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.
If there was any doubt who was the team leader on Astana that is pretty much a foregone conclusion as Alberto Contador siezed the initiative once again by attacking Lance Armstrong and the lead group with 5.5km remaining to the ski station at Verbier. The Spaniard was first across the line with Armstrong 1'35" back in ninth place. In the race for the overall, Contador is now 1'37" ahead of second-place Armstrong with Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins in third just nine seconds arrears of the Texan.
In fact, while everyone expected Contador to climb well, the biggest surprise was Wiggins who looked comfortable both following and initiating attacks in the final three miles (5km). His teammate Vande Velde was about 1'30" seconds back of Wiggins and is now in twelfth overall 3'59" back of Contador.
Tomorrow is a rest day before two tough days in the Alps, a 25-mile individual time trial and the ascent of Mont Ventoux remaining on the program. While Contador looks very good, the Tour is far from over.
The biggest buzz after yesterday's stage concerned the negative remarks George Hincapie made about his former US Postal/Discovery Channel teammates, now on Team Astana, working at the front of the peloton to rob Hincapie of the yellow jersey. By dissecting what actually happened both on the road and in the media we can see that it was all a big misunderstanding.
The problem began when the Versus TV commentators made the remark that Team Astana's work at the front of the main peloton had cost George Hincapie the jersey. Using this information, the Versus post-stage reporter asked George, on TV, what he thought about his former teammates working to keep him out of yellow. George, obviously frustrated at losing out on the yellow jersey after being off the front of the race for 100+ miles, just reacted to the question without knowing what really happened.
In reality, we know that it was not Team Astana that caused Hincapie to lose the jersey. Some have pointed the finger at Garmin-Slipstream and their growing rivalry with George's team, Columbia-HTC. But Jonathan Vaughters, the head honcho at Garmin stated that his team was only riding on the front in the final 10km to keep their GC riders out of trouble. He didn't want Bradley Wiggins or Christian Vande Velde getting caught out, as happened to Bradley a few days ago, and lose
So, it looks like a bit of misinformation posed as a post-stage question to a frustrated George Hincapie created a situation that wasn't a situation at all. BTW, when Lance heard about George's comments about Astana, went into overdrive to make sure George got the real story about what happened.
Cadel Evans finished seventh on the stage and dropped to 14th overall. I caught up with him at the Silence-Lotto team bus.
Cadel: I think this is the worse day I ever had in the Tour de France when I didn't have a crash. I haven't recovered since yesterday. I don't know why. At kilometer zero I was terrible. It was one of the most important days of the Tour. If you have a day like this your Tour is over and pretty much your whole season.
Q: Was it the cold of the past few days?
Cadel: No. I just had various reasons.
Q: What are your chances on the general classification?
Cadel: it is pretty terrible. I am riding a terrible Tour and I am dissapointed, but not much I can do about it right now.
Carlos Sastre usually comes alive in the third week of a grand tour which is how he won this race last year. On the final climb today, he got dropped early on from the lead group, but clawed his way back up to the leaders. He finished sixth, 1'06" back of Contador in same group as Bradley Wiggins and now sits in 11th overall at 3'52". I talked with Carlos at the Cervelo Test Team bus after the stage.
Q: How did you feel the first day in the mountains?
Carlos: it was a hard day. It was really fast. It was OK. It was more or less what I expected. It has been a difficult Tour de France, but I closed super (in the final KMs) and I was there and I am happy because I did my best. The team was fantastic. Today all my teammates were close to me. It is an important moment and we are happy. It has been a very successful Tour de France for all of us.
Q: You lost the wheel at the bottom, but you came back. Was that part of the plan to go your own pace and catch those guys back?
Carlos: It wasn't part of the plan. I would like to have the same explosivity as them, but I didn't have the explosivity so I needed to ride more at my rythmn which I did. I came back. I was there. I think for me it was OK. A difficult stage after almost one week on the flats, you know. This kind of fitness I like, but I recognize that there are a few riders who are stronger than me.
Q: Are the tough stages coming up in the Alps more Sastre "country?"
Carlos: It has been a really strange Tour de France. Everybody is talking about Armstrong/Contador like they are the only (ones) doing this race. I am happy with my condition. I am happy with the team. I am happy with the results. I don't think too much about anything. I go day-by-day, just do my race and doing everything which is good for me.
Danny Pate is a support rider on the Garmin-Slipstream team. I caught up with him as he was looking for his team bus.
Q: What was it like out there today. Were you trying to set it up for Bradley (Wiggins) and Christian (Vande Velde)?
