Posted by: mdegeorge | July 23, 2012

2012 Tour Diagnosis: 20 points for 20 stages

Cycling is no stranger to hype. Bradley Wiggins was almost one of the most noteworthy victims of it.

For years, the sport’s biggest stage has played host to the sport’s largest artificial creations — the expectations that a laundry list of stars would emerge in the Tour de France for only a tenth of the promise to come good.

Wiggins’ expectations explosion came in 2009 when the former track sprinter began his metamorphosis, shedding a couple dozen kilograms and suddenly finding climbing legs no one imagined he had by finishing fourth in the Tour, tying Robert Millar for the highest ever finish for a Briton.

It started, though, to look like those few grand days were a flash in the pan. The inaugural Sky team he jumped to after spending 2009 with Garmin faltered in the mountains, leading to a 24th-place finish in 2010. A year later, he was among the many riders caught up in the early-stage carnage and withdrew.

It appeared as though Wiggins might never put things together. Three weeks later, it’s hard to believe that was ever the thought.

Wiggins dominated the Tour, physically and logistically, en route to winning the race’s 99th edition today in Paris, a result that left little question.

With 20 races and over 200 riders, it’s hardly the only highlight. So as has become tradition (can you call it tradition in year three?) here are my 21 points for 21 stages.

Wiggo the magnificent. It was Bradley Wiggins’ race from start to finish. Billed as a time trialist’s Tour for the two lengthy races against the clock, Wiggins came through, winning both with ease, including the domination in the penultimate stage Saturday that provided the exclamation point. He wore the Yellow Jersey since Day 8, taking over from Fabian Cancellara, to whom Wiggins finished second in the prologue by seven seconds. It’s the first time since Jaan Kirsipuu and Lance Armstrong in 1999 that the Yellow Jersey had only two wearers. But more impressive was the way in which Wiggins carried himself up the mountains. His Sky team controlled the peloton in a manner we haven’t seen since Armstrong’s Discovery Channel and USPS teams. When there were attacks, the champion of Paris-Nice, the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de Romandie always seemed able to respond and never gave the impression he was about to crack. He finished three minutes ahead of teammate Chris Froome and over six minutes before third-place Vincenzo Nibali, absolutely massive time gaps. It was Wiggins who made sure that during Stage 14’s tack attack the group waited for Cadel Evans after repeated punctures. He also provided enough sound bites, from the clean “boring” Tour to the thank you for the media, to cut an entertaining figure. To say it was Wiggins’ Tour is no exaggeration. To say that Wiggins’ accomplishment is the greatest ever by a British athlete, well that’s for others to decide.

Froome, Froome, Froome. The only possible “but” offered to Wiggins’ dominance came from his countryman, teammate and runner-up Chris Froome. Froome wasn’t exactly a favorite, entering the Tour as a likely superdomestique, but his second-place finish in last year’s Vuelta a Espana (one spot ahead of Wiggins) signaled his ability to challenge in a grand tour. Froome undoubtedly had the best legs in the Alps, taking the win on Stage 7 into La Planche des Belles Filles on the day Wiggins took the Maillot Jaune. The native of Kenya was second to Wiggins in each of the time trials. The only person with the hope of unhitching Wiggins in the mountains was Froome, who as late as Stage 17 repeatedly sat up during attacks to wait for Wiggins to latch onto his wheel. Their inability to get their stories straight gave the media enough material to speculate a counterpoint to the fell-good story. to This tour was built for an elite time trialist; a climber like Froome will have his day eventually, possibly when he’s unleashed from domestique duty.

Sky’s the limit. The discussion of Wiggins’ dominance extends to what his Sky team was able to do. They won six stages (Mark Cavendish 3, Wiggins 2, Froome), the most of any team in the race. They did it with a ruthless ease that was a pleasure to watch, but most impressively, they controlled the race up, down and on the flat roads in a way that is rarely seen. Not bad for a team that was concerned as to where the allegiances would lie at the start. The team showed in the Criterium du Dauphine that it could pack the top 10: In that race, Wiggins and Michael Rogers were 1-2, Froome was fourth, Richie Porte was ninth. But as great of a sprinter as Cavendish is, the Manx Missile sometimes requires a bit of work to deliver him to the line, a tough order given the manpower dedicated to Wiggins’ yellow quest. The answer was an outstandingly selfless approach on all sides that was more than the likes of Porte and Rogers wasting themselves up the climbs or Christian Knees and Cav’s personal pilot fish Bernhard Eisel devoting themselves on the flats. Rumors of dysfunction were dispelled quickly when the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen and even Cavendish were working for Wiggins on the low slopes of the Pyrenees. And Wiggins, resplendent in yellow, was a key facet of Cavendish’s leadout train, including the Stage 18 win that was among the most impressive sprints you’ll likely ever see.

