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That Tour Rhythm

July 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Thomas Voeckler crossing the line at Plateau de Beille

[Peter Dejong/AP]

Another post about the Tour? Well, why not? It beats talking about the deficit.

As I have mentioned before, once I start watching Tour coverage in the morning, I find it almost impossible to break away. If I have an appointment, as I did a week ago yesterday, then I drag myself away, even though there are only 5k to go and my hero Mark Cavendish is poised for another stage victory. Or if I have to take Gail and Joel to the airport, as I did this past Tuesday, I head out with them early, but race home to see what I missed, which alas was Greipel edging Cavendish at the line.

This point in the tour, the second half of week two, is always a tough one for me to handle, because it coincides with the playing of the British Open golf championship, and if there’s anything I watch with greater intensity than the Tour, it’s golf, especially the major championships. What I’ve discovered in recent years, to my surprise, is that the conflict ends up being easily resolved. When I try to switch back and forth between the two events, I find that the starkly different rhythms of the two make golf the loser in the battle for my attention.

Take today, for example. The Tour was in its last day in the Pyrenees, set to conclude with the massive climb up to Plateau de Beille. There had yet to be a shakeout among the big names, but today might be the day, and it could happen at any moment once the climb commenced. How would the Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, and Alberto Contador handle the climb? Who would attack? Would there be a surprise contender? Would one of them crack?

Over in Sandwich, England, we had just as weighty questions regarding Darren Clarke, Lucas Glover, Thomas Bjørn, and a host of others. And given my interest level in the two sports and their leading participants, I without question have more interest in the fates of the golfers than the riders. Yet, once I start watching the riders, I just can’t break away. And when I do, the slower rhythm of the golf, the more gradual unfolding of its essential moments, makes me return instantly to the Tour.

Fortunately, the Tour ends well before the midway point of the day’s round in golf, so I can afford to stick with the riders to the stage’s conclusion, then switch over for good. But even then, when I make the switch, it takes maybe half an hour for me to adjust.

A case in point was what happened two years ago, when Tom Watson, at age 59, was making a run for the Open championship. My favorite golfer over the decades, poised to win his 6th Open, an unimaginable accomplishment. But the Tour won my attention, and when I did turn to golf, I didn’t warm up to it for a while. (Then, of course, Watson came to the 18th hole needing just a par for the unimaginable to happen, the Tour was long forgotten, no other sporting event could compare to what was happening in front of my eyes, … . Sigh.)

We’ll see how this plays out tomorrow. But the Tour features a flat stage, a day for the sprinters, a chance for the tour leaders to take it easy, and I may be watching golf until the stage nears its last 10k.

As for today, a great stage indeed. The favorites finished all together, letting Belgian rider Jelle Vanendert break off to build a lead near the top of the climb, and allowing Sammy Sanchez to follow him nearer still to the top. Vanendert and Sanchez finished 1-2, in reverse of their finish two days ago in the Pyrenees on the climb up to Luz-Ardiden. Their gains were modest, 46 and 25 seconds over Andy Schleck in third, 2 seconds more over the other Tour big shots — Frank Schleck, Evans, Contador, Basso. The only change this made to their relative overall rankings was to place Sanchez just a bit ahead of Contador, as they swapped 6th and 7th places.

But I didn’t even mention the real stunner, which is that once again Thomas Voeckler stayed with them up the mountain, holding onto the yellow jersey. Everyone knows it won’t last. He’ll crack on one of the mountain stages. But he’s shown no sign of cracking yet. And when he donned the yellow jersey at the podium afterwards, Bernard Hinault had warm words for him. (Hinault, 5-time champion, French racing giant, winner in ’85 when we saw him ((and everyone else)) on the final day in Paris during our honeymoon, stage manages the daily presentations. It’s always fascinating to see how he greets each of the day’s award winners.)

Following Voeckler in the standings are the riders we are all watching — Frank Schleck, Evans, Andy Schleck, Basso, Sanchez, and Contador. With tomorrow’s sprint day and Monday’s rest day, they will hit the Alps on Tuesday. There are some major climbs Wednesday, but the really big ones await on Thursday and Friday. Then, and perhaps only then, will the truth be revealed. After that, without a break, this year’s lone individual time trial will take place Saturday in Grenoble. It’s going to be an exciting three days.

Categories: Cycling

The Tour Continues

July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

[Guillaume Horcajuelo/European Pressphoto Agency]

I tried to teach Joel from an early age not to let himself get too wrapped up in rooting for a team or an individual, as it interferes with enjoying the sport itself. Tough advice to follow, and sometimes I fail. (See: British Open golf, two years ago, Tom Watson. But the less said about that the better. Way too painful.)