Pate: Yeah. All day we just tried to protect them. We wanted one guy in the break and Ryder (Hesjedal) was perfect to have in the break becasue he can climb out of the break and if they (Wiggins and Vande Velde) needed help they could catch him (Ryder) at the right time and he (Ryder) could help them (Wiggins and Vande Velde) later.
Other than that it was the normal thing; protect those guys, help them get to the bottom. Everyone did a little bit to help them get there. Dave and I were the last guys to help them by the bottom and set them up real well to
do their thing.
Q: Wiggins had a great ride today.
Pate: he was riding great at the Giro and he had really good prep between the Giro and the Tour. The team didn't expect him to do any races or get results inbetween there so he had time to chill out and prepare for this.
Q: How will the team chemistry be now with Bradley moving ahead of Christian with a more substantial margin?
Pate: I don't think there will be any problems. I am amazed at the ride Christian has had here. After what happened to him at the Giro. He has blown me away at how prepared he was. Wiggo as well. They are riding unbelievably.
Q: So, they will continue to work together as a team?
Pate: oh, for sure!
Q: After you have put all your efforts into launching Wiggins and Vande Velde up the climb, what do you do to make it to the finish and conserve energy?
Pate: today's climb wasn't so bad. It was not a huge climb and it wasn't really steep which makes really good sense why Wiggo did so well today. He's quite a bit lighter than he has been before. But still it wasn't that steep of a climb or really that hard of a climb so it wasn't so bad for me.
Q: What is your body feeling like going into the third week?
Pate: it depends on who you are. By now you kind of feel the same. You feel the same in the third week. If you are going to be bad, you already feel bad.
Bunch finishes are usually explosive affairs, but not today into Besancon as Columbia-HTC found itself in one of those weird situations that has marked the 2009 Tour. With teammate George Hincapie off the front in a race-long breakaway the time gap back to the peloton was just about enough to put the American in the yellow jersey. But, if Columbia-HTC geared up their leadout train to try and reclaim the green points jersey for Mark Cavendish, their acceleration might just close that time gap and deny Hincapie the yellow jersey.
So, the bunch sprint appeared to happen in slow motion with Columbia-HTC riders all over the front, but trying to delay their leadout until the last possible moment. In the end, Cavendish won the sprint, but he beat Hushovd by only one place and one point so the green jersey stays on the Cervelo Test Team rider's shoulder. And Hincapie's gap proved to be a handful of seconds short so Rinaldo Nocentini will wear yellow tomorrow in to the Alps in Verbier.
In one of the strangest incidents I have seen in my 20+ years of covering the Tour, two riders were shot during stage 13. Spanish rider and triple World Champion, Oscar Friere, and Garmin-Slipstream rider, Julian Dean, were struck by lead pellets apparently fired from an air rifle while the descended the stage's penultimate climb. Friere had to have the pellet removed from his thigh by his team doctor. Julian Dean was struck in the finger with the pellet glancing off. There are no suspects and nobody saw anything as the peloton was in a dense forest.
This is a scary situation as Lance Armstrong has pointed out many times that the peloton races on open roads with crowds able to interact with the riders, hopefully not in any negative ways. But who can forget the fan who punched Eddy Merckx in the stomach in 1975 while he was climbing Le Puy de Dome. I don't know what can be done to tighten security on the open roads. It is a pity that the riders have to endure additional stress when they are trying to relax and save as much energy as possible to be able to perform in a three-week race.
I guess Jens Voigt was listening a couple of days ago as he slipped into the star-studded break at the beginning of stage 14. Unfortunately, he flatted and received a very slow wheel change from the Mavic neutral support car. The new rear wheel appeared to be rubbing on his brakes so he had to stop again to adjust it. Then, to make matters worse, the support car refused to help him get back up to the breakaway by providing a bit of draft. Jens had some choice comments for the occupants of the car and then pulled over to answer the call of nature and wait for the peloton which was already over five minutes behind. Talk about your missed opportunity.
And just when you thought things couldn't get any stranger, an imposter, clad in a La Francaise de Juex racing kit tried to jump onto the Tour podium. The badger himself, Bernard Hinault, forcibly removed him from the stage.
Jean Paul Van Poppel is a former green jersey winner at the Tour, beating Davis Phinney among others in 1988, and is one of the director sportifs of the Cervelo Test Team. Interestingly, when the Tour finished here in Besancon in 1988, Van Poppel won the stage. I spoke to him about Carlos Sastre's chances in the overall classification.
Bruce: Carlos Sastre has a reputation as a third week rider. Is the plan to get through the first two weeks and then go hard in the Alps?
