Sunday, August 12, 2007
LIGHT AT THE END OF THE DOPING TUNNEL? Believe it or not, the revelations of a few dopers in this year’s Tour de France (Alexandre Vinokourov, Cristian Moreni, Iban Mayo) went a long way to drain doping of its viability even for the stealthiest of cyclists. It’s become harder and harder to dope under the radar (Michael Rasmussen left the TdF "guilty by avoidance" of pre-race anti-doping tests). Doping’s also become unacceptable to more and more cyclists and teams. High profile doping exposures have toppled some once-thought great riders (Ivan Basso, Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ullrich). I won’t be surprised if a few more recognizable riders are implicated and banned. In the long run, cycling is cleaning up its act in a strong move toward integrity. Let's see some American-oriented professional sports do the same (MLB, NFL, etc.)!
DISCOVERY CHANNEL TEAM SUNSETS. Can you believe that the team that Lance Armstrong built, that won the Tour de France 9 of the past 10 years, that won the Tour de France this year and placed two riders on the podium in Paris, will call it quits at the end of this season? Tailwind sports had U.S. Postal Service as its main sponsor until four years ago, when Discovery Channel picked up the $45 million + per year tab. Discovery Channel announced in February that it is ending its sponsorship and team leaders have been unsuccessful in finding a new American or international sponsor. Can this be chalked up to a year's worth of ugly revelations of doping among top pro cyclists? I think so. So, the only American-based team in the elite Pro Tour cycling circuit is gone. Sigh! So, 27 of the world’s best cyclists, including a number of Americans, will be looking for jobs come October...or sooner.
HELLO, SLIPSTREAM! The good news is that another American-based team is on the horizon. Former top-notch cyclist Jonathan Vaughters, a Tour de France veteran, has been coaching and building Team Slipstream to European-level respect. He’s signed American Tour de France veterans David Zabriskie and Christian VandeVelde, along with Scotsman David Millar. Other internationally-respected riders are lining up. Importantly, Team Slipstream has established model anti-doping procedures and ethical guidelines that will likely become a model for all of professional cycling--something that is critical for the future of competitive cycling. Team Slipstream may eventually fill the void left by Discovery Channel in ProTour competition. We may even see Slipstream at next year’s Tour de France!
VUELTA a ESPANA, ANYONE? Anyone up for one more cycling epic this year? The Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain) begins September 1st. The triple crown of road cycling includes the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a Espana. All are three-week epics that include the elements of bike racing we witnessed in the Tour de France—grueling time trials, breathtaking breakaways, epic climbs, harrowing bunch sprints, terrible crashes, incredible beauty, and great fans. All are ultimate tests for the complete cyclist, pushing the limits of human capability. Unfortunately, the Giro and Vuelta are somewhat less of an international field; they tend to feature and favor sons of their own respective nations
HOW TO TUNE IN TO THE VUELTA. Also unfortunately, the tours of Italy and Spain are not available on American TV. But the Vuelta a Espana can be followed with online TV (http://www.cycling.tv/) and by live minute-by-minute updates on http://www.cyclingnews.com/ or http://www.velonews.com/. I don't think I'll blog the Vuelta daily, but I hope to offer a few updates and highlights, particularly if an American is among the contenders (okay, that's my bias).
CAN THEY STILL WIN ALL THREE? Historically, the greatest winners of the Tour de France also raced--and won--the tours of Italy and Spain, riders like Bernard Hinault and Jacque Anqetil. But not recently. As the demands of today’s racing have increased (speed averages, degrees of difficulty), the toll of riding all three epics prevents most top riders from attempting all three. Lance Armstrong never attempted to win the tours of Spain or Italy, focusing, instead, only on the crown jewel of cycling. I wonder if Alberto Contador, a son of Spain and this year’s Tour de France winner, will try to ride and win the Vuelta? Find out more about the Vuelta here or check back here on tdf-bikehiker for links to the Vuelta a Espana.
SEPTEMBER: MY OWN RETURN TO BIKING. Personally, I just hope to be back on a bike in September. All summer, I have been jealous even of kids on banana-seat bikes in our neighborhood. But an MRI on September 5 will determine whether or not my torso torture chamber--er, brace (helping to keep me still while 17 fractures suffered in really bad MTB accident in June)--comes off and I am cleared to move toward physical re-conditioning. I have a goal of riding the Hilly Hundred in October, so that will just give me about a month to tune up. The Hilly is not a race, of course, but it is 100 miles of plenty of heart-pumping climbs around southern Indiana. It's a fun ride over two days and manageable by most half-serious cyclists. Get in on it at http://www.cibaride.org/.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
UNFORGETTABLE MOMENTS. But I'm going to name what are, for me, the Top Ten Moments of this edition of the Tour de France. It won't include the downers or the feats accomplished by the apparent dopers. I'll expand more on these as I have time:
1. The Prologue in London. A beautiful day on a grand stage before 2 million Britons. London was a grand village departe. In the photo, Scottsman David Millar rides past Big Ben. They've got to do this again...soon!
2. Alberto Contador putting Michael Rasmussen to the test with repeated attacks in the Alps and Pyrenees. The 24-year old Spaniard emerged as the dominant climber among the contenders...and had enough in the ITT to seal the overall victory.
3. Fabian Cancellara (in photo) winning Stage 2 in the Yellow Jersey, blasting past the sprinters to beat them at their game. Not only did Cancellara win the Prologue and Stage 2, he carried the Yellow Jersey into the Alp mountains before yielding it. After that, he worked hard for his CSC.
