With all the recent broken contracts in the sport of pro cycling you would have thought that they were printed on toilet paper using invisible ink. First there was half of Team Astana heading over to Team Radio Shack. Now, Bradley Wiggins has left Garmin-Transitions for Britain's new pro squad, Team Sky.
There are a couple of issues here. First off, are all contracts created equally? Should all contracts, regardless of the circumstances be honored? Are there any extenuating rules or laws that affect whether a contract is valid or not?
First off, it is not clear that all contracts are created equally. By this, I mean are some contracts easier to break than others. Some contracts include 'opt-out' clauses that allow a contract to become void if the team doesn't meet certain conditions. One 'opt-out' clause would be to allow a rider to leave if a team loses it's Pro Tour status. Clearly, if a contract has an 'opt out' clause it can be broken if the clause is met.
Secondly, are there any extenuating circumstances that might make breaking a contract OK. In the case of the contract breaking at Team Astana, it must be remembered that the riders on that team were not paid for three months during the middle of the season. And, though the situation was finally resolved, it took a lot of pressure and potential exclusion from the Tour de France to finally get the paychecks rolling again.
Since the riders on Astana are pros and they do this to put food on the table for their wives and kids, I fully support the riders' decision to switch teams. Team Radio Shack is run by a management group with a record of paying it's riders so that is a huge incentive to head for more security.
In the case of Bradley Wiggins leaving Garmin-Transitions, there are no concerns about being paid. This was just the case of a rider wanting to leave his contract early for a team where both the rider, Wiggins, and management, Team Sky, wanted him to be. I don't support this type of behavior. Wiggins is a pro and he should have honored his contract with Garmin, especially since that team was responsible for his breakthrough season.
In fact, it is kind of ironic when you think about it. Garmin were the ones responsible for Wiggins becoming a bona fide Tour de France contender. Team Sky has a stated goal of having the first ever British winner of the Tour de France within five years. So, Garmin created the problem that caused Wiggins departure. Before you start feeling sorry for Jonathan Vaughters, it must be remembered that there was a buyout clause for Wiggins to go to Team Sky. Vaughters might not have Wiggins in 2010, but his bank account is definitely larger.
The third point is that there are some other factors which affect the validity of contracts. Not only am I not a labor lawyer, but we are are also talking about European Union labor laws and that makes things even more complex. I believe there are some laws which state that you can't force someone to work for someone if they don't want to. That's a pretty nebulous statement and, to be honest, I don't know the full ramifications of such laws. Suffice it to say that there may be more to honoring contracts in Europe than meets the eye.
While bike racing and baseball are both sports, besides that they have very little in common. You rarely see a pro cyclist scratching himself in public and when the rain comes pouring down in a bike race, they don't pull a tarp over the roadway and let the competitors head to the clubhouse to get warm and dry. But, if the stars align and some interesting developments actually develop, bike racing may soon resemble baseball.
Well, to be honest, it is only a momentary resemblance, but if things work out it might just be one of the most interesting happenings in pro cycling since some washed up, has been from Texas announced his return to cycling last summer (hint: Bret Favre lives in Louisiana and his cycling prowess is questionable).
The lineup of dominoes starts with Team Astana. The beleaguered Kazakhastan squad is hoping to get its Pro Tour license renewed for 2010. With the best stage race rider in the world, Alberto Contador, on the team the renewal may seem like a slam dunk. However, Lance Armstrong and Astana Team Director Johan Bruyneel left the team in 2009 and the squad is now being run by Alexandre Vinokourov.
You might remember 'Vino' from his 'exit stage right' performance at the 2007 Tour de France when he tested positive for blood doping. He served a two year suspension and is now back in the sport. But, as we have seen with other cyclists who were caught up in the web of doping, the sport of cycling sometimes finds it hard to forgive certain cyclists. Vino appears to be one such rider.
There is a rumour that because of Vino Astana will not get a Pro Tour license in 2010 setting up a very interesting baseball-like chain of events.
The first event in the chain is that when Astana does not get a Pro Tour license, Alberto Contador will be able to break his contract and become a free agent. The second event is that the new British professional squad, Team Sky, has been salivating over Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins. Not only did Wiggins turn a bunch of heads in finishing fourth at the 2009 Tour de France, but he's British (nothing he can do about that) and that's a very advantageous combination for Team Sky.
The third part of this scenario is that Wiggins has a buy out clause in his contract reportedly valued at $7-8 million US dollars. The last part of this whole chain of events is that Jonathan Vaughters, the head honcho at Garmin-Slipstream, wants Alberto Contador on his team in a very bad way (well, who wouldn't).
So here's how things could work out. Astana doesn't get a Pro Tour license and Alberto Contador breaks his contract. Jonathan Vaughters sells Bradley Wiggins to Team Sky to raise the money necessary to hire Alberto Contador. The only thing missing from this scenario is the 'player to be named later.'
