Here is a report card for a number of the Tour's higher profile riders. Please feel free to add your own comments.
Alberto Contador - Grade A-
Contador would get an A or even an A+ grade because he showed that he was the bet rider in both the mountains and the time trials, but his less than perfect display of strategy and tactics knocks him down half a grade. Not only was his attack on the final kilometers of the Colombiere unnecessary and against team orders, but it had an unusual side affect. In his post-Tour comments, it is clear that Lance Armstrong is not Alberto's favorite rider. However, by attacking on the Colombiere and causing his teammate Andreas Kloden to be dropped, Alberto took Kloden out of contention for the Tour podium and put his 'friend' Lance in that position in Paris.
Andy Schleck - Grade A
Andy Schleck struggles in the time trials so he has to try to make as much time up in the mountains as possible. That's exactly what Andy and his brother Frank did. Also, Andy rode an impressive time trial in Annecy to maintain his podium position. Basically, Andy did the most he could with his talents.
Lance Armstrong - Grade A
For the first two weeks, Lance rode a pretty consistent Tour. But, when the Tour reached the Alps, his performance in the final week was inconsistent. But, as erratic as it was, he was consistent enough to move up to third place overall. I am bumping him up half a grade for getting into the move on the crosswinds of stage 3 that was the difference between Lance and his closest rivals for the podium.
Bradley Wiggins - Grade B+
Wiggins was definitely one of the revelations of the Tour and I was first thinking of giving him a grade of A. But, he underperformed in the last three critical stages (Le Grand Bornand, Annecy TT, Mont Ventoux). This minor meltdown could most likely be explained because Bradley was learning what he was capable of doing in the third week of a grand tour. If Wiggins is a fast learner the rest of the peloton better watch out.
Andreas Kloden - Grade B+
Andreas rode consistently well, save for that one day in the Alps to Le Grand Bornand. Kloden will always be a threat for the podium in a grand tour. He still must be wondering what Contador was thinking when he attacked on the Colombiere.
Frank Schleck - Grade B+
For Frank Schleck to be in position to get on the podium in Paris going into the final stage says a lot. Frank was clearly one of the best climbers in this year's Tour, but his time trialing leaves a bit to be desired. Frank climbed well enough to make the podium. If only he could time trial.
Christian Vande Velde - Grade B+
Christian almost deserves a grade of A given his horrific crash in the Giro and how quickly he was able to get back into racing shape. Unfortunately, his return to top form was not totally complete. Luckily, his teammate, Bradley Wiggins, needed help in the mountains and Christian, ever the team player, was happy to give assistance.
Mark Cavendish - Grade A+
It is not just Cavendish's six stage wins that gets him the highest grade. The fact that he was able to climb over a category 2 mountain and win stage 19 is a bug step forward in his development as a rider. He also managed to get to Paris completing his transformation to a true green jersey contender. In fact, if he hadn't been screwed out of his placing on stage 13 into Bescancon, he would have won the green jersey. The Boy Racer is turning into a man.
Thor Hushovd - Grade A
Purely on his sprinting prowess, Hushovd deserves a grade of B+ or A-. But, because of the way he pursued the green jersey, climbing well in several stages to snag some extra sprint points he earned the higher mark.
Tyler Farrar - Grade B+
Tyler was the only sprinter to truly challenge Mark Cavendish. Unfortunately, Cavendish was at the top of his game and Farrar really only came close on one occasion. Tyler is going to need to get a touch quicker and the Garmin-Slipstream team is going to need to bolster it's leadout train a bit to win a bunch finish.
Cadel Evans - Grade C
After two years on the Tour podium, this was a disappointing race for the Australian. Part of the problem can be traced to his team and their lack of ability to adequately support him, but ultimately, Cadel is responsible for the makeup of the squad and his riding. Hopefully, he will be able to figure out what went wrong. First off, he needs to get the director sportif and not the CEO of the title sponsor to call the shots and run the team.
Carlos Sastre - Grade B -
Carlos tried to make his presence felt in this year's Tour, but he just could not sustain his efforts on the climbs. Maybe he was trying too hard to prove his overall win last year was well-deserved, but whatever the reason, the climbing form we saw with his two stage wins at the Giro never made it across the border into France.
Denis Menchov - Grade C -
Not much to say here except that doing the Giro-Tour double still remains a huge proposition. A completely rested Menchov would not have beaten Contador, but the podium was definitely a possibility.
Every French GC rider - Grade D
The drought is 25 years and growing. When will a French rider win the Tour? Probably not in the Contador/Schleck era. Things are looking bleak. Thank heavens they can still win the flatter stages.
The verbal sparring between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador is making big headlines. Since the conclusion of the race in Paris on Sunday the sparks have been flying as both riders have taken off the gloves and are airing their feelings on the past few weeks with stunning candor. It is clear from the remarks that one, they will not be riding together on the same team next year and two, there must really have been a lot more tension within the team at the Tour than was evident during the race.
My analysis of the situation is that Lance is upset that Contador has not given more credit to his team, Astana, for his win. Lance was always about the team, but Contador has been less than forthcoming on his appreciation for the efforts of his teammates. It may well be that Contador feels he won the race on his own or that there was so much disharmony on Team Astana that he just can't bring himself to pretend that everyone on the squad was supportive of his quest.
Contador's comments about Lance probably have root in the same soil especially if Alberto believes that Lance was trying to turn the team against him. I could see some manoeuvering inside the team for support early on in the race, but as the Tour progressed and it was clear that Contador was the stronger rider, the team should have been more committed to Alberto.
This situation is similar to the Greg Lemond/Bernard Hinault affair in the 1986 Tour when the two teammates were rivals. The difference is that in 1986, Lemond and Hinault were first and second place. If either faltered (and not both) then the team still rode into Paris in the yellow jersey. In 2009, the situation, while it appeared to be similar was significantly different.
I think one of the reasons Contador may have felt betrayed is that Andy Schleck was positioned in second place between Alberto and Lance. Andy was far enough ahead of Lance that if Contador had faltered and Schleck inherited the jersey, he could have kept it all the way to Paris. My guess is that even though Andy Schleck was looking very strong in the mountains, Lance always believed that he could take significant time out of Schleck in the Annecy time trial. That made the gap between the two not as big as it appeared.
The result was that Lance probably always felt that Contador was his main rival, even when Andy Schleck was ahead of him in the mountains. However, the climb of the Cote du Bluffy from the south was a much more difficult ascent than first thought. This meant that Andy Schleck's climbing prowess was able to offset some of his weakness on the flatter portions of the time trial. So, in the end, Schleck was a worthy rival and Lance was not just battling Contador for the yellow jersey in Paris.
It is unfortunate that Lance and Alberto have been carrying out their post-Tour war of words in public. Lance's third place was an incredible result for him especially considering that he was somewhat inconsistent in both the mountains and the time trials. As I said in an earlier posting, if Lance hadn't taken those 41 seconds in the crosswinds to Le Grande Motte way back on stage 3, he would have finished fifth place overall. Lance should be celebrating his podium finish. He probably is happy with his finishing position and his comments about Contador are just a response to Alberto not giving enough credit to the work by the team.
Actually, I am still in transit and digging out so the Tour wrap up will be posted in the next few days. In fact, I envision about three or four postings on various Tour-related topics. I ask you all to get your nominations ready for the annual Tour de France Awards. Which team had the most fashion unconscious uniforms this year? Which rider showed the least amount of tactical savvy (hint: he might just be wearing a yellow jersey)? Which rider had the had the most hard luck? Etc, etc, etc.
All in all, it was an incredible Tour. There was intrigue, drama, winners and, almost-winners. Lance's comeback elevated the race to another level and all the other riders raised their game to try and win a stage or get on the podium in Paris. So, as we all try to cope with PTD (Post Tour Depression) let's get ready to dissect the race and add a bit of humor in the process.
The podium of the Tour de France was decided on the legendary slopes of Mont Ventoux. Well, first and second place were a bit of a lock, but the race for the final step provided some very dramatic moments. As I predicted, Frank Schleck needed to best three other riders to claim a podium spot so he came out swinging early. However, Lance Armstrong rode a tactically brilliant race and managed to respond to all of Frank's attacks to claim the third spot on the podium.
It is an incredible result for Lance and his comeback. After his sluggish ride to Verbier last Sunday many had written off Armstrong's chances. But, for the entire three weeks of the Tour, Lance did what he had to do to be on the podium. Given the very close time gaps from third place back to fifth, the 40 seconds he gained by making it into the first echelon on the crosswinds into La Grande Motte way back on stage 3 were the difference between the podium and fifth place overall for Armstrong.
I will provide a more detailed analysis of the Ventoux stage in a few days. Suffice it to say, that Lance rode very well on the climb to Ventoux and no one should begrudge him is spectacular result. He was undoubtedly helped by the very stong, 25+mph, headwinds on the upper slopes on the mountain. The strong winds made any solo attempt very difficult in some measure nullifying Frank Schleck's climbing prowess.
It was also great to see Contador marking the attacks of Andy Schleck and his sheltering of Lance into the headwind to conserve Armstrong's energy to hang on in the lead group.
Aussie Mark Renshaw is the last cog in the Columbia-HTC leadout train which has produced five stage wins for Mark Cavendish. Will the team make it six wins when the Tour finishes on the Champs Elysees? I spoke with Mark about a number of sprinting-related concerns.
Bruce: what kind of stuff do you have to do in the final kilometer?
Mark: Obviously, to keep Mark as protected as possible out of the wind, but also I've taken on the role to tell everyone what to do to take the pressure off of Mark a bit more. Getting the team in the correct position to make sure it runs in a line. I am trying to make a few calls up until the last kilometer then once we get within five or six hundred meters that's my call to go as hard as possible and lift the pace so no one can come around Mark or put him into difficulty.
Bruce: no one is fighting for your wheel. They are fighting for Mark's wheel.
Mark: I guess they are all fighting behind Mark because lately he's been the number one wheel to have. I have seen a few times where other teams have tried to come around us like Milram (for Ciolek) and Garmin (for Farrar) it shows that we have a strong team in that we can fend off those surges from other teams.
Bruce: What do you do in the final kilometer when you have the leadout train working well and other team's leadout trains come up on the left or right trying to take over control of the sprint?
Mark: It is prety hard. Obviously, we have to stay as a team. It is the strongest point. If we all hold each other's wheel and don't let anyone in it shows that we are a lot stronger. The general rule of thumb is to stay to one side so they can only approach from one side. It makes it a lot easier.
Usually, we set the pace and try to fend them off until they can't come over the top. That holds them back and it kind of knocks their morale a bit if they can't come over the top.
Bruce: do you have to do any physical bumping or pushing?
Mark: For sure. Always. Usually, the last 5km is pretty physical. It is always bumping and touching. The guys who have done the most this Tour are (Gerard) Ciolek and (Tyler) Farrar. I mean these guys are really fighting hard so we have had a few touches there. We are not making many friends. But, that is what happens.
Bruce: it is all pretty clean isn't it? People aren't grabbing jerseys?
Mark: No. There is none of that going on anymore. A few elbows; maybe a shoulder, but there is no grabbing jerseys.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that, while Alberto Contador has the yellow jersey well in his grasp, the second and third places on the podium will be determined on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. Barring a complete meltdown, Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck's 1'30" lead over Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Bradley Wiggins and his brother Frank Schleck should be enough to give him the second step of the podium.
So, Lance, Andreas, Bradley and Frank, who are separated by less than 40 seconds on the overall classification, will be riding hard, digging deep and generally throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to be top three in Paris.
Of those four, Frank Schelck has been climbing the best and appears to have the upper hand. However, this is the last difficult day in the Tour so no rider can claim to be holding back to be able to fight another day. It is "another day" when we get to Ventoux and because the stakes are so high, the attacks and the emotions will be at near chaotic level.
The climb of Ventoux from the quaint village of Bedoin is split into three distinct sections. The first 2.5 miles (4km) are flat or very gentle(3-4%) climbing. The meat of the ascent is the next 6 miles(10km) where the road is very steep (9.5-10%) average grade, the terrain features are a monotonous forest of trees and the road winds uphill in a seemingly unending series of shallow turns. There are no switchbacks to break up the monotony, only the pain.
When the climb reaches Chalet Reynard (House of the Fox) the terrain escapes the forest and enters a lunar landscape for the final 5 miles (8km) to the summit. The gradient kicks back to a manageable 8%, but above the trees it can be hot, windy or both. Overall the 13-mile(22km) ascent climbs 5300'(1600m).
What will the podium contenders do on the climb? Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck should just follow the wheels of Armstrong, Kloden, Wiggins and Frank Schleck. Andy might do some work to help his brother get on the podium. Likewise, unless he goes off the reservation as he did in the final few kilometers of the Colombiere, Alberto Contador is in the unique position to help an attack by either Lance or Andreas Kloden succeed by helping set tempo.
The gap between the four contending for the final spot on the podium is small enough that they can wait to attack after reaching Chalet Reynard. Attacking during the steep section below is risky because the chances of blowing up and losing contact is very real.
