Hopefully it is just because the pro cycling season is winding down and there is not much racing to report, but it seems that the only thing happening is more doping news. Recently, the French anti-doping laboratory (AFLD) completed it's testing of all the 2008 Tour de France samples. They were looking for CERA a new version of EPO that is time-released and appears to be more effective than the older versions. I guess you could call it 'new and improved'. Anyway, four cyclists have been caught using CERA at the Tour, Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli were tossed during the Tour, Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl were found positive during the AFLD's most recent testing.
The problem here is that all these guys are big names. Between them they won a total of five of the Tour's toughest stages, the King of the Mountains jersey and third place overall. That's a very sobering fact and shows that while the fight against doping is starting to work, there are still riders taking drugs.
There are a number of ramifications to these revelations. First off, UCI President Pat McQuaid has recently revealed that the UCI is seriously considering raising the length of time of a doping infraction from the current two years to four years. McQuaid indicated that the four year ban would only apply to deliberate acts of doping and not to those testing positive for accidentally taking a banned substance such as something in a cold medication or supplement.
A four year ban is basically a life sentence for a rider not to mention that with the current glut of professionals, most banned riders, unless they are a legitimate Tour de France contender, would be too much baggage to a team.
Another development arising from the recent doping scandals is that the two German television networks ARD and ZDF which broadcast the Tour have decided to drop the Tour from their programming schedule next year. Also, the Tour of Germany, a race won by Levi Leipheimer in 2005, has folded citing lack of sponsorship in the wake of the recent doping positives.
And you thought the financial markets were in crisis.
Last year I gave out a few awards after the Tour de France to deserving individuals and teams so we're back in 2008 with another round of acknowledging what made this year's event so memorable.
Biggest Fashion Faux Pas - white bike shorts. Unless your team bought a case of Oxy Clean from late-night TV huckster Billy Mays white shouldn't be worn below the waist even before labor day when you are talking bicycles. Ugh! I don't believe in coincidences; Team CSC Saxo Bank wore black shorts and took home the yellow and white jersey plus two stage wins. Team Columbia was in black and won five stages.
Nicest Domestique to turn into a Team Leader - this is a three-way tie between Andy Hampsten, Miguel Indurain and Christian Vandevelde. Since we are talking the 2008 Tour, the award goes to Vandevelde he is one heck of a nice guy.
Teen Heartthrob - Mark Cavendish. He looks so young and at age 23, he is young. His boyish good looks should be giving the girls of Britain fits especially now that the Harry Potter series is winding down.
Comeback Shane Award - Team Gerlosteiner title sponsor is leaving at the end of the season. They won both time trials with Stefan Schumacher who also wore the yellow jersey and with Bernhard Kohl took home the polka-dot climbing jersey and a spot on the podium as well. Maybe with all the success at the Tour a new title sponsor can be found. If not, and the team disbands, some other teams are going to get some great riders.
Missing Person Award - Australian ace sprinter Robbie MKewen usually wins several stages at the Tour and is an ex-winner of the green, sprinter's jersey. He was nowhere to be seen in this year's Tour. I wonder what happened?
Missing Team Award - what's up with Silence Lotto? Cadel Evans looked pretty lonely in the mountains and Robbie MKewen looked lonely as well in the field sprints. Where were their seven teammates? I hope Chris Horner is getting a good laugh out of this one. Silence Lotto traded him in for Yaroslav Popvych. Yeah, like that was an upgrade.
Best Stage win by an Australian - Simon Gerrans victory at Prato Nevoso. The fourman breakway was off the front the entire race and he still found the energy to drop his companions for a convincing win up a difficult climb.
Best Stage win by an American - well, uh, um. Honorable mentions go to Will Frischkorn, Danny Pate and George Hincapie for almost making it happen.
Next Frenchman to win the Tour - he hasn't been born yet. Look for the 23-year drought to continue. The big question is can a Frenchman win before the last winner, 53-year old Bernard Hinault way back in 1985, exits this planet?
I Don't Get It Award - Sylvain Chavanel and Sandy Casar can incite a riot among the French fans just by going up the road for five seconds. I guess they are the current French hopes, and even though Chavanel won a stage (which they showed over and over and over and over again on French TV) 14th place isn't even close.
My Bodyguard Award - Cadel Evans brought a bodyguard to the Tour. OK, Lance had one during his Tour years, but he had to deal with death threats. I would have had a better chance getting an audience with the Dali Lama and he is in exile. Cadel's bodyguard used physical force to protect Evans from "threats" and I have first-hand experience of that. Everybody deals with the pressure of being a favorite at the Tour in their own way, but Cadel, leave OddJob at home next year and spend a little more time with the press. It will help improve your image and take it from me, you need it when it comes to the journalists.
Thank You Very Much Award - to team Saunier Duval. I have known Team Director Mauro Giannetti for almost twenty years and one of my favorite jerseys is an old white with blue and red Team Saunier Duval. Now when I wear it I get jeers of "doper" from the usually adoring French public. I have never used drugs and I have the performances, or lack thereof, to prove it. Thanks a lot!
Where Were You During the Big One Award - in the 2008 Tour the French attacked more often than in the entirety of World War II. That aggression was rewarded with a host of stage wins. Bravo. Now, you just have to figure out how to climb and time trial.
Best Team not at the Tour Award - Astana. Lest we forget the team of that other great Spanish rider and Levi as well. Next year they better be in the race.
What awards do you want to give the 2008 Tour de France. Post up!
First there was PMD (post mountains depression) now there is PTD(post Tour depression). To be honest, for most of my fellow journalists it is about time this three week rolling circus ends. The final week in the press room is like a funeral wake with all the scribes just about done in by long drives to their hotels, trying to interview the riders, Cadel was especially tough for some reason known only to Cadel, and writing endless stories. By my count, at any one time, there were only about ten Americans in the press room following the Tour which is way down from the hordes which descended on France during the Lance years.
Also, the crowds along the roads seemed less than in past years. It was most noticeable on the mountain stages though the Alpe did not disappoint. All in all, I would say that the Tour is in limbo. The organizers and the teams, for that matter, need to really get a handle on the doping problem. This year, ASO, the organization which runs the Tour, picked all the teams unlike in the past few years when they took all the teams (save Unibet) who were in the UCI's Pro Tour. So, ASO had to answer for any teams which had doping problems in 2008.
