Sunday, July 25, 2010

2010 TdF All-Star Team

OK, first the easy picks for the All-Star team. Conveniently, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck were unequivocally better than anyone else in the race, so they take the two spots for GC riders. Likewise, there is a clear drop in the quality of the sprinters after Mark Cavendish and Alessandro Petacchi. Fabian Cancellara is a no-brainer of a pick for the time trial specialist, although it's worth pointing out that Tony Martin is an honorable mention (Martin was 17 seconds behind Cancellara in the stage 19 ITT, and the next best racer was about 90 seconds behind him). The two spots for climbers go to Denis Menchov and Samuel Sanchez. There is a reason why these two were in a tight race for the last podium spot, and it's because they were consistently in the elite group of climbers. Really, no one rode past them except for Schleck and Contador--they climbed better than everyone else in the race. My first pick for a domestique is Astana's Daniel Navarro, who always looked like he was about to collapse, but was amazing setting the pace in the mountains. He repeatedly whittled the peloton down to a couple dozen or less and was almost always Contador's last teammate. I thought Contador's team would be a liability, but Navarro made sure it wasn't. My final pick is Chris Horner, the unsung hero of RadioShack. Simply put, I don't think RadioShack wins the team competition without him. The big three on his team all faded at least one day in the mountains, but he never did, and finished top 10 because of it.

Other awards:

Iron Man: Cadel Evans. I can't see him ever wearing yellow in Paris, but he dug deep to wear it well (and stay in the race another two weeks) despite having a broken arm.

Biggest surprise (for good reasons):
Alessandro Petacchi, age 35, rode over the mountains and ended up with a green jersey in Paris.

Biggest surprise (for bad reasons):
Bradley Wiggins. It seems like he wasn't in the race. At least Armstrong had a couple good stages and helped his team win. VandeVelde & Frank Schleck crashed out. Evans at least wore yellow for a day. Wiggo was a complete bust.

Mr. Free Agency: How about Robert Gesink. I don't know when his contract expires, but today he's 24. He finished 6th overall. Just maybe he's got a good future in this, but he's going to have to learn how to do a time trial.

Worst thing about this Tour: The difference had more to do with machine than the guys on the machines.

Best thing about this Tour: A two part answer--Contador is now in the pantheon of the greats as a 3-time champ, but with Schleck's improvement, the gap between the two has narrowed, so we should have some great contests between the two in the coming years.

39 Seconds

With only the ceremonial ride to Paris remaining, Alberto Contador holds the yellow jersey by a 39 second margin over Andy Schleck.

On stage 15 Schleck lost 39 seconds to Contador after his chain slipped and he had to stop to repair it. Just what did Andy Schleck do to Fate to deserve such spite?

Although the chain issue made the difference in deciding the Tour, and although Contador is insulting everyone's intelligence in claiming he didn't know about it during the race, he doesn't have to apologize for attacking or for winning the race. Schleck had launched his own attack moments before--he threw the gauntlet and the race was on. Bad things happen.

Their showdown on the Tormalet in stage 17 was epic. Even though Schleck failed to drop Contador, his effort was amazing. He showed he's stronger than every man in the race, except one. His surprisingly competitive time trial was equally impressive, closing the race with that ironic 39 second margin.

But maybe you can argue Schleck was stronger than Contador. He did win two stages, and he did drop Contador on the climb in stage 8, whereas Contador never won a stage and only dropped Schleck once, but for a slimmer margin. But even if we accept that Schleck was the stronger cyclist, Contador showed that when it comes to being a champion, he had what Schleck lacked. Whether you agree or not, Contador developed a winning game plan, took advantage of the moment of truth, beat Schleck in the Race of Truth, and played defense when needed. And while Contador was defending 8 seconds on the Tormalet, Schleck was not seizing the race by the throat like a champion. I don't doubt his effort--it was massive--but while watching him on the Tormalet, I got the impression he didn't have the psyche of a champion. I say that because a champion doesn't need to look to his competitor to figure out how the race will unfold, and a champion does not ask his rival if he's going to pass in the closing meters before the finish. A champion makes his destiny by looking forward, not backward. A champion does not look for his rival to come to the front for a pull, he rides his rival off his wheel. That's not to say he shouldn't look back--there is a good reason to look back and assess the other guy's form. But Schleck seemed to be using it as a crutch as he kept turning back to Contador, as though he could not dictate the race himself. Lance looked back at Ullrich, but he knew he was about to throw the hammer down, and he did it with the flair of a guy who knew he could strike the winning blow.

