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Evans Endures for le Tour Victory

So the Tour de France 2011 is history, and it came down to the last three days of racing to finally determine a winner. Cadel Evans, who held off Frank and Andy Shleck through the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps, won with an overpowering performance in Saturday’s individual time trial.

Tour stalwart George Hincapie (r) was part of Cadel Evans' powerful BMC team. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe)

Evans has been trying to win le Tour since he entered in 2005 and had developed a reputation for not being assertive enough to compete at the highest level. He came in eighth in that first race, sixth in 2006 and second to Contador in 2007 and Carlos Sastre in 2008. After finishing 30th in 2009, he joined the American BMC team, and last year finished 26th after fracturing an elbow while grabbing the yellow jersey in Stage 9.

This win has to be especially satisfying for the 34 year-old Australian, and his hell-bent-for-leather dash around Grenoble in the time trial should finally silence critics who say Evans isn’t tough or aggressive enough to win the tour. In BMC, Evans found a team that, like those Armstrong created for his later victories (all of whom targeted Evans as a possible winner), steered him out of trouble through three weeks of racing.

Excepting a couple of mechanical problems, Evans was the most attentive member of the climbing elite, fending off attacks or saving his strength to catch up later and finally putting his distinctive mark on the time trial to win decisively. I think my favorite moment of the tour was when Andy Schleck asked Evans to help pick up the pace on the infamous slopes of Alpe d’Huez, and he shook his head as if to say, “tell your brother to get up front.” Evans was the smartest racer out there, and he won through endurance and, finally, through brute strength in the time trial.

If anything, he showed Andy Schleck — who came in second for the third time in as many years — that to win, you must ride a high-end time trial. The last winners — Lance Armstrong, Contador, Carlos Sastre and now Evans — are all better-than-average trialists. Schleck, a riveting performer with a keen natural skill and uncanny instincts in the high mountains, like Evans, had a strong team helping him avoid the nervous crashes and broken bones  that dominated the first couple of weeks’ news.

Schleck, like Evans, is criticized for not being aggressive enough, but he showed great determination when he took control of the entire race on Stage 18 with a nasty attack 60 kilometers from the finish. But once again he failed as he failed twice against Contador, fading to 17th in the time trial, almost two and a half minutes behind Evans’ time. He’s only 26, but he’ll have to rethink this part of his strategy to win. And I’m sure he and brother Frank, a formidable contender himself, will be back next year, hopefully with a smarter game plan.

Alberto Contador lost the tour on the first day because he was too far back in the peleton and got caught behind a multi-bike crash, losing 1:20 to the other contenders, a cardinal sin for anyone seriously trying to win this race. Falling off his bike at least four times, once when his handlebars got caught in Vladimir Karpets’ seat post and Karpets shouldered him off the road and straining a swollen right knee, didn’t help his cause, either.

But he stayed even with all the other leaders and kept up when no one attacked in the Pyrenees. It was too late, but he attacked early on Stage 19, and though he cracked near the top of Alpe d’Huez, he showed that he could still play with the best of them, and Saturday he came in behind only winner Tony Martin and Evans in the time trial. Next year, he has already said, he will skip the Giro (which he won this year without breaking a sweat, though his participation might have contributed to his early lethargy) and concentrate on le tour. If he isn’t suspended for his clenbuterol positive in last year’s tour (we’ll find out in November now), the cagiest rider out there will once again be a serious threat to Evans and the Schlecks,

Like anyone who watched, I can’t say enough for the inspired race that Tom Voeckler rode. Against all odds, even is own, he stayed in the yellow jersey through the Pyrenees, even on days when he had announced he would lose it, and into the Alps. While the other leaders were playing mind games, Voeckler was providing the kind of drama that keeps us tour addicts pinned to our televisions.

As the Science of Sport website notes, the times for the Alpe d’Huez climb were more consistent with pre-doping times, and only one positive drug test so far this year. (Fingers crossed that nothing shows up later.)

Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter who is also on the best lead-out sprint team I’ve ever seen at HTC-High Road, was a marvel to watch, but it appears the team might be broken up after HTC ends its sponsorship this year. And it was really good to see former frustrated teammate Andre Greipel steal an early stage from Cavendish for himself. Thor Hushvod proved once again to be an opportunistic rider who helped himself to two stages no one expected him to even contend for, one in which he was timed descending a mountain at 69 miles per hour! Special kudos to Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha for finishing the race after a horrifying incident in which, while they were leaders of the stage, they were sideswiped by a camera car.