4. Robbie McEwen coming back from a crash in Stage 1 to beat the sprinters to the line. The old Aussie still has it in him to hang with the young guns, at least when he's healthy. His injuries from his crash in Stage 1 took their toll, but he would not abandon the race.
5. Levi Leipheimer's incredible Individual Time Trial in the penultimate Stage 19. He saved the best for last and sealed his place on the podium in Paris. Leipheimer proved a lot to naysayers and underestimaters this year.
6. German rookie Linus Gerdemann winning the first stage in the Alps. It was the ride of his young life. Let's hope we see more mountain gallops (back to back) by this outspoken anti-doper.
7. Daniele Bennati's two stage wins. The Italian won the first one as the only sprinter in a breakaway. He won Stage 20 on the Champs-Elysees surrounded by the best sprinters in the world on the biggest cycling stage in the world.
8. Discovery Channel's teamwork and Johann Bruyneel's strategies throughout the weeks. After a dismal showing last year, the Disco boys made their own post-Lance impression on the Tour. May they find a good, new sponsor and keep fueling American cycling hopes.
9. Tom Boonen and QuickStep's dominance in the sprint finishes. The best, hands down. You were surprised if Boonen or one of his boys didn't win a sprint at the line.
10. Robbie Hunter, Mauricio Soler, and South Africa's Team Barloworld for their effort and accomplishments as a wild card team. I hope they're back next year.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Get full race results and wrap -up at Cyclingnews
WHY EVANS DIDN'T CHALLENGE CONTADOR. For Americans, that's hard to imagine. We see every stage of a race as an opportunity to compete. It doesn't matter what happened in history, if there's still a chance to win a race, go for it! The Australian may have been thinking the same way, but Cadel also had to consider that if he tried to breakaway, Contador's Discovery Channel team would check and counter his every move. With rainy weather closing in, the risk of losing it all must have been considered too high.
SPRINTERS DUKE IT OUT. Of course the sprinters did not hold anything back once the course entered Paris. The final circuits around the Champs-Elysees saw the sprinters jockey for position and set up a bunch sprint finish. Italian Daniele Bennati held off Eric Zable and Robbie Hunter at the finish line to win his second stage of this Tour de France. After the dust settled in the points contest, Belgian Tom Boonen became the new sprint champion and claimed the last Green Jersey.
RELIEF ON THE CHAMPS-ELYSEES. I can't imagine the relief most of the cyclists must have felt to roll across the finish line today. Relief! A three-week long epic that saw three cyclists and two teams abandon the Tour because of doping issues must have worn them down emotionally as it did physically. Let's hope we don't have another Tour this tumultuous.
CONTADOR DESERVES THE WIN. Alberto "Kid" Contador (here with Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel) demonstrated the balance that is needed in a Tour de France champion. Solid in the time trials. Safe in the flat stages. Strong in the mountains. Steady in the last week. Cooperative with team strategy. I thought Evans would beat him in the Stage 19 individual time trial, but he rode that "test of truth" with inspiration. At age 24, the Spaniard becomes one of the youngest Tour champions in many years. He's the first Spanish champion since the great Miguel Indurain. Does Contador have four more wins in him?
EVANS NEXT YEAR. Cadel Evans is the runner up by just 23 seconds. So close! The Australian did everything right and elevated the standing and hopes of Australian cycling. He will continue to improve and his team will continue to improve in order to give him more help in the mountains. I hope he wins the Tour de France next year.
AMERICAN INSPIRATION. Third-place Levi Leipheimer (on right in photo) deserves a place on the podium. His incredible ride yesterday in the individual time trial proved his abilities and erased doubts of many--perhaps even his own. And that could set him up for being a potential race winner next year. Levi's placement is good for American cycling and the strength of the Discovery Channel team is also encouraging for American bicycle racing development.
PLEASE, GET RID OF DOPING. All of this is wonderful and all of this critically threatened by the continuing specter of doping. This is a problem that needs to be addressed and solved ASAP--long before the next Tour de France comes around. In 2008, the biggest stage of bicycle racing needs to be completely clean. In addition, the sanctioning bodies and anti-coping entities need to show complete cooperation to end doping in the sport. I think the riders are the critical voices and component in making this happen. I hope they assert their will in this important challenge.
VUELTA, ANYONE? Are you up for one more cycling epic this year? The Vuelta a Espana begins September 1st. That is, the Tour of Spain. The triple crown of road cycling includes the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a Espana. All three are three-week epics that include all the elements of bike racing we witnessed in the Tour de France. Unfortunately, the tours of Italy and Spain are not available on American TV, but can be followed online. Historically, the greatest winners of the Tour de France raced the tours of Italy and Spain. As the caliber of racing has increased, the toll of riding all three competitively prevents most top riders from attempting all three. I wonder if Contador will try to ride and win the Vuelta? Find out more about the Vuelta here.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'. Going into this penultimate stage, I was thinking primarily about how Cadel Evans would likely overtake Alberto Contador for the Yellow Jersey by just a few seconds. I was not thinking that Levi Leipheimer would ride a significantly faster time trial than the Australian. I was not thinking he could erase a 2-minute 49-second gap between himself and Contador. But the Californian stole the show. What an inspired 55.5-kilometer ride clocked at an average of 32.99 mph.
1-2-3 FINISH. Result? Levi wins his first stage of the Tour de France and solidifies an honored place on the podium in Paris tomorrow. Contador (in photo) lost time to both Evans and Leipheimer, but holds on to a 23-second lead over Evans and a 31-second edge over Leipheimer. With this ride, Leipheimer came within 8 seconds of moving into second place and just over half a minute from the Yellow Jersey. Incredible!