Little did I know that I had allowed my Mark Cavendish obsession to push me over the line once again. Things weren’t setting up well for him and his team two days ago as they neared the sprint finish, but suddenly there he was, bursting from the pack and taking the lead. I was cheering him on, thrilled by his imminent stage win. He never loses to anyone once he launches.

Except that this time he did. The German rider André Greipel, former Cavendish teammate, charged after him, passed him, and held on to win by a wheel. What went wrong? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I was too depressed. Surely Cavendish was hurt by not having Mark Renshaw available to lead him out. This probably forced Cavendish to make his move 50m too soon. What I do know is that instead of feeling good all day about having started the day with another great stage, I avoided any thoughts of the Tour. Instead of appreciating Greipel’s magnificent move and huge upset, I tried to erase memories of his joy as he crossed the line.

My loss.

Yesterday was another day for the sprinters. Had I learned my lesson? Was I looking for a great sprint finish, ready to enjoy it whatever the outcome? I would have to see. And see I did. There was Team HTC returning to form as the finish approached, setting up the leadout for Cavendish. There was Renshaw, the last HTC teammate to lead Cavendish out, timing it perfectly. There was Cavendish, launching past Renshaw toward the finish line. And who was that, coming out of the pack to chase after him? Greipel. With Tyler Farrar making his own move. Three great sprinters. One great finish. Whatever happened would make for a glorious day!

Cavendish held on. I shouted with delight. It was indeed a glorious day. There’s nothing more fun in sport than watching him win.

But there’s more to life than fun, and there’s more to the Tour than sprint finishes. Today, at last, the Tour arrived in the mountains and the tour giants (as well as the would-be giants) finally moved to center stage. I woke up in time to watch the famed climb of the Col du Tourmalet, over the highest road in the Pyrenees. Then after a long descent, they headed up the closing climb of the day, to Luz-Ardiden. It was hard to take my eyes off the riders during the last 10k. For much of the time, not much was happening, but you never knew when one of the Schleck brothers might make a move. Or Cadel Evans. Or a rejuvenated Ivan Basso. And did Contador have any surprises, or is this just not his year, at least not after the badc luck of all his falls last week?

No real answers were given as to who has it and who doesn’t. It seems Contador is at least a little off form, as he couldn’t keep up with the Schlecks or Evans in the final 2k. But still, he lost only 13 seconds to Andy Schleck, Evans, and Basso. Tomorrow isn’t likely to reveal much more, as they have just one major climb, of the Col D’Aubisque, before a long descent into Lourdes. Saturday is the day to watch, with a massive closing climb up to Plateau de Beille. Don’t miss it.

I almost forgot: How about Thomas Voeckler? He was sure he would give up the yellow jersey today. No way he would make it over the climbs with the Tour greats. But it was Bastille Day, he’s French, he was in the yellow jersey, and he found a way to keep up with them, finishing just 7 seconds and one position behind Contador on the day. He remains in yellow, 1′ 49″ ahead of Frank Schleck, with Evans, Andy Schleck, Basso, Cunego, and Contador next. I might as well round out the top ten. Today’s stage winner, Sammy Sanchez is in 8th. Surprise top American Tom Danielson is 9th. (Will he last in these heights?) And tenth is Irish rider Nicolas Roche, son of the great Stephen Roche. But back to Voeckler. Magnifique, Thomas!

Categories: Cycling

The Tour Life

July 10, 2011 Leave a comment

I wrote four days ago about the opening five days of this year’s Tour de France and my attachment to Manx sprinting great Mark Cavendish. What I failed to point out are the sacrifices a fan must make in order to devote 23 consecutive mornings to following the Tour. Following it live, that is (and what’s the point of following it any other way?). The last few days are a case in point.

Months ago, I scheduled a routine dentist visit for this past Thursday at 8:30 AM. A week ago I realized my folly. The stage start times are set in anticipation of a finish at around 5:15 to 5:30 PM in France, or 8:15 to 8:30 AM in these parts. The peloton may decide to push a faster pace, or take it easy, so these are always guesses, but generally good ones. For the first few days last week, the finish was generally a little after 8:30 AM, but not much. An 8:30 dentist appointment meant I would miss the finish for sure.

Last Monday, the 4th, the dentist office was closed for the holiday, but I contemplated calling Tuesday to change Thursday’s appointment. Come Tuesday, I forgot, but Wednesday the Tour gods were looking out for me. I got the day-ahead reminder call and was asked if I could come in an hour later. Heck yes. So it was that I could watch Thursday’s stage to conclusion, with Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the sprint finish and fellow Norwegian Thor Hushovd finishing two spots back in the same time to retain the yellow jersey. Cavendish and Farrar were way back, essentially taking a breather and waiting for the next day.

