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Chris Horner at the Vuelta

September 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Chris Horner

[Photograph: Rodrigo Garcia/Corbis]

A week ago, nearly-42-year-old Chris Horner stunned the cycling world by winning the Vuelta a España, the last of the season’s three-week-long grand tours. Unfortunately, the race was difficult to follow in the US, and his feat received limited coverage.

The second of the tours, the Tour de France, has become a major sports story here. But good luck if you want to follow the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta. Part of the problem is that television coverage in the US is restricted to NBC’s Universal Sports, which is not generally available. (I complained about this last month in the context of the track and field world championships.) Internet streaming is restricted as well, offered only to those with cable or satellite packages that include Universal. So forget watching it.

And forget reading any coverage in US papers other than short AP reports such as this one:

The American veteran Christopher Horner won the Vuelta a España on Sunday at the age of 41, making him the oldest champion of one of cycling’s three-week grand tours.

Horner completed the traditional arrival to the Spanish capital with his RadioShack-Leopard team-mates without mishap.

Horner, who will turn 42 next month, beat his nearest challenger, Vincenzo Nibali, by finishing ahead of the Italian in each of the final three mountainous stages before Sunday’s 110km flat ride from Leganes to Madrid.

Michael Matthews won the 21st and final stage in a sprint.

The previous oldest winner for one of the three grand tours – the Vuelta, Tour de France and Giro d’Italia – was Fermin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour at the age of 36.

How Horner won is worth a few words. His challenger Vincenzo Nibali is one of the world’s best riders, in his prime at 28 years old. He has had great success in all three tours, with a win and a second place in the Vuelta (2009 and 2012), third, second, and first in the Giro (2009, 2019, 2012), and a third in the Tour (2011). On Thursday of week three, Nibali began the stage in first place overall, 28 seconds ahead of Horner and poised to win another grand tour.

Thursday brought the first of three intense mountain stages, on each of which Horner finished ahead of Nibali. By the end of Thursday’s stage, Horner was just 3 seconds behind Nibali overall. A day later, he was 3 seconds ahead. And Saturday, in an astonishing performance, Horner finished second on the stage, 28 seconds ahead of Valverde in third and Nibali in fourth, thereby extending his overall lead to 37 seconds over Nibali and 1′ 36″ over Valverde. The final day in Madrid is left for the sprinters to fight for stage victory, with the overall leaders maintaining their positions. Hence, Horner had victory in hand.

I would have loved to watch those mountain stages.

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Categories: Cycling

Lemond and Hinault: Together Again

August 4, 2013 Leave a comment

lemondhinault1986

This is what I get for letting the blog go to hell. For three weeks, I’ve wanted to write a post featuring a photo of Tour de France greats Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond finishing the ride up Alpe D’Huez together, 27 years after their famous ride in competition. And now I can’t find the photo. Well, I’ll follow through with the overdue post anyway.

I’ve told the story before. And others can tell it better. But, just to review, American Greg Lemond rode his first Tour in 1984. At that time, only two cyclists had won the tour five times: Jacques Anquetil in 1957 and then again consecutively in 1961 and 1964, and Eddy Merckx in 1969 to 1972 and 1974. Hinault arrived on the scene soon thereafter, winning in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1982. Fellow Frenchman Laurent Fignon won in 1983 and 1984, with Hinault not competing in 1983 and second in 1984. Lemond finished behind Fignon and Hinault in 1984 in his first Tour.

In 1985, the famous deal was struck: Lemond would ride as Hinault’s teammate and help him win his fifth. In return, Hinault would support Lemond the next year.

That’s when I arrived on the scene, not that anyone was paying attention. I won’t tell this story at length again. It’s somewhere in the Ron’s View archives. Suffice to say that Gail and I were on our honeymoon, visiting my sister in Paris, watching the Tour on her TV as it arrived in the city on the final day, coming down the Seine just a few hundred meters away. I suddenly realized I could be out there with them. Off we raced, across the Seine and up to the Champs-Elysées. We were eight deep, maybe ten, as the peloton whizzed by, doing its final laps. And there was Bernard Hinault in his yellow jersey, about to win his coveted fifth Tour, with Lemond at his side. A Tour devotee was created that day.

