Archive for the ‘Cycling’ Category

The Gang Arrives in Paris

July 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Cavendish in green (at last), Evans in yellow (at last)

[From the Guardian]

The Tour came to Paris today, marking the end of summer for some of us. A bit of a downer. But before the mourning, there was a race to watch.

It figured to be a day for the sprinters, and so it was. The peloton arrived in Paris with Team BMC and their man in yellow, Cadel Evans, in the lead. Then as they began their eight laps around the Champs Elysées, Place de la Concorde, and the Louvre, ceremony ended and the day’s racing began. Early in the third lap, near the Arc de Triomphe, there would be the day’s intermediate sprint. Mark Cavendish was in green as overall points leader, but Jose Rojas had a chance to pass him if Rojas could earn enough points at this intermediate point and the finish. It was clear that Cavendish and Team HTC meant business when they ushered him toward the front of the peloton as the intermediate line neared. He sprinted through in first, with Rojas two positions back.

It was now time for the inevitable breakaway. Six men went, opening up a gap of 30 or 35 seconds. They still had a gap near 30 seconds when the peloton crossed the finish line (about 200 meters west of the Place de la Concorde on the Champs Elysées heading toward the Arc de Triomphe) with two laps or just over 12k to go. A lap later, a gap remained, maybe on the order of 15 seconds. It was difficult to imagine the teams of the star sprinters not closing that gap down, but would they do so in time to set up leadouts for their men?

Down they went toward the Arc. Back they came toward the Place de la Concorde. Finally, as the breakaway fragmented, the peloton picked some of them up. Into Place de la Concorde, past the Obélisque, east along the Seine with the turn under the Louvre approaching. One breakaway rider remained, a member of HTC. Would HTC hold up the leadout for Cavendish to let him go for the stage win?

No. Just before the turn north and ride down through the tunnel, he slowed up to let the peloton by. At that point, with 1.3k left, HTC was in control. Up out of the tunnel they came, left they went, westward on the Rue de Rivoli. Tony Martin, having switched hats from yesterday’s time trial star to humble support rider, led the way, with Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish behind. No other team seemed to be as well organized or mounting a serious challenge. Under the 1k banner they went, off dropped Martin, into Place de la Concorde they rode one last time, off went Goss, and then as they turned onto the Champs Elysées for the final straightaway, still no one seemed to be challenging as leadout expert Renshaw led Cavendish.

Suddenly, Cavendish made his famous move. Edvald Boasson Hagen tried to chase him down. No way. Cavendish won his fifth stage of the tour. Boasson Hagen, winner of two stages this year, was in second. Close behind came Cavendish’s two other principal sprint challengers, each the winner of one stage this year, André Greipel in third and Tyler Farrar in fourth. Everyone else zipped by, Team BMC surrounded Cadel Evans and congratulated him, Cavendish hugged Renshaw, and the Tour was done, except for the award ceremony.

Cavendish’s stage win wrapped up his campaign for the green jersey. It also represented his third consecutive stage win in Paris and twentieth stage win over the last four Tours. And he’s only 26. How many more years can he stay at this level? There’s such a fine line between domination and racking up lots of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place finishes. Just ask Tyler Farrar. How many stage wins would he have if Cavendish weren’t on the scene? Will he improve to the point where the two trade stage wins? Keep in mind that Farrar edged Cavendish last September on the final stage of the Vuelta, the ride into Madrid (although Cavendish rode the last 3k with mechanical problems). And Greipel outsprinted Cavendish once in this Tour, due perhaps to Renshaw’s absence at the finish as leadout, as a result of which Cavendish had to make his move too early.

In any case, if Cavendish can stay at this level, he has the possibility of moving into historic territory. He is tied for 6th in most career Tour stage wins at 20, with Lance Armstrong and André Darrigade in 4th at 22, André Leducq in 3rd at 25, then Bernard Hinault at 28 and Eddy Merckx at 34. Two more years at this level and Cavendish will move ahead of Hinault into 2nd. But each of these wins is bitterly battled for, and it’s as easy to imagine Cavendish having reached his peak now as it is to imagine him blasting past Merckx.

