Interactive Learning Moment - on stage 3 Team Columbia and Lance Armstrong put the hammer down in the crosswind and took 41 seconds out of all of Lance's contenders for the yellow jersey. These precious seconds were the difference for Lance between the podium and fifth place.
Follow the Leader Moment - the stage 4 team time trial course in and around Montpelier was a twisty, turny, technical affair. Several teams such as Skil-Shimano and BBox Bouygues Telecom saw their TTT trains derailed by one, very fast, decreasing radius right turn. I should know, I almost when off the road on that turn while riding the course with the Garmin boys in the morning before the stage.
Never Give Up Moment - in the era of race radios it is a rarity that a breakaway will succeed when the peleton is smelling a field sprint. On stage 5 of the Tour, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler proved that not only can you fool the peloton, but you can do it solo. Chapeau Tom!
What Was He Thinking Moment - Cadel Evans' crumble in the third week of the Tour was well documented, but what about his attack near the summit of the climb out of Andorra when the peloton had almost 100 miles and two major climbs left to ride. There's strategy and then there's desperation. Wait, there is also bewilderment.
What Were They Thinking Moment - well, this moment actually occurred long before the Tour started when the race organizers decided to put the iconic Col du Tourmalet so far from the stage finish that even I had a chance of getting back on before the line.
NRA is Alive and Living In Europe Moment - I have been covering the Tour for over twenty years and I have never, ever heard of a rider being shot during the race. In what is clearly a very sad moment, guns have made their presence felt in the world's greatest bike race.
Why Can't We All Get Along Moment - it appeared to be purely out of spite that Garmin-Slipstream chased down the breakaway containing George Hincapie, keeping him out of the yellow jersey. I like the guys on the Garmin-Slipstream team and am still wondering why it was so important to keep an American on an American team out of yellow. A rising tide floats all boats.
Life Just Isn't Fair Moment - Jens Voigt is one of the most likeable guys in the pro peloton. His crash descending the Petit Saint Bernard was pretty horrific and put one of the most exciting riders out of the race. Check out Jens addressing his fans from his hospital room (thanks Andrew!): http://www.saxobanktakingthelead.com/?p=1217
The Mind is a Terrible Thing Moment - we will probably never know what Alberto Contador was thinking when he attacked, against his director's orders, on the final slopes of the Colombiere. However, given his pithy post-race comments about Lance Armstrong, the fact that his attack knocked Andreas Kloden off the podium making a place for Lance probably has even Alberto wondering what he was thinking.
The Winds of Change Moment - too bad the riders were subjected to very strong headwinds on the upper slopes of Mont Ventoux. The winds most likely muted the effects of the Giant of Provence and blunted Frank Schleck's chance to jump over Lance onto the podium.
Best rider at the Tour - no doubt at all it was Alberto Contador. He dominated in the mountains and the time trials so thoroughly that he had to start enduring the same "are you on drugs?" questions that plagued Lance when he won seven Tour in a row.
Most improved rider - Bradley Wiggins previous two appearances at the Tour were totally unspectacular. I guess all you have to do is lose ten pounds and still maintain all your power in order to become one of the world's best climbers. Once Bradley understands how to keep himself sharp for the entire three weeks of a grand tour he will be standing on the podium. Pick your step.
Most aggressive riders - the Brothers Schleck lit it up in the last week in the Alps in a style we have rarely seen in the modern era of the Tour. It helped that Astana either couldn't or decided not to try and control the race in the same fashion as Discover Channel/US Postal, but for whatever the reason, Brothers Schleck lit up the afterburners on the most strategic climbs. If Frank had been a tad bit stronger and able to match his younger brother's pace 100% of the time, the outcome of the Tour would have been completely different.
Best Sprinter - while he didn't have the green jersey in Paris, there was little doubt that Mark Cavendish was the best finisher in the Tour. Thor Hushovd was the most consistent finisher over the entire three weeks, but in a pure drag race to the line, the Manxman was tops.
Most Deserving Rider to Not Win a Stage - Tyler Farrar was the only rider to consistently challenge Mark Cavendish in the bunch kicks. He almost pulled off a win on stage 11. Kudos to Tyler and Garmin-Slipstream for making Cavendish earn his six stage wins, hopefully, sooner than later, Tyler and Garmin will get their first stage win.
Recipient of the Thomas Voeckler 'Never Give Up' Award - Thomas Voeckler whose win on stage 5 to Perpignan was proof that if you try hard enough, good things can happen. Even after he won stage 5, Voeckler continued to go up the road in breakaways. He is the most exciting rider the French have with Brice Feillu and Perrick Fedrigo as honorable mentions.
