Wednesday, July 1, 2009

2009 Tour de France For Dummies

The 2009 Tour de France starts Saturday, July 4 in Monaco and in anticipation of this spectacular event, here is a two part explanation of the race, the riders, and the storylines to watch for over the next three-and-a-half weeks.

-Storylines to Watch-
Lance is Back American Lance Armstrong retired from professional cycling in 2005 after winning an unprecedented seven Tours de France in-a-row. In order to bolster his Livestrong campaign against cancer, last year he decided to come out of retirement and raise the profile of both his crusade, and of the sports of cycling...and possibly take home some hardware in the process. Armstrong joined powerhouse Team Astana which already boasted the world's best current stage racer (Alberto Cantador) and America's best rider (Levi Leipheimer) as well. After recovering from a broken collarbone suffered in a crash earlier this year, Armstrong is back in good form and it a contender for the overall title as long as he shows he is the strongest of his teammates and can win their support.

Former Greats Fall Short of Redemption Once upon a time, Ivan Basso was the chief rival to Armstrong and Jan Ulrich. After receiving a two-year ban for admitting that he had been planning to blood dope (did you read that Bud Selig?), he returned this year and joined Liquigas but was not chosen as one of their Tour de France riders this year. American Floyd Landis was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for allegedly doping. Landis had a hip replaced, served out his two-year ban, and returned early this season as well. But he was unable to land a spot on a premier team and his California-based Ouch! Racing failed to be selected for this Tour. Former American national champ and Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton decided to retire when caught using steroids and was then hit with an eight-year ban since he'd already served a two-year ban for blood doping (which he denies). Sprinter Tom Boonen was booted from this Tour after a third positive cocaine test outside of the racing season. (Update: Boonen was reinstated the day before the Tour started and is riding for Quickstep). Another former Armstrong-rival, Alexander Vinokourov, retired when he got a one-year ban when caught blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France. After deciding to unretire, his case was reopened and he was ordered to serve out the standard two-year ban, so he will also miss the 2009 Tour. Vino's doping in 2007 was a key reason for Team Astana not being invited to the 2008 Tour, keeping returning champ Cantador out of the race at no fault of his own.

Course Favors Climbers Armstrong stated that this year's course offers a great advantage to climbers which makes for wonderful theater as the racers turn themselves inside out trying to summit Alpine and Pyranean peaks in the quest for their sports' greatest glory.

As Long As They Don't All Kill Eachother... Team Astana features three of the races top names, and top contenders for the overall title. Their loyalty to their teammates and their respect for the sport's traditions will be tested as two of them will be forced to swallow their pride to carry their teammate to victory. But which one?

More Reasons For The French To Hate Us As if having the all-time greatest Tour de France rider being an ugly American wasn't bad enough, now he's back and they just can't seem to pin any cheating on him! And now there are as many of five Americans with decent chances to win it all - Armstrong, Leipheimer, David Zabriskie, Christian Vandevelde, and Danny Pate. For the second straight year, there are also two American teams as well - Garmin-Slipstream, and Columbia-High Road.

Radio Silence For the first time in decades, riders will compete in two stages (10 and 13) without the benefit of radio communication with team managers in chase cars with GPS information, time gaps, etc. Look for veteran riders to try and take advantage, particularly on the hilly stage 13, where small pockets of riders or indivuduals could easily slip away from the peleton if their don't have their head count right. The wiley Jens Voigt is a common favorite to make a bold move under these circumstances, which may be exactly why he doesn't bother.

What's With The Polka Dots? Six awards are given out at the Tour de France: The Yellow jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader (based on total time) - also known as the General Classification or GC. The Green jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader in sprint points (each stage has a few checkpoints where points are awarded to the first three riders to cross, as well as at the finish line) - also known as the Points Classification. The Polka Dot jersey is awarded daily to the overall top climber (points are awarded at the summits of each climb - the higher the climb and the later in a stage it occurs, the more points are awarded) - also known as the King of the Mountains Classification. The White jersey is awarded daily to the overall leader who is 25-years-old or younger - also known as the Best Young Rider Classification. The team with the fastest overall time at the end of the Tour wins the Team Time title - times are counted by adding up the times of the three fastest team members each day. And a Most Aggressive Rider jersey is awarded daily based on the previous day's stage (signified by white numbers on red, as opposed to black numbers on white like all other riders).

The Rundown This 96th Tour has 21 stages and covers approximately 2200 miles of road through six countries (Monaco, France, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland, and Italy), with two rest days. It runs from July 4th to July 26th. There are 10 flat stages, eight mountain stages, two individual time trials, and a team time trial. Three stages finish on the summits of climbs. There are 20 Highest Category ("HC"), Category 1, or 2 climbs, with the highest point reached being the summit of Col de Grand-Saint Bernard at 8113 feet during Stage 16. Climbs are categorized based on difficulty, as determined by the steepness (grade) and length of a climb.