The next year was to be Lemond’s. But once the Tour started, it emerged that Hinault had other ideas. There’s a whole book about this Tour, Slaying the Badger: Greg LeMond, Bernard Hinault, and the Greatest Tour de France , by Richard Moore. I haven’t read it, but I have read Moore’s short account of the climactic day, when the Tour arrived at the famous climb of Alpe d’Huez (which, by the way, we climbed by car in October 2009, as I have written about elsewhere, during a visit to Grenoble to see Joel; we rented a car, drove out to Le Bourg-d’Oisans, and then up the famous switchbacks to the resort).

As the Tour entered its third and final week it seemed that their battle for the race’s yellow jersey would be decided on Alpe d’Huez. LeMond had ousted Hinault from the race leader’s yellow jersey the previous day, following which, according to team owner Bernard Tapie, the two riders were “at each other’s throats” until 4am.

On the day of the Alpe d’Huez stage, Hinault launched further attacks on the first climb, the Col du Galibier. But LeMond, realising the Tour was slipping away from him, chased and caught him, in the process blowing away the rest of the opposition.

And so the team-mates ride together to the base of the Alpe…

Entering the human corridor, Hinault leads, LeMond follows. “The crowd is massive,” Hinault will later write in his autobiography, “and they are chanting my name. Greg looks worried; I tell him to stay behind me, that it will be OK, that I know how to deal with the crowd.”

An estimated 300,000 people pack the slopes, creating an extraordinary natural amphitheatre, forming a “squalid, manic shambles”.

Hinault and LeMond proceed steadily through banks of braying fans, who have waited all day, perhaps several days, for their fleeting glimpse of the race. No wonder their excitement is at fever pitch; they’re seeing the national hero and the yellow jersey tearing the race – if not each other – to pieces. The fleeting nature of their exposure to the action only makes the experience more intense. In the circumstances, LeMond seems content to follow Hinault, rather than to set the pace himself, or, as payback for Hinault’s repeated attacks over the previous two weeks, to give him a taste of his own medicine by attacking him.

Yet there is no visible evidence of their enmity. On the contrary, LeMond and Hinault appear, for the first time in two weeks, united. For once Hinault is not snarling; his expression tells of the effort rather the anger that fuels him. The impression of unity is confirmed as they proceed up in tandem, riding through the throngs of supporters, the majority of whom are French and cheering their hero, Hinault, urging him to a record sixth Tour victory. It is as though they don’t even see LeMond. They spill into the road, clearing at the last second to leave only a narrow, handlebar-wide passage for the two riders.

All the time, Hinault leads and LeMond follows. It seems a truce has been called. For hairpin after hairpin, the order doesn’t alter. Neither does the steady pace; theirs is one of the slowest ‘winning’ ascents of Alpe d’Huez in Tour history. Hinault is at the front, pedalling like a metronome; LeMond just behind him, as though the American is hiding in the Frenchman’s shadow. Perhaps he is.

But fear also weighed on LeMond’s mind and influenced his thinking. “I was worried,” he says now. “I was thinking of Eddy Merckx, who was punched in his side. I was thinking there could be someone out there…there was such strong feeling out there. It was so frenzied. And I’m racing against France’s best-known athlete.”

“I kept telling him to stay behind,” says Hinault. “There was absolutely no need for him to go and wear himself out on the climb. We were six minutes ahead. I told him, ‘you stay calm, don’t panic, and we go to the finish together.’”

At the plateau, as the road levels, LeMond puts in the smallest of accelerations to emerge, for the first time since the valley, from Hinault’s shadow. He pulls alongside his team-mate while Hinault turns and looks at him almost indulgently. LeMond reaches out to touch his shoulder and then puts his arm around Hinault. LeMond smiles. Hinault smiles. They exchange a few words, chatting as though they are out for a leisurely ride. As one speaks the other nods; they smile, and nod again, and carry on riding side-by-side.