Richard Williams, the Guardian’s chief sports writer, has a short note on Cavendish in which he observes that

Cavendish is a fountain of emotions, keen to express his joy in his success but always giving equal weight to his gratitude towards the HTC‑Highroad team-mates who negotiate the position from which he produces the final burst of deadly acceleration.

The first word he spoke into a microphone after the victory – “Finally!” – reflected the frustrations of the previous two years, when he came close to capturing the maillot vert. “We’ve worked so hard for it,” he said. “Today we put the whole team on the front for the last five kilometres. It was a block headwind finish, so you’ve got to be tough.”

In fact at one point during the three-week race he had to be tougher than anyone knew. The later Alpine stages had been demanding, but worse were the Pyrénées in the second week. “The Alps are not so steep and the roads are better. I’m usually OK there. But the Pyrénées are hard. And I got sick in the first week. You can’t say anything at the time because your competitors will take advantage of it, but I had a really bad stomach, an intestinal problem. I was really, really low during the stages in the Massif Central and the Pyrénées, but as usual the team was incredible.”

Williams also had the most marvelous line about Cadel Evans. For years, the post-race interviews of him on Versus have felt tortured. He’s had such bad luck, near misses. He always sounds in mental pain as well as physical. Williams concisely reviews Evans’ path to victory, then notes that Evans “sometimes gives the misleading impression of being inarticulate in three languages.” Just so.

I should finish the quote from Williams, who goes on to write:

but on Saturday night in Grenoble, when he knew he had won, he paid tribute not only to his team but to his former coach, Aldo Sassi, who died of brain cancer last December, aged 51.

“He believed in me, often more than I did myself,” Evans said. “He said to me last year: ‘I’m sure you can win a grand tour and I hope it’s the Tour de France. And then you’ll be the most complete rider of your generation.'”

The most complete rider? I don’t know. But today is not the day to argue. He was surely the most complete rider of this Tour, and a most worthy champion.

Categories: Cycling

Grenoble: Time Trial

July 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Cadel Evans starting his time trial in Grenoble

[Joel Saget/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images]

We had our days of truth on the climbs of the Alps. Today it was our last day of truth, the one and only individual time trial of this year’s Tour and the last chance for anyone to gain time on his fellow riders before tomorrow’s ceremonial closing ride into Paris. Important as this day was, there really wasn’t much to keep track of. With Andy Schleck in yellow, brother Frank 53 seconds back, Cadel Evans 57 seconds back, and everyone else out of the picture, the only question was whether Evans, the best time trialist of the trio, would be able to catch Andy Schleck and win the Tour. Catching Frank was a given, with only a 4 second difference.

Evans, the Tour runner up in 2007 and 2008, is far the better time trialist of the two. But Andy Schleck, Tour runner up in 2009 and 2010, has improved over the years. Maybe he could hold on. After all, last year he lost only 31 seconds to Contador in the time trial on the final Saturday. He had started 8 seconds behind, but Contador is a fine time trialist and it was anticipated that he would widen that lead significantly over Schleck. If Schleck could lose only 31 seconds today to Evans, he would win the Tour.

Tony Martin set the pace early with a 55’33” time on the 42.5k course that no one else was getting anywhere close to. My goal was to be awake in time to watch the final six riders as they started in reverse order to their standings: Contador, Cunego, Voeckler, Evans, Schleck, and Schleck. I should perhaps explain that each rider goes off alone, with 3-minute gaps in the start times for the leaders. Thus, 15 minutes would pass between Contador’s start and Andy Schleck’s. With no direct competition, one gauges how they are doing along the way by times taken at checkpoints.

