OK. So the mountains have finally revealed the true contenders for the Tour. Kudos to Michael Rasmussen for a cracking ride, but props as well to Christophe Moreau for attacking the favorites over and over on the final climb to Tignes. But, for me the biggest news is that the Cormet de Roselend has claimed more victims.
It's a bit of a personal thing between me and the Cormet. The descent of its east side is a 4,000-foot, twisty, technical affair with many treacherous hairpins. Years ago, I almost came to grief on one of its "lancets", as the French call them when the road narrowed abruptly and veered sharply to the left. I could lie and tell you that my awesome downhill prowess saved my butt, but in reality it was plain old luck. While he was still a rider, current Discovery Channel Team Director Johan Bruyneel crashed heavily in exactly the same spot going over the side and down the embankment. Today, that turn claimed two more victims.
Aussie and Team T-Mobile rider Michael Rogers came to grief on the Cormet. What makes the crash even more ironic is that he was in the lead breakaway at the time. As the designated team leader for T-Mobile, this was the first major move of the Tour and his move should have been rewarded for its aggressiveness. Instead, the Tour is over for the three-time World Time Trial Champion. What a turn of fortunes for Team T-Mobile. One day you have a stage win, the team prize and the yellow jersey. The next day, your team leader is heading home.
Fellow Aussie, Stuart O'Grady came a cropper on the Cormet as well. It's been a rough Tour for the gritty Team CSC rider. His win this spring in Paris-Roubaix was the highlight of his career. Now he, like Michael Rogers, must deal with the lowest of lows in cycling: leaving the Tour de France.
I stopped by to see Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen at the Versus mobile studio this morning. We have worked together a bit over the years, most recently on the official Tour of California DVD--Phil and Paul doing the race call with me doing the rider interviews before and after each stage.
Phil and Paul have to be some of the hardest working guys in the business. The Tour is a huge effort for this pair. First, there is the pre-stage show with Al and Bobke which is filmed in the morning. Next, they spend the late morning, afternoon and early evening calling the stage. Sometime around 8 p.m. or so, the crowds (and their cars) at the finish have thinned out enough for them to drive to the town hosting the next day's finish. That trek normally takes four-plus hours which usually means a quick pre-made ham-and-cheese sandwich at an autoroute cafe and then arrival at the hotel sometime around 1 a.m. Whoa! And you though the riders had it tough!
Over the years, Phil has come up with some great one-liners affectionately known as Liggettisms. One of my favorites goes all the way back to 1986 when Bernard Hinault had his sixth Tour victory all but wrapped up when he betrayed Lemond in the Pyrenees. Sitting on a five-minute lead, Hinault was unable to control his bravado and attacked solo with three huge Pyrenean climbs remaining. Phil's words were prophetic as he exclaimed, "is he a superman or a fool?" Bernie blew up and Greg beat him by five minutes setting the match all square.
All of Belgium can heave a collective sigh of relief. Tom Boonen has finally won a stage! After watching his chief rivalsand even a teammatebeat him to the line, it was looking like Groundhog Day for Belgium's most popular rider. In 2006, Boonen was wearing the rainbow jersey of World Champion and while he rode well in the spring classics, winning the Tour of Flanders for a second time, he just couldn't not find his high gear in France. It was a huge disappointment made even
more so by the rainbow jersey on his shoulders.
I first met Tom in 2002 when he was a virtually unknown 21-year-old, first-year pro racing for Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Squad. I was in the San Francisco airport heading over to the spring classics and looked up to see a rider adorned in USPS team sweats waiting in line next to me for a flight to Belgium. Boonen was the only guy on the squad I didn't know so it was pretty easy to get the name right. We spent 14 hours together making our way to his home country--unfortunately, there are no direct flights from San Francisco to Belgium.
Just at the start of his professional cycling career, Tom had so much energy and excitement like a kid at his first Christmas. He was a refreshing change from the battle-hardened veterans and I could see that there was definitely a fire down below. I was so convinced that Tom would do well in that year's classics that I phoned my editors at Cycle Sport magazine in London and pleaded with them to let me do an article on Tom. They, and everybody else, had never heard of him so they politely refused.
After three phone calls in three days, they finally relented and I was given the assignment to do a 1-page intro piece. Tom and I hooked up the day before Paris-Roubaix. That same excitement was still there so much so that Tom told me he had awoken that day and started putting on his racing kit only to be told by his roommate that the race was tomorrow.
Of course, the rest is history. Tom went on to finish third in the race and a superstar was born. My piece never made the magazine. Once my editors realized what they had, they assigned a Belgian journalist to do a full feature reasoning that a fellow countryman could get the best out of this up and coming rider. So it goes!
In just two days we should have a good idea of who are the contenders and who are the pretenders in this year's Tour as the Alps loom larger and larger.
The stage over the Columbier finishing in Le Gran Bornand may still contain a few pretenders, but as Levi Leipheimer pointed out in the Discovery Channel pre-Tour press conference, the climb to the ski station at Tignes is a long one and there will be no hiding.
Who will have it in the big mountains? Good question and one that even the favorites can't answer for themselves. With all the pre-Tour hoopla the week before the start, and the fact that, traditionally, the first week of the race is devoid of any "real" climbs, it will have been almost two weeks since any of the contenders have ridden up a climb when they finally hit the mountains. Just imagine training for your big hilly ride and not doing any big climbs for two weeks before the event. Hard to imagine, huh?
So, when the Tour hits the first big climb, most of the favorites take it easy and try to figure out if their form is still there or if it has taken the last train for the coast. Bernard Hinault, five-time winner of the Tour in the late '70s and early '80syou know, the guy who is there every day on the podium greeting the winner of the stagehad a strategy that obviously worked for him.
While all his competitors were tentatively pedaling up the first climb, the Badger, as Hinault was called, would go to the front and pound up the mountain in a huge gear. His opposition could never tell if he was bluffing or he was about to crush everyone. Of course, bluffing away your weaknesses is key to wining a three-week race, but on a 6,000-plus-foot climb like the Col du Galibier, which comes next Tuesday, you better be in the World Series of Poker-class or you will be left behind.
It is at about this time in the Tour that the Team Time Trial(TTT) makes its appearance. But not this year. Is anyone else disappointed that there is no TTT in this edition of the Tour? I love that event. The TTT is a combination of speed and grace--and not necessarily in that order. You have to be smooth first, then the speed will follow. Watching Lance Armstrong and his Blue Train rocketing across the French countryside at 35-plus mph was poetry in motion.
Another reason I love the TTT is that it forces teams in contention for the overall to bring a balanced squad. To be sure, it is nice to have 120-pound mountain goats to protect your leader when the road tilts upward, but if you don't bring a few bigger guys, you can lose the jersey when you least expect it; just ask Floyd Landis and his Team Phonak when the 2006 Tour left the Pyrenees and headed across the flats to the Alps. Yes, Floyd and his team decided not to chase that now famous breakaway, but without the help of the sprinter's teams it meant a golden day for Oscar Periero.
Given the thoroughbreads on Team CSC, if they had held the TTT this year, undoubtedly the result would have been Fabian Cancellara padding his lead, but what a sight to behold! It is not clear why the Tour organizers omitted the TTT from this year's schedule. Let's hope that this does not become a regular ocurrence.
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.