Monday, July 12, 2010

Tour de France 2010: Rest Day Recap 1

It looks like the 2010 Tour de France won't exactly live up to it's Lance vs. Cantador bidding, but it may end up being even better. 

Pre-Race Build-Up
When Lance Armstrong retired from cycling in 2006 after winning seven straight Tours de France, it was Spain's Alberto Cantador that took up the mantle of the world's greatest road cyclist, and he did it for Armstrong's old team and manager, Discovery and Johan Bruyneel.  Catador won the 2007 Tour and looked primed to start his own streak.  Discovery dropped their sponsorship of the team however, and Bruyneel took his team to Astana, rebuilding the team after it had been decimated by doping violations. 

The sins of the prior team management and athletes haunted Astana in 2008 as they were banned from the Tour de France, despite that no one on the team or running the team had been around when the doping had occurred.  So Cantador was prevented from defending his title, and a somewhat lackluster 2008 Tour was won by Carlos Sastre. 

Armstrong came back out of retirement for the 2009 season and joined Bruyneel with Astana, but he openly said at the time that the team's leader was Cantador, who had developed into the world's greatest climber, an exceptional time trialist, and a master tactician.  He was simply the best rider in the world and Armstrong wanted to support him and help raise the profile of his own cancer-fighting efforts.  However Armstrong's fame and the surprisingly high level at which he was riding after three years off were clear problems for the team and a rivalry developed between the two champions. 

After six stages of the 2009 Tour, Armstrong was placed above Cantador in the overall standings, though he still insisted he was riding in support of Cantador.  After all, what happens in the first week is generally only a footnote to how things finish up.  That said, when Cantador attacked on a climb in stage 7, carrying two rival riders away and pushing his own teammates (Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden) down in the standings, it was considered against protocol, especially since the team had been specifically directed by their manager to not make such a move.  So Cantador bolted away, Saxobank's Frank and Andy Schleck went with him, and Armstrong stayed back to prevent other rivals from bridging the gap along with him, and a serious schism was formed within the team.

For the remainder of the 2009 Tour, Armstrong dutifully played the role of support rider, and those on the team in his camp did the same. Cantador went on to a sizeable win in the 2009 Tour.  Afterwards, he cut the last tenuous ties to Armstrong by badmouthing him in post-race interviews and that spelled the end of that generation of Team Astana.  Armstrong and Bruyneel went on to form Team RadioShack for 2010 and took eight of the nine riders from Astana with them (Cantador being the lone hold-out, of course).

Much of the pre-2010 Tour press billed this race as a final showdown between the retiring Lance Armstrong and the reigning Alberto Cantador.  And as great as that story might have been, it was not to be.  But it's probably not even the most intriguing of plots. 

  • Would Cantador's reformed Astana team be strong enough to support him?
  • Could Astana stay clean with the management and primary rider (Alexander Vinokourov) just coming off of two-year bans for doping?
  • Is Cantador so strong that he doesn't need support anyway?
  • Can two loose cannons like Vinokourov and Cantador co-exist or will Vino try to hijack the team like he did from Jan Ullrich on T-Mobile?
  • Is Armstrong still strong enough to truly compete?
  • Isn't Cantador's true rival Andy Schleck?
  • Can Cadel Evans get over the hump and win it all on a new team with George Hincapie at his side?
  • Aside from Cantador's dominance, this appears to be one of the deepest talent pools perhaps of all time, with no less than 11 reasonable picks to win (Cantador, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Christian Vandevelde, Schleck, Evans, Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Ivan Basso, Denis Menchov, and Michael Rogers).
  • How many stages can Mark Cavendish win, and will Tyler Farrar finally get one?
  • Cavendish vs. Thor Hushovd in the Green jersey competition.
  • Who is the next great American to emerge (Leipheimer, Vandevelde, Chris Horner, Farrar, David Zabriskie)?
  • Three American teams for the first time ever.
  • Will Fabian Cancellara really have a motor on his bike during the Prologue and time trial?
  • How long will Cancellara hang onto the Yellow jersey after his certain win in the Prologue?
Now a week later, many of these questions have been answered, but the biggest ones have not been, and perhaps the most interesting storyline that no one thought of has emerged: what if Armstrong falls out of contention in week one and then just starts attacking like a mad-man and blows the whole race apart later?