I didn’t get so lucky that next day. It set up to be a good one for Cavendish, but not for me. I had a 10:00 AM meeting in my office. No problem there. But I also needed to schedule a blood test appointment that I put off all week, so when I called Thursday afternoon to make it and was offered a variety of Friday morning times, I didn’t want to pass them all up. I chose 9:15. Any later and I might get to my office after 10:00. Any earlier and I might miss the end of the day’s stage. I thought I had chosen the optimal time.

When I turned on the stage in progress Friday morning, I was stunned to see how late it was running. It was relatively flat. I didn’t expect it to be so slow. But from what I could see, a finish before 9:00 AM wasn’t likely. I absolutely had to be out of the house at 8:55 AM if I were to be on time for the blood test. Or, I could be late and then risk being late for my 10:00 AM meeting. As the minutes passed, I thought I might have a chance, but then I knew I didn’t. I left dutifully at 8:55 AM, as with 5K left in the stage. Cavendish was well placed, the end would surely be dramatic, and I was going to miss it.

Well, that’s life, but not the life of a true Tour fan. I had failed to organize my life properly and I was very disappointed in myself.

I read about the stage when I got to my office. Later, I watched a replay of the finish online, but it was only of the final seconds, so I had no sense of how it was set up. Finally, around 8:30 Friday night, I got to replay those final 5K.

I missed something special. Team HTC was totally in control, the whole team, or maybe 8 of them, with Cavendish at the end of the line. One by one they dropped off until, in the final kilometer, teammate and leadouter extraordinaire Mark Renshaw took over. From the camera angle in front, which isn’t the best, as it shortens distances, you could see someone trying to break out to the left of the field (right of the picture), then back off and charge around to the right. It turned out to be Romain Feillu, who couldn’t make up the ground he lost trying to get clear and finished fourth. At around this point, Renshaw dropped off and left Cavendish to do the final work on his own. But that’s when the German sprinter André Greipel made a surprising move, perhaps even taking the lead. It was difficult to tell. He was moving fast, though, and Cavendish’s lead was in danger. That’s when Cavendish — take your pick of clichés — found another gear, or turned on the afterburners, or dug deep, or whatever he did — but whatever it was, he surged back into the lead, assuming he had ever lost it, and crossed the line in first for Tour stage victory #2, career stage victory #17. Closing fast, the great Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi edged Greipel for second in a photo finish.

A thrill. But not so thrilling 11 1/2 hours later, when I knew the result. Next time I’ll schedule my life better.

Yesterday I overslept a bit, and for some reason the riders chose yesterday as the day to finish way ahead of schedule. I missed a lot of the stage. Another bad day. Still, it was a day of drama, with Rui Costa the lone survivor of a breakaway as the peloton caught the others on a difficult final climb. Philippe Gilbert finished 12 seconds behind Costa (and earned the green jersey) while another couple of dozen riders were 3 seconds behind Gilbert.

The pity is, I missed a lot of the scenery on the day they rode into the heart of the Auvergne, a region I (undeservedly) think of as my own. It is, after all, my brother-in-law’s home region, the region where my sister lived for three years, the region where my niece was born. Home of the chain of puys, those eroded cinder cones and lava domes, and home too of Volvic, the best of all French waters.

I learned to drink Volvic while visiting my sister in Clermont-Ferrand in the summer of 1981. Jacques would come home from work at lunchtime with a baguette in one hand and Volvic in the other. On that same visit, we drove to nearby Puy-de-Dôme, tallest of the volcanic peaks and itself part of Tour lore — the site in 1964 of the famed duel between ultimate overall winner Jacques Anquetil and runner-up Raymond Poulidor (less than a minute behind). It was great at the end of yesterday’s finish to see Poulidor on the podium, shaking hands with the various daily honorees.

Today’s stage had some competition for attention, what with the US-Brazil women’s World Cup soccer quarter-final starting at 8:00 AM. And the finish of the men’s Scottish Open, a prelude to this coming week’s British Open. I figured out a good way to handle it. I watched the Tour. I was able to switch over to the soccer for the second half, and I caught up with the golf during Tour ads.