American Idol Most Favorite rider in the peloton - OK. I probably can't speak for all cycling fans out there, but Jens Voigt continues to ride well and his frank and honest commentary on the race make him a crowd favorite. My enjoyment of the Tour took a huge hit when Jens crashed on the Petit-Saint Bernard. Come back Jens, come back!
Comeback rider of the Tour - given how well he rode after his horrific crash in the Giro, Christian Vande Velde's return to the top level of pro cycling at the Tour was an amazing comeback. But, the nod has to go to Lance Armstrong who spent three plus years off the bike engaged in a number of high-profile non-cycling activities. His climb onto the podium in Paris was nothing short of incredible, but he if he rides the Tour next year he really needs to improve on his consistency in the critical stages.
Best Climber at the Tour - that award usually goes to the rider who wears the polka-dot jersey, but for some strange reason, even after doubling the points on the final climb of a mountain stage, nobody really seems to care about who wears the climber's jersey except for the three or four riders who accidentally find themselves in a position to contest for it. In case you were wondering, Alberto Contador was the best climber, polka-dot jersey or not.
Dumbest Rider in the Pro Peloton - While he didn't ride the Tour, Danilo Di Luca proved that you don't need a double digit IQ to be a professional bike rider. There have been at least five high profile riders busted for CERA, the delayed action version of EPO, but for some reason, the double Giro stage winner and eventual second place finisher couldn't keep his hands off the hot sauce. What's up with that?
Here is a report card for a number of the Tour's higher profile riders. Please feel free to add your own comments.
Alberto Contador - Grade A-
Contador would get an A or even an A+ grade because he showed that he was the bet rider in both the mountains and the time trials, but his less than perfect display of strategy and tactics knocks him down half a grade. Not only was his attack on the final kilometers of the Colombiere unnecessary and against team orders, but it had an unusual side affect. In his post-Tour comments, it is clear that Lance Armstrong is not Alberto's favorite rider. However, by attacking on the Colombiere and causing his teammate Andreas Kloden to be dropped, Alberto took Kloden out of contention for the Tour podium and put his 'friend' Lance in that position in Paris.
Andy Schleck - Grade A
Andy Schleck struggles in the time trials so he has to try to make as much time up in the mountains as possible. That's exactly what Andy and his brother Frank did. Also, Andy rode an impressive time trial in Annecy to maintain his podium position. Basically, Andy did the most he could with his talents.
Lance Armstrong - Grade A
For the first two weeks, Lance rode a pretty consistent Tour. But, when the Tour reached the Alps, his performance in the final week was inconsistent. But, as erratic as it was, he was consistent enough to move up to third place overall. I am bumping him up half a grade for getting into the move on the crosswinds of stage 3 that was the difference between Lance and his closest rivals for the podium.
Bradley Wiggins - Grade B+
Wiggins was definitely one of the revelations of the Tour and I was first thinking of giving him a grade of A. But, he underperformed in the last three critical stages (Le Grand Bornand, Annecy TT, Mont Ventoux). This minor meltdown could most likely be explained because Bradley was learning what he was capable of doing in the third week of a grand tour. If Wiggins is a fast learner the rest of the peloton better watch out.
Andreas Kloden - Grade B+
Andreas rode consistently well, save for that one day in the Alps to Le Grand Bornand. Kloden will always be a threat for the podium in a grand tour. He still must be wondering what Contador was thinking when he attacked on the Colombiere.
Frank Schleck - Grade B+
For Frank Schleck to be in position to get on the podium in Paris going into the final stage says a lot. Frank was clearly one of the best climbers in this year's Tour, but his time trialing leaves a bit to be desired. Frank climbed well enough to make the podium. If only he could time trial.
Christian Vande Velde - Grade B+
Christian almost deserves a grade of A given his horrific crash in the Giro and how quickly he was able to get back into racing shape. Unfortunately, his return to top form was not totally complete. Luckily, his teammate, Bradley Wiggins, needed help in the mountains and Christian, ever the team player, was happy to give assistance.
Mark Cavendish - Grade A+
It is not just Cavendish's six stage wins that gets him the highest grade. The fact that he was able to climb over a category 2 mountain and win stage 19 is a bug step forward in his development as a rider. He also managed to get to Paris completing his transformation to a true green jersey contender. In fact, if he hadn't been screwed out of his placing on stage 13 into Bescancon, he would have won the green jersey. The Boy Racer is turning into a man.
