Monday, 14 July 2008

The Action Begins

The Action Begins – Hautacam 14 July

What a stage today, with all sorts of events, just the stage I would like to look at really closely. But I still have this stinking cold, so you have to forgive the lack of detail and one or two stupid mistakes I will make. Not that I have not made mistakes before, when I didn’t have a cold, but maybe no one noticed them. For example I got the wrong name of the guy who smashed into a tree several stages ago. But today, to no one’s surprise the Tour changed. My hunch is that this won’t be the last day for changes, this Tour is so full of uncertainty, or rather, more uncertainty than usual. Where to begin?

I guess the headlines are both the failures and the successes. The stage’s two huge losers are two guys I picked to do really well. Hmmm. Andy Schleck lost piles of time, 7.42. Cunego and Valverde each lost about 3.34. Cunego was always an outsider. Valverde was the clear second favourite. It looks like a case of “jour sans” for Valverde and I don’t know what for Schleck. There are days when a rider just has not got the juice, empty legs, no petrol in the tank. If you are going to win a Tour de France, you simply cannot have one of those. You can finish in the top ten, but you can’t just give minutes to ALL your rivals. You cannot take it back on every single one of them. The same goes for Schleck, Cunego and Valverde. I never picked Cunego though. All of them might be actors in this Tour, and certainly their entire career is not over on account of one day. You can have a slightly off day one on climb, famous case of Lance getting dropped by Ullrich, but Lance managed it, and only lost a bit of time. The time lost by Schleck and Valverde and Cunego is way too much. No doubt all that will be unpacked in the days to come, as some kind of explanation will be sought. None of them are supposed to be THAT bad in the high mountains. Especially Schleck.

On the other hand there are the performances of Frank Schleck, Leonardo Piepoli and Cobo, not to mention the subtle good job of Ricco. Fignon and I (did you like that?) both agree that it would have been better for Evans to not pick up the jersey so early. Evans clearly has a crap team for the mountains, he was alone forever, so it would be good not to have to “defend”, set the pace and do all that hard work left to the yellow Jersey. Silence is just not good enough and so maybe that work won’t get done. On the other hand, CSC will ride “as if” they have the jersey because they almost do. So when Silence Lotto give up, CSC will HAVE to take over. So it might be OK for Cadel. He was very touched by it, practically crying on the platform. Real men don’t do that, especially tough silent type Aussies. The power of the Tour, the immensity of it, for each rider, and nearly everyone else, is hard to overestimate. Some think people want a “clean sport”, but I think they actually want days like today. They want the spectacle, with or without the drugs. Without is better because then we talk of cycling only, not business or drugs. A day like today is such a superb spectacle that you can almost forget that stuff.

Behind (literally) the dramatic climbing and attacks of the winners in the high mountain stages are the dramatic, and slightly tragic sight of one rider after another being dropped as the pace increases. When the members of the French teams are dropped, it is just a list. The sprinters too, just a list recited by the commentator. These people are not paid to ride over climbs fast. So they don’t. Then there are the first of the pretty good riders, or people who high up in the GC, but you know they will disappear. People are going to lose minutes. Then there are the really good riders who are simply not good enough on the day. Gradually the excitement builds until you hear “Valverde has been dropped”. The camera on the motorcycle ranges up and down the road until bodies are matched to numbers and then to names. I love that bit.

In spite of this minor tragic drama going on all day, although I will never get around to looking, I am almost certain that there has seldom been a Tour with such a small time difference between the top riders, after the first mountain stage and the first time trial. Seems excessively close. The difference between the first and twentieth yesterday was two minutes and thirty three seconds. The difference today is nearly seven minutes. Lots of riders now have the top ten as their goal. The GC is beginning to looks slightly normal, but I am certain this is a Tour that has much more uncertainty.