The stage started just south of Clermont-Ferrand in Issoire, heading mostly south over a long sequence of climbs and descents. I missed the massive and devastating crash halfway through that eliminated some dozen riders. And later, thanks to some bad luck with the timing of the ad break, I and everyone else following the coverage missed one of the most bizarre incidents I can remember. There had been a big breakaway, one that looked likely to succeed for all five of its riders, who would fight it out for the stage victory. But not after a French television car moved up to pass them with 35K to go. The driver swerved toward the center of the road to avoid a tree at the side, thereby knocking Juan Antonio Flecha straight over, with Johnny Hoogerland, lying fourth in the group, sent flying sideways off the road into barbed wire. (See video above.)

Incroyable. The other three riders, Luis-Leon Sanchez, Thomas Voeckler, and Sandy Casar, managed to stay upright and kept going. Once they realized that they had dropped the others, they slowed down to let Flecha catch up, but he wasn’t going to make it, so they sped up again. Hoogerland got patched up and back on his bike, but was in visible pain, and soon swept up (and spit out the back) by the peloton. Flecha tried futilely to reach the breakaway threesome, but he too had to give up, and he too was caught by, then spit out the back of, the peloton. There’s nothing to be done, but it was an enormous injustice.

And that was that. The stage ended with a climb. Sanchez, Voeckler, and Casar maneuvered for a while, but when Sanchez finally broke away in the final 200 or 300 meters, with Casar fading, Voeckler couldn’t keep up. Voeckler finished 5 seconds back, Casar 13 seconds back, and then in came the peloton, 3 minutes and 59 seconds behind. This allowed Voeckler to take the yellow jersey. He won’t keep it long, but it’s well deserved, with the breakaway earning Sanchez second place overall. Well back in third, fourth, and fifth are some of the major figures in the tour, Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck, and brother Andy Schleck. One happy result for the day was that Hoogerland, before being sent flying into the barbed wire, had amassed enough points on the climbs to earn the polka-dot jersey, provided of course that he managed to finish, which he did.

One puzzle is what to make of Contador’s form. He’s had a lot of bad luck so far in getting caught up in various crashes, including a bizarre one today involving him alone, the result being that he is about a minute and a half back of Evans and the Schlecks. Evans and Andy Schleck look strong so far. Contador will have to round into top form to catch them. The Pyrenees will tell us more. We must wait until Thursday. I’ll be watching.

I won’t be watching Tuesday or Wednesday though, thanks to more bad planning. I agreed weeks ago to teach a class Wednesday morning, when I could have taken the afternoon instead. I wasn’t thinking. And Tuesday morning I have to make a run to the airport. I will have to watch later on the DVR.

I will be sure to schedule my life better next year.

Categories: Cycling

My Manxman

July 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Mark Cavendish (of course)

[Christophe Ena/AP]

Last Friday, I mentioned to Gail that a certain event would be starting the next day and asked if she knew what. She did. “Three weeks of cheaters.” It’s difficult to argue with that assessment. But, hey, it’s the Tour (de France), and I love it. If I had any doubts, five seconds of watching on Saturday morning took care of that.

Beyond my love of the Tour itself as a competitive entity, I love watching the coverage on TV. Phil Liggett says some pretty silly things in the rush to describe developments that he watches on a screen along with us, but no matter. I’m in my third decade now of listening to him, and I can’t imagine a Tour without his company. (Paul Sherwen’s company too of course.) Plus, the passing scenery seems to draw me in more every year. And where once I was disdainful, now my heart melts when I see such sights as two sets of eight or so tractors and riders, each set driving in a circle, so that the overhead helicopter shot reveals the wheels of a bicycle in a farm field, along with other implements forming the bicycle’s body.
You can perhaps understand why I am waking up early every morning to view the coverage.

And then there’s the racing. No prologue Saturday. A real stage, and a dramatic one at that, with a late crash that separated Alberto Contador from many of the other race favorites. Sunday brought a team time trial, absent from last year’s Tour, and suddenly Thor Hushovd was in yellow, Cadel Evans just behind.

Monday was a day for the sprinters, and we all knew what that meant. Time to check out the form of Mark Cavendish, the Manxman of this post’s title, winner of 15 stages in the last three years. And the form of Tyler Farrar, local boy, the best American sprinter since the young Lance Armstrong and a strong favorite this year to win his first sprint stage after near misses the last two years.

With 5k to go, Cavendish’s HTC team was organized and in the front, with leadout man non-pareil Mark Renshaw back in the saddle after being dismissed last year when he was a little too aggressive in clearing space for Cavendish. It was Cavendish’s stage to win. But suddenly they disappeared from the front, with Phil completely confused in his calling of the race, wondering if Cavendish might have dropped back because of a crash. As they entered the final kilometer, Farrar’s Garmin teammates had formed a perfect leadout, with yellow jersey holder (and sprinter great in his own right) Hushovd leading the way, key leadout man Julian Dean on his wheel, and Tyler on Julian’s wheel. Hushovd dropped off, then Dean dropped off, and Tyler was off, passing Feillu and Rojas to win the stage. A stage winner at last! And on July 4! Wow!

