Friday, 4 July 2008

Tour Rant – Introduction

Tour Rant – Introduction

Most of you who discover this blog will know me well enough. Later, maybe strangers will see what I am writing. So a quick review of how I see the Tour is a good way to start. This will be a long post, others will be shorter.

First of all I am really annoyed with the Tour. If I were not a totally committed fanatic, I would probably stop being so interested, stop devoting big chunks of my July, every year, to reading, watching, talking about the Tour. Maybe I should ride my bike more, swim most days, write about more important things or visit my friends. The day I am starting this, I read about another “business deal” between the Tour of California and Amaury Sports Group (ASO) who “own and manage” the Tour. They are a multi billion euros business. They just 49% of the tour of California and also recently bought into the Vuelta. They already own Paris Roubaix, Paris-Nice (other races too) and L’Equipe, the highest circulation daily paper in France, among other commodities. Buy and sell, profit and loss. When I were a lad, I didn’t know who “owned” the Tour. The Tour was the Tour. Nowadays the brutal capitalist nature of the Tour, like so many other previously non-commodified or “pure” things, is pushed in your face. The ASO in turn becomes a business who fights with the UCI and other power seeking groups. The public private struggle intrudes on the Tour. Who makes the rules? Who enforces them? Can they get away with “that”? Example, the Astana exclusion, a pure revenge trip. How can they get away with that? Even cyclists in my club who dislike Lance, and are convinced he used drugs, are quite clear that the exclusion of Astana is way out of order.

However, if Astana had been excluded because Kazakhstan is a dictatorship, represses dissent, or because it builds stupid cities in the middle of nowhere (Astana) with huge oil profits, as a memorial to the revered leader, who is a guy who was the former leader before there was democracy. Which there isn’t. Or if they thought that having the permanent Minister of Defence be the head of the cycling federation is a bit off. Or if they were concerned about the condition of women, or the distribution of income or the pathetic wages in public service. Or perhaps were concerned that the country has not even signed, much less implemented, the European Convention on Human Rights. Or were concerned about the beating up of gay men, often by police. Although not as bad as places like Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan is pretty awful actually. If the Tour de France businessmen were to exclude Astana for those reasons, that would be another matter. The fact is that they are excluding them as revenge on Lance and Johan Bruyneel. Mind you, if they started looking at other sponsors they might have some problems too. Such a narrow understanding of “clean”! See http://tourtom.blogspot.com/

Plus there is all the medical reading I have to do. I DID NOT sign up for this. No other sport goes into quite such detail as to what drugs cause what effects and exactly what controls there are. The story of who controls the Tour and why is so boring that I won’t even give you details. Was Pettachi’s overdose of what he was entitled to use as an asthma inhaler performance-enhancing or not? An accident or not? Did Klöden make a mistake singling out the second string team that won quite a bit in the Giro for “maybe” being dopers? Can they detect homologous blood doping? What have they got that we don’t know about yet? Does the biological passport mean shit? What does it mean that the Tour is not using the biologicval passports but using some system or other invented by the French Cycling Federation that no one knows about? I really am (almost) totally fed up.

Of course if you don’t read up on all this stuff, you fail to catch the details and end up with a garbled version of what happened. Or feeling stupid. Exactly what did Rasmussen do wrong? And exactly how is it that Astana was excluded, when other equally suspicious teams were not? And does the Tour have the right to care about if Boonen snorts some coke in his own time?

Who needs it? I would rather just ride my bike. There is nothing wrong with riding a bike, even riding it faster and further. I do that all the time, so do lots of people. And following the Tour is always interesting, no matter who is the favourite or if there are several favourites. Watching countryside slide by on the TV, with a helicopter and motorcycle perspective, on a hot afternoon, in the shade, is a treat that even the filthy rich could never buy. Many people watch the Tour just to see places they went on holiday, places they lived, where family and friends live, roads they cycled themselves, all perfectly valid reasons. But all this politics and fighting and rule applying gets really tedious. Nothing good will come of it.

Team High Road becomes Team Columbia and we see a ”new kit” offered to the consumer. CSC gets rebranded just before the Tour as well, some big Danish bank. Slipstream is not Garmin, who make GPS stuff and are now trying to crack the cycling market with some gadget that will cost several hundred euros. After a while you lose track of who is on what team, and its just gets to be a blur. As in football or any other professional sport to a greater and greater extent. Just buy and sell. Brand and re-brand.

Is there is no medical visit before the Tour? True. They say the public got confused about what it meant. So there also will be no accurate stats, publicly available, about weights, heights and resting pulse rates, and all the stuff us geeks like to know. They must be trying to save money and increase profits. The punters are confused? What kind of reason is that?