Thor Hushovd - Grade A
Purely on his sprinting prowess, Hushovd deserves a grade of B+ or A-. But, because of the way he pursued the green jersey, climbing well in several stages to snag some extra sprint points he earned the higher mark.
Tyler Farrar - Grade B+
Tyler was the only sprinter to truly challenge Mark Cavendish. Unfortunately, Cavendish was at the top of his game and Farrar really only came close on one occasion. Tyler is going to need to get a touch quicker and the Garmin-Slipstream team is going to need to bolster it's leadout train a bit to win a bunch finish.
Cadel Evans - Grade C
After two years on the Tour podium, this was a disappointing race for the Australian. Part of the problem can be traced to his team and their lack of ability to adequately support him, but ultimately, Cadel is responsible for the makeup of the squad and his riding. Hopefully, he will be able to figure out what went wrong. First off, he needs to get the director sportif and not the CEO of the title sponsor to call the shots and run the team.
Carlos Sastre - Grade B -
Carlos tried to make his presence felt in this year's Tour, but he just could not sustain his efforts on the climbs. Maybe he was trying too hard to prove his overall win last year was well-deserved, but whatever the reason, the climbing form we saw with his two stage wins at the Giro never made it across the border into France.
Denis Menchov - Grade C -
Not much to say here except that doing the Giro-Tour double still remains a huge proposition. A completely rested Menchov would not have beaten Contador, but the podium was definitely a possibility.
Every French GC rider - Grade D
The drought is 25 years and growing. When will a French rider win the Tour? Probably not in the Contador/Schleck era. Things are looking bleak. Thank heavens they can still win the flatter stages.
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.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that, while Alberto Contador has the yellow jersey well in his grasp, the second and third places on the podium will be determined on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. Barring a complete meltdown, Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck's 1'30" lead over Lance Armstrong, Andreas Kloden, Bradley Wiggins and his brother Frank Schleck should be enough to give him the second step of the podium.
So, Lance, Andreas, Bradley and Frank, who are separated by less than 40 seconds on the overall classification, will be riding hard, digging deep and generally throwing caution to the wind in an attempt to be top three in Paris.
Of those four, Frank Schelck has been climbing the best and appears to have the upper hand. However, this is the last difficult day in the Tour so no rider can claim to be holding back to be able to fight another day. It is "another day" when we get to Ventoux and because the stakes are so high, the attacks and the emotions will be at near chaotic level.
The climb of Ventoux from the quaint village of Bedoin is split into three distinct sections. The first 2.5 miles (4km) are flat or very gentle(3-4%) climbing. The meat of the ascent is the next 6 miles(10km) where the road is very steep (9.5-10%) average grade, the terrain features are a monotonous forest of trees and the road winds uphill in a seemingly unending series of shallow turns. There are no switchbacks to break up the monotony, only the pain.
When the climb reaches Chalet Reynard (House of the Fox) the terrain escapes the forest and enters a lunar landscape for the final 5 miles (8km) to the summit. The gradient kicks back to a manageable 8%, but above the trees it can be hot, windy or both. Overall the 13-mile(22km) ascent climbs 5300'(1600m).
What will the podium contenders do on the climb? Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck should just follow the wheels of Armstrong, Kloden, Wiggins and Frank Schleck. Andy might do some work to help his brother get on the podium. Likewise, unless he goes off the reservation as he did in the final few kilometers of the Colombiere, Alberto Contador is in the unique position to help an attack by either Lance or Andreas Kloden succeed by helping set tempo.
The gap between the four contending for the final spot on the podium is small enough that they can wait to attack after reaching Chalet Reynard. Attacking during the steep section below is risky because the chances of blowing up and losing contact is very real.
However, since there are four riders so closely bunched, the guy who wants to stand on the third step of the podium will, most likely, have to drop all three of his rivals. It might be possible to drop one or two, but dropping all three will require either a vicious attack(s) or a very fast tempo and that might only be able to be accomplished by attacking early, on the steep section, and not on the slopes above Chalet Reynard.
My prediction is that Frank Schleck, aided by his brother, will attack on the steep section. He is behind the other three timewise so he has to drop them all. He is climbing well and is probably the best of the four at going for a long attack.
Since Lance is ahead of his three rivals on time, he just has to mark all three of them and make sure nobody gets away. He has said that, after Verbier, his strategy is to not go with sharp accelerations, but to ride his pace and try to "diesel" up to the attackers. I think Lance will have to respond directly to any attacks on Mont Ventoux. He cannot afford, both physically and mentally, to let any of his rivals go up the road.
