Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Tour de France

In This Tour, It’s Armstrong Who Wasn’t a Team Player

After more than 2,000 miles of riding, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France Sunday, defeating a 180-man field. Contador withstood the assaults and attacks of every other rider, including Columbia-HTC’s Frank and Andy Schleck and surprise Garmin-Slipstream contender Bradley Wiggins.

Albert Contador (left) defeated Lance Armstrong (right) in the 2009 Tour de France.

But as Contador said after Saturday’s dramatic climb of Mont Ventoux, the real battle came from one of his teammates. The most serious obstacle to his victory was Lance Armstrong, back after four years away from being the most dominant bicycle rider of his era.

Contador, who won the Tour two years ago, was on a comeback of his own. Denied entry in last year’s tour because he had joined Astana, which had been involved in doping scandals before he joined the squad, Contador had plenty to prove, too. Johann Bruyneel, the director who had guided Armstrong to his seven Tour victories, had recruited the Spanish rider after Armstrong retired.

Then, last August, Armstrong decided to return to cycling and the Tour, he said, completely to promote Livestrong, his powerful cancer foundation. But it was equally obvious that Armstrong intended to win another tour, and he signed up with Astana because of his long partnership with Bruyneel, who suddenly had the strongest team with the best rider in the world and his predecessor on the same squad – both with the same goal.

Armstrong, perhaps the best strategist in the history of the sport, used every kind of psychological warfare against Contador. He belittled him at every opportunity in the press. After Contador missed a break in an early stage, Armstrong reminded us that “he’s still got a lot to learn.” He claimed that Contador wasn’t a team player after the Spanish rider caught out Armstrong and the rest of the pack on the ride up to Arcalis in Stage 7 and later reprimanded Contador for supposedly leaving teammate Andreas Kloden on a Alpine stage.

Contador kept his tongue throughout the race even while Armstrong kept the barbs coming after almost every stage. The American media actually seemed to go along with the idea that Armstrong might (or even should) win the Tour and/or be able to defeat Contador. The irony, of course, is that Armstrong, who rode a sensible and inspiring race himself, would be the one to learn that he could never defeat Contador, or Andy Schleck, either. His third-place finish should be applauded for what it is, a wonderful performance that shows that though his skills have diminished, he can still ride among the best.

What Armstrong defenders seem to be missing is that Contador dominated the field just as Armstrong used to in his heyday. Look at his move on Arcalis. Pure Lance. Look over at the rest of the struggling pack and saying, “Bye, bye.” But Armstrong derided him for disobeying orders, which is ridiculous unless the order was to keep Lance in the race for the yellow jersey. But, just as Armstrong would have done back in his day, Contador picked the perfect time to remind everybody that he was the boss. He did the same thing on the second time trial, crushing the pack as the final rider of the day just as Armstrong used to do. On Mont Ventoux he shadowed Andy Schleck and led Armstrong up the mountain to his podium finish.

But what we heard from Armstrong was that Contador was inattentive, that he disobeyed orders, that a later attack in the Alps eliminated Andreas Kloden, that he wasn’t a team player. What did he expect after hijacking a team designed to perpetuate Contador’s reign and trying to defeat him within the team? Who was a better team player?

Throughout Armstrong’s attempts to demean his accomplishment, Contador has kept a civil tongue about the dissension between him and Armstrong (which seemed often to be the only question on reporter’s minds) and showed the mark of the true champion, the kind of champion that Lance Armstrong once represented.

I began watching and became interested in cycling because of Lance Armstrong. He has brought immense attention to the sport of cycling, and more importantly, has used his celebrity to raise awareness and money to battle the scourge of cancer. But at this Tour de France, his hubris got the best of him, he got his butt beat, and he acted like a petulant, spoiled child who didn’t get his way.

July 28, 2009   2 Comments

Contador is the New Armstrong

Alberto Contador left the field behind on Sunday's steep climb.

Alberto Contador scattered the field on Sunday's steep climb to Verbier.

Whew. We finally got that settled.