As for contenders next year, I was especially impressed with young rider Pierre Rolland, who won the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Tejay van Garderen, who excelled in the early stages, and Samuel Sanchez, who seemed to be right there with the leaders much of the time in the high mountains and finished seventh in the time trial. I’m certainly glad to get my life back after three weeks of insanity, but I can’t wait to see what happens next year, or the upcoming Pro Cycling Challenge here in Colorado next month, for that matter.

July 26, 2011   No Comments

A Nervous and Shaky First Week for le Tour 2011

Johnny Hoogerland wound up tangled in a barbed wire fence. Just a second earlier he was going 35 miles an hour with the breakaway.) LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m not usually that enthusiastic about the first week of le Tour de France. It’s always been a good time to slowly settle into the ebb and flow of the race and listen to Versus commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen chatter on contentedly about the world of cycling. Except for general nervousness and a few crashes as the riders settle into the tour’s routine, the leaders generally let the sprinters strut their stuff and try to keep from doing something stupid.

This year, however, the first week was anything but predictable; it’s easily the most chaotic (and exciting to watch) first nine stages I’ve ever seen in the tour, though I’m sure the riders would use the same adjectives. From the first stage, when race favorite Alberto Contador got caught behind a huge crash and ceded more than a minute and a half to his main rivals, to Sunday’s ninth stage, when a television vehicle struck one of the stage leaders and half a dozen riders abandoned after some serious accidents, the race has been nothing but chaos at 30 miles per hour.

This is our eighth tour, and until this year the race has always begun with a short, ceremonial individual time trial, with the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellera lately the favored winner. This year, however, it was a full-on first stage, with several crashes and Cancellara nowhere near the yellow jersey.

Since then, all the leading riders save the Schleck brothers and Australian Cadel Evans have suffered one ignominy after another. Broken collarbones have forced top riders like Bradley Wiggins and Jurgen van den Broeck to withdraw. Both Tom Boonen and Chris Horner (one of the oldest riders, and my own personal favorite after watching him win the Tour of California in May) left the race dazed and confused with serious concussions. The Radioshack team, which came to the tour with three contenders for the yellow jersey, only has a bruised Andreas Kloden left to compete after he got caught in a pile-up.

On that vicious crash on a mountain descent Sunday, Alexandre Vinokourov broke his right femur in a massive tangle that also ended van den Broeck’s and David Zabriskie’s tours. If that wasn’t enough, a television car, in front of motorcycle cameras and ignoring race radio instructions to stay back, sideswiped Juan Antonio Flecha, one of the riders in a breakaway that was ultimately successful, sending him skidding into the pavement at about forty miles an hour and tossing Johnny Hoogerland, who was having a rousing first tour, at full speed into a barbed-wire fence. The peleton seems afraid, which can date back to the death of cyclist Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’ Italia in May. The riders seem especially nervous and shaky.

I watched the Giro this year, and Contador defeated his opponents (none of whom included Evans or the Schlecks or Wiggins or Levi Leipheimer) with hardly a spot of bother, as commentator Paul Sherwen likes to put it when a rider is in full control. But Contador has fallen four times (that we know of) in nine stages, and he’s going to be hard-pressed to gain back the time he has lost to Evans and Andy Schleck, both of whom can be expected to stay with Contador, especially if he’s riding with leg injuries, through the high mountain passes this weekend.

French rider Thomas Voeckler, riding for a new team, Europcar, was the main beneficiary of the Stage Nine carnage. He barely escaped being hit by the car and wound up taking a minute and a half lead on the yellow jersey contenders and ending a week in yellow for Thor Hushvod, who deserves credit for keeping the yellow jersey on a course that seems much harder than most first-week sprinter stages.

Voeckler won the yellow jersey several years ago and kept it for almost ten days through brute tenacity and strength, impressing even Lance Armstrong. I expect him to tenaciously try to keep yellow as long as he can, even into the Pyrenees this weekend,, but he will be hard pressed to keep it.

And who will be wearing the yellow jersey come Paris? Like everything else about the 2011 Tour, I don’t have a clue. But I can’t wait to watch it unfold.

July 11, 2011   No Comments

Schleck vs. Contador: Get Used to It

Andy Schleck tries to get Alberto Contador's attention during the Tour de France 2010.

This is a rivalry that’s building and can only get better.

