Archive | July, 2010

Tour De Lance – Review

27 Jul

This is—to date—the fourth book I’ve read on Lance Armstrong, and as far as I can tell, the first written by an actual cycling fan. Dan Coyle seems to have gone into Lance Armstrong’s War without too deep an understanding of the sport, and after slogging through Every Second Counts, I’m fully convinced that Sally Jenkins regards the sport of cycling, and indeed the craft of writing, with utter contempt.

I begin my review with this note because Tour de Lance is most certainly written from the perspective of someone who knows the sport. The opening pages describe how inconceivable it is that Armstrong should be able to propel a bike at 38mph, with the technical intimacy that only repeated failure in attaining such speeds can provide. Another welcome angle is that Strickland’s involvement in cycling predates Armstrong’s. In a world where so many of us—“haters” and “fanboy$” alike—are only here because of Armstrong’s post-cancer media exposure, it’s refreshing to read something from someone with a longer-term perspective.

The book follows a reliable pattern of chapter alternation, first a stage of the 2009 Tour de France, then a period of the training and racing preceding it, with the intent of drawing parallels between Armstrong’s fight to regain top form, and the fights of the millions he inspires. It’s an effective technique, and (while I can only speak directly for one group) keeps a nice balance of content and storyline for both the audience reading the book because they like cycling, and the audience reading the book because they like Lance.

Despite the fact that I’m hardly the Texan’s biggest fan, I found it a pretty entertaining read. Sure, Strickland and I differ our interpretations of the events of the 2009 Tour—he sees an aging champion, satisfied enough with the effort of merely attempting a miracle; I see a hollow celebrity painfully and pointlessly trying to revive old glories.

But the narrative elements of Tour de Lance scarcely attempt to sway the reader to a favorable point-of-view; Armstrong, when popped off the pace at the Giro, mumbles into the radio about troubles with his shifting. When failing to win a stage against mere domestic American talent at the Tour of the Gila, it’s made clear Armstrong has gone all in—and come up short.

It’s no small challenge for a writer with a strongly-held opinion to present facts in a way that appears objective to those who disagree with him—and it’s all the more difficult on a topic as divisive as Armstrong. Still, Stickland rises to the task admirably, and hopefully a stroll through the pages of this book will prompt readers on either side of the issue to a thoughtful reconsideration their opinions.

As an aside, I’m not quite convinced of the totality of “unabashed fandom” that Strickland proclaims. Throughout the text are scattered what the careful observer will be hard-pressed not to consider hints about the ’99-’05 run. Unprovable “things I wished I’d never been told” about the inner workings of Bruyneel’s operation; mentioning an “unknowable past” while describing faith that at least Armstrong’s comeback was clean; and perhaps most surprisingly, in light of Armstrong’s frequently-referred-to-speech after the 2005 Tour, “I know there are no miracles at the Tour de France”.

If there’s a frustrating aspect to this book—and as any regular reader of this site can tell you, I’m hardly the one to be pointing this out—it’s the relatively lax attention to factual detail. Not sure if I received an advance copy not subject to full editorial rigor, but here’s a brief list of some not-quite-accurate points I found before I got tired of looking them up:

  • Page 14 – Fleche Wallonne erroneously included as a Monument in a summary of Eddy Merckx’s palmares.
  • Page 20 – Armstrong’s famous bluff against Ullrich on the Alpe d’Huez stage mentioned as taking place in 2002, a year in which Ullrich did not compete and Alpe was not raced.
  • Page 43 – “No one ever lucks into a Tour de France win”. Roger Walkowiak is widely regarded as having done so, as is Oscar Periero, to a lesser extent.
  • Page 44 – Armstrong domestiques described as not having opportunities for stage wins. In 2005, both Hincapie and Savoldelli took individual stages that didn’t directly benefit Armstrong (although their presence earlier on in those breakaways did).
  • Page 46 – Vuelta a Espana 2008 described as taking place in October. The Vuelta finished on 21 September of that year.
  • Page 57 – ‘Cross Vegas in 2008 described as Armstrong’s first cyclocross race. Armstrong won the Texas State Cyclocross Championships in 2002, as reported here, and in a Sports Illustrated feature on Armstrong.