It turns out that Phil blew it in his coverage regarding Cavendish, who was in the lead group the entire time, finishing 5th, just ahead of Hushovd and Dean, each of whom raised an arm in celebration as they saw Farrar cross the line in victory. It’s still a puzzle to me what happened, as they were unable to sort it out in the closing coverage.

On to day four, yesterday, an odd stage, with all the markings of a traditional flat race through Brittany until the final 2k, described by American Chris Horner afterwards as the hardest 2k climb he ever rode. That served to break up the field, and provided a dramatic finish with Cadel Evans just holding off Contador for the stage victory. With Evans just a second behind Hushovd in the general classification, one might have thought this effort would have put him in yellow. But Hushovd is riding so far like a great all-arounder, and he was right there in 6th, with no time gap, allowing him to stay in yellow.

Which brings us to today, a day for the sprinters. Here’s where I have to confess that even though Tyler Farrar is an American, even though better yet he is a Washington stater, even though his parents are old friends of my own friends Russ and Tobae, and even though I love to see him do well, I love Mark Cavendish just a little bit more. I can’t explain it. I just love watching Cavendish race and love watching him win. Which he did. Tyler wasn’t even in the mix today. The team kept Hushovd in yellow, but they didn’t mount an effort for the stage victory. Cavendish was his dramatic, exciting self, exploding past Gilbert and Rojas in the final 50 meters for the win.

Another great stage. We’re nowhere near the mountains, and already this Tour is full of drama. And don’t forget the closing stages. As I wrote last October, when this year’s route was announced:

What immediately caught my (and Joel’s) eye were the ante-penultimate and penultimate stages. Once again, as has been the custom the last couple of years, the penultimate stage will be an individual time trial. What makes it special for us is that it will be in Grenoble, where Joel spent the fall a year ago and where we visited him a a year ago next week. And the ante-penultimate stage will be a stunning day in the Alps, with climbs over the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier as warmups for the stage-ending climb of Alpe-d’Huez. This holds special interest to us as well, since we made that climb 51 weeks ago today. (By car.) If only the timing of our trip were different.

But there’s time for that. Tomorrow, another day for the sprinters. Time for bed so I can get up to watch.

Categories: Cycling

Tour de France 2011

October 21, 2010 1 comment

The route for the 2011 Tour de France was unveiled on Tuesday. Somehow, despite my professed love of the Tour, I always miss the unveiling, but fortunately, Joel pointed out the news yesterday, so I immediately checked it out.

What immediately caught my (and Joel’s) eye were the ante-penultimate and penultimate stages. Once again, as has been the custom the last couple of years, the penultimate stage will be an individual time trial. What makes it special for us is that it will be in Grenoble, where Joel spent the fall a year ago and where we visited him a a year ago next week. And the ante-penultimate stage will be a stunning day in the Alps, with climbs over the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier as warmups for the stage-ending climb of Alpe-d’Huez. This holds special interest to us as well, since we made that climb 51 weeks ago today. (By car.) If only the timing of our trip were different.

But regardless of our personal stake in these stages, can you imagine? The final two days before the ceremonial ride into Paris consist of the famed ride up Alpe-d’Huez and an individual time trial! So much can change so late in the Tour. And I haven’t even mentioned the stage that precedes that of the Alpe-d’Huez climb. It’s a monster too, starting in Pinerolo, Italy, climbing the Col Agnel into France, then the Col d’Isoard, followed by a stage-ending climb up the Col du Galibier to a finish at the resort of Serre-Chevalier. That’s two successive Alpine stages ending with climbs and then the time trial.

I can’t wait.

And don’t spoil it for me by bringing up drugs. I’m sure (2008 and 2010 champion) Contador is clean. It was the steak.

Categories: Cycling

Farrar-Cavendish

September 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The photo above says it all. There’s local boy Tyler Farrar winning the final stage of the Vuelta a España today over Mark Cavendish (in green, to the left of the photo). I’ve written many times in my Tour de France posts about Cavendish, the awesome Manx rider who has dominated the sprint stages of the Tour de France over the last three years. Farrar may be his closest challenger. Farrar won two stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia, but was injured early in the Tour de France. He regained his strength near the end, but couldn’t beat Cavendish. In the Vuelta, Cavendish and his team won the opening time trial, and Cavendish won three late stages, thereby securing the overall points jersey, but as you see, Farrar won today’s ride into Madrid, having already won one of the early stages.