Then they join hands in joint celebration, before Hinault moves slightly ahead to cross the line first, for his twenty-sixth stage win, a haul that puts him behind only Merckx in the all-time list.

This year’s Tour was the hundredth, in honor of which historic sites were visited, Tour greats showed up, and astonishing stage routes were designed, none more so than stage 18 with its double climb to Alpe d’Huez. Up the riders went, only to descend the other side, circle around, and go up again to the finish. The day was as dramatic as anticipated, and crucial to Chris Froome’s ultimate overall victory.

But that’s not the story of this post. Rather, I want to highlight the ride that took place earlier in the day, one of many beautiful moments this year, as Hinault and Lemond relived their 1986 climb. Alas, I can’t find the photo I saw that day. Well, there’s this low resolution version, put side-by-side with the historic photo at the top. It will have to do.

lemondhinault2013

Oh, and there’s this official video, with English narration that blocks out some of the French being spoken by Lemond.

By the way, Lemond would probably have been the fourth to win five Tours if not for being shot in a hunting accident by his brother-in-law before the 1987 Tour. He won in 1989 (over Fignon in the great final-day time trial) and again in 1990. Come 1991, he had slipped, and Miguel Indurain began his reign, winning the first of five consecutive Tours. Speaking of which, here’s a photo of another wonderful moment from this year’s Tour, taken on the final day in Paris.

tourgreats

The Tour organizers had the three living five-time winners and Lemond ride into Paris together behind the competitors. That’s Merckx in the passenger seat and Indurain directly above him.

Categories: Cycling

Tour 2014: First Stage

June 29, 2013 Leave a comment
The Orica GreenEdge team bus became stuck at the finish line with riders ten kilometers from downtown Bastia.

The Orica GreenEdge team bus became stuck at the finish line with riders ten kilometers from downtown Bastia.

[Jeff Pachoud/Agence France-Presse]

It’s that time of year again, the time when I devote several posts to the great Manxman Mark Cavendish and his thrilling exploits at the Tour de France. Usually it takes a few days before he charges through to win a flat sprinter’s stage. But this year’s tour is different. There’s no short opening prologue through some major European city. The tour has come to Corsica for its initial stages, the first time on the island. (Corsica!) To make sure to get around much of the island, tour officials decided to skip a prologue and begin with a flat stage along the east coast, to be followed tomorrow by a mountainous stage.

This meant that today set up perfectly for sprinting royalty: Cavendish and his two principal challengers last year, André Greipel and Peter Sagan. No way I was going to miss that. Indeed, I got up way early and watched the last two-and-a-half hours.

It’s always a pleasure to be back in the company of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin, our indefatigable commentators. Even when nothing’s happening, I love listening to them while watching the scenery (which was spectacular at times; maybe a trip to Corsica is in order). As the kilometers counted down, I got ready for the stars’ teams to set up for the finish.

But then chaos, as depicted in the photo at the top. A team bus got jammed under the finish line banner. People scurried around. The bemused driver stayed seated. Word eventually came that the stage would be truncated, with a finish at the 3k-to-go point. As teams changed tactics, a major crash occurred. Sagan went down. Cavendish just barely avoided the same fate, but came to a complete stop behind downed cyclists. Greipel rode through, only to have his bike malfunction a short ways down the road.

Just then, the bus problem was solved. The officials decided to have the driver back up maybe 30 meters or so, then turn off through a gap in the barriers, toward the beach. But the damage was done. The three stars were deprived of any chance for stage victory. Everyone was granted the same finishing time under the rule that provides for this when there’s a crash within 3k of the finish. (The crash was more than 3k away, but was 3k away from the temporarily presumed finish, and so the rule was invoked.)

A sprinter on the rise, Marcel Kittel, escaped damage in the crash and won the stage in a classic sprint, thereby earning the opening day trifecta of stage victory, the yellow jersey of overall leader, and the green jersey of points leader.

