Monday, July 20, 2009

Tour De France Rest Day Recap II

Stages 1-9: Astana Dominating On The Roads And In The Papers
Lance Armstrong's Team Astana dominated the Tour de France in all senses for the first 10 days. They had four men in the top 6 through the first 9 stages, and were all the talk in between races because of the supposed fireworks going off within the team. Was there ever really any question whether Armstrong or Spaniard Alberto Cantador was the team leader or was it all conjecture by the media? Or did the Astana gand prop up the story to their competitors in the dark as to the team's plans? For the early part of the race, Armstrong and Cantador both looked like they had the form to win it all, and their team seemed bullerproof enough to send either man (and possibly two others) to the podium in Paris.

Stage 10: The Radios Weren't The Only Things Turned Off
The International Cycling Union is the sports governing body and in their infinite wisdom, they decided to experiment with not allowing managers to talk to riders during a race via radios during the most important event in the sport. It's kinda like if the NFL tried out a new rule where the sidelines couldn't give any hand signals to the players during the 2nd quarter of the Super Bowl. Yes, there are professional sports where coaches do not communicate with players and it can work fine (tennis), but why bother test it out here?

Stage 10 was to be the first of two stages that would be run without radios and 14 of the 20 teams signed a petition asking for the decision to be reversed. It wasn't and in a moderate show of protest, the riders simply took the day off. They rode the course, but the wild attacks and aggressive riding expected from the radio-free riders were nowhere to be found. It was a complete snoozer to the point where the UCI admitted their mistake and decided to allow the radios to be used in stage 13.

The one interesting thing that did happen was that as the peloton all cross the finish line in a giant pack, at one point there was a slight gap between two packs in the same group...maybe a half of a second's worth. In an amazingly arbitrary and unfair ruling, the race referee decided that this one-bike-length-gap constituted a break in the peloton and awarded different times to the two groups (everyone in a group at the finish gets the same time as the person in the front of the group to protect riders from over-aggressive riding among 100 or more riders piled up at the finish). This caught major contenders American Levi Leipheimer and Brit Bradley Wiggins out and they lost 15 seconds on the lead, dropping from 4th to 5th and from 5th to 7th, respectively. The ruling was quickly reversed the next day after all 20 teams complained and the referree decided to review the tape.

Stages 11-13: Green, Polka Dot Jerseys Change Hands; Yellow, White Stay Put
The battle for the green jersey (sprint points) Brit Mark Cavendish and Norwegian Thor Hushovd took center stage as the Tour traveled back down out of the Pyrenees and into the flat transitional stages in central France before they head back up into the Alps. American first-timer Tyler Farrar nearly outfoxed Cavenish at the line in stage 11, but Cavendish's kick proved too strong as he won his 3rd stage of the Tour. Hushovd finished 5th in the stage.

The flat stage didn't go completely as planned as Leipheimer went down in a seemingly innocent crash in the final 2 miles, but broke his wrist and was unable to start the next morning for stage 12. Besides his own ambitions, this is a tough blow for Armstrong, Cantador, and Astana, for whom Leipheimer is a great supporter. For those who were able to go in stage 12, it was a day for the breakaway as seven men survived in front of the peloton over the six category 3 and 4 climbs in this not-so-flat flat stage. Cavendish once again out-sprinted the pack to widen his yellow jersey lead and Team Saxo Bank took over the team-time lead thanks to Nikki Sorenson picking up almost six minutes on the peloton in his solo win.

Stage 13 might actually have been an explosive stage if the riders were not allowed radios like initially planned. With a category 1 climb, two Cat 2's, and 2 Cat 3's, it would have been unlikely for the peloton to servive together without the scouting that team cars provide. As it was, Astana continued to push the pace through (as they have for most of the Tour), but kept their cards close to the vest by not attacking. Saxo Bank made a quick attack on the Cat 1 up Col du Platzerwasel, but it was more of a heat-check than anything. Once the move was countered by basically every contender on ever team, Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank cooled back down and the peloton regathered for the final 40 miles-or-so.

Hushovd was able to get into a breakaway and finish 6th in stage 13. As it is quite unusual for a sprinter for go in in a break, he gained 15 points on Cavendish and took the green jersey. Italian Franco Pellizotti took over the king-of-the-mountains crown from Spaniard Egoi Martinez as well, but the team time lead stayed with Saxo Bank and the leaderboard remained unchanged once again (Italian Rinaldo Nocentini in yellow and German Tony Martin in white).

Stage 14: American Revolution
As seems to be the pattern for this Tour, what was supposed to be a run-off-the-mill flat stage wound up providing the most sparks of any stage perhaps in years. With only two moderate Cat 3 climbs, everyone knew there would be a breakaway and what remained to be seen was who would get into it and how much time the contending teams would allow them to gain. The breakaway went early and the biggest name in the bunch was the current patriarch of American cycling, George Hincapie (5:25 off the lead entering the stage) of the American team Columbia.