I managed to wake up before my alarm was set to go off, reached over, and shut it. But I got lucky, awakening again at 7:00 AM and racing down to turn on the TV. I changed the channel just in time to see Contador roll down the start ramp. Well, this wasn’t luck entirely, since I had estimated last night that 7:00 was exactly when I had to be up for Contador’s start, give or take a few minutes.

Watching time trials is not ideal, since there’s so little information available. One ends up listening to Phil reporting on the drama in his head, if not on the road. Contador rode well, hitting the checkpoints just a little behind Tony Martin’s times, and soon Phil was suggesting that he might climb past not just Cunego into 5th but also Voeckler into 4th. Evans was magnificent, hitting the checkpoints just seconds behind Martin, way ahead of everyone else. It soon emerged that the Schlecks weren’t doing well at all. No surprise for Frank, but Andy’s times were Frank’s equal, putting both well behind Martin, Evans, and Contador. Indeed, soon Phil got a little over-excited and suggested that Contador might even jump over Frank Schleck and into 3rd overall, good enough for a spot on the podium. This would turn out to be madness, both because Frank wasn’t riding that badly and because the gap to Contador at the start of the day was way too large at 3’02”.

In any case, as Evans continued to race well enough to suggest that he might even win the stage, his ride into yellow became a certainty and there wasn’t much else to pay attention to, other than wild speculations about changes in the standings. There was a mini-race lower down among the two top young riders for the white jersey. Pierre Rolland seemed to have it in control after his dramatic win on the climb of Alpe d’Huez yesterday, moving him into 10th overall, but Rein Taaramae, in 12th overall 1’33” behind, had a good time trial going and perhaps he could pull that time back. Well, no. Taaramae finished 2’03” behind Martin’s time on the day, good enough for what would turn out to be 10th in the time trial. A few minutes later, Rolland came across 2’50” behind Martin, in what would be 21st on the day. He had lost time to Taaramae, but not enough to lose the white jersey. However, fellow Frenchman Jean Christophe Peraud had a time over a minute better than Rolland, 6th on the day and enough to displace Rolland for 10th in the overall standings. The upshot: Taaramae is in 12th overall, Rolland in 11th but in the white jersey, Peraud in 10th and taking over from Rolland for top Frenchman in the Tour.

Next, as we awaited further developments on the leaders, top American rider Tom Danielson finished in a time good enough to hold onto 9th overall, and Ivan Basso was able to hold onto 8th overall. But when Sanchez finished in what at that point was the 5th best time of the day (awaiting Contador and Evans) and Contador finished in what at that point was 2nd best time of the day (awaiting Evans and pushing Sanchez down a notch), they thereby set themselves up to move ahead of Cunego overall, as he came in a few minutes after that in 31st on the day. So Cunego slid from 5th to 7th overall, with Sanchez moving into 6th and Contador moving into 5th.

Next in was the valiant Voeckler, never giving up, riding a fine time trial good enough for 14th on the day and preserving his 4th position overall, 37 seconds ahead of Contador. Evans would be next in.

And there he was, entering Grenoble, pedaling away, looking powerful, unlabored, the yellow jersey a certainty. And still within reach of Martin’s time and the stage win, as best anyone knew. It was close, but no, he didn’t get the win, finishing 7 seconds behind Martin’s time. He appeared just a bit disappointed as he crossed the line. He surely would have loved the double victory. But he would have to content himself with 2nd on the day and the yellow jersey, and content he undoubtedly was. It was a great ride. A historic ride. And the closest rider on the day besides Martin was Contador, a full 59 seconds behind Evans. Only Martin had a ride in the same league today.

The two Schlecks came in soon thereafter. First Frank, 2’41” behind Martin’s winning time, then Andy, 2’38” behind. This put them 17th and 20th in the stage, among the better riders but not at the level the day demanded. Frank held onto 3rd overall, Andy dropping from 1st to 2nd.