Marcel Kittel winning today's stage in Bastia, Corsica

Marcel Kittel winning today’s stage in Bastia, Corsica

[Jeff Pachoud/Agence France-Presse]

Cavendish had hoped to use stage victory to earn his own yellow jersey, which would have been a first, and which he has no hope of earning in any Tour except by taking the opening stage. Oh well. No post today on his greatness. Perhaps later in the week.

Nonetheless, any day with a Tour stage is a good day. Three weeks of good days lie ahead. The best sporting days of the year.

Categories: Cycling

La Vuelta

August 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Alejandro Valverde winning yesterday’s stage on the climb of La Gallina, with Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador just behind

We’re a week into the Vuelta a España, the third of cycling’s annual three-week stage races, following the Giro d’Italia in May and the Tour de France in July. The Tour has become easy to follow here in the US, with extensive TV and newspaper coverage. The Giro and Vuelta — not so much. Back in May, I kept searching on TV for the Giro. I knew it was on Universal Sports, but I couldn’t figure out where Comcast had it, or hid it. Last night I finally figured out the problem, with respect to current viewing of the Vuelta at least. Universal will let you watch the live feed, but only if you are a current subscriber to DIRECTV or DISH with a package that includes Universal. Which is to say, I’m out of luck. This isn’t good, for me or for cycling.

What we have been able to watch this past week is the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a one-week stage race in Colorado that concluded today. It has featured many of the top US riders, along with a selection of other top riders from around the world. I haven’t watched much, but I’ve been following the results in the paper. Our local hero (and family friend of my pal Russ), Tyler Farrar, who did not have a good Tour last month, rebounded with two stage victories. Tejay van Garderen and Christian VandeVelde, who had been fighting it out for the overall lead, fell behind on a mountain stage yesterday to Levi Leipheimer, in good form at last in his recovery from being hit by a car in Spain in April. Overall victory came down to today’s time trial in Denver, which Gail and I were watching live on NBC Sports Network early this afternoon, but it was only a tease. They switched to car racing, reserving the broadcast of the leaders for prime time tonight. Who wants to wait? I read the results. VandeVelde won, with Tejay 21 seconds back and Levi 24 back.

As for the Vuelta, it’s been exciting so far. You may recall Chris Froome’s outstanding performance in the Tour last month, having many wondering if he could have won had he not been riding in support of teammate Bradley Wiggins. A year ago in the Vuelta, he was in the same position, riding to support Wiggins, only to prove himself the better rider in the end, too late to win, but good enough to finish second, with Wiggins third. This year, on the Tour’s penultimate stage, the time trial into Chartres, Wiggins demonstrated his mastery, finishing 1’16” ahead of second place Froome on the day and showing that he really was the team leader. He would finish first and Froome second overall the next day in Paris. Eleven days later in the Olympics time trial, Wiggins won gold, with Froome in third. So, okay, maybe Froome isn’t the best. But he’s riding in this year’s Vuelta and Wiggins isn’t, which means if he isn’t too tired from peaking for the Tour and the Olympics, he may be the favorite.

Then again, what about Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez? He entered the final day of the Giro in May with the overall lead, 31 seconds ahead of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. That final day’s stage was a time trial in Milan, in which Hesjedal outrode Rodriguez, slipping ahead for victory by 16 seconds. A dramatic finish. This is Rodriguez’a opportunity, on home roads, to make up for that narrow loss.

But wait, Alberto Contador is back. Wasn’t he banned for doping? Yes but the ban ended on August 5th. He won the Tour in 2007, skipped it in 2008 while winning the Giro and Vuelta, won the Tour again in 2009, and won it in 2010 (but was stripped of that victory). What form is he in? Can he return on top?

What I’m suggesting is, this is a dramatic Vuelta, with three of the world’s best riders out to prove themselves. A Vuelta I would have liked to watch.

How has it been going? Through Wednesday, it was pretty tight, with Rodriguez first, but Froome in second just a second behind, Contador in third five seconds behind, and another 14 riders within a minute. Thursday’s stage opened up the first gaps, Froome and Contador still second and third, but 10 and 36 seconds back, with Colombian Rigoberto Uran 42 back, Dutchman Robert Gesink 54 back, and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde moving into sixth at 54 seconds back.