CLOSEST EVER TdF FINISH. If neither Evans (in photo) nor Leipheimer pull a fast one tomorrow, it will be the closest 1-2-3 finish in the history of the Tour de France. If the Australian or American decide to contest for the tour championship in Stage 20, the final times could be even closer. Levi won't challenge, for sure; he won't try to upstage his 24-year old Discovery Channel teammate. But if I were in Cadel Evans' shoes, just 23 seconds out of the championship... it may not be just the sprinters who are jockeying for points on the Champs-Elysees.
PARIS ON THE HORIZON. For all the disappointment due to doping and deception in this edition of the Tour de France, today did not disappoint. All 141 cyclists rode themselves that much closer to Paris. Some, like Leipheimer, left everything they had on the road--a complete kenosis. Leipheimer may not stand at the pinacle of the podium in Paris, but he proved today that he belongs on the podium--no doubt about it.
Friday, July 27, 2007
SHOW ME YOUR PASSPORT STAMP. Rasmussen told a Danish news outlet on Thursday that an entire Mexican village could atest to his whereabouts in June. Some have suggested that he simply produce the passport stamp indicating his location in Mexico in June. That seems logical.
THE LAST STRAW. But even a stamped passport is not the issue, really. Whether or not Rasmussen admitted to his Rabobank team director that he was not in Mexico or that he was in Italy (where a former professional cyclist and now TV commentator claims he saw him), the team director and Rabobank apparently felt like Rasmussen's pattern of evasion, deception and misleading had gone beyond reasonable levels of trust. Team personnel and the lawyer who defended Rasmussen to the hilt during a Tuesday rest day press conference were no longer defending him Wednesday evening after his June whereabouts were further called into question. Rasmussen was withdrawn from the Tour de France by his own team and later fired.
VIVA LE TOUR! Lots of signs and banners reading "Viva le Tour!" A great show of passion by the people for the race that has been marred by doping revelations and the removal of the wearer of the Yellow Jersey. Some French newspapers are saying the Tour is dead, but the fans are certainly taking a different perspective.
TEST OF TRUTH. Again today, the peloton didn't care to reel in the four escapees. The peloton finished over seven minutes behind Casar and company. The riders conserved their energies for tomorrow's individual time trial, what commentators are calling "the test of truth." We'll see if Cadel Evans or Levi Leipheimer can unseat young Alberto Contador from his hold on the Yellow Jersey. Ironic that the ITT should be called "the test of truth" because the last person who won a TdF ITT turned out to be a doper. The test of truth for Vinokourov came in the form an after-stage drug test.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
CYCLING IS PARTLY SPIRITUAL. This is one reason I ride--to process things, to get perspective, to bring things that are troubling me into focus, to bring the things that seem to loom large down to size. My cycling jaunts around and outside of Indianapolis are not merely recreational, they are spiritual. There's more than a bit of simple and sophisticated contemplation on life that goes on while I pedal through the streets and countryside. Cyclists don't just ride for recreation or competition; they ride as a way of expressing and processing life. So, I think today's Stage represented that processing a bit more than usual. Not an ordinary day at the office.
MENCHOV'S DECISION. Denis Menchov must have come to some conclusions during his ride today. The Rabobank rider from Russia entered this Tour de France as his team's leader; he could have contended for the Yellow Jersey. But he was relegated to ride for Michael Rasmussen after Stage 8. Since then he's been working hard as a domestique. And for what? So, while Menchov started today's stage, about half way through he stepped off his bike, gave up his numbers, and got into his team car. For him, it must seem like there is nothing left to ride for this year. Such is the impact of cheating. He'll need time, but he'll be back.
BREAKAWAY STAYED AWAY. A breakaway got away and stayed away today. The peloton didn't seem to have the heart or motivation to chase it down. The four riders grabbed some glory for themselves and their sponsors and the top sprinters still had some points to chase for as the peloton pulled into the destination town. Italian Daniele Bennati won the stage (in Lampre pink in the photo). A similar scenario could occur tomorrow. Contenders are saving themselves for the individual time trial, the sprinters are grabbing points as they can, and the pack is pedaling in a bit of a fog that we can only hope will lift before they pour onto the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
END OR NEW BEGINNING? It's hard to fathom how the past 48 hours has changed this Tour de France, or professional cycling. Some are saying it is the death of the sport. Others are saying it is the birth pangs of its renewal--a difficult renewal that bears new commitments and accountability for clean riding. I was glad to see so many folks from France and all over the world along the roadways today. They seemed quite positively animated, in good humor even (as in this photo) in a different mood than the booing we saw and heard yesterday. Who knows, this may well be the beginning of a new era.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Here's the Cyclingnews story.
Wow. Like David Millar said about Vinokourov's doping and Tour departure yesterday (was that just yesterday?): "I'm speechless." Well, not for very long.
NEW TOP THREE. Well...that moves 24-year old Spaniard Alberto Contador into the Yellow Jersey, Australian Cadel Evans into 2nd, and American Levi Leipheimer in to 3rd.
STEADY EDDIE. I've said several times that Leipheimer is going to be a podium finisher by attrition, if nothing else. So, there you go. Levi hasn't won a stage (unless Rasmussen is stripped of today's stage win, which I doubt) or been with the stage winner, but he's never been far behind. No flash. No Lance dance. He's just there as a top-notch cyclist. He deserves a podium (top 3) finish.
AUSSIE CHAMP? And atop that podium will likely be...Cadel Evans. He is the superb time trial rider of all contenders. He should win Stage 19 by several minutes over Contador and Leipheimer and ride into Paris the champion...