The 15th Stage of the Tour de France is in the books, and there should be no lingering doubts that Alberto Contador is the leader of the race, the Astana team and the man with the best chance of winning this tour.

On Tuesday, Lance Armstrong will become Contador’s domestique (and he owes Andreas Kloden a big favor, too). After watching him Sunday, it should be clear to everyone, including Armstrong himself, that barring injury or mishap, he will not be in the yellow jersey next Sunday. And he’s got a real battle on his hands to even be on the podium.

That is not to say his feat in this year’s race is not remarkable. He is second in this tour after a four-year absence from professional cycling. But he is not the best man in this race. Or the second or third, either.

Armstrong performed admirably on a difficult stage that ended with a first-category climb that seemed to get steeper as it moved into the clouds, ending with a precipitous right turn just before hitting the finish that left everybody except Contador gasping as they crossed the line.

Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, mindful of the great story it would be if Armstrong won, kept reminding us that Armstrong looked strong until it became painfully obvious to everyone that he was struggling to keep up with the contenders, and it was hardly surprising when Bradley Wiggins, Frank Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans all raced away from him near the end. Had not teammate Andreas Kloden been there to pace him to the top, more riders would have probably passed him, too. (We watched the last climb a second time, and it was even more palpably obvious that Armstrong was at his physical limit.)

Hopefully we can get on with the real race. The much-hyped Armstrong/Contador rivalry, when you think about it, was kind of ridiculous from the get-go. Beyond the fact that he had won seven tours and dominated the race in years gone by, there was no reason to believe that Armstrong, 37, could ride the high Alps with Contador, 26, who won the Tour two years ago and has been riding competitively during the entire period that Armstrong was out of racing. There were suggestions that he would psyche out Contador like he did Jan Ullrich in his salad days, but that was pure sportswriters’ imagination to whip up interest in this year’s race. Nobody is getting inside Contador’s head this time around.

Anybody who has seen Contador knows he’s the best climber in the world; two years ago this week he danced around his rivals at the Tour at the tops of the Alps like they weren’t really there. He did the same thing last week on the ride into Andorra, which should have been warning enough but was cast by observers as some kind of rash move on Contador’s part that hurt the team dynamic.

To this observer Contador was merely biding his time pedaling with the pack before he took off and left everybody in his wake. And let’s not forget that both attacks were pure cycling poetry in the classic Armstrong sense – he waited with the leaders until the exact moment that he knew nobody could catch him and took off like a locomotive.

There is still about a week’s worth of racing left, so a lot can happen. But with the Armstrong/Contador issue finally behind us, the commentators and the rest of us can begin to concentrate on the real contenders as they battle for the jersey in a wild finishing week.

July 20, 2009   No Comments

One Really Strange Tour de France

Alberto Contador is the rider to beat at the 1/3 point in the Tour de France.

We are at about the one-third point of the Tour de France, and as the riders head out onto the flats again for a few days before the next mountain stages, there’s not a lot to report.

After nine stages, it has been most enjoyable to watch three breakaways succeed and beat the peleton and the sprinters to stage wins. I can’t stop rooting for breakaway riders, and seeing three win in a week is as much fun as the Tour can be on the flatlands. Columbia’s Mark Cavendish has distinguished himself as the top sprinter, by winning two more stages (he won three last year) and staying in the race over three days of mountain climbing.

Beyond that, the entire story, at least from the American media’s perspective, has been the return of Lance Armstrong four years past his seventh Tour victory, back in the saddle and among the leaders again. Lost is the story of almost every other rider on the Tour, including Alberto Contador, who won this race two summers ago and was not allowed to compete last year.

Not only was Contador unlucky enough to not enter last year’s event because of a technicality (he joined Astana after the doping revelations of Alexander Vinokourov were exposed and was banned along with team director Johann Bruyneel), he now is on the same team as Armstrong and Bruyneel, and he doesn’t speak English, so we’re left with Armstrong’s perspective and those of his admirers in the press corps.

