-up-in-front TT position. Obviously the result of wind-tunnel testing, Levi also realizes that time in the tunnel is just as important as time on the bike. Last winter, I accompanied Saunier-Duval pro riders David Millar and Gilberto Simoni to the San Diego Low Speed Wind Tunnel. What impressed me most was their attention to detail. Millar spent almost four hours in the tunnel just working out the most optimum combination of helmet and sunglasses!
Michael Rasmussen's drumsticks aren't the most powerful on the flat roads, but with optimal aerodynamic position, and the right combination of helmet and sunglasses, he just might keep the yellow jersey after the first time trial in Albi on Saturday.
Undoubtedly, the best news for us Americans following the stage in Marseilles was that Team CSC rider Dave Zabriskie was no longer the lantern rouge. No one deliberately competes for the honor of being in last place at the Tour, but this event is so difficult and requires such a superhuman effort just to finish that there is no shame in being at the bottom of the standings. In fact, most riders inherit the lantern rouge on the basis that riders below them in the standings drop out of the race!
Obviously, it is the intention of every rider to bring their A game to the Tour. But for some, it just doesn't work out. Look at heavy pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov. Did everyone else see the bandage on his right knee that was dripping puss and blood? It has been five days since his now infamous crash outside Bourg-en-Bresse, but his wounds are still oozing an incredible amount of fluid. One can only imagine how serious those cuts on his knees are, but clearly, they were a major reason for his failure in the Alps. However, when you carry the weight of the whole Kazakh nation on your shoulders, it is not easy to give up! Thanks Borat!
Getting back to Zabriskie, I haven't had a chance to talk to Dave yet, but I am guessing that his heavy pre-Tour racing schedule is at the root of his problems. Remember that he rode the Giro d'Italia, Italy's three-week national tour, in May and it was an exceptionally tough course. Zabriskie followed that up a few weeks later with the Dauphine Libere and its week-long pilgrimage through the French Alps. Dave was climbing like an angel on the hardest stages. He was on the bubble for making the Team CSC Tour squad; his performance at the Dauphine sealed the deal.
As I said earlier, there is no shame in being lantern rouge at the Tour. Having said that, I hope Dave rights his ship and rides well in the two time trials and the Pyrenees. He's a class rider clearly capable of being at the front when it gets tough. I hope we all get to see that before we reach Paris.
Well, as I write these words Dave Zabriskie has withdrawn from the Tour. I was really hoping that he would somehow recover and show us what I know he is capable of, but as we have seen since the beginning, the Tour is a harsh mistress and gives very few gifts. I'll miss you Z-man!
PS: There is nothing worse at the Tour than losing time on the flats. It was heartbreaking to see Christophe Moreau and his teammates trying to bring themselves back to the main peloton, but losing time all the way to the line. Team Astana seemed to be providing a lot of horsepower to keep Moreau from regaining the group. Clearly, they had a lot to gain with Kloden just behind Moreau on GC. However, it might also have been a little payback for Vino losing time when he crashed. Moreau may have lost the Tour today!
The President of France wasn't the only VIP at yesterday's finish. American Greg Lemond was also present in Briancon. The first U.S. rider to win the Tour had completed the Etape du Tour the day before, recording a very respectable top-700 finish in the field of 8,500. Undoubtedly, Greg had wheel-sucked off of our own Martin Dugard and Rob Klingensmith (read about it in their active.com blogs) before dropping the two bloggers and heading out on his own!
Lemond has been making news lately, but for all the wrong reasons. It seems like every time there is a doping incident or allegation, especially one involving an American rider, the press calls up Greg for his comments. Lemond, who raced as a pro for 15 seasons and besides his three Tour victories was also Pro Road Champion twice, doesn't shy away from the attention and speaks his mind--something that both Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis did not appreciate.
Lemond's motives for his missives seems to be that he feels doping is ruining the sport he so loves and he wants to clean it up. But, others have asserted that he is jealous of the victories of others, especially Lance, who has replaced him as America's most accomplished cyclist. And in the bigger picture some wonder why he has to say anything at all. Why can't he just respond "no comment"?
Is Lemond doing a good thing or a bad thing for pro cycling, most notably, the popularity of the sport in the U.S.? Why does Lemond seem to be right in the center of every cycling controversy? Hopefully, in the near future, Greg will give a more concise reason for why he feels so stridently. With two sons in their early 20s who appear to be more interested in fishing than cycling, it is not clear that one reason for his behavior is that Lemond is trying to keep the sport clean for his offspring.
