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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

Stage Three: Cobblestones, Winners and Losers

Thor Hushovd won the Battle of the Cobblestones in Stage Three of the 2010 Tour de France.

Another dicey day at the Tour de France as the riders had to traverse eight miles of cobblestones in six sections today.

There was no dearth of drama during this rare event – it’s only the second time I’ve seen cobblestones on the course in the seven years I’ve been watching. Saxo Bank had dominated the front of the peleton all day, and was jockeying for position as the road narrowed, when Frank Schleck went down hard and broke a collarbone, ending his tour right there. Since it was at the front of the peleton, everybody had to stop and try to get around the pile-up, which split the field completely into disarray.

Thor Hushovd, angered about Monday’s decision by the peleton not to sprint after the crash and melee coming down the Col de Stockeu, took the green jersey, winning the stage handily over Fabian Cancellara, who kept Hushovd from sprinting yesterday. Cancellara managed to take back the yellow jersey he lost bringing Andy Schleck back into the peleton yesterday, and though the team lost Frank, Andy Schleck was right there next to Cancellara at the end, picking up the time he lost during a poor Prologue.

Sylvain Chavanel was a loser today. After winning Stage Two by staying ahead of the field and avoiding all misfortune Monday, today he had to change bikes at least twice after blowouts during the cobblestone sections. The lost momentum each time lost him the maillot jaune, too, which he had dreamed of keeping until they hit the Alps this weekend.

Cadel Evans found himself in the best Tour position I can ever remember. Always a favorite the last few years, Evans has also been a target for other teams — last year he was shut down by Astana any time he made a move. There are too many good riders for teams to go after individual riders, and today Evans missed the Schleck crash and was there with Cancellara and Hushovd and Andy Schleck at the finish line, also picking up valuable seconds on the leaders. Evans, now on BMC Racing Team, might finally be able to contend this year. The addition of George Hincapie to his team can’t hurt his chances, either. Bradley Wiggins, another contender riding for the new Team Sky, and Denis Menchov were 53 seconds back. Other GC contenders Ivan Basso, Michael Rogers and Carlos Sastre all came in a group at 2:25.

Favorite Alberto Contador, who the announcers reminded us several times early on, had never actually raced on cobbles, rode a strong, relaxed, sensible race. He was behind the Saxo Bank crash group, which left him more than a minute behind the Armstrong group. But he steadily rode himself back into competition. A leak on his back tire coming down the final stretch left him 1:13 behind Hushovd at the end.

Of the leaders, Armstrong, who had a flat tire at a critical moment on a late cobble section, fared the worst. After a frantic dash to try and cut his losses, he was still 2:08 to the finish line behind Hushovd. At one point, the camera caught the man who has won here seven times, lost behind a gaggle of team cars, dirt smearing his face, desperately trying to save his race.

The lost time can be made up – as we have found out, anything can happen in this one — but it’s a real blow to Armstrong’s chances. Much of the narrative on Versus has focused on the Contador rivalry and Armstrong’s desire to go out a winner. Many have noted that Armstrong needs to shave time anywhere he can so he is ahead of or close to the other contenders by the time the Tour hits the mountains. That hasn’t happened. He is now in 32nd place in the race, 1:51 behind Cancellara with little chance to pick up time in the flat stages that precede the Alps.

The drama already unfolding this year is a night-and-day difference from 2009, where the first fireworks came when Contador dashed away from the field on Stage 7. He is still the favorite, but everyone is vulnerable.

Last year’s rivalry between Armstrong and Contador, both on the same team, was more distracting than compelling, especially after Contador showed he was the superior rider and put Armstrong in his place. Whatever psychological advantage Armstrong might have had over Contador after a strong Prologue (and that’s hardly a given) is completely gone now. In this year’s narrative, it’s anybody’s race.

July 6, 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

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