Farrar is 26 years old, Cavendish 25. Their rivalry will be worth watching over the next few years. I wish them both good health so they can compete at their best.

———–

Note: It’s not really my goal to be too obscure. As a bit of a primer, let me explain that there are three “grand tour” races in cycling each year, the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España. Each lasts three weeks, with daily stages taking a variety of forms — long races with several mountains climbed along the way, long but relatively flat races with the top sprinters able to stay near the lead and then fight it out for the stage victory, individual time trials, team time trials. Sprinting specialists such as Cavendish and Farrar try only to survive the mountain stages so they don’t have to drop out of the tour and are thus able to compete for victory in the flat sprint stages. By surviving, they are also able to compete for the title of best sprinter of the tour, which is based on acquiring the most points for high finishes (and high standing on intermediate positions of flat stages) each day.

Also, my calling Cavendish a Manx rider refers to the fact that he is from the Isle of Man.

Categories: Cycling

Laurent Fignon, RIP

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

The great French cyclist Laurent Fignon died on Tuesday at the age of 50. As the obituaries noted, he is best known for the Tour de France he didn’t win rather than those he did. In reading more about him, I realized I have long been guilty of insufficiently appreciating him. It’s unfortunate that I started following the Tour closely in 1985, the year after his greatest victory.

Fignon turned professional in 1982, at the age of 21, in the midst of countrymate Bernard Hinault’s reign as the world’s dominant cyclist. Hinault had already won the Tour de France in 1978, 1979, and 1981, as well as the Vuelta a España in 1978 and the Giro d’Italia in 1980. In the 1980 Tour, Hinault won the Prologue and two additional stages, wearing yellow for four days, but a knee injury forced him to drop out. He would win the Tour again in 1982, with Fignon as a teammate, so had he not had the knee injury in 1980, he might have won five consecutive Tours, a feat no one had accomplished before. (Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx had won five Tours, but not in succession. Later, Miguel Indurain would win five in succession, and Lance Armstrong seven.)

In 1983, Hinault once again was unable to ride in the Tour, because of knee surgery. Without the team leader, the 22-year-old Fignon was free to ride for himself, and was the surprise winner of the Tour. Hinault returned in 1984 as the leader of a different team, allowing the two of them to compete head to head. I regret that I didn’t follow this Tour — not that it was easy to follow at that time in the US. Fignon won decisively, with a margin of 10′ 32″ over Hinault. Sharing the podium another 1′ 14″ back in third was American rookie Greg LeMond.

Alas, Fignon was the one with a knee injury who couldn’t compete in 1985. That’s where I entered the picture. Well, you know. I wasn’t competing. But I was following. It was our honeymoon and we were visiting my sister in Paris. Hinault had enlisted LeMond as teammate to help him win. In retrospect, I now realize that Hinault must have been thinking he better take advantage of Fignon’s absence and win his fifth before he got older and Fignon got stronger. Five was the ultimate, the number of wins Anquetil and Merckx had, the mark of greatness. Hinault succeeded, with LeMond supporting him and finishing in second, 1′ 42″ back. As I have written elsewhere, I was there on the Champs-Elysées for the final day of the Tour, watching Hinault and LeMond zip by, embedded in the peloton.

The 1986 Tour is famous for Hinault’s reneging on his promise to help teammate LeMond win in return for LeMond’s help in 1985. That’s how I remember it. I had forgotten that Fignon entered that Tour too, but because of injuries he dropped out halfway through. Hinault wore yellow for five days before succumbing to the stronger LeMond, who would win the Tour with Hinault 3′ 10″ back in second.

Fignon finished 7th in the 1987 Tour and abandoned the 1988 Tour, but finally, in 1989, he entered the Tour at full strength. So too did LeMond, recovered at last from the 1987 hunting accident in which his brother-in-law shot him. The greatest battle in the Tour’s history ensued. See, for instance, the wikipedia account, where merely looking at the list of daily yellow jersey winners gives you a sense of how close the race was. LeMond took the yellow jersey after stage 5, only to lose it to Fignon in stage 10, regain it in stage 15, and lose it in stage 17. The oft-written-about final-day stage to Paris was an individual time trial, not the usual ceremonial ride. Going into it, Fignon’s lead over LeMond was 50 seconds. Fignon, as the leader, went off last, with LeMond the penultimate starter. LeMond, using new aerodynamic handle bars and a special, aerodynamic helmet, rode the greatest time trial in tour history. Fignon couldn’t match his time. But could Fignon stay within 50 seconds? He was, after all, a great time trialist himself. No one will forget the look on his face when he came across the finish line to discover he had fallen short. LeMond won the Tour by 8 seconds.

