The King is Dead; Long May He Whine

As a connoisseur of bad news for Cadel Evans, the defending champion of the Tour de France, I can’t help but savor the bitterness in this hometown report of his latest Tour travails:

“Cadel Evans’s Tour de France miseries have continued with more struggles on the final mountain phase of the race. The defending champion finished the 143.5km stage from Bagneres to Peyragudes in 18th place, 2mins,10secs behind convicted drug cheat Alejandro Valverde.”

That is a thing of beauty. The hero is struggling. But let’s put the spotlight on someone who was once busted for doping (and has served his penalty. If memory serves, he’s the second rider on this Tour, along with Garmin’s David Millar, to come back from a doping ban to win a stage).

As for Cadel: Yes, I half-ashamedly admit I’ve rooted against him for most of his career. And he reminded me why yesterday, when he blew up during a brutally tough stage in the Pyrenees and then explained it all happened because he had a bad tummy. That is the Cadel we had come to know and love before last year’s victory: the one who was quick with an alibi for every bad day. You just wonder why he doesn’t do what most of the other riders seem to do and say something like, “You know, I just didn’t have it today.”

In the end, I think Phil Liggett had it right in his recap for Australian TV: Evans didn’t have the form he had last year, “and the Tour always finds you out.”

Tour de France Stage 20: Time Trials

Eye-catching stat from today’s time trial: Tony Martin, the Stage 20 winner in a time of 55:33, won on the same course June 8, Stage 3 of the Dauphine Libere, in 55:27. For the civilian cyclist and for anyone who looks at the Tour racers as I do and assumes that the race takes a brutal toll on bodies, endurance, and psyches, it’s sort of a starling statistic. The guy dominated then, and he dominated today at the tail end of a race in which he’s been driven very hard to help his team’s sprinter (HTC Highroad, Mark Cavendish) and has had to go over all the big mountains with the rest of the pack.

I figured there were more interesting comparisons to be made between the Dauphine and Tour performances. Here’s another: Cadel Evans, who rode a very strong second today in 55:40, finished seventh on June 8 in 56:47. So there’s a guy who’s been driving very hard for three weeks–has been on the spot to cover all his rivals’ mountain moves and with his team’s help (BMC) has reliably kept himself out of trouble near the front of the pack–who made a major improvement in his performance in the space of six weeks. Thomas Voeckler, fresh off several harrowing days defending his overall race lead, improved by almost a minute.

One question it raises–no, not about doping–is what are the factors besides fatigue that might explain such an improvement. I’m not taking that on right now. Instead, here’s a side-by-side comparison of some of the other Dauphine/Tour performances on the Grenoble course used in both races (I haven’t done them–yet–all because my painstaking one-at-a-time method takes a little too long; I’m about to break out a spreadsheet to do the whole list):

Racer Dauphine time Tour time Change
Jean-Christophe Peraud 58:20 57:06 -1:14
Cadel Evans 56:47 55:40 -1:07
Thomas Voeckler 58:45 57:47 -:58
Lieuwe Westra 58:28 58:12 -:16
Kristjan Koren 58:10 58:09 -:01
Tony Martin 55:27 55:33 +:06
Sandy Casar 58:29 58:36 +:07
Rein Taaramae 57:23 57:36 +:13
Danny Pate 58:39 59:03 +:24
Adriano Malori 57:31 58:11 +:40
Vladimir Karpets 58:29 59:09 +:40
Nicky Sorenson 58:37 59:24 +:47
Jerome Coppel 57:35 58:24 +:49
Jeremy Roy 58:05 58:56 +:51
Christophe Riblon 57:04 58:12 +1:08
Maxime Bouet 58:22 59:32 +1:10
Gorka Verdugo 58:35 59:46 +1:11
Juan Antonio Flecha 58:42 59:53 +1:11
Robert Gesink 58:16 59:34 +1:18
Edvald Boasson Hagen 56:10 57:43 +1:33
Ramunas Navardauska 58:42 60:21 +1:39
Andriy Grivko 59:58 62:24 +2:26
Rui Alberto Fario da Costa 57:27 60:02 +2:35
David Moncoutie 58:29 61:58 +3:29
Joost Posthuma 58:36 62:09 +3:33
Geraint Thomas 57:03 60:48 +3:45
Rigoberto Uran 58:08 62:24 +4:16
Biel Kadri 58:10 63:03 +4:53
Brian Vandborg 58:20 64:00 +5:40

Tour de France: Stage 1, A Day for the Crasheurs

If crasheur isn’t a word in French, it should be, at least for the three weeks of the Tour de France. It would denote the huge crowds of racers hitting the deck on the Tour’s byways, as happened today more than once. I don’t know the details, but a typically incautious fan standing on the edge of a road managed to get hit by someone from Team Astana. The racer bounced off and veered into the very tightly packed peloton. Result: Lots of bodies on the pavement. Les crasheurs.

