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‘Legs Shut Up’: The Most Fun I’ve Had Watching the Tour de France

Jens Voight is the heart and soul of the Tour de France.

This is our tenth Tour de France — we began watching in 2003 on the day when Lance Armstrong, after a crash by the leader Joseba Beloki, took a shortcut to get back on the road and continue the Tour — and there are so many reasons I love watching this event.

We saw Armstrong’s victories and endured his bike attacks on mountain finishes and competitors and his nasty verbal attacks against anyone willing to tell the truth, as we all began to figure out that yes, despite his vociferous denials, despite his fight with cancer, he was doping, which finally came to a head with his confession last year and the final realization that all the riders we had been watching for years had been cheating, with almost no chance of interdiction, for many years.

And so we fans have been holding our collective breaths, waiting for the dope hammer to fall again. This year, so far, no riders have been accused of anything and there have been no positive tests. Blood profiles have become common — first championed by Boulder team Garmin and its CEO Jonathan Vaughters — and riders know that they can be caught, if not today, then next year or the one after that.

And, I believe, the generation coming up, without the teams promoting their drug use and the code of silence finally broken, is a generation that isn’t into doping. Perhaps we’ll be disappointed again, but I don’t think so. Winner Chris Froome has been questioned, incessantly, about whether his performance this year has been enhanced. He released his data for analysis, and it was deemed within normal limits. I’m sure we’ll see more statistic checking in the coming months.

Let’s remember Froome wasn’t questioned last year when he led Bradley Wiggins to the yellow jersey and many, myself included, thought that he looked stronger than the winner. He was the overwhelming favorite coming into the race, and he has proven himself time and again. He was hardly put in a spot of real bother throughout. So give him credit — he stayed with his attackers and often took on his competitors at crucial moments high in the mountains to prove his superiority and team strength. Team Sky’s tactics and his final attack at the top of Mont Ventoux over the rising star Nairo Quintana, was one for the ages, an ascent so difficult that Froome required oxygen after he crossed the finish line. We will not quickly forget that moment when he overtook Quintana and soloed to the end.

Seriously give it up for Richie Porte, who played lieutenant to Froome as Froome did for Wiggins and Team Sky last year. This guy, wearing mostly an almost silly grin behind his white sunglasses, led Froome up steep, winding mountain passes, fell back a couple of times and still managed to come back with the main contenders near the top of the climbs. Had he not lost serious time on one stage, he might have made the podium himself.

Give it up for Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez, two of those new names that have no connection to past and wound up on the podium with Froome. Both exceptional climbers, they will be a lot of fun to watch in the high passes for the next few years.

Big kudos to the sprinters. The green jersey competition went to suave Peter Sagan. Mark Cavendish’s reputation as the fastest of his generation is well-deserved, and he is now tied with Bernard Hinault in second place in the all-time standings for Tour stage wins, but he has serious competitors: giant Andre Greipel, Sagan and powerful Marcel Kittel, who won four stages and clipped Cavendish and Greipel at the line on the Champs-Elysee in Paris on the last day, are all worthy competitors. The green jersey battle might even be better next year. To that end, Cavendish reportedly has gotten Mark Renshaw, his favorite lead-out guy, to join the Omega Pharma squad.

Give it up for Alberto Contador, who was just outclassed by Froome, and he knew it. Contador did everything he could with a strong Saxo/Tinkoff team to dislodge Froome, but in the end was overtaken by Rodriguez and Quintana for the podium positions and ended more than seven minutes behind. This year he looked more like an outlier than a contender. He said in an interview Saturday that he would skip the Vuelta, which he won last year, and concentrate on how he can regain the form he’ll need to beat Froome (and Quintana and Rodriguez). He’s got some work to do.

And let’s hear it for Alejandro Valverde, who came to the tour in great form to win and lost the race in the strangest and most fascinating flat stage I ever watched. There were some chances for enterprising teams to take advantage of the wind in Stage 13, and both Belkin and Omega Pharma (who we found out later had planned this the night before) took out Argo Shimano’s Marcel Kittel in an initial burst of speed at just the right moment on the course, and Saxo Tinkoff and Contador were able to gain almost a minute on Chris Froome and Team Sky nearer the end of the stage with the same tactic. Unfortunately, during the first attack, Valverde had a flat tire, there was no team car close and lost enough time to blow his chances to win the tour as a result. He wound up supporting teammate Quintana the rest of the Tour.

Even more unfortunate was Pierre Rolland, who decided to go for the king of the mountain jersey. He attacked again and again to try and catch up with Froome, whose late mountain attacks early on put him ahead. He finally overtook Froome’s point total during the first climbs of Saturday’s stage. But all his efforts were to no avail, as Quintana swept him and the field on the final mountain ascent, for which he got 50 points and the polka-dot jersey.

Give it up for Cadel Evans, who won three years ago and, as he did last year, was unable to keep up with the top climbers. By the end, he admitted he was happy to just finish the Tour, and the former champion might, if he returns, come back as support for TeJay Vangarteren, the new BMC hopeful for a possible Tour victory in the next few years. Vangarteren had a frustrating, up-and-down tour that he almost salvaged with a stage win before Christophe Riblon blew the field on the second climb of L’Alpe d’Huez at the end of Stage 18.

The commentating team seemed stronger than in recent years. Phil Liggins was sharper than he has been in recent years, and Paul Sherwen, except for his incessant obsession with Andy Schleck (we all wish Schleck well in his recovery, but Sherwen was super effusive and repetitive in his praise), offered his usual counterpoint. Of the rest, Scott Perino, who rode the Tour on a motorcycle and provided up-to-the-moment coverage from behind the peleton, did the best job.

Give it to the Tour organizers, who really outdid themselves this year making each stage as difficult as possible for the riders and as exciting as possible for the fans. The roads around Corsica were dangerous in the first three days, always a twitchy time in the peleton, and there were a fair share of major crashes. Several times, it appeared that it was far more dangerous than it should have been, with too little space for too many bikers heading for a tiny point in the distance. Most sprint finishes demanded that teams help the sprinters over tricky little hills and small mountains. The two climbs up L’Alpe d’Huez to end Stage 18 were an inspired bit of the torture and ecstasy of the tour.

And really give it up for Jens Voight, easily my favorite rider of all time, and — who knows? — this might be his last tour. He seems able to capture the whimsy as well as the rigors of bike racing, and he’s a tough guy. Who can forget a few years back when he skidded on his face after crashing going downhill, taking him out of that tour? Or, after an epic struggle to lead a teammate to the top of a mountain, seeing his legs go wobbly 50 meters from the crest of the climb? Or last year when he quipped that he could see Canada from the top of Independence Pass during his stage win in the U.S. Pro Challenge here in Colorado? Oh yeah. He also is the one person who says he didn’t dope during the EPO era that I believe. He took off on a splendid breakaway on the penultimate stage that failed but gave us at least one last look at the emblem of what makes the Tour de France so enjoyable. And you know he was saying all the way, “Legs, shut up.”

July 22, 2013   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 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

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