The tour directors appear to have tried to make this year’s tour not produce a legitimate leader/winner until the penultimate stage, the long climb of Mt. Ventoux on the day before the riders enter Paris. Still, their decision to end two of the three Pyrenean stages in long sprints instead of at the tops of mountains, which provide most of the fireworks and drama, left most of us incredulous. The only things worth watching the last three days were the incredible rural scenery and  Contador’s dash at the end of Stage 7. The climb of the Tourmalet, one of the most dramatic mountain finishes, was completely wasted and laughably boring, as all the teams pedaled up in a group behind a dozen or so breakaway riders and followed them for another hour after they got off the slopes.

Given the strange make-up of the Astana team, which includes perennial contenders Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden (who all also among the top five riders at this point) and experienced workhorse climbers (Yaroslav Popovych and Halmar Zubeldia) to lead them up, it appears that it might all come down to the climb of Ventoux and that the only real drama is which Astana rider will be first, which second and which third on the podium.

That seems more likely every day. Cadell Evans, who came in second the last two tours but is on a weak team, has been totally shut down by Astana, as have Team Saxobank’s Schleck brothers, last year’s winner Carlos Sastre and anybody else who dares challenge Astana’s hegemony.

Rumors abound that Armstrong and Contador are both eager to win the race and don’t like each other much, and having them on the same team kinda spoils the various strategies that teams use to try and win the race, since the team is working behind no particular leader and probably will stay that way until near the end.

The only thing we saw in nine days of racing was that, given the chance, Contador will attack, and to this observer, will probably beat Armstrong if it comes down to a mano a mano ascent up Ventoux. Two years ago he danced ahead of everybody except doper Michael Rasmussen at the tops of the Alps, and his dash away on the first Pyrenees stage shows he’s dying to strut his stuff.

Armstrong is the supreme mind-gamer the modern Tour has ever seen, and it’s hard to bet against a man who dominated the Tour for as long as he did. We can always hope for another team to take advantage of an Astana mistake or mishaps. If it comes down to intellect on the slopes of Ventoux, give Armstrong a slight edge. But if it depends on the legs, Contador will dance away and come out on top

July 13, 2009   No Comments

Contador Is Number One Astana Rider

Stage One: Monaco
Winner: Fabian Cancellara
Maillot Journe: Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara won the time-trial prologue of the 2009 Tour de France.

At the beginning of the day it was all Lance Armstrong. Stories, rumors and innuendo circulated about who is the number one rider on the Astana team. And though Astana includes three riders who have wound up on the podium in the years since Armstrong retired the first time – Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden – the only question on commentators’ minds at the beginning of Day One seemed to be whether Armstrong will win this race.

Versus’ color guy, Bob Roll, absolutely believes it. So, apparently, does longtime announcer Phil Liggett. Of the Versus staff, only Paul Sherwen questions that wisdom, believing that Alberto Contador, eleven years younger than Armstrong, will be the winner. Bob Roll rolled his eyes at that one, suggesting that Armstrong will psyche his way to victory.

Perhaps. But today, those twelve years that separate Contador and Armstrong were readily apparent. Armstrong ran early – very early – in the prologue individual time trial. His time along the 15.5 kilometer course was better than any predecessor, but his time was quickly eclipsed by Tony Martin and then teammate Levi Leipheimer, whose 20:02 beat Martin by three minutes and remained as the time to beat until the big boys got on the course.

Versus showed Armstrong’s entire 21-minute traverse – the only time it did that — and commentators Liggett and Sherwen were pointing out his good form and pulling for Armstrong to do well.

Armstrong came in tenth, but more importantly, he came in fourth on his team, which clearly leaves Contador, who looked the way Armstrong used to. Contador came in only 18 seconds back of Fabian Cancellara, who, as expected, came down the second half of the course like a luge.

Teammate Andreas Kloden was only four seconds behind Contador and just a second ahead of Cadell Evans, also a challenger for the maillot journe. After one day, Armstrong is already behind by 40 seconds, 22 seconds behind Contador.

