Stage four and five
8 July 2009
Each year I do this commentary/story telling, sometime during the three weeks I feel that strange daily pressure to write. I know that it does NOT matter, it is NOT important, but it still annoys me a bit. But then, due to years of practice and experience, I get over it and move on. I am writing this before I look at my bike forums. So there will be a positive tone and a less examined appreciation for a bit.
Yesterday was a “Good Day”. It was totally dedicated to the spectacle of the Tour for an entire day, from getting up in the morning, to a few minutes before going to bed. I was tired. N and I drove into town, parked up, and met up with this “internet buddy” who had come to see the stage. We wandered around a bit, took loads of photos, sat on a park bench in the shade, wandered around more, and then went to lunch. Not by accident, our table for fourteen was booked under the shade of the plane trees, abutting the small route where all the motos, caravan and press cars had to drive. So I got some silly photos of the caravan. I would never want to miss the caravan. Admittedly I have to be there with only part of my mind, it being the blatantly obvious capitalist running dogs influence. But me, I just snap away, thinking of a title for each shot. Maybe I should post one or two if I can do the downsizing thing properly. Maybe later.
The lunch was good, with the advantages and disadvantages of that kind of social gathering. We left just a bit earlier, as we wanted to see the teams leave their buses or enclaves and drift over to the starting ramp. We had fun (the new cycling buddy and I) identifying the various riders, partly with the aid of N who had the paper to look up numbers, if we could see them. We two could identify some of the riders from the combination of team posture and what bit of the face appears below a helmet and TT bulbous dark shades. We did pretty well, and this is the only time you can test your knowledge of faces and postures and teams. Easier with an extra person looking at the numbers and names, as you have only split seconds to do the identification. What amazed me is how many riders neither of us knew, no idea what they looked like or how tall. Even when we found their name we knew nothing. And we both fancied ourselves as a bit knowledgeable. On the other hand we guessed lots of them ourselves. That little story will only appeal to people who are capable of being “total fans”. For a bit anyway. Apologies to the others of you.
One thing we noticed walking around, and this won't be a big surprise, there were always loads of people around the Astana enclosure. They have a wee fence a dog could knock over, keeping us from knocking on the door of the team bus or nicking tools. In what other sport can you get to snapshot distance and pay nothing at all whatsoever. Totally bloody FREE (on the day). Anyone who forgets that in the midst of the overwhelming advertising media spectacle the Tour is, will not be able to have such a great time checking out the Tour live.
So after the four or five teams, maybe after BBox left the stable, we drifted over to the start ramp to watch how that worked. We could also have our bit of listening to Daniel Mangeas do his announcer bit. He really is good. We figured it out quickly and headed for my pal's house, where we watched the rest on TV. The watchers ranged from one other serious fanatic, several “interested” in Tour, but not really obsessed with it, several who vaguely knew about it, but knew nothing about cycling or Tour really. So the conversation was challenging, going on in two languages, and from the level of basic naive questions to wise knowledgeable commentary and inside information. It was great, but I was happy to get back to quiet and easy focus of today's stage, in my living room, with my wife. Oh yeah, I forgot to say that we took a couple of wee dips in the pool, as it was a very hot day and we had been standing around in the sun a lot. And of course, there was the pool. No accident. The rest of the group carried on and had pizza from this really great pizza place. We left early, and even then we were both quite tired. I could have maybe two or three days like that in the Tour, max.
The TTT itself was quite interesting for me. Partly because I had made predictions about riders coming off at a particular corner, and Bouygues had four guys bite the dust exactly there. In fact I heard Skil Shimano guys came off, and also Saxo Bank had a scare. Which brings us to the vexed question of the route of the TTT itself. Much discussion everywhere. Two lines. One that this route was NOT a TTT route, too dangerous. At the extreme of this side is the view that NO TTT should ever exist, and maybe not even the ITT. The other side (I always keep things simple and have “two sides” to arguments, otherwise I get lost), says that OK it was a hard route, but the good teams did fine, results were partly a surprise and partly as expected, and a TTT route like this should not become necessarily the rule, but more like an exception that proves the rule. My view is that I love watching the TTT, and would like to have one every year or may every other year. The ones that are flat and long are a bit boring. This one was great to watch on the box, and very hard to ride over. My riding pal and I discussed if anyone would be dropped on the longish hill out of Grabels. I said it was hard, and he said nah, they were pros. It turned out, of course, that they could all probably go up in the big ring, but quite a number of them could not go up fast enough. They got dropped there or on the next hill, which was even harder. I thought the TTT was so hard no team would finish with nine riders. Usually in the tout TTT there are five or six that do that, sometimes more. I was wrong. The last and second last teams finished together. The sixteenth team and the ninth team also finished with the full compliment. Fewer complete teams than average years, but for whatever reason, AG2R kept together and the same for Cofidis and Bbox, along with Skil Shimano. Sometimes teams who know they're not doing that well or can't do that well, don't bother to knacker themselves, but take pride in being one unified team.