While the above certainly don’t demand a rewrite, after the events of these past three months, I’d really like to see an updated version of Tour de Lance. In my mind, Armstrong’s story arc hinges so heavily on the results of this last Tour (and, longer term, on the Land Grenade) that, even though I finished reading it before the Tour began, I struggled to find an appropriate moment to publish this review. With the final word on Armstrong’s 2010 Tour changing on a near-daily basis, I just wasn’t comfortable presenting an assessment of this book until after the final lap in Paris.

Now that the Tour is over, and Armstrong has (as I see it) wasted the efforts of some teammates, failed to support others, and made an optimistic-to-the-point-of-folly effort to win an eight-up sprint to take home some positive from the race, Tour de Lance feels almost like a time capsule; a snapshot of unfounded optimism in the face of what were clearly overwhelming odds. Armstrong’s 3rd Place in ’09 feels like a near-miss at the end of this book, but after this year’s event, it might be the miraculous achievement of Armstrong’s career.

Maybe It's Just The Hangover

26 Jul

Tour de France 2010 by Cindy Trossaert cc-by-ncIt’s tough to argue that this latest installment of the Grande Boucle wasn’t an entertaining spectacle. The first week alone furnished more action and GC changes than the 2002 version in its entirety, and close races in all the major competitions marked much of the event.

Most of the race—certainly its chaotic opening—still seem compelling; Chatreau and Pineau trading off breakaways and battling for KOMs was good fun while waiting for the GC riders to open hostilities. And seeing the aggression pay off for so many breakaways was a nice change—something many have taken as the sign of a cleaner race, though others are not so convinced.

Cav did make the sprints something of a foregone conclusion toward the end of the race, but his early struggles and the drama surrounding the Renshaw ejection certainly had me looking forward to the final three kilometers on nearly every flat stage. Petacchi might not have been the sentimental favorite for Green—even without the whole perfluorocarbon investigation, Cav was flat out faster, and Thor made a more concerted effort at chasing the points crown—but Ale-Jet brought enough to the competition that I wasn’t sad to see him win it.

Looking back today, though, I’m really wondering at all the excitement I felt for the GC race. Sure, the narrow time margin between Schleck and Contador for much of the race kept the tension high, but really, where were the differences made? A slipped chain? Holding Cancellara’s wheel across a section of pavé? A ham-fisted, bobbling attack on a Third Category climb?

While the time gaps were smaller this time around, what made the 2003 Tour an awesome spectacle was the way the GC favorites seemed to just trade haymakers. On Alpe du Huez, Armstrong claimed yellow, but lost two minutes to Iban Mayo. Vino’s eff-you attack on the descent into Gap the next day lead took Beloki out of the race, and led to the now-famous shortcut. Then there was Jan Ullrich’s leg-shattering TT effort on Stage 12, Armstrong slowly bleeding time over the following days, break pads, Ullrich’s attack over the Tourmalet, Luz-Ardiden, fog, musette bags, the final TT, the rain…

Joop Zoetemelk Brussel 1979 by De Wattman cc-by-ncI’m not saying the 2010 event wasn’t a great race, full of all the right kinds of intrigue and polemics. I’m not even saying that the battle between Schleck and Contador wasn’t a good contest—they worked together to distance their rivals, then took their shots against each other. I don’ think either left anything out on the course—and in the case of Contador, some are still arguing he tried a little bit too hard.

But for me, the greatest GC battles are back-and-forth affairs—rivals constantly trying to leverage their strength against their opponents weakness, and struggling to limit their losses when the tide turns the other way. Maybe Schleck’s and Contador’s abilities were just too closely aligned this July, or maybe this is just how most Grand Tours will be contested until the memory of “the refills” has slipped from the peloton’s collective memory.

Hopefully next year, another closely- and cleanly-fought Tour will shed some more light on the subject.