Bradley Wiggins is the big unknown. Undoubtedly, the whole Garmin-Slipstream team will be working to set him up. He has climbed very well in both the Alps and the Pyrenees, but I think he will really have to go to some places he has never gone before in his cycling career to get the third spot on the podium. Somewhere in his soul is the key. Will he find it?
Andreas Kloden is the big unknown. Obviously, after Contador's needless attack on the Colombiere there is some new disharmony on the team. It is unclear where he will be headed next year, but if he is on the short list to join Lance's new team, he may be asked to ride in support of Armstrong.
But, heck, forget all the speculation and just bring on the race. I can't wait.
No one will ever say that Italian professional Eros Poli was a great climber. At 6'4" and 195lbs he was built for power on the flats witness his Olympic gold medal in the Team Time Trial. But, in 1994, Eros tried something that which few have ever been successful. Poli tried to beat all the Tour's best climbers up and over Mont Ventoux. It was going to take a unique strategy of Eros was to lead over the Giant of Provence and then then 20 miles of flat roads to the finish in Carpentras.
Bruce: you needed to get a huge lead to be able to be first over Ventoux.
Eros: At the base I had 24 minutes. When I escaped it was 100 km of flat to the base of the climb. I said to myself 'if you want to win you need 24 minutes' because normally I lose one minute per kilometer and the climb is 22 kilometers so I will lose 22 minutes. So, I thought I needed another two minutes to be sure
to the finish. I had four minutes lead at the top on Pantani. With five kilometers to go I had a five minute advantage on the peloton so I said 'OK. It is done'.
Bruce: what was it like climbing Mont Ventoux? The steep section in the middle is very hard.
Eros: It is very difficult. I did it this year with a group of Scottish guys and I thought "how could I do it that day? How could I go up that mountain?" It is so difficult. There are no switchbacks, no corners. Just up, up, up in almost a straight line. There is no possibility of a rest. No possibility of recuperation. It is long. It is an incredible mountain. It is the biggest mountain in the Tour de France.
Bruce: Now that you are retired what are you doing?
Eros: I work in insurance. Sometimes I organize holiday trips by the bike near where I live. I live in Verona near the beautiful Lake Garda. I organize trips, especially for American people and Australians.
While everyone is anxiously awaiting the climb of Mont Ventoux, today's stage should provide the opportunity for another sprint finish. Mark Cavendish, who is still smarting from his relegation in Besancon which basically cost him the green jersey will be looking for his fifth stage win. It would also be a good result for the Columbia-HTC team which saw its hopes on the GC fade in the Alps.
As I predicted before the time trial, there is going to be an epic battle for the two podium positions behind Alberto Contado. Andy Schleck has a 1'30" lead over his nearest rival Lance Armstrong, but with only 34 seconds separating Armstrong, Kloden, Wiggins and Frank Schleck for the final podium position, the climb up the Giant of Provence will definitely be memorable.
This will be the last difficult stage of the Tour and no one will be holding back. Given how he has climbed in the Alps you would have to think that Frank Schleck has the edge, but again, this is the final stage and none of those four riders is going to let the podium slip away without a fight.
I got to ride a lap on the Annecy TT course and was allowed to start only about 20 minutes before the first rider. Because of this, the course was completely closed, but there was a distinct possibility that I would get caught and passed by one or more of the riders. The gendarmes asked me to ride as fast as possible.
That sounds like a good idea, but if you lose concentration or get tired and make a bad move, you could end up plowing into a group of spectators. So, I decided to ride at about 80-85% effort and not make any really embarrassing mistakes.
The first 20km of the 40 km course was basically a flat run down from the north end of the lake on its west side. From there, the course did a 180 and heade back up north, this time on the east end of the lake. Unfortunately for me, and many of the more fatigued riders, there was a 3-mile 1000' climb up to the Col du Bluffy which had to be negotiated with about 15km remaining. What made the climb difficult was that it was stair-stepped. There would be a 200-400m section of 7,8,9% then 200-300m of a flatter(3,4,5%) section followed by another steep section.
You had to shift up on the flatter sections to maintain a good pace so there was no time to recover for the next steep section. And the last 200m to the top was 14%. All in all, given the way the gradient played out, a tough climb.
