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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The biggest one-day race in Italy, Milan-San Remo, will take place on Saturday and a stellar field is expected to make the event unforgettable. Not only is Lance Armstrong going to ride the 190-miles from Italy's second largest city to the Italian Riviera, Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen look to continue their sprinting duel on San Remo's Via Roma.
Of course, everyone was expecting a sprint finish last year when Swiss ace Fabian Cancellara gave everyone the slip after the descent of the Poggio, the race's final climb. It was the stuff of legends, unfortunately Spartacus is still recovering from a training crash and will not defend his win.
The big question is whether uber-sprinter Mark Cavendish of Columbia-High Road will get himself over the four major climbs which define the race. The biggest, the Turchino Pass, comes at mid-distance which will allow the Manx-man to get back on. It is more a question of the Cipressa (pronounced Chipressa), the penultimate ascent, and the Poggio (pronounced POcho) which comes within five miles of the finish line.
It is going to take a lot of teamwork for Cavendish to make it over the "capos" or "climbs", look for his faithful ally, Michael Barry, to be handling the babysitting duties up and over the Poggio with George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw as the key players in the Columbia-High Road leadout train.
On the other hand, Tom Boonen has proven that he can get to the Via Roma with the bunch, but he has been outfoxed in the finale and is definitely looking to the 2009 edition of MSR to set matters right.
Look for Lance Armstrong to use this race to gain some more "conditioning" working on being comfortable in a big pack at high speeds for seven hours plus. It would be a fairytale ending if Big Tex could pull off the win, but even Lance will tell you that unless the perfect opportunity arises, he is still in the training phase of his comeback. That's just the reality of the situation.
Unfortunately for us US cycling fans, the Versus TV network will not be carrying the race. It was great last year to see Garmin-Slipstream's Will Frischkorn off the front for almost the entire race in a three-rider break not to mention Cancellara's surprising upset win. Check for streaming video options on the internet. You won't be disappointed.