Then there are the stories about the fight for power and influence and profit amongst the various Tour owners, the UCI and other bodies like national cycling federations or the World Anti-Doping Association. Presently it looks like the Grand Tour Alliance has broken down. The evidence is the last minute invitation for Astana in the Giro and the long standing invitation of Astana to the Vuelta. They were supposed to have agreed ages ago, amongst themselves, to exclude Astana. Now that ASO owns some of the Vuelta they can rule that race too. My theory is that the Giro was put under pressure by the Italian government, who were pressured by the Kazakh oil and gas dictator. Invite Astana or else you might have trouble getting any supplies of oil and gas from us. In any case, Astana is riding the other Tours and not The Tour. Most of you will know Contador won the Giro with a week’s notice. I guess the French government decided they don’t have enough supplies coming from Kazakhstan to be afraid enough. And it appears the Tour is stronger than the UCI. They dumped the UCI months ago and decided they would go it alone as a business. So far all the UCI can really do is take steps to sanction the head of the French Cycling Federation, for supporting the Tour. No big guns, but little niggles. The Grand Tours are strong enough, that is, the “owners” of the Grand Tours are strong enough, to ignore the UCI and withdraw from the UCI organised Pro Tour. I imagine the fight will carry on for years to come as each group tries to out macho the other. Needless to say at the base of this is who gets the profits from the most popular events. Clearly the UCI is not getting as much from the Tour as before. I spare you the detailed analysis that could be made, using multinational corporations and national states and the United Nations as metaphors. But it looks like once again the capitalists are the strongest.

However, there is also a race. An actual sporting competition, no matter what the controls are like, no matter who is in charge, no matter who takes what drugs. Maybe I should mention a bit about that. As a parenthesis, Jeannie Longo, at the age of 49, just won the French time trial championship, and followed that with a victory in the road race. At present, as far as I am concerned, she is the best cyclist on earth, although she can’t beat Contador up a hill or in a time trial. She is not riding the Tour however, as that is for men only, at present.

The route this year has the usual slight differences, some even “radical” by “normal” Tour practice. For example except for a tiny excursion into Italy, the Tour is entirely in France. No Belgium, no Germany, so Spain. As we always say, it’s not so much the route that makes the Tour, although being in France there is no shortage of utterly fascinating possibilities. It is always the riders. Unless something happens, like getting caught snorting coke (Tom Boonen), everyone who purports to be a good cyclist will be there, if they can get the job. So it’s not a few foreigners mixing it up with Italians, as in the Giro. Or some strangers trying to ruin a Spanish party in the Vuelta. It’s everyone, who is anyone, whomsoever, IF they are fit and legal and their team gets invited. In my view, the route makes no huge difference to the spectacle. One can, and will, debate with fellow nutters the relation between mountain finishes, bunch sprints, rolling courses and time trials. But anyone who wins any jersey or finishes in the top ten simply has to do well on all the terrains. A really bad day anywhere, and the yellow jersey is unlikely to grace your shoulders.

So … a few mountain finishes, including Alpe d’Huez this year, plus the finish on the hitherto unknown mountain no one can spell, Prato Nevoso. Plus that stage that goes over the Tourmalet, and finishes straight up Hautacam. In fact, the four days before the finish at Hautacam are pretty difficult. Take a careful look at the route after the individual time trial, very lumpy. This lumpiness in the route during the first week is unusual as well. The Tour bosses say they want to inject a bit of romance into the Tour instead of having escapes caught by the sprinters for a week. It is an utter certainty that anyone who loses more than three minutes after Hautacam will have lost any chance at the yellow jersey in Paris. There WILL be someone eliminated by then, it really is a hard four or five days. Even the flat stage on Day 5 is long, 234K. Having said that, several of the yellow jersey contenders will still be within a minute or two of each other, even after those rather difficult days before the Pyrenees. Then they have the Alps. So plenty of mountains, enough to make a difference.

No team time trial. THAT is a bit unusual, although not as unusual as No Prologue. In addition, there will be NO bonus seconds in the first week, so the sprinters might not be able to trade the yellow jersey during the first week, as they usually do. The first short time trial is early on, the fourth day. That is unusual. On the sixth day (quite soon really) they go over a very lumpy bit and finish at a summit, Super Besse. I remember that finish a few years back, when Stephen Roche emerged out of the fog to take a victory, his last I think. Good TV. Total mystery as to what was going on as neither the helicopter or the bikes could send coverage. But the finish was a great TV shot. Totally unforgettable. Back to the present, the start is three days in Brittany, a huge centre of French cycling fanatics and fascinating countryside full of lumpy bits. Without a prologue, there should be both sprints and some other kinds of scenarios. At least one of the “sprints”, the first one, is uphill. Maybe another one too. So it could be a bit more “interesting” that the usual first few days. There are two individual time trials, the short one on the fourth day, and a long one the day before they get to Paris. Someone hopes it will all come down to the time trial on the last day, but I doubt it.

