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Active Expert: Bruce Hildenbrand

113 Posts tagged with the lance_armstrong tag

It has been a pretty uneventful rest day at the Tour and after two and a half weeks, that is a good thing. Lance Armstrong has come out publicly and stated that his aspirations for the Tour's yellow jersey are over and that Contador is the best rider on the team. I am sure that was not what the Texan wanted to be saying, but it was a classy thing to do. He still sits in second place, but unless he can find a bit more climbing fitness, the podium might be a stretch. There is a 25-mile(40km) time trial in Annecy on Thursday, but that might not be enough to erase any deficits if he continues to struggle on the climbs.

 

I spent the rest day visiting several teams, Columbia-HTC and Saxo Bank and sittting down with some riders for interviews. Here are a few. Look for more to dribble in over the next few days.

 

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George Hincapie is the most popular rider in the US save that guy from Texas. He hold the American record for most Tour starts (14) and finishes (13).

 

Bruce: fourteen Tours de France. That is an incredible legacy. Did you finish every one?

 

George: I finished every one except my first one(1996). I was just a young kid and I was trying to get ready for the Olympics. I rode two weeks of it then had a bad crash and pulled out.

 

Bruce: what's in your future on the bike?

 

George: I am definitely going to keep racing. I don't know if I will do a couple more Tours.  I will probably do another couple of years. I don't know if I will be able to come back to the Tour or not. It is still undecided there.

 

Bruce: How are you feeling?

 

George: I feel good. I definitely had a very big disappointment the other day. I had a big chance to be in yellow. That seems to be standing out more than anything right now. But as far as my riding, I am going quite well. Hopefully, I can pull something out in the last week.

 

Bruce: Let's talk about that moment. It appeared to be a bit of a misunderstanding between you and the Astana guys. It didn't look like they were the ones who were really doing the work. It looks like you got some bad information at the finish line.

 

George: I don't know about that. I have my opinion and I know the facts. I don't really care to comment on what happened and who did what wrong. I have a strong opinion on that and I will keep that to myself.

 

Bruce: You had the yellow jersey for a day in 2006?

 

George: I know it would have been hard to keep it(yellow jersey) yesterday, but it would have been very special to get it.

 

Bruce: What is your role on the team?

 

George: I can pretty much do everything for the guys. I can help them in the mountains. I can represent them in the breakaways. And I can help Cavendish in the sprints. So, I think I have done a great job for the team. This team is amazing. It is the best team I have ever been on by far as far as the depth of the riders and the comaraderie. For sure.

 

Bruce: It almost looks automatic for you guys to win a bunch sprint. Take us through the final 2kms of a field sprint

 

George: That's the thing. That is why I say this team is so good. People watching just think it is automatic.  They see us all lined up, all together, but they don't see how hard it is to stay together and how much fighting that is going on and all the bumping. There are people trying to cut inside you on the corners. It is just real chaos.  But, this team is so good at staying together. We never get complacent. We are always 100% focused and 100% motivated to get Cav to the final 200 meters.

 

Bruce: what's the lineup for the leadout train and how does it function?

 

George: Bernie (Eisel) and (Bert) Grabsch are doing most of the work the whole day. With 5-10km to go Kim (Kirchen) and Maxime (Monfort) take over. Michael Rogers has been taking over with 2km to go. Tony Martin takes over with 1500m to go then I take over with about 1km to go and then Renshaw takes over with 500m to go.

 

Bruce: Obviously, your stage win in 2005 at Pla d'Adet was a huge moment in your career. But, are there any other Tour moments which stand out in your career?

 

George: Winning team time trials. Anytime you get to the Champs Elysees no matter what you have done is a huge accomplishment just to get there. Those are definitely moments which stand out.

 

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Mark Cavendish is the best field sprinter in the business, bar none. Even with all his successes he has been criticized for not getting over the mountains and finishing the Tour.

 

Bruce: You are finally going to try and make it to Paris.  How do you feel about your climbing?

 

Mark: I am not suffering in the grupetto. I am just sitting in there. I don't ned to try and climb with the front riders. What I need to do is save as much energy when I am not climbing with the front riders. I was never going to get dropped from the grupetto, anyway. At least now I can recover and save energy rather than having to go full gas to try and stay in the grupetto.

 

Bruce: are there any opportunities to try and get back the green jersey?

 

Mark: It's not happening. The green jersey is gone now. Eighteen points on Thor is too much.

 

Bruce: let's talk about the rest of your Tour. You won four stages.

 

Mark: I said "if I don't win a stage I have failed." So, you have to be content with one stage at the Tour. It is the Tour de France. I set two goals, one to win a stage, the other goal was to reach Paris. I won a stage. I am close to reaching Paris. That is successful. Getting to wear green for the first time in my career. Tony to wear white. We still have all nine guys in the race. It has gone perfect for us, actually.

 

Bruce: let's talk about your new book 'Boy Racer'. What is the part of your personality that you haven't shown publicly that is in the book.

 

Mark: If you buy the book it explains why I am emotional after a stage. If I wina race I am elated. If I lose a race I am destroyed, angry, aggressive. It is easy to sum up a person fifteen seconds straight after a race when all that emotion that is pent up has spilled out. That's fifteen seconds where you can make the right or wrong decision about a person. If you read the book it shows that there is much more to me than just this Jekyl and Hyde a$$hole, really.

 

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Jens Voigt is on the powerful Saxo Bank team which has two riders in contention for high placings in the overall classification.

 

Bruce: What will the plan be for Saxo Bank be for the Alps with Andy Schleck riding so well.

 

Jens: Andy sits in fifth place overall so there is room to improve on that. He got the white jersey which was his first objective achieved, but of course we aim high and we would like to have one of the Schleck brothers on the podiium. It looks like things are pretty simple from the way I see it. We gotta move. We got to try and make the race hard and give Frank and Andy a chance to shine in the mountains. We gotta get past Wiggins. We have to drop and gain more time on people like Tony Martin, on Kloden, on Armstrong, the good time trialists.

 

In the ideal scenario we would, two days from now, start the time trial with Andy being comfortably ahead of the good time trialists, especially Wiggins who is an awesome time trialer. We have to look into getting him(Wiggins) into trouble

.  Our strength is that we have two really good, strong climbers and we have to work with that.

 

Bruce: what will your role be in the Alps?