Greg was an incredible ambassador for the sport in the U.S., and his actions and results opened a lot of doors for future American professionals in Europe. I think a lot of Lemond's comments are spot-on. I would just like to know his motivation. Anybody else got a feeling on this?
As the Tour leaves the Alps, let's take a look at who's hot and who's not.
Michael Rasmussen is molten. The Chicken, as he is known, has almost a three-minute lead thanks mostly to some very aggressive riding on the stage to Tignes. It was so refreshing to see one of the favorites attack with three big climbs remaining. Such attacks can pay big, but if you blow up, your Tour can be over just like that. Rasmussen's days in yellow are well-deserved.
In the Armstrong/Ullrich years, the Chicken's time trialing skills would have spelled defeat as both Lance and Jan were incredibly strong against the watch and could literally destroy their competition. However, this year's field does not include an overall contender with a certified TT pedigree, so the Chicken is looking good in Vegas.
Alejandro Valverde is probably the biggest threat. In April, Ivan Basso told me that he was impressed with Valverde's improvement in his TT times, making him a bonafide contender. Don't count Levi out just yet. Save for Rasmussen, he is only one minute behind his rivals and if he can uncork some fast rides against the watch he could win. I am also pulling for
Cadel Evans. He attacking in the mountains says he is here to win. The Aussie is capable of riding a fast TT--witness his win in the 2006 Tour of Romandie.
One interesting aspect of this Tour is that there is so much parity that if one rider, like the Chicken, is able to put everything together and have the ride of his life, that might just be good enough to win in Paris. Personally, I just love seeing contenders like Rasmussen, Moreau and Evans attacking and doing so when failure could exact a huge price.
I would love to hear what everyone else is thinking!
ps - it is great to see Rasmussen doing so well. Last year after the Tour
he crashed heavily and broke his hip so badly that his career was in doubt.
When I caught up with him at the Tour of California in February, he had really
just started training for real and was nursing a horrible head cold. Clearly,
he was not enjoying his time on the bike. My guess is that has all changed!
Today is the first rest day at the Tour. What do the riders do on the rest day? These guys are professionals and each rider does what works for them. Some guys will actually ride up to four hours, believing that if they don't they will have stale legs. Others will spend as much time off the bike as possible, trying to send all their body's energy to help heal first-week road rash.
At last year's Team Phonak celebration party in Paris, Floyd Landis told me that the hardest he rode during the entire Tour was 470 watts for 10 minutes during the second rest day. He also mentioned, three days before he tested positive, that his numbers on the now infamous Stage 17 were nothing special, just like a normal training day in the mountains. But I digress.
The affable Chris Horner spent his second rest day in the 2006 Tour in a much different manner than Floyd. Horner, whose job it was to look after favorite Cadel Evans in the mountains rode poorly in the Pyrenees. His attempt at recovery for the Alps was to spend the second rest day lying in bed eating pizza and hamburgers and watching pay-per-view movies! Chris rode well in support of Evans in the Alps. Junk food might just be the ticket!
Switching gears, it was a "Tale of Two Teams" on the final climb to Tignes yesterday. Astana finally revealed that all their eggs are in the Vinokourov basket as they sent Andres Kloden back to help the struggling Kazakh on the ascent to Tignes. Kloden has twice been on the Tour podium (2004, 2006) while Vino only once (2003). But don't forget that the primary sponsor is a Kazakh energy concern. Sometimes (well, probably always!) you gotta make the sponsor happy.
I am still trying to figure out what our homies at Discovery Channel were doing on the final climb. At the pre-Tour press conference, I got Johan Bruyneel to admit that all the Disco eggs were not in the Leipheimier basket. You can't fault Johan. Discovery Channel is a U.S. company and it would be great for an American to be on the podium or even win. If everything goes well, Levi is clearly capable of doing just that, but it doesn't hurt to have a Plan B. With Michael Rassmussen five minutes up the road, I can't believe that Contador was going for the stage win. When he left the Leiphemier group it was probably to make sure he was in contention for the young rider (white) jersey. Hmm.
Anybody else got a theory on why Discovery split their forces at such a crucial time during the stage?
ps - best of luck to Rob and Marty at the Etape du Tour!
OK. So the mountains have finally revealed the true contenders for the Tour. Kudos to Michael Rasmussen for a cracking ride, but props as well to Christophe Moreau for attacking the favorites over and over on the final climb to Tignes. But, for me the biggest news is that the Cormet de Roselend has claimed more victims.