-Riders To Watch-
Alberto Cantador (Spain) - Team Astana Generally considered the best stage race cyclist in the world, Cantador is the odds-on favorite. He has won every Grand Tour (like golf's Majors and tennis' Grand Slams) he has entered since winning the '07 Tour de France, and is riding very well right now. He will need to show his dominance early on to prove that he is the man to support for his Astana teammates and management. Cycling teams are designed to have a leader that gets protected by the other eight riders. Generally, they know going in who they will support and while Cantador is considered the strongest rider, the team almost has to be a little split considering who else is in the Astana stable.

Lance Armstrong (USA) - Team Astana While not a prohibitive favorite like he was the last few times he was in the Tour, Armstrong is on the short list of riders with a very good chance to win it all. If Cantador falters, crashes, or Armstrong comes out in completely dominating fashion early on, he could wrest control of the team away from Cantador. This could end in an unprecedented eighth Tour win, or it could shatter the team into pieces, costing them more than just the general classification title as well as shots at the other titles (and huge pay-days). Armstrong is a fan favorite and is a close friend and ally of team manager Johan Bruyneel, but this is Cantador's team (and Tour) to lose.

Andy Schleck (Luxembourg) - Team Saxo Bank Last year's Young Rider champion, the younger Schleck brother is still only 24 but is a serious threat for the GC title this year if he can keep himself from having that one bad day that knocks him out of it. Like Cantador and Armstrong, he is an exceptional climber and time trialist, and he has a deep team that can help protect him (particularly with older brother Frank, Voigt, and Fabian Cancellara).

Carlos Sastre (Spain) - Cervelo Test Team The 2008 Tour was considered a weaker field due to some doping suspensions and the organizers holding Astana out, and Sastre's win is considered a bit flukey due to his perhaps lucky timing on the ride up Alpe d' Huez. But a Tour de France champion he is, and he will be wearing #1 on his hip no matter what the critics might say. Sastre jumped ship from CSC-Saxo Bank to take the helm at the new Cervelo team and while that eliminates the competition at the top of the team, it also eliminates the protection he felt at the helm of such a deep squad.

Cadel Evans (Australia) - Silence-Lotto Evans has clearly been the most consistent rider in the Tour de France in Armstrong's absense, but doesn't have any hardware to show for it. Since his first Tour in 2005 when he finished 8th, he improved in 2006 to 5th, and was the runner up in 2007 and 2008 by under a minute each time. Evans' team is not as strong as Astana or Saxo Bank but he does have Sebastian Lang and Johan Van Summeren to support him (if Van Summeren isn't the leader).

Denis Menchov (Russia) - Rabobank Menchov is often considered not an overall favorite at the Tour because he is unspectacular...he isn't the best in any one discipline. But he just dominated the Giro d'Italia against most of the same field using his steady, solid style. He may not dominate, but he can certainly hang around long enough to win.

Levi Leipheimer (USA) - Team Astana The forgotten star on the three headed monster that is Astana, Leipheimer has taken a backseat to the dominance of Cantador and the notoriety of Armstrong, but this team could just as easily be his depending perhaps on how things go in stage 1 and stage 7. Leipheimer is also an exceptional time trialist and can hang with many of the best climbers, though isn't considered an elite climber himself.

Mark Cavendish (UK) - Columbia-High Road With his absoluletly dominant sprint speed, his expectation of finishing the Tour (somewhat unusual for sprinters), and the absense of Boonen, Cavendish has a very good chance of topping his 2008 Tour performance where he won 4 stages. Cavendish's sprinting is so dominant and his climbing is so adequate that he is even a distant contender for GC (very, very distant). He'd likely be happier wearing Green in Paris anyway, and seeing teammates Michael Rogers or Kim Kirchen in Yellow anyway.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain) - Caisse d-Epargne Banned. The Italian Olympic committee banned this team leader and GC favorite from competing in Italy and since the Tour goes onto Italian soil in stage 16, Valverde is out. He placed in the top 10 in GC for the last two Tours.