Because any negative publicity would have reflected directly back on ASO, they were not as heavy-handed as last year. That is a bad thing as the teams need to get the message that doping is a not tolerated. ASO should have tossed all the teams with a positive result like they did last year, but again, it would have reflected negatively on their selection criteria so they didn't.
Both the UCI and ASO need to start requiring valid, up-to-date biological passports for participation in their races. Only if this requirement is made will the teams follow the lead of Team Garmin-Chipotle, Team Columbia, Team CSC Saxo Bank and Team Astana and pay for an out-of-competition anti-doping program such as Agence for Cycling Ethics(ACE) or Damsgaard.
On a positive note, both American teams, Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia, rode exceptionally well and exceeded everyone's expectations. Here's hoping they can continue their successes. It would be nice for Team Columbia to hire a few more American riders, but head honcho Bob Stapleton has said that he will continue to sign the best racers regardless of what it says in their passport. To be fair, he has given a chance to two US up-and-comers John Devine and Craig Lewis, but there are a few other US-based Americans who could be riding in the European pro peloton such as John Murphy of the soon-to-be-defunct HealthNet-Maxxis squad.
In the next few days I will be rolling out my 2008 Tour de France awards, here is an example.
Rider Who Needed a Plan B - Cadel Evans. He who lives by the time trial dies by the time trial.
I am hoping that you all can come up with a few of your favorites so put those thinking caps on and sharpen up your funny bone, you have been warned.
The Tour is finally over, but what a Tour it was. From Cavendish's blazing sprints to Sastre's blistering attack on the Alpe it was a great race. I wrapped it all up yesterday so today, while the peloton celebrates its arrival in Paris I though I would post up some photos of the l'Alpe d'Huez as it typifies all that is the Tour. From rapid fans to suffering riders the Alpe has it all.
It is great to see US fans on the Alpe. They clearly know their riders and want to show their support.
Each turn on the Alpe is numbered and also has the elevation. The winners on the Alpe have their name on one of the signs as well beginning with the first victory by Fausto Coppi in 1952 who adorns the first turn at the bottom(turn 21) along with Lance Armstrong who in 2001 was the 22nd rider to win on the Alpe.
Andy Hampsten was the first American to win on the Alpe in 1992. His name is on the sign for turn number 5 which is five turns from the summit. The press room had a number of banners celebrating the victories on the Alpe and this one was particularly special.
'Dutch corner' is turn 7 and is always a huge party. Every rider gets encouragement, but at this particular moment, the Nederlanders are performing some sort of sing along with folding chairs in the mix for effect.
These three guys are paying homage to the three main jerseys of the Tour in their own special way.
Cadel Evans had lots of Australian fans on the Alpe. Some rode up the climb with inflatable kangaroos on their back.
What can you say about the ride of Carlos Sastre? When he needed to put it all together and defend the yellow jersey he did just that. Teammate Jens Voigt described Carlos as a 'peaceful warrior' and that is exactly what we saw. Unlike his pursuer Evans, who was all over his bike, mouth agape, searching for speed, Sastre seemed to be at ease and pedaled smoothly to keep the maillot jaune. It was a graceful show of strength and class and Carlos will ride into Paris a very deserved winner of the 2008 Tour de France.
Clearly, Cadel Evans did not have his best time trial. As all my fellow journalists spent the past several days reminding their readers, on paper, Evans had the cred to not only take the yellow jersey, but to also win the final time trial. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe it was nerves, but the Australian finds himself on the same step of the podium as last year. For many, this will be viewed as a failure, however, this was an extremely open Tour with a lot of attacks from a number of contenders. Maybe if Evans had attacked sometime during the Tour he would have found that extra minute, but he seemed to be content to follow and not lead banking on his prowess in the time trial which failed him in the end.
It is fitting that the rider who launched the biggest attack on the biggest climb should win the Tour. And it is also fitting that the team who schooled everyone in both the Pyrenees and the Alps should have the yellow jersey. Carlos and his team CSC Saxo Bank put on a racing clinic in the final two weeks. Look for Bjarne Riis coming to you soon in a late night infomercial. Buy the book and the DVD. Unlike all the other get rich quick schemes on TV, it will be worth it.
I just have to remind you all that I predicted that Sastre could hang on to the yellow jersey in the time trial citing the power of the yellow jersey and giving the Floyd Landis/Oscar Pereiro dual in 2006 when Floyd took over 4 minutes out of Pereiro in the first time trial, but when the yellow jersey was on the line could only manage a little over a minute in the finial time trial. I am by no means taking credit for Sastre's ride, but it just goes to show that sometimes statistics and calculators don't count for much, especially when the yellow jersey is on the line. As Obe Won once said "the power of the yellow is strong."
Chrsitian Vandevelde rode exceptionally well, finishing fourth in the TT and moving up to 5th overall. Save for the day to Jausiers in the Alps where he lost 2'30" he would be on the podium in Paris. It just goes to show that you can't have a bad day at the Tour on a critical stage and expect to be on the podium. Having said that, this is an incredible result for Christian and his Garmin-Chipotle team. As I said in an earlier blog (titled Christian Vandevelde) he has toiled as a domestique for many, many years and it is great to see him step from the shadows and become a bonafide grand tour contender. The boys at Garmin-Chipotle have more than enough reason to pop the champagne. Chapeau Christian!
How about the rest of the Garmin-Chipotle team in the final time trial. With Millar (3rd), Vandevelde(4th) and Ryder Hesjedal(13th) and Danny Pate(14th) in the top 15 these guys rocked! To be able to perform at that level in the third week of the Tour shows these guys are the real deal and totally deserved to be here. And those guys have also finished the Giro as well! Double chapeau!
During the time trial there was a camera and microphone in the Silence Lotto car following Cadel. Evans was getting a lot of information from his team director as to which side of the road was the most advantageous for the wind, reminders of upcoming tricky corners, etc. I am guessing that the riders on the other teams get the same information which helps them go as fast and safely as possible.
Can the Schleck brothers improve their time trialing or will this be their achilles heal? The two Luxembourgers rode so well in the mountains it is a shame that their time trialing abilities are so disparate with their climbing. If they were diminutive Spanish climbers I could understand why they come up short. On the other hand, Carlos Sastre is one of those smallish Spaniards. Hopefully, somebody can figure it out and make them faster.