Over 21 days and some 2,200 miles, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador tried to shake each other. They attacked. But neither could shake the other. One day, in a moment that will be debated forever, Contador attacked Schleck as the latter’s chain slipped. Still, Contador couldn’t shake him. Schleck attacked a couple days later on the ride up to the Col du Tourmalet, but he couldn’t shake Contador. Even in the time trial, which everyone had predicted would be dominated by Contador, he couldn’t shake Schleck.

For those who expected all-out fireworks, there might be some disappointment. But for anyone with a sense of the difficulties involved in riding this bike race around France for three weeks, this was as good as it gets, a battle set up during an early stage between two men who are almost perfectly matched. The climb up the Tourmalet, which pitted them head-to-head for six dizzying uphill miles, was as exciting a stage as I have ever seen in my seven years of Tourwatching. These two guys are going to be battling for  the maillot jaune for many years to come.

Contador won his third yellow jersey, though he will have to live with the fact that his actions in that moment on Stage 15 will be interpreted by many fans as breaking an unwritten ethical rule in this tour. Contador perhaps erred in not slowing down and letting Schleck fix his chain. But like Schleck, I’m forgiving but willing to accept that a significant number of racing fans will hold this against Contador.

No matter. It was a spectacular race, as always. The first week was vicious and brutal, with the race taking more than its usual share of crashes and broken bones, highlighted by a day on cobblestones, and another with at least half the peleton on the ground at one time or another and the entire bunch (save stage winner Sylvain Chavanel)  waiting for Schleck after a nasty looking smashup.

But after Stage 9, when Contador and Schleck looked at each other and bolted away from the pack and helped eliminate the others, it became a two-man show, and it was well worth the effort of watching them battle on the high slopes of the Pyrenees. They will return.

July 25, 2010   No Comments

Stage 14: The Contador/Schleck Game

Contador/Schleck: It's lonely at the top. (The Guardian)

Though the first day in the Pyrenees brought little direct action, there was plenty of jostling between the two GC leaders. Andy Schleck, who had been caught off guard by Alberto Contador’s attack near the end of Stage 12, wasn’t about to get caught out today, and he rode Contador’s wheel each time that the Spaniard tested him.

Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were suggesting that this might have a psychological effect on Contador, but I don’t think either Schleck’s momentary lapse on Stage 12 or Contador’s challenges today will have much effect upon either man, each who seem supremely confident in his own abilities.

I watched Stage 12 a second time, and I’m really impressed with Contador’s cagey move there. He knows the climb well, and it favors his style, which seems to work most efficiently the steeper the incline, and just before the attack, he carefully looked back, then seemed to be, as he has the entire time since Schleck nabbed the maillot jaune, content to dance behind the leader, looking bored with the world. Phil Liggett said that he looked like a tourist, gazing around at the beautiful scenery below him.

Then he took off like a rocket. Like he had a motor in his cycle. In the end, he gained only ten seconds, but it was the stealth factor that was most impressive. It happened so quickly. Like when Armstrong ruled the tour, Contador seems willing to wait patiently and then strike at just the right moment. Today he didn’t succeed, and Schleck deserves serious credit for staying with him today on two tough climbs.

“Schleck needs 1:45-two minutes coming into the time trial” – Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, July 17, 2010

This is still the wild card. Though he trails, Conatador is just hitting his stride as a time trialist at the time when Schleck couldn’t look worse in that category. His prologue ride at the start of the tour was almost embarrassing. If both stay healthy, Schleck will need to increase his lead significantly over Contador before they leave the Pyrenees, or he will lose.

Both seem to have powerful teams protecting their riders, but overall, Astana seems to be hitting its stride while SaxoBank might have already peaked. At one point today before the two mountain climbs, Liggett, noting the absence of SaxoBank riders in front of the peleton, said, “if I were Andy Schleck, I would be freaking out about now.” Schleck handled the relentless pace of the Astana squad today – which punished the rest of the peleton for the last hour and a half before the two climbs — but he had nobody beside him for much of the final climb.

All in all, the tension is building nicely for a wonderful three more days in the Pyrenees leading up the climb of the Tourmalet Thursday.

July 18, 2010   1 Comment

Stage 9: The Contador/Schleck Duel Begins

Cadel Evans rode Stage 9 with a fractured elbow and only lost eight minutes to the leaders. Photo: © Stephen Farrand

What a strange sport cycling, particularly in the Tour de France, can be.

I was just enchanted with the stage today. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador pretty much decimated the rest of the  general classification field. Just ripped them by the throat and cast them aside.

