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Tour de France

11 Posts authored by: Bruce Hildenbrand

The 2010 Tour is in the books and there was some real drama and a few surprises.The rider everyone tabbed to win did just that.  The rider everyone thought would come second also did that. Unfortunately, the rider who everyone tipped for the final spot on the podium finished out of the money.

 

Alberto Contador won the race showing exceptional climbing skills. Andy Schleck climbed on par with Contador, but he came up a bit short in the time trials and that was the margin of victory for the Spaniard.  The good news for Schleck is two-fold. First, his time trialing is really improving and at the ripe young age of 25 he should be closing the gap between himself and Contador.

 

Secondly, his brother Frank was not there to support him in the mountains.  With Frank at his side (or up the road) the race in the Alps and the Pyrenees would have been vastly different.

 

The positives for Contador are that he has admitted that his form this year was below that of 2009.  Also, he let the pressure of being the heavy favorite affect him too much. He had stomach pains caused by nerves.  Something he has never experienced before.

 

For Americans, the big news was the failure of Lance Armstrong to mount the same level of a challenge as he did last year. He admitted that he had more bad luck in this Tour than in any of the previous editions of the race. That proved too much for the 38-year old to overcome.  We saw a flash of his former brilliance in the breakaway on stage 16 into Pau.  A final stage win would have been a storybook ending and would have saved his Tour, but as Lance has said many times, in bike racing there are no gifts.

 

So, the 2010 Tour de France saw the emergence of a new rivalry. Contador is 27 and Andy Schleck is 25. Look for these two to continue to excite the Tour de France for years to come.  Its only about 335 days until next year's race.

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Not only in the Tour de France, but in all sport, the best competitions involve great rivalries. Whether it is the Yankees versus the Red Sox, Federer versus Nadal or the Celtics versus the Lakers, it is the great rivalries which drive sports.

 

In cycling, the greatest ever rivalry was probably Fausto Coppi versus Gino Bartali. These two Italians divided a country, but their rivalry united the same country after it was ravaged by World War II. In recent years, the Lance Armstrong versus Jan Ullrich battles defined the Tour de France. Yes, Lance won seven Tours, but without Jan in his rear view mirror, those victories wouldn't have been nearly so exciting.

 

It started in the Alps, but the rivalry between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck reached new heights on the Tourmalet. With three miles remaining in today's stage, Schleck launched a blistering attack in an attempt to shake Contador and reclaim the yellow jersey. Unfortunately, the Pistolero from Pinto was equal to the task. In fact, he responded to Schleck's move by unleashing an attack of his own. When Schleck caught back up to Contador, he gave the Spaniard a look that can't easily be described in words.

 

Alberto Contador is a far superior time trialist to Andy Schleck so, if all goes according to form, the Tour is over today.  Contador will win his third Tour de France. But, what most sports fans will remember is that Andy Schleck made Contador earn every stitch of fabric in that yellow jersey.

 

Bruce

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Stage 15 from Pamiers to Luchon provided yet more drama as Andy Schleck's chain derailed just as he laid down a blistering attack near the summit of the day's final climb, the Port de Bales.  Because, on paper, Alberto Contador is such a superior time trialist, Schleck needs to gain time on the Spaniard if he has any hope of wearing the yellow jersey after the 32 mile(52km) time trial in Bordeaux the day before the Tour ends in Paris.b

 

Unfortunately, Schleck lost approximately 45 seconds dealing with his derailed chain. That was just enough time for Contador to take over the yellow jersey.  The big question after the stage was whether Contador should have waited for Schleck to fix his chain since Schleck was wearing the yellow jersey at the time.

 

There is an unwritten rule that you wait for the yellow jersey if he has a misfortune such as a crash or a flat. The rule is less clear for something like a derailed chain. Having a chain come off is usually user error. User error does not fall under the unwritten rule of waiting for the yellow jersey.

 

Some might argue that a crash is user error and that is a good point, but it seems like the pros don't view a slipped chain as being in the same category.

 

Also, it is important to point out that when Sylvain Chavanel crashed on the cobbles on stage 3 while wearing yellow, nobody waited for him.  In fact, it was Andy Schleck's team, Saxo Bank, driving it at the front. To be fair, it must be pointed out that neither the Saxo Bank director sportif, Bjarne Riis, or Andy Schleck himself think that Contador should have waited. This issue seems to have more traction with the fans than the riders themselves.

 

Contador was not obligated to wait. It was a racing incident.  He probably shouldn't have said that he didn't see what happened because he probably did. But, besides that, I don't think what Contador did should be considered unfair sportsmanship and the riders in the Tour agree.

 

Bruce

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One only has to look at how close the team competition is between Radio Shack and Caisse d'Epargne to realize that Lance Armstrong's Tour de France is far from over. With a difference of only 21 seconds after 13 stages, this is one of the closest battles for the team title in recent years. The third place team, Astana, is over 15 minutes arrears.