Will this whole secenario play out? Who knows? Both Contador and Wiggins are exceptional riders and wherever they end up, they will continue to excite us all with their exploits. But, it is fun to play a little 'what if?'
Best rider at the Tour - no doubt at all it was Alberto Contador. He dominated in the mountains and the time trials so thoroughly that he had to start enduring the same "are you on drugs?" questions that plagued Lance when he won seven Tour in a row.
Most improved rider - Bradley Wiggins previous two appearances at the Tour were totally unspectacular. I guess all you have to do is lose ten pounds and still maintain all your power in order to become one of the world's best climbers. Once Bradley understands how to keep himself sharp for the entire three weeks of a grand tour he will be standing on the podium. Pick your step.
Most aggressive riders - the Brothers Schleck lit it up in the last week in the Alps in a style we have rarely seen in the modern era of the Tour. It helped that Astana either couldn't or decided not to try and control the race in the same fashion as Discover Channel/US Postal, but for whatever the reason, Brothers Schleck lit up the afterburners on the most strategic climbs. If Frank had been a tad bit stronger and able to match his younger brother's pace 100% of the time, the outcome of the Tour would have been completely different.
Best Sprinter - while he didn't have the green jersey in Paris, there was little doubt that Mark Cavendish was the best finisher in the Tour. Thor Hushovd was the most consistent finisher over the entire three weeks, but in a pure drag race to the line, the Manxman was tops.
Most Deserving Rider to Not Win a Stage - Tyler Farrar was the only rider to consistently challenge Mark Cavendish in the bunch kicks. He almost pulled off a win on stage 11. Kudos to Tyler and Garmin-Slipstream for making Cavendish earn his six stage wins, hopefully, sooner than later, Tyler and Garmin will get their first stage win.
Recipient of the Thomas Voeckler 'Never Give Up' Award - Thomas Voeckler whose win on stage 5 to Perpignan was proof that if you try hard enough, good things can happen. Even after he won stage 5, Voeckler continued to go up the road in breakaways. He is the most exciting rider the French have with Brice Feillu and Perrick Fedrigo as honorable mentions.
American Idol Most Favorite rider in the peloton - OK. I probably can't speak for all cycling fans out there, but Jens Voigt continues to ride well and his frank and honest commentary on the race make him a crowd favorite. My enjoyment of the Tour took a huge hit when Jens crashed on the Petit-Saint Bernard. Come back Jens, come back!
Comeback rider of the Tour - given how well he rode after his horrific crash in the Giro, Christian Vande Velde's return to the top level of pro cycling at the Tour was an amazing comeback. But, the nod has to go to Lance Armstrong who spent three plus years off the bike engaged in a number of high-profile non-cycling activities. His climb onto the podium in Paris was nothing short of incredible, but he if he rides the Tour next year he really needs to improve on his consistency in the critical stages.
Best Climber at the Tour - that award usually goes to the rider who wears the polka-dot jersey, but for some strange reason, even after doubling the points on the final climb of a mountain stage, nobody really seems to care about who wears the climber's jersey except for the three or four riders who accidentally find themselves in a position to contest for it. In case you were wondering, Alberto Contador was the best climber, polka-dot jersey or not.
Dumbest Rider in the Pro Peloton - While he didn't ride the Tour, Danilo Di Luca proved that you don't need a double digit IQ to be a professional bike rider. There have been at least five high profile riders busted for CERA, the delayed action version of EPO, but for some reason, the double Giro stage winner and eventual second place finisher couldn't keep his hands off the hot sauce. What's up with that?
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Garmin-Slipstream team announced its 9-man roster for the Tour de France. Not surprisingly, Christian Vande Velde will lead the squad. He finished fourth last year and looked very good doing it. The only question will be can he regain the fitness necessary to be competitive after a serious crash in the opening stages of the Giro? Recently, at the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland) he looked like he is on the way back, but there is some more fitness needed to contend for the overall. Luckily, Christian knows how to make it happen.
The team will also include Bradley Wiggins who came within one second of winning the final TT at the Giro. Besides being counted on to place highly in the time trials he has lost a reported 9 pounds(4 kilos) and will be a key support role for Vande Velde in the mountains. The multi-Olympic gold medalist will also be part of the leadout train for Tyler Farrar. Bradley will be earning his money at the Tour.
David Millar and Dave Zabriskie are included on the team for their time trialing abilities. The team time trial on stage 4 is a goal for the squad and they have the horsepower to win it. Also, look for Millar to go for stage wins in a small breakaway on the flatter stages.
Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin are included for their climbing abilities and to support Christian in the mountains. Ryder played a key role in the Alps at the 2008 Tour and Dan Martin is one of the up and coming stars in the pro peloton with some outstanding performances in hilly stage races last year and this spring.
Tyler Farrar was one of the revelations of the Giro. He sprinted to several second place finishes behind Mark Cavendish. While he didn't get a stage win, he showed that he was ready to mix it up in the finale and had no fear in doing it. He could definitely win a stage of the Tour.