This day certainly doesn’t disqualify Armstrong from winning this year’s tour, or being the guy to beat by the time they get to the Alps in week three. But it does show that Armstrong, at least at this juncture, is going to have to dig deeper than he ever has to win the race, or even challenge his own teammates. It seems much more likely that he will be helping Contador or Kloden ascend the Alps and the podium.

July 4, 2009   No Comments

Looks Like Another Wild Ride at the Tour de France

A familiar photo for those of us crazy enough to watch the Tour de France from beginning to end.

A familiar view for those of us crazy enough to watch the Tour de France from beginning to end on television.

Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again. The Tour de France begins tomorrow morning in Monaco. My Twitter account is atwitter with those following and riding the race, and I’m trying to catch up on hash marks and RSS feeds. I just found the weblog of Martin Dugard,  whose commentary on the last few races generally rises a step above the usual swirl of rumors and speculation.

And the rumors and speculation could not be at a higher pitch. Will Lance Armstrong win the race for an unprecedented eighth time, eclipsing even teammate Alberto Contador, generally recognized as the best cyclist riding today? Phil Liggett, erstwhile television commentator, is not alone in already proclaiming that Armstrong will be on the podium come July 26. Our local newspaper has had stories on Armstrong every day for a week, and stateside interest in the tour seems higher than, well, the last time Armstrong participated.

Drugs still loom large over the Tour, and given the ingrained nature of doping I’m sure a few riders will be bounced before it’s all over. Tour officials have bragged about increased testing procedures, yet they were forced to allow sprinter Tom Boonen, who tested positive for cocaine in the last year, to compete after a last-minute ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport of the French Olympic Committee.

Le Tour. All the highest and lowest qualities that sports has to offer wrapped around three weeks of epic European backcountry scenery. Who could ask for more?

July 3, 2009   No Comments

New Tour Stars Rise to the Occasion

One of the most interesting things about this year’s tour is that, with all the brand names and dopers out of the picture, we are watching a new generation, as it were, of new coming into their own that will guide the destiny of tours future.

At the top of the list would have to be Riccardo Ricco, a 24-year-old rider who took the peleton at the end of Stage 5 on Super Besse and again waited until just the right moment to strike (he is called the Cobra) as he outlegged the peleton over the second high mountain of the day and led the way into the finish line at Bagneres de Bigorre.

There were reports insinuating Ricco had been targeted by the drug squad. He also crashed hard at the end of Stage Eight, which left questions about his health.

He answered both today, Ricco was superb. He stayed with the main peleton, which included all the favorites playing their usual game of watching each other and staying together, went over the first climb, the Col de Peyresourde, without gathering attention to himself.

The riders dropped quickly off the first mountain and almost immediately hit the Col de Aspin, not quite as bad as the Peyresourde, but one in which the gradient becomes progressively steeper as it gets higher. Ricco waited patiently for the steepest part of the road to kick in – about three miles from the summit – and shot off the front of the pack like a rocket.

Accelerating at a pace I have rarely seen on a nine-degree slope, Ricco passed Sebastian Lang, who had led since near the beginning of the race, like he wasn’t even moving, went over the top and was never again seen by the rest of the riders during the 16-mile descent to the finish line.

Ricco, in his second tour, said in an interview a couple of days ago that he was here to learn the tour, not to win. With one of the tour’s most difficult stages tomorrow, we will see how this day affects his legs, but you have to think that Ricco is pretty darned close to being ready. He is still no threat to the leaders – he’s moved up to 21st, 2:35 behind – but he’s somebody to watch for.

Also impressive has been Stefan Schumacher, who lost the yellow jersey when he fell near the top of the climb to Super Besse and is currently standing 4th, 0:56 behind leader Kim Kirchen. Obviously still bothered by that incident, he ran another strong race today. He might not be as ready as the better-known riders, but he’s definitely, for now, in the running.

