In just two days we should have a good idea of who are the contenders and who are the pretenders in this year's Tour as the Alps loom larger and larger.
The stage over the Columbier finishing in Le Gran Bornand may still contain a few pretenders, but as Levi Leipheimer pointed out in the Discovery Channel pre-Tour press conference, the climb to the ski station at Tignes is a long one and there will be no hiding.
Who will have it in the big mountains? Good question and one that even the favorites can't answer for themselves. With all the pre-Tour hoopla the week before the start, and the fact that, traditionally, the first week of the race is devoid of any "real" climbs, it will have been almost two weeks since any of the contenders have ridden up a climb when they finally hit the mountains. Just imagine training for your big hilly ride and not doing any big climbs for two weeks before the event. Hard to imagine, huh?
So, when the Tour hits the first big climb, most of the favorites take it easy and try to figure out if their form is still there or if it has taken the last train for the coast. Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour in the late '70s and early '80syou know, the guy who is there every day on the podium greeting the winner of the stagehad a strategy that obviously worked for him.
While all his competitors were tentatively pedaling up the first climb, the Badger, as Hinault was called, would go to the front and pound up the mountain in a huge gear. His opposition could never tell if he was bluffing or he was about to crush everyone. Of course, bluffing away your weaknesses is key to wining a three-week race, but on a 6,000-plus-foot climb like the Col du Galibier, which comes next Tuesday, you better be in the World Series of Poker-class or you will be left behind.
It is at about this time in the Tour that the Team Time Trial(TTT) makes its appearance. But not this year. Is anyone else disappointed that there is no TTT in this edition of the Tour? I love that event. The TTT is a combination of speed and grace--and not necessarily in that order. You have to be smooth first, then the speed will follow. Watching Lance Armstrong and his Blue Train rocketing across the French countryside at 35-plus mph was poetry in motion.
Another reason I love the TTT is that it forces teams in contention for the overall to bring a balanced squad. To be sure, it is nice to have 120-pound mountain goats to protect your leader when the road tilts upward, but if you don't bring a few bigger guys, you can lose the jersey when you least expect it; just ask Floyd Landis and his Team Phonak when the 2006 Tour left the Pyrenees and headed across the flats to the Alps. Yes, Floyd and his team decided not to chase that now famous breakaway, but without the help of the sprinter's teams it meant a golden day for Oscar Periero.
Given the thoroughbreads on Team CSC, if they had held the TTT this year, undoubtedly the result would have been Fabian Cancellara padding his lead, but what a sight to behold! It is not clear why the Tour organizers omitted the TTT from this year's schedule. Let's hope that this does not become a regular ocurrence.
I made a resolution not to talk about doping anymore during the Tour, but I just couldn't let this one pass.
Several weeks ago Tour organizers asked Bjarne Riis to return his 1996 TdF yellow jersey since he admitted to doping to win the race. Several days ago Lance Armstrong wondered why the same Tour organizers didn't ask French riders Bernard Thevenet and Richard Virenque to return their jerseys. Thevenet admitted that he used steriods to defeat Eddy Mercxk and win the Tour in 1975 and 1977. Virenque, who holds the record for winning the most polka-dot mountains jerseys, admitted to using EPO when he was with the Festina team. Very good question, Lance!
Well today, Thevenet fired back. In an Associated Press interview, Thevenet, who is now an official with Tour said, "It was thought that just like riders take vitamins, for example, they should take cortisone and anabolic steroids...It wasn't to get a boost, but...to recuperate."
Exsqueeze me?!?! The Tour organizers are crucifying Floyd Landis for testing positive at the 2006 edition of the race. Anybody want to take a guess at the substance Floyd is accused to have taken? Last time I checked, testosterone is a steroid and its main purpose is to aid in recovery. So, is Thevenet saying that if Floyd had won the 1976 Tour instead of 2006, it would have been OK? Is Floyd's only crime, if you believe he is guilty, that he was born 30 years too late?
The situation is so bizarre, it is almost laughable unless, of course, you are Floyd Landis. Whether you believe Floyd is guilty or not, you just have to wonder how anyone can get a fair shake when so much duplicity exists out there.
OK, back to your regularly scheduled programming. What a great win by Cancellara on Stage 3! Yes, he was protecting his yellow jersey by being near the front and closing the gap on the breakaway, but it would have been very easy for him to sit up once the four riders were in sight and rest up for the podium ceremony. Rocketing past the indecisive breakaway and holding the best sprinters in the world at bay was simply incredible! If, somehow, you didn't think that Fabian earned the yellow jersey by destroying the field in the prologue, there can be no disagreement that, at this point in the race, he is the man who should wear the golden fleece! Bravo!