An amazing day, really, but not one of visible amazingness. Just conceptual. What must Andy Schleck do to win one of these? He must be wondering, but maybe the answer is obvious. He can improve his time trial skills, though it’s not as if he hasn’t been working on them. Or maybe he has to find a way to build bigger leads in the mountains. In retrospect, Evans wouldn’t let him. He does have an age advantage over Evans of over 8 years. Other riders will rise, of course, but after three straight second place finishes, Andy seems sure to win one, or maybe several, soon.

I had my eye out for familiar sights in Grenoble, but in the street views, as the riders rolled through, there was nothing obviously recognizable. The views from the air were better. Near the end of the coverage, there were repeated shots of the Bastille, the little rocky hill or mini-mountain that rises up on the opposite side of the Isère from downtown. During our visit two Octobers ago, we took the télépherique up to it just in time to watch the sun set behind the Alps to the southwest. The views weren’t the sharpest, due to some haze, but it was still a commanding outlook, and a great way to finish the day, having looked down from Alpe d’Huez just a few hours earlier. (Below, a shot of the city and the Isère moments just after rising out of the downtown télépherique station on the way up to the Bastille.)

The top places in the Tour are now decided (with the obligatory comment — as long as no one falls off his bike tomorrow and can’t continue). But ceremonial though the ride may be, there’s still the closing sprint and one more chance for Mark Cavendish to shine. Tyler Farrar may have something to say about that. Or André Greipel. In a scene just after today’s racing finished, Cavendish was shown, arm around teammate Tony Martin, congratulating him. Very sweet. I love the guy. We’re not done with the drama yet.

Categories: Cycling

Alpe d’Huez

July 22, 2011 Leave a comment

[Taken by me, October 29, 2009]

I’ve been eagerly awaiting today’s stage since the route was announced last October. For that matter, I’ve been eagerly awaiting it since we made our own climb of Alpe d’Huez two Octobers ago. The Tour bypassed Alpe d’Huez last year, so today was the Tour’s first visit since our own. And the visit could not have been more strategically timed, this being the Tour’s final day in the Alps. Tomorrow is the lone individual time trial of the Tour and Sunday is the ceremonial ride into Paris. Thus, today was the last opportunity for major attacks on the climbs. And climbs there were. Not just Alpe d’Huez at the end, but Col du Télégraphe early on and Col du Galibier in the middle.

Yes, they already climbed Col du Galibier. Yesterday, to end the stage. Today they got to climb up from the other side and then make a descent of over 45K to the village of Le Bourg d’Oisans, from which the climb to Alpe d’Huez begins.

In winding up my post last night, I suggested that we were down to a three-man race, the very three-man race one might have guessed days ago that we were down to: Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, and Cadel Evans. Thomas Voeckler remained in first, by 15 seconds over Andy, but surely he couldn’t survive yet another day in the mountains. With the Schlecks and Evans separated from each other by less than a minute, it seemed likely that, with perhaps some changes in the gaps or ordering, they would end today in the top three spots. What I didn’t say, but almost did, was that Contador, who lost time yesterday and as well any hope of a podium spot on Sunday, falling all the way down to 8th, might just have something left in him today. Maybe he would go for it — a stage win, or a remote shot at the podium. I can’t claim credit. I didn’t say it. But I really did think it, and I really did almost say it.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned on the coverage this morning and discovered that Contador had the same idea I did. He went for it, early and often. He led the way up Galibier, with a small group of riders, building a gap on the big three. And there was Thomas Voeckler, yet again, determined to fight every challenge and keep the yellow jersey. Rather than stay with the trio and conserve energy, he was making a crazed, valiant effort on his own to bridge the gap. He was about 30 seconds back and making no progress, with the leaders about 2 minutes back, when finally he cracked and let them come to him, falling farther behind Contador. But they were closing in, and on the long descent they eventually caught him. By the time they approached Le Bourg d’Oisans, they were all together.

Then, off went the Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and the Frenchman Pierre Rolland, and Contador followed. In the lower part of Alpe d’Huez, he caught them and kept going. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to create a large enough gap to get back into the fight for the podium, but a stage win on Alpe d’Huez would be the perfect consolation prize. Up and up he went.