All in all, there are 23 riders within two minutes of the leaders. Let’s see whether the most difficult Pyrenean stage tomorrow will change those numbers while we watch somebody, anybody, attack in the high mountain passes.

The leaders play cat-and-mouse up mountains, while the rest of us beg for the leaders to challenge each other. So far, that hasn’t happened. The only significant event today was when Cadel Evans, hands-down the favorite in the general classification, had an apparently ferocious crash halfway along the course that bounced his head on the pavement, cracking his helmet. Cameras didn’t catch the incident, but later footage showed a huge gash down the back of his jersey and with many visible bruises and cuts. All indications from the team are that Evans, who finished the stage with the rest of the leaders, is all right. That could have implications with Monday’s difficult Pyrenean stage looming, however.

Manuel Beltran was thrown off the tour and suspending from his team after testing positive after the first stage for EPO. While this actually put the tour on the front page of American newspapers, which generally ignore or give lip service to the race unless drugs are involved, there is a change in attitude this year.

One of the problems with cycling and doping is that riders have kept a code of silence in talking about other riders. This year the riders themselves are on record against dopers; the general attitude the next day in interviews was, “Fuck Beltran and his cheating ways.” I might be wrong about this, but I think the tour has turned a corner in the fight against doping.

I am also reminded that the tour is one of the only sports that is actually trying to do something about drugs. No American major-league sport has taken the action cycling has taken, yet cycling is generally seen (if you read headlines) as a tawdry sport. As this year’s version proves once again, the race is still a unique and amazing spectacle. Onward to Hautacam.

July 13, 2008   No Comments

The Tour Giveth, and It Taketh Away

The sixth stage of Le Tour de France 2008 is in the books, and one image has dominated the coverage so far. It’s an advertisement from Versus, the station that carries the tour for American television, that shows, among others, Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov, Michael Rassmussen and Floyd Landis, all major riders caught cheating in tours past. The film runs backwards, so that it looks like Landis is actually having the yellow jersey TAKEN OFF his shoulders.

It’s a powerful icon, and Take Back the Tour is most definitely the message of the 2008 race. It’s the only time that Versus mentions doping in its coverage. There are no references to Ullrich, or Rasmussen or Landis in the telecasts, and it’s obvious that everybody has their fingers crossed that no test comes up positive.

Except for dancing around the subject of doping, the tour has been splendid thus far. Tour officials change the rules and routes every year. Nearly every tour we have seen began with several days on flat roads, so this year the race started in Brittany along the west coast, and riders spent three days battling the wind, rain and elements as well as challenging courses that didn’t necessarily set up well for sprinters. Thor Hushvov grabbed Stage Two, but there wasn’t a pure sprint until Stage Five, when the whole pack thundered across the finish line on the wide streets of Chateauroux Wednesday.

One of my favorite things about the tour is watching individuals or small groups that beat the peleton across long stretches or attack on high mountains. Physics has proven that a large group of riders in formation can overcome large time gaps, and computers can calculate how long it will take the peleton to overtake attackers. So far at least, the computers can’t judge the quirks or subtleties of humanity, so watching whether breakaways succeed can be the biggest thrill of many sprint stages.

Stage Three included a breakaway in the first couple of miles started by Will Frischkorn, a Boulder resident in his first tour, that actually defeated the peleton and successfully broke away, giving Samuel Dumoulin the stage win and Romain Feillu the yellow jersey in the general classification race. The trio beat the pack by more than two minutes! Frischkorn paid for his frivolity in the time trial the next day, but I can’t imagine the thrill he had putting the pedal down on an angry peleton that blew it badly on his third tour stage.

In a footnote, the end of Stage Five showed what a bitter poison the tour can be for those who challenge the peleton. A three-man breakaway early on proved troublesome, and the peleton didn’t catch Agritubel’s Nicolas Vogondy until just meters from the finish. After leading for more than 200 kilometers, his legs gave out ten seconds before he might have grabbed the stage victory.