JVVP: The third week is very hard and it is in his (Carlos) system to get better during a stage race. I think his strength is the third week and if it works out. Yeah. He could give them (peloton) some surprises. We hope.
Bruce: Ventoux is a tough enough climb that taking back two to three minutes is not out of the question.
JVVP: Taking two to three minutes on the best riders? I don't think that is going to happen, but you can take time in the last week over more stages (than just Ventoux).
Bruce: Team Astana is looking very strong. Is there something you can do to take them on?
JVVP: We have to see what is going to happen. They work a lot(at the front) so maybe in the last week the team is a bit used up, but I don't think so. Not really. You have to look at what is happening at the moment and if it happens there comes a situation that you can benefit with other riders to go full gas then I think we should do that.
Bruce: who on the team will be there to help Carlos in the mountains.
JVVP: Jose Marchante is a super climber. He had some bad luck starting the season when he broke his arm. He came back in good shape and in the Tour of Catalonia he was in good form, actually a litle too good so we slowed him down a bit for Tour of Switzerland. For now he is at a good level and also he can get better like Carlos does.
Australian Brett Lancaster is a teammate of Sastre's on the Cervelo Test Team. I chatted with him briefly about is team leader.
Bruce: Is Carlos getting ready to unleash himself against Astana in the third week when we get to the Alps?
Brett: They are a really strong team (Astana). Carlos is pretty reserved and keeps to himself. I don't know what he is thinking or what he is going to do. He just keeps that to himself. In the last week it will be typical Carlos standard.
For those who know of the Tour de France only from the Lance era it might be difficult to imagine that as far back as 1980, no American had ever ridden the Tour de France. In 1981, Jonathan Boyer, became the first US rider to particpate in the Tour. He went on to represent America well, finishing as high as 12th place though he rode for a French team. It wasn't until 1986 that the first American team, the 7-Eleven, squad rode the Tour.
A little known fact in Tour history is that in 1981, a squad of Americans was poised to become not only the first Americans, but also the first American team to ride the Tour. They received and invitation in late 1980 from the Tour organizers; Mike Fraysee was to be the team manager and he quickly set about trying to find riders.
It must be remembered that back in 1980/81 there were only three riders in the European pro peloton, Greg Lemond, Jonathan Boyer and George Mount. Unfortunately, all three were under contract to other teams and therefore unavailable. So, Mike Fraysee had to look to the strongest US amateur riders to stock his team. The riders would turn pro and be paid $5000 to start the race and $5000 if they made it to Paris.
Lindsay Crawford, who was a pilot for United Airlines, held several US cycling records and was one of those srong US amateurs who was capable of riding 100-150 miles a day with the European pros for three weeks. It was a dream come true for the Northern California-based rider and he adjusted his legendary 400-500 mile/week training program accordingly.
Unfortunately, for circumstances that are, to this day, still unknown, the Tour organization withdrew the team's invitation several months before the start. There is a bit of a silver lining in this whole mysterious affair. Lindsay Crawford went on to ride a stage of the Tour as part of the Etape du Tour cyclosportif. The Etape du Tour selects one stage each year, usually one of the most mountainous, and 8500 riders take to the course. Winners in each age division receive a yellow jersey and Credit Lyonnaise lion just like a Tour stage winner.
In 2003, Lindsay, then 62, won his age group and finished an amazing 200th overall out of the 8500 starters. He continues to ride the Etape each year and has recorded another podium finish in his 60-69 age group. These days, at age 68, he still routinely logs 400+ mile weeks in the Santa Cruz mountains. He recently won the 65+ year age group at the Spanish cyclosportif Quebrantahuesos, very similar to Etape du Tour, by over 30 minutes.
This year's etape du Tour is this Monday (7/20) and does the stage which finishes at the top of Mont Ventoux. You can read Lindsay's accounts of his pre-Etape training and post event-commentary at www.bikeradar.com
With the Alps looming all eyes are on the battle expected to commence as the third week of the Tour begins. Actually, it will most likely be two battles in the Alps as first, Team Astana tries to sort out the leadership on its squad and secondly as all the other teams with overall contenders such as Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans), Cervelo Test Team (Carlos Sastre) and Saxo Bank (Brothers Schleck) try to either take down Astana or at the very least, climb onto the Tour podium.
The battle for leadership at Astana has already has already seen two rounds as first, Lance took charge in the crosswinds of stage three then in round two, Contador took the initiative by attacking in the final four kilometer to the mountain top finish in Arcalis. Since then the two pugilists have been in their respective corners waiting for the bell to sound for round three.