So the CSC pulled off a nearly perfect execution of a perfectly thought out strategy. It took me a while to figure it out. I was just puzzled by why Cancellara was riding quite hard in the front of the break and Voigt was riding quite hard in the main peloton. I finally figured it out. Besides just sitting in wonderment at Voigt (he’s still there!) pulling hard all the way up the Tourmalet, I began to think of what might happen if Cancellara and Voigt got together in the flat bit between the two climbs. What a treat! I know am not thinking with all neurons now, but I cannot imagine two other riders in the world I would like to have the exclusive job of exhausting themselves until the base of the Hautacam. They made sure Valverde, Cunego, and anyone else who they dropped would lose as much time as possible. Then see if any of my three guys could go faster than everyone else. It almost worked. Only two guy beat Frank Schleck, and Sastre was in the next tiny group. Although Andy just had no legs, the plan was totally brilliant and nearly worked. I suppose it was Riis.

Saunier Duval, however, had a plan they revealed in advance, and which worked. Ricco said that the team would make sure Piepoli won. He did. That is good predicting and good plan execution. It was great watching both the groups climb. The first group with the three guys who were, after a bit, the obvious guys to split up the spoils was fun to watch. In the end, it was not a dramatic sprint at the top between the three of them. The Saunier Duval guys were stronger, dropped Frank and they decided which one of them would win. The old guy. His last Tour maybe. The young guy, Cobo, has always been the team’s hope for GC got the time, but not the victory.

The climber’s jersey is now on the shoulders that should wear it to Paris. Winning on Alp d’Huez, with the polka dots, would appeal to a guy like Ricco. So maybe we might get a classic moment. I certainly am sure that Ricco is going to do something outrageous between now and the end of the Tour. I am so happy that the Tour is working out like this, full of interest. Wake up call for those who said stuff like “I am not interested, its too boring, no favourites”. You’ve got to admit this Tour is full of fun, and the great moments of “the spectacle” that we are supposed to get.

You can also tell the peloton has not found its shape this year. It seems to be all over the place, breaking up, pasting itself together, riding down the road shapeless and inelegant, or up the hill in bits. I rather like that. The power relations are not yet sorted, they are in flux. People are wiggling around, teams are wanting to know what their role is. Suddenly Columbia has nothing to do. It is as if they don’t exist. The French can’t do their three man breaks. Who can organise things?

We don’t know whether Cavendish will finish so far behind that even Jimmy Casper will beat him. Casper is a sprinter who absolutely cannot climb. That is, that he can climb faster than anyone you know or have ever ridden with, maybe. His time for the stage was probably better than the fastest amateur on the Etape du Tour. Etape du Tour, Laurent Four en 5h38'04". Casper Holy Mackeral, the best amateur was faster than Piepoli. I must think for a bit. How can that be? Casper did a wheelie for the cameras as he came across the finish. He is no hurry. If I did that route I would finish three or four hours behind him, if I finished at all. He is not hurry. Nice wheelie Jimmy. But in the Alps he could get eliminated for being hors delai. We will get to that when it becomes relevant.

Clever how Freire got in the break, earned 12 points for the intermediate sprints, got back his jersey, and gained a few points on Hushovd. He picked up 12 points in the first 75k, and then just kept going. He knew it was rest day tomorrow, so why not give it a go. Imagine a sprinter finishing in the first group over the Tourmalet. On the other hand their was another sprinter in that group as well, and also Cancellara. So it was a pretty weird group over the Tourmalet first. Speaking of the Tourmalet, look who made a big move, Remy di Gregorio my pick for yesterday, well, one of my picks. And since nothing much happened yesterday you COULD say I would pick him for today, although it didn’t. But if I had, I would have been right. He seems a genuine talent, maybe not like Ricco, but next rung down. Young fellow who will surely win a mountain stage one day. Seems a very nice young man from Marseille from the interviews he gave. I liked him immediately, so did Naurika. But he got caught by the CSC train as he was riding alone across the valley. Imagine being pursued by Cancellara and Voigt! Bloomin heck!

The day’s racing was, among other things, a superb demonstration that although all the big glory and money is individual, cycling is still, to a larger extent than most people realise, a team sport. Lots of the interviewees are saying, in more than one language, that their team is not just teammates, but friends. What can be happening? At least CSC and Columbia are like that. And Bouygues has been like that for years (although they don’t win).

