ysobelle: (Default)
So. Remember the freak wind split in the peloton the other day? The strong, buffeting crosswinds that tore the race up and whooshed a certain Astana rider from 6th to 3rd? Not so much of a freak, apparently. Just normal early-July French weather. How do I know? Well, not just because Phil and Paul have told me, but because it's just happened again.

Six riders went off the front early today, and here we are, 20 miles from the end, and they've still not been caught. And on a picturesque road at the edge of the Mediterranean, with no cover from the early-summer wind, there're now two chase groups where, half a minute before, there was one peloton.

Astana, of course, has their entire team in the front group, because they know how to read the road and the weather, and know far better than to leave themselves open to getting left behind. This team holds nine of the top eleven spots in the race, and they're not about to make stupid mistakes. They don't have a strong sprinter, they don't need to worry about keeping the way to the front clear for one of their own. They just need to get there with the peloton, and safely. Likewise, Saxobank is forming a rolling safe deposit box around Tour leader Cancellara. No one's taking any chances. No dumb mistakes. No getting left behind.

Not to say this hasn't been a Stage of Unfortunate Occurrences. The crosswinds've been a flaming bastard, and have upturned more than one rider. #46, Robert Gesink from Rabobank, seems to have gone down nastily on his left arm or hand, and he's had a teammate pace him back up to the caravan, where the Tour doctor can lean out of his white convertible and have a look at him at 50mph. Gesink's half-sitting up, cradling that arm. That is a Very Bad Sign for the rising star of the Netherlands, the rider everyone expects to do great things in the mountains. (Gesink, sadly, later abandoned when it was shown that his wrist was broken. Damn.) Tom Boonen's been through not one but two flat tires. Silence-Lotto's had yet more crashes-- thus proving their captain Cadel Evan's grim-faced damning-with-faint-praise statement that his team was made up of earnest, well-meaning kids. But this is, essentially, what happens in the first week of the Tour, when regional weather is...shall we say, fickle, riders are fresh, nerves are high, times are relatively close, and everyone's got something to prove.

2.6 miles. The lead group is down to three, but they still hold a lead of 47 seconds. They're close enough to smell the funnel cake at the finish line. Then, of course, they start attacking each other, trying to beak away. 180 miles they've worked together, but that time is over. BBox Bouygues Telecom rider Thomas Voeckler makes his move and leaves them behind. Voeckler, a Frenchman, is riding his seventh Tour. He held the Maillot Jaune for a remarkable ten days in the '04 Tour (before Armstrong took it from him to win the race), but he's never actually won a stage himself. Skil Shimano rider Albert Timmer is trying to bridge the gap to him, but while it makes for an exciting sports video long shot (thank heavens for helicopters), there's just no way. Voeckler is under the Flamme Rouge-- the red flag announcing 1000 meters to the finish. Only ten seconds separate them, but it's over. Voekler comes to the final straight. He looks behind him. He looks again. He breaks into the most incredulous grin. Timmer has been eaten up by-- surprise! the entire peloton, back together again like an Eagles reunion. Voeckler waves to the fast-gaining riders he can just see behind him down the road, close, but too far. He sits up, kisses his hands to the crowd, kisses his wedding ring, and coasts across the line, grinning, all alone, shaking his head and looking like he's just eaten the sun.

To say the French are delighted with this result is a bit like saying fire is a little warm, rain is somewhat damp, and Kabul might not be the hottest tourist destination this year. Five years ago-- to the day, no less-- Thomas Voeckler drew on the Maillot Jaune for the first time, and I remember thinking even then that there was a man who'd never pay for another drink in his home country ever again. And with typical French confidence, he later said of today's victory, "I dedicate this victory to myself, my son and my wife, who actually didn't see me win as she was returning home in a plane." He'd seem arrogant-- like we haven't seem that in a rider before-- if he didn't also say that he doesn't consider himself one of the best in the world, but he's happy with his career so far. And I would say that today, his country probably thinks he's being modest.

Tomorrow is actually All-Spain-All-The-Time. We start and end in that country (175km, from Girona to Barcelona), in an area where a good number of the Tour's riders have their European training homes. It should be interesting to see how Alberto Contador, Spanish national champion, performs on his home turf. And of course, there's been no change in the hairsbreadth difference between Armstrong and Cancellara, who both came in with the peloton and thus received the same time today. It's also our first turn in the mountains, where we start to see the great time splits between the guys who can fly up the mountain roads, and the ones you just want to reach out and grab, saying, "there, there, it'll be okay," as you gently fold them into something sensible, like a minivan. So as ever, it should be an interesting stage, and one with at least the potential for fireworks.
ysobelle: (Default)
So thanks to a fellow Tour enthusiast, I knew the score, so to speak, before I turned on the TV this afternoon. Damned day job messing up my life. But as Dave said, it's more than worth watching the stage, even if you know the outcome.