 

Jens: to just make life hard for the others. It is probably the best for me to create chaos. That's good. That's what I am best at. Just make people suffer and have tactics such that they never know if you go now or go later. To put constant pressure on the others (rivals).

 

Bruce: pleast fill us in on what happened when you flatted out of that breakaway on stage 14 to Besancon. That was a Jens Voigt-type breakaway.

 

Jens: I am sure that the poor fellow tried (to change his wheel) as quick as he could. It is just complicated to change the back wheel. Then there were the whole circumstances. They had to come running to me to see, first of all, do we have a front wheel or back wheel. By the time we got the bike changed it was too late.

 

Then you have this rule that you are actually allowed to go behind the group with the yellow car to get back to the group where you had the puncture because you didn't puncture because it was funny. You have been punished enough by that (getting a wheel change).  I tried to talk to them, but the commissaire quickly said "No, no. This isn't going to happen here. There is no helping."

 

So, I was out there all by myself and quickly calculated my chances. Twelve strong riders swapping off in the front and me alone and I figured out that is next to zero that I am going to see them again.

 

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Italian Vincenzo Nibali finished third behind Alberto Contador in Verbier. His is a young rider with a lot of potential. Italian is my fourth language after English, Spanish and French, but I managed to get several questions out to the Liquigas rider at the team bus yesterday at the finish.

 

Bruce: It was a good day for you?

 

Vincenzo: Yes, it was a good day, but Contador was much better. He was so much faster than the rest of us. But, yes, it was a good day for me and my team.

 

Bruce: is it possible to finish top 5 in the Tour?

 

Vincenzo: yes, I hope it is possible for me to finish high in the general classification. I feel good and I feel very strong.

 

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This was a work of art just on the retaining wall just as the riders entered the town of Verbier. Pretty cool!

 

I don't know if you can tell by this photo, but former yellow jersey rider Rinaldo Nocentini (87) has his saddle pointed slightly downward.

 

Ah, the joys of getting something from the publicity caravan.

6,128 Views 3 Comments Permalink Tags: tour_de_france, bruce_hildenbrand, alberto_contador, george_hincapie, mark_cavendish, lance_armstrong, andy_schleck, kim_kirchen, jens_voigt, bradley_wiggins, michael_rogers, mark_renshaw, saxo_bank, columbia_htc, tony_martin, bert_grabsch, bert_grabsch, bernard_eisel, maxime_monfort, verbier

If there was any doubt who was the team leader on Astana that is pretty much a foregone conclusion as Alberto Contador siezed the initiative once again by attacking Lance Armstrong and the lead group with 5.5km remaining to the ski station at Verbier. The Spaniard was first across the line with Armstrong 1'35" back in ninth place. In the race for the overall, Contador is now 1'37" ahead of second-place Armstrong with Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins in third just nine seconds arrears of the Texan.

 

In fact, while everyone expected Contador to climb well, the biggest surprise was Wiggins who looked comfortable both following and initiating attacks in the final three miles (5km). His teammate Vande Velde was about 1'30" seconds back of Wiggins and is now in twelfth overall 3'59" back of Contador.

 

Tomorrow is a rest day before two tough days in the Alps, a 25-mile individual time trial and the ascent of Mont Ventoux remaining on the program. While Contador looks very good, the Tour is far from over.

 

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The biggest buzz after yesterday's stage concerned the negative remarks George Hincapie made about his former US Postal/Discovery Channel teammates, now on Team Astana, working at the front of the peloton to rob Hincapie of the yellow jersey. By dissecting what actually happened both on the road and in the media we can see that it was all a big misunderstanding.

 

The problem began when the Versus TV commentators made the remark that Team Astana's work at the front of the main peloton had cost George Hincapie the jersey. Using this information, the Versus post-stage reporter asked George, on TV, what he thought about his former teammates working to keep him out of yellow. George, obviously frustrated at losing out on the yellow jersey after being off the front of the race for 100+ miles, just reacted to the question without knowing what really happened.

 

In reality, we know that it was not Team Astana that caused Hincapie to lose the jersey. Some have pointed the finger at Garmin-Slipstream and their growing rivalry with George's team, Columbia-HTC. But Jonathan Vaughters, the head honcho at Garmin stated that his team was only riding on the front in the final 10km to keep their GC riders out of trouble. He didn't want Bradley Wiggins or Christian Vande Velde getting caught out, as happened to Bradley a few days ago, and lose

precious seconds.

 

So, it looks like a bit of misinformation posed as a post-stage question to a frustrated George Hincapie created a situation that wasn't a situation at all. BTW, when Lance heard about George's comments about Astana, went into overdrive to make sure George got the real story about what happened.

 

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Cadel Evans finished seventh on the stage and dropped to 14th overall. I caught up with him at the Silence-Lotto team bus.

 

Cadel: I think this is the worse day I ever had in the Tour de France when I didn't have a crash. I haven't recovered since yesterday. I don't know why. At kilometer zero I was terrible.  It was one of the most important days of the Tour. If you have a day like this your Tour is over and pretty much your whole season.

 

Q: Was it the cold of the past few days?

 

Cadel: No. I just had various reasons.

 

Q: What are your chances on the general classification?

 

Cadel: it is pretty terrible. I am riding a terrible Tour and I am dissapointed, but not much I can do about it right now.

 

Q: What about the rest of the week?

 

Cadel: I will think about that in 36 hours.

 

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Carlos Sastre usually comes alive in the third week of a grand tour which is how he won this race last year. On the final climb today, he got dropped early on from the lead group, but clawed his way back up to the leaders. He finished sixth, 1'06" back of Contador in same group as Bradley Wiggins and now sits in 11th overall at 3'52". I talked with Carlos at the Cervelo Test Team bus after the stage.

 

Q: How did you feel the first day in the mountains?

 

Carlos: it was a hard day. It was really fast. It was OK. It was more or less what I expected. It has been a difficult Tour de France, but I closed super (in the final KMs) and I was there and I am happy because I did my best. The team was fantastic. Today all my teammates were close to me.  It is an important moment and we are happy. It has been a very successful Tour de France for all of us.

 

Q: You lost the wheel at the bottom, but you came back.  Was that part of the plan to go your own pace and catch those guys back?

 

Carlos: It wasn't part of the plan.  I would like to have the same explosivity as them, but I didn't have the explosivity so I needed to ride more at my rythmn which I did. I came back. I was there. I think for me it was OK. A difficult stage after almost one week on the flats, you know. This kind of fitness I like, but I recognize that there are a few riders who are stronger than me.

