Sunday, 24 July 2011

Cav takes five.

Stage 21
24 July

I watched most of the stage, then the show after, then I got a whole lot of phone calls of a semi-important nature, and it is already 2100, and I have two hours. Not a great day today for disciplined, well edited work. Maybe, just maybe, I will beg your indulgence about my superficiality tonight, and try to reflect and write a bit during the next week. Usually I am so involved in the Tour that if I don't get out of the “Tour zone”, and begin to do more other things, like stacking the four cubic metres of wood that are coming tomorrow, I get depressed when the Tour zone is no longer. The end of the Tour brings a lot of emotions, none of them deep deep, but still pretty real. Over the years I have learned a few tricks, and usually can avoid the post-Tour void, without too much problem. And this year I got ill in the middle and also had heavy family events. I probably held my life a bit together with the Tour blog. Anyway, I always write it for myself anyway, but I like to share as well. One pal offered to fix me up with some kind of tool which will tell me how people got to the blog, how long they stayed, where they live and so forth. I thought about it, and ralised that I would not learn much that I need to know from such a device. I won't get that puffed up if someone likes it, as some people have liked it for years. I had a very good certified judge of writing who says I can write well, in a certain way. Its not a bad blog. And if it turns out that almost no one reads this, then that really doesn't matter either. I know a few friends read it, maybe as much to find out how I am, as to read a flawlessly written and very knowledgable blog about the Tour.

So it's over. We know almost all there is to know. Slowly over the next few days and weeks, we will find out much more. Details from behind the scenes, how things happened backstage that we never knew. Endless (for those who know where to find them) analysis and lists of best moments, biggest disappointment, best team-mate, revelations of the Tour, etc.

For me it was an excellent Tour. There was uncertainty about all the jerseys almost to the very end. Tour 2011 had magnificent feats. I would say that at least once each and sometimes more than onc from Voeckler, Schleck, Evans, Contador, EBH, Hushovd. Rolland, Sanchez, loads of riders did magnificent feats. There were worse than usual bad bits, the crashes of many riders including a huge proportion of the contenders, those who realistically aspired to top ten. It is best when nearly all the riders are in good shape, uninjured and finish the Tour. Even though crashes and injuries are obviously a part of racing. The most obvious example is Contador. One day we might know what his physical problem was. I am sure that he had mental problems, a lot on his mind. Every jersey was won by someone who worked for it and is deserving for outside the Tour sporting reasons as well as fitting into the Tour rules for jersey winners.

Who better than Evans, for all around performance, and some feats of daring and risk?

Cav, well, there are people who don't like him. I once really liked him, then started to dislike him, and now like him again. If he were my neighbour I might not be best friends or anything, but he would make a good neighbour, within limits. And the incidental thing is that he is the fastest sprinter on earth, with the best leadout train on earth, so he won sprints and the green jersey. Every Tour some teams thinks HTC have a weakness, and that they can exploit the strategy that will destabilise Cav and his train. Turns out they can for a stage or two, Cav does not win every single stage. Knowing that Cav can be beten doesnot mean the opposition can actulaly do it much. Its not like the strategy is new, it been going for four years. They can't beat him, alhtough no one can win every race, even if they are the best. He has already won more stages of the Tour, faster, than anyone in human history. Unless something happens, there is no really good reason to doubt he will surpass Armstrong and Darrigade, which means two more victories. Then in a matter of a couple of years, Hinault will be caught, and eventually assuming things move along OK, he might surpass Merckx in Tour victories. That is 34. The guy is the best, and its good for him to win green once in his career. Now he can leave it for others, unless he gets a taste of it and just win more stages. But as in life, so in the Tour. He may never keep going long enough, fast enough to equal Hinault or Merckx, we just don't know..

Who better than Samuel Sanchez as climber of the Tour? He nearly won two mountain stages, and definitely won one? Almost always there with the best. He never tried to win the jersey, just to win the Tour in the mountains. In my view the most appropriate winner this year. It may be true that all things said, he could be the best climber in more than one GT. He can descend as well. Second place, went to Schleck, who is really not very good at descending. You can't be a good climber if you can descend. In my view. Sanchez can do both and did both during the Tour.