Somewhere up the road, Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert won the stage on a long uphill just ahead of Australia’s Cadel Evans. The good news in the high Evans placing: he’s a legitimate condtender in the race, especially seeing how the likes of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck were caught in or behind the mass crash and a subsequent mishap and lost more than a minute today. The bad news in the high Evans placing: We can count on hearing his whinging on a daily basis as the race progresses.

Tour de France: Learning to Love Cadel

Love Cadel? Just kidding. One of the side-effects of Tour watching is over-familiarity with the trials and tribulations of Cadel Evans. Which means: tipped as a perennial race favorite by the Brit commentators on Versus, he’s never quite shown up. But unlike some non-winning favorites you root for because they win sympathy in defeat through a show of panache or humor or some other token of class, Evans always seems to have had a whine ready about the tough conditions he couldn’t quite overcome, plaints about the long odds he’s always facing, or some other bit of unpleansantness. (Here’s the “You step on my dog, I cut your head off” moment from 2008 which shows Evans at his best; and here’s a brief review of Evans’s 2008 Tour, which thankfully he did not win.)

But there’s more to being a Tour fan than just hating Cadel. It stands to reason we ought to like someone in the peloton, and also that we dislike others nearly as intensely as we dislike Evans. Here’s a short list of who we love and who we find insufferable, with an attempt to rationalize our choices:

Guys We’d Ride With, If We Could Keep Up

Fabian Cancellara: Awesome power, but mostly he just seems like a cool guy. We liked what he did to control the peloton after the Tour’s big Day of Crashes (Stage 2) last week.
George Hincapie: The guy’s been in 15 TdFs and seems like the definition of the smart, selfless, capable rider. Again, he seems–and we’re aware how much we’re relying on the thin evidence of what we see on the telly–to be a cool, thoughtful, approachable human being.
Andy Schleck: The accent might be a barrier to understanding him, especially as he accelerates away from us on the first molehill climb of the day, but he seems like a decent sort. Great win on Sunday (Stage 8).
Jens Voigt: Tough and courageous, and seemingly never afraid to bury himself for a teammate or for an unlikely breakaway result.
Levi Leipheimer: A local (Northern California) guy who has stuck his nose into the elite ranks and has stayed there. I don’t seriously believe he’ll contend for the top step of the podium in Paris, but whether he does or not he seems to take each accomplishment or disappointment as it comes.
Svein Tuft: Who? Not a top performer in the Tour. But one hell of a guy. And no one has a better story.
Dave Zabriskie: We still remember his day or so in yellow. We still remember the story we heard of him borrowing a tube from a recreational rider here in the Bay Area. And we love his Yield to Life campaign.
Greg Lemond, Floyd Landis: You know, I saw LeMond at a regular old midwestern century once. He’d been hired as the honorary ride leader or something, and did the distance and hung out with folks in a park in downtown Milwaukee afterward. I remember him goofing around on someone’s hand-cranked recumbent. That was cool. More recently, he’s become a bit of a nag as the Cassandra for doping in cycling. As for Floyd: What a mess. But I’d still like to see if he’d talk about, ahem, The Stage, and whether he’s ever told the truth about any of it. One of these by themselves would be some kind of a treat. How about getting them together for a gabfest?

I’d Have a Beer with These Guys, As Long As It’s Not a Michelob
Really, we’re not worthy to kiss the hems of their jerseys. I mean, these folks seem sort of Olympian, and a couple of them are known to not suffer fools or second-place finishes gladly. Still

Lance Armstrong: Why? In his own way he’s the best.
Mark Cavendish: Our hearts go out to a guy who seems a little deranged by his emotions. We’d love to watch tape of some of his wins and hear him explain the strategy.
Alberto Contador: Tell us, please, what kind of guts it takes to attack on the most desperate climbs.
Johan Bruyneel: OK–not an active rider. But his book, “We Might As Well Win,” is a fine racing memoir even though it’s less than convincing laying out its strategy for success.

