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 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.

Tour de France Stage 14: Idiot non Savant

The delightful aspect of today’s stage: George Hincapie, in his fourteenth Tour, coming within a whisker of taking the yellow jersey. If you weren’t keeping score at home: At the end, the peloton brought back Hincapie’s breakaway just enough to deny him the maillot jaune (or MJ, as I’m seeing it tweeted). A slightly less delightful aspect of the stage: the post-finish recriminations about what various teams should have done, or shouldn’t have, to allow Hincapie, one of the class acts in pro cycling, to keep the prize. Some accuse Astana and the Armstrong/Bruyneel brain trust of setting a pace at mid-stage designed to keep HIncapie within reach. Some accuse Garmin-Slipstream of chasing aggressively late in the stage, providing the peloton with the impetus that allowed Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2R) to keep the yellow jersey.

To which we say: Please. It’s a race. A wise man–or a man at any rate–once said, “No gifts.” If there’s one guy in the entire peloton who understands what that means, it’s Hincapie himself.

And, if there’s one man who doesn’t understand that, it’s Phil Liggett. When Versus joined the stage live, with a little more than 100 kilometers to go, The Bebington Blatherer first noted the surprise of the day: that Hincapie was close to being the race leader on the road. Then he noted with shock and clucking disapproval that Hincapie’s old friend, Lance Armstrong, had ordered Astana to bring back the breakaway. He said this not once, but twice. He ignored the fact the time gap was hardly changing. He ignored the absence of any sign that Astana was putting out an effort. He ignored the time gap as it began to grow, a sure sign that no chase was under way. He ignored the fact that Johan Bruyneel, not Armstrong, would be the one to order any move. And he ignored the fact that just about any apparent move in the peloton 100 kilometers from the finish was not likely to have much significance.

To give Phil his due, though: with a nudge from Paul Sherwen, he did change his tune when the gap grew to seven minutes, then eight. Soon, he started waxing poetic about what life would be like when Hincapie had the yellow jersey. Teammate Mark Cavendish would be appreciative, Phil predicted: “George Hincapie is usually Mark’s roommate in the hotels, and George looks after Mark, it’s like a dad looking after his son. And he’ll be only too happy if he’s looking at a yellow jersey at the end of the bed of his mate, George Hincapie, tonight. It will be a very successful and a very nice feeling.”

Oh, Phil. Goofy. Prolix. Tireless. Not often with it. How can we not love you? How can we not be exasperated?

Tour de France: The Bad News, via Twitter


[7:30 a.m.: The update to Levi Leipheimer’s broken wrist: He’s having surgery. And he’s reporting on it–both tweeting and posting pictures: See @LeviLeipheimer at Twitter and levileipheimer’s images at Yfrog. The image above is captioned, “This is 22mm Titanium screw!” So the new model of an event-ending injury is get hurt, get diagnosis, get treatment, and show the whole world the process. Video with expert commentary can’t be far behind.]

Earlier post: A little after the sun comes up on the West Coast in about five hours, just about anyone who cares will know the bad news from the Tour de France: Levi Leipheimer is out of the race with a broken wrist. It’s a potentially race-changing injury: Leipheimer figured to be a key to the victory chances for his team’s co-non-leaders, Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. And if one of them faltered, he has developed into the kind of tough competitor who might have a shot at the overall Tour victory himself.

It’s interesting how the bad news broke. At 12:25 a.m. PDT, or 9:25 a.m. in France, Lance Armstrong sent out a Twitter message: “Woke up to bad news. Levi is out with a broken wrist. Damn..”

At 12:28 a.m. PDT, Astana team director Johan Bruyneel sent out his own message: “Starting the day with bad news… Levi has a fracture of the scaphoid (wrist). Not good!”

And at 12:33 a.m. came word from Leipheimer himself: “My wrist is broken. I can’t describe how disapointed I am.”

Anyone who’s following race news this way knows the basics of the story now. Meantime, a full half hour after Armstrong broke the story–and that sheds some light on what Twitter does to news–even the rapidly updated Google News is behind. They have a full palette of stories describing Leipheimer’s crash yesterday just before the finish, and a display quote in which he talks about escaping serious injury:  “My wrist hurts, but surprisingly it’s OK. It could have been a lot worse,” … “I was a bit surprised by a left corner …… my tire was sliding and I couldn’t quite save my bike from sliding out”

Team Time Trial: Rules, Please

Watching Stage 4, the team time trial, the Versus coverage focused mostly where it always does: on road mishaps, on any and all drama involving American riders, and on the clock. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the result of the stage–with race leader Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong ending in a dead heat for their total time–begged an explanation of how the heck the officials would break the tie.

There was mention of a “countback,” but no one ever said what that was, who did it, or how it worked. And I have to say, still not having done any homework on it, that I still don’t understand how Cancellara and not Armstrong wound up wearing the yellow jersey after the stage.

