The 2009 Vuelta a Espana(Tour of Spain to us 'Mericans) is finally getting interesting. Not that the race hasn't had a few surprises and some great moments for Americans and American teams, but the race for the overall has been, well, uh, er, a bit boring. There have been a number of marquee names vying for the top step of the podium such as Alejandro Valverde, Ivan Basso, and Cadel Evans. But, until Sunday's summit finish at La Pandera, all the GC riders seemed to be spending more time watching each other than actually trying to win.
The result of all this cat and mouse is that a number of lesser riders have been stealing the show from the stars. Hey, it is great to see more riders get a chance to shine, but it makes the racing a bit jaded if we have to wait five minutes after the stage winner to see the overall contenders cross the line. That might be OK on the flatter stages, but in the mountains, the big boys should be at the head of affairs and not trying to share TV time with racers who arrived at the bottom of the last climb with a ten minute lead.
Having said all that, it was great to see Tyler Farrar win his first ever stage of a grand tour. He was oh, so close in both the Giro and the Tour on numerous occasions and while his main rival Mark Cavendish was not in Spain, last time I checked they aren't just giving stage victories away for showing up. This is a great result for the Garmin-Slipstream rider in his first full season as a pro. I think it bodes well for his future in the sport. Also, having an American who can win a bunch sprint will definitely make watching the flatter stages of the grand tours much more interesting for American fans.
Garmin-Slipstream also won a mountain stage with Ryder Hesjedal taking the stage to Velefique. While he was one of those lesser riders off the front stealing the stage from the GC contenders, Ryder rode smartly and made his opportunity count. I really like Ryder and hope that this is a portent of big things to come.
Which leads us to Sunday's stage and the finish at La Pandera. The final 5-mile climb is really tough and provided a cornucopia of drama when overall race leader Alejandro Valverde was dropped by Ivan Basso and Robert Gesink with about three miles to go on the climb's steepest section. It looked like Valverde was going to have his usual one bad day in a grand tour and drop out of contention until he got a second wind and started chasing down his competitors.
Valverde not only succeeded in catch Basso, but he also bridged up to Gesink who was on his way to taking the overall race lead from the Spaniard. It was a display of determination worthy of a champion and it might just be the winning moment of the race. Finally, the Vuelta is getting interesting.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
While Mark Cavendish won his record-tying eigth career stage win for a Briton, Garmin-Slipstream's Tyler Farrar came disappointingly close to beating the Manxman in the dash for the line. Heading into the final two hundred meters the order was Cavendish, Hushovd, Farrar. Unfortunately for Farrar, Hushovd was unable to hold Cavendish's wheel and Tyler had to take the long way around to the left in an attempt to keep contact with the Columbia-HTC rider.
Frankly, if Tyler, and not Hushovd, had been on Cavendish's wheel, I think Farrar could have taken the stage. Even after having to go the long way around, Farrar came oh, so close. It is only a matter of time before the Garmin-Slipstream team get a stage win from this rising star. If Cavendish fails to make it through the Alps, look for the argyle to be at the front on the Champs-Elysees.
Hats off to the race officials for reversing their decision yesterday of calling a split in the peloton and docking a huge group of riders 15 seconds. This certainly is turning out to be a Tour of surprises. As a result, Levi Leipheimer is back in fourth and Bradley Wiggins is back up to fifth. If you don't think 15 seconds can make a difference, remember 2007 when Levi missed the second spot on the podium by only eight seconds. Then there was the 1989 Tour when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon also by eight seconds.
In today's stage, Garmin-Slipstream rider Ryder Hesjedal suffered a bad looking fall with about 40 km remaining. He got up shaking his wrist much like Robert Gesink about a week ago. Hopefully, Ryder is OK as he will be much-needed in the Alps.
The Skil-Shimano team received one of the wild card invitations to the Tour de France. They lined up in Monaco against 18 Pro Tour teams and have been battling ever since. I talked with rider Koen De Kort on what it like to be the smallest budget team in the Tour and to be riding against the top squads in the sport.
Bruce: What does it mean for a team like Skil Shimano to be in the Tour de France?
Koen: It is great for us, obviously, to be able to ride here. It is the biggest cycling event in the world. It is more than just a race. It is a complete, big media event. There are so many people around all the time. It is great for us to be here. I think before, everyone saw us as the smallest team, but, especially in the first week, we proved that we belong in this race. I think we have done a good job so far.
Bruce: Do you feel like the team has upped their game a level to be here?
Koen: Yeah, absolutely. I think we all have got pretty good form going into this race and really we got to show ourselves in the first week. We don't have any real climbers so we are taking it easy for these Pyrenees stages. After that we have some nice stages for us, again and you will see Skil in the front line for sure.
Bruce: How has your reception been in the peloton with the Pro Tour teams?
Koen: Most of the boys I have known for years. It is my fifth year as a professional so most of the guys I have already seen and talked to. They know what we are like and we've actually had really good comments on how we have been riding in the first week especially the day (stage 3) with the echelons where we had so many guys in the first group. That really got us a lot of respect from the other teams.