Yesterday’s stage in the Pyrenees separated the leaders further. Contador appeared to have the stage sewn up, but Rodriguez and Valverde came up quickly in the closing meters, both passing him, with Valverde getting the stage win and Rodriguez and Contador given times one second behind (as in the photo above), Froome finishing 15 seconds back. Overall, Froome still held second, but 33 seconds behind Rodriguez, with Contador third at 40 seconds and Valverde climbing to fourth at 50 seconds, all four well clear of the field (with Gesink in fifth, 1’41” back).

Today’s stage ran from the Pyrenees into Barcelona, with a closing climb up Montjuïc. Looking at the times, I see that Rodriguez just missed out on a stage victory again, finishing second to Philippe Gilbert with Froome and Contador in the peloton 12 seconds back. Oh, there must be time bonuses for top stage finishes, because despite being only 12 seconds back, they both lost 20 seconds overall. And Valverde, who was 9 seconds back of Rodriguez on the day, lost 17 seconds overall. Thus, as we go into tomorrow’s rest day, Rodriguez lies 53 seconds ahead of Froome, a minute ahead of Contador, 1’07” ahead of Valverde.

But remember, Rodriguez lost his Giro lead in May in a time trial, and a 39.4k time trial looms this Wednesday.

I just looked in The Guardian for their brief coverage of today’s stage. Here’s a quote:

Both Froome and Contador will view Wednesday’s time trial as an opportunity to wrest the race leadership from Rodríguez, who is not noted for his ability against the clock.

“I know I’m not going to enjoy [the time trial] and I’m not capable of adding a full minute to my lead in the mountains so adding every second I can could make the difference on whether or not I finish on the podium,” said Rodriguez, who lost the Giro d’Italia because of a weak time-trial ride. “And, hopefully, for winning the Vuelta.”

I wish I could watch.

Categories: Cycling

Tour Farewell

July 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish

[From the Daily Mail]

On Friday, I wrote in Manx Missile Miracle about Mark Cavendish’s stunning sprint victory in the Tour’s ante-penultimate stage, on the ride into Brive-la-Gaillarde. What a sight, with overall leader and teammate Bradley Wiggins leading the way, then handing leadout duties to fellow teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen. Cavendish finally took over with a few hundred meters to go, catching up to and then passing Luis-León Sánchez and Nicolas Roche, then holding off Matty Goss and Peter Sagan.

Three days later, the Tour is over for 38 hours and I’ve said no more. What happened? Well, in the three hours after the Tour ended, when I could have been preparing a final post, I was instead watching golf’s Open Championship, which was so depressing that I will say no more. Then, hours later than we should have, we headed out the door and drove to Walla Walla, in southeastern Washington, where we spent the day today visiting Walla Walla Valley wineries. All of this has gotten in the way of Tour blogging. Let me take a moment to wrap up this year’s Tour.

Saturday was the closing time trial, the last opportunity for anyone to move up or slide down the overall standings. It was exciting, as all time trials are, but with little consequence. The two dominant riders of the Tour, Wiggins and fellow Sky rider Chris Froome, already placed first and second overall, and already having placed first and second in the first time trial, repeated those positions, far ahead of the rest of the field. Of special note was Wiggins’ performance in picking up 1’16” on Froome, thereby quieting many of us who have wondered if Froome were in fact the stronger rider. Perhaps in the mountains, but probably not enough so to have beaten Wiggins if allowed to ride for himself rather than in support of Wiggins. In any case, as I wrote the other day, we’ll never know, so it doesn’t matter. They were far and away ahead of the rest of the field, and that will have to do.