 

Q: Are the tough stages coming up in the Alps more Sastre "country?"

 

Carlos: It has been a really strange Tour de France. Everybody is talking about Armstrong/Contador like they are the only (ones) doing this race. I am happy with my condition. I am happy with the team. I am happy with the results. I don't think too much about anything.  I go day-by-day, just do my race and doing everything which is good for me.

 

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Danny Pate is a support rider on the Garmin-Slipstream team. I caught up with him as he was looking for his team bus.

 

Q: What was it like out there today.  Were you trying to set it up for Bradley (Wiggins) and Christian (Vande Velde)?

 

Pate: Yeah. All day we just tried to protect them. We wanted one guy in the break and Ryder (Hesjedal) was perfect to have in the break becasue he can climb out of the break and if they (Wiggins and Vande Velde) needed help they could catch him (Ryder) at the right time and he (Ryder) could help them (Wiggins and Vande Velde) later.

 

Other than that it was the normal thing; protect those guys, help them get to the bottom. Everyone did a little bit to help them get there. Dave and I were the last guys to help them by the bottom and set them up real well to

do their thing.

 

Q: Wiggins had a great ride today.

 

Pate: he was riding great at the Giro and he had really good prep between the Giro and the Tour. The team didn't expect him to do any races or get results inbetween there so he had time to chill out and prepare for this.

 

Q: How will the team chemistry be now with Bradley moving ahead of Christian with a more substantial margin?

 

Pate: I don't think there will be any problems. I am amazed at the ride Christian has had here. After what happened to him at the Giro. He has blown me away at how prepared he was. Wiggo as well.  They are riding unbelievably.

 

Q: So, they will continue to work together as a team?

 

Pate: oh, for sure!

 

Q: After you have put all your efforts into launching Wiggins and Vande Velde up the climb, what do you do to make it to the finish and conserve energy?

 

Pate: today's climb wasn't so bad. It was not a huge climb and it wasn't really steep which makes really good sense why Wiggo did so well today. He's quite a bit lighter than he has been before. But still it wasn't that steep of a climb or really that hard of a climb so it wasn't so bad for me.

 

Q: What is your body feeling like going into the third week?

 

Pate: it depends on who you are. By now you kind of feel the same.  You feel the same in the third week. If you are going to be bad, you already feel bad.

 

Q: So how are you feeling?

 

Pate: I am feeling OK.

 

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2,556 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: tour_de_france, bruce_hildenbrand, alberto_contador, george_hincapie, lance_armstrong, team_astana, cadel_evans, carlos_sastre, christian_vande_velde, cervelo_test_team, danny_pate, gamin-slipstream, bredley_wiggins

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.

859 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: tour_de_france, bruce_hildenbrand, alberto_contador, levi_leipheimer, lance_armstrong, team_astana, andreas_kloden, cadel_evans, andy_schleck, frank_schleck, carlos_sastre, saxo_bank, cervelo_test_team, silence_lotto, haimar_zubeldia, yaraslov_popovych

On a very rainy day in the Vosges Mountains, Heinrich Haussler was off the front for over 100 miles, dropping his breakaway companion Sylvan Chavanel on the descent of the penultimate climb and soloing for almost 30 miles to victory. The Cervelo Test Team rider is better known for his sprinting prowess, winning stage 2 of Paris-Nice and almost beating Mark Cavendish at Milan-San Remo. But, today, he proved that once again in this year's Tour, anything can happen.

 

Undoubtedly the biggest news of the days was the non-start of Team Astana's Levi Leipheimer. He crashed on a left hand bend with 2.5 kilometers remaining yesterday, but appeared to be fine at the stage finish. However, the pain in his wrist worsened over night and a trip to the hospital in the morning revealed that it was broken.

 

I saw the crash and it just didn't look that serious. The tumble by Ryder Hesjedal the day before looked way more serious, but Hesjedal was basically unscathed.  Leipheimer was enjoying one of his finest Tours sitting in fourth place overall and looking very comfortable and relaxed on the bike. It is a pity that Levi will not get to show his form in the Alps. In both 2006 and 2007, he was one of the few riders who seemed to get stronger in the third week.

 

The race leaders took it easy in the day's trying conditions, there were no changes to the overall standings other than Leipheimer's untimely withdrawal. Thor Hushovd managed to stay with the GC leaders over all the climbs and took second in the field sprint for sixth place which allowed him to take the green jersey off of Mark Cavendish's shoulders.

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The Armstrong/Contador affair is interesting to watch. I asked Rolf Aldag, DS of team Columbia-HTC, about the perspective from the other teams.

 

Bruce: do you think Astana will destroy themselves with all the conflict?

 

Rolf: I think in the end, they are so strong as a team, that even if they ride against each other they will succeed whoever that will be. If you see how much resources they have. Until now they didn't need Leipheimer. They didn't need Kloden to ride. They still have so much resources that up until now they can easily control it with out making any decisions (about team leadership) so I think it stays wide open.

 

It is interesting to watch (the Armstrong/Contador battle) from the outside. If you don't have a hand in the game there it is really interesting to follow and wonder what are they going to do next.

 

When Lance was in the front in the crosswind there was definitely a big 'chapeau' from our team wondering how he managed that.  Three years off he is definitely physiologically older, he is definitely focused on the race. So it was kind of 'Wow! He made it into that group'.

 

When Contador attacked up to Arcalis it was the same thing to say 'Wow. There is no way for us to go with him.' So we watched it and we were also like 'Phew'. It was a good attack. It was strong how he went to the finish.

 

Right now it is six and eight seconds so it is totally open.  It is so exciting we are kind of like spectators in the first row. It is kind of funny.

 

Bruce: Does Contador need to be strong psychologically to do what he did?

 

Rolf: I think so, but I also think it is kind of a relief for him.  He is as good as he is and he has to show it. If there is any doubt that he is good enough then he will be in bigger and bigger trouble. If he shows that he is good enough, that he is there because when he was not there in the break in the crosswinds, it was a big advantage for Lance. 'See. That is not my mistake that you haven't learned. That might happen to you everyday.'

 

Psychologically he (Lance) had a big, big advantage over Contador, but Contador now responded and said 'See. Even if I miss it I am strong enough to correct it.'

 

It is really exciting to follow that as long as we are not paying the bill which we are not going to do.  Cavendish is no threat to Astana.