If it is hot, they will be tired bunnies by the time they hit the Pyrenees. There is no rest day for 10 days, and a fair few kilometres of lumpy bits, including the Pyrenees. My best guess is that there will be more than a few riders who are out of contention for their jerseys by the rest day. Maybe even out of the race. Especially if it is hot. The narrow roads in Brittany means the riders have to be totally vigilant or some hopes will be dashed. All very tiring.

There is a “flat stage” near our home on the 18th, where the giants will ride, for a few minutes, on the very roads I ride on, but during the stage nothing much is likely to happen. The first little lump in that day’s profile is a hill I ride up often enough. They say it is fourth category. Nice to be on the route, you can be sure I shall ride the road from at least Roujan to Clermont l’Hérault during the next two weeks. I don’t know whether we will go to the feeding station in Clermont l’Hérault to try and grab some water bottles or musettes, or settle for a quiet spot in the one semi serious hill they climb near us. If we go to the hill, we will be with all the other fans in the area who don’t just walk outside their house. In Clermont, it will be hordes on the streets; They are starting at Narbonne and ending at Nimes on that day. Although there are some little hills, it is not a very hard route. I consider it to be “a long drive”. I would never go that far just for a day visit. I have never even BEEN to Narbonne where they start, it seems another world away. They do the whole route in five hours in the full heat of the afternoon. Believe me, it can get very hot during the afternoon around here. This is meant to be an easy “transition” stage. That route is a long drive as far as I am concerned, 182 kilometres. In the heat of the day! On bikes! Maybe without drugs! However, the most crucial question is how close they come to your house. And exactly where you will go to watch it? With whom? And what’s the picnic going to be?

There is much debate about who is going to win the yellow jersey. Nearly everyone says Cadel Evans is the man. He is the Australian guy who was second last year, by a few seconds. Last year’s first and third place finishers, Contador and Leipheimer, are not riding, being employees of the “axis of evil” Astana team. After Evans, people have trouble picking another clear winner, although names like Alejandro Valverde, Dennis Menchov, Carlos Sastre and the Schleck brothers are always mentioned. Probably Valverde is mentioned most often, he must be the obvious second favourite. I checked out a couple of those bike forums where people “pick their winners”, so that I could get a perspective on what “the informed punter” thinks. And some French mags of course. All the yellow jersey candidates I mentioned have some Tour experience. All are plausible winners. Others punters go for some young guy, like Damiano Cunego, who won the young rider’s jersey two years ago, finished respectably as the “best young rider” and then skipped last year. He seems ready for some kind of Tour Fame. Maybe a big stage win. Then there is Andy Schleck, who rides his first Tour at 23. Andy was second last year in the Tour of Italy, almost by accident. He has been touted as the “next huge thing” for some time now. His brother Frank (top ten certainty?) in the same team. CSC, now some bank or other, has probably the strongest team in the Tour. Look at this list: Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor) Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Volodimir Gustov (Ukr) Stuart O'Grady (Aus) Carlos Sastre (Spa) Andy Schleck (Lux) Fränk Schleck (Lux) Nicki Sørensen (Den) Jens Voigt (Ger). A totally spectacular team, no minor riders at all. Andy is special. The CSC team will ride for whichever of their three possible top ten finishers, the Schlecks and Sastre, is in the best shape after the Pyrenees. Not a bad set of “helpers”. The young hope of Holland, Thomas Dekker was not in “good enough shape” to ride for Rabobank. Too bad. And whatever could that mean? He knew the dates, he was heavily touted, he was not badly injured. Why is he really not there? Other people talk about Stijn Devolder or various other top ten possibilities. Guys like Zubeldia, Pereiro will probably creep into the top ten; but unless there is a mistake (remember 2006) these guys are unlikely to win. Some people (like me) are always desperate for a long shot, startling winner, better that he be young too. Others mention Samuel Sanchez or Kim Kirchen, but they really are dipping deep. I think the above takes care of most predictions.

So who do I pick? Well, I have liked Alex, or maybe Al, Valverde, for several years. I am seriously disappointed that he retired from two Tours with injuries. But he finished the Tour last year in a respectable sixth, and seems in brilliant shape this year. I like Andy Schleck, a lot. He has style. He has huge potential, he is young. So he is another of my guys for the podium. “Everyone” is usually not wrong, so I have to pick Evans to round out my top three. If I had to pick a winner, I would pick Valverde. Next year, I will be able to bet on the Tour IN France. You never could before, only on the trotting hourses. I miss making my bets, as I did in England. It’s not the same on the internet. I like “the bookie” and “the pencils” and “the paper”, and “real money”. Next year. So my actual bet would be betting on both Evans 12-5 and Valverde 4-1 to be in the top three. A fiver on each. And then a tenner on Schleck at 14-1. If I could justify a stupid unlikely long shot, I would bet a fiver on Kreuziger 45-1 and Ricco 34-1. Maybe after the first time trial, Andy Schleck might have the white jersey for best young rider, Evans might have yellow, and Alex will already have the Spanish champion’s jersey. So I will be able to pick them out at a distance on TV. My boys.

