Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Brush with Yellow

Photo: © Roberto Bettini
I re-started riding bicycles in 1989. I originally started riding a bike for fun as a child of course, but I needed a bike while attending college to get to class and work. I'm sure that my choice of bike, a steel framed Trek 850 mountain bike, was partially based and subliminally impacted by a childhood wish unfulfilled. 
When my sweet, orange, stick-shift operated, banana seat equipped, 5-speed Schwinn Stingray was stolen the summer after third grade, I was devastated. My Dad filed a police report and I remember looking through the reclaimed bikes at a police garage, but no luck. My parents took me to "Eric's Bike Shop" down the road from us, to 'look' (an timeless parenting tactic) at some new bikes, when it was clear that my solid-tired hot rod wasn't coming back to me. The Schwinn that caught my eye, not unlike the Red Ryder 2000 bb gun in "A Christmas Story' was a $400, red, '10 speed' road bike. It was the one that I wanted. We didn't buy it that day and shortly thereafter I was headed to summer camp for a week, which helped me keep my mind off of my loss.

When I returned home, I was surprised with my new bike. A brown Ross three-speed. I couldn't hide my disappointment, although I tried when I realized that my parents had clearly made a sacrifice in purchasing a quality bike and not some supermarket cheapy. I wasn't until years later that I realized how unrealistic the request for that red 'racer' was in 1977 dollars. Although, like I said I'm sure that my childhood wanting influenced my new red mountain bike some twelve years later.

I was immediately smitten with the rugged machine and I took the shiny ride to its first competition in the summer after a spring initiation of riding concrete sidewalks, jumped curbs, and being locked to steel racks while I was in class and folding sweaters inside a mall. The multi-day "Gonzo' Mountain Bike Festival in Mansfield Ohio, was my first exposure to mountain bike racing. Scott time Trials, hill climbs, and cross country racing were the activities and got me hooked for what would become one of my life's joys.

My level of involvement in racing would increase over the next few years and in 1996 I decided to compete in the NORBA National Mountain Bike cross country race in Traverse City, MI. The appeal of racing in one of the amateur classes at a National Series event, was that you could race the the same venue as the 'big boys' (the Elite Pro riders) and watch how they would tackle the same course. Many of the pros that weekend were vying for a spot for the U.S. Olympic Team in the inaugural event for the sport in Atlanta Games later that summer. You could literally rub shoulders with the best of the best (Tinker Juarez, Don Myraah, Travis Brown, John Tomac) and be part of the 30,000 fans and participants, which in hindsight was probably the sport's zenith in the US.

The highlight for me could have been my the completion (I was something like 15th) of my event, my free installation of the new Gore ride-on cables, or the picture with Susan DeMattei with her arm wrapped around my waist, eventhough I was still sweaty from my effort. However, the highlight that weekend was another chance meeting on a shaded trail with an 19 year old Aussie as we both contemplated our approach to a questionable course feature.

The designers of the Traverse City course had put in a couple of twists to challenge the riders and give the fans and press something to talk about. The first, was an artificial barrier in the middle of a high speed straightaway that really wouldn't even be home on an old school cyclocross course. Made out of 2x6's and reinforced with natural logs, the obstacle forced riders to ride over and if you didn't want to lose time, ride over it confidently at speed. The problem for Travis Brown, who was in the running for an Olympic spot, was that someone changed the ground level on the backside (exit) from a previous practice day, resulting in an unlevel landing, that caused him to crash and break his collar bone, thus taking him out of his probable Olympic bid. 

The other 'feature was a route choice that made the racers choose between a longer and more time consuming loop through the trees or a much quicker and fan favorite 30ft water jump. The loop was a safe and prudent choice, the water jump, a risky and potentially dangerous maneuver that was not for the faint of heart. Bob Roll, currently a Tour de France commentator on Vs., but then competing for Soft-Ride, quipped that he wasn't going to ride the jump for the satisfaction for some "hot dog eating mid-westerners." On one of my practice runs, I had stopped to assess the scope of the obstacle that I would encounter in the heat (literally with the stifling humidity present and figuratively) of the race in a couple of days. As I was standing there, a pro and his teammate rolled up up to the spot where I had stopped. You can always tell a pro by their equipment (immaculate, high end machines), their clothes (everything matches) and the lythe slightness of their body types.