However, since there are four riders so closely bunched, the guy who wants to stand on the third step of the podium will, most likely, have to drop all three of his rivals. It might be possible to drop one or two, but dropping all three will require either a vicious attack(s) or a very fast tempo and that might only be able to be accomplished by attacking early, on the steep section, and not on the slopes above Chalet Reynard.
My prediction is that Frank Schleck, aided by his brother, will attack on the steep section. He is behind the other three timewise so he has to drop them all. He is climbing well and is probably the best of the four at going for a long attack.
Since Lance is ahead of his three rivals on time, he just has to mark all three of them and make sure nobody gets away. He has said that, after Verbier, his strategy is to not go with sharp accelerations, but to ride his pace and try to "diesel" up to the attackers. I think Lance will have to respond directly to any attacks on Mont Ventoux. He cannot afford, both physically and mentally, to let any of his rivals go up the road.
Bradley Wiggins is the big unknown. Undoubtedly, the whole Garmin-Slipstream team will be working to set him up. He has climbed very well in both the Alps and the Pyrenees, but I think he will really have to go to some places he has never gone before in his cycling career to get the third spot on the podium. Somewhere in his soul is the key. Will he find it?
Andreas Kloden is the big unknown. Obviously, after Contador's needless attack on the Colombiere there is some new disharmony on the team. It is unclear where he will be headed next year, but if he is on the short list to join Lance's new team, he may be asked to ride in support of Armstrong.
But, heck, forget all the speculation and just bring on the race. I can't wait.
No one will ever say that Italian professional Eros Poli was a great climber. At 6'4" and 195lbs he was built for power on the flats witness his Olympic gold medal in the Team Time Trial. But, in 1994, Eros tried something that which few have ever been successful. Poli tried to beat all the Tour's best climbers up and over Mont Ventoux. It was going to take a unique strategy of Eros was to lead over the Giant of Provence and then then 20 miles of flat roads to the finish in Carpentras.
Bruce: you needed to get a huge lead to be able to be first over Ventoux.
Eros: At the base I had 24 minutes. When I escaped it was 100 km of flat to the base of the climb. I said to myself 'if you want to win you need 24 minutes' because normally I lose one minute per kilometer and the climb is 22 kilometers so I will lose 22 minutes. So, I thought I needed another two minutes to be sure
to the finish. I had four minutes lead at the top on Pantani. With five kilometers to go I had a five minute advantage on the peloton so I said 'OK. It is done'.
Bruce: what was it like climbing Mont Ventoux? The steep section in the middle is very hard.
Eros: It is very difficult. I did it this year with a group of Scottish guys and I thought "how could I do it that day? How could I go up that mountain?" It is so difficult. There are no switchbacks, no corners. Just up, up, up in almost a straight line. There is no possibility of a rest. No possibility of recuperation. It is long. It is an incredible mountain. It is the biggest mountain in the Tour de France.
Bruce: Now that you are retired what are you doing?
Eros: I work in insurance. Sometimes I organize holiday trips by the bike near where I live. I live in Verona near the beautiful Lake Garda. I organize trips, especially for American people and Australians.
While everyone is anxiously awaiting the climb of Mont Ventoux, today's stage should provide the opportunity for another sprint finish. Mark Cavendish, who is still smarting from his relegation in Besancon which basically cost him the green jersey will be looking for his fifth stage win. It would also be a good result for the Columbia-HTC team which saw its hopes on the GC fade in the Alps.
As I predicted before the time trial, there is going to be an epic battle for the two podium positions behind Alberto Contado. Andy Schleck has a 1'30" lead over his nearest rival Lance Armstrong, but with only 34 seconds separating Armstrong, Kloden, Wiggins and Frank Schleck for the final podium position, the climb up the Giant of Provence will definitely be memorable.
This will be the last difficult stage of the Tour and no one will be holding back. Given how he has climbed in the Alps you would have to think that Frank Schleck has the edge, but again, this is the final stage and none of those four riders is going to let the podium slip away without a fight.
I got to ride a lap on the Annecy TT course and was allowed to start only about 20 minutes before the first rider. Because of this, the course was completely closed, but there was a distinct possibility that I would get caught and passed by one or more of the riders. The gendarmes asked me to ride as fast as possible.
That sounds like a good idea, but if you lose concentration or get tired and make a bad move, you could end up plowing into a group of spectators. So, I decided to ride at about 80-85% effort and not make any really embarrassing mistakes.
The first 20km of the 40 km course was basically a flat run down from the north end of the lake on its west side. From there, the course did a 180 and heade back up north, this time on the east end of the lake. Unfortunately for me, and many of the more fatigued riders, there was a 3-mile 1000' climb up to the Col du Bluffy which had to be negotiated with about 15km remaining. What made the climb difficult was that it was stair-stepped. There would be a 200-400m section of 7,8,9% then 200-300m of a flatter(3,4,5%) section followed by another steep section.
You had to shift up on the flatter sections to maintain a good pace so there was no time to recover for the next steep section. And the last 200m to the top was 14%. All in all, given the way the gradient played out, a tough climb.
I rode the last 2km with Fredrick Willems of Liquigas who was finishing his morning warmup. He told me that on the Mont Ventoux stage, the plan for the Liquigas team is to get him and maybe one other rider up the road in an early breakaway so when their GC rider, Vincenzo Nibali, gets on Mont Ventoux, Frederick and/or a teammate can be there is Nibali needs help.
It was great to get another "hot" lap on a TT course.
Bernard Eisel is one of the riders on Columbia-HTC whose job it is to set up the sprints for Mark Cavendish. His job is to ride tempo at the front for majority of the race to keep any breakaways within catching distance in the closing kilometers.
Bruce: what kind of satisfaction do you get from riding on the front all day?
Bernard: Actually, it is quite exciting when the guys win in the end. So you know why you do it. It is not like you ride and then you get sixth or seventh place. He (Cavendish) is the fastest at the moment so it is a pleasure to ride for him.
Even the guys who are not riding at the front have to do a hell of a job like Jens Voigt or other riders. They have to give shelter to the boys in the back. It just doesn't mean that because you are at the front you are the only one who gets wind. There is not enough shelter for everybody.
It is just part of the job. You can't be really proud of it, but it's more part of your job.
Bruce: you were a good sprinter. Why did you become a domestique?
Bernard: Yeah, but not to win a stage. I was twenty times in the first ten and ten times in the first five, but I was never really close to winning a stage. Third was my best place. He is faster. It is easy to work for him.
Graham Watson is one of the top cycling photographers in the world. He has published numerous books with his works and can be seen on the back of a motorcycle at all the biggest races.
Bruce: what is the hardest part of your job?
Watson: the hardest part of my job is the work after the stage because the work during the stage is not really work because you love doing it. The hard work is after when you have 200-300 images to edit and upload and caption and reduce in size and color correct. That takes 3-4 hours everyday.
Bruce: that makes for a long day
Watson: these days with the Internet you go off and have dinner with most of your work done and then carry on afterwards in your hotel. The big thing is that when you go to bed at midnight all your work is done. There is no more work to be done. In the old days you used to had to get the film processed, developed and edited and sent off by FedEx and UPS and that was another nightmare.
Bruce: does it get easier over the years in that you know the best places to shoot for a particular area? Do you remember the good shooting locations from year to year.
Watson: yeah, most of the time. Every year you get surprised by places you haven't seen before or places you have forgotten or you haven't done your homework by looking at the race book to see where the race is actually going. But, by and large you know, more of less, everything which is happening at least as far as the landmarks like the Tourmalet or Galibier. You know exactly where to go.
Bruce: what makes on rider more photogenic than another?
Watson: there are many things. There is the body language. When you are looking at all the cyclists in one big pack you would be surprised that one or two or three who stand out just the way they move. Lance at the moment, I wouldn't say he is photogenic, but he's got quite a unique physical structure at the moment. So, you see that.
When you see them off the bike or in the mountains with their glasses off and you can see their eyes then their face takes on an attraction by itself like dark eyes or suffering eyes or just something. It is not a question of good looks versus bad looks. It is just something that comes out at the moment their spirit or character. You almost sense their character.
Alberto Contador continues to demonstrate that he is the best rider in the 2009 Tour de France. After dominating in the mountains, he proved that he was equally capable in the time trials as he bested all his rivals by an impressive margin. While he narrowly beat time trial specialist, Fabian Cancellara, by three seconds, the first GC rider in the standings behind Contador was Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins forty three seconds back. Lance Armstrong ceded 1'30" to Contador, but moved up to third place overall.
Undoubtedly, the biggest surprise of the day was Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck who, while finishing 1'45" behind Contrador, was only a minute back of Bradley Wiggins and 15 seconds arrears of Armstrong. As a result, Andy has solidified his second place overall and given how he has been climbing, looks good for the podium and the white jersey in Paris.
The final place on the podium will be a tight battle as four riders, Armstrong, Wiggins, Kloden and Frank Schleck are all within a 34 seconds going into the rendezvous with Mont Ventoux. If you go on racing form alone the nod goes to Frank Schleck, but don't count anyone out when the podium is in play.
Robbie Ventura is one of the two on-the-scene interviewers for Versus TV. I sat down with Robbie to talk about his job.
Bruce: what is the hardest part of your job?
Robbie: it is stressful, but also exciting to do course reports. When the camera is on it looks a lot easier than it actually is. You are standing out on the course and there are fans who are hoping that you screw up. There is a little bit of stress there but it is also the most rewarding getting through the stress and putting out a good product.
Bruce: Does it help with the interviews that you were once a professional bike racer?
Robbie: Yeah, I think so. They respect that I have been a professional before. I think that makes it easier to talk to them. But, also just understanding what they are going through and being sympathetic to that, I think they can see that and feel that in me as a reporter. I am very fortunate that most riders have welcomed me so far. The ones that you don't know that well are obviously challenging to talk to. Definitely it is a big help knowing the riders a bit and creating relationships.
Bruce: Versus goes out to a wide audience. What kind of slant on cycling is versus trying to bring to its viewing audience.
Robby: I think a big part of it is education. I think the more knowledge the fans have about the sport, the more they learn about the sport the more they will have the passion and excitement that we currently have for the sport. In Europe the fans are more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the sport, the teamwork, the bikes, the technology. If we can bring that amount of knowledge and information to the fans in the United States our audience will continue to broaden.
That niche group of hard-core cycling guys who only want to talk hi-techie slang which is fun for me to talk about as well, but unfortunately sometimes we are kind of handcuffed and we want to make things as simple as possible for 90% of our audience who don't understand the complexities of the sport.
Bruce: who is your favorite guy to interview?
Robby: I love Vande Velde. I think Vande Velde is funny. He gives great answers. He is really honest. He doesn't always give that kind of like perfect answer. He talks from the heart. You can tell he's an emotional guy with a lot of passion.
The third stage in the Alps produced a massive shakeup in the overall classification. While Alberto Contador solidified his grip on the yellow jersey, the Schleck brothers unleashed the attacks everyone expected from them. Astana and Garmin-Slipstream were the only team who were able to respond save for Liquigas' Vincenzo Nibali.
On the penultimate climb a four man group, the Schlecks, Contador and Kloden formed and put a minute on four chasers, Armstrong, Wiggins, Vande Velde and Nibali. On the final climb when it looked like Astana had the race under total control, Contador attacked which immediately dropped his teammate Kloden and then when he realized the error of his ways, he sat up and let the Schlecks catch up. Unfortunately, the eleastic had snapped with Kloden and he would ultimately lose over four unneccessary minutes (see the interviews below discussing Contador's attack).
While the Schlecks and Contador fought it out for the stage win, the nod going to brother Frank, Lance attacked Wiggins one kilometer from the summit of the final climb to take a precious 58 seconds from the Garmin-Slipstream rider. The top three on the overall classification going into tomorrow's 25-mile (40km) TT are Contador, Andy Schleck and Frank Schleck. Lance is in fourth; Kloden fifth and Wiggins sixth.
Kudos to Christain Vande Velde who, realizing after the stage to Verbier, that his teammate Bradley Wiggins was on better form, selflessly sacrificed his chances to ride Wiggins back into contention. He actually moved up from twelfth to eight overall. A nice prize for his efforts.
I tag-teamed an interview with Lance with the folks at Versus.
Q: After all the attacking on the Col du Romme thing settled down and you were in the second group. Are you happy with the way things shook out?
Lance: yes and no. I tried to be conservative on the Col du Romme and I didn't go with those initial attacks. Then I kind of got caught stuck behind. Once you are thirty seconds back there is nothing you can do... just sit on.
I was a little concerned with Bradley Wiggins in the TT so in the last KM of the Colombiere I decided to jump away, but it felt pretty good.
Q: You took a minute out of Bradley Wiggins in the final 16-17kms. You are a minute and thirty seconds behind Andy Schleck. Is that doable in the time trial tomorrow?
Lance: I don't know. We will see. I am going to do my best. It would be nice to get on the podium so I will go as hard as I can. I will go up the Ventoux as fast as I can.
Q: Interesting attack by Contador five KM from the top of the Colombiere. Do you have any idea what that was all about?
Lance: No. I don't know. I wasn't really paying attention. I was just staying with Wiggo and with Christian. I am going to bite my tongue on that one.
Q: how does it feel to be a 37-year old man in the Tour de France?
Lance: It feels good man. I am out here volunteering. Having fun.