I’m no statistician or nothin’, but the gap between Armstrong’s Astana team and Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad was reported at 40.11seconds. Just to be clear, that means Astana’s team time, the time awarded to Armstrong, was 40.11 seconds faster than Saxo Bank’s. Going into the stage, Cancellara was 40 seconds ahead of Armstrong. Not 40.2 or 40.99–just 40. So if Armstrong was 40.11 seconds faster than Cancellara … isn’t his total time for the race so far .11 seconds better than Cancellara’s.

Well, no, if you believe what you saw during the post-stage podium presentation. No gripe from me–I think Cancellara is swell, and Ben Stiller looked cute playing the role of ugly podium girl (the actual podium girl was a knockout if I may say so). So all I’m asking from the genius broadcasters of the stage is to explain this to your public. That’s all. And if anyone understands the timing issue and how it was resolved, please tell us.

Another matter the Versus boys didn’t get around to explaining on the live broadcast this morning was how riders who get dropped during the team event are timed. Do they get the same time as the rest of the team? That was an especially important issue for Garmin-Slipstream, which had four riders go off the back during the TTT.

Luckily, the official Tour website has something to say on this:

“… The time recorded for a team will be the time of the fifth rider. For those riders who are left behind during the team time-trial stage, their own time (real time) will be applied and taken into account for the individual general standings. The organisers have decided to go for a relatively short stage (39 km) around Montpellier to limit the consequences of the cancellation of this “comprehensive insurance.”

The Tour: Stage 1

The official results and standings from the TdF site: Stage 1.

Take-aways on Day 1:

–Fabian Cancellara is, as third-place finisher Bradley Wiggins said, the man.

–Alberto Contador, in second, is also a man. Even a man to be reckoned with, as Liggett/Sherwen would say.

–Astana placed four in the top 10: Contador, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, and Lance Armstrong. What does that quartet have in common? They can all climb. If the team stays intact–out of crashes and away from injuries or other mishaps–it’s going to be a gang fight in the mountains.

–Unofficially, Armstrong won the battle today for the first TdF rider to tweet post-race. He was just ahead of Mick Rogers, Leipheimer, Wiggins, and Cadel Evans.

I will depart from tradition and register no complaints with the Versus coverage of the stage. Well, here’s one small thing: It always surprises me on the run-in to the time-trial finishes that the lads can’t give a more precise idea of how far out the riders are. I mean, the course is marked. And they have 180 riders to practice on. Instead, LiggWen get in a lather with their guesstimates of finishing times and you never know exactly whether the guys are 500 meters from the finish or 100.

We’re Back

I’ve neglected this little blog–partly a symptom of neglecting something far more serious: riding. But I won’t go into all that just now. For the next three weeks, anyway, I’m back.

In just a few hours, the lads will start clicking in and another Tour will be under way. There may have been a time earlier this season when I felt I had some idea of the shape of professional cycling this year; I mean, as much an idea as I ever have. I don’t have that sense now, and I haven’t been reading the racing media. In the U.S.A.’s general media–the San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, with its story today from a Hearst reporter somewhere–the Lance Armstrong fog has set in and set in good. Meaning that if you’re following the race from North America, it’ll be hard to see around the Lance legend during the Tour, or at least until it cracks, if it does.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine he’ll win this one. Even getting onto the podium will be tough. The competition on his own team is tough, let alone what the rest of the peloton will throw at him. Still: Contador had a low moment during Paris-Nice. Leipheimer has had some wonderful rides this year, both in California and Italy. But he didn’t produce the sort of indomitable performance in the Giro that might make you think he can break Lance.

No predictions, anyway. Except for maybe a couple non-racing ones:

–Cadel Evans will sulk, throw a memorable tantrum or two, and finish out of the money. Crikey. Even the guy’s Twitter feed sounds whiney and fussy.

–The race will be rocked by news that one of the riders was caught doping. I hope it’s Cadel.

–Paul Sherwen will not announce he’s retiring the “suitcase of courage.”

–No one will “turn themselves inside out” during the prologue Saturday. Sunday, riders might start doing just that during the first long breakaway.

–Untold numbers of riders will “dance on the pedals” shortly before experiencing “a spot of bother.” Phil Liggett says you can count on it.

–Sheryl Crow will knock Lance off his bike just as he’s about to win the Mont Ventoux stage. All she wanted was to have some fun. …

Rasmussen: He’s (Nearly Back)

BBC SPORT: Rasmussen hopeful of fresh start.

A month after he had the Tour de France yellow jersey torn off his back — they should have had a ceremony, like the one with Chuck Connors at the beginning of “Branded” — Michael Rasmussen might sign on with another team and race again this year. One can only imagine the hand-wringing from the anti-doping people about this blackguard being allowed to ride a bike again. In other news, another cycling entity disgraced during the Tour, Alexander Vinokourov’s Astana team, is also getting ready to race again.

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