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I finally had time to look through all the photos I shot in the past two weeks.  Here are a bunch from the team time trial that I think you will find interesting.

 

There are some fit riders in the Tour.

 

Check out the Cervelo Test Team's motto on their shorts. It seems to be working as they have won two stages.

 

Flatting in a team time trial can cost a GC rider precious seconds and potentially minutes. The mechanics always wipe off the tires just before the start in case a piece of glass has found it's way into the rubber.

 

Tom Boonen packs a gel just in case he needs it during the 45+ minute effort.

 

Because of the logistics between the start and finish of the team time trial, Team Astana decided it needed another bus to park at the finish. Mechanic Geoff Brown got the call the day before and drove the second bus 700 miles (1100km) from Astana's European headquarters in Brakel, Belgium to Montpellier. The speed limit for busses is 60 mph(100kmh) so the trip took over 11 hours. He arrived only two hours before the stage start. He drove the bus 700 miles back to Belgium the next day.

6,920 Views 2 Comments Permalink Tags: tour_de_france, bruce_hildenbrand, alberto_contador, levi_leipheimer, tom_boonen, mark_cavendish, lance_armstrong, team_astana, thor_hushovd, cervelo_test_team, columbia-htc, heinrich_haussler, geoff_brown

A general lack of cooperation among the sprinter's teams allowed a group of seven riders to stay away to the finish, but the first rider across the line, Saxo Bank's Niki Sorensen didn't wait around to sprint with his breakmates. His solo attack in the closing kilometers brought Saxo Bank it's second stage win after Cancellara's victory in Monaco.

 

I was a day for opportunities as the AG2R-La Mondiale team had to spend most of day at the front riding for their man in yellow, Rinaldo Nocentini, as the sprinter's teams just couldn't coordinate a chase effort to bring back the breakaway. While Nocentini kept the jersey, it was a lost day for the Cavendish, Farrar, Hushovd, et. al. as the stage profile clearly called for a bunch finish. But, that's why they ride each day, just to see who has been reading all the journalists' prognostications.

 

Clearly, Mark Cavendish is the class of the sprinters and my guess is that the other teams with sprinters such as Garmin-Slipstream and Cervelo Test Team decided not to do any work at the front just so 'Cav' could get another win. With two riders in contention for the overall, I can see why Garmin-Slipstream might have chosen not to ride, but it is a bit of a pity as their fastman, Tyler Farrar, came oh, so close to winning yesterday.  But, the third week of the Tour is, as Lance Armstrong put it 'sinister', and as we reach the Alps in just three days maybe all eyes are looking at the mountains.

 

Jens Voigt are you listening? This is your opportunity to go for stage win!

 

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Nicolas Roche has some big shoes to fill being the son of Irishman Stephen Roche who won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and the World Road Championship all in the same year, 1987. He is riding his first Tour, and sporting the jersey of the Irish National road champion, for AG2R-La Mondiale team who just happen to have the yellow jesey. I talked with him about his Tour experience.

 

Bruce: what is it like riding for Rinaldo in yellow?

 

Nicolas: for me it is a fantastic experience. It is my first Tour and straight away I have the opportunity to ride for the yellow jersey. Some riders never do that in their whole career.  Of course, that puts a big stop on my own personal motivations, but it is my first Tour so everything is going all right.  I had my chances in the first week in the sprints. Now there are two more weeks to go and lots of chances to get into the breakaways.

 

Bruce: What is the biggest thing you have learned so far?

 

Nicolas: I suppose that when you are riding the Tour you are either riding to be top ten in GC or the most important thing is to try and save you energy for the next day to give it a go in the breakaways. You can't win the sprint because of Cavendish and there are too many other good sprinters.  If you wait for a mountain top finish there is Contador, Armstrong and so many others.  There are not many possibilities to get a stage win which is the dream of everybody who comes to the Tour, I think.  

 

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While Serge Borlee is currently Cadel Evans' bodyguard, he has preformed the same duty for Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov. I thought there would be a bidding war for Serge's services when Lance announced his comeback, but it didn't happen. Hopefully, we are buddies now and he won't hurt me!

 

Bruce: what are your duties as a bodyguard?

 

Serge: Every morning I bring him to the start line for the sign in.  I make sure nothing happens to him before the race starts.

 

Bruce: some people don't know your background. You are an ex-Belgian policeman.

 

Serge: I am not an ex, I am still a policeman. This is my holiday. I take my holiday to do the Tour de France.

 

Bruce: Cadel is a bit different this year than last year. He is more friendly.

 

Serge: Last year they put too much pressure on him to make him win the Tour de France and it was too stressful for him. But, this year I think he is in better shape than last year and he's looking good.

 

Bruce: have you ever had to take somebody down while protecting a rider?

 

Serge: In 2005 I got in a fight with the police in Paris when I was protecting Lance. Put my name in YouTube and you will see.

 

Bruce: of all the riders you have worked with, who was the best to work for?

 

Serge: Cadel. It is less stressful.  He's a nice guy.

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Last time I talked with Rabobank Director Sportif (DS) Erik Breukink was in Rome during the final TT of the Giro. The team was on a definite high as they were just hours away from wining the Giro D'Italia. Here at the Tour, their luck has been going in the opposite direction. As I predicted, I didn't think Menchov could recover from the Giro and he hasn't. The their hope for the white jersey and possibly the overall, Robert Gesink(pronounced Hesink, just like Houda not Gouda cheese) crashed and had to retire with a broken wrist.

 

Bruce: with Gesink out and Menchov apparently not recovered from the Giro are you looking to stage wins?

 

Erik: a stage win is important, for sure. Gesink for the mountains was our guy. Menchov is getting a litle bit better, but it is difficult for him to move up on GC because he is so far behind.  Stage wins are important now.

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What's this all about? Clearly, the motorcycle has a motor. Talk about a waste of energy. Hmmm.

 

Skoda is the official car of the Tour de France. They have a new model out called the Yeti. Get it.

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The flat profile of stage 10 provided another spring board for Mark Cavendish and his leadout train to prove they are the best in the business. Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar rounded out the top three emphasizing that this was a stage for the sprinters. The rumoured strike over the ban on race radios was averted when ASO agreed to remove the ban for stage 13.