Young US rider Tejay Van Garderen looked to be riding an outstanding time trial himself, but lost time to the leaders in the later stages, finishing 7th on the day and closing the gap in the overall standings on Jurgen Van Den Broeck, but VDB remained over a minute ahead of Tejay, holding onto 4th overall, with Tejay 5th. The one big surprise was that Cadel Evans, an outstanding time trialist (he won last year’s Tour in the closing time trial, wiping out the overall lead of Andy Schleck) showed that he is way off form, evidently from illness, finishing several minutes back of the leaders on the day and slipping overall from 6th to 7th behind Haimar Zubeldia.

And that was that, the final sorting out of the overall positions, leaving just yesterday’s ride into Paris, ceremonial as far as the overall standings were concerned but presenting one last chance for the sprinters to strut their stuff.

It’s always a thrill to see the peloton ride down the Seine into the city. Once they hit the Louvre, duck under, come back around the Rue de Rivoli, into the Place de la Concorde, and onto the Champs-Élysées, they pass the eventual finish line, which they will cross eight more times as they run off that many 6km laps. That’s when the stage gets serious, as riders break away for possible stage victories and the sprinters’ teams try to reel in the breakaways in order to set up their sprinting stars for final day glory.

But until then, they coast into town. As they did so yesterday, the camera took in views of the Eiffel Tower ahead, then began to circle around the neighborhood, and I suddenly realized I was going to see my sister’s building. There it was! That was cool. And then she called to ask if I saw it. I sure did. My niece is back in Paris for a few days. I asked my sister what she was doing and learned that she and her boyfriend had gone out to see the race for themselves, which transported me back 27 years to our honeymoon, when we were at my sister’s old apartment, in the same neighborhood, watching the Tour enter the city.

Why watch on TV? Gail and I dashed out, then my sister called from the window above to say that my then-just-two-year-old niece wanted to join us, so we waited for her. Then, off we went to the Champs-Élysées. Except my niece wasn’t moving fast. Gail brought her up slowly while I ran ahead. And there they were, riding up and down the Champs-Élysées. Bernard Hinault. Greg LeMond. Teammates in first and second, Hinault coasting home for his fifth Tour victory. Rudy Matthijs of Belgium would win the stage, but we could see none of that from our vantage point.

Returning to yesterday, the expected breakaway occurred. Then the reeling in of the breakaway, but scarily late, on the final lap. Then, as the peloton came out from the Louvre tunnel onto Rue de Rivoli one last time, just like two days ago, Wiggins himself, in the yellow jersey, moved to the front, Boasson Hagen, behind him, Cavendish in third. Wiggins dropped off, Boasson Hagen continued the leadout as they entered Place de la Concorde. On the final turn into the Champs-Élysées, Boasson Hagen swung wide, and Cavendish began yet another electrifying sprint. Matty Goss tried to close the gap, only to be passed by Peter Sagan. Neither could catch Cavendish, who won his fourth consecutive closing Tour stage.

In 48 hours, Cavendish had demonstrated that he is still the best sprinter alive. And Wiggins scored points too, having led out the sprint on Friday, won the time trial by a huge margin Saturday, and led out the sprint again Sunday.

The leading riders in all the usual categories were then sequentially honored, standing on the stage in ones, twos, threes, or as a team, with the usual backdrop of the Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. At the end, Wiggins, Froome, and Vincenzo Nibali stood to be honored as the top three in the race, a British soprano singing God Save the Queen while wearing a wild, flowing Union Jack skirt. And then, bringing the festivities to a close, Wiggins addressed the crowd, assuring them that the raffle numbers would be drawn now, and asking them not to get too drunk. A final infusion of British character to bring a fine Tour to its close.

What do I do now? Forty-nine weeks to go.

Categories: Cycling

Manx Missile Miracle

July 20, 2012 Leave a comment

[Christophe Ena, AP]

I realize few Ron’s View readers care all that much about the Tour. And here I am able to write about nothing else. Well, it will be over in two days. And after today’s stage, how can I not write about it?

So here we have Mark Cavendish, the Manxman himself, greatest cycling sprinter I’ve ever seen, winner of four Tour stages in 2008, six in 2009, five in 2010, and five more in 2011. The reigning world champion, he might have been expected to have just as strong a Tour this year, except that he’s with a new team and without the usual complement of leadout riders. How would he fare?