British invasion. Despite the recent emergence of Cavendish, the world champion and 23-time Tour Stage winner (fourth all-time), it’s difficult not to frame Wiggins’ win as a watershed moment for British cycling. His Tour win is the first Grand Tour victory for a British cyclist. His Yellow Jersey joins Robert Millar’s King of the Mountains jersey in 1984 and Cavendish’s Green Jersey in 2011 as only the third British competition victory. Coupled with the win by Garmin’s David Millar, Brits have accounted for seven stage wins this year, surpassing the 2009 Tour (Cavendish 6) for the most ever. Wiggins’ 13 days in yellow is more than all previous British wearers combined (Chris Boardman 6 days in 1994, 1997, 1998; David Millar 3 days in 2000; Tom Simpson 1 day in 1962 and Sean Yates 1 day in 1994). Finally, British cyclists from World War II to 2007 won 24 total stages. Since 2008, Brits have won 27. Invaded, indeed.

A living Cadel. There’s an old adage in the peloton that if you ride well in the Alps, you’ll ride poorly in the Pyrenees, and vice versa. At age 34, Cadel Evans probably knows that better than ever this year. The defending Tour champion looked a worthy adversary of Wiggins in the Alps, attacking time and again knowing how much time Wiggins would gain in races against the clock. Evans was slowed by a trio of punctures on Stage 14 into Pau, but the damage was eliminated by the sporting decision of Wiggins to neutralize the peloton. Coming out of the rest day, though, there was no such respite. He lost almost five minutes in the queen stage, barely dragging himself up the Pyrenees’ famed climbs like the Col d’Aubisque and the Col du Tourmalet. His lack of legs was evident when he was passed by teammate Tejay Van Garderen, who started three minutes behind him. Evans rolled down the Champs-Elysees in seventh, 15 minutes behind Wiggins. It’s his sixth top 10 finish in the Tour and ninth in a grand tour but certainly not up to the Aussie’s usual standards.

Tack-tical errors. Perhaps one of the lasting images of this Tour will be a handful of tacks pulled from the 30-some punctured bike tiers and handful of flattened car tires on Stage 14. Evans was the most notable victim with his three less-than-expertly executed tire changes, and Astana’s Robert Kiserlovski was forced to abandon with a broken collarbone. Even Wiggins had a bike change on the downslope of the Mur de Peguere. The attack (no pun intended) was blamed on sporting hooligans, surely one of the most pathetic groups ever assembled.

Sagan’s genesis. Peter Sagan wasn’t an unknown commodity entering his first Tour. It’s hard to fly under the radar when you win the points classification and nine combined stages in the Tour of California and Tour de Suisse, plus add four top-five finishes in major classics races leading up to the Tour. But hardly anyone expected the Liquigas-Cannondale rider to win three of his first six stages in the Tour and make everyone else declare “uncle” in the Green Jersey competition before the race had gotten to the Pyrenees. His celebrations became the news, but the impressive turn of speed he’s shown should be the headline. In Sagan, cycling has found more than just a stage poacher. His ability to summit the Port de Lers and Mur de Peguere with the breakaway on Stage 14, eventually taking second place and all but clinching the Green Jersey, was reminiscent of Thor Hushovd’s win a year ago. Hushovd, though, found his climbing legs in his mid-30s after learning he’d have to outwit, rather than outsprint, his opponents. Sagan’s early competence in the hills should make him a Green Jersey and spring classics threat for years to come.

The bunch sprinters. Cavendish finished the Tour with three wins, including his fourth straight win on the Champs-Elysees. Impressive though it sounds, it’s the Manx Missile’s lowest total in five Tours. Early wrecks aside, much of that is attributable to the likes of Andre Greipel and Sagan sharing the spoils. With Cav’s fellow HTC-Highroad diaspora mate Matt Goss being a frequent participant in the sprints (and earning the win that wasn’t in stage 12), J.J. Haedo a fastman from time to time, Tyler Farrar still among the elite despite a brutal week and Mark Renshaw in the mix despite the disastrous week his Rabobank team endured, it’s been many years since the peloton had so many young sprinters.

Another (three dozen) bite the dust. A year ago, names like Jurgen van den Broeck, Jani Brajkovic and Alexandre Vinokourov were among the contenders sent home early by crashes. This year, count Ryder Hesjedal, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Tom Danielson, Tony Martin and Olympic Champion Samuel Sanchez among those caught up in the decimation on the flat roads. In all, 43 riders abandoned this year’s Tour, the highest total in the last half-decade; only three teams (BMC, Liquigas-Cannondale and Lotto-Belisol) rolled into Paris with a full complement of nine riders. That number was bound to be high given the Olympics looming on the horizon, but it’s still an alarming and race-altering total. After two straight years of this, perhaps it’s time for the race organizers to consider a rethink.

