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Duel in the Clouds

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, Col du Tourmalet

The Tour de France ended last Sunday. The preceding Thursday, eight days ago, I sat down to write about one of the most memorable stages of this or any tour, but never got past the title and the photo above. So much more happened in the three days that followed, and now it’s long over. But I don’t want the moment to slide by unnoticed, so I’ll say a few words here.

It came as no surprise that that Thursday’s climb of the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenées would be a big one. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck had demonstrated in the Alps and in the three previous stages of the Pyrenées that they stood alone as the top climbers of this year’s Tour, and the climb of the Tourmalet would be the last chance for one to show his superiority over the other. The general thinking was that Schleck had to do so — if in fact he could — in order to build a margin that Contador couldn’t gain back two days later in the individual time trial. (Friday and Sunday would be flat stages with sprint finishes, with no opportunity for the Tour leaders to gain time on one another. The overall lead would come down to head-to-head performances on Tourmalet Thursday and in the time trial Saturday.)

The climb was every bit as dramatic as anticipated. Half way up, as their team support disappeared, Schleck broke away and Contador followed him, leaving all the other Tour leaders behind. (It’s always striking in any Tour how clearly the hierarchy of ability or fitness for that given Tour is validated day after day. No one could keep up with the leading duo, yet in turn, the next four or five top riders roughly were able to stay even with each other, ahead of the others. The differences are small, but they are consistent and repeatable. Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov, in a tight race for third and fourth overall, would ride together all the way up, with Sanchez ultimately gaining 8 seconds on the day to increase his overall lead over Menchov to 21 seconds.)

Schleck and Contador continued up the narrow, twisting road, with crowds lining both sides, leaving only a narrow channel for them to ride through, and with clouds obscuring any view up the road to the coming turns or the finish. It was breathtaking to watch, kilometer after kilometer, with Schleck in the lead and Contador on his wheel. When Schleck made a major attack, Contador caught him in seconds. Just once, Contador attacked, and Schleck tracked him down, passed him, and gave him a hard stare. It was surely clear to both, with 2 or 3 kilometers left, that neither would gain big time on the other. Perhaps around that point, they decided to drop the attacks. Or perhaps not, but there were no visible attacks after that, as Contador continued to ride on Schleck’s wheel. One imagined he would wait for the final 200 meters to take a shot at stage victory. As they passed under the 1k to go banner, by which point fencing normally appears on the road to keep the crowds away and provide room for attacks, there was in fact no fencing. The road remained too narrow for that. With maybe 300 meters to go, the fencing appeared at last, and Contador could attack if he wished. But he didn’t. He came up almost side-by-side with Schleck, then dropped back a bit to let Schleck take the stage. Ten meters past the line, Schleck leaned into Contador and put his arm around him. When they dismounted seconds later, they hugged.

A grand stage. Should they have fought to the last meter? Well, it wouldn’t have mattered. They were destined at that point to finish with no time gap, or a tiny one if either got away. Not enough to affect the overall race. And Contador had reason to be gracious, given his attack a few days earlier when Schleck’s chain came off, the attack that gave him the overall lead.

The next day of the Tour that kept on giving featured the most wonderful sprint finish into Bordeaux. Mark Cavendish, without great leadout teammate Mark Renshaw, showed he could do it on his own, roaring past Alessandro Petacchi (with Julian Dean also passing for second) to win his fourth stage of the Tour. Petacchi’s third-place finish allowed him to reclaim the green jersey of overall sprint leader from Thor Hushovd, but no one doubted that Cavendish was the true king of the sprinters.

Saturday brought the individual time trial, with Schleck just 8 seconds back of Contador and, as noted, Menchov just 21 seconds behind Sanchez in fourth. They departed in reverse order of the standings — Menchov, Sanchez, Schleck, and Contador. On past performance, Schleck might have given up a minute or two to Contador on the day, but he rode better than expected, losing only 31 seconds. He had to settle for second, but he gave promise that he is improving as a time trialist and will be in a stronger position next year to win the yellow jersey. In the race for third, Menchov, with one of the best rides of the day (and by far the best of those riders starting late, with the weather having changed for the worse), was able to gain two minutes over Sanchez and move into third place. One of the oddities of the TV commentary of Phil and Paul was their continued insistence that Schleck was riding a great time trial, whereas Sanchez was collapsing and losing his third place position. Yet, Sanchez finished 23 seconds ahead of Schleck. Not that that had any effect on the overall race. And in terms of expectations, Schleck did ride well, whereas Sanchez, the winner of the 2008 Olympic road race, might have been expected to do better.

Anyway, that was that. All that remained was the ceremonial ride into Paris (for the leaders) and one more mad sprint finish. As long as Cavendish is in the race, every sprint finish has the potential for excitement, and this one didn’t disappoint. As they left Place de la Concorde for the final 300 meters, Hushovd, in a desperate attempt to regain the green jersey, was riding in second position, behind his leadout man Brett Lancaster. But he had no hope, what with Petacchi in third and Cavendish fourth. Lancaster dropped off, Petacchi moved to Hushovd’s left to pass him as a side-view camera focused on them and lost sight of Cavendish. Suddenly, there he was in the background, like a jet, zooming past them all on the right, gaining a three-bike-length lead in a flash. It was a stunning display of dominance, again with no leadout man of his own, and a fitting conclusion to the Tour.