Such a lovely spectacle to watch, in my mind, and that countryside, seeing it several times, made me realise an important thing. If I ever lived in Montpellier, although I can't imagine living anywhere but here now, the cycling, at least in that direction, would do nicely for some challenging rides through really nice landscapes.
As for results, the times, there were “the expected” and then two major surprises at least, one minor one, and another minor disappointment. You could say there was also high drama as to who wore yellow. Well, low drama anyway. Measured tenths of second, not really drama in the qualitative sense. I am quite happy that Cancellara is still in yellow. I like his presentation of himself in French, on the box. He seems a regular guy who happens to be the strongest cyclist in the world (maybe). He is disarmingly direct and modest, although sometimes he just lets slip that he felt incredibly strong, immodest if it were not so obviously true. He was the guy who took huge pulls and got Saxo on the podium, which is a minor surprise. He said he likes TTT because he has to take into account the others. He can't just space out and ride away from them all. Astana winning was a non-surprise. I really knew that they would win after what Columbia had done in previous days, but I refused to change my pick on account of “not liking the team”. Right, that was the vaccination. I can bet on them now. In fact, the mischief maker in me would have rather liked Lance to take yellow. I think that would have been such fun to listen around here in the cycle club and on the pages of one of my forums. Lot of heavy critics of Lance, and more people (like me) that are kind of annoyed at the overwhelming Lance-ness of the sports coverage in France. Amazing. Saxo and Cancellara do unexpectedly well, and keep the jersey. Fabian should be on the cover, maybe with Lance alongside. But the story on the yellow jersey is about Lance NOT winning it, the team conflicts, the relations with sponsors, the plans for the future, the race itself (in which the Astana team is doing totally well at present). It is a bit wearing. Liquigas was a little surprise. Not much, but a little. And that means people are beginning to chat a bit about Kreuziger, Nibali and maybe even Pellizotti. The latter could attack from far on Friday, with say, Moncoutié and four other guys and no one would care. Anyway everyone thinks the two lime green riders will be actors during this Tour.
Sadly, other supposedly big actors, GC contenders, are now being buried. No one knows what is going to happen, they could come to life again, but you cannot possibly lose around three minutes before the first mountains and expect to be in yellow in Paris. Evans, LL Sanchez and Sastre have all lost around three minutes. Menchov has lost four. You just cannot do that. Maybe you could gain back that time on one, two or even three of the contenders that are still doing well. But no way could you get it back on all of them. No doubt these four guys could come back and make the top ten. It is hard to figure that Sastre, Menchov and Evans will not make the top ten. Not a single commentator on earth thought that. But as for winning, many people, including me, say its all over. It happens. What would please me most however, is a little sub-story about how one of them, who cares which one, does some heroic feat and almost makes it onto the podium, or, even better, does make it. For me, a Tour without tragedy and joy (of the Tour variety) is not a Good Tour. I like to think every Tour will be a good one.
Speaking of which, Who should win the stage today but Thomas Voeckler. I mean what a good story. Hopeless break goes away on a stage which should be a sprinters' stage. Various things happen with the wind, the route, the internal politics of the peloton … which is a very interesting subject. It is crystal clear that any peloton, on a stage made for sprinters, should mobilise the sprinters' teams, just after the yellow jersey defence team gets a bit tuckered, having ridden I, the front for a long time. So Astana does this front work for many k, AS IF they had yellow (they are too much), then stops. Who is going to take it up, do the extra hard work to catch the break, among the sprinters teams? Much negotiation by mobile phone, riders talking, earpieces and microphones. Then someone (this year, usually Columbia) has a go. But Columbia are pretty tired, as it happens, you can see when they took the front today. They get annoyed that others don't help do the washing up, I mean the hard work. So more negotiation, silent or verbal, goes on. Meanwhile the escape is focussed. The dream of glory, of victory, is now taking over from “showing the maillot”. As I have said before, winning a stage of the Tour makes a career for a moderate or good rider. It can launch a young rider onto another level in their riding. It is huge. Anyway, there was a fair bit of interest, even suspense, as we wondered who would do what, or when the escapees would start fighting for victory, or whether the bunch would get them. In the end the bunch was seven seconds too late, faffing about a long time, figuring out who would do the washing up. Blimey if the Diminutive Martiniquan didn't take a flyer at a very well chosen time. He just kept going faster than any of the three others who were left. It was his first stage victory, on the birthday of his boss. On another birthday Thomas took yellow. Bernaudeau, his boss, was in tears, parctically still in tears during the interview. He talked of Thomas as one might talk of one's son. Not a lot of that in Astana, my son. I was utterly delighted with the result. Of course there was a bunch sprint that finished seven seconds later. Cavendish won it, but not the stage. One lesson from today, I hope the other sprinters' teams do the work next time, because if they leave it only to Columbia it might not happen. On the other hand if the Columbia guys are not tired, Cavendish wins. Maybe the only strategy to prevent Cavendish from winning is to let the break stay away.
