Weblog of Leland Rucker
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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

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