It's a bit of a personal thing between me and the Cormet. The descent of its east side is a 4,000-foot, twisty, technical affair with many treacherous hairpins. Years ago, I almost came to grief on one of its "lancets", as the French call them when the road narrowed abruptly and veered sharply to the left. I could lie and tell you that my awesome downhill prowess saved my butt, but in reality it was plain old luck. While he was still a rider, current Discovery Channel Team Director Johan Bruyneel crashed heavily in exactly the same spot going over the side and down the embankment. Today, that turn claimed two more victims.
Aussie and Team T-Mobile rider Michael Rogers came to grief on the Cormet. What makes the crash even more ironic is that he was in the lead breakaway at the time. As the designated team leader for T-Mobile, this was the first major move of the Tour and his move should have been rewarded for its aggressiveness. Instead, the Tour is over for the three-time World Time Trial Champion. What a turn of fortunes for Team T-Mobile. One day you have a stage win, the team prize and the yellow jersey. The next day, your team leader is heading home.
Fellow Aussie, Stuart O'Grady came a cropper on the Cormet as well. It's been a rough Tour for the gritty Team CSC rider. His win this spring in Paris-Roubaix was the highlight of his career. Now he, like Michael Rogers, must deal with the lowest of lows in cycling: leaving the Tour de France.
I stopped by to see Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the Versus mobile studio this morning. We have worked together a bit over the years, most recently on the official Tour of California DVD--Phil and Paul doing the race call with me doing the rider interviews before and after each stage.
Phil and Paul have to be some of the hardest working guys in the business. The Tour is a huge effort for this pair. First, there is the pre-stage show with Al and Bobke which is filmed in the morning. Next, they spend the late morning, afternoon and early evening calling the stage. Sometime around 8 p.m. or so, the crowds (and their cars) at the finish have thinned out enough for them to drive to the town hosting the next day's finish. That trek normally takes four-plus hours which usually means a quick pre-made ham-and-cheese sandwich at an autoroute cafe and then arrival at the hotel sometime around 1 a.m. Whoa! And you though the riders had it tough!
Over the years, Phil has come up with some great one-liners affectionately known as Liggettisms. One of my favorites goes all the way back to 1986 when Bernard Hinault had his sixth Tour victory all but wrapped up when he betrayed Lemond in the Pyrenees. Sitting on a five-minute lead, Hinault was unable to control his bravado and attacked solo with three huge Pyrenean climbs remaining. Phil's words were prophetic as he exclaimed, "is he a superman or a fool?" Bernie blew up and Greg beat him by five minutes setting the match all square.
All of Belgium can heave a collective sigh of relief. Tom Boonen has finally won a stage! After watching his chief rivalsand even a teammatebeat him to the line, it was looking like Groundhog Day for Belgium's most popular rider. In 2006, Boonen was wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion and while he rode well in the spring classics, winning the Tour of Flanders for a second time, he just couldn't not find his high gear in France. It was a huge disappointment made even
more so by the rainbow jersey on his shoulders.
I first met Tom in 2002 when he was a virtually unknown 21-year-old, first-year pro racing for Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Squad. I was in the San Francisco airport heading over to the spring classics and looked up to see a rider adorned in USPS team sweats waiting in line next to me for a flight to Belgium. Boonen was the only guy on the squad I didn't know so it was pretty easy to get the name right. We spent 14 hours together making our way to his home country--unfortunately, there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Belgium.
Just at the start of his professional cycling career, Tom had so much energy and excitement like a kid at his first Christmas. He was a refreshing change from the battle-hardened veterans and I could see that there was definitely a fire down below. I was so convinced that Tom would do well in that year's classics that I phoned my editors at Cycle Sport magazine in London and pleaded with them to let me do an article on Tom. They, and everybody else, had never heard of him so they politely refused.
After three phone calls in three days, they finally relented and I was given the assignment to do a 1-page intro piece. Tom and I hooked up the day before Paris-Roubaix. That same excitement was still there so much so that Tom told me he had awoken that day and started putting on his racing kit only to be told by his roommate that the race was tomorrow.
Of course, the rest is history. Tom went on to finish third in the race and a superstar was born. My piece never made the magazine. Once my editors realized what they had, they assigned a Belgian journalist to do a full feature reasoning that a fellow countryman could get the best out of this up and coming rider. So it goes!
In just two days we should have a good idea of who are the contenders and who are the pretenders in this year's Tour as the Alps loom larger and larger.