 

All in all it was a pretty uneventful day. But why, then, did Bradley Wiggins drop from fifth to seventh overall? Because he got caught in one of the most unfair situations in professional racing which continues to plague stage race riders. While the peloton was virtually intact approaching the line, a rider, 10 places ahead of Bradley, let a small, usually only about five-feet, gap open up so the race officials counted that group as the second group over the line.  Since Cavendish had crossed the line 15 seconds before that group, Bradley was given the time of the second group.

 

I can assure you that if you watch the finish on TV, while the gap will be visible, it is not like the riders in Bradley's "group" (for lack of a better word)  got dropped, more than likely someone just sat up and stop pedaling. It is just that a small gap opened up in front of the rider who sat up and the officials do, as officials like to do, called it another group. It is kind of like if you give a referee a whistle, he/she feels obligated to blow it. And in this case, the UCI race officials blew it.

 

Levi Leipheimer was also caught in the "second" group and dropped from fourth to fifth overall.  Ironically, if either Wiggins or Leipheimer had been caught in a crash within three kilometers of the finish, they would have been given the same time as the winner. I am not advocating the riders start taking lessons from soccer players on how to take dives, but there is some food for thought here.

 

The problem is that Wiggins finished 64th and Leipheimer was 77th indicating that they were both in the first half of the main group. I really don't think you should force the overall contenders to mix it up with the sprinters just so they don't get "gapped" so to speak. It is really dangerous up front and that is a risk Lance, Alberto, Christian, et. al. should not have to take on the bunch sprint finishes. Certainly, some of the GC contenders were up near the front and did not lose any time, but if they had gotten caught in a crash becasue of it we would be signing a different tune.

 

The UCI needs to come up with a way to take the time of the riders more fairly. I have been asking them to consider this for the past few years. I have been proposing several solutions.  One solution is to make the gap much larger, like 30 feet (10 meters) before a split is made. Obviously, this would only apply to bunch finishes. Another solution is to take the time of the  riders as they cross the red kite with 1km to go. Nobody is siting up, creating gaps at that point.

 

When I talk to the UCI officials, they just don't seem to understand what the problem is. Maybe they are just too busy trying to blow their whistle.

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Team Columbia-HTC rider Tony Martin is one of the revelations of this year's Tour. We saw him ride well earlier this year in both the Criterium International and the Tour of Switzerland, but nobody expected the 23 year-old German to be wearing the white jersey of best young rider. I talked with Tony's Director Sportif (DS) Rolf Aldag about the plans for Martin as the race progresses.

 

Tony Martin

 

 

Bruce: Rolf, where did you find Tony Martin? It seems like every year Team Columbia finds another new star?

 

Rolf: we can't take the credit for Tony.  Honestly, the world of professional cycling realized him in 2004/2005 when we had a mountain time trial and this guy won by a minute. I myself was sixth. He was 18 years-old and I knew he was going to be good. We battled in the Reggio Tour in Germany and I think he finished fifth and I finished sixth.

 

I think it was a big battle who gets him. I know that Gerlosteiner was interested and finally we managed to get him.  We are happy to have him, but I think the good thing is he decided on which team based on who will help best in his career. We have a good program and we promote that to the riders and I think that is what makes the difference so we can get them.

 

Bruce: How will you ride for Tony in the Tour?  Will you ride for him to defend the white jersey or will you have him play off the other teams.

 

Rolf: For the moment he just has to follow.  Today (Col du Tourmalet stage) I don't expect the GC guys to make a big race. They will follow each other.  So we will bring him through that. After the rest day, we will be concentrating on the sprint stages for Cavendish.

 

When we get to the Alps it will be time to decide what we are going to do with him. He does have a free role that's for sure. He does have support. He is protected on the team. But, he is not the only team captain (for the overall) at the moment because I think that would put a lot of pressure on him.  If we expect him to do the result instead of Kim (Kirchen) I don't think it would be fair to Kim and it would not be fair to Tony to say 'you are the man now and you better be in front.'

 

So, if he really, really struggles one day and loses a lot of time there's nothing to lose for him anymore.  He won so much. He defended his white jersey so long. It is his first Tour de France. We just come back and do better next year. That's a good situation for him. He doesn't have any pressure. He has a free role and support and we will just see how it goes.

 

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Here is what the scrum for interviews with Lance looks like at the Astana team bus after a stage. Luckily, when I talked to Lance two days ago it was just the two of us as I am by no means a rugby player.

 

 

 

If this guys comes up to you after a stage finish it means that you have been selected for doping control. His job is to escort the racer directly to the medical trailer to protect the integrity of any biological samples the rider may have to give. Lance has been seeing this guy a lot during the Tour and has passed all his tests.

 

 

If you wonder how the race organizers and officials can tell the position of the riders during the race, it is because the racers have these nifty little transponders which must be mounted on the chainstay a specific distance in front of the rear hub axle. The number "22" on this transponder corresponds to rider number 22 which means this is a shot of Lance's bike.

 

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The Col du Tourmalet is one of the hallmark climbs of the Tour de France. It was first climbed in the Tour almost 100 years ago when the road was little more than a goat track. Since then, it has produced it's fair share of Tour champions and in the unfortunate case of Eugene Christophe in 1913, one of the greatest legends of the greatest of races(more on that later).

 

For all these reasons it is really a shame that the race reached the top of the iconic pass with over 35 miles of downhill and flat riding to the finish. Last year the Tour climbed to Hautacam just down the valley, the Tourmalet playing a key role in the split in the peloton which produced the stage winner and a reshuffling of he overall contenders.

 

Not this year. While stage winner Pierrick Fedrigo and his breakaway companion, Franco Pellizotti, stayed away to the finish, the Tourmalet was basically a non-factor. What a pity.

 

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I did a short interview with Lance just before the start of the stage.

 

Bruce: Are you surprised at just how good your form is at the Tour?

 

It hasn't been tested that much to be honest. We've had The prologue, TTT, Arcalis.  I think the race is tighter than people expected.  We'll know in the final week.  That's where the form check will come.

 

Bruce: How did your pre-Tour preparations go?

 

The Giro was good for leaning out and I felt I got stronger as the race went on there.  I was tired at the end so I had to recover from that.  June was not a nromal month. Recovering from the Giro, having Max, building for the Tour, traveling back and forth.  I think we are finding our legs.  Again, the last six days are sinister.

 

Bruce: Do you have any indication on how you will feel in the final week?  Are you still building form?

 

That's my plan.  We'll see.

 

Bruce: What about the reports in the press about disharmony on the Astana team?