Today’s stage brought the first drama in the race for the yellow jersey. It was a half-mountain stage that wound first through fields and among ancient volcanoes now covered with grass and ended with two second-category climbs, first up the Col de La Croix Morande and then almost straight up a two-kilometer 10-percent gradient to the ski village of Super Besse.

Attacks began early on the last 2K climb, which just kept getting steeper the higher the riders went, began early. This kept the pace high, although every attacker was hauled in. Versus announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen kept saying that the leaders were watching CSC’s Alejandro Valverde, who was bandaged up after a fall Wednesday and needs to catch up some time on favorite Cadel Evans. But as it turned out, all the favorites stayed bunched together and Valverde and Evans came in second and third, strong races for both.

Stefan Schumacher, the man wearing the yellow jersey for the second day today, lost it, in another ironic twist, after he claimed he hit the rear wheel of Kim Kirchen just below the finish line. When all was said and done, Kirchen, who didn’t fall, wound up wearing the yellow on the podium. Schumacher now is in third, 16 seconds behind Kirchen.

July 10, 2008   No Comments

2007 Tour Stutters to Finish; Exhaustion Reigns

I stopped posting about the Tour after last Monday’s second stage in the Pyrenees, a dramatic duel between Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen which set up another mountaintop tit-for-tat on Wednesday.

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to post, but we flew to Seattle on Wednesday. We were able to see the daily stages; meanwhile, in those short 48 hours, the tour almost imploded.

But before we get to that spot of bother, I want to remember two riders whose presence was indisputably part of the heroics of this tour. Michael Boogerd of Rabobank led the entire peleton through the desolate passes of the Pyrenees for two days, doing his part to set up Michael Rasmussen for the final victory. Boogerd, riding his last Tour, will be sorely missed, the super-est of super-domestiques.

And a nod of the helmet to Yaroslav Popovych, the unselfish Discovery Channel rider whose gritty performances day after day allowed Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to make the podium in first and third places. Huzzahs to two of the often faceless team members who made it all possible.

Rasmussen, as we all know, is another story. My last entry began innocently enough: “I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune.”

Oh how true that proved to be. We got to Seattle on Wednesday afternoon and watched the incredible Stage 15 that evening, an exhausting race where Rasmussen and Rabobank outwitted the entire Discovery team, saving himself until the others wore themselves out and did what he has always done on the crest of mountains at the end of long climbs: He just flat out took off and left everybody else in his wake.

He kissed the sky as he crossed the line, an act that would prove to be his last in this or any future tours or bike races. As we watched him bask in the greatest moment of his life, a ticker beneath the image on the TV screen reminded us again and again that his team had disqualified him from the event after the stage.

We wouldn’t find out until Thursday morning that Rasmussen was disqualified because he had lied about his whereabouts on two occasions before the tour when he was supposed to be available for drug-testing. Rasmussen said he was in Mexico but was spotted in the Dolomite mountains training. It left the team, and the rest of us, with the strong suggestion of doping. Rasmussen, who had passed seventeen drug tests since the Tour began, was gone. I wondered what Michael Boogerd and his Rabobank teammates felt about that?

Rasmussen trained meticulously, rode smart races and followed his leaders to glory – two Tour King of the Mountain jerseys — but drug rumors have dogged the Danish rider for years. This is the microcosm of the Tour and how it echoes life. One second you are leading the race, and the next you are on your ass with road rash and a broken collarbone, like David Millar. Or like Contador, you wind up in the yellow jersey the evening after you just got your ass kicked by a rider you tried in vain to wear down for three days. Or something from the past catches you up in lies, like it did with Rasmussen.

Alexandre Vinokourov, the pre-tour favorite and one of the main reasons I was anticipating this tour, tested positive for blood doping after a convincing win in Stage 13 that appeared to show the grit and determination that we all have all grown to love about Vinokourov. His B sample also came back positive, and he tested positive after a later stage.

Three other riders, Patrik Sinkewitz, Iban Mayo and Cristian Moreni, also tested positive for various illegal substances and now, perhaps, have seen their last days as professional riders. There were probably some others who weren’t tested and got away with their transgressions. Not to put too blunt a point on it, but let’s hope this shit is ending.

