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.
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.
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 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.
PMD or "post mountains depression" is something that afflicts all Tour junkies. After two or three days of non-stop excitement, the race exits onto the plains of France and it is back to watching the French riders try to regain some respect for their countrymen. The peloton is by now extremely tired and those who still have some strength left are trying to conserve for the final time trial. It is kind of like dogs fighting over table scraps. Don't get me wrong, to win any stage of the Tour is a huge accomplishment. It is just that after watching all the heavy hitters take shots at each other in the mountains it just seems a bit anti-climactic.
Over the past few days I have been keeping my eye out for anything interesting that you might not see on TV, below are some things I hope you will enjoy.
Raymond Poulidor, or 'Poo Poo', never won the Tour, but while his countryman, Jacques Anquetil, was winning five Tours with surgical precision in the 1960's, Poo Poo's many second place finishes endeared him to French fans who saw his courage and most likely identified with his struggles. While Anquetil got the yellow jerseys, Poo Poo won the hearts of the French. He had another nickname, 'the Eternal Second', due to his many near misses. These days he works for the Tour organization doing PR at in the start village. I asked Raymond whom he thought would win the Tour and he picked Cadel Evans.
With the probable demise of the Pro Tour, Floyd Landis could be back racing in the European pro peloton next year. One of the rules of the Pro Tour was that any racer convicted of a doping offense had an additional two years added to his suspension. With the Pro Tour headed south, Floyd should be cleared to ride when his suspension ends in January 2009. Let's hope Floyd gets that chance to return to competition as have lots of riders who have served out their suspensions.
Cadel Evans had a problem with his front wheel just before the start of yesterday's stage to St. Etienne. It appeared that the wheel was rubbing his brakes, so he got a change, but he seemed unhappy with the new wheel as well. My guess is that when you are the favorite to wear yellow into Paris and it is only a few days away you start getting pretty nervous about everything.
Sometimes at the sign-in there is a group of young cyclists who get a chance to meet the stars of the Tour.
There is a lot of action in the start village. One of the daily acts is a trials rider who keeps us all entertained with a whole host of tricks that if I tried to do myself would put me up in the hospital.
An artist paints a portrait each day. Here he is working on his next creation.
Tomorrow's 53km (33 mile) time trial will determine the victor and the podium of the Tour(well, duh). Most pundits are tipping Cadel Evans to move from fourth to yellow figuring that he will take about 2-3 minutes out of Sastre. If you remember the 2006 Tour, Floyd Landis beat Oscar Periero by about four minutes in the first time trial, but when the yellow jersey was on the line, Landis only took a little more than a minute out of him in the final time trial. The power of the yellow is strong. Don't count Sastre out.
It will be critical for Sastre to pace himself and not go out too hard. Evans will be starting three places ahead of him which is about 10 minutes. That should allow Sastre and his Team CSC Saxo Bank the ability to guage what they need to do to ride a more controlled time trial. Evans on the other hand won't be getting time checks on Carlos until possibly halfway into his race. This is all pure speculation as most riders will tell you that they don't ride a time trial against their competition. Rather they set a schedule and try to do their own ride. We will see.
Denis Menchov looks to be in the best position to claim the final spot on the podium. However, while he is fast against the clock, he can also be inconsistent which opens the door for somebody like Christian Vandevelde who has an outside shot at the podium. Christian seems to get stronger at the end of the third week of a grand tour compared to his competition. He rode exceptionally well in the final time trial of the Giro and if he can repeat that feat he may claim third.