He's only 25, and he improved dramatically from last year, but to defeat Contador, he'll need to make as big a psychological maturation as he has a physical maturation. And he's got to get nasty and have a chip on his shoulder for more than 24 hours. He went from angry about a slipped chain costing him the yellow jersey to forgiving Contador within 24 hours. That will not cut it--he's got to treat Contador with the same contempt Fate has treated him--and we'll all enjoy watching the battle.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Luxembourgerish for Doh!

Andy Schleck's chain came of the track, and it cost him his shirt. That might be the most memorable thing about the 2010 Tour if Contador wins this thing by a slim margin. The debate whether or not Contador is a snake for leaving Schleck in the dust while he tried to re-set his chain could rage for a long time.

At least one thing I am certain about--Contador is a crummy liar if he expects us to believe he didn't see that Schleck had a problem with his bike. Considering that some guy in a bright yellow shirt was standing in the middle of the road and trying to pull a chain around a gear when Contador zoomed past him, this is one of the worst lies since "I did not inhale."

That said, if it was bad form of Contador to take advantage of Schleck's bike equipment problem moments after Schleck had dropped Contador like a bad habit, whining about it is bad form too. Besides, I'm not so sure Schleck would not have done the same. Cycling is a cutthroat competition. Them's the brakes. Champions overcome, and Schleck still has a chance. In fact, on day 1, if you had told him he'd be sitting 8 seconds off the yellow jersey after stage 15, he'd probably have been pleased. Champions also know how to control their rage, so if Schleck decides to go nuts on Stage 16, he might burn out and shoot himself in the foot. It's actually not a favorable stage to attack because the last climb is a few dozen km from the finish. He'd be better off letting Astana wear themselves out Tuesday and saving his attack for Thursday.
As for Contador, if he can drop Schleck in the mountains and beat him in the time trial, no one will argue he won dishonorably.

Meanwhile, RadioShack got three guys to the finish line before Banesto's top trio finished stage 15, so they took a 4 minute lead in the team competition. That's still a short lead, but it's the longest anyone has had yet.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The first day in the Pyrenees

I was kind of wrong about window dressing being over, as Schleck just stayed on Contador's wheel and they finished with the same time. I was definitely wrong about the strength of Astana, who were just great setting the pace on the two big climbs in stage 14. Meanwhile, Saxo Bank was AWOL. The funny thing is, Astana got nothing for their efforts and Saxo Bank wasn't burned. If anything, it is a morale blow to Astana in that they executed their plan well and got nothing. If I understood Schleck's post-race interview, he planned on playing defense in stage 14, but he hinted that he'll attack on stage 15.

As those two guys were watching each other, they let Menchov and Sanchez ride ahead, so the guys in positions 3 & 4 in GC picked up a few seconds on the guys in 1st & 2nd. It wasn't enough to put either of them in real threatening position (Sammy Sanchez is 2 minutes behind Contador), but if this game repeats itself, Schleck and Contador could find that they've shot themselves in the feet in letting these two guys get too close.

