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?
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.
Today's stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia was a bit of a low-key affair after the epic struggle yesterday on the Blockhaus. It was great to see American's Danny Pate(Garmin-Slipstream) and Jason McCartney(Saxo Bank) in the breakaway going for the win. However, the focus of the Giro is on Friday's stage 19 and the ascent of the extinct volcano, Monte Vesuvio, which buried Pompei long before there was anything even remotely resembling American Idol.
Monte Vesuvio is most likely Danilo Di Luca's last chance to gain time on his chief(and probably only) rival Denis Menchov who holds a scant 26 second lead over the rider nicknamed 'The Killer'. Menchov is the better time trialist as he proved besting Di Luca in the 61km test in the Cinque Terra by almost two minutes.
If Di Luca cannot shake Menchov then the race will most like be decided before the final time trial. This scenario is reminiscent of one of the most famous moments in Tour de France history when Raymond Poulidor tried to take the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Jacques Anquetil on another extinct volcanic summit, Le Puy de Dome. Di Luca will need at least a minute over Menchov if he is to have a chance of taking the pink jersey off the Russian's shoulders.
There has been a lot of speculation on why Levi Leipheimer hasn't been more of a factor in the race. I spoke with his coach, Max Testa, who pointed out that at the beginning of the season, it was to be Lance Armstrong who was to be the team leader at the Giro. Levi was supposed to be taking it easy in May, resting up after a difficult spring campaign which began way back in February at the Tour of California. When Lance broke his collarbone, Levi was pressed into service and may just be feeling the effects of a very long period at top condition.
I also spoke with Astana Team Director Allain Gallopin about the situation and he also said that Levi was not really focused on this event at the beginning of the season. Gallopin added that to expect better results, Levi needs to make the Giro a priority in his racing program.
Thomas Voeckler (BBox) was in the early breakaway on the stage to the Blockhaus.His group of about nine riders reached a maximum lead of close to three minutes before they reached the base of the climb. Unfortunately, the gap was not big enough and all the escapees were caught and passed in the first 3 miles of the ascent. I asked Voeckler why the break failed. "No one was really motivated to do the work necessary to get a big enough gap to make the break work," said Voeckler. I asked him if it seemed like his companions were only looking for some TV time, "yeah it sure seemed that way," he said.
Below are a number of photos I thought you might find interesting. The first photo is of the electornic scoreboard we use in the press room to keep exact details of how the race is progressing. The time, distance and rider names and number. Pretty cool.
Lance has his own personal photographer, Elizabeth Kreutz who travels with him much of the time. This is a photo of Liz after she spent over seven hours on the back of a motorbike in 100 degree heat(did I mention how hot it was) on Monte Petrano taking photos of the race. Tough job.
Speaking of Lance, the race on the Blockhaus was close to L'Aquila where the devastating 6.8 earthquake leveled much of the town several months ago. The region,Abruzzzo, is recovering and put out the red carpet for Big Tex.
What would a bike race be without podium girls.
Just when you think you have seen everything at a bike race, along come a women riding up a 10% grade in 100 degree heat chatting on her cell phone.
I thought this photo was interesting. Some people use paint, others use chalk, but here is a fan using the local rock (limestone) to write a slogan on the race course.
Danilo Di Luca is from the Abruzzo. He has his own cool Fiat fan car. They would't give me a ride up the hill so I had to keep pedaling my bike.
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.
The much anticipated 61km time trial(TT) at the Giro d'Italia produced a few surprises, some good, some bad proving, once again, that Italy's grand tour is never predictable. At the end of the day, Rabobank's Denis Menchov proved that his two overall wins at the Vuelta a Espana were no fluke as he time-trialed himself past Danilo Di Luca and into the maglia rosa, the pink leader's jersey.
For Americans, all eyes were on Levi Leipheimer who had the potential to not only win the stage, but take the maglia rosa. While the quiet Californian came up short in both the stage and the overall leads his second place, only 20 seconds back of Menchov, must be considered a success. Leipheimer also moved up to third overall and is clearly within striking distance of the race lead.
