Tour de France Aftermath: Shut Up and Ride

Before the Tour has vanishes entirely from memory, I just want to set down an impression or two. But not before a detour to take notice of the “war of words” between the winner, Alberto Contador, and his teammate, Lance Armstrong. To boil the thing down, Contador said he respects Armstrong the champion and the racer, but doesn’t like or admire Armstrong as a person and never has. Armstrong responded Tweet-wise, unloading pearls like “there’s no ‘I’ in team.” Pretty mild stuff, really, but it must delight the organizers of the Tour, who now have a grudge match to promote as next year’s premier attraction.

But back to this year’s race. Yeah, there was a little drama on the road, what with Contador unable to rein in his urge to show he’s the best and Armstrong and Team Astana clinging to the flimsy public fiction that leadership of the team was unsettled. That was always bull, and here’s why: Johan Bruyneel, like his riders, lives to win. For him, that meant an Astana rider in yellow on the Champs-Elysees as the Tour rolled across the finish line. He had one horse, and only one horse, who would get him there: Contador. Bruyneel was never coy about who he thought his strongest rider was, and Armstrong, after Contador’s decisive attack on the Verbier in Stage 15, conceded the point.

Yeah, you can talk about Contador’s ill-timed attack on Stage 17 that dropped teammate Andreas Klöden, a move that later prompted Phil “Pot Calls Kettle Black” Liggett to question whether Contador was intelligent enough to win on another team. But look again at what happened. Contador sat up as soon as he realized he and Andy and Frank Schleck had gapped Klöden. By then, though, the Schlecks had seen Klöden fall off and taken the initiative, and Contador had no choice but to follow them. There was a lot of talk that Contador’s move had cost Astana a one-two-three overall placing. Maybe. But that argument assumes the Schlecks would never have attacked themselves or would have done it too late to create the time gaps that relegated Klöden to a lower placing. They certainly showed they had the ability to attack in that moment: their pace finished Klöden, and their descent to the finish, with Contador as passenger, gained them even more time on all the chasers. The favor Contador did the Schlecks was to remove the need to decide for themselves when to jump. How much damage they would have done to Astana without Contador’s move–and, presuming they weren’t content to let Astana dictate pace all the way to the finish, they would have done some–we’ll never know.

But back to that impression.

It comes from Stage 16, a mountain stage on which Armstrong had become separated from the leaders’ group. He made a long solo attack from a trailing group to rejoin the leaders. And for several minutes, there he was, the Lance we remembered from all those years of dominating the race. Standing, accelerating, holding a high pace forever. It was thrilling, it was beautiful, as he passed one rider after another and gained on the official cars convoying the leaders to the top of the climb. On the team radio, Bruyneel sounded almost as surprised and excited as the people in the cafe where I was watching the race: “Lance is coming! Lance is coming alone!”

Not a race-winning move, to be sure, but a flash of strength that reminded you of how stirring this race and this racer have been.

Tour de France, Stage 20: Mont Ventoux Outlook

If you’re following the Tour, you know today’s stage finishes atop Mont Ventoux, a 6,700-foot summit in Provence. The climb from the town of Bedoin is about 21 kilometers. Average grade is 7.6 percent, but there are long stretches of 9 and 10 percent grades and some pitches as steep as 12 percent. Here’s a good everyday-cyclist’s description of the Bedoin route.

The climb is one thing, the weather on the mountain is another. Forecast today is for a high of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) at the foot of the climb in Bedoin. None other than Phil Liggett is reporting via Twitter that gale force winds–his term–are blowing at the summit (around 9:30 a.m. local time, a good five hours before the race will be on the mountain). Warm temperatures on the stage leading to the climb and winds on the slopes, combined with the urgency of the race leaders to hang onto their places, would raise the difficulty of the stage to extreme. Did I mention that half a million people are expected on the mountain?

So, the mountain is a known. The weather conditions are becoming clearer. What we don’t know is the race outcome. Here’s a guess at the overall standings after Stage 20, and we’ll judge how educated it was later.