As for the white jersey, I think Pierre is great for it. No one picked him at all, it is humbling and fun to have surprises. On the other hand is well known enough in his own country, has won a few races, and no one is deeply surprised. This Tour could well be the turning point of his career. The question is whether he will be at the level of Chavanel, Gadret, di Gregario, Casar or Voeckler or will be he the level of top ten globally. No one knows yet. He is a very quiet, nicely behaved lad right now.

Reminds me of a story I heard today. A friend or mine and I were having a coffee in the cafe. I like doing that. He said his kid (14), who is a dirt bike fanatic, was glued to the Tour for the first time. Normally he says what kids often say about road bikes. He thinks Voeckler is great. He thinks Rolland is amazing. Alpe de bloody Huez! He wants his dad to buy him some kind of road bike before the school starts up. The impact of the Tour. I tried to fully get into how excited and inspired this kid (who I know) could be, assuming it is not a passing fancy, which I don't think it is. Loads of riders were into many things in their childhood, and it is not until they get older that they get into road racing. Usually as a result of the Tour de France. Sadly this kid may never play out his enthusiasm as my local club does absolutely nothing to encourage or teach or help young people get into cyclo-tourism or cyclo-sportives. Maybe the support is hidden, and I will have to look for it. Anyway, if you can, imagine begin 14, French, into cycling of some sort and being hit between the eyes by the Tour for the first time. The lad knew about it of course, but I mean hit by it between the eyes. So that is my favourite Tour story, except it must have happened many thousands of times in France alone. In fact, a 50 year old friend of mine saw the Tour come by one day years ago, and he became a genuine Tour nutter. The drugs seem to have put him off lately. The Tour bug will bite big with this Tour.

The stage was pretty good too. A quite short little promenade into one of the best known cities on earth. View of many tourist attractions, helicopter shots of everything, then the parade around the downtown area. Same parcours for years. The bit I love best is along the Rue de Rivoli to the end, where it takes the zig left and the zig right in the Place de la Concorde to get into the last few hundred metres of the sprint. I really do like that bit.

Rojas seemed to have more or less given up after the intermediate sprint. Naturally I had picked him to get me a few points, but he didn't mange the top ten. Don't know why, but if he didn't try,he is a bit of a wuss for me. Admittedly it was pretty hopeless after the intermediate sprint which he contested. But hey, it was the Champs Elysée for goodness sake. I think he still could have (logically)won by winning the stage and Cav out of the first fifteen. Who knows, maybe he just decided that Cav was the best this year and he was second best. For me Rojas was one of the revelations of the Tour. He has to be in the list of the “current best sprinters in the world”. What I did like about the stage is EBH trying to beat Cav. I mean EBH has had a great Tour, could not be better. If he snuck past Cav, he would be noticed by all, big time. As far as I can see, the only reason EBH is not fully recognised as a very high class rider is that he has had injury problems for two years. For example, I really would like to see Sagan and EBH go head to head on some of the uphill sprints in races over the next ten years. Unless EBH can learn to climb high hills. Then … Having two young talents like Peter Sagan (too young for the Tour) and EBH, not to mention all the others (Geraint Thomas), bodes well for pro cycling.

By all the others, I mean the five young riders in the top fifteen. This is unheard of. Lose a few of the big leaders, and some excellent young riders step up. I guess, although I have talked about it before, the success of the young riders, French and other, has been one thing that has marked this Tour for me. Often, the older guys were a bit disappointing, but the younger ones played way above what we used to think was their weight. We await future results to know if this younger generation is going to provide us with better sports entertainment. Always a good idea to read over the list of the best young riders at the end of the Tour. Try to remember what they did, what they look like. You will see them again.

In a funny way, although this Tour got rid of way too many very good riders via crashes, it also confirmed some of the more experienced riders. Evans for the best example. He rode an excellent Tour. Did nothing as amazing and historic as Schleck's ride up Galibier, 60k of solo riding in the highest mountains. That is the stuff of legends. That ride will live forever. Mind you some of Evan's towing along a group of others for tens of kilometres, his wee victory early on, his totally massive time trial after three weeks of racing, all that was excellent. Totally deserved victory. Some day I would like to understand the strange deep dislike of Evans in certain circles. He is not pretty, true. He grimaces a lot, looks like life itself is a constant pain, smiles when he cries, cries when he smiles (in public), has a squeaky voice, has self doubts and reveals them, involves himself in deviant causes (Aboriginals and Tibetans), has a complex wife and relationship (unlike some wives and relationships, to my mind), he is just too weird. Sadly for such people he wins races, and sometimes by feats of daring attack or massive solo effort. He seems a more than vaguely interesting cyclist. Probably, almost certainly, rides without doping.

