Sunday, 20 July 2008

First Day in the Alps

First Day in the Alps – 20 July

We got a bit of action today, but very slow to unfold. Other than the two crashes, which are not the kind of action I want to talk about, we have a few changes, and plenty of material to speculate about. Did I mention that the stage was very slow to unfold. I had a nap between the climb of the huge mountain and 50k from the end and apparently missed almost nothing. I took my nap when I realised that no one was going to do anything on the first big climb. And virtually no one was dropped, as the pace was so slow that practically any rider could keep up. It does happen in the Tour, frequently, but I will admit that I am always hoping for someone to make a significant move. I understand totally why no one does, but as a spectacle we mainly have the countryside. As for my taste in landscape, I say the French bit was loads more interesting than the Italian bit. I did my first week long taiji intensive at 1600 metres up a back road from Chateau Queyras, so I love it when they go on that road. I still remember the one time we left the mountaintop encampment (Sommet Bucher) and drove down the road with Pink Floyd on the stereo. Never cycled around there.

After our club ride this morning, we had a quick coffee speculating about the Tour a bit. We all agreed that no one has any idea what is going to happen. Nice ride though, 77k, 600 metres of climbing, but mostly just riding along. The eight k, false flat, descent down the valley from Seriès to Avène was a particular pleasure. I am surprised I could keep up after my cold and ten days off the bike, but since “keeping up” sometimes means sticking with two guys ten years older than me, it was almost a pleasure. Got a push or two when my morale was flagging.

The two crashes today in the Tour were reminders what can happen at any moment on the bike. And the odd thing is that nearly everyone gets up and keeps riding after them. You would think that crashes would always cause serious injury, but they don’t. Oscar Pereiro however, went to the hospital, although it could have been worse. It actually looked loads worse. Can’t actually see what happened on the replays. Just a wee mistake, misjudging a turn, avoiding a patch of gravel, a touch of the brakes. It can just happen.

The victory of Simon Gerrans, who in no way resembles or pretends to resemble a climber, was something that I believe no person on earth predicted, including his partner, his kids, his mom and dad. He was just not supposed to be there winning the first stage in the Alps. Although Fignon contended it just was not a difficult stage and I tend to agree. Especially after the fact. . Furthermore any break was supposed to get mopped up by the guys trying to win the stage and race. In fact, it almost did get caught. They only won by four minutes and this can easily be attributed to the two crashes which really made the peloton think a bit about the conditions, and the point of it all. More power to Gerrans, who has now got a made career. “Simon Gerrans, winner of stage in the Tour de France”. This Tour is so unpredictable. The experts on the box only had four guys to pick from for the stage win, and could watch them closely for a hundred k. They thought Pate was hopeless, and he was not. They thought, unanimously, that Martinez would win. Although one or two did have a good word to say about Gerrans and Arrieta (loads of “experience”). In fact, Fignon had a nice comment about how Mrtinez might be good, and might be a good teammate, but he had not really learned to win. Apparently two wins in his career. Fignon really is good. But I don’t feel bad when I mess up.

As for the stage itself, things changed at the end, but not massively. No one got eliminated or lost a lot of time. I notice that one totally outsider, Devolder, has dropped out. And Cavendish is off to train for the Olympics on the track. It is pretty common knowledge that for a sprinter to climb hills does not get them ready for the track. Cadel lost the jersey, but he has six seconds (so far) to make up and can time trial better than anyone in the top ten. So they are going to have to do a lot better to make me think he is not going to win. I would not be at all worried if I were him. Although I noticed that he really has no team at all when the going gets tough. I am not sure I saw Popovych all day. He finished over seven minutes back with a load of no one in particulars. Evans did look to be suffering a bit. The last few k up the hill were full of attacks. Mostly they were by Andy Schleck, who showed that the lost time (a disaster in fact) on Hautacam was indeed mostly due to not eating and drinking enough. He is pretty good climber really. As good as anyone else.

So yellow jersey is so up for grabs I defy anyone to give me a solid case for anyone, except Cadel. That is purely based on his superiority in the time trials. I am utterly certain that I have never seen a Tour where there are six guys within 50 seconds with only two mountain stages to go. You could easily say that since Evans is superior by minutes over these other guys in the time trial, the closeness is an illusion. There is sense in that, but at this moment, it is really close. Closer to the time I shall compare the last time trial in 2007 with the gaps that exist by then.