When 2007 Paris-Roubaix winnner, Stuart O'Grady, crashed into a barrier during the Tour prologue on Saturday, he quickly got back on the bike and continued like nothing happened. Here's hoping that he is 100 percent, but that is only something "Stuey" knows for sure.
Crashing is a part of bike racing, but in a three week race it takes on a greater importance. In a race like the Tour, a rider needs to feel good on the bike every day. Sure, there are times when you can hide out in the pack, but at the current speeds of the peloton, those times are few and far between. And when the Tour enters the mountains, there is no place to hide.
This makes rest and recovery vitally important and if you aren't able to sleep at night you just cannot recover. Road rash means sticky sheets. Bumps and bruises means a potentially compromised sleeping position. General aches and pains can easily cause insomnia.
Then there is the fact that while the body attempts to heal itself it is robbing energy, the same energy a rider needs to pedal his bike. Former Discovery Channel and current T-Mobile rider Michael Barry crashed so heavily in the 2002 Tour of Spain that he had road rash over half of his body. Though he wanted to continue he had to aboandon the race. Michael slept 14 hours a day for the next three weeks as his body made the necessary repairs!
So, whether you are a rider like O'Grady who is counted on to support his team leaders and possibly win from a small breakaway on a flatter stage or one of the favorites, crashing at the Tour can never be viewed as a minor inconvenience. A friend of mine rode eight Tours and only one of those Tours was crash-free. Safe travels for the peloton!
So the prologue is completed and there were no real surprises.
Cancellara's win was brilliant, but expected, and all the favorites for the overall finished close enough to each other to call the race for the yellow jersey a dead heat at this point.
Hey, but there is more to the Tour than just the results! Just making a Pro Tour team's Tour squad is a huge accomplishment.
But, wait, there's more. Because the Tour is so special (TIOOYK) most teams make a number of special preparations and a lot of it is about cool swag!
First off, most teams provide their riders with brand new bikes.
Some of the new machines are technological improvements over their existing rides while others are the same trustworthy design with new paint and decals to commemorate the Tour. If you've got a new bike, you need new clothes, eh? Many teams take on new sponsors either specifically for the Tour or for the long haul and their logos need to adorn the team's riders. A new bike and kit go a long way in making the riders feel special and provide extra motivation.
But, it doesn't end there. New dress shirts, T-shirts, sweats all sporting "Tour" special logos may be in the offing, especially if a major new sponsor is in the works. Then there are the knick-knacks that just never seem to end. One year, Team Motorola had special hand-held fans, complete with the official Tour de France logo, made to keep their riders cool when off the bike.
The pre-Tour Christmas just never seems to end, but sooner or later the riders have to race their bikes. Time to play with all their presents will come later.
Several days ago, the Tour de France organizers announced that for the first time in the history of the Tour, the race number 1 will not be issued. The number 1 is usually reserved for last year's winner, but if that rider is not competing the number goes to the winner's team (Discovery Channel had it in 2006 as Lance won in 2005). Second-place finisher, Oscar Periero's Casse d'Epargne team will get numbers 11-19, but no team will ride numbers 1-9.
Of course, this is due to the fact that the actual winner of the 2006 Tour is still not determined since Floyd Landis returned a positive result for testosterone. Yes, doping continues to grab the headlines in pro cycling and with each new positive result or rider admission, it seems more and more like pro cycling is WWF on bicycles.
I have been covering professional cycling for 20 years, including my first Tour de France way back in 1988 and I am not going to abandon the sport I both love to participate in and love to report about. Eddy Mercxk once said, "on the bike, there is always suffering." But, cycling is more complex than that. I think back to all the great duels over the years, Coppi and Bartali whose struggles united a post-war Italy; Anquetil and Poulidor, who proved to us all that you didn't have to be a winner (Poulidor was known as the "Eternal Second") to be adored by the fans; Merckx and Ocana demonstrating that even the seemingly invincible could be beaten; Lemond and Fignon showing the true character of the first American to win the Tour and Armstrong and Ullrich proving that even rivals can be friends.
Me, I am looking past the doping for this year's Tour. Can Vinokourov keep his enthusiasm in his shorts and ride a tactically superior race or will he take off like a banshee on the first mountain stage, blow like a top and ruin his chances? Will Levi finally ride a consistently good Tour and climb onto the podium continuing the American dominance? Will Valverde finally live up to all the expectations? Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen and that's what makes it so interesting to watch it all unfold.
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