A short pause for a deep appreciation of the buildings, the villages, the landscapes that I see during the Tour. OK, I live down here, so I feel more of a connection and know some of the places. But no matter where we have been along the Med, it is just gorgeous. No wonder it is the first and second “California” or “Florida” of France or Europe. When I tuned in Gerard Holz was hanging out in the village of Sallèles d'Aude, on the Canal du Midi. One side the canal, shaded by plane trees and pines, other side the narrow road the lads would use. Before they arrive we get a chat with young lads in the youth training programme of the Velo Club. Then a chat with someone about wine and someone about a society interested in preserving or doing something with the huge urns made by the Romans when they made wine here and shipped it to Rome. Apparently this village had been around for two thousand years. And we got the story about how the mayor, years ago, had built a bridge over the canal so that people could walk to get their bread on the other side, rather than take the rickety boat across. You gotta love France when you see stuff like that. I don't think the foreign stations get all that, it is pretty much regional product advertising or tourism. But French people of all kinds (and I) love it.
So what does that leave us for tomorrow and for the race in general. As I said, I have to agree that of the big losers now, I think only Sastre has a chance to get on the podium. If he tries he could really enliven the Tour. I think Menchov has to be one motivated, stubborn Russian to keep going for yellow. But he too could do something interesting to liven up the Tour. Say a long escape over mountains with Evans and Sanchez and others. That would be good. But unlikely. Anyway, all of those people can enliven the Tour because they can do something surprising. They have nothing to lose. They should still end up in the top ten. Maybe the podium if they pull off some really good move. How about an Evans, Armstrong, Menchov alliance for one day in the mountains. I don't think much is decided yet. And I won't think anything much is decided until the Alps. Even then, we have the Ventoux to mess up predictions. The Tour is long, many things can happen. Very sad about Gesink, I really wanted to know what he could do.
I don't need to repeat that Astana looks good. But several favourites still are in with some chance to mix things up. Astana train up Arcalis? I hope not. Unless the train falls away, one Astana rider after another, until there is only Lance and Albert. The two of them turn around and see Cancellara, followed by Voigt, followed by the Schleck brothers. Cool, no? In fact, maybe they turn around and see that three or more of Columbia, Saxo, Garmin and Liquigas are still there. Ohh, I do love a mountain top finish.
As for Barcelona, I reckon the obvious winner will be some puncheur, some explosive guy. That is actually a pretty hard hill at the end of a long stage in the heat, Montjuich. I doubt if a break will get away again. Maybe. I just looked at possible winners. If I were going for an odd pick, I might say Cancellara. On the other hand, maybe the hill is just long enough and steep enough for a Contador acceleration. Will Lance be able to keep up? But basically what should happen is not a sprint, but thirty guys at the bottom, could be fifty, some domestique goes like crazy, probably Astana or Saxo. Slowly this happens over and over, and people fall off the back. I vaguely recall it is a bit flat on top, so the strongest guy will keep going and win. Or a guy who is dropped near the top, like Cancellara, might come motoring past at the end. Anyway the last half hour should be interesting. Nothing much should affect the GC, unless an Astana guy drops all the others. Maybe Al and Lance will drop everyone and go across the line in a dead heat, holding hands. Hee Hee.
OK, small stuff from the TV or paper. The discussion concerning “is the Tour over” is one you will not here anything about in this blog. Although some will have a hard time winning, the Tour is not over until they all reach the top of Ventoux. I can't figure out why anyone who has climbed Ventoux does not think it is a place where the Tour will be lost for sure, and probably won. We just don't know who will be left when we get there.
The French TV had a great shot of these two women, you could imagine they were sisters, hanging out a window in the middle of nowhere, ready to watch the Tour come by in another hour or so; they had seen the caravan pass. The cameraman shouted up at them, asking them about the Tour. One of them said “c'est un animation”. Not a lot happening in that part of the country. And for them the Tour was a bit of action.
I suppose you all saw the dried salt on the Anthony Geslin's back. Hot day. I heard Wiggins and Millar are on the Sky Team. I was mystified when I woke up to find Astana riding very hard at the front, hoping to maybe trap “who” behind. Although maybe they are just trying to persuade everyone they have the yellow jersey, before they have the yellow jersey. It is just resting on Fabian's back, soon to be on Al's or Lance's back. Hope Fabian beats them all up the hill tomorrow, or at least all the Astanas. Its not THAT long or THAT steep.
Must go to bed. Too much to comment on, too little time.