Anyway, I am going on. No need really, the Tour is over. It was a good Tour, the results are known, more little mysteries will be revealed, deals between riders and new teams will begin to leak out in a few days. We will see what lives on from this Tour, what dominates the analyses that should come out in the next month. Should be fun. I do think we had a vintage Tour.

Oh yes, a small fact I learned that I never knew before today. Might be common knowledge. The financing of the Leopard Trek team, essentially the Schlecks, has always been slightly mysterious. Big money comes from this real estate magnate who suddenly decided to put big money into a procycling team. Bazzi, or whatever he is called. I wondered idly now and again why he did it. He clearly is not advertising a product, Leopard is not a product. The other sponsors, like Trek bikes, cars, clothing and tyres and so forth are paying normal advertising rates. They have products to sell. It turns out that Johnny Schleck, the ex-pro father, has been a hunting buddy of this rich Luxembourgeois for 25 years. That's how the team got financed. I never knew about the hunting connection until yesterday.

One last thought. In the unlikely case that I either write or collect “Tour assessments”, I will put them on the site within a month, maybe even a week. So pop back once or twice in the next month, in case I do it. I shall do this next year, unless something happens. Same address, I hope. I wrote 22 blog entries over three and half weeks. They were all somewhere between 2,000 and 1500 words. Not that well edited sometimes, if I were tired or undisciplined. That could be well over 40,000 words in three and a bit weeks. I guess that is how people write books, but at a less frantic pace and stretched out a bit. I am impressed. Too bad I lack discipline and focus. It is fun to do though.


Evans does the job, Schlecks flop

Stage 20
23 July 2011

Even the day before the end, we still could have one change, presuming nothing bad happens. We can watch the parade into Paris with a bit of attention to the intermediate sprint and the ride around the Champs with the hope that no one falls off. If it all goes as expected the final jersey, the green one, will be settled. It would be a huge surprise if it were not Cav who wins it.

The holder of the white jersey preserved it with a fine time trial. Andy Schleck, the holder of the yellow jersey did a pretty bad TT, and Evans did a brilliant one. So he wins the Tour. I am pleased. Don't quite know why I went off both Schlecks, but I certainly have. They seem like very talented, extremely fit, slightly flawed, child-like, strategically rigid, whining rich kids. In spite of his not conventionally lovely looks, squeaky voice, and terrible French, I like him. Especially the “him” that has begun to appear over the last two years. He has a bit of depth, the Schlecks seem shallow.

Lets look at the TT. A few less obvious things. Pierre Rolland should have been beaten by Rein Taaramae, who should now have the white jersey. And Pierre WAS beaten. But only by 47 seconds, and Rein failed to win the jersey. So Pierre, after his win yesterday on the Alpe, has kept the white jersey. A minor triumph for a very good time trial under pressure. And a nice little cherry on the cake of the French Continental (second division) team Europcar. There is no doubt that Rolland is going to become another young chou-chou of the French. But it also looks like he might be able to take a step up from being one of the “new hopes”, and become a new “core rider” for the French. He did very well, as he is not a rouleur, not a specialist in the TT.

For me the biggest surprise of all is the fourth place of Thomas De Gendt, from the second division Vacansoleil team. I had no idea whatever that he could time trial (not that I know anywhere near everything, although I did know he likes long escapes), much less beat everyone in the peloton except Martin, Evans and Contador. He beat Porte (another youngish guy who is known as a good TTer), Peraud (former French TT champion), Sanchez, Cancellara, Danielson, EBH, Millar and so forth. I will look for an explanation. The poor showing of Cancellara shows he is unwell or knackered. I wonder when was the last time trial, in any race, where he was beaten by seven guys. Millar, normally an excellent TT rider, finished nearly four minutes behind. Beaten by Cunego! I have to remember that for many of these guys there is no obvious point in trying hard when they nothing to gain. But the case of Millar also requires explanation, as he usually is in the top ranks. You'd think he would ride well just for pride. Or to help his team win the team competition. When is the last time Millar finished 32nd, nearly four minutes off the pace.

