Home > Cycling > Tour de France Wrap-up

Tour de France Wrap-up


Yes, I know, it ended over two weeks ago. My trip to New York coincided with the final four days of the Tour de France, thereby interrupting both my morning ritual of watching the coverage and my almost-daily reports. By the time I returned to Seattle and caught up with all the coverage on the DVR, it was a bit late to discuss what I missed. Yet, I can’t seem to let go, and it is getting in the way of my writing about other subjects, so I will write one last post about this year’s Tour, to the extent that I can even remember it.

Timely? No. Interesting? Probably not. But I have to do it. Please be patient. Or move on to other posts.

Let’s review where matters stood at the end of stage 17 on Wednesday, July 22. It was the last day in the Alps, the day the Schleck brothers attacked Alberto Contador relentlessly but couldn’t shake him. The three finished in the same time, with Nibali and Armstrong 2’18” back, Kloeden 2’27” back, and Bradley Wiggins 3’07” back. Their efforts did succeed in moving Andy Schleck from 5th overall to a commanding 2nd and Frank Schleck from 8th overall to 3rd, pushing Armstrong down from 2nd to 4th, Wiggins from 3rd to 6th, and Kloeden from 4th to 5th.

This was the setup for Thursday’s big individual time trial at Annency. Neither Schleck brother was known as a time trialist, but Andy’s lead might be enough to hold onto 2nd overall. What about the 3rd spot? Would Frank be able to hold on? And if not, who would jump ahead? The likely candidates were Armstrong and Wiggins, with Armstrong holding a 58″ overall lead on Wiggins, so he would need a strong performance to overtake Frank Schleck (30″ ahead) and hold Wiggins off.

Thursday: Here in Seattle, the setup was that I had to get on an airplane, with the likelihood that I would be boarding as the final riders were approaching the end. (The riders go out in order of overall standings, with the top rider overall — Contador — going out last, the second rider going out next-to-last, and so on.) I was not happy that I would be missing this crucial stage, until I remembered that JetBlue has TV screens in each seatback and satellite TV, so maybe I would be able to board and watch. But then I realized that Versus was not likely to be part of JetBlue’s satellite package. That was out of my hands. I would board, go through the channels, and hope for the best.

I boarded. I took my seat and immediately scanned the channels. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, …. . I was about to give up when, there they were!! I saw Contador riding. It was channel 37, the absolute last channel available. I grabbed my earphones, plugged them in, and listened. Was I ever lucky! Contador was doing well, easily well enough to stay well in front in the GC, but maybe even on track for the best performance of the day. Frank Schleck wasn’t doing well. Andy was doing respectably. Wiggins and Armstrong were likely to move up. We were all boarded. The door was shut. We backed out. Everyone had finished but Contador. Here he came, into the last kilometer of the course. And that’s when the crew decided it was time to tell us how to connect our seatbelts. Off went the sound. Then off went the video. Exit doors. Life vests. Oxygen. I thought we were done. But no, a lengthy announcement about the JetBlue American Express card. Finally, they were done. I had to find channel 37 all over again. The race was over. I saw the stage results. Contador had won by 3 seconds over Cancellara, perhaps the best time trialist in the world, an astonishing display of dominance. Wiggins was 43″ back in 6th Armstrong was 1’30” back in 16th, enough to stay ahead of Wiggins overall. Andy Schleck was 1’45” back in 21st, enough to stay in 2nd overall and perhaps secure it for good. Frank Schleck was 2’34” back, way back.

What did this mean for the overall standings? I could guess, but I wanted to see the results on the broadcast. Then we took off, after essentially no delay. We taxied out and were up. Great. Except once we were off the ground, we had to watch a lengthy message telling us about the options available on our AV system — tv, movies (for pay), satellite radio. Followed by ads. When I could finally get back to the broadcast, I was too late to see the overall standings. I would have to wait. Which I did for a few hours. Versus repeated the broadcast and I kept track of it later so I could see the ending again. But amazingly enough, I missed it again, because the pilot came on to tell us we were 110 miles out of JFK and would circle at 80 miles out.

Well, eventually I got the results. Contador had built an insurmountable lead for 1st place overall. Andy Schleck was in 2nd, 1’14” ahead of Armstrong, probably enough to guarantee the 2nd place finish. But Lance led Wiggins by only 11 seconds, Kloeden by 13 seconds, Frank Schleck by 34 seconds. Anyone could finish in 3rd overall, depending on Saturday’s big stage, the climb of Mont Ventoux. I was pretty frustrated with the timing of JetBlue’s announcements, but overall I couldn’t complain. I did get to follow the stage.

Friday: I wasn’t too concerned about missing the coverage of this stage. It was expected to be easy enough to have no effect on the overall standings, but hard enough to challenge the sprinters, so there would probably not be yet another showdown between my newest hero, the great young sprinter Mark Cavendish, and his rival Thor Hushovd. The hotel where Joel and I were staying didn’t have Versus, and we would be heading out as the stage neared its finish, but that was okay. As we were driving to meet my parents, Joel looked up the results on his iPhone. And what do you know? Cavendish won! Hushovd second! It turns out we missed an extraordinary stage, one with no effect on the GC but with great drama nonetheless. I would have to wait until I was home to see it.