And that is what Fignon will always be famous for, being on the wrong side of an historic ride. From the NYT obituary:

LeMond was the next-to-last starter and Fignon the last, starting two minutes apart. LeMond, helped by an aerodynamic helmet and new triathlon handlebars, kept up an almost superhuman pace in the time trial and averaged 33.8 miles (54.4 kilometers) an hour, still a Tour record.

Fignon, his blond ponytail blowing, could not match that pace, and LeMond won the trial by 33 seconds and the Tour by 8 seconds. The Tour director, Christian Prudhomme, speaking to The Associated Press, said of Fignon, “I remember that lost look in his eyes on the finish line at the Champs-Élysées, which contrasted with Greg LeMond’s indescribable joy.”

In 2003, a survey of Tour journalists, authors and former riders voted the time trial the Tour’s greatest race.

The defeat effectively ended Fignon’s career, though he did not retire until 1993.

I wish I had followed Fignon’s career more closely. And I wish I weren’t so wrapped up in LeMond worship that I didn’t give Fignon the attention he deserved.

Categories: Cycling, Obituary

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.

Categories: Cycling

Tour Update

July 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Mark Renshaw

[Bert Geerts, Bert Geerts/dcp-bertgeerts@xs4all.nl]

Is this year’s Tour the greatest or what? I know, I say that every year. And really, what’s going to top Greg LeMond’s victory over Laurent Fignon in 1990* 1989? But still, this is pretty special. The mountains always reveal the truth about the candidates to finish in yellow, and this year was no exception. We learned on Tuesday, in the ride from Morzine-Avoriaz to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, that there are only two: Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. Everyone else? Forget it.

We now look forward to the arrival of the Tour in the Pyrenées Sunday, with mountain days Sunday to Tuesday, a rest day Wednesday, and then the climb up the Col du Tourmalet to complete Thursday’s stage. If Contador and Schleck haven’t settled matters by then, there’s the 52k time trial on Saturday. Given Contador’s time trialing superiority, the general belief is that Schleck better make a big more or two in the Pyrenées if he’s to retain his lead after Saturday.

Today we got to put all that aside and enjoy an extraordinary sprint finish between the usual specialist stars. As we entered the final kilometer, there were Mark Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi, Tyler Farrar, Thor Hushovd, Robbie McEwen and their brethren, near the front and ready to pounce. Cavendish was led, as usual, by his fearless and brilliant leadout man, Mark Renshaw. Farrar was on teammate Julian Dean’s wheel. Hushovd looked like he might not be a factor. Petacchi’s leadout men were up front just before entering the final kilometer, but I can’t remember where Danilo Hondo or Petacchi’s other Lampre teammates were as the finish neared. Regardless, Renshaw took the lead, ready to launch Cavendish to victory, when Dean came up on him. They were side by side, and suddenly Renshaw was pounding his head rightwards against Dean, over and over again. It was wild. Cavendish, it appeared, decided he couldn’t wait any longer and blew by, but perhaps earlier than he wanted to. With Cavendish gone, Renshaw’s work was complete. But then, as he faded, he also drifted left, directly into the path of the oncoming Tyler Farrar. Farrar moved left too, almost into the barrier, finally getting by Renshaw and chasing after Petacchi, Cavendish being a lost cause by then. And that’s how it finished: Cavendish, Petacchi, Farrar.

Had Renshaw, between head butting Dean and drifting into Farrar’s path, cost Farrar victory? It appeared not, though maybe Farrar could have passed Petacchi for second if unimpeded. Cavendish looked spent as he stopped past the line, confirming that he had to sustain top speed far longer than desired. Renshaw’s banging against Dean, if anything, hurt Cavendish rather than helping him.

Versus was right on top of it in their television coverage, grabbing interviews with all four key participants: Dean, Farrar, Renshaw, then Cavendish. No one seemed overly upset. Dean, in particular, shrugged it off as the normal in-fighting among sprinters. As dramatic as Renshaw’s antics appeared, maybe they weren’t so bad after all.

That’s where matters stood when Versus went off the air. I left home for a meeting, checking only hours later to see what the Tour officials had done with Renshaw. I had a pretty good idea when I couldn’t find him listed in the standings for today’s stage. I headed to the Guardian’s daily article on the Tour, learning that officials had reacted with the harshest penalty imaginable — they kicked Renshaw out of the Tour.

If Mark Cavendish is all heart when he races, then his leadout man Mark Renshaw appears to ride with his head, but not in the conventional sense. Today, while Cavendish’s sprint to a 13th career Tour stage win was the end result, it was the incident that immediately preceded it which caught the eye: Renshaw bashing his head repeatedly against another wing man, Julian Dean, as he tried – successfully – to get the Kiwi to move aside to let Cavendish launch his winning effort.