Each jersey in order and then I really must get an early night. I hope with the rest day I shall be fit for the next few stages and above all ready for the stage of the 18th, when Naurika and I shall be seeing it live somewhere.

Yellow. Cadel was supposed to win it and he has it. Although I happy for him to win it and he seems a nice man. It is a shame he really has no team to help him out. I mean Popoych was supposed to be at his side, like the Saunier Duval were, but Popovych got dropped early on. Cadel even attacked once, although it didn’t go far. He is a gutsy guy who is clearly in pain. I think he often avoided standing on the pedals today, because of some pain.

I hope that the maillot jaune changes bodies at least once or twice more. Gets us closer to all-time record. We are at five now, which is about average, maybe slightly more. If this is the Tour of uncertainty then the jersey should move about a bit. Maybe that not so nice Italian fellow might do a huge number on one of the next two finishes at altitude, maybe both times. Anyway, Frank Schleck is one second behind. Gone from the top ten are Valverde, Schumacher, Devolder, Pereiro, S. Sanchez. You could say nothing happened for Menchov, he was fifth both days and finished alongside with the new yellow jersey today, so lost no time. Kirchen had a fall to seventh. Frank Schleck was not even in the top ten yesterday, and he is nearly in yellow. He had a GOOD day, except for two seconds. And Ricco was in 21st place yesterday and is suddenly in the top ten. After TWO mountain stages and one time trial there are still quite obviously 9 guys within two and half minutes. Find me another Tour like that! I can easily imagine five of them who could still win, and perhaps I am insulting the other four. We still have some action ahead of us. One of the guys who now has to be taken into account is Ricco in spite of his awful time trialling. I doubt if he can gain six or seven minutes on Evans, which would mean he could lose four or five minutes on the last time trial. But maybe he can get three minutes on each mountain to finish. Maybe. Teams, strategy, all that stuff loses relevance in the last six k of a hard climb.

Green. More power to Oscar. He may yet carry it to Paris. Still four non-sprinters in the top ten, and the four are not finished scoring points. Kirchen had two jerseys and now he has none. But he has had and likely will have a good Tour. He still could win the green jersey. There are not really many true flat sprints left.

I fear no real race in the mountains jersey, but I guess it should stay with Ricco, unless he gets the yellow one. He might like riding around with it. And unlike Virenque he is a real climber.

Lovkvist will never get back the white jersey but unlike most years, there are still five guys who might win it. I am pleased that Monfort is doing so well especially since I knew nothing about him and he is French. I now know his name and that he can climb pretty well in the high mountains. Unlike many of the so called French climbers who can only climb one hill fast. Oops, French team, Belgian rider. The poor French! The French TV still tries to convince us that the French are real actors in the Tour, younger ones and older ones. I think Ricco is going to win this one too; although I am going to pretend there is uncertainty for a few more days.

Team classification is not that interesting at present. It shows that CSC and Saunier Deval are the best, followed by AG2R. They are in fact the best teams in the Tour, but I don’t think Columbia deserve to be tenth. Worse than Lampre? It seems to be a slightly odd system of calculation that does not take into account glory and beauty. Maybe they will creep back up. They calculate the team competition by adding the times of the first three riders on each team. They do that for each stage, and the “team time” is to cumulative total of those best three riders on each day. We can discuss it later when it has relevance. Right now they are not racing for that prize.

The media do like “The Cobra”. Cool name, big mouth, great riding. They can just smell a sensational story lurking behind every finish. Apparently Ricco believes that a Cobra looks his opponents in the eye before he strikes. Hence … I have no idea hence what. Still, not many cool costume bits like a Pirate. What are cobra-like bike fashion accessories?

Must go to bed. Got the paper today which had loads of, or a few anyway, interesting trivial facts. But I just feel too awful to look them up. After all, tomorrow I face the dentist, and hope not to have to blow my nose every three minutes.

Vive the rest day