The podium of the Tour de France was decided on the legendary slopes of Mont Ventoux. Well, first and second place were a bit of a lock, but the race for the final step provided some very dramatic moments. As I predicted, Frank Schleck needed to best three other riders to claim a podium spot so he came out swinging early. However, Lance Armstrong rode a tactically brilliant race and managed to respond to all of Frank's attacks to claim the third spot on the podium.
It is an incredible result for Lance and his comeback. After his sluggish ride to Verbier last Sunday many had written off Armstrong's chances. But, for the entire three weeks of the Tour, Lance did what he had to do to be on the podium. Given the very close time gaps from third place back to fifth, the 40 seconds he gained by making it into the first echelon on the crosswinds into La Grande Motte way back on stage 3 were the difference between the podium and fifth place overall for Armstrong.
I will provide a more detailed analysis of the Ventoux stage in a few days. Suffice it to say, that Lance rode very well on the climb to Ventoux and no one should begrudge him is spectacular result. He was undoubtedly helped by the very stong, 25+mph, headwinds on the upper slopes on the mountain. The strong winds made any solo attempt very difficult in some measure nullifying Frank Schleck's climbing prowess.
It was also great to see Contador marking the attacks of Andy Schleck and his sheltering of Lance into the headwind to conserve Armstrong's energy to hang on in the lead group.
Aussie Mark Renshaw is the last cog in the Columbia-HTC leadout train which has produced five stage wins for Mark Cavendish. Will the team make it six wins when the Tour finishes on the Champs Elysees? I spoke with Mark about a number of sprinting-related concerns.
Bruce: what kind of stuff do you have to do in the final kilometer?
Mark: Obviously, to keep Mark as protected as possible out of the wind, but also I've taken on the role to tell everyone what to do to take the pressure off of Mark a bit more. Getting the team in the correct position to make sure it runs in a line. I am trying to make a few calls up until the last kilometer then once we get within five or six hundred meters that's my call to go as hard as possible and lift the pace so no one can come around Mark or put him into difficulty.
Bruce: no one is fighting for your wheel. They are fighting for Mark's wheel.
Mark: I guess they are all fighting behind Mark because lately he's been the number one wheel to have. I have seen a few times where other teams have tried to come around us like Milram (for Ciolek) and Garmin (for Farrar) it shows that we have a strong team in that we can fend off those surges from other teams.
Bruce: What do you do in the final kilometer when you have the leadout train working well and other team's leadout trains come up on the left or right trying to take over control of the sprint?
Mark: It is prety hard. Obviously, we have to stay as a team. It is the strongest point. If we all hold each other's wheel and don't let anyone in it shows that we are a lot stronger. The general rule of thumb is to stay to one side so they can only approach from one side. It makes it a lot easier.
Usually, we set the pace and try to fend them off until they can't come over the top. That holds them back and it kind of knocks their morale a bit if they can't come over the top.
Bruce: do you have to do any physical bumping or pushing?
Mark: For sure. Always. Usually, the last 5km is pretty physical. It is always bumping and touching. The guys who have done the most this Tour are (Gerard) Ciolek and (Tyler) Farrar. I mean these guys are really fighting hard so we have had a few touches there. We are not making many friends. But, that is what happens.
Bruce: it is all pretty clean isn't it? People aren't grabbing jerseys?
Mark: No. There is none of that going on anymore. A few elbows; maybe a shoulder, but there is no grabbing jerseys.
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.
On a very rainy day in the Vosges Mountains, Heinrich Haussler was off the front for over 100 miles, dropping his breakaway companion Sylvan Chavanel on the descent of the penultimate climb and soloing for almost 30 miles to victory. The Cervelo Test Team rider is better known for his sprinting prowess, winning stage 2 of Paris-Nice and almost beating Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo. But, today, he proved that once again in this year's Tour, anything can happen.
Undoubtedly the biggest news of the days was the non-start of Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer. He crashed on a left hand bend with 2.5 kilometers remaining yesterday, but appeared to be fine at the stage finish. However, the pain in his wrist worsened over night and a trip to the hospital in the morning revealed that it was broken.
I saw the crash and it just didn't look that serious. The tumble by Ryder Hesjedal the day before looked way more serious, but Hesjedal was basically unscathed. Leipheimer was enjoying one of his finest Tours sitting in fourth place overall and looking very comfortable and relaxed on the bike. It is a pity that Levi will not get to show his form in the Alps. In both 2006 and 2007, he was one of the few riders who seemed to get stronger in the third week.
The race leaders took it easy in the day's trying conditions, there were no changes to the overall standings other than Leipheimer's untimely withdrawal. Thor Hushovd managed to stay with the GC leaders over all the climbs and took second in the field sprint for sixth place which allowed him to take the green jersey off of Mark Cavendish's shoulders.
The Armstrong/Contador affair is interesting to watch. I asked Rolf Aldag, DS of team Columbia-HTC, about the perspective from the other teams.
Bruce: do you think Astana will destroy themselves with all the conflict?
Rolf: I think in the end, they are so strong as a team, that even if they ride against each other they will succeed whoever that will be. If you see how much resources they have. Until now they didn't need Leipheimer. They didn't need Kloden to ride. They still have so much resources that up until now they can easily control it with out making any decisions (about team leadership) so I think it stays wide open.
It is interesting to watch (the Armstrong/Contador battle) from the outside. If you don't have a hand in the game there it is really interesting to follow and wonder what are they going to do next.
When Lance was in the front in the crosswind there was definitely a big 'chapeau' from our team wondering how he managed that. Three years off he is definitely physiologically older, he is definitely focused on the race. So it was kind of 'Wow! He made it into that group'.
When Contador attacked up to Arcalis it was the same thing to say 'Wow. There is no way for us to go with him.' So we watched it and we were also like 'Phew'. It was a good attack. It was strong how he went to the finish.
Right now it is six and eight seconds so it is totally open. It is so exciting we are kind of like spectators in the first row. It is kind of funny.
Bruce: Does Contador need to be strong psychologically to do what he did?
Rolf: I think so, but I also think it is kind of a relief for him. He is as good as he is and he has to show it. If there is any doubt that he is good enough then he will be in bigger and bigger trouble. If he shows that he is good enough, that he is there because when he was not there in the break in the crosswinds, it was a big advantage for Lance. 'See. That is not my mistake that you haven't learned. That might happen to you everyday.'
Psychologically he (Lance) had a big, big advantage over Contador, but Contador now responded and said 'See. Even if I miss it I am strong enough to correct it.'
It is really exciting to follow that as long as we are not paying the bill which we are not going to do. Cavendish is no threat to Astana.
I finally had time to look through all the photos I shot in the past two weeks. Here are a bunch from the team time trial that I think you will find interesting.
There are some fit riders in the Tour.
Check out the Cervelo Test Team's motto on their shorts. It seems to be working as they have won two stages.
Flatting in a team time trial can cost a GC rider precious seconds and potentially minutes. The mechanics always wipe off the tires just before the start in case a piece of glass has found it's way into the rubber.
Tom Boonen packs a gel just in case he needs it during the 45+ minute effort.
Because of the logistics between the start and finish of the team time trial, Team Astana decided it needed another bus to park at the finish. Mechanic Geoff Brown got the call the day before and drove the second bus 700 miles (1100km) from Astana's European headquarters in Brakel, Belgium to Montpellier. The speed limit for busses is 60 mph(100kmh) so the trip took over 11 hours. He arrived only two hours before the stage start. He drove the bus 700 miles back to Belgium the next day.