Thursday, 19 July 2012

Valverde Back, Sky Does the Business

Stage 18

I can feel the end coming. Admittedly there is a slightly bumpy stage tomorrow which will be won by someone in the break. Then a time trial, which will be won by Wiggo, unless Froome tries to upset the party. Then a stage on the Champs Elysée, which always is rather nice, but will be won by Cavendish behind the Sky lead out team, all for one and one for all. I suppose there could be surprises, but frankly, I can only see that they would be bad ones. Since I rather like competition and surprises, the final days might see me losing a certain degree of enthusiasm. If you are new to this blog, it happens every year. I would say it was a pretty good Tour, although totally dominated by Sagan, Greipel, Sky, Wiggins and Froome, Voeckler, young riders, French riders, British riders, … actually not dominated in its totality by anyone. A fair bit of variety for everyone.

Today was the last day that we could really be surprised. And we were not. Sky controlled the race, Liquigas tried hard, as did Nibali, but it was never going to happen. I was quite happy to see Voeckler decide to win the spotted jersey and then pull it off. He was the best climber to try and win the jersey. Even if there were only two of them who tried. Kessiakoff, while second, made a name for himself and probably is pretty pleased, since not a soul would have picked for second. No one. The countryside was sumptuous, although I could tell it rains a bit in the area. Lots of moss. But totally attractive looking in the sunshine.

There were a number of high spots today and throughout. First, I am delighted that the French have done well. Not just the young guys, but the ones that have been part of a generation that has been mildly disappointing over the last ten years. They still manage to win stages in their own race, Voeckler, Pineau, Fedrigo, Chavanel are still there. I do think it will be a bit of lift to Tour fans to be watching Pinot, Gallopin, Rolland, and the missing young sprinters in the next decade. I am not neglecting Tejay, EBH, Kittel or Taylor Phinney, just mentioning the French up front. It was with a minor frisson that I liked seeing Pinot coming in right behind Froome and Wiggins today. Seconds behind, in his first Tour, at the end of three weeks. Pinot was stronger than any other riders in the entire Tour.

A big disappointment in the Tour has been Menchov, who was quietly invisible, although he did show his face in front today for a bit. He really has done nothing much except lose time in dribs and drabs everywhere. He was meant to be maybe 5th or better and he is fifteenth. Bit sad for him too. Radio Shack is the best team, but no one on the team did much of anything, just rode along better than nearly all the riders, except the good ones. "Best team" is fair enough, but they had none of the best riders. Haimar Zubeldia, their best rider, lost two places today, just could not keep up. Although they lost Sanchez, the Euskatel team failed to shine, even though they would have riders in the breaks and one thought they might do something. But there were many teams who came away with nothing much to show for three weeks of hard work, so picking out disappointing results is easy enough.  I think I will stop.

In spite of the fact that they shut down all the competition, thereby making the yellow jersey contest a bit less than wildly exciting, one must admit the Sky team and their one-two was very impressive. They said they would win the Tour in five years. It took less time than they thought. People made fun of them or dismissed them. But in the end they did what they said. Sure, they had more money than any team in cycling history. But you still have to pedal.

Felt bad about Evans and BMC. They have not had a good year at all. But they will be back and they showed excellent organisation and unity. Just that Evans was not ready, or too old, or something. Hope Cadel does a spiffing time trial. I like the guy. He is, for a cyclist, pretty eccentric, but has made it to the top. Tejay has probably learned a thing or two, riding at Cadel's side during the entire Tour. Next year.

A word about Chris Froome is in order. I felt his behaviour on this stage was at least ambiguous and unprofessional, and at worst appalling and theatrical. He signed up for a team that had a role for him. He has been ill for ages, from a parasite that comes and goes, caught in Kenya or South Africa. Sky stuck by him while he did nothing much this year (fourth in the Dauphiné). They thought his ride in the Vuelta was not a fluke, and he had trained well using Sky methods and support. He was probably stronger than Wiggo in the hills, and if the cycling world were not as it is, he might have just ridden away and won the Tour. The time he lost on Wiggins was a minute and half for a puncture ten k from the end of stage one, and the thirty seconds Bradley took off him in the ITT. He really should have just stayed calmly with Bradley, there was no great hurry for the yellow jersey, nothing much to prove, no extra time was needed on Nibali. Instead Froome would accelerate, and then look back, as if to tell the world he was the strongest. We got the message days ago. An ungracious teammate. I guess he will have to wait a year or so to win with Sky. Or he can find someone like BMC to buy up his contract. No doubt we will have rumours flowing from this moment on. I hope Sky gives him a strong team in the Vuelta, so we can see a ding dong between Contador, Rodriguez, Valverde, A. Schleck, Froome, Cobo and anyone else who turns up.

Oh yes, delighted to see Valverde back in some kind of shape. I like him, even if he is an ex doper. He got in the escape, used his team, attacked at the right time, and held off the Dynamic Duo from Sky to win the stage. True, if Froome had been let loose he would have beat him. IF …

Sagan. What can I say? The guy is brilliant, even though we knew that. His riding in the Tour was a bit beyond most expectations. The only question in my mind is whether he will lose weight and be able to climb, or whether he will just win stages and one day races, several a year. He already has a better win record than any recent one day hero at his age. No one has a clue what he can really do as he grows up and gets more experienced.

Cav did what he had to do, given that he just didn't figure in the Sky plans for this Tour. I only hope he wins on the Champs, and then all will be OK. And I wish I had known they were not even going to give him the time of day. I would not have picked him on my fantasy team.

Just to review, Sagan really cannot lose the green jersey, although I am pretty sure he will be going for points or for wins, tomorrow and in Paris. He is so far ahead of Greipel that if Greipel won the stage tomorrow, won the time trial and also the sprint in Paris, he still could not earn enough points. Voeckler has the mountains jersey as there are virtually no rated climbs left. He must have a terrific crash to lose it. Tejay Van Garderen has won the young rider's jersey, unless Thibaut Pinot beats him in the time trial (Tejay was four minutes faster in the first one) and/or gets in some escape and takes several minutes out of Tejay tomorrow. Almost impossible. Wiggins has yellow, unless he get totally whipped by Froome in the TT, or crashes. Radio Shack is so far ahead in the team competition that they would all have to fall off their bikes to lose it.

So aside from awful things happening, the Tour is over. The only matters left are which member of the break will win tomorrow, and will there be something that causes one or two people to change places in the top fifteen. Since all teams are interested in that NOT happening, it probably won't. I suggest you might see some rather unusual teams riding in front tomorrow, preserving ninth place or something. AG2R protecting Roche in the top ten, for example. We don't know if Froome or Wiggo will win the time trial, I certainly hope Wiggo does. The only likely riders to beat them are Tejay or Evans, and I somehow doubt it. Then there is the final question as to whether the Sky train will work well and Cav will finish it off. It is unlikely that there will be too much crashing in Paris, as the roads are really wide, and if anyone crashes into the yellow jersey train and causes them to lose the race by injury, then this will be a bad deed indeed. Cav will most likely win, a little gift from his team who have not helped him very much during the race.

Good night.