Tony Martin is one of the best in the world right now, and he showed it. Contador is also a superb TT rider, and tried his best to overtake Voeckler for fourth, just out of pride I suppose. He finished third on the day. Even Thomas Voeckler tried hard at the end, finishing a respectable fourteenth, 2 minutes behind Martin.

The guys who lost most were the Schlecks. They simply rode badly, pulling nothing out of the bag. Andy, after boldly asserting he would win the Tour yesterday, finished 2 and half minutes behind Evans, and lost the Tour. No doubt he also lost the Tour because their plan, rigidly adhered to, was to NOT attack in the Pyrenees. They lost it there too, but they didn’t even come close in the TT. In fact, almost as if they were riding together, looking for the other brother constantly, they finished only three seconds apart. Andy particularly should have done way better than Frank. Quite a bad performance. Many of you have not heard of Richie Porte, but he was expected in the top ten and did well out of pride, as he was way down the GC. J-C Peraud, who was riding his first Tour at the age of 34, used to be a mountain bike. He managed to prevent Pierre Rolland from finishing in the top ten by riding a good TT. Put another way, he was the second best Frenchman and finished in the top ten on his first go. Four French in the top 14. Twenty percent of the top twenty were young riders.

The guy who rode the most important and meaningful TT is Cadel Evens. He throughly beat both Schlecks and rose to the top of the tree. The gap he created was way wider than anyone thought. Unless something happens, he rode himself in to the yellow jersey for good. In fact, had he ridden a little bit faster, 8 seconds over 42.5 k, he would have WON the entire time trial, and beaten every single rider. This would be incredible, given the work he did on his own, in the mountains. So it was an awesome ride on his part, and added to his earlier stage victory, and his towing the entire GC peloton up many mountains, makes him a totally deserving victor. No need to say “but” in any way. Bravo to Cadel.

Just to keep things in perspective. The slowest rider, the cyclist who just rode fairly comfortably to the end, only took 11 minutes more than the winner. In other words they are all riding very fast, but a few faster than the others. Nobody is loafing, pretending to be a cycle tourist.

As a quick summary of how uncertain and unpredictable this Tour has been, we can go back and review the predictions of the experts in the editorial team of Velo magazine. This is the classiest mag in France. Most of them make their living in the cycling culture, learning about and writing about cycling throughout the world, but certainly during the Tour. NONE of nine predicted Evans would win. NONE of them predicted that Sanchez would win the mountains jersey. ONE of them guessed Cavendish would get the green jersey, and even if Rojas should win, none of them picked him. And lastly NONE of them picked Rolland to win the young jersey (even though he is French), or Taaramae if he should somehow win. So out of the 36 possible correct picks for all the jerseys, they got one correct. This is a percentage of 3% correct, rounded UP.

So much more could be said, but a time trial sometimes leaves one a bit bereft of words. After all, although it is the race of truth, it does JUST consist of one rider riding on his own for a fixed distance. At the end there is a fixed time. The times are rank ordered. No battles, nobody being dropped on a climb, no crashes, no real action of a collective sort. The best way to watch a TT is with a few friends, near a curve, a slight uphill or a downhill. One after the other, same spot. Sounds boring, but it is not.

Cav and HTC should win tomorrow, but I picked Rojas to get more points. One last word about my fantasy teams. I think that without a shadow of a doubt, unless I get some heavy bonuses at the end, this is the worst I have done in years, probably the worst I have ever done. I was a bit hasty and casual with my picks, and really should take it more seriously or just stop. It is not much fun when you do so badly. Its like being in a race and getting dropped early on.

Last blog tomorrow, unless I feel inspired to do a wrap up reflection. I always think I should, but in fact, I am usually glad it is over, and normal life can begin again. Maybe two or three days after the Tour is over, check the blog, see if I have actually done a reflective piece. My cold is almost gone as well.

Do watch the parade to Paris, the first sight of the Eiffel Tower, and the last sprint. There is something really exciting and aesthetically fascinating as they ride across the Place de la Concorde for the last time. Presumably with HTC, probably Renshaw the last guy, after Goss drops them on the Place, towing Cav to the line.

Until tomorrow.