Friday, 29 June 2012
Introduction Tour de France 2012 Tour Time. Really early this year, it seldom starts on the last day of June. Must be to do with TV scheduling and the Olympic Road Race. Makes no difference as long as most of it is in July. Most of it is in France. They ride on Belgium soil during three days. And nip over to Switzerland. Otherwise it is the Alps first, then the Pyrenees. I shall be watching it live when they climb Mont St. Clair in Sete, then ride another 20k or so to the finish at Agde, on the Fourteenth of July. More on that later, with photos, no doubt. Roughly speaking there are a number of flattish stages, before they get to the mountains on the seventh. A couple of the flat stages have uphill finishes, which will separate riders a bit before the mountains. Then a serious climb, a long time trial, followed by a rest day. The ride around a bit in the Alps. There are only three finishes at altitude this year. The climbers have to attack smartish if they are to win the Tour. I hope there is big action in the Alps, but maybe not. Then they come over to us in Sete, Mont St. Clair on 14th July, take on the Pyrenees and then scurry back to Paris, with a time trial second last day. In fact, Individual Time Trials are longer than usual, and there are two of them. In other words, the winner is going to be a climber who launches some incredible attacks and gains minutes in the mountains on all the riders who can time trial well. There really isn't anyone obvious for that, and the time triallists can climb too. Or it might be someone who can keep up in the mountains with anyone but a serious attacker, and then turn in a time trial of excellence. As described by the Tour site, there are nine flat stages, 4 hilly ones (with one finishing in a climb), and five mountain stages, with two finishes on high (although it seems to me there are three). One hundred k of Individual Time Trial! So who might win the whole thing? Two possible winners won't even ride. Alberto Contador, who would be the overwhelming favourite, is serving the last month of a drug ban. No I won't discuss it, it is boring. Andy Schleck, second three times, although a winner one year after Contador won and was busted, also won't be riding. These two will meet in the Tour of Spain, end of August. That leaves two overwhelming favourites, according to nearly everyone including the odds makers. Both of them are actually quite interesting characters. No doubt I will talk about that side of things during the Tour. Cadel Evans won last year, the first Australian ever. He is a slightly strange guy who I like. The other big favourite is Bradley Wiggins, who has won three of the most prestigious week to ten day stage races this year. No other cyclist is human history as done that. Even those who have won two of the Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and Dauphine Libere are rare, probably Eddy Merckx and some other immortal. Bradley is GOOD. Either of these winning would be a good ending for me. In fact, a third person might be quite interesting too. I just want a race. I already KNOW the scenery in HD will be outstanding. Who might crack the top two? The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali, confirmed as a really good rider, needs to win the Tour to go with his other victories in the Vuelta and Giro. Then he will be a true giant of the road. His form has been unreliable, but often pretty good this year. He has an excellent team to help him, including Ivan Basso, himself a rider of grand class. The older of the Schleck brothers, Frank, is sometimes mentioned as a top three. As I said, there is a story there, but we will see what he can do when they get to the mountains. He can climb pretty well, but his time trialling is fairly rudimentary. Another outsider could be the mature Russian, Denis Menchov, who can often keep up in the mountains and can time trial well. In most races, he would be a strong favourite, having won the Vuelta twice and the Giro once. Even Levi Leipheimer, who is even older than Menchov, with the same characteristics, might end up challenging for the podium. One of my favourites, Samuel Sanchez, the Basque who won the mountains jersey last year, could possibly hang with the lads and surprise. The Spaniard, Alejandro Valverde used to be a good climber, with a kick at the end, although he cannot do TTs very well. Furthermore no one knows his form, he is just this year coming off a two year doping ban. The last guy I will mention is Andreas Klöden, the elderly German who can keep up in the mountains and also time trial. If nothing untoward happens, my favourite has to be Bradley Wiggins. We won't know the winner until the end of the time trial on the second last day. Then the good time triallists will