The team race had more drama, and Banesto took the overall lead back from RadioShack by 8 seconds. For a while it looked like Banesto would take the race by the throat when Kiryienka was in the group ahead of the peloton and Armstrong got popped off the peloton while Kloden and Horner struggled to stay with the peloton on the penultimate climb. By the time the race ended, though, Leipheimer had passed all the Banesto guys. Kiryienka, Moreau, and Luis Sanchez finished together a few seconds behind Leipheimer, with Kloden and Horner recovering to finish just a few seconds behind them. It's amazing that the team race is so close that a few seconds here and there are making the lead change hands so frequently. The current 8 second margin is virtually nothing, although RadioShack's advantage in the time trial is such that I think Banesto would need 3-4 minutes margin heading in to the time trial.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Window dressing is over

After stage 8 I said the score was Schleck 1, Contador 0. On stage 12 Contador evened the score by picking up a modest 10 seconds on a short but steep finish. In neither case was the damage severe, but each guy can damage the other, so we could be in for a very exciting 4 days in the Pyrenees. Well, unless someone wins by 4 minutes on Sunday
Meanwhile, less than 3 minutes separate 9 cyclists fighting for third place, so that race could be even more exciting. (I suppose Schleck or Contador could pop and fall off the map, but that's unlikely. I suppose one of those guys positioned 3 through 11 could have a stunning day and drop both Contador and Schleck, but that's even more unlikely.

With four days in the mountains to settle a 31 second margin, the difference between Schleck and Contador could come down to their teams. Astana's guys did better than I thought in the Alps, but I wonder if they may run out of gas this week. On the other hand, Saxo Bank has the best team in the race, and we already know they can whittle down the field and send a guy ahead on the breakaway to come back to Schleck when everything hits the fan on the final climb. We've seen their tactics, and they work well. Not having Frank Schleck hurts, but I don't see that being Andy's downfall if he can't hold off Contador. Ultimately, he's going to have to drop Contador himself and defend his lead against Contador when he decided to sprint uphill. Schleck's advantage is that his team can overpower Astana and minimize the window of opportunity for Contador to strike.

While there is a two man race for yellow, there is a two team race for the team competition. RadioShack and Banesto are separated by a measly 21 seconds. The unsung hero here is Chris Horner, who has been finishing solidly third behind Leipheimer and Kloden while Armstrong feels old a few minutes back. RadioShack has the advantage here because they will blow Banesto away on the time trial, but in the mountains they have a pretty good formula. Leipheimer will take care of his own time just by fighting for a podium spot. Two of the three of Kloden, Armstrong, and Horner have to finish ahead of or with Banesto's top three. They can even alternate who hustles to be the third finisher and who saves energy for the next day. Paulinho and Popovych can follow any Banesto guys who get into a breakaway.

As for the green jersey, THOR! must pick up sprint points on mountain stages, because he simply cannot hang with Petacchi and Cavendish in the bunch sprint. It's one thing to finish right behind them; it's quite another to finish 5+ places behind and lose 10+ points. Unless THOR! picks up more points in the mountains, he will not overcome Petacchi's two point lead, and Cavendish might catch him despite being 23 points behind THOR!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Three stages, three jerseys* change hands

Sometimes it pays to be lazy. On Tuesday I thought about writing an I-told-you-so piece on the demise of Cadel Evans. That was before I found out he was racing with a broken elbow. So, while I still think he's not a strong enough climber to win the Tour, he's gone from goat to Iron Man with that revelation. While I'll criticize a guy for not living up to the hype, I'll also commend him for struggling against adversity. Years ago Petacchi abandoned while wearing the green jersey because they were approaching the mountains, which is just sissified; what Evans did is the opposite. Three cheers for Cadel Evans.

Speaking of Petacchi in green, he's finally caught and passed THOR! and he even intends to make it all the way to Paris. That's the sort of thing I'll believe only after seeing it, given his track record and the thought of 4 mountain stages upcoming. It's only a 4 point gap, but THOR! has got to do better at the finish line. THOR! has won the green jersey without winning a stage before, and he does it by consistently finishing in the top 5 and picking up points in the mountains. Well, he's dropping further down the pack at the finishing line, and Petacchi managed to pick up a few points on the mountain stages too. So, THOR! has got to pick up his game, because assuming Petacchi will drop out may be wise, but it's no substitute for a real strategy.