I rode the last 2km with Fredrick Willems of Liquigas who was finishing his morning warmup. He told me that on the Mont Ventoux stage, the plan for the Liquigas team is to get him and maybe one other rider up the road in an early breakaway so when their GC rider, Vincenzo Nibali, gets on Mont Ventoux, Frederick and/or a teammate can be there is Nibali needs help.
It was great to get another "hot" lap on a TT course.
Bernard Eisel is one of the riders on Columbia-HTC whose job it is to set up the sprints for Mark Cavendish. His job is to ride tempo at the front for majority of the race to keep any breakaways within catching distance in the closing kilometers.
Bruce: what kind of satisfaction do you get from riding on the front all day?
Bernard: Actually, it is quite exciting when the guys win in the end. So you know why you do it. It is not like you ride and then you get sixth or seventh place. He (Cavendish) is the fastest at the moment so it is a pleasure to ride for him.
Even the guys who are not riding at the front have to do a hell of a job like Jens Voigt or other riders. They have to give shelter to the boys in the back. It just doesn't mean that because you are at the front you are the only one who gets wind. There is not enough shelter for everybody.
It is just part of the job. You can't be really proud of it, but it's more part of your job.
Bruce: you were a good sprinter. Why did you become a domestique?
Bernard: Yeah, but not to win a stage. I was twenty times in the first ten and ten times in the first five, but I was never really close to winning a stage. Third was my best place. He is faster. It is easy to work for him.
Graham Watson is one of the top cycling photographers in the world. He has published numerous books with his works and can be seen on the back of a motorcycle at all the biggest races.
Bruce: what is the hardest part of your job?
Watson: the hardest part of my job is the work after the stage because the work during the stage is not really work because you love doing it. The hard work is after when you have 200-300 images to edit and upload and caption and reduce in size and color correct. That takes 3-4 hours everyday.
Bruce: that makes for a long day
Watson: these days with the Internet you go off and have dinner with most of your work done and then carry on afterwards in your hotel. The big thing is that when you go to bed at midnight all your work is done. There is no more work to be done. In the old days you used to had to get the film processed, developed and edited and sent off by FedEx and UPS and that was another nightmare.
Bruce: does it get easier over the years in that you know the best places to shoot for a particular area? Do you remember the good shooting locations from year to year.
Watson: yeah, most of the time. Every year you get surprised by places you haven't seen before or places you have forgotten or you haven't done your homework by looking at the race book to see where the race is actually going. But, by and large you know, more of less, everything which is happening at least as far as the landmarks like the Tourmalet or Galibier. You know exactly where to go.
Bruce: what makes on rider more photogenic than another?
Watson: there are many things. There is the body language. When you are looking at all the cyclists in one big pack you would be surprised that one or two or three who stand out just the way they move. Lance at the moment, I wouldn't say he is photogenic, but he's got quite a unique physical structure at the moment. So, you see that.
When you see them off the bike or in the mountains with their glasses off and you can see their eyes then their face takes on an attraction by itself like dark eyes or suffering eyes or just something. It is not a question of good looks versus bad looks. It is just something that comes out at the moment their spirit or character. You almost sense their character.
Alberto Contador continues to demonstrate that he is the best rider in the 2009 Tour de France. After dominating in the mountains, he proved that he was equally capable in the time trials as he bested all his rivals by an impressive margin. While he narrowly beat time trial specialist, Fabian Cancellara, by three seconds, the first GC rider in the standings behind Contador was Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins forty three seconds back. Lance Armstrong ceded 1'30" to Contador, but moved up to third place overall.
Undoubtedly, the biggest surprise of the day was Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck who, while finishing 1'45" behind Contrador, was only a minute back of Bradley Wiggins and 15 seconds arrears of Armstrong. As a result, Andy has solidified his second place overall and given how he has been climbing, looks good for the podium and the white jersey in Paris.
The final place on the podium will be a tight battle as four riders, Armstrong, Wiggins, Kloden and Frank Schleck are all within a 34 seconds going into the rendezvous with Mont Ventoux. If you go on racing form alone the nod goes to Frank Schleck, but don't count anyone out when the podium is in play.
Robbie Ventura is one of the two on-the-scene interviewers for Versus TV. I sat down with Robbie to talk about his job.
Bruce: what is the hardest part of your job?
Robbie: it is stressful, but also exciting to do course reports. When the camera is on it looks a lot easier than it actually is. You are standing out on the course and there are fans who are hoping that you screw up. There is a little bit of stress there but it is also the most rewarding getting through the stress and putting out a good product.
Bruce: Does it help with the interviews that you were once a professional bike racer?