Obviously, sponsorship dollars are critical to keeping the sport alive. When Bob Stapleton re-launched the old T-Mobile team as Team High Road Sports in 2008, it was an indication that he had yet to secure a title sponsor. However, just before the 2008 Tour, Columbia Sportswear signed up as a co-sponsor which caused the team to scramble to get their new sponsor's logos on all their team equipment.
The team was named Columbia-High Road indicating that there was space on the jersey for another co-sponsor. Well, just before the 2009 Tour, the Asian cell phone manufacturer, HTC, signed on and the scramble was on again. I caught up with Bob to talk about the events.
Bruce: What was it like putting together the HTC kit at the last minute?
Bob: It is a good thing we had the practice last year with Columbia. We have been super busy. We started talking with HTC in April and signed in June and have been busy branding buses, getting new kits and literally tomorrow's-clothing-arrives-today sort of thing on the team kits.
Bruce: What are the details behind the committment from HTC?
Bob: it is three years. They are committing as a co-sponsor. I am very optimistic about them. They are one of the top mobile electronic companies in the world. They design and build the Google phone and a number of really leading edge devices. Now, they are launching their own brand, HTC, internationally and we are a part of that strategy.
Bruce: Word is that they decided to go with cycling instead of sponsoring a Formula One team. What was behind that decision?
Bob: As you know cyclists are quite affluent. They are big consumers. They are very technically sophisticated. That is similar in other countries, but I think they felt that cycling fit the lifestyle of many of their potential customers and that was an instant emotional connection they could make with their brand. I think that is very smart marketing and I think they are going to be rewarded for their confidence in the sport.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The Garmin-Slipstream team announced its 9-man roster for the Tour de France. Not surprisingly, Christian Vande Velde will lead the squad. He finished fourth last year and looked very good doing it. The only question will be can he regain the fitness necessary to be competitive after a serious crash in the opening stages of the Giro? Recently, at the Tour de Suisse (Tour of Switzerland) he looked like he is on the way back, but there is some more fitness needed to contend for the overall. Luckily, Christian knows how to make it happen.
The team will also include Bradley Wiggins who came within one second of winning the final TT at the Giro. Besides being counted on to place highly in the time trials he has lost a reported 9 pounds(4 kilos) and will be a key support role for Vande Velde in the mountains. The multi-Olympic gold medalist will also be part of the leadout train for Tyler Farrar. Bradley will be earning his money at the Tour.
David Millar and Dave Zabriskie are included on the team for their time trialing abilities. The team time trial on stage 4 is a goal for the squad and they have the horsepower to win it. Also, look for Millar to go for stage wins in a small breakaway on the flatter stages.
Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin are included for their climbing abilities and to support Christian in the mountains. Ryder played a key role in the Alps at the 2008 Tour and Dan Martin is one of the up and coming stars in the pro peloton with some outstanding performances in hilly stage races last year and this spring.
Tyler Farrar was one of the revelations of the Giro. He sprinted to several second place finishes behind Mark Cavendish. While he didn't get a stage win, he showed that he was ready to mix it up in the finale and had no fear in doing it. He could definitely win a stage of the Tour.
Julian Dean is the final cog, after Bradley Wiggins, of the Farrar leadout train. Look for Wiggins to go from 1km to about 600m with Julian taking it from there to about 200m. This train, which was new for the Giro, had lots of practice in Italy and is ready to launch.
Danny Pate also has immense time trialing skills, but as he proved on the stage to Prato Nevoso in last year's Tour he can sense an opportunity for a stage win and go for it. He was oh so close last year.
The Garmin-Slipstream team is a well-balanced squad that includes riders for all the tasks necessary to be competitive in the mountains, flats and time trials. Good luck boys!
The 100th anniversary of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy or just plan Giro) will start on Saturday in Venice and end three weeks later with a time trial around the streets of Rome. Only one American, Andy Hampsten, has won the event, but this year, another US rider comes into this grand tour with the form to contend for the overall. No, it's not Lance Armstrong who recently admitted that his broken collarbone suffered in March has delayed his fitness.
Three-time winner of the Amgen Tour of California Levi Leipheimer arrives at the Giro with the form and the motivation to attempt to repeat Hampsten's 1988 performance. Levi has been on a tear since winning the AToC, taking Spain's Vuelta Castilla y Leon and dominating several races in the US. While Leipheimer has the chops to shine in the mountains and the time trials, he is going to have to stay close to the front in the flat bunch finishes to avoid the crashes which seem to plague the Giro.
Look for Lance Armstrong to work for Leipheimer in the mountains and on the flats, but he should be given free reign to go full gas in the time trials. I am hoping that Lance will ride the entire three weeks, he deperately needs the racing miles if he is going to be a factor in the Tour, but I suspect that he might pack it in after the 60km time trial south of Genoa in the middle of the 2nd week.
The Garmin-Slipstream team made huge waves last year when they won the first stage team time trial. This year, the first stage will again be a TTT. The argyle boys have the talent to repeat and take the race's first maglia rosa, or pink leader's jersey. Again, like last year, the team will most likely be using this race as training for the Tour. Christian Vande Velde might test his form for a stage or two in the mountains, but don't look for him to be high up in the general classification. Tyler Farrar will need to outfox and outpower Mark Cavendish to win a bunch finish. Look for Tom Danielson to go stage hunting in the mountains.