French Renaissance (again). Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither it seems will be the first French winner of their home race since Bernard Hinault in 1985. But the French are continuing to chip away. This year’s star was Thibaut Pinot, the youngest man in the race and  runner-up in the White Jersey competition who notched a win into Porrentruy on Stage 8. Perhaps the best video of this Tour was FDJ-BigMat director sportif Marc Madiot exhorting Pinot to the line. Pinot finished 10th overall, two spots behind Team Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, a constant protagonist in the mountains who won Stage 11 up La Toussuire ahead of Pinot and proved his White Jersey win a year ago wasn’t just a fluke. Thomas Voeckler’s two stage wins and one from Pierrick Fedrigo brought the French haul to five; only the six stages won in 2010 (two from Sylvain Chavanel and one each from Sandy Casar, Christophe Riblon, Voeckler and Fedrigo) surpass that number over the last 15 years. Rolland and Pinot have shown themselves to be capable in the time trial; perhaps a more mountainous Tour in the next few years could be to their liking.

Allez Thomas! At age 33, Voeckler may not be around to see the end of France’s quarter-century, Yellow-Jersey drought. But the native of the Bas-Rhin region has proven doubters wrong so many times before that any statement about Voeckler’s future is made at some peril. Two more stage wins this year bring his career total to four. Not bad for a guy who almost withdrew with a pesky knee injury. After the stage wins, you could almost hear something click in Voeckler’s mind to go after the KOM jersey, which he wore proudly to Paris after a mano-a-mano duel with Frederik Kessiakoff on Stage 17. Voeckler’s Polka Dot Jersey is just the third won by a Frenchman since Richard Virenque captured the last of his seven KOM Jerseys in 2004, but it’s the third straight year a classification has been won by a Frenchman (Rolland’s White in 2011, Anthony Charteau’s KOM in 2010). The Tour de France makes legends, and over the last two decades, Voeckler’s name surely sits next to Virenque’s and Laurent Jalabert’s (world champion, two-time winner of the Green and Polka Dot Jerseys) at the summit of French cycling.

Changing of the American guard. French ecstasy over the emergence of Pinot aside, the true show stealer was American van Garderen, who won the White Jersey and finished fifth overall. His title in the young rider classification puts him in illustrious company: Greg LeMond (1986, 1989 and 1990 Tours) and Andy Hampsten (1988 Giro d’Italia) are the only other Americans to be named the best young rider of a Grand Tour. He has the makings of a challenger. He was stellar in the mountains, shaking off one so-so day in the Alps and showing his full climbing arsenal after BMC teammate Evans fell off the pace and van Garderen was freed of mountain-goat duty. He wasn’t of Wiggins’ caliber in the time trials, but compared to many pure climbers, his time trialing is outstanding. Nowhere was that more evident than on Stage 19 when he easily crossed the three-minute gap to Evans, eventually leapfrogging him in the general classification. You could almost see the torch being passed right on the road to Chartres. Van Garderen’s emergence comes at a perfect time for American cycling, with the old generation of Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie appearing ready to bow out of the European peloton amidst a battle with the ghosts of the Armstrong era. In the soon-to-be 24-year-old van Garderen lies the next generation of hope.

Say it ain’t Schleck. There’s good news and bad news on the doping front. The good news is that for the second straight season, only one rider was expelled from the Tour for a positive test. The bad news is that the rider expelled had three career top-five finishes. Frank Schleck, already looking lost in the Alps without brother Andy to work for, tested positive for xipamide, a banned diuretic, during the second rest day and withdrew prior to Stage 16. His B sample later tested positive, putting the Luxembourger in a world of trouble. Schleck has been steadfast in defending his innocence, which should set up months of news cycle-clogging legal wrangling, allegations of poisoning, contamination and a bunch of other cloak-and-dagger stuff that borders on the ridiculous.

A wheel tough guy. The final individual award, often overlooked, goes to the most combative rider in the peloton. This year, it goes to hands down the gutsiest. That’s Saxo Bank-Tinkoff rider Chris Anker Sorensen, a longtime domestique who claimed a 14th-place finish in one of the crowning achievements of his career. The fact that he did it with a hand so badly bandaged that it will require surgery that he barely was able to postpone is more amazing. His hand caught in his front wheel trying to retrieve a wind-buffeting newspaper on a descent on Stage 17, Sorensen will require skin grafts over two fingers for the damage. It lacked the haunting gruesomeness of Johnny Hoogerland somersaulting into a barbed wire fence last year, but it was more impressive given Sorensen finished despite barely being able to grasp his handlebars.