Robbie: Yeah, I think so. They respect that I have been a professional before. I think that makes it easier to talk to them. But, also just understanding what they are going through and being sympathetic to that, I think they can see that and feel that in me as a reporter. I am very fortunate that most riders have welcomed me so far. The ones that you don't know that well are obviously challenging to talk to. Definitely it is a big help knowing the riders a bit and creating relationships.
Bruce: Versus goes out to a wide audience. What kind of slant on cycling is versus trying to bring to its viewing audience.
Robby: I think a big part of it is education. I think the more knowledge the fans have about the sport, the more they learn about the sport the more they will have the passion and excitement that we currently have for the sport. In Europe the fans are more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the sport, the teamwork, the bikes, the technology. If we can bring that amount of knowledge and information to the fans in the United States our audience will continue to broaden.
That niche group of hard-core cycling guys who only want to talk hi-techie slang which is fun for me to talk about as well, but unfortunately sometimes we are kind of handcuffed and we want to make things as simple as possible for 90% of our audience who don't understand the complexities of the sport.
Bruce: who is your favorite guy to interview?
Robby: I love Vande Velde. I think Vande Velde is funny. He gives great answers. He is really honest. He doesn't always give that kind of like perfect answer. He talks from the heart. You can tell he's an emotional guy with a lot of passion.
The third stage in the Alps produced a massive shakeup in the overall classification. While Alberto Contador solidified his grip on the yellow jersey, the Schleck brothers unleashed the attacks everyone expected from them. Astana and Garmin-Slipstream were the only team who were able to respond save for Liquigas' Vincenzo Nibali.
On the penultimate climb a four man group, the Schlecks, Contador and Kloden formed and put a minute on four chasers, Armstrong, Wiggins, Vande Velde and Nibali. On the final climb when it looked like Astana had the race under total control, Contador attacked which immediately dropped his teammate Kloden and then when he realized the error of his ways, he sat up and let the Schlecks catch up. Unfortunately, the eleastic had snapped with Kloden and he would ultimately lose over four unneccessary minutes (see the interviews below discussing Contador's attack).
While the Schlecks and Contador fought it out for the stage win, the nod going to brother Frank, Lance attacked Wiggins one kilometer from the summit of the final climb to take a precious 58 seconds from the Garmin-Slipstream rider. The top three on the overall classification going into tomorrow's 25-mile (40km) TT are Contador, Andy Schleck and Frank Schleck. Lance is in fourth; Kloden fifth and Wiggins sixth.
Kudos to Christain Vande Velde who, realizing after the stage to Verbier, that his teammate Bradley Wiggins was on better form, selflessly sacrificed his chances to ride Wiggins back into contention. He actually moved up from twelfth to eight overall. A nice prize for his efforts.
I tag-teamed an interview with Lance with the folks at Versus.
Q: After all the attacking on the Col du Romme thing settled down and you were in the second group. Are you happy with the way things shook out?
Lance: yes and no. I tried to be conservative on the Col du Romme and I didn't go with those initial attacks. Then I kind of got caught stuck behind. Once you are thirty seconds back there is nothing you can do... just sit on.
I was a little concerned with Bradley Wiggins in the TT so in the last KM of the Colombiere I decided to jump away, but it felt pretty good.
Q: You took a minute out of Bradley Wiggins in the final 16-17kms. You are a minute and thirty seconds behind Andy Schleck. Is that doable in the time trial tomorrow?
Lance: I don't know. We will see. I am going to do my best. It would be nice to get on the podium so I will go as hard as I can. I will go up the Ventoux as fast as I can.
Q: Interesting attack by Contador five KM from the top of the Colombiere. Do you have any idea what that was all about?
Lance: No. I don't know. I wasn't really paying attention. I was just staying with Wiggo and with Christian. I am going to bite my tongue on that one.
Q: how does it feel to be a 37-year old man in the Tour de France?
Lance: It feels good man. I am out here volunteering. Having fun.
I also tag-teamed an interview with Johan Bruyneel with the folks at Versus.
Q: Where you happy how things shook out on the final two climbs?
Johan: I was happy until four kilometers from the top of the Colombier. That was a really perfect situation for us because we knew that the Schlecks would go on the Col du Romme to try to get rid of Wiggins. That is also what we wanted to do because the time trial specialist he is, he was the real danger.
And so we were happy with that. At the moment the two Schlecks went, Contador and Kloden went with them so for us it was fine. We knew the two Schlecks would go to the finish because they wanted to get rid of Bradley Wiggins.