The other contenders for the overall include Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. All three riders have won a grand tour so they are going to be part of the mix. Usually a rogue Italian climbs into the fray as well. What this makes for is a very open Giro with no clear favorite. I am putting my money on Levi and hoping that his team will be focused on supporting him all the way to Rome.
BTW, NBC Universal Sports will be carrying daily updates from the Giro both online and on their TV station. If you have Comcast Cable you are in. Also, some metropolitan areas (Bay Area and Denver, Yeah!) get the channel over the air with the digital NBC network.
As mentioned in my previous blog, the Garmin-Slipstream team held a week-long training camp in Boulder, Colorado from November 15th to the 23rd capped off by a gala team presentation on Saturday night. Over 800 people attended; it was a great time to mingle with team members, cycling VIPs, other pros and fans. I chatted a bit with several riders and team personnel, here's a report.
2008 was a breakthrough year for Christian Vande Velde who has toiled as a domestique for the first nine years of his professional career. Christian has had the opportunity to ride on some of pro cycling's best teams such as US Postal and Team CSC and has ridden in support of such outstanding team leaders as Lance Armstrong, Roberto Heras, Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre.
I asked Christian what he has learned about being a team leader while riding for such stars of pro cycling. "I think a little bit from everyone. Everyone had their own personalities not necessarily what I would do 100%. I am not going to do 100% Lance or Ivan or Carlos, but all those guys are obviously great leaders and had a great team behind them and guys who would lay on the tracks for them."
Of course, Lance is the gold standard with his seven tour wins and such a cohesive team. "From day one I learned a lot from Lance. He is a reminder every day when I see him. He is always looking me in the face when I turn the computer on. He is just a reminder to work hard and not leave any stone unturned." added the Chicago native.
Jonathan Vaughters brought some new recruits onto the team for 2009 most notably Bradley Wiggins, Svein Tuft and Hans Dekker. What was he looking for in choosing new riders? "Guys that fit in. Guys who would die for the cause. Of course they are ambitious, but not selfishly ambitious," replied the former pro.
Former US Postal, Discovery Channel and Cofidis professional rider Matt White is a director for the Garmin-Slipstream team and is usually found in the team car taking care of his riders during races. In 2009, the team will be part of the Union Cycliste International's elite Pro Tour, elevating the squad to the top tier of professional racing. What changes will the team have to make to rise to the occasion? "Honestly, not so much. There are a few races on the calendar that we didn't do, not so many, actually, we did a lot of Pro Tour stuff being a UCI Continental Team."
With overall wins in the Tour of Missouri, Route du Sud and a 4th place in the Tour de France, Garmin-Slipstream is clearly prepared to do battle in the biggest stages races, but can the squad be competitive in the spring classics? "If you look on paper, obviously we have a lot of time trialists. On paper we are the best time trial team in the world. We should be able to match Team CSC or any other team that is thrown against us. Our weakness is the classics," explains White.
However, with 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt, 2008 Paris-Roubaix fourth place finisher Martijn concludes the director sportif.
How does Tyler feel about his classics chances? "That's my number one objective going into the season. Those are the races I love and that's what I will be aiming at all winter," reasons Farrar.
What about a win in the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix for Farrar? "I hope so. I have been developing well for the classics. It takes a lot of experience and they are a special kind of racing, but every year I feel like I am getting a little better at them," replies the leader during stage 3 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
Martijn Maaskant had a breakthrough ride at the 2008 Paris-Roubaix. What will it take for the Dutchman to get on the podium at the cobbled classic? "I need to get more experience on how to read the race. You need to be able to tell how your opponents are doing. If they are good or they are not good. And when you get older, you get stronger."
Martijn learned a lot from his first trip into the He11 of the North. "The most important thing in that race is that you have to ride on the front because there are so many crashes and flat tyres you can't really ride in the back because if you get stuck behind a flat or a crash you lose so much time and so much power which you will need in the finale."
The most high profile of Jonathan Vaughters' new signings is Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins is a six-time World Champion on the track and a triple Olympic gold medalist, most recently winning gold in Beijing in the Individual Pursuit and the Team Pursuit. What would Bradley like to accomplish on the road in 2009? "I am still trying to branch out, really. I am still missing that Tour de France stage win. That's what I really want. Just to be part of this squad and win that team time trial in Montpelier at the Tour and put one of us in yellow, whomever it may be, Christian, Dave Z, David Millar. And then to go into Girona with the yellow jersey and defend from there that is something I really want to be part of."
"Besides of my own personal ambitions, being part of a team like that would be massive, yeah. I have never really been part of a team like that so it would be a massive experience and potentially, hopefully going onto the Champs de Elysees with Christian in yellow would top it all off" adds the Brit.
There is no doubt the the Garmin-Slipstream team has the tools and the talents to move up to the top of professional cycling. Matt White sums up the plan for 2009. "We were a big story last year, but now we need to capitalize on the big steps we made in the last four months."