 

The team competition is calculated by taking the stage time, not overall time, of a squad's top three riders each day. Going into the Tour, Radio Shack's top three riders were Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden. Luckily, when Lance faltered on stage 8, Chris Horner was there to take up the charge.  Jani Brajkovic is also a rider who can contribute if someone else falters on a stage.

 

You might think that the Tour is all about the yellow jersey or at least a combination of jerseys.  In fact, the team competition is a very desireable prize.  After all, cycling is a team sport.

 

The competition for the team prize resulted in an unexpected stage win for Radio Shack. Because the battle for the team prize is so close, if a breakaway with a Caisse d'Epargne rider goes up the road, Radio Shack has to have an equivalent number of riders in that breakaway as well.  If the break gains time at the stage finish, that time gain must be matched and better yet, improved.

 

So, when Vasili Kiryienka of Caisse d'Epargne got into the breakaway on stage 11 Radio Shack's Sergio Paulinho covered the move.  His intention at the outset was just to keep an eye on Kiryienka.  However, on the final climb when the breakaway disintegrated, Paulinho found the strength to go for the stage win.

 

So, when the race enters the Pyrenees, besides working for Levi to get on the podium, you will see Team Radio Shack trying to keep at least three rides near the front of the race to help keep their hold onto the team prize.

 

Bruce

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Just when you thought all the drama was being created in the mountains of the Tour, the sprinters decided that they needed a bit of the limelight.  Team HTC-Columbia rider Mark Cavendish scored his third stage win in Valence on stage 11, but that wasn't the drama.

 

What caused all the drama was that in the final 400 meters of the sprint, Cavendish's teammate, Mark Renshaw, head-butted Garmin-Transition rider Julian Dean. The Garmin-Transition team filed a protest and the race referees decided to throw Renshaw out of the race. This is an unprecedented move.  To be sure, Belgian sprinter Tom Steels was tossed a few years back when he hurled a water bottle at another rider, but head-butting is pretty common in field sprints.

 

In a team statement after the incident, Renshaw said that his head-butt was a defensive manouver which was required because Dean was using his elbows to crowd him and he had to make the move or both he and Dean would have crashed. Interestingly, when interviewed right after the race by Versus TV Dean didn't not feel that anything irregular had taken place during the sprint.

 

Regardless of what happened what is interesting is the the race referees decided to toss Renshaw out of the race.  In the past when such head-butting incidents have occurred, the rider is just relegated to the back of the pack.  That usually means that the affected rider forfeits their stage win.  However, in this case, it was Renshaw's teammate Cavendish who won the stage so relegating Renshaw is really no penalty at all.

 

If you believe there should be a penalty in this situation then the question is what should it be?  Should you take away the stage win from Cavendish even though it was his teammate who did the head-butt?  Was the head-butt critical to Cavendish's win?

 

I personally believe that Renshaw should have been relegated to the back of the peloton for the day's stage.  That is what is done if you have won a stage using that tactic. Why should the rule change just because you didn't win.  Yes, it is a bit of a meaningless penalty, but sometimes that is the way it plays out.

 

What I am guessing happened with the ruling is the the referees thought that relegating Renshaw to the back of the peloton was not a stiff enough penalty and since they really couldn't take the stage victory away from Cavendish they decided to throw Renshaw out of the race.  I don't agree with this decision and think the referees have to let this one go and amend the racing rule book to have a more fair way to deal with this situation when it arises again.

 

Renshaw should be allowed to start tomorrow. If not, then the referees got this one very, very wrong.

 

Bruce

 

ps - is this a continuation of the rivalry between Garmin-Transitions and HTC-Columbia?

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The Tour de France is just about to leave the Alps and it is down to a two-man race. Many expected the third week to be where all the fireworks would happen, but when the race finally went uphill at the end of week number one things just exploded.

 

Stage 7 from Morzine-Avoriaz wetted our appetite. Unfortunately, Lance Armstrong was not among the favorites who climbed to the massive ski area built by the founder of Vuarnet sunglasses, Jean Vuarnet. But, all the other favorites save Bradley Wiggins made the train.

 

Stage 8 provided the real drama as the race finally reached its first, true hors category climb, the Col de la Madeleine.  This 5500' ascent in about 12 miles is usually very selective and two of the pre-race favorites, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck took the opportunity to show why they are the strongest riders in the race.

 

What made this stage particularly exciting is that instead of waiting for the steep section, which occurs about three miles from the top, Contador put his Astana team on the front at the bottom and decided it was time to put everyone in a spot of bother. And that they did.  Andy Schleck, sensing that his rivals were in difficulty attacked and only Contador could follow.