It is not uncommon for sprinters to whack each other with their heads in the run-in to the finish as they battle for position behind what they feel is the wheel to follow. But headbutts are rarely ever seen in the very final metres of a stage, mainly because walloping another cyclist with the head destabilises the bike.

After the tussle with Dean, Renshaw could also be seen dropping back into the trajectory of the American Tyler Farrar – Dean’s leader in the sprint today and the eventual third‑placed rider on the stage – although it was impossible to tell if it was by accident or design, with Farrar having no option but to shove the Australian out of the way.

Renshaw deserved full marks for keeping control throughout but the judges were not looking for artistic effect. He might have argued that Dean had stuck his elbow out to hold him back, and that the Kiwi was attempting to close out Cavendish, but the race referees judged the manoeuvre to be dangerous and threw the Australian out of the race. As sprint shenanigans went, it was up there with the legendary episode at Marennes in 1997, when the Belgian Tom Steels let fly with a bottle at 40mph.

What effect will this have on Cavendish in the next sprinter stages? I’ll be watching closely.

*What ever was I thinking? I awoke at 2:30 this morning, some ten hours after writing the post, and suddenly realized I had put in the wrong year. LeMond won his third Tour in 1990, a Tour I have always suspected Miguel Indurain might have been able to win (instead of finishing tenth) if he weren’t required to drag his Banesto teammate and designated team leader Pedro Delgado up the mountains in a vain effort to get him on the podium. Delgado, the 1988 winner, finished fourth. In 1989, he finished third, though that could have been a different story too, if he hadn’t shown up late for the Prologue. He lost 2:40 on the first day, ultimately finishing 3:34 behind LeMond and 3:26 behind Fignon — I just looked up the numbers — with no one else anywhere near them.

Categories: Cycling

Mark!

July 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Mark Cavendish winning today's stage, with Tyler Farrar to his left

[Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images]

I spent much of last July penning paeans to Mark Cavendish. I didn’t plan to do it again. But, my gosh, he’s amazing. I love watching him. Who needs the mountain stages or the individual time trials when there’s the daily drama of the sprint stages?

Stage four, two days ago, ended with the peloton’s entry into the magnificent city of Reims. It appeared that Cavendish’s teammate Mark Renshaw had positioned him perfectly for the finishing sprint that brought him four stage victories two years ago and six last year. But Alessandro Petacchi had other ideas, and when he struck unexpectedly with about 250 meters to go, Cavendish tried vainly to keep up for a second or two, then folded. Where was Cavendish’s awesome power of the previous two years? How did Petacchi re-discover the form of half a decade ago, with his second stage win in four days. So many questions.

No more. Cavendish was his old self in yesterday’s stage finish at Montargis. The Garmin team appeared in control, with a four-man train leading the way as the finish approached — David Millar, Robbie Hunter, Julian Dean, and our local boy, Tyler Farrar. One by one, they dropped off, leaving Dean to launch Farrar to the finish. But Renshaw and Cavendish had other ideas, launching a dramatic counter-strike. Minutes later, on the podium, Cavendish cried uncontrollably. He was back, and immensely relieved to be back.

Today’s finish featured three well-positioned teams — Garmin and Columbia again, and Lampre, determined to get Petacchi back in the mix. Farrar, I should note, broke his wrist and injured his elbow in his crash a few days ago. He is steadily regaining his strength and control, but still suffering. It looked like Garmin might get him the victory today. No, Lampre and Petacchi. But no, Renshaw was magnificent in pulling Cavendish through a gap that opened up with maybe 350 meters to go. Seconds later, Cavendish was gone. Farrar tried to get behind his wheel, but couldn’t quite close the gap, finishing a strong second, but with daylight between the two of them. An elated Cavendish hugged retired sprinting great Erik Zabel just past the finish line.

Three great days of racing.

The mountains begin tomorrow, a day in the Juras. Then the Alps Sunday, a rest day Monday, Alps again Tuesday, and an easier Alpine day Wednesday, but a day I want to watch in its entirety, as it will pass through some of the roads and towns we visited when we saw Joel in Grenoble last October. In particular, it starts in Chambéry, where we changed trains on our long travel day from Grenoble to Venice, then passes the outskirts of Grenoble and on to Vizille, which we drove through on our drive to Alpe d’Huez two days earlier. Even if you don’t care for the cycling, you may enjoy watching the next few days just for the scenery.

Categories: Cycling, Sports