Rest Day Nerd Fights

22 Jul

Professor FrinkWednesday may have been a rest day for the peloton, but for the data nerds, it was Fight Night. Statistical Skier, getting in some off-season training, made a deeper investigation into my question on the increased GC impact of downhill finishes this year, and found some tentative support for my thesis. Junk Charts, meanwhile, did some meta-analysis of Statistical Skier, and pulled up another set of TdF data visualizations as well.

But the main event among the stat-heads, as it always seems to be these days, was the battle over how to interpret the latest batch of power and performance data from this year’s Tour de France.

Science of Sport posted SRM numbers from Chris Horner and Chris Anker Sorenson over several climbs at this year’s Tour. The wattage information seemed to reveal both that increasing duration of effort on mountaintop finishes corresponded to a lower power output, and that after the pacesetters fall off their tempo on the climbs, the GC favorites actually slow down and regroup a bit before the attacks begin.

You’d think these two nuggets of information (or at least the first) would be fairly obvious, but in the past, the performance dip has been smaller or curiously absent in the world’s biggest bike race. While I’m cautiously optimistic that reduced doping has a hand in this, I’m similarly cautious of interpolating drug use—or the lack thereof—from performance data.

I’m especially disheartened in Dr. Tucker’s note, comparing the Tourmalet times from Stage 16 with those from 2003, that “the race situation was different, but 12 minutes? That’s too big to be accounted for by strategy alone, even weather conditions”. It shows a pretty serious lack of appreciation for the differences in those two days, and indeed, for the way bike racing works in general.

Stage 16 prior to the this year’s first Tourmalet ascent featured the hardest action of this years Tour de France in its vicious first hour, followed by the pack absolutely tossing out the anchor once Armstrong’s group was clear. A group that varied in size from two to nine riders—not all great climbers, and none going full-out, I might add—put some six-and-a-half minutes into the peloton over the hors categorie climb.

Jan UllrichBehind them, the pack crested at a pace so relaxed (4.7 w/kg for C-A Sorenson, and he was in the wind setting tempo) that Norwegian flank steak Thor Hushovd was able to ride up a ways, attack, give up, get caught, and hang in with the peloton over the summit. Compare this to ’03, when T-Mobile set a full-gas pace up the Tourmalet, before Jan Ullrich made a bold, if short-sighted attack some 8km from the summit that managed to temporarily displace even Armstrong.

The the impacts of tactics on performance in cycling, especially in stage races, are simply unlike like any other sport—there’s no bottom to performance when the race situation becomes static and the peloton calls off a chase. As I said before, I’m hopeful a more human approach to race preparation creates more incentive for the peloton to relax like this, but I think comparing a performance on a stage that is de facto neutralized to one where the entire Tour hangs in the balance is tremendously misleading. Be it twelve minutes or two hours, data from tactically-dead kilometers are essentially useless.

Conventional wisdom holds that Oscar Pereiro won the 2006 Tour de France because Floyd Landis tested positive for drugs. But the only reason Pereiro—a second-tier GC rider—was there to catch the crown is because he and Jens Voigt decided to go out and crank watts on a day when the rest of the field sat up; the folly of inferring doping from Pereiro’s time gain, or cleanliness from the peloton’s pedestrian tempo, is patently obvious.

Don’t get me wrong: I think the Science of Sport blog is fantastic, and that statistical analysis of hard data is one of the few reliable windows we have into a world characterized by secrecy, silence, and misdirection. I also think there’s tremendous merit to many of the inferences they draw.

But in this quest for fact, I think that many analysts ignore or underutilize fairly obvious data—the night/day difference between the ’03 and 2010 Tourmalet ascents, for example, or the fact that Carlos Sastre, who started the climb well behind the GC favorites, may have equaled or exceded Contador’s widely-criticized performance on Verbier.

It’s good that the statisticians offer disclaimers for uncontrolled variables, but in some cases the impact of these variables precludes the analysis entirely.

These Surprises Just Aren't That Surprising

20 Jul

ContadorMore bad luck for the yellow jersey! Contador showing little deference to the nuances of the Tour! Lance failing to live up to the hype! It’s like I’m practically psychic!