 

The two played cat and mouse for a few kilometers until it was clear that the best option was for them to work together and eliminate the rest of the field from contention. It was a grand show of bike racing, something which brings forth all the emotion and passion of cycling.

 

So, now we are down to two contenders for the yellow jersey.  Certainly, the decision will be made in the Pyrenees close to Spain and Alberto's fans. I would normally bet on Contador, but Andy Schleck is showing to be very tough and we may have to wait until the final time trial to see who will wear yellow in Paris.

 

Bruce

 

ps - the race for the third spot on the podium will also be very exciting as a group of six or seven riders, including three-time Amgen Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer.  Leipheimer stood on the podium in Paris in 2007.  This time around he will have Lance Armstrong as a domestique to help him in the mountains.

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Stage 8 proved, that for Lance Armstrong, Murphy was right.  Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Texan. All you have to do is see the chilling You Tube video of his second crash to understand why he is no longer in contention for the yellow jersey. The video is reminiscent of the Sioux City plane crash in the mid-80's.  Both the Lance and the plane were seen cartwheeling at high speeds down the asphalt. Not good.

 

Lance doesn't need to make any excuses for what happened on the road to Morzine-Avoriaz.  Last time I checked, they don't take away your seven Tour de France wins because you crashed in your thirteenth Tour and had a bad day.  He is still a Tour champion, it's just that he will not be the Tour champion in 2010.

 

More to the point, Lance's second crash was bad for two reasons.  First, going down at 30+mph is never going to be fun. Ever.  Secondly, the crash occurred just before the difficult Col de la Ramaz. It is essential at the Tour that you start at the front on the critical climbs. You do not want to have to waste energy closing gaps as the slower riders in front of you come off and get dropped.

 

In Lance's case, he had to use a lot of energy just to regain the peloton before the climb started.  Then he had to use even more energy to move up to the front. Add in the fact that Team Sky was drilling it at the front for Bradley Wiggins and you have the perfect storm of bad luck for Lance.

 

Lance has not had too much bad luck when he won his seven consecutive Tours. Probably the most memorable was 2003 with the crash involving Joseba Beloki on the stage to Gap and the infamous mussette in the handlebars on the summit finish at Luz Ardiden.  In both those cases, Lance as able to regroup and overcome the bad luck.  That didn't happen yesterday. One look at the crash video and you know why.

 

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Up at the front of the race it was a day for the overall contenders to solidify their position at the head of the peloton.  All the racers have been saying that the Tour will be won in the Pyrenees in the final week which means that now while the race is in the Alps, it is time to thin out the herd a bit so the real contenders don't have to watch too many adversaries as the race concludes.

 

Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck are clearly the best of the favorites. Levi Leipheimer was right there at the finish with this supremely select group, but the 2+ minutes lost on the cobbles on stage 3 is still something he will have to try and overcome if he wants to be on the podium in Paris.

 

Bradley Wiggins was a bit of a disappointment, but he has the ability to regroup. It was nice to see Garmin's new team leader Ryder Hesjedal close to the leaders on the final ascent.  I really hope now that he can put in a good ride and finish high up in the overall.

 

Bruce

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Bicycle racing is a team sport and that is most evident at the Tour de France. Because the level of competition is so high at the Tour you don't win unless you have good team tactics behind you.

 

Mark Cavendish won stage 5 with good team tactics.  His team fulfilled three major roles on the way to victory.  First, the team has to protect Mark from the wind and other riders so he can conserve as much energy as possible. That is the energy he will use to power past his competitors in the final few meters.

 

Secondly, his team must ride a steady, fast tempo at the front of the peloton which ultimately, chases down any breakaways.  If there are riders up the road in front of Mark then he is not sprinting for first place.

 

Lastly, in the final few miles, the team will come to the front to set up the "leadout train". This is, literally, a train of riders with Cavendish the caboose.But, unlike a real train, the goal is for the caboose to cross the line in front of all the other cars in the train.

 

Most leadout trains have four to six riders including the designated sprinter. The rider at the head of the train will go as hard as he can and when he tires he will pull off. The the next rider will go as hard as he can and pull off. The goal is for the second to last rider in the train to pull off somewhere between 150-200 meters before the finish line so the designated sprinter can power across the line for the win.

 

Each of the riders in the train pull for between 300 and 500 meters so that means that a really good train takes control of the race with as much as three kilometers remaining.  If the run in to the finish is particularly tricky, they might start working even further out.

 

Mark Cavendish was almost in tears thanking his teammates for their efforts in helping him win stage 5.  He knows he could not have done it without them. Now you know why.

 

Bruce

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I wrote previously of the drama of the early stages of the Tour.  There was even more drama on the Tour's second stage as a huge crash on a slippery descent with 20 miles remaining brought down a significant portion of the peloton including a number of the favorites including Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador and the Schleck brothers.