There is no clear favourite for the green jersey, the sprinters’ jersey. Boonen would have been overwhelming favourite. But he got caught with coke in his blood. Although technically he had not violated any cycling rule or civil society law at the moment he got blood tested, the Amaury Sports Organisation banned him from “their” Tour. He will not actually be busted by anyone, for anything. You could get to dislike those ASO people really easily. They are behaving very sadly, with such self-righteousness and lack of principle! In the face of great uncertainty and skipping over all the older guys with serious experience? I am going to go for Mark Cavendish as the winner of the jersey. He is the young Brit who probably has no chance, except he is really fast and could last to Paris. Others say there is no way he can get over the mountains, or that he will quit early so as to get ready for the Olympics where he has a good chance to win gold. So frankly, that choice is really a bit long odds, in fact probably stupid. He won’t finish. In truth, I shall be happy to watch the replay of five or six mass sprints, to see if the old guys or the young guys manage to come through. I personally have no idea, although betting on experience is usually safe. There are four guys riding who have already won the jersey, so it’s hard to believe that a young guy will beat all the old guys. Guys like McEwan, Freire, Hushovd, O’Grady, or even Zabel are likely to snaffle up most, if not all of the sprint victories. There is also Steegmans who used to lead out Boonen. However, it should be fun to see if any of the young guys can make a serious mark.

The mountains jersey seems to be Mauricio Soler’s for the losing. The usual “if he did it last year, he can do it this year” type of analysis is by far the most popular. I am always uncomfortable with this analysis, although it is usually a good guide. I think one of the candidates for the yellow jersey might just get the polka dot one by accident. Or perhaps one of the other riders might actually target this jersey, make a long break over four big hills and then defend. This is called the Strategy of Virenque. Worked for Jalabert, almost worked for Rasmussen, so why not? This competitor for Soler’s jersey could be Moreau, Sanchez, Cunego, Ricco, Martinez or my favourite French guys Di Gregorio and Gadret. We shall see who makes the first long lone break, revealing their hand as a polka dot lover. Then we will see if they get away with it. They have to be sure to do a terrible first time trial to be allowed a long break. So anyone who is within 2 minutes of any serious yellow jersey contender will not be allowed to escape. Maybe young Kohl. I hope a new guy wil make a race of it, although I am totally happy with Soler repeating. If he confirms he could go on to win a few more as he only 25. Usually I have high hopes for a mini battle and after about 8 stages it is all over.

As for the young rider, the white I obviously pick Schleck, especially as Dekker is not riding. But just to be controversial, I reckon this guy Kreuziger, a Czech no one knew about until two months ago, could be some competition in the end. Soler is also still “young” and buy doing well in the mountains he might also do well on the GC, taking the white jersey.

As far as TV coverage, I am happy as Larry. In fact because Larry Fignon is doing commentary I am utterly delighted. If I watched French Eurosport, which you have to pay for here, I could get Virenque. By watching French “free to air” coverage, I get Larry, whom I prefer by miles. He is, apparently, the French equivalent to John McEnroe and Wimbledon. Gobs of personality, and a very astute understanding of all aspects of the sport. I will try share through the blog, what I pick up on French TV, as well as by reading L’Equipe.

I seem to be at the end, in any case it is Friday and I should send this out. Although my level of excitement is tempered a little, it looks like a good Tour. Lots of unknowns, a slightly funny route, and everything the Tour usually has. Lots of people, including me obviously, grumble about the Tour, pretend they are not interested, vow not to care, but in fact, no matter what awful aspects it has, it will always be the Tour. And it will always be interesting. At least to “true fans”.

Click on http://tourtom.blogspot.com/ if you want to read any more. I forgot some things in this introduction, but just must get this off

3 comments:

Marcia said...

Well, I just learned more than I ever thought there was to know about the Tour de France. I'm not much of a follower of sports of any kind, but I found the post interesting. As usual, so not surprisingly, everything is political.

Now I'll just settle back and watch the Tour through others' eyes. Thanks for the blog, Tom.

Sue said...

Whoah, it's just all so much simple if you watch in ignorance, like me...
anyhow, cheers Tom, and hi to all Tom's disparate friends from sunny Lancaster, UK.

Tom said...

Hi everyone from sun-baked Madrid

The one great advantage of this blog format is the chance to say thanks to Tom for this fantastic altruistic effort.I'm a Tour geek and now no day's stage would be fully complete without Tom's take on the day's action. So muchas gracias indeed.

Here's hoping Valverde will be in the thick of things.