And it's true. Every day, we hear the commentary about this rider or that rider, and we tend to lose the sense that this isn't a race of individuals, it's a race of teams. Even the best rider in the world is up the creek without a strong, well-rounded team to carry him to yellow. I can't emphasis enough how important it is to have your teammates around you in a crunch: when you're in your team's slipstream, and not yourself being the windbreak, you save up to thirty percent of your energy. It it possible for a team to deliver their captain, or their sprinter, or whomever they need to win the stage, to the end of a grueling five- or six-hour stage relatively fresh, and with enough energy to pull out what seems a miracle in the final kilometer.

So each team, though it looks like nine guys on bikes doing pretty much exactly the same thing-- "Go that way, fast as you can't, don't fall down"-- is actually made up of highly-trained specialists doing what they do best. Some guys are mountain climbers. Some are sprinters. Some can push the pace on the flats. Some are domestiques: they fall back through the peloton to the team cars and get water and food for the rest of the guys, then pace back up to the team like a gravy train of one. Don't think, however, that a domestique is no more than a waterboy. This isn't the minor leagues: this is the most difficult, grueling sporting event in the world, and not only do these guys make supply runs, they still race, and do the windbreaking for everyone else. They work to control the pace of the peloton should their captain make a breakaway. They're just as much part of the engine as every other guy on the team. And it's still a team, and they all still pull together to do what needs to be done: at the Giro, it was Lance loading up on water bottles. And those bastards are heavy.

So here we are, almost at the end of the stage. It's been incredibly exciting. Saxobank started well, but they seem to be fading. BBox Bouyges Telecom lost not one but four riders on one turn. Columbia did a yeoman's job, and with Mark Cavendish pulling them by force of will over the line, they seemed to come out well. Today's WTF moment probably came when a moment's misjudgment in the Silence-Lotto team sent one rider down hard-- his bike going one way, his body going another, and team captain Cadel Evans-- mere inches behind him-- going BETWEEN the two and emerging unscathed. Garmin's made it through with the bare minimum of riders: I don't know what happened to their other riders, but they're down to the vital five. Why is five important? A team is judged not on the first rider to cross the line, but the fifth: this forces each team to stay together and work together, instead of sending their fastest rider up the road alone. Of course, on the other hand, they're not dragged down by their slowest rider, either: if one or two can't keep up, they drop off the back, and no harm done. That's dangerous, too: each rider takes a brief pull at the front, then fades back into the line. Everyone stays as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Fewer riders means everyone has to work harder. It can be a treacherous balance.

We're coming down to the line. It's bare seconds between Armstrong and Cancellara now. Six men now, teeth bared, legs pumping, faces set in grimaces of pain and determination, and they power across the line like an aqua-and-yellow machine. Could Armstrong move to Yellow? For a few moments, according to the numbers back on the road, Lance grabbed the top spot. But has he kept it? Cancellara's team, Saxobank, was so much slower at one point, but they picked up after the last time check. Was it enough? Did Lance make up the 40-second deficit? Yes-- yes, he has! But did he make up the additional tenths or hundredths of a second to get him into the Maillot Jaune? Can it be? Do we know? Aaaaand...it's a commercial break.

I'm thinking about the future of Astana, now, as I wait for the results. There are some big changes coming. Alberto Contador almost certainly will be out the door as soon as he can pack his bags. He's still young, incredibly strong, and no rider who's won the Tour de France will be content playing second-fiddle on his own team. Also, this team's been screwed around with enough by their main sponsor: Kazakhstan is not paying their bills reliably. Next year, rumours say, it'll probably be Team LiveSTRONG.

So now...ah, man. Team trophies have been given, with commentators Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett still not knowing who's getting Yellow today. The Astana boys line up for their team victory award, tossing their brilliant red, white, and blue bouquets into the crowd. Lance deliberately places himself in the back row-- he knows he'll get all the attention tonight anyway, and this is about the team, not him. But will he come out again to get the Maillot Jaune? And surprise! Fabian Cancellara comes out! He's grinning, and holding up his fingers a fraction apart. He knows today came down to tenths, if not hundredths, of a second. (And is that ben Stiller handing him the ubiquitous stuffed lion?) Race officials had to go back to the fist stage's Time Trial to figure it out. In fact, as the final standings come up, Lance is listed as being 0.00 seconds behind. So small a difference, they don't even put it on the main screen.