Despite minimal team support, he won the stage two closing sprint over André Greipel and Matty Goss. I wrote at the time that it wasn’t “the sprint we’ve seen so many times before, where he is led out by a teammate, then rockets ahead, with open space to the next rider. But he’s fearless, and tough, and knows how to harness his energy. An extraordinary win.”

Alas, fearless and tough wasn’t enough without the team to bring him to the front. He suffered bad luck with crashes on some stages, his teammates Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome emerged as far and away the best two riders in the Tour, and soon he was reduced to super doméstique: shuttling water bottles to Wiggins and Froome from the team car, setting the pace on early climbs of stages.

Meanwhile, André Greipel started playing the role of world’s best sprinter, thanks in part to Team Lotto’s well organized leadouts, and thanks too to his own immense talent. He and brilliant first-year rider Peter Sagan were trading stage victories. Cavendish was the forgotten man.

As the Tour left the Pyrenees yesterday, there were two flat stages left, today’s and Sunday’s ride into Paris. Winning the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées brings a special glory, glory Cavendish has earned three years running. Would he return to form in time for a fourth? Would Team Sky support such ambitions? Or would they ride safely, keeping Wiggins and Froome upright and nothing more? We might find out today.

Typical of a flat stage, there was a major breakaway group, the peloton picking up steam on the way into Brive-la-Gaillarde and catching breakaway riders one by one, until with a little more than 3km left, two of the breakaways — Luis-León Sánchez and Nicolas Roche — looked poised to duel for the stage victory, leaving the peloton just short of catching them. The top sprinters had moved forward within the peloton: Cavendish, Greipel, Goss, Sagan, Tyler Farrar. But the pace was fast and the meters were counting down.

Suddenly just outside of 2km to go, the yellow jersey wearer himself, Bradley Wiggins, took control, moving to the front of the peloton with Cavendish in tow and racing ahead. Still up front in the breakaway was teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen. Once caught, he joined the leadout, so we had Wiggins in front of the train, followed by Boasson Hagen and then Cavendish. And they were moving.

But so were Sanchez and Roche, eager for stage victory. With under 1km to go, his work done, Wiggins dropped off and left leadout duties to Boasson Hagen. Once he was spent, it was all up to Cavendish, still not yet up to the two leaders. Usually he goes at max speed for no more than 200 or 250 meters. Today, he went for 600. It was a miracle. First he shut down the gap to Sanchez and Roche, momentarily tucking into their slipstream. Was this it? Was he spent? Nope. Off he went, around them to the right, leaving them in his contrails and opening up a significant gap as he crossed the line victorious.

The other top sprinters were making progress of their own, but too little too late. Second and third went to Goss and Sagan. Then came the deflated Sanchez and Roche. Farrar, after a disastrous first week, is himself rounding into top form and took sixth. Greipel was never a factor, settling for 11th.

The Manxman is back!

In an interview shortly after the race, Cavendish explained that on the team bus before the start, the manager said they would have an easy day, keeping Wiggins and Froome safe. Cavendish implored the team to give him a shot. Wiggins agreed, repaying Cavendish for all he has sacrified on this Tour.

And suddenly the Sunday spin around Paris, back and forth between the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre, is setting up to be high drama. Are we in for a Greipel-Cavendish showdown? Will Farrar and Goss be in the mix? No predictions here, but I’ll be watching, and I suggest that you watch too.

Categories: Cycling

Truth in the Pyrenees

July 19, 2012 1 comment

Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins on the climb to Col de Peyragudes

[Yorick Jansens/EPA]

Cycling truth, that is. After the stages in the Pyrenees yesterday and today, any lingering questions about the top riders in this year’s Tour have been decisively answered. What a great two days it’s been!