Week 1 Highlights
Prologue: Cancellara wins (predictably).  Armstrong finishes ahead of Cantador.  Andy Schleck stumbles out of the gate and loses 32 seconds to Cantador (worst start among all general classification favorites). 

Stage 1: Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar are among dozens caught in crashes including a massive one right near the end.  Both miss out on the final sprint (won by Alessandro Petacchi).  Cancellara retains the Yellow jersey.

Stage 2: France's Sylvain Chavanel escapes the peloton, wins the stage by nearly three minutes and takes over the Yellow jersey.  The stage is filled with crashes once again.  Vandevelde is out with broken ribs. Farrar breaks his wrist but will continue.  Armstrong, both Schlecks, Cantador, Kloden, Hincapie, Wiggins and other favorites all crash as well.  Cancellara "neutralizes" the field, asking other riders not to attack with so many being caught in crashes (essentially preventing his own chances of keeping the Yellow jersey and keeping Evans from gaining huge time on his rivals since he remained unscathed).

Stage 3: A brutal cobblestone-filled stage takes its toll as Chavanel pops a tire three times, abruptly ending his reign in Yellow.  Armstrong loses time to Cantador after a flat tire of his own.  Thor Hushovd survives the cobbles to win the final sprint and take a commanding lead in the Green jersey competition as most of his rivals are content to just survive this stage.  Evans and Andy Schleck beat Cantador by nearly a minute.  Vinokourov dutifully plays the role of "domestique," supporting Cantador for nearly the entire stage...before suddenly leaving him in the dust near the end, allowing Wiggins to gain 20 seconds on Catador.  Frank Schleck is out with broken ribs.

Stage 4: The sprinters have their day on a flat stage.  Petacchi wins again, surging past Cavendish with Hushovd sitting on Cavendish's wheel, but Hushovd retains a commanding Green jersey lead.  Cancellara retains Yellow.  With Farrar unable to sprint yet, his two leadout men get the chance to open up and go for the win.  Julian Dean places 2nd and Robbie Hunter is 5th.

Stage 5: Another flat stage, but Cavendish is able to put it all together finally and blows everyone away in the sprint.  Surprisingly, Dean and Hunter set up Farrar this time, but he only finishes 10th.  Hushovd and Cancellara keep their jerseys, with Jerome Pineau still the only rider to wear the Polka-dot climbers jersey this year.

Stage 6: Cavendish puts his stamp on this flat stage as well, winning his second straight stage and establishing himself as the fastest man in the field again.  Farrar takes second.  Four Astana riders seemingly take the day off (combined they lost around 27:00 to the field), perhaps preparing for the mountains coming in Stage 7.  Cancellara, Hushovd, and Pineau retain their jerseys.

Stage 7: The riders see their first serious climbs of the 2010 Tour, though this is only considered a low-mountain stage going over six categorized climbs: 3, 4, 3, 2, 2, and 2 (1 being the hardest). Cancellara was dropped from the peloton on the first serious climb-attack, but recovered later.  He was never expected to survive the mountains in the lead.  Pineau defends his climbers jersey admirably, joining an early breakaway group to capture huge amounts of points on each of the first five climbs. 

On the final climb, Astana tkes over the pace-making and blows the peloton apart (that rest in Stage 6 came in handy!).  Chavanel is able to breakaway from the peloton, reclaiming the Yellow jersey and the over all lead (though he was allowed to go because he is not considered a great threat in the lond run).  None of the general classification contenders really push hard or are pushed hard, and all finish together. 

Stage 8: Finally tested against the high Alps, the field is blown apart.  Armstrong crashes three times, once just as the peloton begins powering up the massive category 1 climb up Col de la Ramaz.  Four teammates stay back to guide him back into the peloton, but by the time they do, the leaders have already broken away and Amrstrong has used far too much energy just trying to get back in the race.  In the end, he loses nearly 12 minutes on the leaders. 

This stage features four categorized climbs, including two Cat-1's (4, 4, 1, 3, 1).  Cadel Evans is caught in one of the crashes that also catches Armstrong, but Evans is actually thrown from the bike, taking some cuts to his knee, hip and elbow.  Evans' fall (4 miles into the race) is far earlier than Armstrong's bad fall, so he recovers nicely.