I expect Lance to take the initiative in the Alps and not wait for Contador to show his ambitions. However, the tricky part is that riders like Carlos Sastre, who seems to get better in the third week of a grand tour, and Cadel Evans, who continues to show the aggression we first saw in the Dauphine Libere, and the Brothers Schleck to attack, attack and attack.
If Astana can't control the lead group and they let riders like Sastre and Evans get up the road, then the advantage shifts to Contador as he is more able to respond to sharp attacks than Armstrong. Having said that, I am impressed by Lance's improving form and he might just be able to match Contador's legendary accelerations by the time the Tour reaches the Alps.
One interesting development is that the director sportifs of several of the teams with overall contenders may be waiting to see if the disharmony inside Astana is weakening the team and making them more vulnerable to cracking in the Alps. In talking with those directors, none of them have any answers on how to take down Astana. With three or four strong riders the situation is similar to being only four shots back on the final afternoon in a golf tournament, but having four golfers in front of you on the leader board. You might be able to beat one or even two of them, but expecting all four to fail is long odds.
Clearly, Astana is weaker with the departure of Levi Leipheimer, but Andreas Kloden looks very solid as does Yaraslov Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia. Lance called the third week of the Tour "sinister". With both the battle within Astana and the battle of the best of the rest, it is going to be one of the most memorable finishes in recent Tour history.
The Tour de France has officially begun and while the winner on the day, Fabian Cancellara, was not a huge surprise, the race for Astana team leadership got very interesting. All four of Astana's Tour podium finishers, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden finished inside the top 10 with only 22 seconds separating those riders after the 9-mile(15 km) time trial. While Alberto, 3rd overall, did best Lance, 10th overall, by 22 seconds the question of team leadership is still unanswered.
On a warm, muggy day in the principality of Monaco the relatively short course resulted in interesting, but not necessarily significant, time gaps. None of the favorites faltered; Cadel Evans was right in the mix, five seconds behind Contador and 17 seconds ahead of Armstrong while Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre were within a minute of their rivals.
The Garmin-Slipstream team also demonstrated their time trialing prowess, putting four riders in the top 17, led by Bradley Wiggins' third place finish, 19 seconds behind Cancellara. David Zabriskie, 13th, David Millar, 14th and Christian Vande Velde, 17th, had solid rides. Vande Velde's comeback after a race-ending crash in the Giro seems to be on track to finding his top form as the race progresses.
This year, because there are no time bonuses at the finish, it is likely that Cancellara will keep his yellow jersey at least until Stage 4 on Tuesday and the 25-mile team time trial. Based on the results of the opening time trial, it should be a battle between Astana and Garmin-Slipstream for the stage win.
It has been an up and down season for Cancellara who won the opening prologue of the Tour of California, but was forced to withdraw the next day due to sickness. A training crash at home in Switzerland severely hampered his preparation for the Classics, but he recently won his home tour, the Tour de Suisse, and appears to be finally finding his form.
The next few days should be the domain of the sprinters. Look for Team Columbia-HTC with Mark Cavendish to be challenged by Cervelo Test team and Thor Hushovd, but Garmin-Slipstream and their up-and-coming sprinter, Tyler Farrar, might surprise.
The Cervelo Test Team was launched in 2009 by the original founders of the Cervelo bike company Phil White and Gerard Vroomen. While they do not currently hold a Pro Tour license, they are the number one ranked professional team in the world based on their results in the biggest races including four stage win a the recent Giro d'Italia. The team includes 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre and Tour green jersey wearer Thor Hushovd, but recruits such as Heinrich Haussler, Serge Pauwels and Simon Gerrans have also performed well.
I caught up with Phil White and rider Simon Gerrans at the team bus after the Blockhaus stage.
Bruce: tell me about Carlos Sastre's win on Monte Petrano
Phil White: It was not scripted, but that was something we wanted to do. We figured that was a stage he could really excel on. It was similar to what he did last year on l'Alpe d'Huez. When everyone else is worn down he's just got more energy and can go longer than anyone else. He's like the Energizer Bunny of cycling.
Bruce: what about Simon Gerrans' win at Bologna?
Phil White: It was a long day. That break worked super well together. There was no scrapping, everyone pulled their weight and it just came down to who the strongest rider was. Gerrans is a strong rider. We saw him win the Tour stage win and that is one reason we got him.
Bruce: how hard was it to build a team from scratch and get some credibility?
Phil White: I think the reputation of the team was initially that Carlos put his name to it then Thor. Those guys brought credibility to the effort, but pretty soon those guys in the classics put their stamp on it and now it is not a team that is relying on two name riders. It is a team that has built its own reputation. Those guys came right out of the blocks and stamped their name on it a the Tour of Qatar. It got the monkey off our back early so we could focus on moving ahead rather than feeling the pressure to win.