 

Such as massive pile-up so far from the finish could have had major implications on the fight for the yellow jersey, but just when things reached a critical stage a patron of the peloton, Fabian Cancellara, emerged and asked everyone to slow down so that those affected by the crash could regain the peloton. It is a bit debatable, but Cancellara's actions to slow the peloton certainly allowed the lone breakaway rider, Sylvain Chavanel, to win the day's stage and by such a margin that he took the yellow jersey off of Cancellara's back.

 

At first this might appear to be a very selfless act by Cancellara.  However, it must be noted that at the time he declared a truce, his teammates, Andy and Frank Schleck were still trying to regain the peloton after crashing.  So, the reason for Cancellara's actions are not entirely clear.

 

Regardless of his reasons, Cancellara's decision to ask the peloton to ride slowly is something that is rarely seen in bike racing. If the yellow jersey crashes it is common etiquette for the riders to wait, but when so many racers are affected by a crash there is no written or unwritten rules of the road on what should be done.

 

Personally, I think what Cancellara did was the right thing to do. The fact that so many riders went down seems to indicate that there might have been something on the road which caused the crash. This is something that is out of control of the riders so they should not have to pay a heavy penalty for what has happened.

 

But, this is, admittedly a very slippery slope.  Clearly the Tour race organizers are looking to add some difficulty by including cobbles on stage 3. So, what is the difference between a slippery road and slippery cobbles.  If there is a massive pile-up on the cobbles on stage 3 should the peloton ride slowly to allow everyone to regain the lead group?

 

Bruce

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The Tour de France has officially started and though the first mountain stages are almost a week away, there has been more drama than I can remember in past years. You would think the that riders would take it easy and relax with the Alps and Pyrenees looming in weeks two and three, respectively, but that seems to never be the case when it come to the Tour

 

But, this year the hecticity that is the first few stages was magnified by a combination of factors that can only be found in that greatest of all bike races.  First off, the race started in bike-crazy Holland where just about everyone rides a bike and I mean everybody.  That fact translates to hoards of people lining the roadside to catch a glimpse of the race. The Tour only comes to Holland every once and a while and the Dutch know an opportunity when they see it.

 

Unfortunately, the Dutch also brought their dogs and some didn't have leashes. Add in the fact that it is very windy on the west coast of Holland and the levee-enabled country has a whole network of bridges some of which are pretty narrow and the potential for crashes goes up exponentially.

 

If that wasn't enough reason for a few off-the-bike excursions take 200 of the world's best cyclists (which means they have engines like a Ferrari) and try to put a bit of a rev limiter on all that horsepower and, well, you get the picture.It's kind of like trying to tell Michael Schumacher, when he is behind the wheel of a sports car, to obey the speed limit.

 

The good news is that if the riders survive the cobbles on stage 3, the race should settle down a bit and find its rythmn.  Of course, returning to France from the sojourn in Holland and Belgium does mean a few more roundabouts (for some reason the French hate stop lights).  Hopefully, the peloton will find its collective center and things will settle down a bit.

 

Bruce

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Lance Armstrong announced early this week that this would be the final Tour of his career. For most riders that usually means one more Tour after the announcement, but I think Lance really does want this Tour to be his last.

 

It seems like this year, Lance has been a bit more distracted with off-the-bike activities. To be fair, most of these activities have centered around his global awareness of cancer work, but it still means time away from training and focusing on the task at hand.

 

Up until the recent Tour of Switzerland, I would have been concerned that Lance was not going to be at full speed coming into the Tour. However, Lance finished second overall in Switzerland which is a good sign for a season plagued by illness and crashes.

 

Lance's second place in Switzerland was a combination of a good day of climbing in the race's critical mountain stage and a good day time trialing on the final stage. It is consistency which wins the Tour de France and Lance was consistent enough to place second at the Tour de Suisse.

 

But, there is a bit of a concern on the fitness side for Lance.  He finished out of the top 10 in the final time trial. There are two areas of concern here.  First, he was beaten in the overall by Frank Schleck. Frank outclimbed Lance and he was good enough in the final time trial to hold onto first place.  That means that the gap between Lance and Frank is closing in the time trials.  If the gap stays the same or continues to close, Lance may not have the same advantage over the Luxemborg rider which was critical for putting Lance on the podium last year.

 

Secondly, Lance is used to winning time trials or at least finishing top three. The fact that he finished 11th means that there is definitely more work to be done before he is ready to throw down at the Tour where the level of competition is much greater.

 

So, Lance's Tour de Suisse result was encouraging, but is he really ready to climb back onto the podium at this year's Tour? It will be his last opportunity to do so.  That would be a fitting ending to a great Tour de France career.

 

Bruce Hildenbrand

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