see if they can gain back time they might have lost in the mountains. I have no idea which climber will attack to gain that time, or even if anyone can do it. In the end, Evans or Wiggins. I just hope it is fun to watch, full of bold moves and interesting contests. The green jersey is for the rider who finishes well in many stages, on average. So finishing second on every stage is worth lots more points than two stage wins and several sixth places. Usually it is called “the sprinters jersey”, because it is nearly always a sprinter who wins it. This year it is sure to be a sprinter. The current World Champion, from the Isle of Man, Mark Cavendish, won last year. This year, there is a new wonder boy on the block, plus a number of familiar and motivated competitors. If it were not for this one guy, Peter Sagan, most people would pick Cav to repeat. Sagan has already won 33 races at the age of 22. At his age, Jalabert, Kelly and Fignon had won one or two races. This guy is GOOD. Oh yes, and Cav is losing weight (story below), maybe losing power (or not), and maybe has leadout train of two guys. Longer story below, but Sagan has been winning and beating everyone. If it is flat he wins, if it has a hill at the end, he wins. The oddsmakers pick him to beat Cav. We shall see. I don't think they have ridden against each other this year. There are number of other riders who could easily win a stage or so, but who also could finish quite well every day. The guy who finished second last year ride better this year. I don't really know and have heard nothing about his form. He is called Rojas. Two other guys who are nearly as fast as Cav, or maybe faster, are Andre Greipel, the German who is nicknamed the Gorilla, on account of his massiveness, and Matthew Goss, an Australian, who won the Milan San Remo race this year, and can also get up short hills pretty fast. There are other sprinters who might be on form and lucky, Like the ancient Allessandro Pettachi, who sometimes, along with Oscar Freire, finds some clever move to beat the others on a given day. The very young Marcel Kittel will be trying to make his mark, and in the background, Taylor Farrar, the American with Team Garmin will be trying snatch something. I think this points jersey competition will be the most interesting race to watch during the first week,and maybe throughout the Tour.. The “young rider” is anyone who was born 1 January 1987 or later (25 or less, roughly). The jersey goes to the rider who is highest on the overall General Classification. This includes some names that will surely pop up during the race. I have picked Rein Taaramae, an Estonian who rides for a French team, Cofidis, which is not a very strong one and which also sacked the old boss a few days ago and has a new one for the Tour. Not the best sign, but the guy is good. I hope young Thibaut Pinot, a brand new French climber does well. But in your first Tour, it is unlikely you will be the best young rider. Tejay van Garderen is an American, who I rather like, and I was tempted to pick him. Another rider who showed well last year was Steven Kruiswijk, or maybe that was in the Vuelta. In any case, he is a very good climber, and might well finish high on stages, since his job will be to help his leaders until the end. Last year, he was sometimes stronger than his leader, Robert Gesink. The odds makers give the nod also to Wouter Poels, but I don't know enough about him to say much. One of those guys should take it. Usually this is never a real “race”, one guy takes it sort of unconsciously since he trying to do well in the GC. The mountains jersey, for the best climber, is more complicated. Paradoxically, there is seldom a real contest for this one. It is not awarded to the actual “best” climber, who is the guy who gets ahead of nearly everyone else at the finish line of mountain stages. The quantitatively defined “best climber” is the fellow who has crossed each rated climb on the Tour, more points for harder climbs. So as the peloton is riding along at a very average speed, slowly going up the first of several climbs, the competitors for this jersey leap out and try to get over the hill first, even though they then just slow down and carry on with the rest of the peloton. They sometimes race hard for insignificant hills early in the race, gaining a few points for fourth, third or second category climbs. When it comes to first category and hors category (beyond categorisation), they are left behind. Those are the ones which win the tour, not the jersey (more later). One way that a climber can announce his intention to win the jersey is to go on a suicide attack on a hard stage with several mountains on it, gaining all the points on each climb. At the end, when it matters, up the last hill, this