Bernhard Kohl rode the time trial of his life to get the third step on the podium. It was an inspired ride and one that just might signal the arrival of another bonafide contender for the Tour. BTW, his Gerlosteiner team is disbanding at the end of the year. I hope Bernhard has an agent!
I hear word that a German-based super team is in the works. Both Kohl and his teammate double time trial winner, Stefan Schumacher, are good candidates for that squad, though Kohl is actually Austrian.
Team Columbia rider George Hincapie also deserves special mention. George crashed badly on the Galibier a few days ago and was sporting some really awful looking road rash on both his left arm and leg. He has been soldiering on toward Paris on a day-by-day basis. He finished 10th in the time trial to go with his other top 10 in the first time trial. He is one tough (and fast) dude.
PMD or "post mountains depression" is something that afflicts all Tour junkies. After two or three days of non-stop excitement, the race exits onto the plains of France and it is back to watching the French riders try to regain some respect for their countrymen. The peloton is by now extremely tired and those who still have some strength left are trying to conserve for the final time trial. It is kind of like dogs fighting over table scraps. Don't get me wrong, to win any stage of the Tour is a huge accomplishment. It is just that after watching all the heavy hitters take shots at each other in the mountains it just seems a bit anti-climactic.
Over the past few days I have been keeping my eye out for anything interesting that you might not see on TV, below are some things I hope you will enjoy.
Raymond Poulidor, or 'Poo Poo', never won the Tour, but while his countryman, Jacques Anquetil, was winning five Tours with surgical precision in the 1960's, Poo Poo's many second place finishes endeared him to French fans who saw his courage and most likely identified with his struggles. While Anquetil got the yellow jerseys, Poo Poo won the hearts of the French. He had another nickname, 'the Eternal Second', due to his many near misses. These days he works for the Tour organization doing PR at in the start village. I asked Raymond whom he thought would win the Tour and he picked Cadel Evans.
With the probable demise of the Pro Tour, Floyd Landis could be back racing in the European pro peloton next year. One of the rules of the Pro Tour was that any racer convicted of a doping offense had an additional two years added to his suspension. With the Pro Tour headed south, Floyd should be cleared to ride when his suspension ends in January 2009. Let's hope Floyd gets that chance to return to competition as have lots of riders who have served out their suspensions.
Cadel Evans had a problem with his front wheel just before the start of yesterday's stage to St. Etienne. It appeared that the wheel was rubbing his brakes, so he got a change, but he seemed unhappy with the new wheel as well. My guess is that when you are the favorite to wear yellow into Paris and it is only a few days away you start getting pretty nervous about everything.
Sometimes at the sign-in there is a group of young cyclists who get a chance to meet the stars of the Tour.
There is a lot of action in the start village. One of the daily acts is a trials rider who keeps us all entertained with a whole host of tricks that if I tried to do myself would put me up in the hospital.
An artist paints a portrait each day. Here he is working on his next creation.
Tomorrow's 53km (33 mile) time trial will determine the victor and the podium of the Tour(well, duh). Most pundits are tipping Cadel Evans to move from fourth to yellow figuring that he will take about 2-3 minutes out of Sastre. If you remember the 2006 Tour, Floyd Landis beat Oscar Periero by about four minutes in the first time trial, but when the yellow jersey was on the line, Landis only took a little more than a minute out of him in the final time trial. The power of the yellow is strong. Don't count Sastre out.
It will be critical for Sastre to pace himself and not go out too hard. Evans will be starting three places ahead of him which is about 10 minutes. That should allow Sastre and his Team CSC Saxo Bank the ability to guage what they need to do to ride a more controlled time trial. Evans on the other hand won't be getting time checks on Carlos until possibly halfway into his race. This is all pure speculation as most riders will tell you that they don't ride a time trial against their competition. Rather they set a schedule and try to do their own ride. We will see.
Denis Menchov looks to be in the best position to claim the final spot on the podium. However, while he is fast against the clock, he can also be inconsistent which opens the door for somebody like Christian Vandevelde who has an outside shot at the podium. Christian seems to get stronger at the end of the third week of a grand tour compared to his competition. He rode exceptionally well in the final time trial of the Giro and if he can repeat that feat he may claim third.
One thing I have learned from my many years as a journalist is that, especially at the start and finish of race stages, I should only ask a few questions and the total interview should be around a minute. This is for several reasons. First off, there are other journalists who also want to talk to the riders. If I tie up a rider for five minutes, when time is really critical, not only do I keep other journalists from getting their story, but I risk having competing journalists evesdrop on my interview and then I loose a bit of exclusivity. So to be fair and to keep my interview as exclusive as possible I get and get out and let others do their work as well.
The second reason is that these riders have a job to do. Yes, they need to make themselves available to the press, but before or after race stages when chaos and anxiety are at critical levels is not the place to start asking about career goals and how they feel about the war in Iraq. So, out of courtesy, I try to keep it short and simple.
Today at the sign in for the stage from Bourg d'Oisans to St. Etienne I talked to a bunch of the riders who have been lighting it up in the Alps.
Carlos Sastre rolled up in his first day in yellow. BTW, Sastre's time for the ascent of the l'Alpe d'Huez was 39'29" for an average speed of 13 miles per hour.
Jens Voigt has done just about everything in this Tour from pacesetting at the front to climbing to initiating breakaways to super-domestique in the mountains. I asked him if is there is anything he cannot do. "I am really shite on a rainy descent. That's the only thing where I am absolutely hopeless. Apart from that I think I am doing well."
Jens was asked to describe his teammate Carlos Sastre. "He is just a peaceful warrior. He's hard when it comes to it(racing), but he is friendly and loyal. He gives a lot to the team so that is why everyone wants to help him."
Austrian Bernard Kohl of the Gerlosteiner squad will wear the polka-dot jersey into Paris. I asked him about what it was like on the Alpe, where he finished in the lead chasing group and sits third overall 1'34 seconds behind Sastre and one second behind Cadel Evans. "Yeah, it was really hard. It was the hardest stage in the Alps and after two and a half weeks of racing and after 200 kilometers (on that day) the race was really hard."
Who was he keying off of on the Alpe? "I had to look for Cadel Evans. He needed to keep the gap from getting too big for the time trial." Can Kohl defend his podium position or even move up a place or two in the final time trial? "No, I am not really the time trialer like Cadel Evans or Denis Menchov. I am a climber. I will try my best in the time trial and we will see."