Julian Dean is the final cog, after Bradley Wiggins, of the Farrar leadout train. Look for Wiggins to go from 1km to about 600m with Julian taking it from there to about 200m. This train, which was new for the Giro, had lots of practice in Italy and is ready to launch.
Danny Pate also has immense time trialing skills, but as he proved on the stage to Prato Nevoso in last year's Tour he can sense an opportunity for a stage win and go for it. He was oh so close last year.
The Garmin-Slipstream team is a well-balanced squad that includes riders for all the tasks necessary to be competitive in the mountains, flats and time trials. Good luck boys!
As mentioned in my previous blog, the Garmin-Slipstream team held a week-long training camp in Boulder, Colorado from November 15th to the 23rd capped off by a gala team presentation on Saturday night. Over 800 people attended; it was a great time to mingle with team members, cycling VIPs, other pros and fans. I chatted a bit with several riders and team personnel, here's a report.
2008 was a breakthrough year for Christian Vande Velde who has toiled as a domestique for the first nine years of his professional career. Christian has had the opportunity to ride on some of pro cycling's best teams such as US Postal and Team CSC and has ridden in support of such outstanding team leaders as Lance Armstrong, Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre.
I asked Christian what he has learned about being a team leader while riding for such stars of pro cycling. "I think a little bit from everyone. Everyone had their own personalities not necessarily what I would do 100%. I am not going to do 100% Lance or Ivan or Carlos, but all those guys are obviously great leaders and had a great team behind them and guys who would lay on the tracks for them."
Of course, Lance is the gold standard with his seven tour wins and such a cohesive team. "From day one I learned a lot from Lance. He is a reminder every day when I see him. He is always looking me in the face when I turn the computer on. He is just a reminder to work hard and not leave any stone unturned." added the Chicago native.
Jonathan Vaughters brought some new recruits onto the team for 2009 most notably Bradley Wiggins, Svein Tuft and Hans Dekker. What was he looking for in choosing new riders? "Guys that fit in. Guys who would die for the cause. Of course they are ambitious, but not selfishly ambitious," replied the former pro.
Former US Postal, Discovery Channel and Cofidis professional rider Matt White is a director for the Garmin-Slipstream team and is usually found in the team car taking care of his riders during races. In 2009, the team will be part of the Union Cycliste International's elite Pro Tour, elevating the squad to the top tier of professional racing. What changes will the team have to make to rise to the occasion? "Honestly, not so much. There are a few races on the calendar that we didn't do, not so many, actually, we did a lot of Pro Tour stuff being a UCI Continental Team."
With overall wins in the Tour of Missouri, Route du Sud and a 4th place in the Tour de France, Garmin-Slipstream is clearly prepared to do battle in the biggest stages races, but can the squad be competitive in the spring classics? "If you look on paper, obviously we have a lot of time trialists. On paper we are the best time trial team in the world. We should be able to match Team CSC or any other team that is thrown against us. Our weakness is the classics," explains White.
However, with 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt, 2008 Paris-Roubaix fourth place finisher Martijn concludes the director sportif.
How does Tyler feel about his classics chances? "That's my number one objective going into the season. Those are the races I love and that's what I will be aiming at all winter," reasons Farrar.
What about a win in the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix for Farrar? "I hope so. I have been developing well for the classics. It takes a lot of experience and they are a special kind of racing, but every year I feel like I am getting a little better at them," replies the leader during stage 3 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Martijn Maaskant had a breakthrough ride at the 2008 Paris-Roubaix. What will it take for the Dutchman to get on the podium at the cobbled classic? "I need to get more experience on how to read the race. You need to be able to tell how your opponents are doing. If they are good or they are not good. And when you get older, you get stronger."
Martijn learned a lot from his first trip into the He11 of the North. "The most important thing in that race is that you have to ride on the front because there are so many crashes and flat tyres you can't really ride in the back because if you get stuck behind a flat or a crash you lose so much time and so much power which you will need in the finale."
The most high profile of Jonathan Vaughters' new signings is Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins is a six-time World Champion on the track and a triple Olympic gold medalist, most recently winning gold in Beijing in the Individual Pursuit and the Team Pursuit. What would Bradley like to accomplish on the road in 2009? "I am still trying to branch out, really. I am still missing that Tour de France stage win. That's what I really want. Just to be part of this squad and win that team time trial in Montpelier at the Tour and put one of us in yellow, whomever it may be, Christian, Dave Z, David Millar. And then to go into Girona with the yellow jersey and defend from there that is something I really want to be part of."
"Besides of my own personal ambitions, being part of a team like that would be massive, yeah. I have never really been part of a team like that so it would be a massive experience and potentially, hopefully going onto the Champs de Elysees with Christian in yellow would top it all off" adds the Brit.
There is no doubt the the Garmin-Slipstream team has the tools and the talents to move up to the top of professional cycling. Matt White sums up the plan for 2009. "We were a big story last year, but now we need to capitalize on the big steps we made in the last four months."