Posted by: mdegeorge | July 25, 2010

20 Points for 20 Stages: The final take on the Tour

As the Tour de France rolls ceremonially into Paris and the Champs Elysees, it’s time to reflect on a grueling three weeks of racing—and an equally challenging three weeks of early mornings on Versus/using the Internet at work to follow the Tour online.

In honor of the 20 days the pros have endured in the saddle, I thought I would be able to come up with at least 20 points of interest from the spectators’ seats.

(Oh, and as a prologue to this post, it was quite an epic Tour.)

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Alberto Contador, yet again, is a worthy champion. I never got the impression he was under any pressure in the Pyrenees or Alps. He’s of the ilk that relishes getting pushed near, though rarely into, the red zone by another climber and having to dance on the pedals in his trademark style. El Pistolero is squarely on the precipice of becoming the greatest cyclist of all time. This is his fifth Grand Tour title and third Maillot Jaune. But more importantly, he’s won the last five Grand Tours he has entered, and with his ability to stick to every other challenger’s wheel like Velcro, it’s hard to remember what Contador being dropped on a climb looks like. Part of the credit goes to an excellent effort by Team Astana, especially omnipresent workhorse and Pyrenean shepherd (literally and figuratively) Dani Navarro.

– As impressed as I am by Contador’s infallibility in the high mountain passes, I’m more struck by the fire shown by Andy Schleck. The verbal broadside he launched ahead of the queen stage atop the Tourmalet laid the foundations for an emerging rivalry. His gallant performance in hanging with Contador revolution for revolution in the Stage 19 time trial fortified the competition between the two stars that will define the next decade of cycling. In last year’s Tour, Schleck lost 1:45 over 40 kilometers in the final time trial, which Contador won. This year, he lost only 39 ticks over a longer route (52 kms). Heck, he went lost more than that (42 seconds) over the prologue of just 8.9 kms.  And Schleck rode to his third straight White Jersey for the Best Young Rider and second straight podium finish without his brother and trusted mountain lieutenant, Frank. Frank’s absence allowed domestiques like Jakob Fuglsang and Matti Breschel to mature and make Team Saxo Bank (provided it can find another sponsor and the Schlecks don’t jump ship to a new Luxembourg-based team as is rumored) a formidable squad for next season.[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=alberto+contador&iid=9425748″ src=”http://view3.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9425748/sports-news-july-2010/sports-news-july-2010.jpg?size=500&imageId=9425748″ width=”380″ height=”252″ /]

– Here’s the final word on the Contador-Schleck controversy on the Port de Bales: Contador deserved the boos he received at the end of the stage. It changed the complexion of the race and transformed Schleck into the pursuer. We know Schleck couldn’t shake Contador in the final days in the mountains, but we’ll never know if Contador could have eluded Schleck by throwing constant attacks at him. Either way, the incident doesn’t blemish Contador’s victory, as he proved himself a commendable champion.

– If it’s hard to fathom Contador being dropped in the mountains, it’s equally difficult to conceive of a time trial in which Fabian Cancellara doesn’t clock in with the best time. He was unstoppable on Stage 19, opening gaps of three to six minutes on some of the big GC contenders, an impressive tally even with the fluctuating wind conditions. Just to put it into perspective, his average speed—the most telling metric for time trials—was 51.189 kilometers per hour over 52 kilometers. In the 2009 Stage 4 team time trial, Team Astana won with an average speed of 49.050 kph. The TTT was a more undulating route, but they did have the advantage of nine guys taking turns in the wind instead of just the solitary Cancellara. Either way, it was one corker of a ride.

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– We might as well make it a trifecta of dominance by including the Manx Missle. It’s only been two weeks, but it’s already difficult to recall what a bunch sprint that doesn’t culminate with Mark Cavendish’s arms outstretched over his head looks like. Despite failing to ascend the podium in the first week, Cavendish still managed five stage wins, almost always in fantastic fashion. The win in Stage 11 is somewhat sullied thanks to Mark Renshaw’s Zinedine Zidane impersonation on Julian Dean. But it set the stage for a jaw-dropping win on Stage 18 when Cavendish, even without his lead out man, obliterated the field and wrapped up the spring 150 meters from the line. Kudos go to Alessandro Petacchi regaining his past form with two stage wins and the Green Jersey as winner of the Points Competition (giving him a hat trick of sprint jerseys in all three Grand Tours). But the second place finisher in that competition Cavendish earns the distinction of most impressive, if not most consistent, sprinter.