The attack from Contador three km from the top... I had advised him not to go because he didn't need to go. He didn't need to attack because it was clear that the two Schleck brothers would go full gas to the finish. I told him you don't need to have to attack to win the Tour de France today because of the difference(time gap) was there with Wiggins.
So it is a bit of a pity that Kloden couldn't hang on afterward because we could have been first, second and third today on GC and now we are first, fourth and fifth.
Q: was it the plan to have Lance attack with a kilometer or two to go before the finish to try and get time on Wiggins? Do you think if he had launched a little bit earlier he might have sealed it up?
Johan: No. A rider has to know when he has to attack and Lance really judged that attack. I know he had a hard time in the last few kilometers because it was a hard stage. It was an impressive attack. That was the plan. I said to Alberto and Andreas (Kloden) just stay on the wheels of the Schlecks and I told Lance in the final kilometers of the Colombiere try and go away from Wiggins. Then we are one, two, three.
In the end you cannot want it all. Our purpose is to win the Tour. I think we got a big step forward today and we have to be happy with that. If we want everything we can end up with nothing.
Q: At the end of the day, Lance is 1:30 behind Andy Schleck. Can he make that up tomorrow?
Johan: I think it is possible tomorrow. Yes. But, we also have the Ventoux still so I don't know what the final result is going to be. Our main objective is to win the Tour de France and I think we are on a good way to do that.
Q: Is Lance riding like you would like to see him ride?
Johan: Oh, definitely. If we look before the Tour de France I think he is above expectations. He is on a really good level. He doesn't really have that acceleration. I think that is the only thing he is missing from those three years retirement...that acceleration and the possibility to respond. It's a bit on purpose.
After Verbier we chose to not respond to the attacks; to let people attack and then ride your own pace.
But, today he was caught in the game of having to be the ideal teammate. This morning we said that the biggest danger for the Tour is Bradley Wiggins because if he stays where he is and with the good time trial he has he could be a big danger. So we diefinitely accomplished that objective. We got rid of Wiggins today.
Q: There was disharmony in the team early on in the Tour, but with Contador the undisputed team leader is there more harmony on the team now?
Johan: Yes, there is. Well at least there was. We will have to see how everybody feels about what happened on the Colombiere. That (team harmony) is something we don't have to think too much about or say too much about. The main objective is to win the Tour and things worked well today to make the race hard to try to distance our main danger which was Bradley Wiggins so we have to be happy with that.
Second and third was never a goal. That's fine, but we can't go after that because you have to make sacrifices and the main goal is to win the Tour and I thikn we are close to getting it.
I talked with Garmin-Slipstream team manager Matt White about his team's efforts on the stage.
Bruce: how did the team ride today?
Matt: the team was super today. Christian was there for Bradley until about four or five km of the last climb.
Bruce: how do you feel about Bradley's performance today?
Matt: Sensational. That was one of the hardest, if not the hardest days of the Tour and to only lose that amount of time was a very, very solid ride.
Bruce: for Christian to be the designated team leader before the Tour, but to work for Bradley Wiggins on the climbs, what does that say about Christian?
Matt: He is always thinking of others. He's 100% for the team. He is coming here with a very disruptive preparation, but I am super-proud of Christian. He proved what a super-teammate he is for sacrificing himself for Bradley.
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.
There is way too much going on at the Tour at the moment for one posting a day so I am going to add an additional posting to catch some of the other story lines.
First off, for those of you following the Lance and Alberto saga, the headline this morning in France's leading sports newspaper l'Equipe was "Contador is the Boss." Clearly, l'Equipe felt that Alberto seized control by attacking in the final kilometers of stage 7 to Arcalis-Andorra. Lance remarked to the press after the stage that Contador's attack had not been part of the plan for that stage which further emphasizes l'Equipe's point that Contador took the initiative.
This is a very interesting situation made even more so by the fact that both Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden are also riding very strongly. While people are focusing on Lance and Alberto, if either one or both of them have a bad day, Levi or Andreas could assume the leadership role. It is a bit of a long shot, but the possibility is there. I am hoping that the Lance/Alberto affair doesn't end up causing the whole team to crumble. They are clearly the strongest team. Does Johan need to step in and lay down some ground rules?
Adding to the suspense, both Alberto and Lance were randomly picked for doping control at the end of stage 8. Because of this, they had to sit around together in the medical trailer for about and hour after the stage giving biological samples, usually just urine, sometimes blood. I wonder what they talked about?