Lower down, Evans and the Schlecks were inseparable. No one made a significant attack. Perhaps they were content to maintain their positions, put Voeckler behind them, and await tomorrow’s time trial to fight it out. And Voeckler was behind. Perhaps he could have stayed with them if he hadn’t tried to catch Contador all by himself on Galibier, but he was finally not able to keep up. He would slip to fourth overall, if not worse, and the trio appeared likely to occupy the top three positions at last.

Up above, Contador’s multi-mountain effort was finally taking its toll. He had begun to slow down, allowing Sammy Sanchez (the other big loser yesterday among the elite climbers, along with Contador) and Rolland, who had been riding together, to catch him. At that point, Rolland pulled off a surprise move and kept going. With 2k to go, it suddenly became clear that he was going to win the stage, not Contador, and not Sanchez. And inevitably, the elite group behind was closing the gap themselves.

Rolland crossed first, giving France its first stage win of this year’s Tour. 14 seconds back was Sanchez, 23 seconds back Contador. He had fought valiantly all day, he had finished ahead of the trio, but could do no more. In they came 34 seconds later — the Schlecks, Evans, Velits, Cunego, and De Gendt. Another 18 seconds passed before the Garmin teammates and Hesjedal and Tom Danielson crossed, a finish good enough to keep Danielson, the top American, in 9th place overall. Voeckler would cross in 20th, 3’22” behind Rolland.

The top eight stayed the top eight. But Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, and Evans moved to 1-2-3 while Voeckler slipped to 4th. Cunego held 5th place and Basso fell from 6th to 8th, with Contador and Sanchez moving up. More specifically, Voeckler is 2’10” behind Andy Schleck, Cunego 3’31”, the others still further back, so none of them can make up enough time in the time trial tomorrow to break into the top three. It will indeed be the Schlecks and Evans.

Since they finished together today, the gaps remain unchanged: Frank is 53 seconds behind Andy, and Evans is 4 seconds behind Frank. It would not be the least bit surprising if Evans gains those 4 seconds and more on Frank tomorrow. Figure Frank for 3rd overall at the end of the day. What the Tour comes down to, or so I’m guessing, is whether Evans can make up those 57 seconds on Andy. One of the two will win, the other will be runner-up, each having been runner-up twice already. Evans has the better time trial record, but as Andy said after the race, the yellow jersey makes you fly gives you wings. He’s hoping for some of that magic tomorrow.

It’s been a tremendously exciting Tour. And now it comes down to 42.5k from Grenoble out into the country and back.

We’ll be watching, both to see tomorrow’s drama and to look for familiar sights from our Grenoble visit two falls ago. The first town the route goes through after leaving Grenoble is Vizille, which we went through too on our drive to Alpe d’Huez. We tried to stop on our way back, but parking was impossible, so after circling around and pulling into the most wildly disorganized parking field, on the edge of town, filled with cars parked at every imaginable angle, we abandoned the effort. It’s a lovely town, one we would very much have enjoyed walking around in. Tomorrow we can watch the riders zip through.

By the way, isn’t it great that Cavendish has survived the Alps and is still in green? And what of Rolland, whose stage victory moved him up to 10th and put him in white as best young rider? Might he be challenging for yellow in the years to come, bringing a Tour win to France again?

Two more days. When the Tour ends, a little bit of summer does too. I’m not ready.

Categories: Cycling

Day of Truth

July 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Thomas Voeckler, the glory and the pain

Boy oh boy what a day! I wrote last night that today would be the day of truth — hardly a novel suggestion, I should add — and indeed it was. The big surprise: Andy Schleck’s decision to make a move not on the the last of today’s three great climbs but on the second one, on the way up the Col d’Izoard. It was a gamble, opening the door to a complete collapse on the closing climb, up the Col du Galibier. Schleck knew the risk, as he agreed in a post-race interview, but he also knew this was his chance to put some distance between himself and the other leaders, and so he did, as they let him go.