Bruce: was it hard to get the respect of the other teams in the Pro Peloton?
Phil White: I don't think anyone gives you respect just by showing up. You have to earn it. Luckily our guys earned it pretty hard and pretty solidly right from the start. In pro cycling there is no such thing as an easy ride. You have to earn your stripes and there is no way around that. We have good guys and they proved early on that they deserved the respect.
Bruce: how are things looking for the Tour?
Phil White: I think we will be right in there for the Tour. The Giro is our grand tour debut. I have a book where I have been making notes, and the sport directors have as well and it is pretty much full of little things we have to fix and improve. That's how we are going to get better by focusing on the things we
can do better.
Bruce: Take us through the finale of your win at Bologna.
Simon Gerrans: I think it was just basically survival of the breakaway; whoever could get to the top first. There was nothing too tactical about it. It was just who could get up the hill the fastest.
Bruce: it looked like the false flat halfway up took you by surprise.
Simon Gerrans: I didn't know the climb so that second ramp up to the finish was a bit of a surprise. Luckily I had a bit of gas in the tank for that.
The 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia finished today with a 15km(9-mile) individual time trail around the streets of central Rome. The course passed a number of Rome's most famous landmarks including the Colosseum, Saint Peter's Basilica and Circus Circus. In the end, Denis Menchov's overall victory appeared to be a relatively easy affair, but that was far from the case.
It was a drama-filled final stage as the organizers seemed to try to heap additional difficulties on the riders by running the race on just about every poorly-cobbled street in central Rome. In fact, almost 7 miles of the 9-mile course was on cobbles and bad ones at that. It was a bumpy ride for all the contenders and with rain falling on and off, the outcome was far from certain.
Many riders not in contention for a high placing chose to ride a regular road bikes so as to have more control on the twisty, turny route which also included significant ups and downs. Also, riders looking to the Tour de France like Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer decided not to take any chances on the slick cobblestones and definitely rode within themselves.
The drama was provided by the rain which caused race leader Denis Menchov to crash in the final turn, but he was up quickly and lost little time. In the end Menchov was a deserving winner. He gained the bulk of his time in the race's 61km Cinque Terra time trial, but he rode consistently in the mountains, avoiding a single bad day, to keep his margin all the way to Rome.
Here are some photos. Race leader Denis Menchov(Rabobank) with 1.5 miles to go.
Danilo Di Luca(LPR Brakes), who finished second overall, negotiates a turn in the first kilometer.
Carlos Sastre(Cervelo Test Team) win two hard mountain stages and finished fourth overall. Look for him to be a factor in the Tour de France.
Lance Armstrong took it easy in the final TT. He will head to a high altitude training camp in the USA in the next few days.
The Roman Colosseum was the backdrop for both the start and finish of the stage.
ps - I shot a lot of photos and did a bunch of interviews. Look for them to be popping up once I get back to the states.
Even though there are two more stages to go in the 2009 Giro d'Italia the race is all but over as Danilo Di Luca was unable to drop overall leader, Denis Menchov, and gain any significant time before Sunday's concluding stage, a 9-mile individual time trial. Barring any sort of mechanical mishap or a crash, Menchov will undoubtedly best Di Luca in the race against the watch and wear the final pink jersey in Rome.
The last major climb of the Giro, Monte Vesuvio, showed once again that Carlos Sastre was the best climber in the race as he notched his second stage win in three mountain top finishes. The defending Tour de France champion on the newly formed Cervelo Test Team had been unable to produce the goods on the Blockhaus stage, but on the 6-mile, 2500 foot climb of the volcano he was unbeatable.
Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer were in the lead group chasing Sastre with five kilometers remaining. Lance, who suffered a scary-looking crash early in the stage faded a bit at the end, but his condition is definitely improving.
Here are a few photos from the day. The first photo shows Carlos Sastre dropping Ivan Basso halfway up the climb.
I have posted a number of photos of Armstrong and Leipheimer, here is a shot of Michael Rogers of the Columbia-Highroad squad. He was the team's leader, but has faded over the last week. Jani Brajkovic is over his right shoulder.
Dave Zabriskie(Garmin-Slipstream), who won a stage of the Giro in 2005, has had a pretty quiet race. Here is a photo of him in the grupetto. As he came by I asked him how he was doing. "Eh, OK," was the reply.
Franco Pellizotti won the big Blockhaus stage. I snapped this photo him at the team busses after the race.