A little back-story: Hincapie was once the right hand man of Lance Armstrong on Discovery and U.S. Postal Service and helped deliver all seven of his Tour wins. His manager with those teams is Armstrong's manger currently with Astana. Hincapie is one of the most respected and well-liked riders by fans, the press, and other riders. His current team, Columbia, has something of a rivalrly with the other major American squad, Garmin. Hincapie is not a threat to contend for the next seven stages, so even if he were to make up all 5:25 and take over, it is no real concern to any of the general classification contenders.

As the breakaway's lead reached around four minutes, Team Astana took the reigns of the peloton, controlling the pace and allowing the breakaway to extend their lead, but at a controlled pace - not so much that they'd get away and Hincapie would wind up with a huge lead overall, but not so little that anyone else would be tempted to make their own attack. As the lead approached nine minutes, Astana peeled away from the front of the peloton and let AG2R make a last play to hang onto their man's yellow jersey. When it looked like AG2R would not have the firepower to get the breakaway back inside the gap needed to keep Nocentini in the overall lead, Garmin jumped in to help the pacemaking, essentially fighting for no reason to keep Hincapie out of the yellow jersey (in perhaps his last Tour de France)! Hincapie wound up finishing just 5 seconds short of the overall lead.

Later, Garmin team officials would say that it was a strategic move intended to protect the overall hopes of their men American Christian Vandevelde and Wiggins, but it is no secret that Hincapie will likely lose 20 minutes or more once they hit the Alps, so that argument doesn't hold water. Hincapie was extremely upset after the race, blaming his friends at Astana and fellow Americans at Garmin for taking the jersey away for no good reason, but ultimately Astana let Hincapie to stretch his lead out by five minutes while they were in charge of the pace-setting. Bruyneel actually went so far as to say that stretegically, they would have prefered Hincapie to take over yellow and have Columbia to have to defend it. Will Hincapie, Columbia, or anyone loyal to him take revenge on Garmin in later stages?

Stage 15: Cantador Puts The Controversy To Bed
When he made a bold attack on a climb early in the Tour and stole less than 20 seconds from Armstrong, we wondered if Cantador was feeling vulnerable and attacked to protect himself. We wondered if this would provoke Armstrong into finding that gear that seemingly only he has. We wondered if the move was really as dominant as it appeared of if the rest of the contenders had let it go since it was so late in the day and so early in the Tour, they wouldn't lose much time anyway. Cantador answered all those questions, and all the ones about who was the Astana leader with an absolutly dominant charge up the first Cat 1 Alps climb of the Tour.

Asked about their strategy on this first Alpine stage, Armstrong and Bruyneel both joked before the stage that we would see something special that day. "We have a little plan," Bruyneel said with a smile. It seems now that Astana knew all along that Cantador was the stronger man, but they dangled Armstrong, with his fearsome reputation and massive media appeal, in front of the rest of the field as a distraction. When the time came, Armstrong fought off attacks from Saxo Bank and Garmin before seemingly telling Cantador it was time to go, and boy did he go!

Like a canon shot, Cantador put a gap between himself and his chief rivals so fast that even the explosive climbing legs of Andy Schleck couldn't keep up. Cantador blew through the straggling breakway riders on the climb up Verbier in Switzerland and launched himself right onto the top step of the podium in Paris next week. In the end, he stole away the yellow jersey, and gained 43 seconds on Schleck, who finished second, as the standings were completely rewritten. Armstrong looked beaten as he struggled to remain in contact up the final climb but was able to move up into 2nd place overall, with Wiggins, teammate Andreas Kloden, and Schleck now breathing down his neck. And while he missed the initial charge up the final climb and found himself in a huge defecit, defending champion Carlos Sastre finished the climb faster than even Cantador and is something of a dark-horse podium threat in 11th place.

As for the jerseys, in the end Astana assumed control of the team time lead; Cantador of course took yellow; Hushovd snuck back into green; Andy Schleck took over in white; Pellizotti remained in polka dots.

1. CONTADOR Alberto (Spain), Team Astana
2. ARMSTRONG Lance (USA), Team Astana, +01' 37"
3. WIGGINS Bradley (UK), Garmin - Slipstream, +01' 46"
4. KLÖDEN Andréas (Germany), Team Astana, +02' 17"
5. SCHLECK Andy (Luxembourg), Team Saxo Bank, +02' 26"
6. NOCENTINI Rinaldo (Italy), AG2R-La Mondiale, +02' 30"
7. NIBALI Vincenzo (Italy), Liquigas, +02' 51"
8. MARTIN Tony (Germany), Team Columbia-HTC, +03' 07"
9. LE MEVEL Christophe (France), Francaise Des Jeux, +03' 09"
10. SCHLECK Frank (Luxembourg), Team Saxo Bank, +03' 25"

Other Notables
11. SASTRE Carlos (Spain), Cervelo Test Team, +03' 52"
12. VANDEVELDE Christian (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, +03' 59"
13. HINCAPIE George (USA), Team Columbia-HTC, +04' 05"
14. EVANS Cadel (Australia), Silence-Lotto, +04' 27"
29. MENCHOV Denis (Russia), Rabobank, +11' 23"

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