Thursday, 22 July 2010

Stage 17 22-7-10

So much of the Tour is over. Those of us wary of the spiritual hole in our lives created by the end of The Tour have to prepare for re-entry. More time on errands, see a few people you've ignored, catch up on work. But of course it is only over 'if nothing happens'. This is a phrase common to writing about sporting events like this. It really means if nothing out of the ordinary happens, with emphasis on bad things. In other words if there is no really bad thing that happens, like falling and breaking a leg, then Contador has won. If a young hitherto mediocre time triallist suddenly beats one of the best time triallists on earth, then maybe Contador won't win, and Schleck will. But I think there is not a cycling commentator on earth who would say the race is not over, in terms of the yellow jersey. No one would wish that Contador NOT win, on sporting grounds.

The polka dot jersey for the best climber is also done and dusted. There are no more hills. It goes to a rider who even those who follow French cycling might not quite remember the name of or simply have never heard of him. Seems a very nice fellow. Chapeau to him, as his careful attention to the rules, a certain fitness, a determination matched by no one else, led to him earning the jersey fair and square. The jersey has been won by French non-climbers several times in the past. But when I identify with the Tour and want it to be pure and honest and full of uncertainty and excitement, with heroes and villains, and those who suffer, I have to work hard to make room for the jersey being won by a 'nobody'. Now what WOULD be cool is if this 29 year old, almost at the end of the career, one win a year rider was transformed into someone who might win any race when it goes up. A real climber. That would be a happy ending. Until then we have a chapeau to Charteau. May we hear of him again.

The young jersey was never much in doubt. A guy who finishes second in the Tour two years in a row is unlikely to have any other young riders close to him. You can't use 'a strategy' to win this classification. It is the genuine indisputable award to someone who has the very best time, and therefore the very best placing of anyone 25 or younger. You can't follow rules to get the award, you have to beat guys like Gesink, Kreuziger, Rolland, Gautier, Koren (never noticed him either) and El Fares. Several of the competitor to Schleck as 'young riders' are French, and according to this Tour prize category, they will be the guys for the future. Actually one of the 'young' riders already have finished second twice now. Some years ago, a guy called Ullrich won the young rider's jersey for three years in a row. Anyway, details aside, Andy Schleck was the best young rider and almost the best rider regardless of age. Next year he won't be 'young', and we will begin to see what he makes of his career. Most people think he should learn a bit of time trial skill and conditioning. He does not seem deeply interested. The story of Andy Schleck will run and run. The last five best young riders have been Schleck twice, Contador, Cunego and Popovych. Not bad company. IN fact, Andy and Jan are the only one to have won the white jersey three times since it began in 1975.

The battle for the green jersey runs on. It seems as if ALL three of the contenders have made it through the mountains. So we get to observe whether Hushovd, Pettachi or Cavendish will wear the green AFTER the last stage. I think it is nearly impossible that Cav will don the green in Bordeaux. Something would have to happen. No idea whether Pettachi or Hushovd will be wearing it. My best guess, with only two stages to go and one of them not counting for green points, is that the green jersey will be resolved when the first ten riders pass the line on the Champs on Sunday. Don't forget what Vino did in when was it, 2005. Cav could win both sprints, taking his total to five this year, and still not win the jersey. I was wrong in my own prediction that the jersey would be won by an all rounder, someone who could win in the medium hills and pick up points on sprints. Like Boasson Hagen. Sadly he didn't do it, and the first few green jersey guys are sprinters, as usual. In any case, it is one race that is still being run.

The really big losers of the day were Leipheimer and Vinokourov. Of course Basso also had a very bad day, dropped right out of the top twenty entirely. Vino dropped from 9th to 16th and Leipheimer from 7th - 13th . You don't usually get such big failures so late. Well, maybe if the race is hard you do. I think we can conclude that the race has been quite hard, all things considered. And although one could be a little bit sad about the last stage (not a lot of racing in some ways), it was a very hard stage. Really hard. The fact that one or two guys can lose big time is not that rare really. I mean Vino having a hard day is really easy to understand. He got his stage win after two days of trying hard, and it knackered him.

All that having been said, the headline of the day was a question. Can Andy drop Alberto on any climb? The answer at this point in history is no. No, Andy cannot drop Alberto, and Alberto has never had to try really hard to drop Andy. So we don't know. Most likely conclusion is that unless one of them has a bad day, they are just about equal in the mountains. And it is a 100% opinion that Alberto can take at least a minute, maybe two out of Andy on a 40k time trial. I rather enjoyed the last climb. I liked the riders being dropped. I was a bit sorry that they didn't race more against each other. The best of the dropped ones, I mean. The headline story is the mano a mano (this expression seems to be preferred one of English speakers and French speakers. I don't know what the Italians call it. It was in the fog, so we didn't get any good landscape shots, just the two guys riding along with each other. A bit atmospheric I admit. Andy tried some variations of pace, but never really attacked. Contador followed him. Alberto made one sharp attack, and kept going, but within maybe 25 seconds, Andy was on his wheel. I don't think they did much of that for the last few k. And at the end, Alberto did not sprint for the win. They had a spontaneous on the bike arm clasp/hug, initiated by Andy. They did other congratulatory gestures. Including one exchange I saw several times in which there was not a 'feel' of conviviality and respect. So for the next five years or so, we might (if nothing happens) be treated to these two, and whatever others can be found, duke it out. I am not saying that Janez Brajkovic is the answer, but that there are young riders who will contest future TdFs, with these two as the top guys. They are the top guys. In July.