In all seriousness, though, this is a Tour that has never wanted for drama or surprises—almost a shame, considering the fireworks we were treated to just over a month ago—and perhaps the best part of the excitement surrounding this year’s event is that so much of it is actually coming from the race. Uncomfortably thin margins separate the leaders in the GC, KOM and points competitions; battles among both the breakaways and the heads of state seem to be de rigueur over ever practically major climb, and hilltop finishes are no longer a pre-requisite for a GC shake-up.

On Chaingate, my feelings, while mixed, return to the earlier statement that this is Tour de France—not some Mickey-Mouse race. I’m personally disheartened at the break in protocol—more than can be said for the veritable murderer’s row consulted by French television—but as a racer, I don’t need to imagine too hard to see myself riding exactly as Contador did. Best to view the breach like Renshaw’s maneuvers last week—they’re split second decisions in the heat of battle, and the jury (or in this case, the peloton) is seldom consistent in their reaction.

At any rate, the biggest victim in Chaingate may prove to not be Andy Schleck, nor SRAM, nor even the time-honored traditions of the Tour. For all his reverence to the unwritten rules of the pack, Lance Armstrong’s decision to wait for his fallen rival carried a heavy psychological component: I can wait for you and still win this race. Considering how battered Contador looked on the climb to Ax-3 Domain the day before, slumping back down onto his saddle after every effort, I don’t think he could have sent a clearer message to his rivals about his own vulnerability than riding past the hapless Schleck.

Johan BruyneelAnd while Armstrong’s legacy may shine brighter in light of Contador’s decision on Stage 15, his great escape will be a net negative in the long run—feelings I will not elaborate on until after the Tour. I do credit Armstrong for a hair-raising first hour—one that apparently came as no surprise, as riders were warming up to prepare—but even with Horner convoyed up to him (along with Ruben Plaza, to neutralize the Team GC battle), Lance never showed himself as a serious stage contender.

With two men in the move, you’d think a tactician heralded with as much fanfare as Johan Bruyneel would have been able to come up with something better than having Horner pull while Armstrong sat on—especially in light of the fact that sending Horner up the road could leverage the suddenly-relevant Team GC lead against the two Caisse d’Epargne riders.

Instead, the “best” director in the history of the Tour sent two proven soloists into a 9-man sprint that included some of the most realibly savvy breakaway sprinters in the peloton, with nary a feint, misdirection or tactical flourish; copies of “We Might As Well Win” now making an appearance on a B&N closeout rack near you.

If All You Have Is A Hammer

17 Jul

I just finished reading an article about how Alberto Condator has matured as a rider, and frankly, I don’t agree. While I don’t want fall in with the masses who criticized his attack at Verbier last year (just ask Saxo how “burdensome” that GC lead has been this Tour), I do think—to borrow a phrase—that Contador sees every problem as a nail. Fortunately, the guy is pretty damn good at swinging a hammer.

The final 5 minutes of Stage 12 yesterday (I’d post video, but since the ASO wants to throw down again, I’m gonna hold off on that for the moment) give a pretty good example of where I see the Spaniard’s shortcomings. Condator likes the Monte Laurent Jalabert, Andy Schleck does not. Clearly, this finish should have been near the top of the list of places to Contador to take time out of the Luxemburger, and if he really did talk tactics with Vino’, something should have been planned for this climb before the stage.

But that’s not really what happened—at least it sure doesn’t look that way. In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say once Vinokourov got clear in the move of the day, the Official Astana Game Plan was for the Kazakh to try and win, for Pistolero to sit back and monitor Schleck, and for the rest of the squad to enjoy a day of doing nothing on Vino’s tab.

My basis for this is that Alberto’s actions in the final 4km that day seemed like someone fumbling to attain the three simultaneously impossible goals of winning a stage, cutting into Schleck’s lead, and respecting his teammate. Examine the Paris-Nice video: Contador starts spooning out the hurt around the stiff, sharp bends 1.7km from the top of the climb. Today, he went only a few hundred meters down—hardly an ideal amount of real estate for one to open a GC-relevant gap.

Perhaps more tellingly, Contador’s attack doesn’t come until Joaquim Rodriguez pulls out a legitimate amount of space to threaten Vino’ with recapture—I’m guessing for the plausible deniability of marking Rodriguez’s move, but the constant head-turning to monitor Schleck’s position betray an ulterior motive.