...unless we have ANOTHER revelation.
AUSTRALIAN POSSIBILITIES. But Cadel Evans...that's another story. Checking the results of last year's results of the two TdF Individual Time Trials, Australian Cadel Evans (photo) finished about 5 minutes faster than Michael Rasmussen of Denmark in each. That's about the current time differential between 3rd-place Evans and Rasmussen with four stages remaining in the 2007 Tour de France. Hmmm...
TIGHTER THIS YEAR. However, this year Cadel finished just over 100 seconds ahead of Michael in the Albi ITT last week. That's enough to vault him into second place, but short of what's needed to take over the Yellow Jersey.
X-FACTORS. Take out the rainy weather factor, does Cadel ride better? Examine the terrain of Stage 19; which rider does it favor? It is 55.5 kilometers, a bit shorter than the Albi ITT. Will Cadel ride win, risking a crash for the sake of gaining the Yellow Jersey? Will Michael ride to preserve, hoping to protect his advantage? Will the doping cloud over Michael finally take an emotional/morale toll on him? Or will it just anger him to an inspired ride? I wonder...
THEY SPENT THEMSELVES. And it looks like every contender threw himself onto these mountains. Each team worked hard for its leaders. Each rider drove himself heroically. On the last few kilometers of the Col de Aubisque the last of the contenders spent themselves. "It was the hardest day of the Tour de France I've ever ridden," said an exhausted Levi Leipheimer (in center of photo). It sure looked that way.
1, 4, 2, 3, 5. Result? Michael Rasmussen pedaled across the finish line first, followed by Discovery Channel teammates Levi Leipheimer (23 seconds later) and Alberto Contador, then Cadel Evans, then Carlos Sastre--who are placed 1, 4, 2, 3, and 5 respectively. Though they tried, none of these could break Rasmussen on the climb. He survived.
CHICKEN STILL IN YELLOW. The Chicken looks like the best climber, albeit a man with a cloud of suspicion of doping hanging heavy over him, a man who the Tour de France director said yesterday "should never been allowed to enter the race" because of his suspicious pre-race behavior regarding doping (reported only after the race was well underway), a man who has been dropped from his Danish national team, a man who was booed at the start, finish, and all along the way of Stage 16 (photo), and a man who may well wear the Yellow Jersey into Paris on Sunday.
CLEAN TEAMS PROTEST. Before the start of Stage 16, some French and German teams staged a protest (photo). These teams are coming together to form a coalition of teams for clean racing. They vow to make accountability comprehensive, transparent and a priority for the sake of restoring integrity to the sport. Ironically, at the conclusion of the stage, a member of the Cofidis team was ousted from the Tour for testing positive for exogenous testosterone in a random test administered at the end of Stage 11. Christian Moreni is gone...so is the entire Cofidis squad. Such is the nature of the cycling game right now. By the way, show me ANY other professional sport that is doing that!
WHAT'S AHEAD. Barring very strange happenings (and some very strange things have happened in this edition of the Tour de France), the next two stages are predictable. Both are long, flat rides northward in the direction of Paris. All the contenders will hide in the peloton and conserve energy for the last individual time trial on Saturday. Breakaways and sprinters will rule on Thursday and Friday. It will be a day of glory for a few. But the final showdown will occur on Saturday. Will Cadel Evans or Levi Leipheimer or Alberto Contador be able to dislodge the Chicken from his grasp on the Yellow Jersey?
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
You provided us quite a show. We all picked you as a favorite to win this Tour de France. We pulled for you after you crashed. We celebrated your time trial. We were disappointed when you fell behind in Stage 14. And we were amazed at your tenacity to comeback and win Stage 15; a great consolation prize, we said.
Now we know one of the reasons for your resilience. Was that tenacity and power really yours, or was it the blood transfusions you were receiving? We'll never know. Neither will you, since you apparently chose to cheat and deceive...and got caught.
Enjoy your retirement.
P.S. Please, as you leave the Tour de France in shock and shambles, do your best to challenge all other cyclists who are cheating to come clean right now. This is an opportune time. Let the professional cycling house be completely swept clean--right here and now. Challenge those who looked up to you or who were complicit with you to 'fess up. That's one redemptive thing you could for the sport, don't you think?
Monday, July 23, 2007
INJURIES & TIME. Most riders abandon because of injuries. Some of these wounded warriors soldier on as long as they can. Some cyclists are disqualified because they cannot finish the stage within the allowable time. This is typical of pure sprinters during the toughest mountain stages. This happened to Robbie McEwen during the Alps, though he was already suffering from his Stage 1 injuries. I can't imagine the disappointment of being in either situation. Maybe next year, gentlemen...
A WORD ABOUT DOPING. To boost their high effort and to give them any possible advantage, some cyclists choose--or are seduced--to incorporate unapproved or banned power-boosting substances or methods in their training and preparation regimen. Oxygen-enriched blood and testosterone produces more power and endurance. Some riders who choose to use drug test-avoiding tactics or lab-masking substances or other unethical advantages will still not have enough power to be among the race leaders. But some cheaters who are also exceptionally gifted will win stages and be among the race leaders because of the extra advantage their deception gives them.
IT'S NOT JUST CYCLING. Such doping occurs in numerous sports, not just cycling. It is because cycling is trying hard--if not hardest of all professional sports--to wipe out doping that cheaters and cheating techniques are such a big deal. EPO, blood transfusions, bovine blood products, etc. can make the average well-disciplined athlete perform better and above-average well-disciplined athlete perform great. But it demolishes any concept of a level playing field.