Yellow Jersey, or My-Yo-Jawn: Contador will hold it. No one in the entire field has shown they can successfully attack him; conversely, he’s shown he can attack just about anyone at any time with a fair to excellent chance of success. It would have been interesting to see the outcome of his Stage 18 attack–the one that dropped Andreas Kloden–if he hadn’t sat up. How much time could he have picked up on the Schlecks before the descent. Twenty seconds? Thirty? Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough for him to stay away on the descent. Add to the fact he’s the strongest man his 4-minute 11-second advantage. The only way he loses yellow is a spectacular mishap or blow-up.

Second place: Andy Schleck. He’s got a minute and change on Armstrong. He could have a bad day and go backwards, but as in Contador’s case there’s no evidence of a bad day in store. Plus, he’s got the world’s most dedicated and reliable teammate in his brother Frank

Third: With four riders bunched at 38 seconds apart–Armstrong, Wiggins, Kloden, Schleck–this is the G.C. battle to watch. I’m pulling for Armstrong, but his words after Verbier–about how quickly he was at the limit and how clear he was that he didn’t have what it took to contend for that stage win–were direct and honest. At the same time, the Tour has changed since Verbier. The competition has been wrung out a little. None of the three men who could push Armstrong out of third have demonstrated they’re superior to him. In fact, Armstrong toyed with Wiggins on Stage 18 and dropped him at the top of the last climb. Frank Schleck was one of the many riders surprised to have Armstrong blast by them during his great bridge attack on Stage 17. And Kloden? Like Frank Schleck, he’s been the good teammate. I don’t see him attacking to get on the podium unless Armstrong simply can’t make it. So: advantage Armstrong, and the podium you’d have seen Friday is the one we’ll get Sunday.

Unless all sorts of crazy stuff happens. Sometimes it does during the Tour.

Tour de France: Stage 17 Notebook

Your Paul Sherwen Quote of the Day: On Astana’s plans for Andreas Klöden: “Over the last couple of days, it appears they’ve been keeping him in reserve as if they’ve been trying to keep him maybe as a protective dark-horse joker.”

‘Paging Cadel Evans’: He trailed from the very start, dangled off the end of the peloton at the top of the first climb, and finished 29:43 behind the leaders. It’s a performance reminiscent of Greg LeMond’s 1992 Tour campaign, which he abandoned. LeMond announced soon afterward that he was suffering from mitochondrial myopathy, possibly related to his 1987 hunting accident. Evans started raising questions about his own health after losing more than 3 minutes on Stage 16. He reported via Twitter, “I don’t know what is the matter with me at this #tdf, obviously I’m not at my usual level. I’m going to a Doc now :o(.” (Yes, with emoticon.) No word on what the doctor might have told him. On his finish today, Evans writes: “My first gruppetto in the #tdf ever. It was… fun actually. Strange talking to Aussie’s while riding, normally have everything to loose!”

The Ox from Grimstad: Thor Hushovd turned in a stunning ride today. The massive, Norwegian, annoyingly nicknamed “God of Thunder” hauled himself across today’s climbs with enough alacrity to beat Evans across the line. Early on, he stayed close enough to dominated the front to win two intermediate sprints and pick up 12 points in the green jersey sprint competition. His nemesis, Mark Cavendish, was nowhere near the front and took zip today; he now trails Hushovd by 30 points — 230 to 200. While being no match for Cavendish in a two-up sprint, Hushovd looks like he’s locked up the green by having a more effective all-around game.

Liggett & Sherwen, Stained Jerseys, and Biscuits: Watching Thor Hushovd go over the second col of the day ahead of all the climbers:

Phil: This rider is still stinging from the words of Mark Cavendish, saying ‘there will always been a stain on your green jersey because you took if from me on a protest down in Besancon, and I wonder if that’s inspired Thor Hushovd today to go out, beat the climbers, win six points, and probably the green jersey with it.

Paul: You could probably say that he’s taking that green jersey to the laundry, Phil, to get rid of that stain this afternoon, because if he can get himself 12 points on a mountain stage, that really does take the biscuit, because this is a very brave move by a man who probably weighs in 10 or 15 kilos more than the guys in the group behind him, the climbers. He weighs in at 80 kilos … which is … I’m not sure … you can do the calculation … multiply by 2.2.

Phil: I will, yeah, when I’ve got time. It’s a lot.