Tom Danielson(Garmin-Slipstream) has also had a quiet Giro. On Vesuvio, he climbed well and was close to the leaders at the finish. It is good to see Tommy D up at the front.
The overall standings in the Giro d'Italia tightened significantly on the massive Blockhuas climb setting the stage for a dramatic finish when the race concludes with a 9-mile time trial around the streets of Rome. While Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) won the stage, Danilo Di Luca not only beat race leader Denis Menchov by five seconds and added an 8-second time bonus to move within 26 seconds of Menchov.
Pellizotti's winning attack moved him up to third place overall, but it was the man who led the initial chase to bring back the Liquigas rider who made the biggest news of the day. Lance Armstrong launched from the main field containing all the favorites when Pellizotti attacked with 15km to go. For a while the gap between the two hovered at 8-10 seconds, but then the elastic seemed to break and Lance ended up with the group containing Carlos Sastre, Levi Leipheimer and Michael Rogers who ultimately finished about two minutes back.
I had a chance to talk to Astana directors Jonah Bruyneel and Viatcheslav Ekimov after the finish and that in itself is its own story. As I did on Monte Petrano, I rode the climb of the Blockhaus. As I was preparing to descend on my bike I saw Johan go by driving a team car. Several minutes later, Ekimov came by as well. Sensing an opportunity which only presents itself getting off big mountains in the grand tours, I took off after the Astana cars. It took me several minutes to catch Eki. I rolled up, tapped on his window and asked him what he thought about Lance's performance. "He looked really good. Really hot," was his reply.
Next I spotted Bruyneel's car several switchbacks below so I took off chasing his car down. When I caught up to Johan I asked him the same question. "He's coming. He's coming" was his reply. Sometimes a journalist has to take some unusual measures to get a comment or two. Chasing those guys down through a sea of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians was some of the most fun I have had on a bike in years. BTW, it's not for the faint hearted.
Here are some photos of the finish. As you can see from the marker in the first photo, I was positioned about 40 meters from the finish line, which was a great place to catch the final action of the stage.
Here is Pellizotti driving hard to the line for the win.
Here is a photo of the sprint for second between Stefano Garzelli and Danilo Di Luca.
This is a photo of Denis Menchov in the pink jersey, head down, trying to lose as few seconds as possible to Di Luca.
The last photo is of a guy named Lance pacing Levi to the line with Carlos Sastre in tow.
Today's stage up the Blockhaus will undoubtedly provide some huge fireworks and may prove to finally solidify the true contenders for the maglia rosa. Unlike most mountain top finishes, the riders will hit the slopes of the Blockhaus after only 36 mostly flat miles. Add in the fact that this stage follows the Giro's second rest day and you will have the scenario of a lot of racers who think they can win the stage.
This scenario is pretty uncommon in the grand tours. Back in 1991, the Tour de France rolled up to Alpe d'Huez with only flat miles in their legs instead of a couple of category 1 ascents such as the Galibier, Glandon or the Croix de Fer. What transpired at the bottom of the Alpe was an explosion as both the stage hunters and overall riders were swept up in a wave of aspirations. Two groups of riders with different goals, but riding side-by-side up one of the world's most storied climbs.
The GC riders don't like this type of situation. They have to ride harder and punchier(not steady) than they would like in the third week of a grand tour. The guys going for the stage win will launch attack after attack and they GC riders usually respond. This has changed a bit with power meters and riders knowing what they can and cannot do on the bike, but still there is a group mentality which pervades and unless the GC riders call a truce, they can get sucked up into the fray.
Guys like Levi Leipheimer aren't punchy riders and a stage like today could cause him more difficulty. Personally, I hope not, but Levi may have a tough decision to make whether to ride within himself or go with the moves. The podium is on the line for the Team Astana rider which makes the decision even more difficult.
The final ascent is a 17km(11-mile) 1200m(4000') climb that averages about 7%. This should take the top riders about 45-minutes. Look for racers like Menchov, Sastre and Basso to be forcing the pace with Di Luca hanging on near the front. BTW, Ivan Basso won here in 2006 on his way to his first, and only, overall Giro win.
In the late 1960's Eddy Merckx won his first ever mountain-top finish in a grand tour. A few years later, the Giro hosted a similar stage as today in the morning and then ran a 200+km flatter stage in the afternoon. These "split stages" were common in grand tours up until the 1990's. Nowadays the UCI has outlawed them.
Undoubtedly the most decisive stage,so far, of the 100th anniversary Giro d'Italia was fought out on the slopes of Monte Petrano as 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre proved that he is the real deal crossing the line first, 30 second ahead of an elite trio of Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Danilo Di Luca. Sadly for Americans, Levi Leipheimer was unable to keep pace on the brutal day that saw temperatures reach almost 100 degrees. He is now in sixth place overall, 3:20 behind Menchov.