GAMES THAT ARE PLAYED. There is a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse going on, as well as games of "everyone's doing it," "witch hunt, " and "let's be fair-handed." Cat-and-mouse is the game played by "physicians" who develop and distribute performance enhancing formulas that cannot be detected by existing blood and urine tests. "Everyone's doing it" is the athlete's choice to dope to simply level the playing field in the knowledge or suspicion that a competitor is doping. "Witch hunt" is the game played by anti-doping authorities that cry foul at anything mildly questionable in cyclists or team behaviors or tests (lab testing is NOT an undisputably exact science, which is why a balance of testing and accountability methods need to be incorporated). "Let's be fair-handed" is the game played by cyclists and teams who suspect drug-testing procedures, tests, labs, methods, and intent of anti-doping authorities.
A DESTRUCTIVE CIRCUS. It's a bit of a circus, actually; a circus that if continued will eventually destroy professional and amateur athletic competition. For now, around again we go...hoping for the best.
FOR THE RECORD: All cyclists thus far controlled (or drug tested) during this year's Tour de France are evidently "negative" for use of banned subtances. But, of course, that's what we were told as last year's Tour proceeded...until that after-race surprise regarding Floyd Landis.
CONTADOR & RASMUSSEN. The severest stage to date did not much rattle the contenders. Alberto Contador tried hard to shake Michael Rasmussen during the final kilometers of the stage, but the Yellow Jersey Dane doggedly followed the outstanding young Spaniard all the way to the line. Both put time between themselves and the other contenders, who finished in a group about a minute later--Cadel Evans, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, etc.
HINCAPIE. Again, American George Hincapie rode well, finishing third on the stage. Has there ever been a better contributor to Tour champions and contenders?
DISCOVERY. Again, the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team rode well, with Contador, Hincapie, and Leipheimer among the stage's top finishers. Hopefully, Disco's goals for the Tour will be reached: (1) Alberto Contador as the best young rider, the White Jersey--he's been wearing it for days; (2) a stage win--achieved by Contador a few days ago; and (3) a podium finish--a top-three finish is possible for both Contador and Levi Leipheimer. Not bad for a "rebuilding" team that is also looking desperately for a new sponsor, eh?
WATCH FOR WEDNESDAY FIREWORKS. Tomorrow's a well-deserved rest day. It's needed to recover from two herculean stages and to prepare for the next monster mountain stage. Rasmussen may be wearing the Yellow Jersey, but I don't think he's got the race in hand. Still, the opportunities for Cadel Evans, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden to reduce his lead before Saturday's race-defining individual time trial are now very few. Watch for fireworks on Wednesday.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
DISCOVERY CHANNEL IN CHARGE. Can you say "Team?" How about Discovery Channel? Wow! They set a tepid pace the blew up the peloton. In a charge reminiscent of the Armstrong years, George Hincapie sacrificed himself on the mountain for the sake of his team members. They launched skyward on the Plateau-de-Beille, drawing the race contenders into a duke-it-out free-for-all. When the dust cleared, Alberto Contador (in photo) was sitting on top of the heap with a stage win over Michael Rasmussen, and Levi Leipheimer had leap-frogged into fourth place overall. Yaroslav Popovych wasn't far behind. Contador is now in second place overall and he's on his way to a top-three finish if he doesn't have a bad day.
KLODEN HANGING IN. Astana, which shined on Saturday, took major hits on Sunday. Now in 5th place, Andreas Kloden is still in the hunt, but his climbing companions didn't or couldn't help him much and he lost time to Rasmussen.
AUSTRALIAN HOPES ALIVE. Australian Cadel Evans arrived at the top of the Plateau-de-Beille 1'12" after Leipheimer and dropped into third place overall behind Contador. Evans, whom I think will win the Tour, is now 3'04" behind Rasmussen. If Evans can close some of that gap in the next two mountain stages, he'll be poised to beat Rasmussen in the Individual Time Trial on Saturday.
DO THEY HAVE ANYTHING LEFT? Do any of these guys have anything left in their legs? Today seemed like they left it all on the mountain. They've got to be spent. And yet the toughest stage is tomorrow -- two Category 2, two Category 1 and one Beyond Category (toughest) climbs. And then another monster mountain day after Tuesday's rest day.
EVANS AND LEIPHEIMER. I'm pulling for Evans and Leipheimer tomorrow. Given the corroborated evidence implicating Rasmussen in doping, I no longer consider him legitimate, even if he miraculously hangs in for a win (in this case "miracle" would be spelled "c-h-e-a-t-i-n-g"). Evans wants the Yellow Jersey in Paris very much. Leipheimer is intensely committed to a podium finish, too. These two riders, in their own unique ways, have the tenacity and steadiness to reach their goals.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
EVANS INTO SECOND. Australian Cadel Evans, placing second, moved his way up to second place in the overall standings and now sits just one minute behind Michael Rasmussen. Rasmussen rode the best time trial of his life to hang on to the Yellow Jersey for a little while longer.
AMERICAN INTO FIFTH. American Levi Leipheimer improved his overall position from 9th to 5th with a solid time trial. He benefitted from poor performances by Iban Mayo, Alejandro Valverde, and Carlos Sastre. Leipheimer is now just 3 minutes and 35 seconds out of first place.
DISCOVERY CHANNEL LOOKING GOOD. American-based Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team now has riders in 3rd and 5th place in the chase for the Yellow Jersey. Alberto Contador placed 7th and Levi Leipheimer finished 9th in today's time trial while other contenders turned in slower performances. Contador is 2'31" off the lead and Leipheimer is one minute behind him. Yaroslav Popovych, Vladimir Gusev and George Hincapie also finished well today.