Kohl's Gerlosteiner teammate, winner of the first time trial and former wearer of the yellow jersey, Stefan Schumacher, was especially active in the Alps with long breakaways on the stage to Jausiers and also to the Alpe. I asked him if he was trying to make up for his sub-par performance in the Pyrenees. "Yeah, in the Pyrenees I was not so good, but now I have a lot of time(he was way down on GC) so I tried. Also, it was important for the team to ride an offensive race and work for the mountains jersey. Bernard had the jersey and I controlled it at the front."
Danny Pate was in the lead breakway on the stage to Prato Nevoso and in a position to snag Team Garmin-Chipotle's first Tour stage win. I asked him who he was watching on the climb to the finish. "I was just watching the Euskatel guy(Egoi Martinez) because he seemed like the best guy." Both Pate's and teammate Will Frischkorn's breakway moves were big pluses for the squad and proved their worth in the Tour even if they did not win a stage. Also, having a rider contending for the Tour podium isn't half bad, either!
Save for one bad day, the stage to Huatacam in the Pyrenees, Alejandro Valverde would be a heavy favorite for a podium finish come Paris in four days time. I asked him what happened down south and why he climbed much better in the Alps. "In the Pyrenees I had bad luck and my legs were not there. In the Alps I felt better and could climb better as well. I am happy with how things have worked out."
George Hincapie crashed hard on the stage to the Alpe and on the day after he was wearing extensive bandages on his left side which were already showing stains from his wounds. He looked like he was in a lot of pain and confrimed it when he succintly answered my question on how he feels. "Bad." I asked him if he would soldier on to Paris and he replied that he would give it a shot. George is a true warrior and I hope he makes to to Paris for his 13th Tour.
The last of the 150 remaining riders to sign in was one of the true revelations of the race, Garmin-Chipotle cyclist Christian Vandevelde. He was oh, so close to the podium, and has still has a shot, but the emerging star recounted what happened in the Alps. "I had one bad day two days ago but I made up for it yesterday."
Most likely referring to the clinic Team CSC Saxo Bank put on during the past three days, when asked how it felt to leave the Alps, Christian was not convinced that the race had truly left the Alps therefore allowing the riders to rest up for the showdown on Saturday. "It feels good, but we are still in the Alps. We have to go to St. Etienne first."
Its the 20th anniversary since I first rode the l'Alpe d'Huez during the Tour de France. Today was my eighth ascent since that memorable ride up cycling's unoficial monument to climbing on a bike. The Alpe isn't the most beautiful climb, it isn't the most difficult time, but there is a curious amalgamation of history, location and those 21 pesky switchbacks that all mix together to create the most unique experience in cycling.
On every cyclists bucket list should be to climb the Alpe on the day of the Tour. Unless you have climbed the Alpe on a day when common sense and judgment are replaced by wanton craziness, you haven't experienced the full effect. It is nothing short of sheer madness and only those who can let down their guard and join in the celebration will fully enjoy all that is the Alpe on Tour day. The 8-mile, 3700' climb is difficult, especially the first two miles, but if you can get into the spirit of the day, you are almost carried uphill by the cheering fans and all the fanfare that awaits you around each corner.
Turn number 7 is appropriately named Holland corner because each year the Dutch set up a mini-village on both sides of the road and the fun and games go on for days before the Tour passes through. On race day, a corridor of orange-clad fans greet and cheer all cyclists and if you happen to be wearing the orange and blue of the home team, Rabobank, a hundred hands will appear to push you closer to the summit amidst deafening cheers.
I remember back in the early 90's when the Dutch called turn number 1 their home turf and set up shop for their beloved climbing ace Gert-Jan Thuenisse who won solo on the Alpe in 1989 and in doing so created a living legend for the Hollanders. Their chants of Theunisse's name went on, unabated, for 24 hours before his arrival and probably just as long after he had ridden past. But, the party has now moved down the mountain to a much better location for the festivities.
Every year, the Alpe seems to sprout more road graffiti for the current hot favorite. There were very few signs for Luxembourger Frank Schleck when he won on the Alpe in 2006. This year, his name, and that of his brother Andy's, are plastered all up and down the climb and Luxembourg flags are everywhere. One can only imagine how many residents of that country of only 450,000 people are on the slopes of the Alpe. There is a distinct possibility that the tiny country is empty!
What's up with all the crashing on descents? You have to feel for Garmin-Chipotle rider Christian Vandevelde, after getting dropped with about 5 miles to go on the Bonnette, he limited his losses to only 30 seconds at top then crashed on the descent to Jausiers and lost another two minutes to the leaders. Christian is a very good descender, but when you are dropped and the yellow jersey or a podium place is on the line, sometimes you feel you need to take risks on the descent to make up time. It is an awful position to be in, and sometimes, as happened yesterday, a bad situation becomes worse.
On today's stage to l'Alpe d'Huez no fewer than four of the Team Columbia's riders hit the pavement. Again, these guys are very good descenders, but sometimes mistakes happen.
Team CSC Saxo Bank continues to put on a racing clinic. Buy the book and the DVD! To see Fabian Cancellara drive the leaders up the second to last climb, the Croix de Fer, and drop a bunch of noted climbers was nothing short of incredible. The fact that he chased back on on the descent so he could continue to drive it to the base of l'Alpe d'Huez was simply beyond words. I want that guy and Jens Voigt on my team, big time.
The final climb to the summit of the Alpe d'Huez was some of the best mano y mano bike racing we have seen in the Tour in years. Team CSC Saxo Bank pulled an incredible sleight of hand. While everyone was watching the Schlecks and expecting the team to defend the yellow jersey, they sent their best time trialist up the road in an attempt to carve out enough time on Cadel Evans to keep the maillot Jaune all the way to a Paris. That move was clear when CSC pulled their lead team car from behind the Schlecks and took it up to Carlos.
Evans appeared to not realize what was happening until the final 4km when he was forced to go to the front and try to peg back time on Sastre. In the end, Sastre has 1'30" over Evans which is probably not enough to keep yellow, but will probably put him on his first ever podium at the Tour.
Vandevelde recovered brilliantly from all the drama of yesterday's stage and was clearly in the mix and not just hanging on for dear life on the ascent to the Alpe. He is totally capable of uncorking a big effort in the final 50km time trial and climbing onto the podium. Chapeau!