So it's absolutely neck-and-neck, now. If Lance decides to attack tomorrow, I don't know if Cancellara can hold him off. But it's not a given: Lance is absolutely the kind of rider to make a powerful statement on the bike, and taking yellow is the most powerful statement a rider can make. But this early in the race, it's not always sensible to grab and keep the lead-- if you even can. The Maillot Jaune, it's been said many times, makes riders take risks they might not normally, and possibly shouldn't. It also makes you the target of every team's attack. But it's been a long, long time since this man was eligible to win the White Jersey of the Best Young Rider. This is a guy who's won this thing seven times. He knows exactly what he's doing, every single time. If anyone could handle painting a big yellow target on his back, it's him. And, really, not like it wasn't there the minute he announced he was coming out of retirement.

Tomorrow, then, will be absolutely electric. It's the last flat stage before the first set of mountains, the Pyrenees. There's no way of knowing who'll be on the podium at the end of the day tomorrow. And after the mountains, it'll be the same "Anything goes!" again. I may just have to tell the day job I can't come in the rest of the month.

Oh, and a bit of digging has revealed just how close Cancellara's lead is. You ready for this?

220 milliseconds.

Daaaamn.
ysobelle: (Default)
So today, at last, I'm enough into the groove to really hang on the television coverage. Watching The Tour is, for me, a little like watching Shakespeare: the first ten minutes or so, I'm getting into the rhythm of the speech, and not really following the plot. This year, though, I'm up to speed a little faster-- probably because I spent those weeks with the Giro, and because I've spent so much time following other races and cycling news in general. This year, by G-d, I was ready!

I'm watching coverage of the third stage now. The peloton's been battling a nasty crosswind for a while now, and chasing a four-man breakaway. Nearly to the end, unsurprisingly, the breakaway got gobbled up-- but not by the peloton. Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the terrain and the wind, 23 or so men went off the front with their own breakaway and overtook them. The entire Columbia/Highroad team is there, intent on delivering their man, and yesterday's stage winner, Mark Cavendish, to the line. They've already been warned from the team car to stay to the right and keep him out of the wind that's tearing the rest of the peloton apart. But who else is in this breakaway? Race leader Fabian Cancellara. Sprinter Thor Hushovd. And, with teammate Gregory Rast, Lance Armstrong.

These 30 (?) men are NOT fucking around. They know exactly what will happen to the overall standings if this breakaway, currently at 35 seconds, stays away or even manages to increase a few seconds. Tomorrow is the Team Time Trial-- a very exciting event we haven't seen the Tour in years. If Astana does well-- and they're already the leading team in the race-- this will possibly put Armstrong into the Maillot Jaune. Of course, anything could happen in the mountains. That's when the whole race goes into a blender, and whatever happened on the flats goes out the window. But Contador's not as good in the mountains as Armstrong. As it is, if this continues these last few kilometers, Armstrong will leap from tenth to third. In other words, if anyone doubted that Lance is in it to win it, well, today's your answer.

Final sprint. Columbia's pushing hard. Hushovd can't get around-- no, it's Mark Cavendish yet again! What the heck-- is this his eight-millionth Tour Stage win? And the peloton comes in 39 seconds later-- yes, Armstrong leaps up to third.

I can't say this is specifically by design. I can't say that all the selfless and gracious Armstrong/Contador mutual support's been a front-- I honestly think it was genuine. That it IS genuine. But I think it's foolish for anyone to have expected Lance to show he's in top form, and then expect him to acquiesce to second-place in a race he decisively controlled for seven years. I noticed the language of the team changed the last week, from coach Johan Bruyneel saying Lance would be third man to hearing he pretty much flipped a coin to see who'd get #21 and who'd get #22. Even Levi Leipheimer's been especially, carefully neutral-- though that's not unusual for him, with his excellent manners and sense of professionalism.

What it's going to come down to, I'm sure, is simple: no one's going to need to say anything. These men are going to do all their talking on their bikes, and we'll see who the team leader is in black and white every afternoon.

Tomorrow, an always-exciting, long-missed event: a team time trial: the first since 2005. As the cliche goes, anything can happen, and usually does. This should be good.

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