NEXT TWO DAYS. The Individual Time Trial shook things up among the contenders but did not displace Michael Rasmussen as the Tour leader. He survived, but his lead is reduced to one minute. The mountain stages on Sunday and Monday now loom large for all the contenders. The Pyrenees will keep things very interesting at the top, which seems to me now to be a five-man hunt (Rasmussen, Evans, Contador, Kloden, and Leipheimer) with a few wild cards like Vinokourov, Valverde, and Mayo still able to crash the party.
Friday, July 20, 2007
SUSPENDED BY DENMARK CYCLING ORGANIZATION. On Thursday evening, the Danish Cycling Federation announced that they were suspending Michael Rasmussen from representing Denmark in the world championships in the fall and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Why? For not turning in his travel itinerary as required (for the purposes of carrying out random anti-doping tests) in a timely manner. Rasmussen could not be found for two such anti-doping tests because UCI officials did not know his whereabouts.
WHY NOW? The Danish cycling officials knew of this problem at the end of June yet permitted him to ride in the Danish national championship race then chose to announce his suspension at this particular time. Why now, in the middle of the Tour de France when he is wearing the Yellow Jersey? Is it an insult to the Tour de France, which is trying it utmost to cooperate with UCI and WADA to wipe out doping? Was Rasmussen coyly dodging UCI doping controls or was he just negligent? Has Rasmussen passed the blood and urine tests that have been administered throughout the Tour de France? Is this a smear, a witch hunt, or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop?
2002 DOPING STORY SURFACES. In addition, VeloNews is reporting a story today that squarely implicates Rasmussen in past doping activities. A friend and once-competitive cyclist related a detailed, corroborated story to VeloNews that Rasmussen tried to trick him into carrying a cycling shoe box full of blood doping substances from the United States to Europe in 2002. Asked about the story today, Rasmussen admitted to knowing the man but would not comment further about the shoe box situation. So, is it true? If so, what does Michael have to say for himself?
CYCLISTS: DEMAND ACCOUNTABILITY. It seems to me that it's time for the Tour de France participants themselves to demand answers. I suggest that all the riders stage a sit-down boycott at the start of Stage 13 until Rasmussen clearly tells them what's really going on. If the Tour de France and the integrity of professional cycling is to be restored, it won't be by Christian Prudhomme and ASO. It won't be thru UCI and WADA. It won't be thru the press. It will be restored by the cyclists themselves who demand truth and accountability from each other.
STOP THE RACE. So, cyclists, stop the race! Don't mount your bikes. Demand answers from Rasmussen. Don't let him wear the Yellow Jersey one more day until you are satisfied the whole truth is told. Don't get on your bike until either you're satisfied that the Yellow Jersey is innocent of doping or that he is guilty of it. If he's innocent, ride boldly. If he's guilty, don't ride until he adandons the Tour you love. It's come down to this. I don't think anything less will save the sport.
SOME WHO WEREN'T BORED. I'm sure it wasn't boring for the two escapees. Or for any rider in the peloton just hoping to remain safe and conserve something for the Individual Time Trial tomorrow and the Pyrenees mountains ahead. Or for Boonen and his boys, who've claimed three of the sprint finishes within their squad. Or for sprinters Eric Zabel and Robbie Hunter, who were at the line with Boonen, and who are now within striking distance of the Green Jersey.
RASMUSSEN ON THE HOT SEAT. And it certainly wasn't boring for Yellow Jersey wearer Michael Rasmussen, who had all day to think various thoughts about the Danish cycling officials suspending him from national competition at this particular moment in time because he did not properly turn in his spring travel schedule (for purposes of availability for random drug testing) last month. Some are saying it is mean-spirited and intended to harm the Tour de France. On the other hand, VeloNews is reporting a story today that squarely implicates Rasmussen in past doping activities. Here we go again...?
I LOVE YA, TOMORROW. But this, above all other such transitional stages, was a lull before the storm. The storm begins tomorrow. Tomorrow's Individual Time Trial will shake up the Tour. And whoever remains in contention at the end of Stage 13 will be sorely tested and attacked by all others over the next three mountain stages. Today was a quiet day at the office. Tomorrow it's every cyclist for himself. Today was uninspiring. Tomorrow...hang on to your helmets.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
HOW THEY FARED IN 2006. So, I just did a bit of checking on how the current contenders fared in last year's two Individual Time Trials. Last year's ITT's were 52 km and 54 km rides. Combining the results (and, trust me, there may be error in my adding and subtracting hours and minutes, but it's relatively close), here's some of our current contenders' combined 2006 TdF ITT times, starting with the fastest and showing the deficits from there. 2007 contenders current place in the GC is in ( ):
(2) Andreas Kloden 2 hrs. 11 min. 52 sec.
(13) Oscar Pereiro 2.14.48 -2'56" behind Kloden's time
(4) Cadel Evans 2.14.58 -3'06"
(18) Denis Menchov 2.15.44 -3'52"
(6) Carlos Sastre 2.16.11 -4'19"
(14) Christophe Moreau 2.17.01 -6'19"
(9) Levi Leipheimer 2.21.35 -9'43"
(10) Mikel Aztarloza 2.21.52 -10'00"
(1) Michael Rasmussen 2.24.48 -12'56"
HOW THEY FARED WITHOUT COMPLETING. A few of this year's contenders started last year's Tour but weren't around for the first or second Individual Time Trial. Some didn't ride in last year's Tour. Here's how they've fared in TdF ITT situations in the past:
(2) Alejandro Valverde - finished 5th in the 2006 Prologue, 4.49 behind Thor Hushovd's winning time. Valverde crashed out of the 2006 Tour before reaching the first ITT. He abandoned before the 2005 TdF ITT, too.