In his post race interview with the press Carlos Sastre said that the team was originally going to start driving the pace on the Col du Galibier but decided to wait until the Croix de Fer because there was a big headwind on the Galibier.
Regarding his attack at the base of the Alpe, he said he decided to attack from the start as everyone was tired from the efforts of the team over the Croix de Fer. He wanted to go early on the climb so the others would not be in a good rythmn and he wanted to surprise them as quickly as possible.
When asked if he thinks his 1'30" advantage is enough to hold off Cadel Evans he replied that for now, he just wants to celebrate the yellow jersey with his team and enjoy the moment. He will worry about the time trial later.
Every year I try to get out on course for at least one, hopefully two, mountain stages to see what's up. Obviously, tomorrow on l'Alpe d'Huez will be nothing short of crazy; it's kind of like the unofficial shrine to all that is the Tour de France. Today, I rode up the Col de la Bonnette to see if there was similar antics on the highest continuously paved climb in all of western Europe.
But, first a bit of history about the Bonnette. For many years, the Col d'Iseran which rises above the ski station of Val d'Isere was the highest continuously paved pass in Europe at 2770m(about 9200'). Then some enterprising Frenchman understanding the tourist aspects of having the highest pass in Europe in his backyard decided to create a loop road starting from the top of the Col de Restefond. Now, the Restefond is a pretty formidable climb in its own right at 2650M(8800'), but by adding 150m(500') to the the height of the Restefond, the Bonnette was born at 2800m(9300').
OK. It is not the first time tourism has had an effect on some sort of 'natural' formation, but for cyclists, it is definitely a drag. Both sides of the Col du Restefond are 5000' climbs but they are very well-graded in the 5-9% range with the majority of the climbing in the 7% range. When the locals added the Col de la Bonnette, they put the 150m of additional climbing in just over 1 kilometer resulting in the final pitch to the summit offering sections of 13-14%. After riding up 5000' of moderate climbing, the last thing any cyclist needs is 14% climbing and at 9000' above sea level none the less.
Oh well, we all just do it and curse a bit under our breath. It is still one of the great monuments to cycling even if the 'sting in the tail', so to speak, is a bit contrived. On Tour day, for some reason the gendarmes make the cyclists walk the final kilometer which given its steep nature is probably not met with much protest.
Here are a few photos of the craziness on the Bonnette. The Alpe is still king, but there were enough crazys out there to make the ascent worthwhile.
So there I was just standing at the finish line and when stage winner Cyril Dessel came across the line, he rode right up to me(I don't know why) and the next thing that happens is the total media scrum descends around me like a rugby match with me right in the middle of the whole mess. Here are a couple of pics of the moment.
Here's a shot of Frank Schleck in the yellow jersey.
For us Americans, it was tough to see Christian Vandevelde get dropped from the lead group on the Bonnette. He finished about 2"30" behind the overall leaders which is a courageous effort and shows that as a team leader he knows how to limit his losses. We must not forget that Christian is an excellent time trialist and was fifth in the final TT in the Giro. At 50km, it is not inconceivable that he could pull back two minutes plus on everyone save Cadel Evans and possibly Menchov. Barring a total collapse by Evans (and he is looking a bit vulnerable) Vandevelde probably lost his chance at the win, but the podium is still on the table.
George HIncapie of Team Columbia was looking good for the stage win, but the sting in the tail, the final kilometer of the Bonnette shattered the lead group and he was unable to bridge across to the leaders on the descent which he described as 'crazy". Still, it was a great ride by the 35-year old who showed that he has not given up the fight.
Yet again, Team CSC Saxo Bank held a clinic on the final climb. These guys should write a book.
Ryder Hesjedal of the Garmin-Chipotle team finished a very credible 30th on the stage only 4'27" back of the stage winner. We always knew he could climb, it is great to see him up there in the high mountains.
In the town where each stage begins there is the Ville de Depart or start village. Race sponsors set up booths and offer a whole wealth of products and services to VIP's, invited guests of the town, and begrudgingly, journalists. I took a tour of the start village in Embrun, where, for the first time in recent history, there will be two stage starts, one to Prato Nevoso, the other to l'Alpe d'Huez. Below are some of the more interesting happenings.
Race direct Christian Prudhomme is always there to meet and greet with the head honchos of the local organizing committee. Later on, I spotted him giving an interview to French radio; obviously, he feels pretty strongly about something.
Richard Virenque won the polka dot climbing jersey a record seven times. Evan after admitting to using drugs, he remains a favorite of the French fans. Now retired, he works for the French edition of Eurosport TV as a commentator and because of his climbing wins also does some PR for Champion supermarkets which sponsor the polka-dot jersey. Here his doing and autograph signing, but he appeared to be just going through the motions which is too bad for one of the more charismatic riders in French cycling.
You, too, can win a stage of the Tour. Here is active.com's own Rob Klingensmith celebrates a well-deserved win. The overall race leader was not even in sight.
Hey, if you just can't do anything with your hair or you want to try something new, you can visit the stylists right there in the village.
Ever wonder where Credit Agricole's Thor Hushovd got those sprinter legs? Here are his parents, all the way from Norway, to watch him race.
Yesterday, I talked about the scrum around Mark Cavendish as he announced that he was withdrawing from the race. Well, here is a photo of the scrum. Sometimes being a journalist is a bit dicey.
If Team CSC Saxo Bank want to take frank Schleck and the yellow jersey all the way to Paris, they are going to need much more than 8 seconds on Cadel Evans as the final time trial(TT) is 50km and Frank could easily lose 2 minutes to Cadel, or even Christian Vandevelde for that matter. Look for CSC Saxo Bank to have a few more tricks up their sleeves similar to the ones they played yesterday when they set up Frank beautifully. I don't know if it will come on the first climb,the Col de la Lombarde, maybe on the run-up to the Col de la Bonnette as the road from Isola to St. Etienne de Tinne has some ups and downs and a team could push the pace there.
How about Danny Pate almost winning the stage yesterday? By my tally that makes four close calls (Frischkorn on stage 3, Millar in the TT, Vandevelde on Super-Besse, Pate on Prato Nevoso) for the Garmin-Chipotle team. I think they have clearly proven that they deserve to be at this race. No doubt in my mind.