After bridging to Rodriguez, Contador doesn’t really pull through—more deniability for any post-race discussion—until, that is, he realizes motorbikes, narrow roads and Andreas Kloeden could form a road blind that might obscure him from Schleck’s field of vision. Alberto dives into the gap, and pulls Rodriguez up to Vino’. Now it’s decision time, and if I have to pick a place where Contador looked worst, it’s here.

Rather than attempt to work with Vino, Contador dances away, pulling himself and Rodriguez clear. While you can’t say what would have happened with any accuracy, Vino alone still wasn’t slow enough for the Schleck group to bring back (he finished seven seconds ahead), and Vino’ with Contador and Rodriguez almost certainly would have been faster than the two Spaniards alone. And if a bigger gap isn’t a given, the improved tactical situation of a 2-on-1 would have made the Astana stage win far more likely.

Still, as Vino’ churned away after Contador went past, he was continuing to build his gap on Schleck. Here’s a still frame from just outside the final KM, showing the amount of clean road between Rodriguez/Contador and Vino—and keep in mind, Schleck is still further back. But coming into the line, Contador begins talking to Rodriguez, turning his head, sitting up, and trying to get tactical for the final sprint to the line, and even then, he failed to take it.

In the end, Contador achieved no real success in any of his objectives. While ten seconds isn’t a bad take—it’s nearly 25% of Schleck’s current advantage and entire Tours have been decided by smaller margins—it’s also less than he would have made up ignoring the stage win entirely. And if Vino’s bar-pounding as he crossed the line was any indication, there was—until Vino’s fantastic win in Revel today—slightly less goodwill on the Astana team bus.

While Contador did show a bit more nuance in his responses to, and eventual cooperation with the attacks of Andy Schleck on Stage 9, I think it’s a bit of an overstatement to say he’s “matured”. When he learns to negotiate a conundrum like Friday’s finale with a bit more elegance—and a far more positive result—I think then we’ll be able to say that Pistolero has finally come of age.

How The Race Was Won – 2010 Tour de France, Stage 11

16 Jul

Obviously I couldn’t keep off this one—not the way the Internet exploded following Renshaw’s ejection. It wasn’t entirely an otherwise unremarkable stage, but most of this focuses on the final few meters.

[click for iPad/iPhone/downloadable version]
[Contains, in order of appearance, footage from Eurosport, Versus and NOS, and still photos from Graham Watson, Pascal Pavan, Eric Gaillard, Lauren Rebours and Fotoreporter Sirotti.]

I said almost immediately—and have the audio to prove it—that I thought Renshaw would get relegated for closing the gate, but I think the race jury wanted some way of punishing Cavendish for the actions of his leadout man, and so bumped Renshaw from the race. The Aussie’s been fantastic all Tour long—it’ll be interesting to see how things shake out without him.

No shortage of opinion on this one, ranging from no sanction should be given to no headbutting should be allowed ever in any sport. I obviously think I’m right, but please don’t feel bound to defer to my feelings on the subject. Versus did a great job of getting reaction interviews moments after the finish: here’s Dean, Farrar, and Renshaw.

The Curse Of The Yellow Jersey

13 Jul

Cancellara in yellowIt seems the Yellow Jersey has been made of butter this year. Sure, last year’s race—in which a mere three riders each enjoyed at least six days in the fleece—was something of an aberration, but it’s beginning to get ridiculous out there.

Five lead changes in nine stages of racing is something the Tour hasn’t seen since the tumult of 1998, and even then, it took Chris Bordman’s rough introduction to an unfortunate bit of Irish landscaping to accomplish the feat. It’s all the more baffling that these changes in race lead have been accomplished without time bonuses and a GC battle between sprinters; historically speaking, that’s what causes games of musical maillot jaune

On rare occasions—the chaotic Tours of the late 80s come to mind—two or more GC favorites will waver back and forth, trading off the race lead, sometimes until the final day. But, even with the Cancellara-Chavanel-Cancellara-Chavanel exchange in the first week, there’s been nothing even resembling “trades” for the race leaders in 2010; it’s been acquisition, catastrophe.