I would like to think that blood doping or other cheating could be eliminated from this and all sports. After decades of watching everything from pitchers greasing up baseballs to skinny hitters becoming hulking behemoths at 35, I am much too cynical to actually believe this. But I would hope, like all those who adore the race, that the governing bodies of the Tour and pro cycling can end their turf wars and come together to deal with cheaters.

All those caught save Sinkowitz this year were older riders, and it’s encouraging to see people like Bradley Wiggins take a strong stand against doping, and stage winner Linus Gerdemann calling for clean riding. Punishment to those caught should extend to those who supplied these riders; doping is not an isolated act.

There was still a bit of excitement to come on Saturday, when Levi Leipheimer finally stepped up, winning the stage in the third fastest time trial ever, which assured him of a podium place.

Underdogs everywhere rallied behind Cadel Evans, the gutsy Australian, and he responded with a desperate bid on the time trial that made up a minute and a half on Contador but came with 26 seconds of winning the race.

Let me say again that I really dislike the “tradition” of doing the traverses of the Champs Elysees as a ceremonial part of the race. Especially when, like today, the three leaders were only thirty seconds apart after the penultimate stage. Think of that, as Paul Sherwen reminded us that nothing even close to this has ever happened in the Tour’s long history. Less than thirty seconds between the three leaders after 91 hours in the saddle.

Evans admitted that he was ready to attack on Sunday but was stymied when the sprint teams took over the race on the Champs Elysees. Such is life.

Calls for ending the tour or cycling altogether are premature. And those who decry cycling forget it is the only professional sport so far taking active steps against doping, far ahead of the whole of U.S. professional sports. Le Tour has weathered its share of difficulties, and it will outlive these, too. It is a long, winding road, but there is a finish line at the end.

Meanwhile, let’s sleep on it for awhile.

August 2, 2007   No Comments

Stage 14: And Then There Were Two

Stage 14
Mazamet-Plateau de Beille
197 kilometers/122.4 miles
Stage: Alberto Contador (Discovery)
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune. If so, the two riders at the top of the heap are Michael Rasmussen and Alberto Contador.

Both were eased to the top by strong team efforts. On the first climb, the Port de Pailheres, David Millar and Saunier Duval teammates climbed at a blistering high pace. Yet for all that, Evan Mayo, for whom Millar assassinated himself, dropped out near the top of the Port, a high mountain pass with gradients of 12% near the top of the climb.

But the rock and roll really started during the ascent of the Montee D’Hauteville, 16 kilometers that reach into the sky to a mountain-top finish.

There were about ten riders left halfway up, after Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, running his last tour, 22-year-old Thomas Dekker, and Discovery’s elderly George Hincapie and rising star Popovych took turns at the front. Popovych rode an especially powerful race up the Montee D-Hauteville to keep Contador and Leipheimer in the top five. Leading the way up some of the road’s steepest stretches, he reminded me of the days when Floyd Landis was Lance Armstrong’s super-domestique, leaving riders panting in his wake.

Soon the main group was down to eight riders after Andreas Kloden found himself in a spot of bother about the 10k mark. The Versus cameras were inside the Discovery Channel car, and we got to see manager Johan Bryneel tell Popovych to attack, which put announcer Phil Leggitt into a spot of bother about how TV cameras shouldn’t be inside cars that have televisions in them.

On and on, up and up they went, until finally everybody fell away, even Cadel Evans, the most quiet and steady rider all tour, and Leipheimer, who ran a strong race but just couldn’t keep up with the leaders.

So it was Contador and Rasmussen, both working together as they left the others behind and pulled back the two breakaway riders left ahead. They chatted a lot on the way up about putting time on Evans, and Contador got the stage win while Rasmussen got precious minutes on Evans and the other contenders.

