Weblog of Leland Rucker
Random header image... Refresh for more!

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

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