I also tag-teamed an interview with Johan Bruyneel with the folks at Versus.
Q: Where you happy how things shook out on the final two climbs?
Johan: I was happy until four kilometers from the top of the Colombier. That was a really perfect situation for us because we knew that the Schlecks would go on the Col du Romme to try to get rid of Wiggins. That is also what we wanted to do because the time trial specialist he is, he was the real danger.
And so we were happy with that. At the moment the two Schlecks went, Contador and Kloden went with them so for us it was fine. We knew the two Schlecks would go to the finish because they wanted to get rid of Bradley Wiggins.
The attack from Contador three km from the top... I had advised him not to go because he didn't need to go. He didn't need to attack because it was clear that the two Schleck brothers would go full gas to the finish. I told him you don't need to have to attack to win the Tour de France today because of the difference(time gap) was there with Wiggins.
So it is a bit of a pity that Kloden couldn't hang on afterward because we could have been first, second and third today on GC and now we are first, fourth and fifth.
Q: was it the plan to have Lance attack with a kilometer or two to go before the finish to try and get time on Wiggins? Do you think if he had launched a little bit earlier he might have sealed it up?
Johan: No. A rider has to know when he has to attack and Lance really judged that attack. I know he had a hard time in the last few kilometers because it was a hard stage. It was an impressive attack. That was the plan. I said to Alberto and Andreas (Kloden) just stay on the wheels of the Schlecks and I told Lance in the final kilometers of the Colombiere try and go away from Wiggins. Then we are one, two, three.
In the end you cannot want it all. Our purpose is to win the Tour. I think we got a big step forward today and we have to be happy with that. If we want everything we can end up with nothing.
Q: At the end of the day, Lance is 1:30 behind Andy Schleck. Can he make that up tomorrow?
Johan: I think it is possible tomorrow. Yes. But, we also have the Ventoux still so I don't know what the final result is going to be. Our main objective is to win the Tour de France and I think we are on a good way to do that.
Q: Is Lance riding like you would like to see him ride?
Johan: Oh, definitely. If we look before the Tour de France I think he is above expectations. He is on a really good level. He doesn't really have that acceleration. I think that is the only thing he is missing from those three years retirement...that acceleration and the possibility to respond. It's a bit on purpose.
After Verbier we chose to not respond to the attacks; to let people attack and then ride your own pace.
But, today he was caught in the game of having to be the ideal teammate. This morning we said that the biggest danger for the Tour is Bradley Wiggins because if he stays where he is and with the good time trial he has he could be a big danger. So we diefinitely accomplished that objective. We got rid of Wiggins today.
Q: There was disharmony in the team early on in the Tour, but with Contador the undisputed team leader is there more harmony on the team now?
Johan: Yes, there is. Well at least there was. We will have to see how everybody feels about what happened on the Colombiere. That (team harmony) is something we don't have to think too much about or say too much about. The main objective is to win the Tour and things worked well today to make the race hard to try to distance our main danger which was Bradley Wiggins so we have to be happy with that.
Second and third was never a goal. That's fine, but we can't go after that because you have to make sacrifices and the main goal is to win the Tour and I thikn we are close to getting it.
I talked with Garmin-Slipstream team manager Matt White about his team's efforts on the stage.
Bruce: how did the team ride today?
Matt: the team was super today. Christian was there for Bradley until about four or five km of the last climb.
Bruce: how do you feel about Bradley's performance today?
Matt: Sensational. That was one of the hardest, if not the hardest days of the Tour and to only lose that amount of time was a very, very solid ride.
Bruce: for Christian to be the designated team leader before the Tour, but to work for Bradley Wiggins on the climbs, what does that say about Christian?
Matt: He is always thinking of others. He's 100% for the team. He is coming here with a very disruptive preparation, but I am super-proud of Christian. He proved what a super-teammate he is for sacrificing himself for Bradley.
Whoever wears the yellow jersey into Paris will definitely earn it as the drama expected in the high Alps didn't disappoint. As Jens Voigt predicted in my interview with him yesterday, Team Saxo Bank came out firing and launched a number of attacks to try and climb onto the podium at the Tour. Schleck's accelerations succeeded in dropping Cadel Evans, Christian Vande Velde, defending Tour Champion Carlos Sastre and Lance Arsmtrong.
But, in clearly one of the biggest highlights of this Tour, Armstrong erased a 30+ second deficit on himself to the Schleck/Contador/Wiggins group and put saved his current second place overall. It was a display of climber prowess that we were used to seeing from the Texan during his record-setting seven Tour wins, but frankly, many had felt that after his performance to Verbier, those accelerations were a thing of the past.
Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins continues to look casual climbing with the leaders and kudos to teammates Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie for regaining the yellow jersey group on the climb of the Petit Saint Bernard. Zabriskie is finally regaining the climbing form we saw him display in the 2005 Giro when he rode exceptional tempo for his team leader Ivan Basso.
One negative moment was a horrific crash on the final descent by Saxo Bank rider Jens Voigt. It is unclear what caused the crash, it just looked like his front wheel slipped out on a white center line which can be slick if wet. In this case it was dry conditions so the mystery remains for the rider who is known as one of the best bike handlers in the pro peloton. Personally, I really like Jens. He always has time for my interview requests and give honest, heartfelt if not a bit humorous interviews. The Tour has lost some of its enjoyment for me as a result of his crash and abandon. Heal quickly Jens!
I talked with Astana director sportif, Johan Bruyneel, before the start of today's stage.
Bruce: what is the strategy for the team in this third week?
Johan: From now on we just want to bring the yellow jersey to Paris. We know it is going to be difficult today and tomorrow. We expect attacks. A lot of attacks. We will just wait and see what happens and keep our team together and defend the jersey.
Bruce: is everyone working for Contador now?
Johan: Well, we want to win the Tour. Anything else we can get we will try to get itm but not at the cost of the potential of losing the Tour de France.
I spoke with Garmin-Slipstream director sportif, Matt White, before the start of today's stage and asked him about Bradley Wiggins and the team strategy for the third week.
Bruce: Is Bradley Wiggins climbing better than you expected?
White: Not really. A little bit better, but the level we saw at the Giro he has improved and that was the plan. We had some goals at the Giro. One was to win the team time trial and the other was for him to win the final TT in Rome. We came second in both of those. After the second week of the Giro we deliberately eased him off so he would be able to perform here and it certainly worked.
Bruce: What is the strategy for the third week?
White: We are not here just to ride. That's for sure. We have Bradley in third place on GC and we are going to just take that day-by-day. It is the perfect place for us to be. Last year Christian did a great finish in Paris on his own. He had to play off of other teams. Now we have two cards to play.
Bruce: Wiggins is an exceptional time trialist. With the TT coming up in Annecy in two days, does this put extra pressure on his rivals?
White: It does put a lot of pressure on the other teams because Bradley is one of the world's best time trialers and will be in contention for the stage win in Annecy. So it does put a lot of pressure on them and give us a bit of a buffer zone on the mountain stages.
Bruce: How do you prepare Wiggins mentally for what is coming ahead?
White: One thing that is Bradley's forte is his mental strength. You don't win three Olympic gold medals and five world titles with luck. He has a very, very strong belief in himself and it is a new place for him to be in, but one of his big, big strengths is that he believes in himself. What result comes of that, time will tell. But, he has a big faith in himself and he has had that for a long, long, time. You don't acheive what he has achieved with luck. That is for sure.
Bruce: the team was riding for Tyler Farrar in the sprints and now will be riding for Bradley Wiggins on the climbs. Is this a cohesive team?
White: Tyler is definitely not on vacation in the mountains. He is on survival mode until we get to Paris. All the team is helping out as much as they can. Julian and Tyler are coming back for bottle. We have a very tight team and it has shown here at the Tour de France.
Bart Knaggs is one of Lance Armstrong's closest friends. He is currently working on helping to put together Lance's new professional team for 2010. Look for information on that development near the end of the Tour. I asked Bart about how he felt Lance's 2009 Tour was progressing. He is pictured here with his daughter Caroline.
Bruce: Lance looked a bit vulnerable on the Verbier stage. Was that just a one-day thing or was his form a bit off?
Bart: I think he is getting better week by week by week. I think if the Tour had been three of four weeks further away he would be better still. I think the shoulder hurt, the broken collarbone. You forget that you come back to 90% pretty quickly. To get back to that 99-100% take racing; it takes time for the edge to get sharp. I think that is what we are seeing. He is just not quite right on the edge when he wants to be. But, he will be better day in, day out from here to the finish, too.
Bruce: Lance has stated that he can't win the Tour and will be working for Alberto Contador. Is he really going to work for Contador?
Bart: I think you are going to see Lance recognizing team strategies and hierarchies and the way cycling works. First and foremost the objective of this team was always to win the yellow jersey. I think he very good about what he has done. I think he would like to be a little sharper sometimes. In one year to come from where he was to where he is and to be one guy, who is your teammate, out of first place is impressive.
It has been a pretty uneventful rest day at the Tour and after two and a half weeks, that is a good thing. Lance Armstrong has come out publicly and stated that his aspirations for the Tour's yellow jersey are over and that Contador is the best rider on the team. I am sure that was not what the Texan wanted to be saying, but it was a classy thing to do. He still sits in second place, but unless he can find a bit more climbing fitness, the podium might be a stretch. There is a 25-mile(40km) time trial in Annecy on Thursday, but that might not be enough to erase any deficits if he continues to struggle on the climbs.
I spent the rest day visiting several teams, Columbia-HTC and Saxo Bank and sittting down with some riders for interviews. Here are a few. Look for more to dribble in over the next few days.
George Hincapie is the most popular rider in the US save that guy from Texas. He hold the American record for most Tour starts (14) and finishes (13).
Bruce: fourteen Tours de France. That is an incredible legacy. Did you finish every one?
George: I finished every one except my first one(1996). I was just a young kid and I was trying to get ready for the Olympics. I rode two weeks of it then had a bad crash and pulled out.
Bruce: what's in your future on the bike?
George: I am definitely going to keep racing. I don't know if I will do a couple more Tours. I will probably do another couple of years. I don't know if I will be able to come back to the Tour or not. It is still undecided there.
Bruce: How are you feeling?
George: I feel good. I definitely had a very big disappointment the other day. I had a big chance to be in yellow. That seems to be standing out more than anything right now. But as far as my riding, I am going quite well. Hopefully, I can pull something out in the last week.
Bruce: Let's talk about that moment. It appeared to be a bit of a misunderstanding between you and the Astana guys. It didn't look like they were the ones who were really doing the work. It looks like you got some bad information at the finish line.
George: I don't know about that. I have my opinion and I know the facts. I don't really care to comment on what happened and who did what wrong. I have a strong opinion on that and I will keep that to myself.
Bruce: You had the yellow jersey for a day in 2006?
George: I know it would have been hard to keep it(yellow jersey) yesterday, but it would have been very special to get it.
Bruce: What is your role on the team?
George: I can pretty much do everything for the guys. I can help them in the mountains. I can represent them in the breakaways. And I can help Cavendish in the sprints. So, I think I have done a great job for the team. This team is amazing. It is the best team I have ever been on by far as far as the depth of the riders and the comaraderie. For sure.
Bruce: It almost looks automatic for you guys to win a bunch sprint. Take us through the final 2kms of a field sprint
George: That's the thing. That is why I say this team is so good. People watching just think it is automatic. They see us all lined up, all together, but they don't see how hard it is to stay together and how much fighting that is going on and all the bumping. There are people trying to cut inside you on the corners. It is just real chaos. But, this team is so good at staying together. We never get complacent. We are always 100% focused and 100% motivated to get Cav to the final 200 meters.
Bruce: what's the lineup for the leadout train and how does it function?
George: Bernie (Eisel) and (Bert) Grabsch are doing most of the work the whole day. With 5-10km to go Kim (Kirchen) and Maxime (Monfort) take over. Michael Rogers has been taking over with 2km to go. Tony Martin takes over with 1500m to go then I take over with about 1km to go and then Renshaw takes over with 500m to go.
Bruce: Obviously, your stage win in 2005 at Pla d'Adet was a huge moment in your career. But, are there any other Tour moments which stand out in your career?
George: Winning team time trials. Anytime you get to the Champs Elysees no matter what you have done is a huge accomplishment just to get there. Those are definitely moments which stand out.
Mark Cavendish is the best field sprinter in the business, bar none. Even with all his successes he has been criticized for not getting over the mountains and finishing the Tour.
Bruce: You are finally going to try and make it to Paris. How do you feel about your climbing?
Mark: I am not suffering in the grupetto. I am just sitting in there. I don't ned to try and climb with the front riders. What I need to do is save as much energy when I am not climbing with the front riders. I was never going to get dropped from the grupetto, anyway. At least now I can recover and save energy rather than having to go full gas to try and stay in the grupetto.
Bruce: are there any opportunities to try and get back the green jersey?
Mark: It's not happening. The green jersey is gone now. Eighteen points on Thor is too much.
Bruce: let's talk about the rest of your Tour. You won four stages.