A serious casualty was Alexandre Vinokourov, who brought himself back among the contenders with a brave and lightning-fast time trial Saturday. Today his body finally feel victim to a hard two weeks riding with injuries, and Vino fell back on the penultimate climb and lost half an hour on the leaders by the end of the day, enough to put him out of contention.

It was as exciting a race as I have seen, and we finally got to see who had the right stuff and who didn’t. Right now the only two who have it are in first and second place. Everyone else has the task of attacking the two best riders on the high passes for two more days. Do these guys ever get tired?

July 22, 2007   No Comments

Many Winners, Several Losers in Stage 13

Stage 13
54 kilometers/33.6 miles
Stage: Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) 1:06:34
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

This stage has been advertised as the first of the tour that might give us some indication of who is serious about winding up next Sunday with the maillot jaune. It more than lived up to its billing, as winners and losers played out a drama along a 33.6-mile, often rainy and wet race against the clock.

Among the winners:

Alexandre Vinokourov, nearly written off after taking sixty stitches in both knees and an elbow after an early crash. Vino, who gave a quick primer during Friday’s flat stage by leading Astana on an attack that split the field, just blew past most of those close to him, taking back boggling amounts of time from some of the front-runners.

Today, Vino was 1:14 ahead of Cadel Evans, his nearest challenger. He beat Yaroslav Popovych , Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer by more than two minutes each. He was more than four minutes faster than Carlos Sastre, six minutes ahead of Eban Mayo. He moved from 20th to 9th position in the general classification and gained three minutes on the leader, Michael Rasmussen. And though he was flying most of the way, he picked his way carefully down a winding section that put several riders on the ground, including teammate Andreas Kloden, showing a restraint and intelligence that Vino hasn’t been known for.

Except for a fall on a hairpin turn, from which he seemed to recover quickly, Kloden might have wound up even higher than the fourth spot he currently holds, just 2:34 behind Rasmussen.

Leader Rasmussen had a splendid day. Leaving as the final rider, the day after being thrown off the Danish National team and accused of drug use by a Boulder amateur, and already written off by many who remembered his poor showing in previous time trials, Rasmussen passed Alejandro Valverde three minutes ahead of him, and retained his yellow jersey. He lost time, but not nearly as much as expected.

Cadel Evans was a winner today, too, moving up to second place after a strong, steady showing. He is in the best position to win in his career, and we’ll be watching him as we hit the mountain stages.

Discovery’s Alberto Contador, a threat in the Alpine stages last weekend, had a fast day and is now in third place in the general classification. And Yaroslav Popovych, riding in the unenviable position just ahead of Vinokourov, finds himself in 15th place after a fast ride that was only overshadowed by Vino. Levi Leipheimer again rode a conservative race and is now in fifth, 3:37 behind the leader. Leipheimer needs to attack in the Pyrenees, which he has said he will do last week, in order to have any chance of winning. Popovych and Contador and George Hincapie will need to be there for him. Leipheimer will have to show us something he has not even hinted at so far this year and that I have never seen him do in five tours – dominate the competition — to make the podium.

The biggest losers included Valverde, who dropped to the 11th spot by finished more than six minutes behind Vino and, humiliatingly, more than half that behind Rasmussen. Christophe Moreau was blown completely out, now in 23rd place, ten minutes behind the leader and a long 13 minutes behind in the race. Carlos Sastre and Eban Mayo’s hopes were trampled upon. Barring a miracle, they are out.

Summing up, Rasmussen has to be considered to be a serious candidate for the final podium, especially with three mountain stages coming in the next four days.

But he will have to race as well as he ever has, because now that he’s in the yellow jersey, other riders and teams will strive to stay with him if he tries one of his patented breakaways straight up a mountain. Does he still have it after a hard time trial? Vinokourov is definitely back in the race, and team Astana, especially with Kloden and workhorse Andrey Kashechkin, who had a great time trial, is looking to be the strongest team at this point in the race, which could spring Vinokourov on another daring time-grab.

The dark horse is Evans, who is quietly running a strong, even race after almost two weeks in the saddle.

July 21, 2007   No Comments