To put this in proper context, a large breakaway group lay ahead on the climb, and when he caught them, he would have teammates to help, Maxime Monfort in particular. This worked well, with Monfort pacing him for a while. As he headed up Galibier, he had opened a 3’30” gap over the elite, putting him “in yellow on the road” — the leader of the Tour if the race were to be frozen at that moment.

The elite had to respond. But among the elite was Andy’s teammate and brother Frank, who had no desire to help the others catch up. It fell to Cadel Evans, who to this point looked like he might be the strongest rider in the Tour, to do all the work, what with Andy and Frank being the ones besides Evans who have looked strongest. Implicit in what I just said is that if Alberto Contador had any hope of a win or a podium finish, now was the time to show that he was their equal. Stunningly (under the heading “day of truth”), he wasn’t up to it. He moved back and forth among the lead group, but share in the work. So Evans did it all, with Frank Schleck staying close, as did the other members of the elite: Contador, Sanchez, Basso, Cunego, and of course Thomas Voeckler, this Tour’s biggest surprise. Voeckler was, after all, still the holder of the yellow jersey, and if they could pull back a minute on Andy Schleck, he could keep the yellow. He’s been magnificent in the Pyrenees and the Alps in his defense of the jersey. Staying with the others has been challenge enough. Sharing the work in closing a gap was too much to ask. So, again, the work fell to Evans.

Up Galibier they went, Andy alone in the lead, the elite pack (having disposed of the breakaway riders) giving chase. They weren’t gaining on him, but no one could afford to lose still more. Shockingly, Sanchez and Contador both fell off the pace in the final two kilometers. It’s amazing how much time one can lose in such a short distance once one cracks. But equally well, Andy Schleck slowed his pace. One can’t say he cracked. He held on for a dramatic stage win. But in the final kilometer, he had nothing left. He passed under the 1K banner, then maybe 20 seconds later, the chase group passed by the 2K marker. He still had a lead of over 3 minutes. Evans set a relentless pace. With Contador and Sanchez gone, the only riders staying with him were Frank Schleck (still looking good but making no effort to help catch his brother), Voeckler (looking past dead), Basso, Cunego, and Pierre Rolland. And they were bringing that gap down.

Schleck crossed the finish line arms raised, exultant, completing one of the great stage wins in recent memory. His gamble had paid off. But would he be in yellow? Evans continued to push in the final kilometer. And then Frank Schleck, having taken advantage of Evans all day and so relatively rested, made a move in the final 200 meters to finish second, grabbing 8 seconds on Evans. Basso came in 3 seconds after Evans. Voeckler 3 seconds after Basso. Then 6 second gaps to Rolland and to Cunego. But Frank was only 2’07” behind brother Andy. They had taken a minute and a half off his lead. Voeckler, 2’21” behind Andy, would stay in yellow. What a look on his face! The most extraordinary combination of pain and joy. (See above.) And that little move by Frank at the end to grab 8 seconds off Evans allowed him to jump ahead in the overall standings.

Voeckler stayed in first, Andy went from 4th to 2nd, Frank stayed in 3rd, Evans dropped from 2nd to 4th. But very little separates them, while there are big time gaps down to the rest. This has become a four-man race. One is tempted to say it’s really a three-man race, between the brothers Schleck and Evans. Voeckler can’t really keep this up, can he?

More details: Voeckler’s lead over Andy Schleck is just 15 seconds. Frank is 1’08” behind Voeckler, Cadel Evans 1’12” behind. It’s a big jump down to Cunego and Basso in fifth and sixth, both 3’46” behind. Contador sits still farther behind in 7th, with a 4’44” gap, and Sanchez is 5’20” back. (American Tom Danielson remains in 9th, but way back — 7’08” behind.)