Mark: I said "if I don't win a stage I have failed." So, you have to be content with one stage at the Tour. It is the Tour de France. I set two goals, one to win a stage, the other goal was to reach Paris. I won a stage. I am close to reaching Paris. That is successful. Getting to wear green for the first time in my career. Tony to wear white. We still have all nine guys in the race. It has gone perfect for us, actually.
Bruce: let's talk about your new book 'Boy Racer'. What is the part of your personality that you haven't shown publicly that is in the book.
Mark: If you buy the book it explains why I am emotional after a stage. If I wina race I am elated. If I lose a race I am destroyed, angry, aggressive. It is easy to sum up a person fifteen seconds straight after a race when all that emotion that is pent up has spilled out. That's fifteen seconds where you can make the right or wrong decision about a person. If you read the book it shows that there is much more to me than just this Jekyl and Hyde a$$hole, really.
Jens Voigt is on the powerful Saxo Bank team which has two riders in contention for high placings in the overall classification.
Bruce: What will the plan be for Saxo Bank be for the Alps with Andy Schleck riding so well.
Jens: Andy sits in fifth place overall so there is room to improve on that. He got the white jersey which was his first objective achieved, but of course we aim high and we would like to have one of the Schleck brothers on the podiium. It looks like things are pretty simple from the way I see it. We gotta move. We got to try and make the race hard and give Frank and Andy a chance to shine in the mountains. We gotta get past Wiggins. We have to drop and gain more time on people like Tony Martin, on Kloden, on Armstrong, the good time trialists.
In the ideal scenario we would, two days from now, start the time trial with Andy being comfortably ahead of the good time trialists, especially Wiggins who is an awesome time trialer. We have to look into getting him(Wiggins) into trouble
. Our strength is that we have two really good, strong climbers and we have to work with that.
Bruce: what will your role be in the Alps?
Jens: to just make life hard for the others. It is probably the best for me to create chaos. That's good. That's what I am best at. Just make people suffer and have tactics such that they never know if you go now or go later. To put constant pressure on the others (rivals).
Bruce: pleast fill us in on what happened when you flatted out of that breakaway on stage 14 to Besancon. That was a Jens Voigt-type breakaway.
Jens: I am sure that the poor fellow tried (to change his wheel) as quick as he could. It is just complicated to change the back wheel. Then there were the whole circumstances. They had to come running to me to see, first of all, do we have a front wheel or back wheel. By the time we got the bike changed it was too late.
Then you have this rule that you are actually allowed to go behind the group with the yellow car to get back to the group where you had the puncture because you didn't puncture because it was funny. You have been punished enough by that (getting a wheel change). I tried to talk to them, but the commissaire quickly said "No, no. This isn't going to happen here. There is no helping."
So, I was out there all by myself and quickly calculated my chances. Twelve strong riders swapping off in the front and me alone and I figured out that is next to zero that I am going to see them again.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali finished third behind Alberto Contador in Verbier. His is a young rider with a lot of potential. Italian is my fourth language after English, Spanish and French, but I managed to get several questions out to the Liquigas rider at the team bus yesterday at the finish.
Bruce: It was a good day for you?
Vincenzo: Yes, it was a good day, but Contador was much better. He was so much faster than the rest of us. But, yes, it was a good day for me and my team.
Bruce: is it possible to finish top 5 in the Tour?
Vincenzo: yes, I hope it is possible for me to finish high in the general classification. I feel good and I feel very strong.
If there was any doubt who was the team leader on Astana that is pretty much a foregone conclusion as Alberto Contador siezed the initiative once again by attacking Lance Armstrong and the lead group with 5.5km remaining to the ski station at Verbier. The Spaniard was first across the line with Armstrong 1'35" back in ninth place. In the race for the overall, Contador is now 1'37" ahead of second-place Armstrong with Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins in third just nine seconds arrears of the Texan.
In fact, while everyone expected Contador to climb well, the biggest surprise was Wiggins who looked comfortable both following and initiating attacks in the final three miles (5km). His teammate Vande Velde was about 1'30" seconds back of Wiggins and is now in twelfth overall 3'59" back of Contador.
Tomorrow is a rest day before two tough days in the Alps, a 25-mile individual time trial and the ascent of Mont Ventoux remaining on the program. While Contador looks very good, the Tour is far from over.
The biggest buzz after yesterday's stage concerned the negative remarks George Hincapie made about his former US Postal/Discovery Channel teammates, now on Team Astana, working at the front of the peloton to rob Hincapie of the yellow jersey. By dissecting what actually happened both on the road and in the media we can see that it was all a big misunderstanding.
The problem began when the Versus TV commentators made the remark that Team Astana's work at the front of the main peloton had cost George Hincapie the jersey. Using this information, the Versus post-stage reporter asked George, on TV, what he thought about his former teammates working to keep him out of yellow. George, obviously frustrated at losing out on the yellow jersey after being off the front of the race for 100+ miles, just reacted to the question without knowing what really happened.
In reality, we know that it was not Team Astana that caused Hincapie to lose the jersey. Some have pointed the finger at Garmin-Slipstream and their growing rivalry with George's team, Columbia-HTC. But Jonathan Vaughters, the head honcho at Garmin stated that his team was only riding on the front in the final 10km to keep their GC riders out of trouble. He didn't want Bradley Wiggins or Christian Vande Velde getting caught out, as happened to Bradley a few days ago, and lose
So, it looks like a bit of misinformation posed as a post-stage question to a frustrated George Hincapie created a situation that wasn't a situation at all. BTW, when Lance heard about George's comments about Astana, went into overdrive to make sure George got the real story about what happened.
Cadel Evans finished seventh on the stage and dropped to 14th overall. I caught up with him at the Silence-Lotto team bus.
Cadel: I think this is the worse day I ever had in the Tour de France when I didn't have a crash. I haven't recovered since yesterday. I don't know why. At kilometer zero I was terrible. It was one of the most important days of the Tour. If you have a day like this your Tour is over and pretty much your whole season.
Q: Was it the cold of the past few days?
Cadel: No. I just had various reasons.
Q: What are your chances on the general classification?
Cadel: it is pretty terrible. I am riding a terrible Tour and I am dissapointed, but not much I can do about it right now.
Carlos Sastre usually comes alive in the third week of a grand tour which is how he won this race last year. On the final climb today, he got dropped early on from the lead group, but clawed his way back up to the leaders. He finished sixth, 1'06" back of Contador in same group as Bradley Wiggins and now sits in 11th overall at 3'52". I talked with Carlos at the Cervelo Test Team bus after the stage.
Q: How did you feel the first day in the mountains?
Carlos: it was a hard day. It was really fast. It was OK. It was more or less what I expected. It has been a difficult Tour de France, but I closed super (in the final KMs) and I was there and I am happy because I did my best. The team was fantastic. Today all my teammates were close to me. It is an important moment and we are happy. It has been a very successful Tour de France for all of us.
Q: You lost the wheel at the bottom, but you came back. Was that part of the plan to go your own pace and catch those guys back?
Carlos: It wasn't part of the plan. I would like to have the same explosivity as them, but I didn't have the explosivity so I needed to ride more at my rythmn which I did. I came back. I was there. I think for me it was OK. A difficult stage after almost one week on the flats, you know. This kind of fitness I like, but I recognize that there are a few riders who are stronger than me.
Q: Are the tough stages coming up in the Alps more Sastre "country?"
Carlos: It has been a really strange Tour de France. Everybody is talking about Armstrong/Contador like they are the only (ones) doing this race. I am happy with my condition. I am happy with the team. I am happy with the results. I don't think too much about anything. I go day-by-day, just do my race and doing everything which is good for me.
Danny Pate is a support rider on the Garmin-Slipstream team. I caught up with him as he was looking for his team bus.
Q: What was it like out there today. Were you trying to set it up for Bradley (Wiggins) and Christian (Vande Velde)?
Pate: Yeah. All day we just tried to protect them. We wanted one guy in the break and Ryder (Hesjedal) was perfect to have in the break becasue he can climb out of the break and if they (Wiggins and Vande Velde) needed help they could catch him (Ryder) at the right time and he (Ryder) could help them (Wiggins and Vande Velde) later.
Other than that it was the normal thing; protect those guys, help them get to the bottom. Everyone did a little bit to help them get there. Dave and I were the last guys to help them by the bottom and set them up real well to
do their thing.
Q: Wiggins had a great ride today.
Pate: he was riding great at the Giro and he had really good prep between the Giro and the Tour. The team didn't expect him to do any races or get results inbetween there so he had time to chill out and prepare for this.
Q: How will the team chemistry be now with Bradley moving ahead of Christian with a more substantial margin?
Pate: I don't think there will be any problems. I am amazed at the ride Christian has had here. After what happened to him at the Giro. He has blown me away at how prepared he was. Wiggo as well. They are riding unbelievably.
Q: So, they will continue to work together as a team?
Pate: oh, for sure!
Q: After you have put all your efforts into launching Wiggins and Vande Velde up the climb, what do you do to make it to the finish and conserve energy?
Pate: today's climb wasn't so bad. It was not a huge climb and it wasn't really steep which makes really good sense why Wiggo did so well today. He's quite a bit lighter than he has been before. But still it wasn't that steep of a climb or really that hard of a climb so it wasn't so bad for me.
Q: What is your body feeling like going into the third week?
Pate: it depends on who you are. By now you kind of feel the same. You feel the same in the third week. If you are going to be bad, you already feel bad.
Bunch finishes are usually explosive affairs, but not today into Besancon as Columbia-HTC found itself in one of those weird situations that has marked the 2009 Tour. With teammate George Hincapie off the front in a race-long breakaway the time gap back to the peloton was just about enough to put the American in the yellow jersey. But, if Columbia-HTC geared up their leadout train to try and reclaim the green points jersey for Mark Cavendish, their acceleration might just close that time gap and deny Hincapie the yellow jersey.
So, the bunch sprint appeared to happen in slow motion with Columbia-HTC riders all over the front, but trying to delay their leadout until the last possible moment. In the end, Cavendish won the sprint, but he beat Hushovd by only one place and one point so the green jersey stays on the Cervelo Test Team rider's shoulder. And Hincapie's gap proved to be a handful of seconds short so Rinaldo Nocentini will wear yellow tomorrow in to the Alps in Verbier.
In one of the strangest incidents I have seen in my 20+ years of covering the Tour, two riders were shot during stage 13. Spanish rider and triple World Champion, Oscar Friere, and Garmin-Slipstream rider, Julian Dean, were struck by lead pellets apparently fired from an air rifle while the descended the stage's penultimate climb. Friere had to have the pellet removed from his thigh by his team doctor. Julian Dean was struck in the finger with the pellet glancing off. There are no suspects and nobody saw anything as the peloton was in a dense forest.
This is a scary situation as Lance Armstrong has pointed out many times that the peloton races on open roads with crowds able to interact with the riders, hopefully not in any negative ways. But who can forget the fan who punched Eddy Merckx in the stomach in 1975 while he was climbing Le Puy de Dome. I don't know what can be done to tighten security on the open roads. It is a pity that the riders have to endure additional stress when they are trying to relax and save as much energy as possible to be able to perform in a three-week race.
I guess Jens Voigt was listening a couple of days ago as he slipped into the star-studded break at the beginning of stage 14. Unfortunately, he flatted and received a very slow wheel change from the Mavic neutral support car. The new rear wheel appeared to be rubbing on his brakes so he had to stop again to adjust it. Then, to make matters worse, the support car refused to help him get back up to the breakaway by providing a bit of draft. Jens had some choice comments for the occupants of the car and then pulled over to answer the call of nature and wait for the peloton which was already over five minutes behind. Talk about your missed opportunity.
And just when you thought things couldn't get any stranger, an imposter, clad in a La Francaise de Juex racing kit tried to jump onto the Tour podium. The badger himself, Bernard Hinault, forcibly removed him from the stage.
Jean Paul Van Poppel is a former green jersey winner at the Tour, beating Davis Phinney among others in 1988, and is one of the director sportifs of the Cervelo Test Team. Interestingly, when the Tour finished here in Besancon in 1988, Van Poppel won the stage. I spoke to him about Carlos Sastre's chances in the overall classification.
Bruce: Carlos Sastre has a reputation as a third week rider. Is the plan to get through the first two weeks and then go hard in the Alps?
JVVP: The third week is very hard and it is in his (Carlos) system to get better during a stage race. I think his strength is the third week and if it works out. Yeah. He could give them (peloton) some surprises. We hope.
Bruce: Ventoux is a tough enough climb that taking back two to three minutes is not out of the question.
JVVP: Taking two to three minutes on the best riders? I don't think that is going to happen, but you can take time in the last week over more stages (than just Ventoux).
Bruce: Team Astana is looking very strong. Is there something you can do to take them on?
JVVP: We have to see what is going to happen. They work a lot(at the front) so maybe in the last week the team is a bit used up, but I don't think so. Not really. You have to look at what is happening at the moment and if it happens there comes a situation that you can benefit with other riders to go full gas then I think we should do that.
Bruce: who on the team will be there to help Carlos in the mountains.
JVVP: Jose Marchante is a super climber. He had some bad luck starting the season when he broke his arm. He came back in good shape and in the Tour of Catalonia he was in good form, actually a litle too good so we slowed him down a bit for Tour of Switzerland. For now he is at a good level and also he can get better like Carlos does.