We Woudn’t Give These Guys Change for a Twenty Even If We Had It
We realize without being told that we’re being small and ungenerous in our opinions. But here’s a group that just rankles somehow.

Cadel Evans: Yes, we’re aware that there’s evidence to the contrary, but the guy seems like an unhappy, griping, pouty piece of work.
Thor Hushovd: Here we turn our back on our blind allegiance to one of our ancestral homelands, Norway, to deliver this verdict: Tour muttonhead extraordinaire. Just seems like a blockhead. Although it must be admitted he’s not to blame for the idiot commentators who persist in calling him “The God of Thunder.” But we never promised to be fair or reasonable in our judgments, did we?
Ivan Basso: It looked like he was the heir apparent to Armstrong, then he doped and couldn’t quite get his story straight about what he was or wasn’t doing. We have an expression for guys like this: dumbass.
Sylvain Chavanel: We should have a soft spot in our heart for this guy. After all, he crashed during one of the classics this spring, fractured his skull, and had to be put into a medically induced coma during his recovery. And now he’s won two stages in this Tour and twice worn the yellow jersey. Bravo. On the other hand, his riding seems to typify the strategically empty role of the French racers in the Tour. They seem to specialize in the long, desperate, and usually predictably fruitless escape.
Thomas Voeckler: Another hard-riding Frenchman. Next.
Alexander Vinokourov: He had a great Tour, once. It was 2003, he was wreaking havoc on the peloton and on his own team with his boundless daring, courage, energy, and lack of concern for tactics. In fact, he was the rider Armstrong and the ill-fated Joseba Beloki were chasing when Beloki crashed and Armstrong made his famous cross-pasture ride. Alas, “Vino” turned out to be a doper of the worst sort–the transparently lying kind. He was banned from cycling for a couple years, but last year appeared at the end of the Tour to announce he was taking control of “his” team–the Kazakh-backed Astana, run by Bruyneel, home of Armstrong, Contador, and Leiphemer.
In short, he seems selfish to the nth degree, though yesterday he did surprise by not attacking his own team leader (Contador).

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.

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. …

Evans: Australian for A__hole

We mentioned earlier we’re not huge fans of Cadel Evans, though we think less of ourselves for that. He’s gritty and tough as nails–a description that fits any rider in the Tour, though he’s faster than most of them. He’s also nastier than most of them if you judge by what you can see in public. Early in the Tour, Evans swatted a motorcycle-mounted gendarme whom he thought was riding carelessly. It was a great moment–on live TV and everything. As The New York Times notes in a story the rider’s antics of the past few stages, “Evans might be the only living person not in custody to have punched a Gendarme.”

Other choice Evans moments: Screaming at and batting at reporters who brushed against his injured left shoulder after he gained the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees. Head-butting a camera that got in his way after he lost the jersey in the Alps. And threatening, “I’ll cut your head off!” to someone who nearly stepped on his dog after one race.

Such behavior draws all sorts of head shaking and clucking of tongues. It is ugly, of course. But face it, what’s more delightful than watching some luminary losing it in public. We can only hope someone provokes Evans again on Saturday and gets him off his game enough that he finishes second or third overall on Sunday. That way he can do a reprise of his Paris Podium Pout of last year.

Below: The Worst of Evans, by way of YouTube.

Above: Evans after winning the yellow jersey. What a sweetheart.

Above: Evans shows helmeted head-butt technique. Cadel, would you mind winning a stage for my grandson Jimmy, who’s laid up with a touch of brain cancer?

Above: “Don’t stand on my dog, or I cut your head off.” Odds-on front-runner for The International Bicycle-Riding Pet Advocate of the Year!