(3) Iban Mayo -5.36 behind the Stage winner for 82nd place in the first 2006 ITT. Mayo abandoned the Tour before the second ITT. Mayo is a past podium finisher, however.
(5) Alberto Contador - did not race in the 2006 TdF, but finished in the top five in the 2005 Prologue, 1.51 behind the winner. He finished the 2005 ITT -6.12 behind the stage winner -- Lance Armstrong.
(19) Alexandre Vinokourov - did not race in the 2006 TdF, but in previous Tours, his time trial finishes are consistently in the top ten. Here's where Vino can make up significant time in 2007.
LURKERS WHO COULD FACTOR. Some of the GC lurkers and long shots like Frank Schleck, Chris Horner, and Yaroslav Popovych have good times in past TdF ITT's, but not the kind of times that could move them from their current placements into contention...unless they literally fly while others falter.
X-FACTORS. Have any of the current top contenders vastly improved their time trialing since last year? Levi Leipheimer, supposedly; but his Prologue time was mediocre. Christophe Moreau, supposedly; but he dropped lots of time today. Cadel Evans? Who else? Also, consider: the first Individual Time Trial comes on Saturday, after these flat transition stages and prior to the punishing Pyrenees. The second ITT comes the day before Paris, after the riders have had a few more flat transition stages. After the Pyrenees, some will be very motivated for the second ITT; some will be crestfallen.
Andreas Kloden is the best-placed to benefit from the ITT's. He can take over the lead with consistently strong ITT's.
Cadel Evans can move on up to the top, too. Who wants it more?
Alberto Contador's a wild card, but his ITT times indicate he could move from 5th place into the top three. Will this Discovery Channel team member be permitted to contend for the Yellow Jersey along with team leader Levi Leipheimer, or will his prowess be sacrificed to assist Leipheimer onto the podium? Or, will Levi serve Alberto? What will team director Johann Bruyneel do? These are the Days of our Lives...
The ITT's will prove a challenge for current Yellow Jersey wearer Michael Rasmussen. I know he thinks he's still a contender, but history says the Dane can't compete in the ITT's with the company he's currently keeping. To be fair, his ITT last year was simply disastrous, including a wreck.
Levi Leipheimer, too, needs to prove his mettle with these upcoming ITT's. He's finished well enough, but not with championship-winning exploits. If ever you've sensed the moment, Levi, this may be it! Carpe diem (or something like that...)!
Alejandro Valverde? Inconclusive; consider it a wash. Let's just hope he actually finishes the Tour this time.
Iban Mayo? Less than stellar; a wash at best. If he's not leading coming out of the Pyrenees, his second ITT will be critical.
Oscar Pereiro? This poor guy is getting no respect, even though he placed 2nd in the 2006 TdF. But his ITT finishes indicate he will improve his chances before Paris.
Christophe Moreau? It's a dream, but not out of reach. Can you put the hammer down for France, Christophe? You know the lay of this land better than anyone. Claim it!
Alexandre Vinokourov? Vino may well cruise to the top five times in both ITT's, putting him back into the mix. If Vino does very well on Saturday, he'll be motivated to climb like a wild banshee in the Pyrenees. If he does well there, he'll smoke the last ITT and glide into Paris.
So, what do you think? Weigh in...
SAY IT AIN'T SO, MOREAU. Moreau crashed early in the race and then got caught off guard when the Astana team-driven peloton suddenly surged. Before Moreau, riding at the back of the peloton, realized what had occured, he was playing big-time catch up. Moreau's group tried hard to chase, but ultimately finished 3'20" after the stage winner crossed the line in Montpelliar. Some will say Moreau's hopes for a podium finish are fading. But Moreau is capable of wiping out such a deficit with a one-day romp in the Pyrenees. Let's go Moreau!
ROBBIE HUNTER'S DAY TO SHINE. The winner of this flat stage was none other than the only South African in the Tour de France. Robbie Hunter, a sprint specialist from the South African-sponsored team Barloworld, outgunned his rivals--minus those who were caught up in a last-turn crash--on a twisting final kilometer to claim a victory. It was the second stage win for Barloworld in this Tour; Colombian Mauricio Soler won a mountain stage four days ago. It was the first stage win for a South African in the history of the Tour de France. With the win, Hunter also moves up to 2nd place in the sprint points; he could challenge for the Green Jersey!
LEIPHEIMER MOVES UP. Moreau's bad luck translated into a move-up in the standings for American Levi Leipheimer. Moreau falls from 6th to 12th place in the overall standings. Leipheimer, riding for Discovery Channel, moves from 9th to 8th place. Attrition is certainly an allowable way to improve your chances. Howver, Levi is no closer in time to race-leader Michael Rasmussen and the contenders placed 2nd thru 7th.
VINO RALLIES; LOOK OUT! Pre-Tour favorite Alexandre Vinokourov showed signs of ferocity today. Injured in an early-stage crash, Vino has seemed to be barely hanging on...until this stage. The Kazakh put his Astana team on the front of the peloton and pushed the pace to a painful rate. He even tried an escape within the last 3 kilometers. Vino was caught by the sprinters, but it was a show of tenacity, saying: "Don't count me out, boys! I'm back!"