Australian Brett Lancaster is a teammate of Sastre's on the Cervelo Test Team. I chatted with him briefly about is team leader.
Bruce: Is Carlos getting ready to unleash himself against Astana in the third week when we get to the Alps?
Brett: They are a really strong team (Astana). Carlos is pretty reserved and keeps to himself. I don't know what he is thinking or what he is going to do. He just keeps that to himself. In the last week it will be typical Carlos standard.
For those who know of the Tour de France only from the Lance era it might be difficult to imagine that as far back as 1980, no American had ever ridden the Tour de France. In 1981, Jonathan Boyer, became the first US rider to particpate in the Tour. He went on to represent America well, finishing as high as 12th place though he rode for a French team. It wasn't until 1986 that the first American team, the 7-Eleven, squad rode the Tour.
A little known fact in Tour history is that in 1981, a squad of Americans was poised to become not only the first Americans, but also the first American team to ride the Tour. They received and invitation in late 1980 from the Tour organizers; Mike Fraysee was to be the team manager and he quickly set about trying to find riders.
It must be remembered that back in 1980/81 there were only three riders in the European pro peloton, Greg Lemond, Jonathan Boyer and George Mount. Unfortunately, all three were under contract to other teams and therefore unavailable. So, Mike Fraysee had to look to the strongest US amateur riders to stock his team. The riders would turn pro and be paid $5000 to start the race and $5000 if they made it to Paris.
Lindsay Crawford, who was a pilot for United Airlines, held several US cycling records and was one of those srong US amateurs who was capable of riding 100-150 miles a day with the European pros for three weeks. It was a dream come true for the Northern California-based rider and he adjusted his legendary 400-500 mile/week training program accordingly.
Unfortunately, for circumstances that are, to this day, still unknown, the Tour organization withdrew the team's invitation several months before the start. There is a bit of a silver lining in this whole mysterious affair. Lindsay Crawford went on to ride a stage of the Tour as part of the Etape du Tour cyclosportif. The Etape du Tour selects one stage each year, usually one of the most mountainous, and 8500 riders take to the course. Winners in each age division receive a yellow jersey and Credit Lyonnaise lion just like a Tour stage winner.
In 2003, Lindsay, then 62, won his age group and finished an amazing 200th overall out of the 8500 starters. He continues to ride the Etape each year and has recorded another podium finish in his 60-69 age group. These days, at age 68, he still routinely logs 400+ mile weeks in the Santa Cruz mountains. He recently won the 65+ year age group at the Spanish cyclosportif Quebrantahuesos, very similar to Etape du Tour, by over 30 minutes.
This year's etape du Tour is this Monday (7/20) and does the stage which finishes at the top of Mont Ventoux. You can read Lindsay's accounts of his pre-Etape training and post event-commentary at www.bikeradar.com
With the Alps looming all eyes are on the battle expected to commence as the third week of the Tour begins. Actually, it will most likely be two battles in the Alps as first, Team Astana tries to sort out the leadership on its squad and secondly as all the other teams with overall contenders such as Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans), Cervelo Test Team (Carlos Sastre) and Saxo Bank (Brothers Schleck) try to either take down Astana or at the very least, climb onto the Tour podium.
The battle for leadership at Astana has already has already seen two rounds as first, Lance took charge in the crosswinds of stage three then in round two, Contador took the initiative by attacking in the final four kilometer to the mountain top finish in Arcalis. Since then the two pugilists have been in their respective corners waiting for the bell to sound for round three.
I expect Lance to take the initiative in the Alps and not wait for Contador to show his ambitions. However, the tricky part is that riders like Carlos Sastre, who seems to get better in the third week of a grand tour, and Cadel Evans, who continues to show the aggression we first saw in the Dauphine Libere, and the Brothers Schleck to attack, attack and attack.
If Astana can't control the lead group and they let riders like Sastre and Evans get up the road, then the advantage shifts to Contador as he is more able to respond to sharp attacks than Armstrong. Having said that, I am impressed by Lance's improving form and he might just be able to match Contador's legendary accelerations by the time the Tour reaches the Alps.
One interesting development is that the director sportifs of several of the teams with overall contenders may be waiting to see if the disharmony inside Astana is weakening the team and making them more vulnerable to cracking in the Alps. In talking with those directors, none of them have any answers on how to take down Astana. With three or four strong riders the situation is similar to being only four shots back on the final afternoon in a golf tournament, but having four golfers in front of you on the leader board. You might be able to beat one or even two of them, but expecting all four to fail is long odds.
Clearly, Astana is weaker with the departure of Levi Leipheimer, but Andreas Kloden looks very solid as does Yaraslov Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia. Lance called the third week of the Tour "sinister". With both the battle within Astana and the battle of the best of the rest, it is going to be one of the most memorable finishes in recent Tour history.
On a very rainy day in the Vosges Mountains, Heinrich Haussler was off the front for over 100 miles, dropping his breakaway companion Sylvan Chavanel on the descent of the penultimate climb and soloing for almost 30 miles to victory. The Cervelo Test Team rider is better known for his sprinting prowess, winning stage 2 of Paris-Nice and almost beating Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo. But, today, he proved that once again in this year's Tour, anything can happen.
Undoubtedly the biggest news of the days was the non-start of Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer. He crashed on a left hand bend with 2.5 kilometers remaining yesterday, but appeared to be fine at the stage finish. However, the pain in his wrist worsened over night and a trip to the hospital in the morning revealed that it was broken.
I saw the crash and it just didn't look that serious. The tumble by Ryder Hesjedal the day before looked way more serious, but Hesjedal was basically unscathed. Leipheimer was enjoying one of his finest Tours sitting in fourth place overall and looking very comfortable and relaxed on the bike. It is a pity that Levi will not get to show his form in the Alps. In both 2006 and 2007, he was one of the few riders who seemed to get stronger in the third week.
The race leaders took it easy in the day's trying conditions, there were no changes to the overall standings other than Leipheimer's untimely withdrawal. Thor Hushovd managed to stay with the GC leaders over all the climbs and took second in the field sprint for sixth place which allowed him to take the green jersey off of Mark Cavendish's shoulders.
The Armstrong/Contador affair is interesting to watch. I asked Rolf Aldag, DS of team Columbia-HTC, about the perspective from the other teams.
Bruce: do you think Astana will destroy themselves with all the conflict?
Rolf: I think in the end, they are so strong as a team, that even if they ride against each other they will succeed whoever that will be. If you see how much resources they have. Until now they didn't need Leipheimer. They didn't need Kloden to ride. They still have so much resources that up until now they can easily control it with out making any decisions (about team leadership) so I think it stays wide open.
It is interesting to watch (the Armstrong/Contador battle) from the outside. If you don't have a hand in the game there it is really interesting to follow and wonder what are they going to do next.
When Lance was in the front in the crosswind there was definitely a big 'chapeau' from our team wondering how he managed that. Three years off he is definitely physiologically older, he is definitely focused on the race. So it was kind of 'Wow! He made it into that group'.
When Contador attacked up to Arcalis it was the same thing to say 'Wow. There is no way for us to go with him.' So we watched it and we were also like 'Phew'. It was a good attack. It was strong how he went to the finish.
Right now it is six and eight seconds so it is totally open. It is so exciting we are kind of like spectators in the first row. It is kind of funny.
Bruce: Does Contador need to be strong psychologically to do what he did?
Rolf: I think so, but I also think it is kind of a relief for him. He is as good as he is and he has to show it. If there is any doubt that he is good enough then he will be in bigger and bigger trouble. If he shows that he is good enough, that he is there because when he was not there in the break in the crosswinds, it was a big advantage for Lance. 'See. That is not my mistake that you haven't learned. That might happen to you everyday.'
Psychologically he (Lance) had a big, big advantage over Contador, but Contador now responded and said 'See. Even if I miss it I am strong enough to correct it.'
It is really exciting to follow that as long as we are not paying the bill which we are not going to do. Cavendish is no threat to Astana.
I finally had time to look through all the photos I shot in the past two weeks. Here are a bunch from the team time trial that I think you will find interesting.
There are some fit riders in the Tour.
Check out the Cervelo Test Team's motto on their shorts. It seems to be working as they have won two stages.
Flatting in a team time trial can cost a GC rider precious seconds and potentially minutes. The mechanics always wipe off the tires just before the start in case a piece of glass has found it's way into the rubber.
Tom Boonen packs a gel just in case he needs it during the 45+ minute effort.
Because of the logistics between the start and finish of the team time trial, Team Astana decided it needed another bus to park at the finish. Mechanic Geoff Brown got the call the day before and drove the second bus 700 miles (1100km) from Astana's European headquarters in Brakel, Belgium to Montpellier. The speed limit for busses is 60 mph(100kmh) so the trip took over 11 hours. He arrived only two hours before the stage start. He drove the bus 700 miles back to Belgium the next day.
A general lack of cooperation among the sprinter's teams allowed a group of seven riders to stay away to the finish, but the first rider across the line, Saxo Bank's Niki Sorensen didn't wait around to sprint with his breakmates. His solo attack in the closing kilometers brought Saxo Bank it's second stage win after Cancellara's victory in Monaco.
I was a day for opportunities as the AG2R-La Mondiale team had to spend most of day at the front riding for their man in yellow, Rinaldo Nocentini, as the sprinter's teams just couldn't coordinate a chase effort to bring back the breakaway. While Nocentini kept the jersey, it was a lost day for the Cavendish, Farrar, Hushovd, et. al. as the stage profile clearly called for a bunch finish. But, that's why they ride each day, just to see who has been reading all the journalists' prognostications.
Clearly, Mark Cavendish is the class of the sprinters and my guess is that the other teams with sprinters such as Garmin-Slipstream and Cervelo Test Team decided not to do any work at the front just so 'Cav' could get another win. With two riders in contention for the overall, I can see why Garmin-Slipstream might have chosen not to ride, but it is a bit of a pity as their fastman, Tyler Farrar, came oh, so close to winning yesterday. But, the third week of the Tour is, as Lance Armstrong put it 'sinister', and as we reach the Alps in just three days maybe all eyes are looking at the mountains.
Jens Voigt are you listening? This is your opportunity to go for stage win!
Nicolas Roche has some big shoes to fill being the son of Irishman Stephen Roche who won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and the World Road Championship all in the same year, 1987. He is riding his first Tour, and sporting the jersey of the Irish National road champion, for AG2R-La Mondiale team who just happen to have the yellow jesey. I talked with him about his Tour experience.
Bruce: what is it like riding for Rinaldo in yellow?
Nicolas: for me it is a fantastic experience. It is my first Tour and straight away I have the opportunity to ride for the yellow jersey. Some riders never do that in their whole career. Of course, that puts a big stop on my own personal motivations, but it is my first Tour so everything is going all right. I had my chances in the first week in the sprints. Now there are two more weeks to go and lots of chances to get into the breakaways.
Bruce: What is the biggest thing you have learned so far?
Nicolas: I suppose that when you are riding the Tour you are either riding to be top ten in GC or the most important thing is to try and save you energy for the next day to give it a go in the breakaways. You can't win the sprint because of Cavendish and there are too many other good sprinters. If you wait for a mountain top finish there is Contador, Armstrong and so many others. There are not many possibilities to get a stage win which is the dream of everybody who comes to the Tour, I think.
While Serge Borlee is currently Cadel Evans' bodyguard, he has preformed the same duty for Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov. I thought there would be a bidding war for Serge's services when Lance announced his comeback, but it didn't happen. Hopefully, we are buddies now and he won't hurt me!
Bruce: what are your duties as a bodyguard?
Serge: Every morning I bring him to the start line for the sign in. I make sure nothing happens to him before the race starts.
Bruce: some people don't know your background. You are an ex-Belgian policeman.
Serge: I am not an ex, I am still a policeman. This is my holiday. I take my holiday to do the Tour de France.
Bruce: Cadel is a bit different this year than last year. He is more friendly.
Serge: Last year they put too much pressure on him to make him win the Tour de France and it was too stressful for him. But, this year I think he is in better shape than last year and he's looking good.
Bruce: have you ever had to take somebody down while protecting a rider?
Serge: In 2005 I got in a fight with the police in Paris when I was protecting Lance. Put my name in YouTube and you will see.
Bruce: of all the riders you have worked with, who was the best to work for?
Serge: Cadel. It is less stressful. He's a nice guy.
Last time I talked with Rabobank Director Sportif (DS) Erik Breukink was in Rome during the final TT of the Giro. The team was on a definite high as they were just hours away from wining the Giro D'Italia. Here at the Tour, their luck has been going in the opposite direction. As I predicted, I didn't think Menchov could recover from the Giro and he hasn't. The their hope for the white jersey and possibly the overall, Robert Gesink(pronounced Hesink, just like Houda not Gouda cheese) crashed and had to retire with a broken wrist.
Bruce: with Gesink out and Menchov apparently not recovered from the Giro are you looking to stage wins?
Erik: a stage win is important, for sure. Gesink for the mountains was our guy. Menchov is getting a litle bit better, but it is difficult for him to move up on GC because he is so far behind. Stage wins are important now.
