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: Sherwen on the Bonk

Paul Sherwen, narrating video of Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel struggling on the last climb of Stage 13:

“Well, this is very much a situation, Phil, where you go, bridge to engine room–more power! But there is no power for Sylvain Chavanel this afternoon. This is the kind of thing that can happen on a nasty day through the mountains, especially when the bad weather comes down, you don’t feed properly, you don’t keep yourself topped up with energy, and it’s a question of boom-boom, and out go the lights.”

Tour de France: Chateau of a Doubt

We’re already more than halfway through the Tour, and we’ve refrained thus far from the familiar and pleasurable pastime of hurling brickbats at Phil Liggett. Yes, the Liggetisms are still filling the airwaves. But maybe from a temporary lapse in mean spiritedness, we’ve been cutting the Bebington Blatherer some slack (yes, he’s from a town called Bebington on the Wirral, near Liverpool).

And actually, the truce will remain in effect, because Phil and his somewhat less objectionable sidekick, Paul “The Widnes Whippet” Sherwen, aren’t really the targets of the whine we’re about to uncork. No, it’s their producers, the off-screen folks who shape the Tour telecasts, we want to address. So:

Dear To Whom It May Concern:

Enough with the chateaux already. Yes, we know France is an old and beautiful country with lots of eye-catching architecture. We remember that from last year’s Tour, and the one before that, and the one before that. Previous to the advent of Tour broadcasts in the States, we recall these history-text facts about France and the French: They helped us defeat the British. They had a revolution. They cut off heads, lots of heads. Wine. Statue of Liberty. Dreyfus. World War I. Maginot Line. De Gaulle. Indochina. Freedom fries.

Here’s the thing about having Phil and Paul reading their note cards about the Duc d’ Old Spice and the Comtesse Haagen-Dazs and the beautiful homes they built and maintained on the brute labor of their Renault-driving serfs: It ain’t informative, and it equally ain’t entertainment. So what’s it doing on your air? The droning of dates and names and who changed his socks and knickers where in 1576–that’s exactly the impoverished approach to history that repels 98 percent of those forced to endure it in classrooms.

Yes, Phil and Paul have to say something when the French whirlybird is circling Le Chateau de Fromage Grande and that’s the picture the folks at home are seeing. It would actually be refreshing to hear them just say what they’re actually thinking instead of the rote “facts” about the place: “Can you believe the size of that place?” “Says here it was built by the Vicomte le Ouizze in 1692. When do you think they got indoor plumbing?”

Very truly yours &c. &c.

That’s it. A modest plea to liberate us from the tyranny of the present’s dull grasp of the past. Besides that, after hearing Phil and Paul’s attempts to describe where they were in the Golden State during past Tours of California, I always wonder whether what they’re telling us bears any relation to what we’re seeing.

(A down-the-street informant tells us that the grand country houses and alleged cultural commentary are also a fixture on French TV. Our Informant (OI) says: “BTW, TV5Monde also does chateaux commentary, and they spend a lot more time on the chateaux, even do split screen with ongoing race action. So there’s a need to fill — a twitter feed with good sidelight details.” She also tells us we’re all wet on our distaste for the dry historical TV tidbittery: ” I like the extra pix and commentary of the chateaux, churches, and field art; it connects the event to a time and place. Sometimes it’s interesting, always good trivia. One of the things I missed during the Giro was any look at the countryside, and any informed commentary.”)

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. …

Tour Arborists

[Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett on Sunday morning as they narrated an aerial view of a French chateau southwest of Paris:]

Paul (informatively): You might not know this but in a very secluded part of the garden there’s a very old tree, a sequoia which was planted around about 1860.

Phil (surprised): The sequoia is not , not a tree of, indigenous to France, it’s Africa, isn’t it, the sequoia tree?

Paul (reassuringly): I believe it is.

Me: Sequoia. Sequoiadendron. Metasequoia.

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The Sprint Finish

Today’s Liggett/Sherwen call of the final 1,000 meters of today’s fourth stage in the Tour de France:

Liggett: Here comes the run by [team] Lampre now! As they try to bring Napolitano through! This is the first big sprint at the Tour and it is a free-for-all!