The stage over the Columbier finishing in Le Gran Bornand may still contain a few pretenders, but as Levi Leipheimer pointed out in the Discovery Channel pre-Tour press conference, the climb to the ski station at Tignes is a long one and there will be no hiding.
Who will have it in the big mountains? Good question and one that even the favorites can't answer for themselves. With all the pre-Tour hoopla the week before the start, and the fact that, traditionally, the first week of the race is devoid of any "real" climbs, it will have been almost two weeks since any of the contenders have ridden up a climb when they finally hit the mountains. Just imagine training for your big hilly ride and not doing any big climbs for two weeks before the event. Hard to imagine, huh?
So, when the Tour hits the first big climb, most of the favorites take it easy and try to figure out if their form is still there or if it has taken the last train for the coast. Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour in the late '70s and early '80syou know, the guy who is there every day on the podium greeting the winner of the stagehad a strategy that obviously worked for him.
While all his competitors were tentatively pedaling up the first climb, the Badger, as Hinault was called, would go to the front and pound up the mountain in a huge gear. His opposition could never tell if he was bluffing or he was about to crush everyone. Of course, bluffing away your weaknesses is key to wining a three-week race, but on a 6,000-plus-foot climb like the Col du Galibier, which comes next Tuesday, you better be in the World Series of Poker-class or you will be left behind.
It is at about this time in the Tour that the Team Time Trial(TTT) makes its appearance. But not this year. Is anyone else disappointed that there is no TTT in this edition of the Tour? I love that event. The TTT is a combination of speed and grace--and not necessarily in that order. You have to be smooth first, then the speed will follow. Watching Lance Armstrong and his Blue Train rocketing across the French countryside at 35-plus mph was poetry in motion.
Another reason I love the TTT is that it forces teams in contention for the overall to bring a balanced squad. To be sure, it is nice to have 120-pound mountain goats to protect your leader when the road tilts upward, but if you don't bring a few bigger guys, you can lose the jersey when you least expect it; just ask Floyd Landis and his Team Phonak when the 2006 Tour left the Pyrenees and headed across the flats to the Alps. Yes, Floyd and his team decided not to chase that now famous breakaway, but without the help of the sprinter's teams it meant a golden day for Oscar Periero.
Given the thoroughbreads on Team CSC, if they had held the TTT this year, undoubtedly the result would have been Fabian Cancellara padding his lead, but what a sight to behold! It is not clear why the Tour organizers omitted the TTT from this year's schedule. Let's hope that this does not become a regular ocurrence.
I made a resolution not to talk about doping anymore during the Tour, but I just couldn't let this one pass.
Several weeks ago Tour organizers asked Bjarne Riis to return his 1996 TdF yellow jersey since he admitted to doping to win the race. Several days ago Lance Armstrong wondered why the same Tour organizers didn't ask French riders Bernard Thevenet and Richard Virenque to return their jerseys. Thevenet admitted that he used steriods to defeat Eddy Mercxk and win the Tour in 1975 and 1977. Virenque, who holds the record for winning the most polka-dot mountains jerseys, admitted to using EPO when he was with the Festina team. Very good question, Lance!
Well today, Thevenet fired back. In an Associated Press interview, Thevenet, who is now an official with Tour said, "It was thought that just like riders take vitamins, for example, they should take cortisone and anabolic steroids...It wasn't to get a boost, but...to recuperate."
Exsqueeze me?!?! The Tour organizers are crucifying Floyd Landis for testing positive at the 2006 edition of the race. Anybody want to take a guess at the substance Floyd is accused to have taken? Last time I checked, testosterone is a steroid and its main purpose is to aid in recovery. So, is Thevenet saying that if Floyd had won the 1976 Tour instead of 2006, it would have been OK? Is Floyd's only crime, if you believe he is guilty, that he was born 30 years too late?
The situation is so bizarre, it is almost laughable unless, of course, you are Floyd Landis. Whether you believe Floyd is guilty or not, you just have to wonder how anyone can get a fair shake when so much duplicity exists out there.
OK, back to your regularly scheduled programming. What a great win by Cancellara on Stage 3! Yes, he was protecting his yellow jersey by being near the front and closing the gap on the breakaway, but it would have been very easy for him to sit up once the four riders were in sight and rest up for the podium ceremony. Rocketing past the indecisive breakaway and holding the best sprinters in the world at bay was simply incredible! If, somehow, you didn't think that Fabian earned the yellow jersey by destroying the field in the prologue, there can be no disagreement that, at this point in the race, he is the man who should wear the golden fleece! Bravo!