The 140-mile stage from Pergola to the mountain-top finish at Monte Petrano was clearly the most difficult day in the Giro with three big climbs in the final 55-miles. Oh yeah, did I mention that it was hot? The silver lining for the Americans was that Lance Armstrong continues to improve his form and played a crucial role in pacing Leipheimer in the closing kilometers.
Given his superior time trialing skills, if Levi can avoid losing anymore time on the Blockhaus and Vesuvio stages he still has a shot at the podium. Leipheimer, always a class act, replied at the finish that his rivals were just stronger than him. BTW,he has a nasty looking bit of road rash on his left bicep from a crash on the stage into Genoa.
I talked with Saxo Bank rider Jen Voigt, who was in the early stage breakaway that featured Damiano Cunego and Yaroslov Popovych. I asked Jens to give a short description of the stage and he simply said, "too long. Too hard." That seemed to be the feeling in all the rider's minds. Did I mention that it was really hot?
I rode the final climb, Monte Petrano, before the pros(more on that below) and it struck me that if anyone wanted to do some serious damage that they would have to attack in the first two or three km's of the 10km, 800m ascent. So, I came back down the mountain and positioned myself at a seemingly key spot. Sure enough, Sastre attacked about 500m before where I was standing so I shot some photos of the winning breakaway developing.
Here is a photo of Sastre(black), Menchov(pink), Basso(green), and Di Luca(purple) just after the attack. Sastre and Basso are looking back to assess the damage they have done and to see who has tagged along.
Lance Armstrong came by about 30 seconds later.
Levi was about 20 seconds behind Lance. Lance would ultimately wait for Levi and then pace Leipheimer to the finish.
I had the unique opportunity of riding the final climb with Franceso Moser who is one of Italy's all-time great cyclists. He won the Giro in 1984. He also won Paris-Roubaix three times, the World Road Race championships, the World Pursuit Championships and set the World Hour record. It was a honor to ride with a living legend. We chatted a bit in Italian though he was reluctant to pick a winner of either the day's stage or the overall.
Here is an on-the-bike-photo.
Moser, at the top of the climb, looking like the classy rider he was, and still is.
The 100th anniversary of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy or just plan Giro) will start on Saturday in Venice and end three weeks later with a time trial around the streets of Rome. Only one American, Andy Hampsten, has won the event, but this year, another US rider comes into this grand tour with the form to contend for the overall. No, it's not Lance Armstrong who recently admitted that his broken collarbone suffered in March has delayed his fitness.
Three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California Levi Leipheimer arrives at the Giro with the form and the motivation to attempt to repeat Hampsten's 1988 performance. Levi has been on a tear since winning the AToC, taking Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon and dominating several races in the US. While Leipheimer has the chops to shine in the mountains and the time trials, he is going to have to stay close to the front in the flat bunch finishes to avoid the crashes which seem to plague the Giro.
Look for Lance Armstrong to work for Leipheimer in the mountains and on the flats, but he should be given free reign to go full gas in the time trials. I am hoping that Lance will ride the entire three weeks, he deperately needs the racing miles if he is going to be a factor in the Tour, but I suspect that he might pack it in after the 60km time trial south of Genoa in the middle of the 2nd week.
The Garmin-Slipstream team made huge waves last year when they won the first stage team time trial. This year, the first stage will again be a TTT. The argyle boys have the talent to repeat and take the race's first maglia rosa, or pink leader's jersey. Again, like last year, the team will most likely be using this race as training for the Tour. Christian Vande Velde might test his form for a stage or two in the mountains, but don't look for him to be high up in the general classification. Tyler Farrar will need to outfox and outpower Mark Cavendish to win a bunch finish. Look for Tom Danielson to go stage hunting in the mountains.
The other contenders for the overall include Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. All three riders have won a grand tour so they are going to be part of the mix. Usually a rogue Italian climbs into the fray as well. What this makes for is a very open Giro with no clear favorite. I am putting my money on Levi and hoping that his team will be focused on supporting him all the way to Rome.
BTW, NBC Universal Sports will be carrying daily updates from the Giro both online and on their TV station. If you have Comcast Cable you are in. Also, some metropolitan areas (Bay Area and Denver, Yeah!) get the channel over the air with the digital NBC network.
