Archive | July, 2010

"This Is Not A Mickey Mouse Race"

7 Jul

There’s been a lot of criticism about this year’s Tour de France being “Le Tour Feminine” coming into today’s anticipated “regular” flat stage. Riders have have expressed frustration and even anger over the atypical courses used early on in this year’s race.

[if you’re having trouble viewing this, maybe try right-click/save file as… – if it still doesn’t work, direct you complaints to Eurosport, who filmed the interview, didn’t put it online, and then decided to pull it from YouTube]

While I may be a few thousand miles away from the action, I have a sneaking suspicion that the discontent is somewhat over-reported; it both makes for good headlines, and is informed heavily by the long-term interests of GC-contending teams.

Levi’s comments after Stage 2 about how Tour organizers “want to see us bleeding” by using “courses like this”, while highly-quotable, doesn’t really make sense. The Stockeau comes nearly 100km from the finish of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and is descended annually by large packs of extremely motivated riders (far less incentive to finish in a one-day, after all) almost without incident.

As a squad stacked with strong stage racers, it’s in RadioShack’s best interest to keep everything completely under control until Johan Bruyneel decides it’s time to make the race. And while I don’t doubt the sincerity of Jens’ emotional commitment to his teammates, I think if Andy had had racked up five minutes in Stage 3, instead of merely recouping his prologue losses, SaxoBank might be singing a different tune.

It’s important to remember that the Tour runs on a set of rules; denying a decision by the man in Yellow to neutralize the stage—especially when he and his team are strong enough to make things seriously unpleasant for you over the next twenty days—would be a pretty serious violation of those rules. It’s not that these rules can’t be broken, it’s just that your interests are better served by adhering to them.

Smaller squads are heavily dependent on breakaways for their Tour success, and the success of any given breakaway depends almost entirely on decisions made by the stronger teams setting the pace of the event. As Filippo Simeoni can tell you, speaking out too boldly—even when you’re in the right—can ruin your entire Tour.

While Cervelo, a stronger team than most, certainly wasn’t shy about their opinions of the neutralization, the team made sure not to “be a pain in the ass” and avoided breaking up the agreement, even if it was “too friendly”. And I think this deference to the established rules of the race has already begun to pay dividends.

Consider yesterday’s finish: Fabian Cancellara—who probably could have battled Hushovd for the win—attacked only once after the final selection, and took a not-especially-tactical pull up to the final 200 meters. One could argue he was trying to build Andy Schleck’s gap, but unless Andy was absolutely shattered, he would have almost certainly been s.t. regardless of sprint tactics. Had VanPoppel given the word to break the truce on Monday, I think Tuesday’s finale would have played out very differently.

So while I dislike neutralization and whining as much as the next man, I think that there’s a lot less agreement amongst the riders than is conveyed by the media, and I think that VanPoppel’s comment above that the Tour “is not a Mickey Mouse race”, and that it’s time to get down to business reflects the unspoken professional opinion of a majority of the peloton.

Yo Dawg, Heard You Like Neutral Finishes

6 Jul

(click through for something resembling an explanation)

A Veteran Win On A Nervous Day

4 Jul

Garmin-Transitions pulls the fieldWhen the early stretches of today’s Stage 1 passed without incident—save the practically obligatory errant canine—some commentators seemed to settle into the notion that the long-anticipated crashes on the always thrilling (and extremely crowded) Dutch and Belgian roadways would not materialize.

But beyond the calm facade were warning signs of the carnage to come. A three-man breakaway gained and lost times in wild clumps as various sprinters’ teams rolled to the front of the peloton and fell back suddenly as the gap became too small. Domestiques’ ears featured heavily in the live photos as heads swiveled to keep nervous eyes on the competition alongside them.

Tough to pin down a moment when the floodgates finally opened—a few lower speed crashes began to bubble up in the field after the pack entered Belgium, and Moldovan champion Alexandre Pliuschin lead the break through a sweeper in a two wheel skid just before being caught.

I guess the moment where the race went “Texas” came when Mark Cavendish became more interested in winning shoving match with a Lampre rider than following his leadout train through a hairpin at two KM to go. Both riders went down, and tied up Oscar Freire in their wake.

A few seconds later, just inside the red kite, a tumble happened behind the sprinters that brought the bulk of the field to a stop, leaving a group of roughly fifteen to contest the stage. A makeshift leadout of Garmin, Cervelo and Lampre riders kept things from getting too crazy, but as Petacchi made his decisive burst for the line another crash occurred.

I haven’t seen chopper footage, or anything clear enough to get a good idea of what happened, but I will say that it’s awfully hard to end up with another rider’s bike around your rear derailleur when everyone is adhering to UCI Rule 2.3.036. Chalk Petacchi’s win up to battling for a perhaps windier position that allowed him to dictate his own course and timing in what was likely to be a very chaotic final surge to the line.

A Prologue Of Couldnts

4 Jul

Tour de France 2010 - Rotterdam (Prologue)  by Flickr user einnidThat’s what today’s stage—at least from the recaps, reports and clips through which I experienced it—seemed like to me.

In the rain, many contenders couldn’t take risks. With no time bonuses in the coming days, sprinters couldn’t really justify a run for yellow. Over a pancake-flat parcours, climbers couldn’t make any statements. And with all the variables in the equation, a suddenly fourth-placed Lance Armstrong couldn’t make any assessments of the day’s implications for the rest of the Tour.

In many ways, this race of couldnts was the perfect follow-up for a dope story that wasn’t. The rumors flew—some said Lance might not start, or would drop out before France proper—but in the end, the latest salvo of Land Grenades were little more than a fluffy fleshing-out of the initial allegations made by Landis at the Tour of California.

Don’t get me wrong—I think there’s merit to what Landis has said. The Dexter-esq preparation of the transfusion room would be fantastic physical manifestation of the Bruyneelian, no-holds-barred approach to TdF preparation, and certainly reckless driving, strip clubs, and recreational drug use are no strangers to the lives of world class athletes during their downtimes.

No, the real failing of Landis’ expanded accusations was not in content but presentation. WSJ, I guess because they still make money selling dead trees, tried to build up some hype for a forthcoming weekend edition. Cycling fans and reporters, perhaps out of habit, seem to think that every dark cloud on the horizon portends a hurricane.

The prologue, for all the drama and build-up, seldom settles anything (apologies to @chris_boardman). Sure, we foamed at the mouth for the familiar electronic chirps of the starthouse clock, but at the end of a the day—even one with more than a few missteps—nothing has been decided.

When a Tour-making ride happens, everyone knows it—no prognostication required. With the immediate and infinitely repeatable delivery of information, I think the same unambiguous significance applies to the stories that fill space between the finishes and starts and finishes as well. No question in my mind that were Willy Voet intercepted by gendarmes this afternoon, we’d see exclusions and expulsion by the start of the next day’s stage.

How The Race Was Won – Rules of the Group Sprint

1 Jul

A little TdF preview for you, since the action in the early going is driven largely by the sprinters, and we be especially tightly scrutinized after the tremendous crash at the Tour de Suisse.

The UCI’s rules on what it is and isn’t ok to do in a sprint are both poorly-written, and enforced in a less-than-literal fashion. Drawing on some notable sprint rulings of the past decade, this How The Race Was Won examines exactly what you can and can’t get away with in the final rush to the line.

[right-click for iTunes-compatible download, tap for iPad/iPhone]