All that remained was the podium appearances. And you know what that means: podium girls. Fortunately, the NYT had a great article on them Sunday, perfect preparation for watching their final appearances. Who knew that the beautiful bestower of the white jersey (for best young rider) was an American from St. Louis, Laura Antoine? There she was, one last time, with Andy Schleck. And there was Lance, with his Radio Shack teammates, saying farewell to the Tour. (Thank God Robin Williams didn’t show up yet again to pal around with Lance. And the less said about Tom Cruise, the better.)

Another Tour gone. I know it’s too early for summer to be over, but a big piece of summer has come and gone way too quickly.

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Categories: Cycling

Change We Can Believe in, II

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Change we can believe in: Institutionalizing abuses of the rule of law

It’s hardly news that Obama, having attacked many Bush-Cheney national security policies when he was a Senator as abuses of the rule of law, has since embraced some of them as president. This has had and will have the pernicious effect of converting what might once have seemed the aberrations of an extremist administration into bipartisan normalcy. And we now have a detailed review, released yesterday by the ACLU, that makes this very point. I’ll quote from the press release:

The Obama administration has repudiated some of the Bush administration’s most egregious national security policies but is in danger of institutionalizing others permanently into law, thereby creating a troubling “new normal,” according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Establishing a New Normal: National Security, Civil Liberties, and Human Rights Under the Obama Administration,” an 18-month review of the Obama administration’s record on national security issues affecting civil liberties, concludes that the current administration’s record on issues of national security and civil liberties is decidedly mixed: President Obama has made great strides in some areas, such as his auspicious first steps to categorically prohibit torture, outlaw the CIA’s use of secret overseas detention sites and release the Bush administration’s torture memos, but he has failed to eliminate some of the worst policies put in place by President Bush, such as military commissions and indefinite detention. He has also expanded the Bush administration’s “targeted killing” program.

The 22-page report, which was researched and written by staff in the ACLU’s National Security Project and Washington Legislative Office, reviews the administration’s record in the areas of transparency, torture and accountability, detention, targeted killing, military commissions, speech and surveillance and watchlists. . . .

According to the ACLU’s report, the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency have been marked by a pattern wherein significant achievements for civil liberties have often been followed by setbacks. For instance, the positive step of releasing Justice Department memoranda that purported to authorize the Bush administration’s torture regime was followed by the troubling decision to fight the release of photos depicting the abuse of prisoners in CIA custody. The administration’s commitment to dismantle Guantánamo has been undermined by its assertion of the authority to detain people indefinitely without charge or trial. And prohibitions against torture have been weakened by the failure to hold top Bush administration officials accountable for their role in the torture program.

Categories: Government, Law, Politics

Change We Can Believe In, I

July 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Change we can believe in: expanding the war in Afghanistan

Yes, Obama did make clear during the election that the war in Afghanistan was the “right” one. I wasn’t happy about his intentions then, and I wasn’t happy about it a year ago, when I quoted Rory Stewart, then a consultant to Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, now a Member of Parliament in the UK. Regarding his advisory role, Stewart explained, “It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.” He added, “The policy of troop increases will look ridiculous in 30 years. They’re not going to make America safer from al-Qaeda. The theory of state-building is suspect. I’m not sure that the state they aim for is conceivable, let alone achievable.”

Another year later, Congress is passing a supplemental war budget and it appears that we’ll be in Afghanistan for a few more elections. We don’t have money for a second stimulus package at home, but we can send billions to Afghanistan to support a corrupt government, chase a small handful of Al Qaeda members, and keep the Taliban at bay even as the powers that be within the government of our ally Pakistan protect Al Qaeda and support the Taliban.

I’ll leave the final word to Gary Wills, in his post at the New York Review of Books blog three days ago, which I recommend reading in full:

Most presidents start wondering—or, more often, worrying—about their “legacy” well into their first term. Or, if they have a second term, they worry even more feverishly about what posterity will think of them. Obama need not wonder about his legacy, even this early. It is already fixed, and in one word: Afghanistan. He took on what he made America’s longest war and what may turn out to be its most disastrous one. . . .

[T]here has been no follow up on the first dinner, and certainly no sign that he learned anything from it. The only thing achieved has been the silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make—that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. At least four or five of the nine stressed this. Nothing else rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern. . . .

When my turn came, I joined those who had already warned him about an Afghanistan quagmire. I said that a government so corrupt and tribal and drug-based as Afghanistan’s could not be made stable. He replied that he was not naïve about the difficulties but he thought a realistic solution could be reached. I wanted to add “when pigs fly,” but restrained myself.

. . . The President might have been saved from the folly that will be his lasting legacy. But now we are ten years into a war that could drag on for another ten, and could catch in its trammels the next president, the way Vietnam tied up president after president.

Categories: History, Politics, War