Cancellara took the race lead in the prologue, and with time bonuses off the table, seemed a solid candidate to hold it to the mountains. Then, on Stage 2, a freak accident took out the entire field, prompting him to give it up to save his team’s GC chances. It fell to Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman from an ostensibly cobble-ready squad—ideal traits for a placeholder Yellow Jersey in this year’s course—who seemed even more likely to carry it to the mountains.

Seven Yellow JerseysBut the cobbles thought otherwise, and three punctures later, Cancellara found himself back in yellow, surely the favorite to hold it to the Tour’s first true mountaintop finish. But in the heat and Cat 2 climbs, Cancellara cracked, dropped a fat fifteen minutes on the overall, and ceded the jersey once again to Chavanel. Not to be outdone, the Frenchman rode under the pressure of the true contenders to the point of total implosion the next day, bequeathing the jersey to Cadel Evans.

While Cadel doesn’t have the best history of race leadership, riding with his best supporting cast ever and the confidence of a strong Giro campaign made his shoulders feel like a relatively safe place for the coveted maillot jaune. But on a day where the Tour guide insisted a big GC battle was “an unlikely scenario“, Evans lost nearly 10 minutes; an impressive performance given the broken elbow he’d concealed during the stage, but enough to all but eliminate him as an overall contender.

And the crazy thing is, the madness might not stop with Andy Schleck. Sure, SaxoBank has been an active, impressive squad thus far this Tour. But after today’s woodchipper, it seems unlikely that they’ll have much interest in pulling back wave after wave of patriotic Frenchman on tomorrow’s still-not-easy Bastille Day stage—especially with this descent featuring in the final kilometers.

With a mere 0:41 on Contador—one second less than the Luxembourger lost to the Spaniard over 9k in the prolgue—it’s unlikely Bjarne Riis will chose to completely shoulder the weight of the race for the next two weeks, especially not with this pancake chrono as the last GC word before Paris. Fobbing leadership off on another squad would be a good way for the team to sit back and plot their battle plan against Contador, who’s looking better by the day.

So how many more leaders will this race see? I shudder to even imagine. In theory, it could be none. But despite the widely accepted opinion that today marked a de facto reduction of this Tour to a two-man race, I think we’ll see at least two more wearers before the jersey’s true recipient is finally decided.

Let’s just hope that if Andy does decide to rid himself of this thing, it’s under less catastrophic circumstances than we’ve seen thus far.

ReGen Recovery Drink – Review

13 Jul

reGen Recovery DrinkI suppose I should preface this by saying that I’m not particularly focused on diet as part of my training. Other than keeping an eye on total calories, I’m not a picky eater. I’ll eat some pasta the night before a longer race, drink a pint of skim milk after a hard workout, but for the most part, if it tastes good, I eat it.

That said, I ride with plenty of people who are far more serious (and in a lot of cases, faster) than I am. This group can be split roughly into two camps—those who swear chocolate milk is the greatest recovery drink of all time, and those who feel that a post-workout glass of cocoa might as well be a pack of cigarettes. ReGen muscle recovery beverage just might prove to be the bridge between them, providing the flavor and anti-oxidant effect of cocoa without the junk calories and limited nutrient value of most chocolate syrups.

Along with some other goodies (an 11oz sample of ReGen, a velcro-closure water bottle belt, and a 2GB flash drive, in the interests of full disclosure), ReGen sent me some data on studies assessing the drink’s effectiveness. While the conclusions support the product claims across the board, a lot of the science isn’t particularly compelling—all of it was funded at least in part by the Hershey’s corporation (which owns Apure, the maker of reGen), and relies heavily on objective reporting of muscle soreness in not-especially fit subjects (avg body fat 19.11% ± 4.97%) in exercise scenarios that may have tested caloric value as much as recovery aid.

Still, the research had some better points in the ReGen’s favor—one study took blood samples at .5, 1, 2 and 6 hours after exercise and found a statistically significant reduction in creatine kinase (a well-established indicator of muscle damage, including heart attacks) levels in test subjects who used cocoa-based recovery drinks, compared to subjects who drank water and regular sports drinks. But obviously, I wasn’t going to just take their word for it.