Christian Vandevelde looked good on the stage finish yesterday. That was a very tricky finish both physically and tactically. He held it together and did what he had to do to preserve his shot at the podium.
With six riders within 48 seconds and two mountain stages remaining, look for a lot of attacks. The better time trialists like Evans, Vandevelde and Menchov can wait for the last climb to make their move, but the others are going to have to find a way to take sizeable chunks of time.
Even though the stage to Jausiers finishes with a descent of the massive Col de la Bonnette, I still consider it a mountain top finish because, even though it is a 5500' descent, it goes right from the top to the bottom with no flat riding. All the top guys are good enough descenders to keep any time gaps they gain on the way up.
Ugly, rainy weather greeted the Tour for its first day in the Alps, where the overall champion will most likely be decided after three hard days of racing culminating with the legendary ascent of the 21 hairpins of l'Alpe d'Huez. The riders were understandably apprehensive given the pouring rain and thunderclaps. Team Garmin-Chipotle director Jonathan Vaughters agreed that this was a day that it was better to have been a pro than be a pro.
In between raindrops I wandered around the start village and team buses before the start of the stage from Embrun to Prato Nevoso talking to the team personnel and riders, trying to discover what lay ahead for the racers.
Jonathan Vaughters had a simple explanation of how the Alps would play out. "Everyone is so interested in the tactics on mountain stages. There are no tactics on mountain stages. On mountain stages your legs go or they don't. Tactics are for a week ago. Now we are into either you have horsepower or you don't." Regarding the final climb to Prato Nevoso, he commented, "It is not as selective as Huatacam; not as selective as Alpe d'Huez so I don't know. I think there will be a small group come to the line with the favorites in it."
Of course, everyone wanted to know how his star rider, Christian Vandevelde, is doing "Good. Yesterday he said that with 400 meters to go he was 'I almost attacked. I should have done it and tried to win the stage.. Anytime you have a guy like Christian who is not normally very explosive at all for a sprint finish thinking about sprinting just because why not, he's there, that means he's feeling good."
Power guru Dr. Allen Lim gave the scientific angle to the alpine stages. "They have only done about 30% of the real climbing kilometers. There is 70% of critical climbing kilometers still left in the race so it is hard to say how his numbers are looking. He has been riding with the GC contenders and that is great, about 5.5 to 5.9 watts/kg on climbs longer than 10 minutes. That's right where he needs to be if he can sustain that I think he has a good chance."
Remarking about the position the Garmin-Chipotle finds itself in with Vandevelde in a podium position, "Oh yeah, we are all nervous. But that's OK. He's(Vandevelde) got a handle on it."
The big news of the day was the abandon of Mark Cavendish. Team Columbia PR director Kristy Scrymgeour noted that Mark had already ridden and finished one grand tour this year, the Giro d'Italia, and at 23 he is still very young. Team management was responsible for making the decision who then convinced Mark that it was the right thing to do. There was a huge media scrum on the Team Columbia bus as Cavendish fielded questions, for the last time before heading to the Olympics where he is the odds on favorite to win the gold medal on the track in the Madison event where he will be partnered with his Team Columbia mate Bradley Wiggins.
After the scrum, I chatted briefly with Mark about his incredible performance at this year's Tour. "I rode my first Tour last year. I didn't get any results last year, but I was able to come back and know exactly how the Tour worked. I was able to use that to my advantage and with a strong team it worked out perfectly."
Mark's four stage wins were very convincing, sometimes winning by five or more bike lengths. I asked him if the ease of his wins was a surprise. "No I wasn't surprised by it. I have been doing it all year, more like the past 18 months, by that much. I am 2-3kph faster than anyone else. It is just a matter of getting there, getting your tactical things right and getting a strong team behind you to put you in that position and that is what happened."
On the Pyreneean stage to Huatacam, Fabian 'Spartacus' Cancellara of Team CSC Saxo Bank hauled himself over the Tourmalet in the lead group. It was an amazing performance by a rider who is gravitationally-challenged in the big mountains. "I had a good day and I followed the tactics of the team and everything was fine. We see today but, maybe it won't be the same as the Tourmalet," explains the Swiss rider.
Cancellara was not impressed by the inclement weather. "Yesterday we had a lot of sun and today, ugh(pointing to the rain pouring down) we have to see if we have snow. Bad weather in the beginning; hopefully we will have good weather for the end."
The two time World Time Trial Champion outlined the race strategy for Team CSC Saxo Bank. "It depends on how the race develops. Maybe if some breakaways go, but otherwise we will stay quiet then see for Frank and Carlos on the last climb."
Fabian's teammate Jens Voigt echoed the strategy for the day's stage, "Maybe on the last climb we are going to try to do something. Of course we are going to try to get this one second back. On the last climb we will take our responsibility for this race and try to make it up."
What an exciting finale on both ends of the race. First, there was Danny Pate atempting to win Garmin-Chipotle's first stage of the Tour. Then there was the battle royale amongst all the favorites. I just love it when a rider gets dropped then claws his way back into contention. Andy Schleck seemed to have nine lives on the slopes of Prato Nevoso and was a big part of his brother, Frank, taking yellow.
Chapeau to Rabobank's Denis Menchov for getting right back up from a very unfortunate crash on greasy pavement right as he was launching a very promising attack. That's bike racing, but aggressive efforts should bring positive not negative rewards.
If you are wondering who the Gerlosteiner rider Bernard Kohl is, rewind back to the inaugural Tour of California in 2006 when he was riding for T-Mobile and ascended the fearsome Sierra Road climb in the lead group with eventual overall winner Levi Leipheimer.
In his post race interview Frank Schleck said the yellow jersey was the result of the work of a great team and his brother and Carlos Sastre on the final climb. After watching Team CSC Saxo Bank drill it on the flats to the base of Prato Nevoso it is hard to disagree. When asked who is the team leader, Frank replied that the team still has two leaders himself and Carlos Sastre.
Caisse d'Epargne rider Oscar Perriero suffered a horrific crash on the descent of the Col de Agnello. He literally fell over the guard rail on one switchback and ended up on the road in the next switchback after a total fall of almost 20 feet.
With the recent doping positives at the Tour, renewed attention has been given as to how to combat drugs in professional cycling. One solution which has shown a lot of promise is biological passports. In short, a biological passport is an ongoing record of an athlete's metabolic parameters such as heamatocrit and testosterone levels. At periodic intervals throughout the year, a rider is tested and his results are compared against those in his passport. Any abnormal fluctuations might indicate some form of doping.