While Mark Cavendish won his record-tying eigth career stage win for a Briton, Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar came disappointingly close to beating the Manxman in the dash for the line. Heading into the final two hundred meters the order was Cavendish, Hushovd, Farrar. Unfortunately for Farrar, Hushovd was unable to hold Cavendish's wheel and Tyler had to take the long way around to the left in an attempt to keep contact with the Columbia-HTC rider.
Frankly, if Tyler, and not Hushovd, had been on Cavendish's wheel, I think Farrar could have taken the stage. Even after having to go the long way around, Farrar came oh, so close. It is only a matter of time before the Garmin-Slipstream team get a stage win from this rising star. If Cavendish fails to make it through the Alps, look for the argyle to be at the front on the Champs-Elysees.
Hats off to the race officials for reversing their decision yesterday of calling a split in the peloton and docking a huge group of riders 15 seconds. This certainly is turning out to be a Tour of surprises. As a result, Levi Leipheimer is back in fourth and Bradley Wiggins is back up to fifth. If you don't think 15 seconds can make a difference, remember 2007 when Levi missed the second spot on the podium by only eight seconds. Then there was the 1989 Tour when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon also by eight seconds.
In today's stage, Garmin-Slipstream rider Ryder Hesjedal suffered a bad looking fall with about 40 km remaining. He got up shaking his wrist much like Robert Gesink about a week ago. Hopefully, Ryder is OK as he will be much-needed in the Alps.
The Skil-Shimano team received one of the wild card invitations to the Tour de France. They lined up in Monaco against 18 Pro Tour teams and have been battling ever since. I talked with rider Koen De Kort on what it like to be the smallest budget team in the Tour and to be riding against the top squads in the sport.
Bruce: What does it mean for a team like Skil Shimano to be in the Tour de France?
Koen: It is great for us, obviously, to be able to ride here. It is the biggest cycling event in the world. It is more than just a race. It is a complete, big media event. There are so many people around all the time. It is great for us to be here. I think before, everyone saw us as the smallest team, but, especially in the first week, we proved that we belong in this race. I think we have done a good job so far.
Bruce: Do you feel like the team has upped their game a level to be here?
Koen: Yeah, absolutely. I think we all have got pretty good form going into this race and really we got to show ourselves in the first week. We don't have any real climbers so we are taking it easy for these Pyrenees stages. After that we have some nice stages for us, again and you will see Skil in the front line for sure.
Bruce: How has your reception been in the peloton with the Pro Tour teams?
Koen: Most of the boys I have known for years. It is my fifth year as a professional so most of the guys I have already seen and talked to. They know what we are like and we've actually had really good comments on how we have been riding in the first week especially the day (stage 3) with the echelons where we had so many guys in the first group. That really got us a lot of respect from the other teams.
Obviously, sponsorship dollars are critical to keeping the sport alive. When Bob Stapleton re-launched the old T-Mobile team as Team High Road Sports in 2008, it was an indication that he had yet to secure a title sponsor. However, just before the 2008 Tour, Columbia Sportswear signed up as a co-sponsor which caused the team to scramble to get their new sponsor's logos on all their team equipment.
The team was named Columbia-High Road indicating that there was space on the jersey for another co-sponsor. Well, just before the 2009 Tour, the Asian cell phone manufacturer, HTC, signed on and the scramble was on again. I caught up with Bob to talk about the events.
Bruce: What was it like putting together the HTC kit at the last minute?
Bob: It is a good thing we had the practice last year with Columbia. We have been super busy. We started talking with HTC in April and signed in June and have been busy branding buses, getting new kits and literally tomorrow's-clothing-arrives-today sort of thing on the team kits.
Bruce: What are the details behind the committment from HTC?
Bob: it is three years. They are committing as a co-sponsor. I am very optimistic about them. They are one of the top mobile electronic companies in the world. They design and build the Google phone and a number of really leading edge devices. Now, they are launching their own brand, HTC, internationally and we are a part of that strategy.
Bruce: Word is that they decided to go with cycling instead of sponsoring a Formula One team. What was behind that decision?
Bob: As you know cyclists are quite affluent. They are big consumers. They are very technically sophisticated. That is similar in other countries, but I think they felt that cycling fit the lifestyle of many of their potential customers and that was an instant emotional connection they could make with their brand. I think that is very smart marketing and I think they are going to be rewarded for their confidence in the sport.
The flat profile of stage 10 provided another spring board for Mark Cavendish and his leadout train to prove they are the best in the business. Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar rounded out the top three emphasizing that this was a stage for the sprinters. The rumoured strike over the ban on race radios was averted when ASO agreed to remove the ban for stage 13.
All in all it was a pretty uneventful day. But why, then, did Bradley Wiggins drop from fifth to seventh overall? Because he got caught in one of the most unfair situations in professional racing which continues to plague stage race riders. While the peloton was virtually intact approaching the line, a rider, 10 places ahead of Bradley, let a small, usually only about five-feet, gap open up so the race officials counted that group as the second group over the line. Since Cavendish had crossed the line 15 seconds before that group, Bradley was given the time of the second group.
I can assure you that if you watch the finish on TV, while the gap will be visible, it is not like the riders in Bradley's "group" (for lack of a better word) got dropped, more than likely someone just sat up and stop pedaling. It is just that a small gap opened up in front of the rider who sat up and the officials do, as officials like to do, called it another group. It is kind of like if you give a referee a whistle, he/she feels obligated to blow it. And in this case, the UCI race officials blew it.
Levi Leipheimer was also caught in the "second" group and dropped from fourth to fifth overall. Ironically, if either Wiggins or Leipheimer had been caught in a crash within three kilometers of the finish, they would have been given the same time as the winner. I am not advocating the riders start taking lessons from soccer players on how to take dives, but there is some food for thought here.
The problem is that Wiggins finished 64th and Leipheimer was 77th indicating that they were both in the first half of the main group. I really don't think you should force the overall contenders to mix it up with the sprinters just so they don't get "gapped" so to speak. It is really dangerous up front and that is a risk Lance, Alberto, Christian, et. al. should not have to take on the bunch sprint finishes. Certainly, some of the GC contenders were up near the front and did not lose any time, but if they had gotten caught in a crash becasue of it we would be signing a different tune.
The UCI needs to come up with a way to take the time of the riders more fairly. I have been asking them to consider this for the past few years. I have been proposing several solutions. One solution is to make the gap much larger, like 30 feet (10 meters) before a split is made. Obviously, this would only apply to bunch finishes. Another solution is to take the time of the riders as they cross the red kite with 1km to go. Nobody is siting up, creating gaps at that point.
When I talk to the UCI officials, they just don't seem to understand what the problem is. Maybe they are just too busy trying to blow their whistle.
Team Columbia-HTC rider Tony Martin is one of the revelations of this year's Tour. We saw him ride well earlier this year in both the Criterium International and the Tour of Switzerland, but nobody expected the 23 year-old German to be wearing the white jersey of best young rider. I talked with Tony's Director Sportif (DS) Rolf Aldag about the plans for Martin as the race progresses.
Bruce: Rolf, where did you find Tony Martin? It seems like every year Team Columbia finds another new star?
Rolf: we can't take the credit for Tony. Honestly, the world of professional cycling realized him in 2004/2005 when we had a mountain time trial and this guy won by a minute. I myself was sixth. He was 18 years-old and I knew he was going to be good. We battled in the Reggio Tour in Germany and I think he finished fifth and I finished sixth.
I think it was a big battle who gets him. I know that Gerlosteiner was interested and finally we managed to get him. We are happy to have him, but I think the good thing is he decided on which team based on who will help best in his career. We have a good program and we promote that to the riders and I think that is what makes the difference so we can get them.
Bruce: How will you ride for Tony in the Tour? Will you ride for him to defend the white jersey or will you have him play off the other teams.
Rolf: For the moment he just has to follow. Today (Col du Tourmalet stage) I don't expect the GC guys to make a big race. They will follow each other. So we will bring him through that. After the rest day, we will be concentrating on the sprint stages for Cavendish.
When we get to the Alps it will be time to decide what we are going to do with him. He does have a free role that's for sure. He does have support. He is protected on the team. But, he is not the only team captain (for the overall) at the moment because I think that would put a lot of pressure on him. If we expect him to do the result instead of Kim (Kirchen) I don't think it would be fair to Kim and it would not be fair to Tony to say 'you are the man now and you better be in front.'
So, if he really, really struggles one day and loses a lot of time there's nothing to lose for him anymore. He won so much. He defended his white jersey so long. It is his first Tour de France. We just come back and do better next year. That's a good situation for him. He doesn't have any pressure. He has a free role and support and we will just see how it goes.
Here is what the scrum for interviews with Lance looks like at the Astana team bus after a stage. Luckily, when I talked to Lance two days ago it was just the two of us as I am by no means a rugby player.
If this guys comes up to you after a stage finish it means that you have been selected for doping control. His job is to escort the racer directly to the medical trailer to protect the integrity of any biological samples the rider may have to give. Lance has been seeing this guy a lot during the Tour and has passed all his tests.
If you wonder how the race organizers and officials can tell the position of the riders during the race, it is because the racers have these nifty little transponders which must be mounted on the chainstay a specific distance in front of the rear hub axle. The number "22" on this transponder corresponds to rider number 22 which means this is a shot of Lance's bike.
After Christian Vande Velde's fourth place finish in the 2008 Tour, much was expected from the team leader of the Garmin-Slipstream squad. Then he had a very serious crash in the Giro and everything changed. A so-so performance in the pre-Tour warm up, the Tour of Switzerland, was a cause for concern. But, as the Tour left the Pyrenees, those concerns appear to be unfounded as Vande Velde was climbing well with all the the heavy hitters. I talked with him after the first mountain stage to see what's up.
Christian admitted that he was beat up pretty badly after the crash and had a slow recovery. "I was kind of in denial of how bad I really was," said Vande Velde noting that he tried to come back too early and had to take three to four days off as a result.
There is no place to hide at the Tour. How did Vande Velde feel going into the race? "It has been stressful these last couple of weeks leading up to the Tour not knowing where I stand and what's going on(with my conditioning)," said Vande Velde. But, Christian rode well in the opening time trial, the team time trial and the first mountain stage adding that he 'felt great' on he final slopes of Arcalis.
Last year, Christian only had Ryder Hesjedal in the mountains and that was only on one, albeit, critical stage. This year, Olympic Gold Medalist, Bradley Wiggins has come over from Columbia-Highroad. Wiggins lost a reported nine pounds to be lighter to help Vande Velde in the mountains. Vande Velde see a lot of similarities to his situation last year. "He (Bradley) has no idea what he can and cannot do. He could definitely have attacked more today. It is just going to be a process of him knowing his body."
Christian wasn't sure exactly what the Garmin-Slipstream team could do to take on the super-powerful Astana team. On the climb to Arcalis, there were four Astana riders in the lead group and Contador was off the front. "They didn't even go at full guns today so I don't know," said Vande Velde.
Tomorrow's stage 10 and Friday's stage 13 will be unique in that the Tour organizers are banning the riders and their team directors from using radios. The radios have been in use since 1993 when Team Motorola introduced the Peloton Communication System (PCS). Back then, I wrote that I didn't like the radios and received some interesting comments back from the folks at Motorola. But, regardless of my protestations, the radios were here to stay and are now a critical part of a team's equipment.
Those in favor of the radios say that they increase the safety of the riders by first, warning them of dangerous situations up the road, and secondly, eliminating the need for riders to drop back to the team cars to talk to their directors.
Those opposed say that race radios turn the riders into nothing more than robots who obey every command given to them by their directors. This has made the racing boring and predictable. Do you ever wonder why the peloton almost always seems to catch the breakaway at the last possible moment?
What is interesting is that while most team directors support radios (well, duh), the riders seem to be split on the issue both sides citing the concerns noted above.
On Monday, at the Tour's first rest day, the teams were supposed to meet to decide what to do about the ban. Clearly, many team directors see it as a safety issue and believe that banning radios put their riders at risk. Fourteen of the twenty teams present at the Tour have signed a petition opposing the ban and there is a rumour of a rider strike at the stage start on Tuesday.
Personally, I am still opposed to race radios. The riders have to drop back to the team cars to get bottles and they don't seem to be crashing right and left. If the gendarmes do their job, upcoming road hazards should be handled properly.
I remember the days when it wasn't just power output, but one's ability to read a race that was considered an asset. However, being a realist, I realize that radios have become so integrated into the team's strategy and tactics that it will take a real paradigm shift to go back to the old ways. There is no doubt the racing would get more exciting without the radios.
Here's another suggestion to increase the excitement of the big races. Include some big dirt climbs like the Col du Grand Parpaillon and the Col de la Moutiere near Jausiers and the Col du Areche near Aime in the Alps. In the Pyrenees, you can climb another four miles and 1200' on a good dirt road from the top of the Col du Tourmalet. The Giro has included a few dirt roads in its race, how about the Tour?
The Col du Tourmalet is one of the hallmark climbs of the Tour de France. It was first climbed in the Tour almost 100 years ago when the road was little more than a goat track. Since then, it has produced it's fair share of Tour champions and in the unfortunate case of Eugene Christophe in 1913, one of the greatest legends of the greatest of races(more on that later).