Recall that entering yesterday’s stage, Bradley Wiggins led the Tour, with teammate Chris Froome in second 2’05″ back, Vincenzo Nibali 2’23″ behind, then defending champion Cadel Evans 3’19″ behind, Jurgen Van Den Broeck 4’48″ behind, Haimar Zubeldia 6’15″ behind, and Tejay Van Garderen 6’57″ behind. In my post two nights ago, I asked:

1. Who is really the best rider in this year’s Tour, Wiggins or Froome?
2. Can Evans keep from losing time in the mountains and maintain his position, keeping open the possibility of vaulting ahead of Nibali with a strong time trial on Saturday?
3. If not, will teammate Van Garderen be released to ride for himself and see what he can do.

We now have answers to #2 and #3, and we know that #1 will have to go unanswered.

Yesterday’s stage featured the massive climbs of the Col d’Aubisque and the Col du Tourmalet early, with the Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde leading to a closing descent into Luchon. Evans survived the first two climbs, but began to fall off on the third. By the fourth, Van Garderen was freed at last to make the best of it. Up front, Thomas Voeckler was busy winning every climb to take over the lead in the polka-dot jersey competition, with several others running ahead of the peleton as well, but the real action was with the leaders a few minutes behind. Nibali had to attack if he had any hope of improving on his third place position, given that Wiggins and Froome will pick up time on him in the time trial. On the Peyresourde, he attacked, opening up a gap temporarily. Froome and Wiggins closed it, leaving everyone else behind, and that was that. The three of them crossed the finish in the same time, 58 seconds ahead of Van Den Broeck, Zubeldia, Van Garderen, and four others (including the surprising 40-year-old American Chris Horner). Evans was 4’47” behind the leading trio, sliding from fourth overall down to seventh while Van Der Broeck, Zubeldia, and Van Garderen each moved up one.

Following some early climbs today, the riders had a huge climb up Port de Balès, then a return visit (from the opposite direction) to the Col de Peyresourde, followed by a 3km descent and then a 3km ascent to the Col de Peyragudes and a flat finishing kilometer. Voeckler dashed ahead again, nailing down the lead in the climbing classification, before giving way on the final climbs. The other breakaway riders gave way too, except for Alejandro Valverde, back in the Tour after a doping suspension. (It happens. This is cycling.) Evans was broken again, as was Zubeldia, creating some possibilities for overall lead changes below the top four. On the final climb, Nibaldi had nothing left for any further attacks on Wiggins and Froome. He was content to stay with them.

Wiggins and Froome had other ideas, though, and began to ride away. Froome looked so good that it soon became apparent he could chase down Valverde for the stage win, with or without Wiggins in tow. The gap was dropping, and with 2km to go, victory was his. If he chose. Which he didn’t. As a slight gap opened between him and Wiggins, he turned back, seemingly beckoning Wiggins on. Then he let up, Wiggins joined him, and they finished together, just 19 seconds behind Valverde. Nibali and Van Den Broeck lost 18 seconds to them. Van Garderen lost 35. Evans lost just under 2 minutes, Zubeldia just under 3. Van Garderen moved up one spot to 5th, Evans moved up one spot to 6th despite his losses, and Zubeldia dropped down two to 7th.

The time gaps between the top riders and their relative strengths as time trialists with Saturday’s stage approaching suggest that we won’t see any further changes among them. Van Garderen may have a great time trial in him, but he’s almost two and a half minutes behind Van Den Broeck and way back of the top three. Fifth is where he will surely stay.

We now know that Wiggins and Froome are the class of the field; that Nibali is not their equal but sits above everyone else; and that Van Garderen is the real thing, a potential Tour winner of the future. What we don’t know is how well Froome might have performed if he weren’t riding in support of Wiggins. What if he were leader of another team, for instance? Of course, like Wiggins, Froome has benefited from the overall strength of Team Sky. As leader of a weak team, he might have had his own struggles in the mountains. One doesn’t win the Tour alone. This question will go unanswered.

But there are more Tours to come, and more opportunities for Froome, as well as for Van Garderen, and for the 22-year-old French sensation Thibaut Pinot, who sits tenth overall. Even as we await this Tour’s conclusion, I am already excited about next year.

Categories: Cycling