While the idea is simple, the implementation is not. First off, there is the problem of collection. Giving urine is pretty easy and it is simple to store and transport. Blood is a different matter. Trained personnel are necessary for drawing blood and if it is not stored and transported correctly it may spoil and either give incorrect results or no results at all. Once the samples are taken, they must be analyzed by a laboratory which is accredited to do such testing. All this costs a lot of money. Teams like Garmin-Chipotle, who are currently carrying out their own personal biological testing, spend about $400,000/year to monitor about 25 riders.
This brings up an interesting point. Who should pay for the biological passports? Should individual teams pay for the testing. Garmin-Chipotle, Columbia and CSC Saxo Bank are doing just that. But, will the other teams follow suit. The big teams have a budget of around $8-10,000,000. Can they afford to spend upwards of $500,000 for testing?
Should the sanctioning organization, that would currently be the UCI, pay for the testing. Currently, the UCI makes the races pay for the cost of the testing at a race. They really don't have anyway to raise sufficient funds so they would just pass the responsibility onto the teams by increasing fees. Should the World Anti-Doping Agency(WADA) pay for the testing. Again, they really don't have much of a way to raise funds and would probably just pass the buck down to the sanctioning organization which would then hit up the teams.
So, it appears that the teams should pay for the testing. After all, it is their riders who are performing and they stand to benefit the most by having a clean squad. This is clearly a hardship for the smaller teams with smaller budgets, but the crisis in the sport is critical enough that a way must be found to make this testing affordable. Dr. Paul Strauss of the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE) which is responsible for doing the biological testing for Garmin-Chipotle and Columbia, acknowledges that economies of scale could bring down the prices.
Which brings us to the current squabble between the UCI and ASO and the recent death of the UCI's Pro Tour. The UCI has stated that without the ProTour it does not have the resources to pursue biological passports. This seems to me to be more spite than fact as the UCI was never going to foot the bill out of it's own coffers and would have passed the cost onto the teams.
Here is what I think should happen. The WADA should be responsible for determining what biological parameters should be included in the biological passport. The WADA should also produce a list of laboratories and testing organizations, like ACE, which are accredited to do the testing and/or subsequent analysis. Next, regardless if the sanctioning organization is the UCI or ASO, they should require a valid, current biological passport for every rider participating in an event they sanction. Lastly, the teams bear the cost of maintaining a valid, current biological passport for each of its riders.
Everybody from WADA, UCI, ASO and the teams need to work together to help solve the problem of doping in cycling.
The day after Cadel Evans took the yellow jersey over Frank Schleck by a scant one second, l'Equipe ran a cartoon of Evans heading up to the podium with Schleck right behind him. Cadel was turning around saying to Schleck, "wait one second!"
It appears that the Saunier Duval saga is not over as the title sponsor, which makes airc onditioning units has announced that they will most likely leave the sport at the end of the season.
It has been a long hot drag across the southern France. On today's stage Will Frischkorn was suffering from cramps and had to stop to work out the kinks. He rejoined the peloton.
Yet another day of French riders going up the road. We have seen more attacking by the French in the 2008 Tour de France than in all of World War II.
Word has also reached us that the title sponsor for Team Barloworld will not be returning next year either.
Time for more positive images from the Tour. I shot this photo at the sign-in one day. It is nice to see the family aspect to the sport.
One of my favorite riders in the peloton is Jens Voigt of Team CSC Saxo Bank. To me he exemplifies everything that it takes to be and act like a professional cyclist. He can be counted on to go and do whatever the team director asks whether it is to go to the front to reel in a late race breakaway, or set pace in the mountains to launch their team leader. He does these tasks with little hesitation and his pounding style on the bike when he is going hard is visible evidence that he is sacrificing himself for his team.
Just when you thought you had seen him do it all, there he is climbing with all the favorites on the Col du Tourmalet. Make no mistake, Jens is not built to be a climber. The man has some meat on his bones, you won't see him getting blown over in a strong wind. It is almost as if he simply wills himself up the road. On the Tourmalet, pre-race favorites Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cunego had been dropped, but there was Jens still in the lead group doing his job. He had company in his uber-teammate Fabian Cancellara and when the lead group hit the flats to the base of the final climb, the two Team CSC Saxo Bank riders drilled it to bring back all the breakaways and set up the exciting finish which saw their teammate, Frank Schleck, miss the yellow jersey by the slimmest of margins.
It was mission accomplished for Jens and Fabian. Just another day as a domestique at the Tour. To be fair, Jens wins his share of races during the year. This past March he won the Criterium International for the umpteenth time with an audacious breakaway on the race's hilly second stage. Last year, he won the week-long Tour of Germany, his home tour for the second time.
I got the chance to hang out with Jens this past February at the Team CSC training camp. We chatted about a number of things. Jens' wife had just given birth to their fifth child, he remarked that he is 37, but he needed to get a five-year extension on his contract as he had a lot of mouths to feed. We talked about the immigration problems facing the US and Jens remarked that Germany had similar problems, having imported a lot of cheap labor from Turkey. He was surprised at his popularity in the USA, recounting the story of being out on a training ride in Southern California only to have a UPS driver pull over, stop, lean out of his cab and yell, "Go Jensy!"
Personally, I hope Jens gets that extension. The pro peloton wouldn't be the same without him.
You might be wondering why, with four stage wins, Mark Cavendish isn't wearing the green jersey of the race's best sprinter. The reason is simple, he doesn't contest every sprint and the ones he is absent from the front he is way back just hanging out. A rider like Thor Hushovd or Oscar Friere may not be winning as much, but the points they are scoring for their top-5 and top-10 finishes each stage are enough to offset the 35 points Cavendish gets for each win. If you really want the green jersey, you have to try and contest all the sprints.
Gerlosteiner's Sven Krauss was involved in a horrifying crash in the closing kilometers when he hit a metal traffic sign in the middle of the road at the entrance to a roundabout. Somebody in the Tour organization wasn't doing their job. There is usually a gendarme waving a flag and blowing a whistle at such dangerous signs. Luckily for Krauss, his bike, which was broken in two, appeared to suffer the majority of the damage.