Although it may be just stubbornness, I don’t even think that Valverde is totally out of a podium place yet (4,11 downon Frank). I don’t think Andy S will make the top ten. I think he will now sacrifice ALL for his brother or Carlos. And come back next year a little bit more experienced.

There are still some surprises in the top ten. People I am pretty sure no-one predicted would be there, although no doubt there will be some who clam they did. Bernhard Kohl was an outsider for the polka dot jersey, but NOT for second place. Christian Vande Velde was not mentioned by anyone I read for a top ten place, much less fifth, 39 seconds from yellow. CV only lost ten seconds to Evans in the first time trial! Although Kim Kirchen was mentioned, I personally am still way surprised he is still there in seventh place. And although AG2R, a continental team, might have had big hopes for Efemkin and Valjevec, I doubt they really thought 9th and thirteenth at this stage would be a serious hope. And then Maxime Monfort, the revelation of the Tour, for me personally, as I had never heard of him. Cunego is not doing nearly as well as many had hoped, including him;

As for the close gaps, I really find it mind blowing. I am glad Frank has the yellow jersey. This will take pressure off Cadel. It will also make the race interesting since CSC are the only team that can be guaranteed to do whatever they want on the flat bits, and the only team who are guaranteed to have THREE guys in the small group at the end of the last climb. They can just work over anyone, anytime. I should think that Sastre still has moves to make. And Andy Schleck will work over the small group of leaders until he is dead, so that his brother can win. Although he might help out Sastre if needed too. CSC is very powerful and will have everything to say about who wins. Cadel will just hang on, never attack and beat them in the time trial. Or so he thinks. But since there are still two big stages to watch, we don’t now; that’s the beauty of it, we just don’t know.

Young rider. It is now totally clear who are the four best riders in this category. The only one that keeps surprising me is Monfort. I had no idea he was that good or that consistent. He is seldom mentioned as a serious candidate. He must be very proud of his Tour so far. There other three are very well known quantities. I still pick Schleck, although I am pretty sure Nibali and Kreuziger can time trial better than he can. I can tell you one thing, to have four guys this close at this stage of the %tour is something that has never happened in at least 15 years. The Tour of Uncertainty.

Polka dot jersey. You can see clearly what happens when no one seems to want the jersey. A break goes away, over only two decent climbs today. Suddenly the four guys in the break, three of whom have nothing to do with the polka dot jersey, are in the top eight, Martinez third, Gerrans fourth in the standings. That’s what I mean about the jersey being a joke. You look at the green jersey there are no jokes. You look at yellow, the guys are all real. White is simply the young guys who are also doing well. But really, Lang and Gerrans, second and fourth best climbers. For me, it is just not a genuine jersey competition anymore. Hope something happens, although it appears that Kohl is the only one who is trying to win it. Mind you, with one long attack, someone could suddenly be a threat. But it looks like Kohl. He will be very motivated, as he is in with an outside chance of a podium. No way in my book.

I will tell you one thing that disturbs me a bit, although I don’t know why. At this stage of the Tour, this morning, the third week, there were ten of the twenty teams that have every single rider on their team still in the race. And there are six more who have only lost one rider. Although I refuse to look it up just yet, it seems to me that this is unprecedented. Very few riders are dropping out. Half the Barloworld team and all the Saunier Duval, fair enough. But hardly anyone is dropping out of the other teams. Very bizarre. Usually by the end of the Tour there are only three or four teams with full rosters. Why is this Tour so “easy”?

Simon Gerrans. Apparently was seriously injured during his previous sporting career and started cycling when a neighbour, Phil Anderson, lent him a bike to recuperate. He was good and so gave up the previous career. And now, his life has changed!

I do love it when we get two races in one. Seems such a good deal. It did take along time to get interesting, but when it did it was nearly exciting. Good Tour so far!

Good night. Tomorrow is market day and I look forward to hanging out on the street with the club guys who don’t work. We should have the Tour sorted by noon.

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