guy will be wasted, but he will have all the previously awarded points. I will alert you about this jersey, which won't mean anything until after the first serious mountain stage. I will re-explain then. I have utterly no idea who is going to win the jersey, but I have picked a long shot called Johnny Hoogerland. If you watched the Tour last year, he is the guy who got knocked off his bike by a Tour car, and fell into some barbed wire. Some people go for Chris Anker Sorensen who rides for a team without a leader, and so will be free to mess about in the mountains for himself. He is a good climber. Samuel Sanchez, the Basque rider won the jersey last year, could easily do it again. I would be really surprised if he does not attack on every mountain stage. There is a mature Italian called Michele Scarponi who is very good, BUT has ridden the Giro full out. Most people reckon you can't do well in both, so Scarponi is free to lose time for the GC, so he can attack in the mountains and no leader's team will care. More on that later. I am looking to him to liven things up. Then there is Frank Schleck who might just try a big attack to make his employers happy, or Pierre Rolland, the youngish French rider who blossomed last year when he was the first Frenchman to win a big mountain stage since Hinault. Last guy I will mention is Jelle Vanendert, the last helper of a Belgian dark horse for the yellow jersey, called Van den Broeck. We will see when the mountains come. There you have it. There is an award for the most combative rider each day. There is also one for the “best team”, which I usually wait until later to explain. It is a Tour with a good deal of uncertainty. While Wiggo is the favourite, he has never won before. And while Evans is a previous winner, no one feels strongly that he will win again, even if he is very likely to win. If were a betting man, looking for along odds bet, I would look to Kloden at 113 or Chris Horner at 512. More realistically Samuel Sanchez at Menchov and Froome at 30. It is an open Tour. I think the race for the green jersey could be fascinating, full of good stories. There are many little side stories that animate conversations about the Tour. I will try to tell you some, as time goes on. One is the suggestion that Bradley Wiggins, the British favourite, has come to a peak too early. He won't be able to keep his form during the whole Tour, maybe get dropped badly in the mountains or lose big time to Evans in the Last Time Trial. Most riders these days, although there are exceptions, don't try to race from January until October, non-stop, trying to win each race. Some people claim that in the old days, riders raced hard all year, winning races from March (there was no January in Australia and Malaysia in those days) until October. A few did. But nowadays the normal story is that you have to peak for an event, and then drift down, to peak for some other event. So when Evans was not quite as fit as Wiggins in the Dauphiné not everyone panicked, he was coming to his peak for the third week of the Tour. Those peak events could be the Tour, the Giro, The Vuelta, the Olympics, the World Championships, the Spring Classics, the warm weather sprinting races in January and February in places like Australia (very important for Australians), Malaysia, Qatar, Oman. Wiggins has won shorter big-time stage races, from March until June. In fact no rider in human history has ever won Paris-Nice, Romandie and Dauphiné in one year. Cav is being trained by a guy with a swimming background. Swimmers do peak, but they peak many times with a base that is always 90% or 95%. They never relax and eat bad food, or slob around during the winter. Training hard all the time. Soooo ... the traditionalists say he has peaked too early. Won early races and maybe not fit enough in week three of the Tour. He and his coaches say his form is perfectly, exactly correct. So in some way, this is the conflict between the old ways and the new ways. Most teams use a lot of the new ways too. The Sky management experts and the riders brag a little more than most riders and teams. They tend to go on about how great their measurements are, their methods, their psychological dimension guys, their collaboration with spectacularly excellent product manufacturers … in short they think they are the best in the world, and they are going to win the Tour. There is some kind of line between quiet confidence and rah rah bragging. Crossing that line makes some people uncomfortable. Cav does this sometimes, simply and clearly stating he is the fastest guy in the world (“arrogance”). I don't think anyone much is going to help Sky, make any kind of alliance with them. If Bradley gets caught on a hill without anyone to help him, the rest will mercilessly