I tested the drink on a race weekend consisting of a 50 mile road race with some easy climbs on Saturday, followed by a pancake-flat criterium the day after. In the road race, I hung in with the group, made a few attacks but suffered some severe cramping on the last 10 mile lap and couldn’t contest the sprint. After some cool-down, I rolled back to my car to drink my ReGen and was pleasantly surprised to see the ingredient list contained relatively high amounts electrolytes.

I was impressed by the taste—sweet enough that it doesn’t have to be choked down, but not so sweet that you’d need a moment to recover between sips. The flavor is definitely chocolatey, and while it’s not quite velvety gourmet quality, it still tastes good. The drink is chuggable without meal-replacement effect, but still has the sort of substance you (or at least I) find myself craving after a longer race.

In Sunday’s crit, I’ll have to admit my legs did feel pretty good. My left calf was still sore and stiff from the cramps, but after a short warm-up and some embro, the legs were definitely there. I moved up in the pack at will, had no trouble closing gaps, spent a lap off the front, and sprinted well—by my standards, anyway—just missing a prime and not losing too many places in a group sprint to the line. I think it’d be an overstatement to attribute the performance entirely to ReGen, but at the same time, it clearly didn’t hurt.

In the future, I would really like to see a powdered version. There’s a variety of reasons for this: I don’t feel like paying Hershey to for water when it comes out of my tap essentially for free; it takes up a fair amount of space; it’s heavy; I can’t experiment with various concentrations or mix it with milk. A resealable container might also be useful for smaller-stomached riders—the 325ml container it currently ships in, once opened, can’t be reliably closed again.

The current TetraPak packaging does fit nicely in a jersey pocket, though, and has a fair amount of give to it—not so much that you’d have to worry about puncturing it, but enough that it won’t take five minutes of fiddling with your arm behind your back to slide a set of tire levers in next to it.

So, were I a pickier man in my choice of foods, I’d almost certainly make ReGen part of my training regimen. As it stands, I’ll probably pick up a four-pack or two for use in the tougher stage races, where there’s more of a premium on serious day-to-day recovery.

Welcome To Le Tour 2.0

11 Jul

Even stepping outside myself and imagining the Tour through the eyes of a sunburnt American diletante, I think I still would have seen the inherent flaw in the way Versus and USA Today and even Bicycling Magazine tried to sell the 2010 Tour: what happens to “Lance vs. Contador” if either of them falls out of contention?

I’ve heard all the excuses—we have to sell papers. We’re building the audience. It’s what people want. I even got the press release about the record viewership in the first week. But as Lance shuffled meekly through the little door today with a torn jersey and shattered expectations, I think many purveyors of coverage in this sport will see exactly how poorly they’ve accomplished these things. You don’t develop someone’s taste for brie by deep-frying it.

The failure of this much-hyped rivalry goes beyond Armstrong. For all the talk of RadioShack being a stacked squad, they sure haven’t shown themselves much in the first week. SaxoBank split the race on the cobbles. On the first day of meaningful climbs, a Frenchman carried off the stage win and the maillot jaune, while BBox Telecom convincingly (and ultimately, idiotically) managed the gaps behind. Today’s mountain selections came courtesy of Team Sky and the much-maligned Astana.

Other than an unsuccessful attempt at a crosswind field split on Stage 5, and some inexplicable parading toward the front on Stage 4, they’ve had little impact on the race. Of their touted pre-Tour contenders, only Levi Leipheimer remains within five minutes of the GC lead. And despite Armstrong’s oft-repeated faith in the man, Leipheimer has not been known to shine as Grand Tours go on. That Vuelta exclusion’s looking like a mighty clairvoyant move right about now. And did I mention the dope investigation?

Levi LeipheimerSo, on Levi’s scrappy, under-appreciated legs, hinges the fate of one of the most successful brands in the history of all sports. Can you even imagine it? No more armies of dentists dragging the LBS out of the red each year with Lance-replica Trek purchases. No more Chris Carmichael promising phantom results to middle-aged racers about to train themselves out of love with the sport. No more laurel wreaths cast at the feet of DS whose prolific success in July has allowed him to brush years of downright miserable classics results under the rug.