I was a bit sad about Sastre. True, he is on some of my teams. And everyone always has him on the list of favourites. True, he did well in the Giro in 2009, but the rest of the time, he has not really been a serious contender. Just isn't good enough. Still very good indeed. Most riders would not even try to do what he does. They KNOW they would fail. He still tries. That makes cycling more interesting, since you never know if he might succeed. Success makes makes a better story than failure, but they both work in the Tour. Lance, of whom we need not speak very much in the near future, tried to go out with blaze of glory. I wanted it to end with Lance nearly winning the stage, but suddenly a younger and better rider just passes him and wins the stage. But he just lost to more than one young guy. Lance is not good enough any more. He should quit. Everyone liked his blaze of glory attempt. It was cool. Sastre's attempt today did seem a bit of waste of energy.

I am hoping the time trial might be really good for my various teams. I am not doing all that well this year. I didn't pick Cancellara, and I did pick Frank Schleck. Furthermore my second sprinter was Farrar, who left the race without a big impact. Could have picked Pettachi (never would have) or Hushovd (almost did). I only had two sprinters, because I thought it was a race where GC guys would win stages at the tops of mountains. Turns out that they didn't, guys who could climb reasonably well won mountain stages, many of them French. I scored zilch. Nevertheless I didn't do badly. And if Tony Martin scores a bit in the TT by doing well, and Bradley Wiggins, then not having Cancellara might not be such a bad thing. Cancellara got loads of points for the yellow jersey, and finishing high up on two stages at the beginning. He really did ride well for Schleck on the cobbles. That was brilliant. I will tell you, if I remember, how I did on the Fantasy Cycling. Or maybe I will just ask those who care to email me. Who really cares? Well, I do. I try to win or place high on any league I enter. Although I also enter experimental teams, which will not win, but I am just curious how they do. Like my All French Team, how will they have done? Or the OLD Guys team of over 35s?

My wife said she can't believe it was as boring as every other stage (she said this with 23 k to go). She did get into the mano a mano as theatre, but she was right. For most of the stage nothing happened. It was again this 'one climax' style of course design. Last year it was Ventoux, which was a little boring. Imagine, Ventoux was a bit boring! And this Tourmalet was a bit boring. I think the multiple and complex climax Tour is better. Do you see? How can we leave a race to have ONE point where it is decided. Why not four or five, like the Giro?

Still, don't get me wrong, it was a good Tour. I am not complaining about THE TOUR. How could I ever do that? They should get a new script writer, one that favours four or five crucial points in a race where it could be won or lost. Not one big whopper. No doubt there will be acres of ink filled with speculations about that. But it was good race. And of course it is not over yet. Not by any means. There is still the 'something happens' and the time trial. Along the way we can eye up the green jersey competition. Should be a good weekend.

Oh yes, looks like Radio Shack will win the team prize. So officially, in adverts and such, Radio Shack will be the 'best team' in the Tour de France. That's the one where they take the top three finishers for each team on a given day, add their times and add that sum to the previous sum for that team. Its a bit complicated until you figure it out. It is an attempt to 'measure' what is 'best'. I think that most people would say that the Astana team or the Saxo Bank team are better than RadioShack. It is a bit like the best climber jersey. It is hard to quantify what is the best team or the best climber.

There was another one of these slightly silly episodes where 'the peloton' attempted to do the right thing when a rider crashed. It was the guy in third place. So do you wait or not? The answer seemed to be that Contador said slow down and wait, and everyone did. Except Carlos Sastre, who insisted on attacking. In this case, since his attack was totally futile, Sastre should maybe have taken a breather. I guess he thought he could ride really fast up the Tourmalet and take the stage. He was way off in his self assessment.

I think that is it. I had thought I might be describing a complex race, with victors and losers and drama and such. Actually it was a bit like that, but not really. Looking at the finishing times, it is clear there are two riders who are best and a lot of others who flow in about the same time on most days. Some have a good day. They vault up two or three places or even more. For example today GOOD rides were made by Horner, who moved into the top ten from outside the top twenty! Also Rodriguez, Hesjedal and Kreuziger moved up one or two places, made by the exit of Vino and Leipheimer, both of whom made space in the top ten by plunging out of it.

12 Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0:13:01  
13 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team Radioshack 0:14:24  
14 Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team Radioshack 0:14:44  
15 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:16:00  
16 Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 0:17:57  
17 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:17:59  
18 Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) SkyTeam 0:18:30  
19 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quick Step 0:20:03  
20 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:25:23

Plaza, Gadret, De Weert and Moreno are not guys I know well or would have ever predicted would be in the top 20. In any case, after the time trial they might not be in the top twenty. My own guess is that there could be some changes after the TT, but none of them terribly serious for the GC. Most of the better riders can do a respectable time trial and not lose that much time on the, for example, twelfth place rider. Guys like Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara might well do the best time trials, not to mention other time triallists who made it through the mountains in half decent shape. Wiggins? Kiriyenka? Evans? Kloden? Leipheimer? Armstrong? Brajkovic? These guys have no hope on the GC. They have no team duties to do after the TT, just ride slowly to Paris. Or they are guys who had a bit of bad luck and can now redeem themselves. Teammates (like Brajkovic) who had to ride slowly along with an ageing boss, and can now let loose. And of course, there is Andy, who might have been hiding his time trialling skills. Fabian can talk to him.

Off to bed. I have a busy day tomorrow. I hope to try and break out of the 'Tour is Everything' mentality and begin to adjust to real life. After all, tomorrow, it is going to a sprint and Cav will win and we have to see how Pettachi and Hushovd place. I am a bit sad that I am not going to see that sprint live, nor the time trial. But the idea of trying combine a visit with the family AND an obsession with the Tour was not possible. They would just not get it. And we would end up neither 'seeing' the Tour nor 'seeing' them. First year I have not actually seen the Tour in ages, but when illness strikes, illness strikes. Next year!

My parting thought for the day is 'Who is Kevin De Weert/”