What I take from Levi's performance is that the Giro is not the same race as the Tour. Leiphemier has repeatedly remarked that he feels nervous when racing on the tight roads and tricky descents of the Giro which has already cost him time in the race for the overall. Not every race is for every rider. Hopefully, Levi will feel more comfortable as the race progresses.
Of course, a lot of attention was given to Levi's teammate, Lance Armstrong, who finished 13th about 2:30 back of Menchov. While some might be close to writing Lance off, I think this is another indication that Lance is finding the form he will need to be a factor at the Tour. It must be remembered that in 2004, Lance lost 2 minutes to Iban Mayo at the Mont Ventoux time trial in the Dauphine Libere. He came back to win the Tour, dominating the TT's, and winning by over six minutes.
So what's going to happen in the final week? Clearly, if Di Luca is going to have a chance to win his second Giro, he is going to have to go on the attack on Monte Petrano, the Blockhaus or Monte Vesuvio. Leipheimer is going to have to make Di Luca pay for all his aggression in the first week by putting pressure on the front of the climbs. Menchov is going to have to keep doing what he has been doing; ride "steady eddy" and avoid one bad day in the mountains that seems to plague him in some grand tours.
Remember that the final stage is a 15km TT around Rome's famous landmarks. Go watch "Angels and Daemons" and you will get a pretty good idea of what the rider's will see. I think Levi is a better flat time trialist than either Menchov or Di Luca so if the gaps remain about the same, Levi could ended winning it all. I haven't mentioned either Ivan Basso or Michael Rogers. These two guys are going to need an exceptional day to put themselves back into contention.
The Giro hit the mountains today and all eyes were on one rider. I don't think it matters if you were French, Italian or a good ol' American. Everybody wanted to know if Lance 3.0 could climb? If you remember, Lance 3.0 is the comeback Lance. The guy who gave up retired life to ride in rain, wind and snow and fight for position in the pack all while trying not to get knocked down by overzealous racers. Let's face it. Lance has enough money so I am pretty certain he isn't trying to get free travel and hotels by being part of a professional cycling team.
But, I digress, though Lance 3.0's motivation to return to the top level of pro racing is always a great topic for discussion. The fourth stage of the Giro was a warm-up of sorts in the Dolomites. The first major climb, the Croce d'Aune, came too far from the finish to be decisive and the final climb to the enchanting town of San Martino di Castrozza was not really long or steep enough to really answer any questions. To be sure, by the stage finish the contenders had been separated from the pretenders, but there were definitely a lot of contenders when the lead group went under the red kite with a kilometer to go.
Lance was in that group, but a sharp acceleration by riders looking for the stage win gapped him and put the Texan about 15 seconds back at the line. It might be worrying that Armstrong wasn't able to respond to the late surge by eventual stage winner Danilo Di Luca, but again, this wasn't a really decisive climb and anything can happen when 40+ riders contest a supposed mountain-top finish.
Wednesday's stage, which ends in a massive 5000' climb to the ski station at Alpe di Siusi, will provide a more valid answer to Lance's climbing form. Well, sort of. You must remember that Armstrong is still recovering from his broken collarbone. If Lance gets dropped then it can be speculated that he is still gaining the form he needs to be a factor at the Tour. If Lance is with the lead group in the final kilometer, then we will know that he can be counted on to help his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, in Levi's quest to win the Giro.
That sounds a bit slushy. Will we really learn anything from how Lance climbs towards Alpe di Siusi? Lance will certainly learn something and that is confidence. You need confidence to be able to climb well. Lance had it in spades during his reign at the Tour. Does he have it now or is he just bluffing.
Personally, I would like to have seen Lance up closer to the front of the group, where Levi was riding, during the final climb. That makes me think that he will not be in the lead group at the finish on Wednesday. But, what I saw a few days earlier is even more important, IMHO. What I saw before, during and after the team time trial is how much Lance seems to be enjoying being back in a grand tour. He looks reasonably fit, but more importantly really motivated to ride at his limit and be a factor at the Giro.
With two months to go before the Tour, I think Armstrong's motivation is more important than fitness. In the days before his collarbone accident, I thought I detected a loss of enthusiasm at the task ahead, that being riding both the Giro and the Tour. His collarbone injury could easily have put the nail in the coffin of his comeback. To see him energized and ready to suffer says to me that his comeback is back on track.