But who could have ever guessed the two dominant riders would join forces while ascending the uncategorized Col de Madeleine and then stay together for thirty more kilometers to the finish? Or that they would catch the breakaway at the end? Or that Cadel Evans, who looked like death as he rode up Madeleine, rode the entire stage with a broken elbow?

Contador and Schleck are in complete control of this race, and, barring injury or illness, will be until we hit the slopes of the Pyrenees. I had to watch much of the Madeleine ascent a second time after I got home from work. It was magic.

Amongst the two, I have no favorite. I have been very impressed with Contador’s two earlier wins here, and his overall coolness under pressure and savvy strategic skills are undeniable, but I like Schleck’s fire and determination, especially after the last two days. “Now I just have to worry about watching one guy,” Schleck said.

But at this point, I’d give a slight edge to Contador. Schleck’s Achilles heel at this point is the time trial, which comes on the penultimate stage, and might determine the winner. Most tour watchers are saying that he could lost two minutes to Contador on that stage, so he must build a bigger advantage. He and Team Saxobank also have to protect the yellow jersey, while Contador and Astana just have to watch Schleck and stay out of trouble until Sunday. This is gonna be fun.

July 14, 2010   No Comments

Stage 8: Even Armstrong Can’t Relive the Past

Lance Armstrong became a mortal again on the slopes of the Alps Sunday. He was a great champion.

An era ended Sunday at the bottom of the first First Category climb of the 2010 Tour de France, and the new one began almost immediately near the top. The first really difficult stage in the Alps took a toll on nearly everybody except Andy Schleck, who became a stage winner for the first time in his career. It won’t be his last.

Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans both seemed surprised and a bit tuckered out at the end when Schleck took off near the summit of Morzine-Avoriaz and snatched the stage from Sammy Sanchez as the Spanish rider’s legs turned to stone in the last seconds. Evans is in the yellow jersey, so he had one of his best days at the tour, too.

It seems that it’s pretty much a three or four-man race for the general classification podium finish: Schleck, Evans, Contador and perhaps Denis Menchov. Behind and still alive are Ivan Basso and Levi Leipheimer, though neither really seems capable of winning. Basso, though he won the Giro this year, has never shown the dominance he displayed on the high slopes before his suspension, and in all the years I have been watching him, I have no reason to believe that Leipheimer has anywhere near the killer instinct to win this race against these younger, more determined legs.

Stage Eight did end Lance Armstrong’s bid to win le Tour one more time. For me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, it’s been difficult to watch his “comeback.” In 2008, after former Armstrong manager Johan Bruyneel had created a team around Alberto Contador, Armstrong joined that team, dividing loyalties among his colleagues and then spending much of the tour needling Contador for various team sins when it was clear that Armstrong was only the second- (or third-) best rider on the team.

Why do so many great champions come back out of retirement and force us to watch debacles like we witnessed today? Why can’t they rest on their laurels? I have been watching le Tour since that day when, after his chief rival went down hard, Armstrong took a creative ride across a field to join the pack around a curve. Watching him win tour after tour was greatly inspirational and sucked me into the sport of cycling, and when he decided to retire after seven victories, it seemed the perfect moment for him to sit back and watch another generation have its day.

So, despite the narrative power of the story of the champion coming back to the scene of his greatest triumphs, Armstrong’s return disappointed me, partly because of his attitude last year to Contador after he upset the dynamics of the Astana team, but also because I didn’t want to have to watch what happened today.

Make no mistake. Though Phil Liggett kept saying that it was through no fault of his own, Armstrong had this coming. He had remarkable luck, especially during the last years of his victory run. Last year he came in third, a remarkable return in itself but obviously not good enough for him. But in the year since, though he has had a couple of decent outcomes, he has never displayed any of the mastery he once had, and his body just doesn’t react like it did five years ago.

Having said that, it was still difficult to watch this great champion fall — again and again, once with only team members around him. Or to see him riding, his uniform ripped, blood running from both elbows and down his legs, or struggling to lose only twelve minutes on the leaders and having to watch as the cameras lingered on him after the leaders crossed the line.

This followed that day on the cobblestones when the cameras found him, his face blackened, fighting for survival behind the team cars. It seemed like he was always struggling this tour while the announcers tried to put a positive spin on his problems.

You can’t relive the past. Armstrong’s day is long past, and we’ll have to leave him to Versus reruns of his glory days, his Livestrong campaign and the idiotic Michelob Ultra Light commercials.

And after today’s rest day, let’s get on with the real battle at the top and let the post-Armstrong era of cycling begin. It’s overdue.

July 12, 2010   1 Comment

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