 

It has created a lot of buzz outside of the http://community.active.com/blogs/BruceHildenbrand/2009/07/12/stage-9-tourmalet-a-nonfactor/team bus.  Obviously, within the team there is some, but most of it is from the exterior. I try to relax and keep it as light as I can.

 

 

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I also talked with Garmin-Slipstream sprinter Tyler Farrar about how he is riding and what are his plans for the upcoming stages.

 

 

Bruce: is your strategy to just survive the mountains and get ready for the flat stages which lay ahead?

 

Pretty much.  I am not a climber. These days (in the mountains) it is just a matter of survival and looking forward to next week when I can take a crack at more

sprints.

 

Bruce: Are these mountains an eye opener for you?

 

I knew what to expect.  I have raced them before in other races. They are hard, but that's just the way it is.

 

Bruce: You seem to be pretty confident about challenging Mark Cavendish in the sprints.

 

I have been having a pretty good season and my sprint has been good. At the Tour so far I have been second and fourth so hope it will go well in the rest of the flatter stages.

 

Bruce: How is the leadout train working?

 

It has been going pretty well. Julian Dean and I have really been getting

it dialed in and we are feeling comfortable with each other.

 

Bruce: what have you done to raise your sprinting up to this new level?

 

It is just different racing at this level than doing smaller races.  You have to get used to it a little bit. But as I said, it has been a really good season for me so I am feeling happy with it.

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Rabobank rider Laurens Ten Dam crashed hard on the descent of the Tourmalet. Here he is at the stage finish inspecting the extensive damage to his bib shorts.

 

In May, Franco Pellizotti won a big mountain stage to the Blockhaus in the Giro d'Italia. He was off the front most of the day today, but lost the sprint for the stage win to Pierrick Fedrigo. This is the look of the second place rider.

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Stage 8: More Musings

Posted by Bruce Hildenbrand Jul 11, 2009

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.

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On a day which didn't change the overall classification one second, it might seem like the race was a bit on the boring side. That was far from the case as a number of the favorites for the overall launched their bids to unseat Team Astana at the top of the heap.

 

The stage started off with a 14-mile(23.5km), 4200' climb right out of Andorra. Because of the aggressive nature of the Tour this far, a number of riders were seen warming up before the stage, something that rarely happens, especially since the first three miles were neutralized. But, when the flag dropped, the attacks started as the AG2R-La Mondiale team of race leader Rinaldo Nocentini was unable to control the peloton.

 

There were at least three major groups on the climb at one point and with 5km remaining to the summit of the massive Port d'Envalira, Cadel Evans went clear. Dave Zabriskie covered the move for Garmin-Slipstream. That move was partially brought back, though a group containing Thor Hushovd and George Hincapie did escape on the descent into France(see race notes below).

 

Things seemed to cool down until the final climb, the Col de Agnes, where Andy Schleck put in a strong attack.  All of Astana's heavy hitters were there, but Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre missed the move so even Lance Armstrong took some pulls at the front trying to widen the gap back to Evans.

 

In the end the fire went out at the front and all the overall contenders were together at the finish. Again, another exciting day at the Tour even if the results at the end of the day didn't reflect it.

 

Photos

The stage victory went to Casse d'Epargne rider Luis-Leon Sanchez.  Here is a photo of him celebrating his victory.

 

For some reason, I seem to be a magnet for stage winners. Sanchez rode right up to me and stopped.  I snapped this photo just as the scrum for the first interview began.

 

I talked briefly with yesterday's stage winner, Brice Feillu. He picked up the polka-dot climber's jersey for his efforts yesterday.  He told me he was very happy to have won a stage and have taken the polka dot jersey. He also said that even though he lost the jersey today to Christophe Kern he would fight to get it back.

 

 

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Race Notes

 

Because this was a very hilly stage, the organizers had a difficult time deciding where to place the intermediate sprints. These sprints award points for the first three finishers and count toward the green, sprinter's jersey. In the end, the two of the three sprints were only 11 miles(19km) apart. Thor Hushovd, who trailed Mark Cavendish in the race for the green jersey by only one point, broke away before the first sprint.  Cavendish's Columbia-HTC teammate, George Hincapie, covered the move, but Hushovd took the first sprint and is the provisional leader in the green jersey competition on the road.

 

Hushovd beat Hincapie in the next sprint to increase his provisional lead by another six points over Cavendish. The third sprint is after the final two big climbs so most likely neither Hushovd or Cavendish will be contesting that sprint or the stage finish sprint as well.  Because of this making the most of these kinds of opportunities is how you maximize your output, but conserve energy. It was a very good tactical move for the Cervelo Test Team. Thor will be in the green jersey tonight.

 

Garmin-Slipstream rider Bradley Wiggins was a major revelation on the climb to Arcalis in Andorra. Not only was he in the lead group, but even managed an attack with about a kilometer to go. Wiggins, or Wiggo as his teammates call him, has quite the engine as witnessed by his Olympic gold medal in the 4000m pursuit from the Beijing Olympics.  He was hired by the Garmin-Slipstream team to help Christian Vande Velde in the mountains and because of this he lost nine pounds in the off season to improve his climbing form.

 

That Wiggins is nine pounds lighter than last year makes the fact that he was generating a mind-blowing 550 watts during his turns at the front in the team time trial even more impressive. Its one thing to lose weight, but to not sacrifice any power is the best scenario possible. I think we have only seen a brief glimpse on what may be possible for Wiggins.

 

Yesterday's 135-mile stage from Barcelona to Arcalis-Andorra was medium-tough by Tour standards.  It was six hours in the saddle for the riders and two major climbs. Christian Vande Velde burned over 5000 calories during the stage.

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Alberto Contador put his stamp on the 2009 Tour, attacking the elite group of overall contenders with two miles(3km) remaining to the finish at Arcalis in Andorra. Many speculated that Contador, in an attempt to keep team harmony at Astana, would only follow an attack by another squad's overall contender such as Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck or Carlos Sastre. But, after Cadel Evans had tested the waters with 2.5 miles remaining and had been easily brought back by both Contador and Armstrong, Alberto launched his convincing attack.

 

The gap quickly went out to double digit seconds, but seemed to stabilize at around twenty seconds as Evans led the chase. Garmin-Slipstream's overall favorite Christian Vande Velde signaled his return to top form by launching an attack out of the Evans-led group just under the red kite. He was brought back and he, Evans, Armstrong, Leiphimer and Andy Schleck all finished together 21 seconds back of the Spaniard.