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
LET THEM GO. Vasseur and Casar were part of an 11-man breakaway group that finished 10 minutes ahead of the main peloton containing all the contenders for the Yellow Jersey. Since none of the 11 escapees' placements were a threat to the overall standings, the peloton took it relatively easy. No changes in the Yellow, Green, and Polka-Dot Jersey contests. But I failed to note yesterday that the White Jersey for the best-placed young rider changed backs. Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador of Spain now sports white.
RELATIVE EASE IS STILL DIFFICULT. I say the peloton took it "relatively easy." I've ridden 154 miles in a day a few times, in the Ride Across INdiana. Even though the RAIN is strictly a tour and not a race, I can assure you that riding intently and briskly for that distance is tedious and draining. I was numb after 110 miles. My hat's off to these guys even on "relatively easy" days in the saddle.
MORE TOMORROW? Looks alike a similar day tomorrow in a long, flat stage. It holds an opportunity for breakaway glory for a handful of risk-takers with nothing to lose, followed by a bunch sprint finish, as well as a chance for the Tour favorites to conserve and renew energy for the Pyrenees mountains on the weekend. These transition stages are like putting the Tour on "auto-pilot." Except that, as sure as you turn away...surprise!
DOWNER OF THE DAY. The downer for the day was the German press pulling the plug--a boycott--on German coverage of the Tour de France after German rider Patrick Sinkewitz, who already crashed out of the Tour, was found to have high levels of testosterone in a June 8 drug test. Germany is fed up with doping, particularly after its much-heralded cyclist Jan Ullrich has been revealed as a doper. Not sure if they'll plug back in for the sake of all the riders who ride clean, or if they'll just rant, rave, and stew awhile. Too bad for the German fans and too bad for the impact of this on cycling in Germany. On the other hand, put yourself in their shoes: who wants to cover something that passes itself off as "pure sport" when it keeps turning up as "pure dope?" I should note: all riders thus far tested during the Tour de France have turned up clean.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
THE CONTENDERS TOGETHER. Behind Soler was a small group of the main contenders for the Tour de France, minus Alexandre Vinokourov, who fell over 8 minutes behind the race leader. Of note: Alejandro Valverde finished second and showed he is in great form for a top three finish in Paris. Levi Leipheimer finished in the top ten, moved up to 9th place in the overall standings, and demonstrated he's truly a contender. My sentimental favorite from France, Christophe Moreau finished well, too, climbing to 6th place in the GC.
DISCOVERY CHANNEL TEAM ROCKS. Team Discovery was, by far, the best team on the day. The American-based squad featured Yaroslav Popovych and Alberto Contador (in photo) in a great breakaway and Leipheimer in the group of contenders. Contador finished 4th today and is in 5th place overall. He's proving to be the best climber on Discovery, so far. Leipheimer, however, carefully marked his main rivals. He indicates he'll make his move in the Pyrenees and in the individual time trials in the week to come.
GALIBIER VISTAS. I love to watch the fans! Hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic fans turned out, as usual, for the climb up to Mt. Galibier. Many camped out overnight or rode their bicycles up the grand mountain to take in the vistas and to cheer on the Tour de France participants as they struggled up the hairpin turns and steep grades. Among today's observers of the Tour was new French President Sarkozy, riding along in the Tour Director's car. There is no sport that provides such immediate and intense fan access like this. I've got to do this...sometime in the next twenty years or so.
Monday, July 16, 2007
WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE. French national road champion Christophe Moreau improved his chances for a podium finish in Paris with an agressive ride in Stage 8. He's now in 7th place and within easy striking distance. Shown here training during today's rest day, Moreau said in an interview today that he plans to be more agressive in the mountain stages that follow in the Alps (tomorrow) and the Pyrenees (this weekend). Like Michael Rasmussen, the current Yellow Jersey, Moreau needs to make time in the mountains to counter relative weakness in two upcoming individual time trials.
OLD MAN MOREAU. At age 36, Moreau is one of the older riders in the Tour, an age many might consider "too old" to win. Still, Moreau is having the best year of his professional cycling career that began 12 years ago. Moreau was caught up in the the team Festina doping scandal ten years ago and has since renounced doping and ridden clean. May his efforts be rewarded.
WHAT TO DO ON REST DAY? What do riders do on rest days? They ride, for one thing. Each team will spend several hours in the saddle, just to keep in condition and rythmn. They'll visit with friends and family. Teams will hold press conferences. And they'll rest and sleep. The extra 24 hours is a brief respite to gather one's strength and wits for the rest of the Alps and Pyrenees over the next 8 days.
REFINING PREDICTIONS. Of course, rest day means fans and experts alike will be refining their predictions and figuring out what their respective favorite must do to make onto the podium in Paris. Like we haven't seen in recent years, this Tour seems to be wide open to the most wisely aggressive rider. I don't think this one will be won by playing conservative. Nor do I think it will be won by a rider who spends himself before the last Pyrenean stage. It's up for grabs. We'll see who grabs it.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
ROGERS OUT. Michael "Mic" Rogers of Australia was leading on the road when he crashed into a barrier, broke his collarbone and exited the race. Tough, tough break for Rogers, T-Mobile, and Australia. Aussie Stuart O'Grady crashed out, too. Now Australian cycling's hopes are pinned on Cadel Evans, who ascended well and made his way into the Top Ten.
SELECT GROUP, NO FAVORITES. Today's climbs confirmed the contenders for the Yellow Jersey. It's a select group, to be sure, but I am not sure any one of them will emerge as the Tour favorite until after the last mountain climb and individual time trial the day before the Tour rolls into Paris. Iban Mayo's back in the hunt after a few years of bad luck. Alejandro Valverde's there. Christophe Moreau's there. So is Levi Leipheimer. This thing is wide open.