– The torch long ago was passed from Lance Armstrong to Contador, and this Tour was just another confirmation. Armstrong fought valiantly and had his chance at glory once more in Pau in Stage 16. But it just wasn’t to be this time, and Lance rides his bike into the sunset without the storybook ending his legendary career deserves. The injuries, freak crashes, and distraction of Floyd Landis’ accusations haven’t made an otherwise herculean journey any easier on the 38-year-old. His 23rd-place finish would make many a cyclist’s career and hardly warrants inclusion in the category of athletes outstaying their welcome alongside the Mets’ Willie Mays and the Wizards’ Michael Jordan. And it doesn’t for one moment tarnish the myriad accomplishments of one of the sport’s greatest ever competitors. He still helped teammate Sergio Paulinho win Stage 10 and Team RadioShack lock up the win in the Team Classification.

– The Tour started with plenty of talk about the big American GC threats like Christian Vande Velde, Lance, and Levi Leipheimer. In the end, the unheralded Chris Horner led them all into Paris. The Smiling Assassin’s ride can scarcely be called a breakout performance, but the 38-year-old who was born just 35 days after Armstrong turned in the ride of his career. His ability to escape with Lance on Stage 16 looked innocuous at the time, few dreaming Horner would make those six minutes gained stand up with such a deft assault of the Tourmalet. But he did with aplomb, earning his place as a finalist for unofficial Sports Doctor Most Surprising Rider Competition (it’s lime green and horridly garish).

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– The winner of that competition is another North American, Ryder Hesjedal. He launched the ultimate “hide-and-seek” move on the Tourmalet when he suddenly emerged from the mist in league with the top contenders to the astonishment of many. The soon-to-be 30-year-old, the lone Canadian in the field in 2008 and 2009, has now completed three straight Tour. His win in Stage 12 of last year’s Vuelta announced to the world that he had the ability to win stages, but few pegged him as a legitimate GC threat. Given another year in the Garmin system to shore up any holes in his climbing or time trial technique, he might return as a Maillot Jaune contender in 2011.

– The two North Americans caused jaws to drop, but one other cyclist warrants inclusion in the same category. That’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck, whose fifth-place on GC signals his arrival as one of the best Belgian all-around riders since Eddy Merckx in the 70s. Like Hesjedal, he’s a US Postal/Discovery Channel product who was the World Junior Time Trial Champion in 2001. Professional victories have been scant for the 27-year-old, but his 15th place in 2009 upstaged struggling Silence-Lotto teammate Cadel Evans and established him as a star of the future. The lanky Van Den Broeck doesn’t have the prototypical climbers’ body, but he knows how to stay within himself in the hills and might just challenge for yellow.

– I can’t move past the superlatives without dishing out some love for Denis Menchov. He lived up to his Silent Assassin moniker in this Tour (funny how many assassins there were in the field this year). The predominant pattern over the last few years with Menchov has been underachieving in the French spotlight. But he now has three top 5 finishes at the Tour to go along with one Giro and two Vuelta wins. He’s only 32 years old—though it seems like he’s been around forever—so there’s plenty of time to chase the elusive Yellow Jersey.

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– This has been one of the most impressive Tours for France in recent memory. They won six stages, the Polka Dot Jersey (Anthony Charteau), and the Yellow Jersey twice (both Sylvain Chavanel). The best placed Frenchman was John Gadret in 13th. All this without a legitimate sprinter or GC threat—and there are precious few on the horizon—but merely unsurpassed guile and passion on the home turf.

– Only one stage win went home in Spanish hands, but that’s hardly indicative of their tremendous showing in the GC with five riders in the top 12. Samuel Sanchez ended up fourth despite a horrendous crash; his slip from the podium in favor of Menchov in the final time trial was nothing to be ashamed of. Joaquin Rodriguez captured Stage 12 and finished eighth overall. Caisse D’Epargne teammates Luis Leon Sanchez and Ruben Plaza finished 11th and 12th, respectively, and were part of a select group of Spanish mountain goats that were never far from the lead in the mountains.