Sherwen: Julian Dean is there in the black and white and you can be certain that right on his wheel will be Thor Hushovd, one thousand meters to go, there is the flamme rouge, Quick Step [team] have got control now, they’re on the front but where is Tom Boonen? He’s not on the wheel of his teammates, there’s a line of [team] Milram, they’re looking after Zabel, there’s a lot of pink jerseys in there for T-Mobile, there’s a little bit of a switch, they’re going to start lining up for the finish line, they’re looking now at about 550 meters to go, Gerolsteiner [team] pulls off, still Quick Step in control. …

Liggett: Well, watch out for this little switch at 250 meters, it might disrupt the move here now, and still Robbie McEwen has not got through. I can see Robbie Hunter trying to get through, but they’re still not going to make a big sprint. And Julian Dean’s on the front now! Dean has found his man Thor Hushovd! Dean the champion of New Zealand! Hunter coming on Dean’s wheel! Hushovd opens the sprint in the center now! Förster trying to get through on the right here as now Thor Hushovd hits the line at last.

Sherwen: Thor Hushovd was perfectly set up for the win by Julian Dean, I just saw the black and white jersey, the Kiwi national champion was right in the right place, he sacrificed himself completely. You need a sprinter to lead out a sprinter. Big Thor has not been superb over the last couple of days but at the end of the day when you’re set up like that by Julian Dean you have to say thanks very much, mate, and you have to finish it off.

Comment: My reaction to these guys’ work usually ranges from mild annoyance to outright disgust — yeah, I ought to just chill; this is just a bike race on TV — but I’ll say something nice here. The end of a sprint stage is beyond hectic. The racers accelerate from 35 to 45 mph, there’s a mass of bodies flying around, and everyone’s madly jockeying for position. What impressed me here is that Sherwen picked Julian Dean out of the crowd a kilometer before the finish line; he knows the players well enough that he correctly predicted that Thor Hushovd would be on Dean’s wheel. That turned out to be the crucial moment in the sprint. To exit slack-cutting mode, though: Both Sherwen and Liggett missed the real drama of the last 100 meters, when Hunter, the South African sprinter, jumped from Dean’s wheel to Hushovd’s in a desperate attempt for the stage win. He timed his finishing charge about a half-second too late and lost by half a wheel. Hunter crossed the line shaking his head and fist in frustration.

Anyway: The point is that the Versus Boys do this part of the race pretty well. Things are moving at light speed compared to the normal baseball, football, or soccer game, and somehow they manage to keep up with it.

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‘Suitcase of Courage’

A classic Paul Sherwenism in the closing miles of today’s Stage Four: “They’ll really have to dig into their suitcase of courage to pull this man back into the fold.” How do they carry the suitcase when they’re riding their bikes?

Phil Liggett: “… First of all the peloton still has to catch up with the leaders, and they’re still pulling it out, a minute five seconds now by the boys who simply refuse to say ‘never say die.’ ” So … they do say die?

And finally: A wonderful sprint finish to today’s stage. Thor Hushovd, a Norwegian sprinter, edged Robbie Hunter, a South African rider who managed to get onto his wheel over the last 100 meters or so. I’ll post the transcript of the Liggett-Sherwen race call for the final 1,000 meters a little later — it was actually something to hear.

(And in the meantime, I’m participating in a little guest-blogging week at CrabAppleLane. I did a little Tour commentary there yesterday.)

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Calling the Tour

Amid profound popular ennui, I will cease my mean-spirited critiques of OLN’s sterling Tour de France race coverage. Though — one last thing — you start to wonder if play-by-play man extraordinaire Phil Liggett will ever, ever get the difference between kilometers per hour and miles per hour. On practically every big descent on the tour so far, he’s taken a look at some picture of riders hurtling down the road, sized up the situation, then announced: “These boys are going ’round about 50 kilometers an hour here.” No, Phil, that’s 50 miles an hour. There’s actually quite a difference. Sometimes Paul Sherwen, the anointed OLN analyst, corrects him.