The route of the 2009 Giro d'Italia was unveiled in Venice on Saturday and all I can say is what?!?! This is the centenary Giro, remember the centenary Tour back in 2003?, so clearly there has to be some tie-in to the 100 year history of Italy's biggest race, but what the heck? And with Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and 2008 Tour Champion Carlos Sastre all scheduled to start, maybe the route is only a secondary concern.
What about the route? Sure it is the customary 2500 miles (4000km) long, but there aren't really any big Dolomite climbs with strategic significance; the hardest climbing day is mostly in France and even though there are a bunch of mountain-top finishes, they just don't have the recognizable names that we have all come to know and love over the past 25-30 years.
That doesn't mean the mountains aren't going to be challenging, it's just that the route doesn't seem to lend itself to any "normal" flow. From the get go, the race is going to be challenging with a 13-mile(20.5km) team time trial on stage 1. Only four days later, Stage 5, the first of three mountain top finishes, the Alpe di Suisi in the Dolomites offers a 5000' climb with the final 6 miles at a very challenging 8%.
The next big test for the riders is a Stage 10 from Cuneo to Pinerolo which includes the Maddelena(Larche), Vars, Izoard, Montegenevre and Sestriere passes on the 150-mile route. This is the queen stage of the Giro and includes 17,000+ feet of climbing. Unfortunately, it is a 33-mile(55km) descent to the finish in Pinerolo so the GC selection may be limited.
A 37-mile(61km) time trial on Stage 12 has some significant climbing and could really break the race wide open. Look for Lance Armstrong to make his move on this stage after hanging with the leaders and conserving on Stage 10.
Stage 17 is only 50 miles in length, but it is all uphill from basically sea level to the 7000' summit of the Blockhaus. This is a pretty darn tough climb and will basically be a time trial between the overall contenders. Here is a photo of the final mile to the top.
A mountain top finish on Stage 19 to the summit of the famous Vesuvius volcano(sorry Pompei) is the final climbing test. The 3300' ascent over 8 miles has the profile to shake up the overall standings.
A final, short, 9-mile(15km) flat time trial in Rome probably isn't long enough for anyone to make a serious move up the standings, but if the gaps are tight, it could provide all the fireworks necessary for a nail-biting finish.
Can Lance win the Giro and become only the second American after Andy Hampsten's 1988 victory? Yes, I don't think there is anything in the route that provides a real danger to any of the Texan's weaknesses. Does he have any weaknesses? Certainly the 37-mile very hilly time trial will be a key stage for Armstrong especially if he can hang with the other contenders on the climbs.
The route for the 2009 Tour de France was unveiled yesterday in Paris and all the stars were there including the past two winners Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. At first glance, the route is a huge break from tradition. Normally, the race alternates each year with either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction around France. That means in one year, the first mountains are the Pyrenees and then the Alps follow. The next year the Alps come first, then the Pyrenees.
For 2009, the Pyrenees come first, as they did in 2008, then the Alps follow. Hmm. That's probably no big deal except that it is a break from tradition. Another major change, which was also the case in 2008, is that there will be no time bonuses for any stage finishes. That means that the sprinters will have to earn the yellow jersey from a breakaway and not just by winning the first three or four stages. I wouldn't put any money on seeing Mark Cavendish in yellow even though he will probably win another two or three stages.
What about the critical stages, the mountains and the time trials? On paper the mountains look pretty tame with only three real mountain top finishes. In the Pyrenees there is the uphill finish to Arcalis in Andorra, but on the other two stages it is 20 miles from the bottom of the last climb to St. Girons and the next day it is 30 miles from the bottom of the Tourmalet to Tarbes. It will be very interesting to see how these two stages play out.
In the Alps there is an uphill finish on an up-and-down day to Verbier in Switzerland then after the Tour's second rest day, a big stage over both St. Bernard passes(first the big then the small one, but both are pretty big) followed by potentially the Tour's hardest day which ascends five medium-sized summit before the fast downhill to Le Grand Bornand.
Perhaps the most anticipated stage is the penultimate day when four small climbs soften up the field before attacking the Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Fireworks will most certainly go off, similar to the race up l'Alpe d'Huez in 2008. If Lance does ride the 2009 Tour, look for him to be gunning for a stage win here, basically the only major French summit where he has never been victorious.
The three time trial, including the 15km prologue in Monaco, are relatively short at 38 and 40km and will definitely play to the advantage of the pure climbers like Contador and Sastre.
So, there you have it in a nutshell. A very different, non-traditional route that, on paper, looks moderate. But, we all know that the Tour always produces a worthy winner and there will be nothing moderate about the racing. About the only question that has yet to be answered is whether we will be yelling "Go Big Tex" on the tortuous slopes of Mont Ventoux.
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.