Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Tour de France 2008

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