When 2007 Paris-Roubaix winnner, Stuart O'Grady, crashed into a barrier during the Tour prologue on Saturday, he quickly got back on the bike and continued like nothing happened. Here's hoping that he is 100 percent, but that is only something "Stuey" knows for sure.
Crashing is a part of bike racing, but in a three week race it takes on a greater importance. In a race like the Tour, a rider needs to feel good on the bike every day. Sure, there are times when you can hide out in the pack, but at the current speeds of the peloton, those times are few and far between. And when the Tour enters the mountains, there is no place to hide.
This makes rest and recovery vitally important and if you aren't able to sleep at night you just cannot recover. Road rash means sticky sheets. Bumps and bruises means a potentially compromised sleeping position. General aches and pains can easily cause insomnia.
Then there is the fact that while the body attempts to heal itself it is robbing energy, the same energy a rider needs to pedal his bike. Former Discovery Channel and current T-Mobile rider Michael Barry crashed so heavily in the 2002 Tour of Spain that he had road rash over half of his body. Though he wanted to continue he had to aboandon the race. Michael slept 14 hours a day for the next three weeks as his body made the necessary repairs!
So, whether you are a rider like O'Grady who is counted on to support his team leaders and possibly win from a small breakaway on a flatter stage or one of the favorites, crashing at the Tour can never be viewed as a minor inconvenience. A friend of mine rode eight Tours and only one of those Tours was crash-free. Safe travels for the peloton!
So the prologue is completed and there were no real surprises.
Cancellara's win was brilliant, but expected, and all the favorites for the overall finished close enough to each other to call the race for the yellow jersey a dead heat at this point.
Hey, but there is more to the Tour than just the results! Just making a Pro Tour team's Tour squad is a huge accomplishment.
But, wait, there's more. Because the Tour is so special (TIOOYK) most teams make a number of special preparations and a lot of it is about cool swag!
First off, most teams provide their riders with brand new bikes.
Some of the new machines are technological improvements over their existing rides while others are the same trustworthy design with new paint and decals to commemorate the Tour. If you've got a new bike, you need new clothes, eh? Many teams take on new sponsors either specifically for the Tour or for the long haul and their logos need to adorn the team's riders. A new bike and kit go a long way in making the riders feel special and provide extra motivation.
But, it doesn't end there. New dress shirts, T-shirts, sweats all sporting "Tour" special logos may be in the offing, especially if a major new sponsor is in the works. Then there are the knick-knacks that just never seem to end. One year, Team Motorola had special hand-held fans, complete with the official Tour de France logo, made to keep their riders cool when off the bike.
The pre-Tour Christmas just never seems to end, but sooner or later the riders have to race their bikes. Time to play with all their presents will come later.
Several days ago, the Tour de France organizers announced that for the first time in the history of the Tour, the race number 1 will not be issued. The number 1 is usually reserved for last year's winner, but if that rider is not competing the number goes to the winner's team (Discovery Channel had it in 2006 as Lance won in 2005). Second-place finisher, Oscar Periero's Casse d'Epargne team will get numbers 11-19, but no team will ride numbers 1-9.
Of course, this is due to the fact that the actual winner of the 2006 Tour is still not determined since Floyd Landis returned a positive result for testosterone. Yes, doping continues to grab the headlines in pro cycling and with each new positive result or rider admission, it seems more and more like pro cycling is WWF on bicycles.
I have been covering professional cycling for 20 years, including my first Tour de France way back in 1988 and I am not going to abandon the sport I both love to participate in and love to report about. Eddy Mercxk once said, "on the bike, there is always suffering." But, cycling is more complex than that. I think back to all the great duels over the years, Coppi and Bartali whose struggles united a post-war Italy; Anquetil and Poulidor, who proved to us all that you didn't have to be a winner (Poulidor was known as the "Eternal Second") to be adored by the fans; Merckx and Ocana demonstrating that even the seemingly invincible could be beaten; Lemond and Fignon showing the true character of the first American to win the Tour and Armstrong and Ullrich proving that even rivals can be friends.
Me, I am looking past the doping for this year's Tour. Can Vinokourov keep his enthusiasm in his shorts and ride a tactically superior race or will he take off like a banshee on the first mountain stage, blow like a top and ruin his chances? Will Levi finally ride a consistently good Tour and climb onto the podium continuing the American dominance? Will Valverde finally live up to all the expectations? Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen and that's what makes it so interesting to watch it all unfold.