Even Contador has struggled to uphold his side of the rivalry. On today’s first category climbs, he couldn’t turn his teammates’ ax-wielding into a time gap or even a stage win. The final 2k were punctuated by attacks from at least five different riders—few of whom featured in any state-side pre-race commentary. Contador is still an obvious favorite—I think this will be more clear on the tougher climbs to come—but he’s yet to show head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field.

The only way the Lance v. Contador storyline can be spun now is through leveraging Leipheimer’s high GC position to keep the hero-worshippers on board for stage wins or the role of super domestique. And frankly, I’m not optimistic—understanding the complexities of teamwork takes some appreciation for the tactics of the sport, after all, and second-grader storylines and American-only recaps are seldom an effective way to do that.

Today the 2010 Tour de France changed dramatically. And while it may be bad news for the current business model of bringing cycling to Americans, for those who follow the sport outside of July, today’s action was a promising sign for the weeks to come. Wave good-bye the Tour of Lance and Alberto; Welcome to Le Tour 2.0.

Today, We Spell Redemption "C-A-V"

9 Jul

Mark Cavendish and his bookThere seems to be a consensus among a certain group of American fans that being a sprinter is almost shameful. They rely entirely on talent. They never have to put their noses in the wind, just go fast for 200m at the end. It’s too easy. Their teammates do all the work. They make the flat stages boring.

But I think—or at least hope—that impression took a serious hit after the finish of Stage 5. To see Mark Cavendish, one of the loudest and cockiest speed merchants in recent memory bawling on the podium as if Publisher’s Clearing House had just paid a visit to his mobile home, should give the sprint-haters pause.

Let’s be clear about this—Cavendish is has won 11 stages of the Tour de France. That’s one win shy of the total accrued by Miguel Indurain, who took the whole enchilada five times running. Yesterday’s finish was not a one-off dream win by a lesser-known rider from a lower-tier team in his hometown; it was another bike-length victory from a man who, since 2008, has made winning sprints about as remarkable as packing a lunchbox.

So why the tears? Indurain was 26 years old when he won his first Tour; Cav is currently 25. Before him, the sport has raised up and summarily cast down any number of young sprinters. While he’s reinvented himself as a SaxoBank domestique, Baden Cooke’s brilliant performance at the ’03 Tour never did see a proper follow-up. Ivan Quaranta, once hailed as Cipollini’s comeuppance, made his final top-level start (getting shelled from a TTT at the ’03 Vuelta) while the Lion King (at the ripe old age of 36) still wore rainbow stripes. And has anyone seen Tom Boonen toward the front of Grand Tour recently?

Baden Cooke straddles the toptubeAs Petacchi (again, age 36) rolled past Cav to two wins in the first week of this year’s Tour, the Manxman couldn’t have escaped the feeling that this all might be a little bit of history repeating. Certainly his 2010 season to date had not been up to par, grabbing headlines more for comments and behavior than results, and finding himself, unusually, tied up in crashes and an intrasquad feud.

In the classics, time lost on a bad line through a corner can be regained over cobbles or a berg. In the mountains, you can ignore the bursts of your rivals and pull them back at your own pace, or limit your losses if you can’t. In the time trial, checkpoints and the radio let you mete out each individual watt with scientific precision. As a long breakaway comes into the line, tactical savvy plays as much of a role as pure power.

But group printers can cling to none of these other factors—there’s nerve, and there’s power. You get a split second to chose whether to jump or wait, go left or right, grab this wheel or that. There’s no real way to train those things, and when you lose it, it’s impossible to know whether it’s gone for a for a week, for a season, or forever.

So congrats to Cav—with a serious nod to his helmsman Mark Renshaw—for bridging that abyss yesterday. Sure, he had a little help from a Garmin-Transitions squad beset by injury and a bit of miscommunication, but the bounce-back is still notable, as evidenced by the fact that so many riders before him have failed to pull it off.