Each day a team has a plan for the stage. They look at the stage profile and the capabilities of their riders and try to strategize for an optimum output. On stage 8, the game plan for Team Columbia-HTC was to get George Hincapie up the road in the latter half of the stage and then have Kim Kirchen come up on the ascent of the final climb. Hopefully those two would be part of a small breakaway where either Kim could solo off the front in the closing kilometers or if he was brought back, George could win in a sprint. Unfortunately, George covered the Evans attack on the first climb(Port d'Envalira) so that strategy did not play out.
You might be wondering what is happening to Michael Rogers. He is becoming the 'Hard Luck Kid'. Two years ago Rogers crashed on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend and had to withdraw with a broken elbow. This year, he crashed on the run in to Barcelona in the rain and while the medical staff at Columbia-HTC were initially concerned with his elbow, it appears that he severely bruised his hip. I was at the team bus when he rolled up at the end of today's stage and it was painful for me to watch him try and climb off his bike. He is one tough Aussie and the medical staff hope that in about two days he will be back at close to full strength. Being hurt in the mountains rather on the flats is back luck.
If you are wondering why the cycling pundits are talking more about Andy Schleck rather than his older brother Frank, it can be explained that Frank crashed this spring and hurt his knee. The knee has not really healed and the wisdom in the press room is that Frank might not make it to Paris.
Every year I try to get out on course for at least one, hopefully two, mountain stages to see what's up. Obviously, tomorrow on l'Alpe d'Huez will be nothing short of crazy; it's kind of like the unofficial shrine to all that is the Tour de France. Today, I rode up the Col de la Bonnette to see if there was similar antics on the highest continuously paved climb in all of western Europe.
But, first a bit of history about the Bonnette. For many years, the Col d'Iseran which rises above the ski station of Val d'Isere was the highest continuously paved pass in Europe at 2770m(about 9200'). Then some enterprising Frenchman understanding the tourist aspects of having the highest pass in Europe in his backyard decided to create a loop road starting from the top of the Col de Restefond. Now, the Restefond is a pretty formidable climb in its own right at 2650M(8800'), but by adding 150m(500') to the the height of the Restefond, the Bonnette was born at 2800m(9300').
OK. It is not the first time tourism has had an effect on some sort of 'natural' formation, but for cyclists, it is definitely a drag. Both sides of the Col du Restefond are 5000' climbs but they are very well-graded in the 5-9% range with the majority of the climbing in the 7% range. When the locals added the Col de la Bonnette, they put the 150m of additional climbing in just over 1 kilometer resulting in the final pitch to the summit offering sections of 13-14%. After riding up 5000' of moderate climbing, the last thing any cyclist needs is 14% climbing and at 9000' above sea level none the less.
Oh well, we all just do it and curse a bit under our breath. It is still one of the great monuments to cycling even if the 'sting in the tail', so to speak, is a bit contrived. On Tour day, for some reason the gendarmes make the cyclists walk the final kilometer which given its steep nature is probably not met with much protest.
Here are a few photos of the craziness on the Bonnette. The Alpe is still king, but there were enough crazys out there to make the ascent worthwhile.
So there I was just standing at the finish line and when stage winner Cyril Dessel came across the line, he rode right up to me(I don't know why) and the next thing that happens is the total media scrum descends around me like a rugby match with me right in the middle of the whole mess. Here are a couple of pics of the moment.
Here's a shot of Frank Schleck in the yellow jersey.
For us Americans, it was tough to see Christian Vandevelde get dropped from the lead group on the Bonnette. He finished about 2"30" behind the overall leaders which is a courageous effort and shows that as a team leader he knows how to limit his losses. We must not forget that Christian is an excellent time trialist and was fifth in the final TT in the Giro. At 50km, it is not inconceivable that he could pull back two minutes plus on everyone save Cadel Evans and possibly Menchov. Barring a total collapse by Evans (and he is looking a bit vulnerable) Vandevelde probably lost his chance at the win, but the podium is still on the table.
George HIncapie of Team Columbia was looking good for the stage win, but the sting in the tail, the final kilometer of the Bonnette shattered the lead group and he was unable to bridge across to the leaders on the descent which he described as 'crazy". Still, it was a great ride by the 35-year old who showed that he has not given up the fight.
Yet again, Team CSC Saxo Bank held a clinic on the final climb. These guys should write a book.
Ryder Hesjedal of the Garmin-Chipotle team finished a very credible 30th on the stage only 4'27" back of the stage winner. We always knew he could climb, it is great to see him up there in the high mountains.