American horror stories. For two of the teams with the most American roots, it wasn’t the best of Tours. Garmin-Sharp, in the umpteenth iteration of that secondary sponsor, had three riders out by Stage 7, David Millar’s stage win the lone consolation for a team whose top overall finisher was Daniel Martin in 35th. All that came in the face of unsteady and unassured future financing. Then there was the house of cards that is RadioShack-Nissan, which won the team competition by over five minutes over Sky, no matter how tenuous the term “team” read. Once again, RadioShack entered with no clear-cut leader, leaving Horner, Andreas Kloden, Haimar Zubeldia and Schleck to all believe themselves worthy. Whether it was Kloden rather vocally bashing the characterization of his riding on Twitter or Kloden and Horner unwilling to help Zubeldia with a puncture despite the Spaniard holding the only top-10 spot of the bunch, it wasn’t a team that showed a whole lot of continuity. Somehow, though, Zubeldia, Horner, Kloden and Maxime Monfort all managed top 16 finishes (with Schleck bowing out in 12th place). Astounding.

A Belgian star in the making. van den Broeck surprised some when in 2010 he finished fourth in the Tour. An injury last year made it look more like a fluke. But this year’s strong performance, complete with a propensity to attack in the high mountains, make van den Broeck look like a serious contender for a Grand Tour title some day. His pair of fourths represent the best finish for a Belgian since Lucian Van Impe was second in 1981; he’s the best chance the cycling-mad nation has of curtaining its podium drought early in its third decade.

Some tough Tours. There always seems to be a few teams that are just snake bitten, a feeling exacerbated by Sky’s dominance and the fact that four teams won at least three stages each. The rides of Luis Leon Sanchez and Alejandro Valverde to stage wins mitigated otherwise disappointing Tours for Rabobank and Movistar, respectively (especially for the former, which saw five of its nine members withdraw on course). Egoi Martinez’s 17th-place finish wasn’t enough to compensate for Euskaltel-Euskadi’s surprising absence in the breakaways, perhaps an artifact of a team morally beaten down by Samuel Sanchez’s exit. Despite the presence of Michele Scarponi in a couple of breaks, the elimination of Yuriy Krivtsov and Alessandro Petacchi on Stage 11 was the lone highlight, or rather lowlight, for Lampre. Stephen Roche finished 12th, but Ag2r-La Mondiale wasn’t ever able to find the right recipe in a breakaway. Rein Taaramae didn’t have it for Cofidis, who also couldn’t get the breakaway thing down. Vacansoliel (finishing with just four riders), Suar-Sojasun (outside of Jerome Coppel’s 21st-place overall) and Agros Shimano (whose highest rider placed 103rd and finished almost eight hours behind RadioShack-Nissan in the team competition), were alarming anonymous. Orica-GreenEDGE, with Goss’s relegation on Stage 12, was disappointing, as was Omega Pharma-Quick Step.

He’s back? Valverde was once one of the most promising young cyclist around, a Vuelta champion and seven-time top-10 Grand Tour finisher. After a two-year doping ban, his ride up the Peyragudes to the Stage 17 win signals the most popular rider in the Tour may be back. He may no longer have what it takes to challenge on GC. But expect a Valverde and his re-found legs to be a stage poacher extraordinaire.

An Olympic preview. Ah, the age old question of how to approach the Olympic road race and time trial. To rest or not to rest. To carry over from the Tour or not. Consider this: Beijing Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez finished seventh in the Tour just weeks before the games. Time trial gold medalist and road race silver medalist Cancellara finished 66th; this year, he elected not to finish the Tour. It might be a good omen for Evans, seventh in this year’s Tour. Then again, after this Tour, who’s going to argue against those guys with the home-country advantage.

Fond farewells. It’s that time to say goodbye to the past, a category George Hincapie finally finds himself in. He took the emotional ride to Paris Sunday to finish his 16th Tour, the 17th total he’s participated in, both records. A consummate professional and former Yellow Jersey wearer for one magical day, Hincapie was the ultimate teammate to the very end. Hincapie enjoyed leading the peloton onto the Champs-Elysees; judging by who joined him there, it might also have been the last ride for 40-year-old Horner, who seems to be getting better with age. Vinokourov has said it’s his final Tour, though we’ve heard that before, and at least he tried to go out with a bang thanks to his Stage 18 attacks. Then there’s Big Jens Voigt, who doesn’t look or sound anywhere near retirement, though he is quickly creeping up on 40. Here’s hoping the good-byes are few this year.

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