attack. Another story is about Mark Cavendish, the (acknowledged by all) fastest sprinter in the world. He has won twenty stages of the Tour in four years. If he wins three stages a year for three years (making him 29) he will have won more stages than any rider in history, except Eddy Merckx. To beat Eddy Merckx, Cav needs to win three a year for FIVE more years, which will take him to 31. Hard to do really. Anyway this year, he does not have a big leadout team, that is, riders who sacrifice themselves in the last part of a race so Cav can win. They protect Cav from the wind. They guide him through the pack to a good position in the front, at just the right time. They bring him back to the bunch if he has a puncture. Almost all sprinters have at least one helper, but a sprinter's train consists of five or six riders controlling the race completely in the last 30k, so that there will be sprint finish. Cav has won most of his stages using a train, but he changed teams this year. The train's sprinter just follows the wheel of the right team-mate until, with 250 metres or so to go, the top sprinter pops out from behind the last leadout rider, and wins the race. Another way to win is ride just behind another team's top sprinter and pop out just before he does and win the race. One requires many helpers, the other one or two. This year Cav has only two dedicated helpers. Most of Team Sky, is devoted to making sure Bradley Wiggins wins the Tour. Wiggins does not need to be first in a sprint, he needs to be in the main cluster of riders who are right behind the sprinters. Wiggo needs to be protected from crashes if possible, from wind, from another leader getting too far ahead on a stage and so forth. In addition, Cav has been losing weight. Four kilos they say. What he is trying to do is shape up for the Olympics. Most sprinters can't climb very fast. Although these days, guys like Peter Sagan and Edvald Boasson Hagen can make it up little hills easily AND sprint to a win at the end. Cav used to have a bit of trouble on hills. The Olympic race course will involve climbing a legendary climb south of London called Box Hill. Never been there, but I know the kind of hill, short, fairly steep, 2.5k with 120 metres climbing. Normally, Cav just could not climb that hill NINE times nearly as fast as the fastest guy. He would get dropped. But if you lose weight, you climb better. So Cav has lost some weight, carefully, without losing power. Keep all the muscles and such that make him fast, but make him lighter so the same muscles might take him up a hill faster. NO FAT. That might mean he is with the leaders the ninth time up the hill, or close enough to catch them in the forty k or whatever it is to the finish in London. Then Cav wins the Olympic Gold Medal in the UK. While he has lost his big leadout team for the Tour, he has the dedicated help of the four other guys on the team for the Olympics. Including Bradley Wiggins, who can probably pull back any break off of Box Hill all by himself, with Cav in tow. So will Cav win his “usual” five stages? Probably not. Maybe three this year. However, on stage one and three, there are flat stages that end with a bit of a climb. Sky will have to decide if they let Cav try (with his new slim but powerful body), in which case Edvald Boasson Hagen will be his leadout man. EBH is a not quite top level sprinter who can also sprint very fast up a steepish hill. So maybe Sky will designate the World Champion, Cav, to lead out EBH, just for the story and photos. Also to spread the wins, reward the workers. EBH will leadout Cav on the flat stage finshes. Just watching those two in action should be worth it during the first week or so. I should mention Bernard Eisel, Cav's big buddy, and the guy who will deliver Cav and EBH to the last k where EBH will take over normally. I shoujls say there are stories like this for every sprinter, how they operate, who rides for them, and so forth. I now most about Cav since there is lots of stuff on him in English and French. I won't go into Johan Bruyneel, the Radio Shack Team and the Schlecks today. Frank is riding and Bruyneel is not at the Tour, so the story will continue. I won't speculate about who might attack in the mountains, time for that later. I won't detail the other people who will be riding in the sprints, that will come in time. I certainly won't mention drug stories or Europcar, idly speculating about all this. I have become very much uninterested in doping stories. I say test 'em, bust 'em, but don't blather on about it. Later I might mention my Fantasy Team participation, but not yet. That sort of thing is not to everyone's taste. Must end this for today. I should post my Tour blog nearly every day, except rest days and days when I see it live.