Take Voeckler away and 57 seconds separate Andy from Cadel Evans. Based on past performance, Evans could well make up that much time on Andy (and the tiny gap on Frank) in the individual time trial on Saturday. Thus, there’s a lot of pressure on the Schlecks to continue the attack tomorrow on the climb up to Alpe d’Huez. Today identified the four riders who will fight it out for the three podium spots. But we won’t have a clue about the ordering until tomorrow’s climb and Saturday’s time trial.

You might want to keep in mind that Frank Schleck won the Alpe d’Huez stage five years ago. He knows something about that climb. Maybe he can make his own move tomorrow. Or maybe he’ll pull brother Andy up and put him in yellow. Maybe Evans will be the one to attack. Can Voeckler ride with the this trio? He keeps predicting that he won’t stay in yellow. This time I bet he’s right. It will be exciting.

And of course we have the extra excitement of having made our own ascent of Alpe D’Huez two Octobers ago, albeit by car rather than bike. We know that turn onto the mountain road from the valley village of Le Bourg d’Oisans. We know those switchbacks. We’ll be cheering as though we were there.

Categories: Cycling

Norwegian Alps

July 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Edvald Boasson Hagen

[Laurent Rebours/AP]

In just hours, the biggest stage of the Tour will start. I need to go to sleep so I can be awake for it. Hence, a short post on two eventful days.

Yesterday, the riders arrived in the Alps, with a climb up Col de Manse and a finishing descent into Gap. It was a good day for a breakaway, an unlikely one for any change amongst the overall leaders. There were surprises aplenty. Sure enough, a ten-man breakaway emerged, with all ten surviving to finish ahead of the peloton. But it split up on the final climb, with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal taking the lead. The closest chasers were his teammate Thor Hushovd, and non-teammate but fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen. Hushovd, of course, has been one of the heroes of this year’s Tour, holding the yellow jersey for several days and winning a stage, showing a new versatility as much more than a sprinter and competitor for the green jersey (which he has won twice). With a teammate in the lead, he wouldn’t help Boasson Hagen catch up, but Boasson Hagen was able to do so anyway, with Hushovd in tow.

Once the three merged, Hushovd was free to go for the win. In a very slow final kilometer, they jockeyed for position, with Boasson Hagen on Hesjedal’s wheel ready to shoot out for a winning sprint but also turning back to eye Hushovd. In the final 100 meters, when Boasson Hagen looked back one last time, the moment he looked forward again, Hushovd made his move, winning the sprint and his second stage of the Tour, tenth overall. Boasson Hagen chased after him, but it was too late. Hesjedal raised his arm in victory for Hushovd as he crossed the line in third.

An exciting finish, and an unlikely day for Norway, what with its lone two competitors finishing 1-2. But the real action was behind them. Contador finally made his move, attacking on that final climb, only to have all the leaders respond, so that they went over the top of the climb together. But Contador wasn’t finished. He attacked again, on the descent, determined to squeeze out even just a few extra seconds. Sammy Sanchez and Cadel Evans stayed with him, opening a gap on the Schleck brothers, Basso, Cunego, and Thomas Voeckler, who surprised again by looking like he belonged in yellow, every bit the equal of the others. Evans grabbed 3 seconds on Contador and Sanchez at the finish. More important, the other leaders finished another 18 seconds back. This altered the general classification a little: Evans moved ahead of Frank Schleck for second, Contador moved ahead of Basso for sixth. The gap between second and sixth was 1’57”, from Evans to the Schlecks, Sanchez, and Contador. One imagines the three who will stand on the podium in Paris Sunday will come from these five. Voeckler has been riding an inspired race, but it can’t last.