For all these reasons it is really a shame that the race reached the top of the iconic pass with over 35 miles of downhill and flat riding to the finish. Last year the Tour climbed to Hautacam just down the valley, the Tourmalet playing a key role in the split in the peloton which produced the stage winner and a reshuffling of he overall contenders.
Not this year. While stage winner Pierrick Fedrigo and his breakaway companion, Franco Pellizotti, stayed away to the finish, the Tourmalet was basically a non-factor. What a pity.
I did a short interview with Lance just before the start of the stage.
Bruce: Are you surprised at just how good your form is at the Tour?
It hasn't been tested that much to be honest. We've had The prologue, TTT, Arcalis. I think the race is tighter than people expected. We'll know in the final week. That's where the form check will come.
Bruce: How did your pre-Tour preparations go?
The Giro was good for leaning out and I felt I got stronger as the race went on there. I was tired at the end so I had to recover from that. June was not a nromal month. Recovering from the Giro, having Max, building for the Tour, traveling back and forth. I think we are finding our legs. Again, the last six days are sinister.
Bruce: Do you have any indication on how you will feel in the final week? Are you still building form?
That's my plan. We'll see.
Bruce: What about the reports in the press about disharmony on the Astana team?
Rabobank rider Laurens Ten Dam crashed hard on the descent of the Tourmalet. Here he is at the stage finish inspecting the extensive damage to his bib shorts.
In May, Franco Pellizotti won a big mountain stage to the Blockhaus in the Giro d'Italia. He was off the front most of the day today, but lost the sprint for the stage win to Pierrick Fedrigo. This is the look of the second place rider.
There is way too much going on at the Tour at the moment for one posting a day so I am going to add an additional posting to catch some of the other story lines.
First off, for those of you following the Lance and Alberto saga, the headline this morning in France's leading sports newspaper l'Equipe was "Contador is the Boss." Clearly, l'Equipe felt that Alberto seized control by attacking in the final kilometers of stage 7 to Arcalis-Andorra. Lance remarked to the press after the stage that Contador's attack had not been part of the plan for that stage which further emphasizes l'Equipe's point that Contador took the initiative.
This is a very interesting situation made even more so by the fact that both Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden are also riding very strongly. While people are focusing on Lance and Alberto, if either one or both of them have a bad day, Levi or Andreas could assume the leadership role. It is a bit of a long shot, but the possibility is there. I am hoping that the Lance/Alberto affair doesn't end up causing the whole team to crumble. They are clearly the strongest team. Does Johan need to step in and lay down some ground rules?
Adding to the suspense, both Alberto and Lance were randomly picked for doping control at the end of stage 8. Because of this, they had to sit around together in the medical trailer for about and hour after the stage giving biological samples, usually just urine, sometimes blood. I wonder what they talked about?
Each day a team has a plan for the stage. They look at the stage profile and the capabilities of their riders and try to strategize for an optimum output. On stage 8, the game plan for Team Columbia-HTC was to get George Hincapie up the road in the latter half of the stage and then have Kim Kirchen come up on the ascent of the final climb. Hopefully those two would be part of a small breakaway where either Kim could solo off the front in the closing kilometers or if he was brought back, George could win in a sprint. Unfortunately, George covered the Evans attack on the first climb(Port d'Envalira) so that strategy did not play out.
You might be wondering what is happening to Michael Rogers. He is becoming the 'Hard Luck Kid'. Two years ago Rogers crashed on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend and had to withdraw with a broken elbow. This year, he crashed on the run in to Barcelona in the rain and while the medical staff at Columbia-HTC were initially concerned with his elbow, it appears that he severely bruised his hip. I was at the team bus when he rolled up at the end of today's stage and it was painful for me to watch him try and climb off his bike. He is one tough Aussie and the medical staff hope that in about two days he will be back at close to full strength. Being hurt in the mountains rather on the flats is back luck.
If you are wondering why the cycling pundits are talking more about Andy Schleck rather than his older brother Frank, it can be explained that Frank crashed this spring and hurt his knee. The knee has not really healed and the wisdom in the press room is that Frank might not make it to Paris.
On a day which didn't change the overall classification one second, it might seem like the race was a bit on the boring side. That was far from the case as a number of the favorites for the overall launched their bids to unseat Team Astana at the top of the heap.
The stage started off with a 14-mile(23.5km), 4200' climb right out of Andorra. Because of the aggressive nature of the Tour this far, a number of riders were seen warming up before the stage, something that rarely happens, especially since the first three miles were neutralized. But, when the flag dropped, the attacks started as the AG2R-La Mondiale team of race leader Rinaldo Nocentini was unable to control the peloton.
There were at least three major groups on the climb at one point and with 5km remaining to the summit of the massive Port d'Envalira, Cadel Evans went clear. Dave Zabriskie covered the move for Garmin-Slipstream. That move was partially brought back, though a group containing Thor Hushovd and George Hincapie did escape on the descent into France(see race notes below).
Things seemed to cool down until the final climb, the Col de Agnes, where Andy Schleck put in a strong attack. All of Astana's heavy hitters were there, but Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre missed the move so even Lance Armstrong took some pulls at the front trying to widen the gap back to Evans.
In the end the fire went out at the front and all the overall contenders were together at the finish. Again, another exciting day at the Tour even if the results at the end of the day didn't reflect it.
The stage victory went to Casse d'Epargne rider Luis-Leon Sanchez. Here is a photo of him celebrating his victory.
For some reason, I seem to be a magnet for stage winners. Sanchez rode right up to me and stopped. I snapped this photo just as the scrum for the first interview began.
I talked briefly with yesterday's stage winner, Brice Feillu. He picked up the polka-dot climber's jersey for his efforts yesterday. He told me he was very happy to have won a stage and have taken the polka dot jersey. He also said that even though he lost the jersey today to Christophe Kern he would fight to get it back.
Because this was a very hilly stage, the organizers had a difficult time deciding where to place the intermediate sprints. These sprints award points for the first three finishers and count toward the green, sprinter's jersey. In the end, the two of the three sprints were only 11 miles(19km) apart. Thor Hushovd, who trailed Mark Cavendish in the race for the green jersey by only one point, broke away before the first sprint. Cavendish's Columbia-HTC teammate, George Hincapie, covered the move, but Hushovd took the first sprint and is the provisional leader in the green jersey competition on the road.
Hushovd beat Hincapie in the next sprint to increase his provisional lead by another six points over Cavendish. The third sprint is after the final two big climbs so most likely neither Hushovd or Cavendish will be contesting that sprint or the stage finish sprint as well. Because of this making the most of these kinds of opportunities is how you maximize your output, but conserve energy. It was a very good tactical move for the Cervelo Test Team. Thor will be in the green jersey tonight.
Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins was a major revelation on the climb to Arcalis in Andorra. Not only was he in the lead group, but even managed an attack with about a kilometer to go. Wiggins, or Wiggo as his teammates call him, has quite the engine as witnessed by his Olympic gold medal in the 4000m pursuit from the Beijing Olympics. He was hired by the Garmin-Slipstream team to help Christian Vande Velde in the mountains and because of this he lost nine pounds in the off season to improve his climbing form.
That Wiggins is nine pounds lighter than last year makes the fact that he was generating a mind-blowing 550 watts during his turns at the front in the team time trial even more impressive. Its one thing to lose weight, but to not sacrifice any power is the best scenario possible. I think we have only seen a brief glimpse on what may be possible for Wiggins.
Yesterday's 135-mile stage from Barcelona to Arcalis-Andorra was medium-tough by Tour standards. It was six hours in the saddle for the riders and two major climbs. Christian Vande Velde burned over 5000 calories during the stage.
Alberto Contador put his stamp on the 2009 Tour, attacking the elite group of overall contenders with two miles(3km) remaining to the finish at Arcalis in Andorra. Many speculated that Contador, in an attempt to keep team harmony at Astana, would only follow an attack by another squad's overall contender such as Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre. But, after Cadel Evans had tested the waters with 2.5 miles remaining and had been easily brought back by both Contador and Armstrong, Alberto launched his convincing attack.
The gap quickly went out to double digit seconds, but seemed to stabilize at around twenty seconds as Evans led the chase. Garmin-Slipstream's overall favorite Christian Vande Velde signaled his return to top form by launching an attack out of the Evans-led group just under the red kite. He was brought back and he, Evans, Armstrong, Leiphimer and Andy Schleck all finished together 21 seconds back of the Spaniard.
While the race for overall was going on down the road. Brice Feillu of the French Agritubel squad won the stage. He was part of a large breakaway group that had a ten minute lead as the race entered Andorra. He attacked with about five kilometers remaining and held off all his break-mates. As a bit of a break from form, he forgot to zip up his jersey to acknowledge his sponsors as he crossed the line.
One side effect of the large time gap given to the breakaway was that Rinaldo Nocentini, who earlier this year won the Pasadena stage of the Amgen Tour of California, inherited the yellow jersey ahead of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Contador has only a two second lead over Armstrong on general classification, though with the strength he showed in the closing kilometers, he looks to be a tick better than Armstrong on the climbs.
But, after struggling to stay in the lead group at the Giro d'Italia, it is a testament to Lance's form that not only did he finish in the lead group, but he easily neutralized Cadel Evans' attack and looked very relaxed in the drag over the final kilometers to the line. Based on how good he looked, it is a distinct possibility that Lance was playing the good teammate and forcing the others to chase Contador.
It was another exciting stage. Even though Contador appeared to have the upper hand on Armstrong, those who doubted Lance as a true contender may well be silenced. It was also very gratifying to see Christian Vande Velde back up with the leaders after his horrible crash in the Giro. Christian's teammate Bradley Wiggins also climbed well. More on his transcendence soon.
Stage winner Brice Feillu.
Popovych leads Lance and Alberto with about 4km remaining.
Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck.
Sergio Paulinho has done his work at the front and is now just riding to the finish.
I am probably jeopardizing my manhood, but for this trip to cover the Tour de France I bought myself an auto GPS unit. My sense of direction is pretty darn good, but in some of the older towns in Europe (and the US for that matter) the layout and direction of traffic on the city streets just don't make sense.
Nothing is more frustrating than, after along day of reporting on the Tour, to have to spend several hours driving in circles trying to find your hotel. And just like the riders of the Tour, we journalists need to get a good recovery after our efforts. Accumulating stress and/or losing sleep will make the three weeks of the Tour seem like months. Suffice it to say, anything you can do to make your life easier is warmly welcomed.
So I bought a Garmin Nuvi 265WT not only because it is a highly rated GPS unit, but I also like to spend money with companies who sponsor cycling. I am wearing a set of Columbia Titanium crewneck shirts throughout France. Don't worry, I wash them every night and they are ready to go each morning.
Listening to Garmina (the nickname of the woman who provides the voice commands) tell me where to go is pretty soothing when I have no clue as to where I need to be. But, in celebration of the Tour de France, Garmin, the title sponsor of the Garmin-Slipstream team has a special, free, offer for those who own Garmin GPS. Garmin-Slipstream team director, Matt White, recorded all the words and phrases(and a few more!) used by the GPS units.
Now when I need to turn right, the Aussie voice of the former US Postal and Discovery Channel rider White tells me where to go. And during those long flat stretches where there are no directions to give, Matt pops in with some light comedy to break the boredom. My personal favorite is "Did you remember to put the bikes on top of the car." Along with the voice of Matt White, Garmin is also offering addition vehicle icons. You can choose from a number of different vehicles including both a Garmin-Slipstream team bus or team car. I chose the team bus.
If you would like to add these new features to your Garmin GPS just go to GarminGarage.com. They don't take up much space on your unit and it really does make for a very unique experience. Don't fret, if you start missing Garmina's soothing voice, it is very easy to switch back to have her give you directions. The same goes for the vehicle icon.
A couple of days ago, I promised to post some pictures of my ride with the Garmin-Slipstream team as they were doing there morning warm-up for the TTT. I took some on-the-bike photos, but given the twisty technical nature of the course, the incessant wind, the speed of these guys and the fact that I was trying to cough up a lung about 90% of the ride they came out a bit, well, er, um, fuzzy; kind of luck how I was feeling.
Note that some of the riders were warming up on their road bikes.
The boys are looking good in formation.
This is what happens when you are going 30+mph on a bumpy road in a heavy crosswind trying to hang onto one of the world's best teams.
David Millar is the man. He laid it all on the line on today's stage from Girona, where he and most of his Garmin-Slipstream teammates call home, to Barcelona. The conditions were epic with torrential rains hammering the rides in the final few hours. Millar attacked his three breakaway companions with 12 miles(20km) remaing and looked to be heading for a stage win. Unfortunately, the peloton caught him with about a mile remaining, the look on his face did not mask the disappointment at coming so close.
The final hour of racing was marred by a number of crashes. Painted lines, roads slick with diesel and numerous roundabouts played havoc and caused three or four crashes when the riders were being as careful as possible in the dangerous conditions. Both Tyler Farrar and Tom Boonen were taken down which resulted in the final sprint being a bit of a free-for-all.
The Rabobank team had been setting pace on the front to set up a win for their Spanish triple world champion Oscar Friere, but Cervelo Test Team's Thor Hushovd came by him with about 75 meters to go and took the win. Yet another Tour stage provided a dramatic ending
The fallout from yesterday team time trial is still being felt among the teams with contenders for the yellow jersey. Clearly, Team Astana is in the drivers seat while hopefulls such as Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto), Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) and the Schleck brothers(Saxo Bank) have some catching up to do.