Christian Vandevelde (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream 2008 Yellow jersey 5th place
Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg) - Columbia-High Road 2008 Yellow jersey 8th place
David Zabriskie (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream 2009 US National Champion
David Moncoutie (France) - Confidis Le Credit En Ligne Great climber, top French hope
Oscar Freire (Spain) - Rabobank 2008 Green jersey winner
Thor Hushovd (Norway) - Cervelo Test Team 2008 Green jersey runner up
Danny Pate (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream Distant GC hopeful
Tyler Farrar (USA) - Garmin-Slipstream Top American sprinter, one of Cavendish's biggest threats
George Hincapie (USA) - Columbia-High Road Top support for Rogers/Kirchen, an all-time great American cyclist
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) - Team Saxo Bank A master time trialist, he will likely go for the yellow jersey in stage 1 and try and hold it until teammates Andy or Frank Schleck take it from him in the mountains

-Stages To Watch-
July 4 - Stage 1 An unusually difficult 9.6 mile time trial through the streets of Monaco. Typically the overall contenders do not stick their necks out early in the Tour, but they won't be allowed to play this course too conservatively. General classification riders and time trialists to watch: Armstrong, Menchov, Cantador, Leipheimer, Cancellara, Bradly Wiggins.

July 7 - Stage 4 Team time trials are not seen each year in the Tour de France and offer a huge advantage to the deeper teams (like Astana, Silence-Lotto, and Saxobank). This 24.2 mile team time trial could easily push one of the big teams' GC contenders into Yellow early on in the Tour.

July 10 - Stage 7 At 139.2 miles, this is the longest stage in the 2009 Tour and features a mountaintop finish. This course layout could very likely force the contenders to come out of the protection of their teammates and battle it out, which is unusual in the Tour's first week. Look for teams with undetermined leadership (Astana) to fall in line behind the strongest man after this one.

July 12 - Stage 9 This stage is seemingly built for a breakaway, which is music to Saxo Bank's Voigt's ears. At 99.7 miles, the bruising mountain stage takes the riders over the famous Col d'Aspin and the Tourmalet, which Armstrong has called the Tour's toughest climb. Given that the first rest day is the next day, this is the perfect time for non-GC contenders (particularly a Frenchman who would then be in Yellow for Bastille Day) to make a run at a huge breakaway to steal a few minutes and possibly the Yellow jersey for a few days.

July 14 - Stage 10 Bastille Day at the Tour de France is always a day when the French riders go for national glory, and with this being the first of two stages where riders will not have radio communications with their managers in team cars, this could be a wild stage. The 120.8 mile course is flat though, and the GC men will likely not make any bold moves.

July 21 - Stage 16 Two massive climbs makes this alpine stage a possible back-breaker for those in the overall competition. It is likely too early for anyone to win the Tour, but it is just in time for a someone to lose it with a bad ride. The course is 99.4 miles and goes over the longest and highest climb of this Tour, the HC Col de Grand Saint-Bernard, and then deceptively named Cat 1 "Petit" Saint Bernard.

July 22 - Stage 17 After yesterday's monster climbs, this one will truly punish anyone who doesn't like climbing. 105 miles over 5 categorized climbs and a heartstopping downhill finish will likely end a few sprinters' Tours, as well as the hopes of many GC men. As the peleton is whittled down, the strongest teams will come to the forefront now. The leaders on teams that are still in tact will have a huge advantage down the stretch.

July 23 - Stage 18 With no time to rest after surviving some killer climbs in the Alps, the riders head to the second individual time trial. If the overall title is close, this time trial could go a long way to opening gaps on riders who don't time trial well. It could also further gum up the works if any teams are still in a fight for leadership.

July 25 - Stage 20 Typically the second-to-last stage is an individual time trial, but this year's Tour has held a special treat for that all-important penultimate day. Never before has the Tour held a mountain stage on the final stage before Paris and this is no ordinary mountain! A 103.8 mile epic over five categorized climbs, culminating in the crushing 13.1 mile assent of the HC moonscape of Mont Ventoux, one of the toughest climbs in the world. For one 9-mile stretch, the grade is 9%.

One of Armstrong's most famous Tour de France moments came in 2000 when he made a stunning attack on Mont Ventoux, destroying the field before eventually giving the stage win to Marco Pantani as a tribute for Pantani's comeback. When Pantani later said he was offended that Armstrong gave him the stage win, Armstrong said, "I learned a lesson that day. No more gifts."

July 26 - Stage 21 This 101.9 mile coronation almost never plays a role in determining the Yellow jersey winner, but can help determine who winds up in Green (depending on which sprinters have survived the mountains). Cavendish, Hushovd, and Freire will likely still be battling it out. The final laps through the streets of Paris serve more as a parade than a race in most years and the climb of Mont Ventoux will likely have separated the field enough that whomever is in Yellow when they start the day will be sipping champagne on the Champs Elysees as they finish it.

No surprises here: Cantador in Yellow with Menchov and Andy Schleck on the podium with him, Cavendish in Green, Andy Schleck in White (and as King of the Mountains), Astana wins the Team Time battle

The race is aired live on Versus each day starting in the early morning hours, and they also do shorter recap shows throughout the day. The afternoon recap show is the easiest to swallow but the play-by-play is re-voiced later and sometimes feels a little distant from the actual action. The live broadcast features by far the best broadcast team in Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett.

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