But my bashing aside, here’s the point: It’s not that Liggett and Sherwen are so rotten. It’s just that they seem to have a lock on the job no matter how well or badly they do — and much of the time they’re really mediocre. It’s hard to believe that there’s not a single English-speaking sports guy out there who’s deeply knowledgeable about competitive cycling and the Tour and who could sound half-way smart on the tube. Say (Kate’s suggestion) Greg LeMond (though Greg is on the outs with the whole “We Love Lance Armstrong” movement, so he’d never get the job. OK, then. Tyler Hamilton. Wait — he’s an accused doper.

Well, there’s got to be someone.

Today’s Tour Mystery

Phil Liggett just looked at a picture of a T-Mobile rider struggling off the back of the peloton on today’s (the 10th stage’s) final climb. “That’s Ullrich!” he gasped, meaning Jan Ullrich, the great racer known more as a perennial Tour also-ran. But it wasn’t Ullrich — it was one of the T-Mobile domestiques who was done with his turn in the peloton for the day.

But that’s just a small botched detail in today’s race. The truly impenetrable mystery for Liggett and OLN announcing partner Paul Sherwen is why Lance Armstrong’s team has been riding so hard at the front during the latter parts of the stage. The guys have been utterly mystified about it, guessing that perhaps it has to do with Lance’s fear of one of the riders in a breakaway that, coming off the second-to-last climb of the day was 4 or 5 minutes ahead of the main field.

But as the charge up the long last climb has developed, it’s apparent that Discovery has something else in mind: They’re applying as much pressure as possible to the rest of Lance’s rivals — all riding behind Discovery in the same group — to prevent any of them from making an attack. It’s like sucking the air right out of their lungs — they just don’t have much left to launch their own moves. And right now, inside 12 kilometers to the finish, it looks like the tactic has worked — most of the front group has blown up and dropped back.

Long way to go to the finish, though ….

OLN and the Tour: The Little Things

It’s a small thing I want to complain about — a very small thing in a world where dozens of people are killed in terror attacks every week, where our nation is sending young people into an ill-defined and badly executed war, where so many of us struggle with personal challenges large and small just to get by from day to with our sanity intact. With that preamble spoken, the further piece I want to say is: It’s a damned shame, and very strange, that the race announcers on the Outdoor Life Networks Tour de France coverage are so bad at their jobs.

I’m hooked on the race, and I’ll watch every day, the daily cascade of meaningless froth from the two play-by-play guys (Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen) notwithstanding. Granted, they have a tough job. They’re sitting in a booth at the finish line every day and trying to cobble together some meaning from the live TV pictures they’re seeing and radio reports they’re hearing. But having conceded the task is difficult, it’s still sort of shocking how shallow, careless and sometimes flat-out wrong the duo is.

Just one case in point that won’t mean anything to anyone but a dedicated watcher/follower of the Tour: During Saturday’s stage, Lance Armstrong’s team collapsed. Everyone knows that now, because both Lance and smart commentators have been talking about it ever since the stage was over (Lance’s take in a post-race interview: “It was a bad day for the team.”).

But while the saga was unfolding — when the OLN guys had this amazing drama right in front of them — they apparently had no idea what was going on. What a viewer saw was Armstrong alone in a large group of riders from other teams who freely took turns attacking him (trying to get away from Armstrong by making sudden rapid accelerations ahead of his group); he was left to respond himself to every challenge, which involved “covering” the attack, or matching the quick accelerations of his rivals to make sure they didn’t get away. The disappearance of all of Armstrong’s teammates, who ordinarily would play a role in covering the moves from other teams, was stunning and recalled his very tough 2003 Tour, when he was repeatedly left by himself to deal with a rather large and very hostile group of competitors.

Sherwen and Liggett picked up on the attacks, because that’s what the pictures showed. But about the more important development that wasn’t on camera, they said nothing. The equivalent in baseball announcing terms would be if the announcer decided to tell you only what he saw happening at home plate. A lot of what’s important in a game happens right there. But you only see the game if you take in the rest of the field.

That’s all. That’s the end of this OLN complaint and this broadcasting day.