This morning at the stage start in Le Cap d'Agde I talked with a number of riders about the team trial and what the results mean for the days ahead.
Yaraslov Popovych was a key player in Team Astana's victory. He described the course and the resulting team strategy. "It was hard because it was a very difficult course. The road was really small. We had only one object, to not crash. We wanted to win, but we wanted to save the team for the next two weeks."
Lance Armstrong signaled out Popovych and Andreas Kloden as the two strong men during the ride. What was Popovych's reaction to the praise. "Everybody pulled very well. Alberto was good, everybody was good. This is a really strong team."
Cadel Evans and his Silence Lotto squad had a disastrous race. They waited for several of their stronger riders when one got dropped and the other flatted, but both came off, for good, soon after. In the end they ceded over two minutes to Lance and Alberto which does not bode well. I have a lot of time to make up on the guys from Astana. As far as a podium place goes I am really going to have to work at it."
When asked if he found the course difficult, Cadel replied "it wasn't hard for me. Just for my teammates."
Cadel's teammate, Charly Wegelius had a bit of a different take on yesterday's events. "First I have to say that considering everything that happened to us in the race yesterday the team performed quite well despite a lot of misfortune. The course was highly technical with corners that you didn't see very well how they were going to finish up. If you add into that the stress and the pressure of riding a team time trial at the Tour it was quite an explosive combination."
"If you look at the general classification we are not alone. We will be looking for opportunities to make up some time. Maybe there will be other teams who want to make movements with us, too," added Wegelius.
Cervelo Test Team rider Hayden Roulston, teammate of Carlos Sastre, echoed Wegelius' comments on what lies ahead. "I think it is going to be a very interesting race now. A lot of guys who are two minutes down are contenders so who knows what is going to happen. It might have just opened a whole new can of worms."
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler pulled a bit of an upset by winning solo into Perpignan on a stage that most thought would end in another sprint finish. Voeckler was part of a small breakaway group that had been off the front for most of the race. Columbia-HCT and Garmin contributed to the chase and things looked good for another bunch finish when Voeckler attacked his companions and while the peloton caught his breakaway mates, they didn't catch him. Sometimes persistence pays off and things don't go according to form.
I got to play technical service rep at the start. I am shooting small video clips for Saris Cycling (www.saris.com), the people who bring you Power Tap power meters. I was shooting a video with Cadel Evans when, afterwards, he remarked that his Power Tap wasn't working at the moment. He asked me, since I was working for Saris, to fix it and that I did.
If you watch the Tour de France everyday hoping for drama then the last few stages have been extraordinary. On a very difficult 25-mile time trial course around Montpellier, Lance Armstrong came within an eyelash of putting on the yellow jersey for the first time in almost four years. It would have been an incredible step in his comeback, but the Fabian Cancellara-led Team Saxo Bank did just what it needed to retain the maillot jaune.
By just, I mean literally less than one second. It was oh-so-close for a storybook ending to a day which saw the American Garmin-Slipstream team put in a valiant effort which almost won the day. They finished only 18 seconds back of stage victors Team Astana after 47 minutes on course. It is not a coveted stage win, but the boys in argyle should be proud of almost toppling arguably the best team in the sport. Garmin-Slipstream have clearly proven that they deserve to be a Pro Tour team in only their first year at that elitest of levels.
The TT course was far from the usual flat and fast affair. Small roads, sharp climbs and a punishing wind made this one of the sternest tests for a team the Tour has seen in years. I was fortunate to ride with Garmin-Slipstream team during their warm-up lap this morning (hint: it wasn't a warm-up for me) and I was impressed by how difficult and technical the course was. Look for a report including on-the-bike photos, in an upcoming blog. I am still recovering. It may take years.
Garmin's power guru Dr. Allen Lim described the team's game plan. "Stay careful. I think it is a dangerous, dangerous course. I think the guys have to be conscious of one another and not take any risks. Normally it is full throttle. Now it is full throttle plus a high sense of awareness of one and other and careful through the corners. Some places we are going to have to be conservative and then try to make it up elsewhere. Through the very fast techinical sections there will be very few changes at the front."
After the race, Lance spoke with Gerard Holtz on Antenne 2. When asked to describe the TTT course his only response was 'tricky'. He admitted that he was a bit disappointed not to get the yellow jersey. Hollywood actor Ben Stiller appeared on stage and took full responsibility for losing the jersey by less than one second. He was certain that Lance had looked back just before the finish to see if he was watching. Ben went on to present the yellow jersey to Fabian Cancellara.
Just before Astana took the start ramp, Lance shook Conador's hand. Alberto responded as we see in this photo as the two teammates realized that they would need to work together to beat the other squads.
Team Garmin-Slipstream heads down the start ramp.
Just before Team Columbia-HCT started down the ramp, Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie shared a fist bump.
Even though stage 3 of the Tour de France turned into another sprint win for Mark Cavendish it was anything but another long, boring trek through southern France. When the race turned south with 30km to go, the peloton encountered a heavy westerly crosswind. Team Columbia used the winds to drop the hammer causing a split at the front of the peloton as 30 riders went clear.
Leading up to the split, the race had been marked by a general lack of cooperation among the teams as to who would work to chase down an early breakaway that contained four riders and reached a maximum time gap of 13 minutes. For the first hour the peloton managed a meager 17-18mph.
Team Columbia-HTC owner Bob Stapleton commented on the situation. "It was frustrating. I thought Garmin would come up and do some work for Farrar, but they were basically saying 'We are not going to do any work. We are betting all our chances on the team time trial.'" "I think their chances of beating Astana are small. I am disappointed they didn't ride today. Tyler showed a lot of quality yesterday. They should have supported him today. He maybe could have done something."
"I think Saxo Bank got no support either and they basically said screw it. We basically said screw it. Let's get super agressive and see if we can make something happen," added Stapleton.
Second place on the stage, Thor Hushovd echoed Bob's sentiments. "It was a big game during the whole stage. Saxo didn't want to control the race the whole day. They wanted to save their legs for tomorrow. And Columbia didn't want to do the work alone. It was just a big game the whole day."
Team Columbia was aided in their efforts by some intel from a former team member. "Erik Zabel came through this morning and had a look at the last 30kms for us. He gave us all the technical info. It was very good," explained Columbia Team Director Alan Peiper.
At the finish, six Columbia riders powered the lead group to a forty-one second advantage. Lance Armstrong proved that he hasn't lost any of tactical abilities. He was the only overall contender to make the split and has moved up to third place. If Astana wins the team time trial tomorrow, as expected, and can take more than 40 seconds out of Cancellara's Saxo Bank squad and 7 seconds out of Tony Martin's Team Columbia the Lance could be in yellow at the end of the day.
This guy could be in yellow tomorrow!
Thor Hushovd looks pretty thin probably so he can climb in the mountains and fight for the green jersey all the way to Paris.
Cadel was on the wrong end of the split and lost 40 seconds
If Lance doesn't win his eighth Tour de France this July, the cycling pundits will certainly be dissecting his race and his pre-race preparations ad infinitum. But, regardless of what happens over the next three weeks it is interesting to note that Lance had clearly deviated from the formula which brought him seven consecutive Tour victories.
During his record setting string of wins, one of the critical components of his preparation was to ride, sometimes two or three times, the key stages of that year's race. That usually meant long days in the mountains and previewing all the time trials. Obviously, the strategy and tactics of a given stage dictated how a stage played out on race day, but for Lance and his teammates, there were no surprises when it came to what a particular course might dish out.
This year, mostly due to his broken collarbone, his committment to ride the Giro and the birth of his son, Max, Lance has not had the opportunity to preview all the key stages. Lance did ride the opening time trial course in Monaco several times in the days preceding the race. He reckoned, correctly, that the tricky descents were just as important as having maximum power on the climb to the summit of the Col du Beausoleil.
But, instead of being in Europe in June doing recon rides, Lance and his Astana teammates Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner trained out of Aspen, Colorado.The three amigos rode four and a half to six and a half hours a day in training. One of their most popular rides was to go from Aspen up over Independence Pass at 12,000' then down to Twin Lakes at 9000' then back up and over Independence Pass to Aspen. This 80-mile ride with about 8000' of climbing took the boys about 4 and a half hours at moderate training pace.
At the recent Nevada City Classic, both Levi and Lance remarked that it was good to come down from altitude to race as training at such a high height really does not give a good indication of overall fitness. However, it has been proven that altitude training does work so these guys were not wasting their time. They just weren't in Europe as was the case from 1999-2005.
We will have to wait and see if the deviation from the formula was a good idea or not. Sometimes circumstances force you to change your game plan. The jury might still be out, but judging from how Lance and Levi rode in the Monaco TT, things are looking good.
Some guy named Mark won stage two from an intact peloton. It was great to see Tyler Farrar in second and the fact that Hushovd slipped in there for fourth meant that nobody is giving away any victories just yet. Yes, Cavendish may seem unbeatable, but Farrar did just that this past March in the Tour of Mediterranean. Don't count Garmin-Slipstream out. They can definitely give Cavendish a run for his money and if the Manxman gets a bit cocky and leaves it late, like he did at the Giro when he lost a couple of stages to Allesandro Petacchi, Farrar could pounce.
The Tour de France has officially begun and while the winner on the day, Fabian Cancellara, was not a huge surprise, the race for Astana team leadership got very interesting. All four of Astana's Tour podium finishers, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden finished inside the top 10 with only 22 seconds separating those riders after the 9-mile(15 km) time trial. While Alberto, 3rd overall, did best Lance, 10th overall, by 22 seconds the question of team leadership is still unanswered.
On a warm, muggy day in the principality of Monaco the relatively short course resulted in interesting, but not necessarily significant, time gaps. None of the favorites faltered; Cadel Evans was right in the mix, five seconds behind Contador and 17 seconds ahead of Armstrong while Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre were within a minute of their rivals.
The Garmin-Slipstream team also demonstrated their time trialing prowess, putting four riders in the top 17, led by Bradley Wiggins' third place finish, 19 seconds behind Cancellara. David Zabriskie, 13th, David Millar, 14th and Christian Vande Velde, 17th, had solid rides. Vande Velde's comeback after a race-ending crash in the Giro seems to be on track to finding his top form as the race progresses.
This year, because there are no time bonuses at the finish, it is likely that Cancellara will keep his yellow jersey at least until Stage 4 on Tuesday and the 25-mile team time trial. Based on the results of the opening time trial, it should be a battle between Astana and Garmin-Slipstream for the stage win.
It has been an up and down season for Cancellara who won the opening prologue of the Tour of California, but was forced to withdraw the next day due to sickness. A training crash at home in Switzerland severely hampered his preparation for the Classics, but he recently won his home tour, the Tour de Suisse, and appears to be finally finding his form.
The next few days should be the domain of the sprinters. Look for Team Columbia-HTC with Mark Cavendish to be challenged by Cervelo Test team and Thor Hushovd, but Garmin-Slipstream and their up-and-coming sprinter, Tyler Farrar, might surprise.
This might start sounding like a broken record, but come Saturday in Monaco, the great battle of wills between Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador will begin. Certainly, there will be other challengers, but these two are the main favorites for good reason and deserve all the hype. Lance and Alberto are very well matched physically so I think it will come down to the mental game to determine the winner of the 2009 Tour.
Right after the Giro, I wouldn't have given Lance much of a chance, but after being with him at the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, two weeks ago, and seeing how fit and motivated he was, Armstrong is a man on a mission. He is starting the race five pounds lighter than he ever did during his seven victories and his eyes show a keen focus and determination. Lance is not coming to France to ride in support of Alberto Contador.
Alberto Contador is probably feeling a bit lonely on Team Astana with only his old teammate from Liberty Seguros, Sergio Paulinho, as a trusted ally. Rumour has it that Contador might be getting some help from the riders on Caisse d'Epargne if he needs it. I am hoping that things remain civil on Astana. There is no need for a replay of the 1986 race where American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Bernard Hinault while they teammates, rode as rivals.
With all this talk of teammates and allies, it is probably fitting that the first stage of the Tour is a 9-mile(15km) individual time trial in the hills surrounding Monaco. That means a head-to-head battle between Lance and Alberto with the best man on the day assuming an edge in the fight for team leadership. With all the "Lance versus Alberto" hype in the past nine months, look for Contador to come out blazing, trying to prove that he is the true team leader of Astana.
However, Lance is a master tactician and will do everything in his power to try to match Contador. Unless we are talking Brett Favre, I am a fan of comebacks so I hope that Lance can match Alberto and if he does, the battle of wills will really be on.
You are probably thinking that the mental toughness of a rider is always part of the equation, but given that the two riders in question here are on the same team makes the mental aspect way more critical. Alberto and Lance will be spending way more time in close proximity than just during the race. Any gamesmanship can be played out long after each day's podium ceremony has concluded.
So, while it is clear that you have to be physically strong to win the Tour de France, this year's victor will also need to be as tough if not tougher mentally to prevail, especially if your name is Lance or Alberto.