Today was more of the same, as the riders moved on from Gap, crossed into Italy, had a final 2nd category climb, and descended into Pinerolo. 16 riders were in the successful breakaway, including a determined Boasson Hagen, who seized the lead near the end and held it on the descent to win the stage. He agreed in an interview that it went a long way toward making up for his narrow loss yesterday. And again Contador attacked his fellow leaders, this time on the descent. Only Sanchez stayed with him, allowing the two Spaniards to work together to enlarge their lead over the others. But, in a surprise to all of us — viewers, Phil, and Paul alike — the other leaders came from seemingly nowhere to catch them in the final 200 meters. The camera feed gave no evidence that they were closing, but they were. Evans, Cunego, and the Schlecks finished in the same time as Contador and Sanchez. Voeckler lost time, though, finishing 27 seconds back with Basso in another group.

It’s no mystery where Voeckler lost the time. He went off the road twice during the final descent. Still, he remains in yellow for another day, with a lead that has shrunk to 1’18” over Evans, and there remains an envelope of 1′ 57″ containing the Evans, the Schlecks, Sanchez, and Contador.

Tomorrow is the day of truth, with three above category climbs, culminating in the climb of Galibier. Everyone expects Voeckler to give up his lead. Will he crack completely, allowing the expected leaders to assume control? Will he hold on enough to continue to be a factor? For that matter, any of the other leaders could crack. What’s for sure is that Contador will go on the attack, as he must, forcing the pace and ensuring that those not in top form will be revealed. He may be among them. Or perhaps a Schleck will crack. Or Sanchez. The one person who looks least likely to do so is Evans.

We’ll know soon.

Categories: Cycling

Cavendish Again

July 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Cavendish winning stage 15 at Montpellier

[Pascal Pavani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images]

In my post last night, I wondered how to handle the conflict this morning between a sprint stage on the Tour and the final round of the British Open golf tournament. My normal pattern is to give myself over to the Tour until the stage ends, then switch over to golf. But what a front nine Phil Mickelson was having in Sandwich! We were well into the golfing drama as today’s Tour stage neared its end. We did switch over to the Tour with about 12K left and watched it to conclusion.

A fascinating day, even if of no significance with regard to the general classification, what with 116 riders finishing in the same time. Nonetheless, as I saw just a little but heard about, Team HTC had to fight the whole length of the stage to make sure that the peloton didn’t lose contact with, and eventually reeled in, the breakaway. And then they had to set up Cavendish for the sprint finish. All of which they did perfectly in an extraordinary display of cycling teamwork.

As they neared the finish, HTC was reduced to the usual pair, Mark Renshaw leading out Cavendish. André Greipel seemed not to be in position to make a move, but Alessandro Petacchi was, and soon Tyler Farrar entered the picture. Renshaw peeled off, Cavendish made his sprint for the win, Petacchi couldn’t keep up, but suddenly there was Farrar moving up on Cavendish’s left, drawing within a wheel as Cavendish crossed the finish line for the win. An exciting finish and a win well earned.

For the record, this is Cavendish’s 4th stage victory of the Tour and 19th overall. In more detail, he won 4 stages in 2008, then 6 stages in 2009, another 5 last year, and the 4 this year. I read an interesting statistic in The Guardian’s coverage:

Cavendish is now the only man in history to have won four road stages – in other words, not including individual or team time trials – in four consecutive Tours. Not even Eddy Merckx did that. The records keep tumbling.

The Tour will have bigger business to attend to after tomorrow’s rest day, as I described last night. The ride to the Alps on Tuesday, the rides in the Alps the next three days, and the individual time trial on Saturday. But come Sunday and the closing ride into Paris, watch out again for Cavendish.

And Farrar, who seems to have some sort of beef with Cavendish and HTC. At the end of the coverage this morning, Versus got hold of Farrar for an interview and he was steaming. He could barely control his voice, but he held back from stating just what exactly he was angry about. He did mention Cavendish being kept alive in yesterday’s mountain stage, not slipping too far back to be eliminated, and there seemed to be a hint that something nefarious made this possible. Maybe it was the heat of the moment, after a difficult day and a near miss at the finish line. Whatever the issue, Farrar will want that stage win in Paris, and it may be a thrilling finish. Let’s just hope they both make it through the Alps unscathed and ride their best on Sunday.

Categories: Cycling

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