 

While the race for overall was going on down the road. Brice Feillu of the French Agritubel squad won the stage. He was part of a large breakaway group that had a ten minute lead as the race entered Andorra. He attacked with about five kilometers remaining and held off all his break-mates. As a bit of a break from form, he forgot to zip up his jersey to acknowledge his sponsors as he crossed the line.

 

One side effect of the large time gap given to the breakaway was that Rinaldo Nocentini, who earlier this year won the Pasadena stage of the Amgen Tour of California, inherited the yellow jersey ahead of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.  Contador has only a two second lead over Armstrong on general classification, though with the strength he showed in the closing kilometers, he looks to be a tick better than Armstrong on the climbs.

 

But, after struggling to stay in the lead group at the Giro d'Italia, it is a testament to Lance's form that not only did he finish in the lead group, but he easily neutralized Cadel Evans' attack and looked very relaxed in the drag over the final kilometers to the line. Based on how good he looked, it is a distinct possibility that Lance was playing the good teammate and forcing the others to chase Contador.

 

It was another exciting stage. Even though Contador appeared to have the upper hand on Armstrong, those who doubted Lance as a true contender may well be silenced. It was also very gratifying to see Christian Vande Velde back up with the leaders after his horrible crash in the Giro. Christian's teammate Bradley Wiggins also climbed well. More on his transcendence soon.

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Stage winner Brice Feillu.

 

Popovych leads Lance and Alberto with about 4km remaining.

 

Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden and Frank Schleck.

 

Sergio Paulinho has done his work at the front and is now just riding to the finish.

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If you watch the Tour de France everyday hoping for drama then the last few stages have been extraordinary. On a very difficult 25-mile time trial course around Montpellier, Lance Armstrong came within an eyelash of putting on the yellow jersey for the first time in almost four years. It would have been an incredible step in his comeback, but the Fabian Cancellara-led Team Saxo Bank did just what it needed to retain the maillot jaune.

 

By just, I mean literally less than one second. It was oh-so-close for a storybook ending to a day which saw the American Garmin-Slipstream team put in a valiant effort which almost won the day. They finished only 18 seconds back of stage victors Team Astana after 47 minutes on course. It is not a coveted stage win, but the boys in argyle should be proud of almost toppling arguably the best team in the sport. Garmin-Slipstream have clearly proven that they deserve to be a Pro Tour team in only their first year at that elitest of levels.

 

The TT course was far from the usual flat and fast affair. Small roads, sharp climbs and a punishing wind made this one of the sternest tests for a team the Tour has seen in years. I was fortunate to ride with Garmin-Slipstream team during their warm-up lap this morning (hint: it wasn't a warm-up for me) and I was impressed by how difficult and technical the course was. Look for a report including on-the-bike photos, in an upcoming blog.  I am still recovering. It may take years.

 

Garmin's power guru Dr. Allen Lim described the team's game plan. "Stay careful.  I think it is a dangerous, dangerous course.  I think the guys have to be conscious of one another and not take any risks.  Normally it is full throttle.  Now it is full throttle plus a high sense of awareness of one and other and careful through the corners. Some places we are going to have to be conservative and then try to make it up elsewhere.  Through the very fast techinical sections there will be very few changes at the front."

 

After the race, Lance spoke with Gerard Holtz on Antenne 2. When asked to describe the TTT course his only response was 'tricky'. He admitted that he was a bit disappointed not to get the yellow jersey.  Hollywood actor Ben Stiller appeared on stage and took full responsibility for losing the jersey by less than one second.  He was certain that Lance had looked back just before the finish to see if he was watching.  Ben went on to present the yellow jersey to Fabian Cancellara.

 

Bruce

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Just before Astana took the start ramp, Lance shook Conador's hand. Alberto responded as we see in this photo as the two teammates realized that they would need to work together to beat the other squads.

 

Team Garmin-Slipstream heads down the start ramp.

 

Just before Team Columbia-HCT started down the ramp, Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie shared a fist bump.

 

He almost took the yellow jersey.

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Even though stage 3 of the Tour de France turned into another sprint win for Mark Cavendish it was anything but another long, boring trek through southern France. When the race turned south with 30km to go, the peloton encountered a heavy westerly crosswind. Team Columbia used the winds to drop the hammer causing a split at the front of the peloton as 30 riders went clear.

 

Leading up to the split, the race had been marked by a general lack of cooperation among the teams as to who would work to chase down an early breakaway that contained four riders and reached a maximum time gap of 13 minutes.  For the first hour the peloton managed a meager 17-18mph.

 

Team Columbia-HTC owner Bob Stapleton commented on the situation. "It was frustrating.  I thought Garmin would come up and do some work for Farrar, but they were basically saying 'We are not going to do any work. We are betting all our chances on the team time trial.'" "I think their chances of beating Astana are small.  I am disappointed they didn't ride today. Tyler showed a lot of quality yesterday.  They should have supported him today. He maybe could have done something."  

 

"I think Saxo Bank got no support either and they basically said screw it.  We basically said screw it.  Let's get super agressive and see if we can make something happen," added Stapleton.

 

Second place on the stage, Thor Hushovd echoed Bob's sentiments. "It was a big game during the whole stage. Saxo didn't want to control the race the whole day.  They wanted to save their legs for tomorrow. And Columbia didn't want to do the work alone.  It was just a big game the whole day."

 

Team Columbia was aided in their efforts by some intel from a former team member.  "Erik Zabel came through this morning and had a look at the last 30kms for us.  He gave us all the technical info.  It was very good," explained Columbia Team Director Alan Peiper.

 

At the finish, six Columbia riders powered the lead group to a forty-one second advantage. Lance Armstrong proved that he hasn't lost any of tactical abilities. He was the only overall contender to make the split and has moved up to third place.  If Astana wins the team time trial tomorrow, as expected, and can take more than 40 seconds out of Cancellara's Saxo Bank squad and 7 seconds out of Tony Martin's Team Columbia the Lance could be in yellow at the end of the day.

 

Bruce

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This guy could be in yellow tomorrow!

 

Thor Hushovd looks pretty thin probably so he can climb in the mountains and fight for the green jersey all the way to Paris.