Besides Armstrong, all of the other major contenders stay together throughout the stage, with Astana establishing themselves as the Tour's strongest team by far.  Vinokourov and Daniel Navarro carry Cantador and the rest of the contenders nearly all the way to the finish before any of them is able to make any serious attacks. 

Cantador runs down the first few attacks in the final miles, but he is unable to stay with Andy Schleck, who escapes the pack to win the stage and pick up 10 seconds on Cantador and the rest.  But more importantly, he shows he is able to handle a serious mountain stage without teammates helping, specifically his brother, Frank. 

In the end, Evans moves up into the over all lead and the Yellow jersey.  Schleck slides into 2nd, 20 second back.  Cantador is third, 1:10 back.  And the rest of the major contenders (sans Armstrong) all sit in the top 15, all within about three minutes of the lead. 

Stage 9 and Beyond
With Armstrong all but out of the running for the win, he said after Stage 8 that he would now just have fun, enjoy his last Tour, support new RadioShack leader Levi Leipheimer, and try to win some stages.  This brings up an interesting problem for the rest of the field: if Lance Armstrong (now nearly 13 minutes off the pace) makes a bold move on a climb, don't the leaders have to go with him?  Typically a rider who is that far back is not a threat and his moves wouldn't be countered, but this is Lance Armstrong.  You can't let him go, but you also don't know if you can stay with is it worth it to get totally burned out tracking him down, when you may not be able to recover well in later stages as a result?

Regardless of whether Armstrong or another American wins over all, isn't this exactly the type of role we would want our heroes to be in?  Complete wild cards.  Armstrong won't hinder Leipheimer's chances to win; he is the consumate teammate.  But don't you think he would love to stick it to Cantador somehow?  I can see him attacking constantly over the next two weeks, forcing Cantador to be on the defensive all the time, and wearing him out. 

And besides this and all those unanswered questions from above, we have these interesting storylines to follow now as well...
  • Can Andy thrive without Frank?
  • Can Farrar overcome broken wrist to finally win a stage?
  • Can anyone touch Cavendish now that he's back?
  • Will Vinokourov be the good teammate to Cantador or will he be his old reckless self?
  • Will Evans, who has a history of struggling to race in the lead, crack in Yellow again?
  • Can Leipheimer get over the hump now that he is the unquestioned leader of Bruyneel's team?
  • Now that the top three realistic pre-race favorites are 1-2-3, how will their teams' tactics change?
Looking Ahead
Stage 9: 5 categorized climbs (4, 1, 2, 1, HC) including Col de la Colombiere (1) and Col de la Madeleine (HC).  Finishes with a long descent, but the climbs are so tough that this could break the field apart, especially if Armstrong or another contender gets aggressive.  How will they do the day after a rest day?

Stage 10: 3 categorized climbs (1, 3, 2) but a long descent into the finish that may allow dropped riders to recover, which could prevent major attacks by contenders.  It's a good race profile for a breakway to survive all the way to the finish.  July 14 is Bastille Day in France, so watch out for patriotic Frenchmen in the breakaways (I'm looking at you, Sylvain Chavanel, Christophe Moreau, and Thomas Voekler). 

Stage 11: Flat stage that will favor the sprinters. 

Stage 12 and 13: 5 categorized climbs each, but none greater that a Cat-2, so these could both end up being bunch sprints unless a breakway gets clear.  The contenders will likely use these stages as "recovery" days before the coming attacks in the Pyranees. 

Stage 14: After a long, flat run-up, this stage finishes with two brutal climbs, an HC and a summit finish on a Cat-1.  Contenders will definately use this stage to separate out the weaker riders, but there may not be much aggressive attacking this early on.  Look for the true Yellow jersey hopefuls to show themselves after this stage and Cantador and Schleck to hammer away at one another all day.

Stage 15: 4 categorized climbs culminating in an HC climb up Port de Bales before a nasty descent into the finish.  Probably another stage to distance the leaders from the pack, but not from one another unless Schleck or Cantador get especially aggressive. 

Stage 16: 2 Cat-1's and 2 HC's (including Col d'Aspin, Col du Tourmalet, and Col d'Aubisque) make this a terrifying stage, but the last climb is nearly 30 miles from the finish, so the field may have time to get back together.  There is a rest day the following day, which could play into how aggressive the general classification riders get. 

Stage 17-21: Come back next week for more.

1 comment:

The Original Met fan said...

You are spending way too much time watching the Tour de France.