Saturday: This was the big one, a difficult stage culminating in the climb of the great Mont Ventoux. Fiendish scheduling, putting one of the most notorious and scary climbs on the penultimate day. If any of the top riders cracked, the entire order of the GC could change. I had looked forward to this day for weeks, but once again, as on Friday, I would not be able to watch it.

It turns out that at the TdF website, one can go to a page that has reports every 1-3 minutes of the stage in progress. Each report is 2-3 lines long and while it barely compares to watching live video, it does allow you to keep track of attacks and breakaways. We sat in the hotel Saturday morning and I followed the stage that way. Joel took over at one point and found a site with a live web feed, but our wifi connection was slow and it didn’t really work. We’d get a fraction of a section of motion, then a frozen image for 10 or 15 seconds, then another jerky bit of motion, then another freeze. After a few minutes, we abandoned it for the text updates. They would have to do, and as feeble as they were compared to a live video feed, they were vastly superior to nothing at all. Plus, as Touchstone said on entering the Forest of Arden, “travelers must be content.” My watchword.

Following a stage via occasional text updates brought back memories of a time when I thought this was a great advance. In the early 1990s, when the world wide web did not yet exist but the internet did, and when live TV broadcasts to the US also did not yet exist, I would regularly follow the key stages this way. ESPN would show the day’s coverage on tape in the evening, but if I didn’t want to wait, and I didn’t, I could update an internet newsfeed every couple of minutes and read the latest report. This was the era when Miguel Indurain was king.*

As for the stage results, as you’ll recall, Juan Manuel Garate won by 3 seconds over Tony Martin, the lone survivors of a long breakaway, far back in the GC so catching them was not urgent for the race leaders. And they surely would have been caught if the Schlecks didn’t engage yet again in a tactical duel with Contador. All three, along with Armstrong, were well on their way to reeling in the two leaders when, in the final 2-3K, they slowed down and watched each other. Garate finished 3 seconds ahead of Martin, with Andy Schleck and Contador 38 seconds back, Armstrong another 3 back, and Frank Schleck 2 behind Armstrong. The photo at the top of this post shows Contador as he crosses the finish line, 4th on the day but knowing he had overcome the final obstacle and the race was his. Out of focus behind him is Armstrong, whose performance on Ventoux may have been his most impressive ride of the Tour.

Sunday: This was my day to fly back to Seattle. I got to the JetBlue terminal at JFK around 10:30 for my noon flight. As I settled in at the gate, around 11:20, I realized I could follow the closing stage on my computer the way I had the day before. I opened it and, thanks to JetBlue’s free wifi, I checked the current status of the stage. Yes, it’s just a ceremonial ride, for GC purposes, but the big question was, would Cavendish have another great sprint in him to win the day, as he had said for weeks was his dream. The riders were on the Champs-Elysees, with about 10K to go. The boarding began, so I shut my computer and waited. When I boarded, knowing to go to channel 37, I wasted no time. They were still riding. I wasn’t too late. I grabbed my earphones, started fussing with them to get them untangled, looked back up at the screen, and they were coasting. Mon Dieu! I had missed the finishing sprint! What an idiot. I didn’t really need sound for that. I should have watched at least long enough to figure out how far they were from the finish. It seemed that Cavendish had indeed won, his 6th stage victory of the Tour. I plugged in in time to hear and see a quick replay of the finish. He won big, led yet again by his teammate Mark Renshaw, who held on to finish second, with Tyler Ferrar in 3rd and Hushovd in 6th. I couldn’t believe I didn’t see it.

Nonetheless, I was able to watch all the closing ceremonies, with no interruption this time when we took off.

So that was my experience of the last four days of the Tour. When I got home and started catching up, I saved the Ventoux climb for last. Mesmerizing. A fabulous stage. A fabulous Tour.

*How quickly Indurain is forgotten, at least in the US. What’s up with that? Lance, Lance, Lance. Okay, so no one else won 7 Tours in a row, but Indurain won 5 in a row, and he dominated according to the same recipe Lance would later use. Control the mountain stages and finish 1st or 2nd in the time trials. And you know, he probably could have won 6 in a row, but in 1990 he served as Pedro Delgado’s lieutenant, and he served faithfully, to his detriment. I remember one mountain stage where he held back in order to pull Delgado up the climbs. As great as Delgado had been, he was not in top form in 1990, and Indurain could have challenged LeMond for the win if he were free to do so. (By way of review, LeMond himself might have won five in a row, 1986 to 1990, if he hadn’t been shot accidentally by his brother-in-law after his 1986 victory, missing out on the 1987 and 1988 seasons. In his absence, Delgado finished 2nd in 1987 to Stephen Roche and won in 1988. The 1989 Tour was a great one, featuring LeMond, two-time winner Laurent Fignon, and defending champion Delgado. This is the Tour that LeMond dramatically won over Fignon by 8 seconds on the last day in the individual time trial to Paris. Delgado was 3rd, over 3 1/2 minutes back. But don’t forget that Delgado was late for his start time on the opening day, the prologue, losing an astonishing 2’40” because of that, a handicap he would never overcome. I always wonder what course the Tour would have taken without that setback.) Instead, LeMond won, Indurain dragged Delgado (as I remember it) to a 4th place finish, and Indurain himself finished 10th. In any case, Indurain was a great champion.

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