– The Spanish successes combined with the suspension of Alejandro Valverde and success of usual Vuelta protagonists like Menchov and Alexandre Vinokourov makes you wonder just who will contest this year’s Vuelta. May it be a chance for Contador to snatch Grand Tour number 6 even if he’s not in full form? Or could Vande Velde shake his snake bitten past and capture one for America?

– For the plethora of successes, there were also disappointments. Cadel Evans precipitous fall from the Yellow Jersey on Stage 9 was almost impossible to watch. His courage to finish despite his injuries were admirable, and it’s a shame the current World Champion didn’t have a clean bill of health to compete with Phil Liggett’s “heads of state”. The same goes for Ivan Basso, who was derailed by illness which sapped his strength by the second week in the mountains.

– I think it’s pretty clear after this season that rides of the Giro are not always that well equipped to challenge for the Maillot Jaune. Basso (who won the Maglia Rossa), Evans, Carlos Sastre, and Damiano Cunego all finished in the top 11 of the Giro this year and had little left to offer in the challenge for yellow. Bradley Wiggins also delivered distinctly underwhelming performances in both the Giro and the Tour.

– That curse, though, apparently doesn’t apply for French riders in the Giro. Stage winner Thomas Voeckler, Mountains Classification leader Anthony Charteau, frequent peloton escapee Jerome Pineau, and best-placed Frenchman John Gadret all participated in the Giro. I can’t figure it out.

– How does Garmin find a new guy every year? This is three straight years that they have had one of the biggest GC revelations. Three years ago, it was Vande Velde; last year, Wiggins; this year, Hesjedal. It must be something that Jonathan Vaughters is putting in the water to make these guys believe they can do things in the mountains they’ve never done before in their careers.

– What was Bert Grabsch thinking in that final time trial? He went out and foolishly finished third overall, just1:48 behind Cancellara, to lose his place as the Lanterne Rouge, given to the man last in the overall standings. Now that honor goes to Lampre’s Adriano Malori, at over four hours behind Contador, and Grabsch becomes just another anonymous flat-lander who barely survived the mountains.

– I’ve never seen the major contenders drop time like that in a time trial ever. I’m sure the winds were a factor, but to lose in some cases seven to eight minutes is astonishing. It’s a testament to how they, as Tour commentary co-pilot Paul Sherwen would say, turned themselves inside out through the Pyrenees.

– I guess it’s time to say our goodbyes to a few of the peloton’s best who may have ridden their final tours. Seven-time champ Lance is the obvious headliner, but probably not the only one stepping away from the Tour for good. At age 38, Robbie McEwen doesn’t have the lethal finishing kick he once did, but still managed several top five finishes and finished fifth overall in the Green Jersey competition. Christophe Moreau is now 39 and has ridden in 15 straight Tours. Ditto for George Hincapie, 37, who’s finished his last 14. Big Jens Voigt, 38, easily the cult hero of the professional peloton, is also into double digits along with teammate Stuart O’Grady (14 Tours at age 38). There are no guarantees for anyone other than Armstrong (and I personally think Voigt could go into his 50s), but I’m in a nostalgic mood.

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And since the Sports Doctor doesn’t take rest days like these skinny guys on bikes, here are two extras for the days you were forced to watch three hours of highlights:

– Boy, will I miss Sherwen and Phil Liggett. There a great team to wake up to in the mornings. Sure, Phil isn’t always 100 percent accurate all the time, but you try filling five hours of air time everyday for three straight weeks. Their delightful British lilts, knowledge of cycling past that borders on arcane, and friendly banter adds to the race. Plus, I can listen to them talk about the “argy-bargy” in the peloton, how large the gaps are “aroundabout”, predictions on the catch of the breakaway and the computer’s misjudgments, the history of the various palatial chateaus that dot the route, and the exploits of Eddy Merckx until the cows come home.

– Perhaps most importantly, and yet least publicized, it’s been a clean Tour with no expulsions and no positive tests (knock on wood, since testing results can come back after the race, right Mikel Astarloza?). For all the talk about the Tour’s epic qualities, it is the honesty of competition and cleanliness of the peloton that is most the most vital to the sport.

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Responses

  1. A very good and comprehensive summary!

    The time trial was incredible. Other than Menchov, none of the top ten on GC finished in the top 30, which is amazing. By mid-afternoon, everyone was riding into a fairly stiff headwind, which probably riders three minutes or so. But what a ride by Cancellara – the man is a machine!

    http://thearmchairsportsfan.wordpress.com/


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