Today, Scott-Saunier Duval Team management fired both Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli. They accounted for all three of the teams stage wins at the Tour.
For those of you who were unable to see the photo of the Euskatel-Euskadi rider giving his bottle to a young fan at a stage finish, check the previous blog "Tour of Surprises Continues" it should be visible now. BTW, the kid's father gave me his E-mail address and I mailed him a copy of the photo.
There is so much going on at the 2008 Tour de France, I just don't know where to begin. One huge development is the positive test by Riccardo Ricco for EPO. Actually, he tested positive for a very new version of EPO which has only been commercially available since the beginning of the year. This new version of EPO known as CERA or Micera is so new that there is no accepted test for the drug. Remember that this Tour, unlike years past, is not run under the sanction of the UCI. The French Cycling Federation is the sanctioning body and it was their lab who returned the positive test.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that Ricco has a medically-documented high hematocrit level so unless he was over that limit, it is not clear, in the absence of a valid test that he could be found positive. Regardless, the entire Scott-Saunier Duval team has withdrawn from the Tour, shades of 2007 which saw the exits of both Astana and Cofidis when their riders tested positive. However, this time, the decision to remove the team came from Scott-Saunier Duval management and not from the Tour organizers.
This is a very sticky mess that has left a lot of those in the sport shaking their heads. Ricco has been on the watch list since the start of the Tour. When he shot out of the lead group on the Col du Aspin, I joked to one of my colleagues in the press room that it was not a very wise move and now Ricco would clearly be in the spotlight for a doping offense.
On a completely different matter, but slightly related, on the rest day in Pau, 17 of the 18 Pro Tour teams (Astana was not invited to the Tour) announced that they would not be renewing their UCI ProTour license in 2009 effectively killing the ProTour. I don't know too many people who are losing sleep over the demise of the ProTour. While the UCI has stated various reasons for its inception, it appears that the only real reason for starting it was for the UCI to be able to get its hands on the Tour De France's TV money. The UCI should get back to its original charter of sanctioning races and teams. That's what they seem to do best.
How do you all feel about Ricco's positive and/or the demise of the ProTour?
When you are on a roll you are on a roll. Team Columbia looked to have the leadout train dialed to perfection as they gave Mark Cavendish an armchair ride to the finish for win number three. In his post race interview on France 2 TV with Gerard Hotlz he remarked about the victory. "Three wins in very different conditions. It just shows how strong the team is. Even if we don't win another stage we can be very content." Commenting on the exclusion of Riccardo Ricco he remarked, "It is bad for the organization, but it is good for me that the tests do work."
Cadel Evans retains the yellow jersey. He rode very smartly today always being in the front of the peloton in order to avoid any crashes. He commented to Holtz,"it is hard to stay in the first 20, but on days like this it is critical." Looking forward to the difficulties to come, he told Holtz, "Jausier and l'Alpe d' Heuz will be difficult as will the time trial. Last year the final time trial played out like a Hollywood script." And lastly, we learn of the philanthropy of the Australian, "all of my jerseys from the Tour are donated to charities or to people who have helped me in my career." Pretty cool.
OK. On a day when the Tour seems to only be about bad things, I thought this photo would lighten things up a bit. Everyday as the riders come across the finish line and head to the team buses the fans are there to cheer support. In this photo, a rider from the Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi team gives his bottle to one of his Basque fans who will not soon forget this day.
I talked with Jonathan Vaughters about Christian Vandevelde's gritty ride up Huatacam. As those of you who have ridden the climb know it is a stair-stepped ascent rather than a constant grade and requires a punchy style of riding to race it to full potential. So, when Vandevelde went with Bernhard Kohl's attack which would have netted him the yellow jersey, Christian decided since he is more of a steady tempo rider to let Kohl go and not try to punch it up the climb to gain time. That shows a lot of maturity from Vandevelde. The Tour is a three week race and there are times when you have to ride tour own style on the climbs rather than blow up and lose big minutes trying to do something you can't.
It turns out that while that statistically, Huatacam look very similar to l'Alpe d'Huez on paper. Both climbs are 8 miles (13km) long and climb 3700'(1100m). Not surprisingly, the record up l'ALpe is 36 minutes and on Monday, Leonardo Piepoli's time up Huatacam was 37'11".
I chatted a bit with Garmin-Chipotle rider Canadian Ryder Hesjedal on the differnces between the Giro and the Tour. He remarked that this year's Giro was very difficult because of all the logistical transfers which had riders getting to their hotels very late a night and then up early the next morning. When asked about how the racing compares he replied that they speed of the racing is very similar noting that in the Giro it seemed like everyday some Italian riders went up the road and here at the Tour is seems like everyday some French riders are heading up the road.
All the members of the Garmin-Chipotle team I talked to agreed that now that Christian Vandevelde's excellent riding has put him in third overall the team has a pretty clear mission to take care of their team leader for the remainder of the race. The extra motivation that this new mission provides should help the riders raise their game a bit and help them focus on getting through what is the first ever Tour de France for six of the nine riders.
Without a doubt, the best food I have had in France was at the Team Garmin-Chipotle burrito rest day party. The squad had the chefs at the Hotel Parc Beaumont (great digs if you ever need a place to stay in Pau) prepare a real-life American grilled chicken burrito complete with guacamole. The best thing about the burrito is that, save for the tortilla, all the ingredients were grown in France. All he riders partook in the feast as did a whole scrum of always-hungry journalists who were also treated to margaritas before the feats.
Thanks to Garmin-Chipotle riders Will Frischkorn and Trent Lowe for providing the hands in the burrito photo.
The founder of Chipotle restaurants, Steve Ells, was present at the party and hinted that he is looking to expand his very successful line of eateries to Europe. Steve is also an avid cyclist who is looking forward to riding l'Alpe d'Huez later in the race.
Tour organises released a lis of all the prize money won by the teams by the first rest day. Team Scott-Saunier Duval with three stage wins leads the pack with 50,000 euro. Team Columbia with two stage wins and some days with high stage placings and jerseys is second also with 50,000 euro. In last, with only 1,000 euro so far is the Italian Lampre team which has seen its hopes for the overall win, Damiano Cunego, struggle.
One of the hottest items at the Tour are T-Shirts emblazoned with the slogan "What would Jens do?" Clearly the German is a huge favorite with fans of all nationalitities who love his attacking style and happy-go-lucky off-the-bike personality.