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Today’s stage — the 15th already — was terrific in a way that only a mountain stage can be. The race leader going into the day, the Australian Cadel Evans, was only one second ahead of his nearest rival; another half-dozen or so riders were within two minutes. Evans’s Silence Lotto team appears to have no ability to protect him in the mountains. That idea of protection or having a strong team is often referred to in this grand tour racing. It’s not immediately evident what it means when you casually watch a stage, and even after you’ve gotten the hang of how racing is supposed to work, there’s part of the idea of team racing that seems a bit illogical. After all, the result at some point comes down to an individual rider’s ability to finish fast enough often enough that he makes it to the top of the standings. But the idea of team and protection is real and important, and here’s how it comes into play on a stage like today, which featured two big climbs, climbs of the caliber that stripped all the flat-land sprinters and bit players out of the race very early:

It’s true that Evans and every one of his competitors is riding alone. At the end of the day, their time is their time, and no one can make them go faster if they don’t have the stuff. One of the great and devastating examples of that truth is Floyd Landis’s ride in the Alps on Stage 16 in 2006. Not the heroic, (apparent) Tour-winning ride, but the one he did the day before. Under pressure to keep up with the men who were following him in the standings, Landis “cracked” — he couldn’t make himself go any faster as his rivals sped away up the final mountain of the day. He had a teammate with him most of the way up the last climb, a teammate who mostly served as a witness to the shocked looks of other racers passing Landis, who lost the yellow jersey as a result of the disaster. Having strong, faithful teammates was useless to him.

The other side of the coin is Lance Armstrong, who in most of his winning Tours was accompanied by a cadre of fast, aggressive, and courageous riders (Landis among them). What good did they do him? Well, on flat ground, they could offer some physical protection by staying close to their team leader. They could set the pace of the race, ratcheting up their speed to bring back dangerous breakaway bids or calming things down when necessary. But the modern Tour is a race won on the mountain stages, and the team can play a much more dramatic role there. That’s because in a close Tour, any racer with a hope of winning needs to climb reasonably well and needs to be ready to both attack (try to accelerate away from his opponents) and defend (discourage attacks by responding to them). To win the Tour, a racer must be able to do one or the other reasonably well; both would be better. When the enemy attacks, you get on his wheel and stay there. When he’s showing an instant of weakness, you attack and test his ability to grab your wheel. (It’s so much easier to sit in a room in Berkeley and write about this than to do it.)

It follows that it’s an advantage not to have to do all the attacking and defending yourself. As Armstrong and others showed time after time, it’s a huge advantage to have teammates around you on the climb who can discourage attacks by setting a fast pace, can respond to the inevitable attack when it comes, or can pace the leader back to a group if he weakens or if an attack gets away. Just as it’s an advantage to have a slew of comrades to help you in this combat, it can be a distinct disadvantage to have no one to work with. Especially, as in Evans’s case, when you’re wearing the yellow jersey and have just a one second lead in the race.

To cut to today’s chase, Evans arrived at the last long climb of the day with a small-ish group of riders that included virtually every one of his close rivals. As soon as the climb began, the one or two Evans teammates who had stayed with him onto the mountain quickly fell behind. That left him alone. But it was worse than that. In the group with him were four riders from a single team, CSC. One of the four was Frank Schleck, the man who trailed Evans by a second. Another was Frank’s brother Andy. A third was Carlos Sastre, a strong climber less than a minute and a half out of the lead. The fourth was Jens Voigt, a German who had no hope of winning the climb but who was there to pound out a fast pace as long as he could.

Soon Voigt was gone and Evans was left with the three other CSCs and a handful of others near the top of the standings (including Russian Dennis Menchov and Chicago native Christian Vande Velde). All the way up the climb, Evans’s opponents took turns attacking. He responded to every one. Finally, Menchov burst out in front in what looked like a decisive attempt to get away. But that venture came to nothing when he slipped and fell on the steep wet road and remounted as the group rode by. Sastre and Andy Schleck repeatedly broke from the group, forcing Evans to try to hang on to them. On the upper slopes, Sastre, Menchov, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde and German Bernard Kohl finally got away, leaving the Schlecks, Evans and a handful of others behind. In the last kilometer, Frank Schleck finally blasted away, too. Evans, having absorbed blow after blow all the way up the mountain, finally faded. He finished 47 second seconds after Kohl and Sastre and nine seconds after Schleck. With the racers packed so close together, that was enough to push him from first to third (Frank Schleck is first, Kohl second–for now).

The good news for Evans: tomorrow’s a rest day. The bad news: More Alps Tuesday and Wednesday, and still no team to ride around him.

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