 

Cadel was on the wrong end of the split and lost 40 seconds

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If Lance doesn't win his eighth Tour de France this July, the cycling pundits will certainly be dissecting his race and his pre-race preparations ad infinitum. But, regardless of what happens over the next three weeks it is interesting to note that Lance had clearly deviated from the formula which brought him seven consecutive Tour victories.

 

During his record setting string of wins, one of the critical components of his preparation was to ride, sometimes two or three times, the key stages of that year's race. That usually meant long days in the mountains and previewing all the time trials. Obviously, the strategy and tactics of a given stage dictated how a stage played out on race day, but for Lance and his teammates, there were no surprises when it came to what a particular course might dish out.

 

This year, mostly due to his broken collarbone, his committment to ride the Giro and the birth of his son, Max, Lance has not had the opportunity to preview all the key stages. Lance did ride the opening time trial course in Monaco several times in the days preceding the race. He reckoned, correctly, that the tricky descents were just as important as having maximum power on the climb to the summit of the Col du Beausoleil.

 

But, instead of being in Europe in June doing recon rides, Lance and his Astana teammates Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner trained out of Aspen, Colorado.The three amigos rode four and a half to six and a half hours a day in training. One of their most popular rides was to go from Aspen up over Independence Pass at 12,000' then down to Twin Lakes at 9000' then back up and over Independence Pass to Aspen.  This 80-mile ride with about 8000' of climbing took the boys about 4 and a half hours at moderate training pace.

 

At the recent Nevada City Classic, both Levi and Lance remarked that it was good to come down from altitude to race as training at such a high height really does not give a good indication of overall fitness. However, it has been proven that altitude training does work so these guys were not wasting their time. They just weren't in Europe as was the case from 1999-2005.

 

We will have to wait and see if the deviation from the formula was a good idea or not. Sometimes circumstances force you to change your game plan. The jury might still be out, but judging from how Lance and Levi rode in the Monaco TT, things are looking good.

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Race Notes

 

Some guy named Mark won stage two from an intact peloton. It was great to see Tyler Farrar in second and the fact that Hushovd slipped in there for fourth meant that nobody is giving away any victories just yet. Yes, Cavendish may seem unbeatable, but Farrar did just that this past March in the Tour of Mediterranean. Don't count Garmin-Slipstream out. They can definitely give Cavendish a run for his money and if the Manxman gets a bit cocky and leaves it late, like he did at the Giro when he lost a couple of stages to Allesandro Petacchi, Farrar could pounce.

 

Bruce

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The Tour de France has officially begun and while the winner on the day, Fabian Cancellara, was not a huge surprise, the race for Astana team leadership got very interesting. All four of Astana's Tour podium finishers, Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden finished inside the top 10 with only 22 seconds separating those riders after the 9-mile(15 km) time trial. While Alberto, 3rd overall, did best Lance, 10th overall, by 22 seconds the question of team leadership is still unanswered.

 

On a warm, muggy day in the principality of Monaco the relatively short course resulted in interesting, but not necessarily significant, time gaps. None of the favorites faltered; Cadel Evans was right in the mix, five seconds behind Contador and 17 seconds ahead of Armstrong while Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre were within a minute of their rivals.

 

The Garmin-Slipstream team also demonstrated their time trialing prowess, putting four riders in the top 17, led by Bradley Wiggins' third place finish, 19 seconds behind Cancellara. David Zabriskie, 13th, David Millar, 14th and Christian Vande Velde, 17th, had solid rides. Vande Velde's comeback after a race-ending crash in the Giro seems to be on track to finding his top form as the race progresses.

 

This year, because there are no time bonuses at the finish, it is likely that Cancellara will keep his yellow jersey at least until Stage 4 on Tuesday and the 25-mile team time trial. Based on the results of the opening time trial, it should be a battle between Astana and Garmin-Slipstream for the stage win.

 

It has been an up and down season for Cancellara who won the opening prologue of the Tour of California, but was forced to withdraw the next day due to sickness.  A training crash at home in Switzerland severely hampered his preparation for the Classics, but he recently won his home tour, the Tour de Suisse, and appears to be finally finding his form.

 

The next few days should be the domain of the sprinters.  Look for Team Columbia-HTC with Mark Cavendish to be challenged by Cervelo Test team and Thor Hushovd, but Garmin-Slipstream and their up-and-coming sprinter, Tyler Farrar, might surprise.

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This might start sounding like a broken record, but come Saturday in Monaco, the great battle of wills between Astana teammates Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador will begin. Certainly, there will be other challengers, but these two are the main favorites for good reason and deserve all the hype. Lance and Alberto are very well matched physically so I think it will come down to the mental game to determine the winner of the 2009 Tour.

 

Right after the Giro, I wouldn't have given Lance much of a chance, but after being with him at the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, two weeks ago, and seeing how fit and motivated he was, Armstrong is a man on a mission. He is starting the race five pounds lighter than he ever did during his seven victories and his eyes show a keen focus and determination. Lance is not coming to France to ride in support of Alberto Contador.

 

Alberto Contador is probably feeling a bit lonely on Team Astana with only his old teammate from Liberty Seguros, Sergio Paulinho, as a trusted ally. Rumour has it that Contador might be getting some help from the riders on Caisse d'Epargne if he needs it. I am hoping that things remain civil on Astana. There is no need for a replay of the 1986 race where American Greg LeMond and Frenchman Bernard Hinault while they teammates, rode as rivals.

 

With all this talk of teammates and allies, it is probably fitting that the first stage of the Tour is a 9-mile(15km) individual time trial in the hills surrounding Monaco. That means a head-to-head battle between Lance and Alberto with the best man on the day assuming an edge in the fight for team leadership.  With all the "Lance versus Alberto" hype in the past nine months, look for Contador to come out blazing, trying to prove that he is the true team leader of Astana.

 

However, Lance is a master tactician and will do everything in his power to try to match Contador. Unless we are talking Brett Favre, I am a fan of comebacks so I hope that Lance can match Alberto and if he does, the battle of wills will really be on.

 

You are probably thinking that the mental toughness of a rider is always part of the equation, but given that the two riders in question here are on the same team makes the mental aspect way more critical. Alberto and Lance will be spending way more time in close proximity than just during the race. Any gamesmanship can be played out long after each day's podium ceremony has concluded.

 

So, while it is clear that you have to be physically strong to win the Tour de France, this year's victor will also need to be as tough if not tougher mentally to prevail, especially if your name is Lance or Alberto.

 

Bruce

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