And that leads me to the disqualification of Mark Renshaw following the sprint finish of stage 11. When I saw it live, I thought for sure Renshaw would get relegated to last place for headbutting another cyclist and drifting into someone else's line. That was real crummy and dangerous--a real no brainer to relegate his finish. I didn't expect he'd be thrown out of the Tour. Then again, relegating a lead out guy who fades away and picks up no points isn't much of a punishment to HTC Columbia or Marc Cavendish. Booting Renshaw out of the race is a big deal. I think it may be overkill, but then, what punishment between those two extremes would be appropriate? In any event, we're about to see how important Renshaw's lead out is to Cavendish's success.

*Well, Pineau lost the KoM and got it back, so there were 4 changes of jerseys, but, then again, only two.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The headline from Stage 8

Since I don't work for Vs., I don't have to write about Lance Armstrong's tragic day. The real headline was that Andy Schleck made an attach that Contador could not answer. Last year there were a couple dozen attacks from the Schlecks, and Contador covered them all. This year he's 0 for 1.

It ended up being only a 10 second gain over Contador, et al., but the psychological impact is much greater. And while Cadel Evans picked up the yellow jersey, I don't expect him to keep it because he got dropped off the Contador group as they tried unsuccessfully to respond to Schleck (i.e. Evans is still the weakest climber of the contenders).

The gap between Schleck and Contador is by no means large--just 20 seconds, but now we've seen Schleck do something we've never seen before. For the rest of this race, even if Contador has a great day and takes a minute over Schleck, he's going to have to worry about Andy doing it again.

I made a point about Astana's domestiques working like mad on Stage 7. To my surprise they did even better on stage 8, but for what reason. They don't have a jersey to defend, but they are burning themselves up to break the peloton. If they do get the yellow jersey they may be spent and unable to defend. The only way I can figure this makes sense is if they know Contador is not on form and their acting the part of Tour boss in order to discourage attacks.

I think it's more likely that the team just has a bad game plan.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Game on in 2010

OK, it's not that we're not paying attention, more like we're stranded between teenagery and retirement and just can't post every day. After 7 stages the race is at the foot of the Alps, so now's a good time to post thoughts on the first week.

Contador is the man to beat, and nothing in the first week would suggest otherwise. Evans is almost a minute ahead of him thanks to a time gap on the cobblestones of stage 3. That's a nice advantage to have going into the Alps, but there's no reason to think Contador won't take that and more the first time he attacks in the mountains (note to Evans: why not attack first?). The one fault I can point to Astana is that on Stage 7's easy mountains at the doorstep of the Alps, they sent their team to drive the peloton, and all two of their guys cracked before the top of the mountain. OK, they are behaving like favorites, but everyone knows the team is lacking, so they waste energy on a tune-up stage in which none of the big guns brought any bullets to the range. Not bright.

Meanwhile, RadioShack let its domestiques take it easy in the back of the peloton during the climbs. Phil & Paul were halfway worried that Lance was all alone--they just didn't see Leipheimer and Horner lurking in the back. Don't be silly, guys. RadioShack wouldn't leave Lance alone unless they knew he would get a flat tire on the cobblestones. Oops!

I did a little research, and Fabian Cancellara has worn the yellow jersey 21 days in his career, which is remarkable considering he's neither a sprinter nor a climber. He is, however, a time trial stud who can limit the damage on the flat stages, plus he has a team that knows how to defend the jersey. Even so, the loss of Frank Schleck is huge for Saxo Bank. Remember last year the Schleck brothers threw repeated attacks against Contador in an effort to find a weakness to exploit. Well, instead of having Frank to do that, it's Voigt, Cancellara, and Sorensen, who just are not the class of climber to fit the bill. Should Saxo Bank have to defend the lead, I think they'll have a fine shot, but taking the lead from a great climber will be too much for them. Really, they'll have to rely on Andy out-climbing Contador one on one.

Then again, that's what we figured on day one, not just for Schleck, but all the contenders.

Podium Girl with the master of the first week (photo from

And congrats to Sylvain Chavanel. For years I poked fun of him because he was billed as France's great hope to win the Tour, which is laughable, but then it wasn't his fault people said that about him. Now he's matured into a cyclist who knows what he can and can't do. And, apparently he can win two stages in the first week, win the yellow jersey, lose it, and get it back. Not bad.
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