The New Zealand Pro's riding companion was recognizable for other reasons though. The first was his accent and for his recognizable face as a rising star in the mountain bike world. Already a multi world and Austrailian medalist in the Espoir category (under 23 years old) disciplines of mountain biking and road, his presence in Traverse City helped add to the bigness of the event. So after briefly welcoming him to my home state, I asked if he was going to ride 'it'. He replied, "I don't think so", to which I said, "Well if you're not going to ride it, I'm certainly not going to." We both laughed, and following his clip-in, I asked if I could tag along for a while, to which he graciously said 'sure mate', and with that, we were off. Although the shared ride didn't last very long. At the first real hill, when I had to shift into a lower gear to struggle up the climb, Cadel effortlessly rose out of the saddle and sped off into the steaminess without wasting a pedal stroke.
I have followed his career arc ever since and was delighted to see him kiss the pretty girls and slip on the maillot jaune today in Paris as the first Australian winner, and oldest in the post war era, of my beloved Tour de France. Then the humble and hard-working family man, celebrated with his wife, child, teammates, country, and fans worldwide.
This year's edition of the Tour de France was arguably one of the most exciting Tours in the last 30 years and want to thank Cadel for giving me yet another reason to love bicycle racing. His win, gratefulness and perseverance are other reasons to root for the quiet Australian who gave a no name amateur the time of day on an trail that he has surely forgotten, but one that I never have. Good on ya mate!

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Paris Already?

Time Trial Recap
Is it time for Paris already? I'm not ready for this year's Tour to be over. It has been absolutely fantastic! Except for a few days when the big guns spent the day watching each other, this race has brought the unexpected every day. Crashes, multiple breakaway successes, new names, old rivalries, and good old fashioned racing. Just one more week...please?

Cadel Evans looked spectacular today, then got to put on the yellow shirt for his extraordinary effort. Prior to the stage, there was serious speculation as to whether or not Evans could overtake Andy Schleck's:57 second advantage in the overall standings. It was a valid concern, as no one has ever came back from more than :50 seconds down to win the maillot jaune and stand atop the podium in Paris. Evans had a couple of things going for him though. 1. He rode this exact same course in June's Dauphine Criterium. 2. Andy Schleck, eventhough he could draw on the power of the yellow jersey, seemed to be having an utter lack of self confidence in 18 of the previous 19 stages. Even up the L'Alpe d'Huez yesterday, Schleck was constantly looking around nervously and tried to talk his competitors into working with him on the stage.

No one however, expected Cadel to challenge for the stage win. Yet that's exactly what he did, improving his June time by over a minute (1:07) and capitalized on his Mtb descending skills to crush the last 15 km of the time trial and missing the stage win by a scant :07 seconds. An emotional Evans, kissed the LCL stuffed bear and launched the bouquet into the crowd, standing with his arms raised in what is surely a Tour victory, long after the podium girls left. "Chapeau" said Bernard Hinault to Evans on the podium's periphery. Chapeau indeed!

The Run into Paris
A tribute to French Champion Laurent Fignon will begin the shortest stage (58-ish miles) in the Tour since 1988, when cyclocross and road star, Dutch rider Andri Van Der Poel won a stage. Shortly after the champagne is shared and the BMC team lead the peloton onto the Champs Elysees, the pleasantries will end, and a full on race will erupt. Mark Cavendish will be looking for his third consecutive win in the inevitable Paris sprint, but Tyler Farrar and Andre Greipel have their own ideas.

By the way who is a better Tour de France teammate than George Hincapie? If you want to win the Tour, you need him on your team. Nine victories attached to his name! Amazing!


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Friday, July 22, 2011

The Race of Truth - Tour de France Stage 20 Preview

Photo: Graham Watson |
Stage 19 Recap
The drama and racing that took place within today's Stage 19 is one of the reasons I watch the Tour. I'll admit that I can't make a personal ranking of this year's Tour in the 25 or so I've followed, until the 'recency' effect has waned and Sunday brings an end and the resulting withdrawals, but man it has been something everyday. Everyday. The emotional reaction at today's finish surprised me and capped a day of goosebumps and exclamations.

Pierre Rolland was pretty happy too. Rolland's storming and persistent ride up the legendary L'Alpe d'Huez was the first French win of this Tour and he the first Frenchman to win on the L'Alpe since the 'The Badger", Bernard Hinault won it in 1986. Rolland outsmarted two Spanish champions, Contador & Sanchez, revealing later "I didn't want to be second."He's not second in the White Jersey competition for the Tour's best placed young rider either, with today's ride earning him the prize heading into the final two days of the race.

Alberto Contador set out to match Andy Schleck's bold move yesterday with his own attack 93km out with teammate Navarro and clearly part of a plan to make the day hard before the brutal half-hour climb of the L'Alpe. The Schleck brothers hitched right on and the Yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler took off in chase about a kilometer later. The stage included climbs up the Col du Telegraphe and the Col du Galibier for a total of 30 km of straight up climbing, even before the 21 switchbacks of the 13km climb up to the town of L'Alpe d'Huez, It was going to be a long hard day.

With about 87km to go Cadel Evans had to stop to address a mechanical issue with his bike. Then again, stopped. Then again, with the team car swapping out the bike with one that would finally work and finish the stage with the Aussie. He lost about 63 seconds with his private little nightmare and spent a lot of energy getting back into the fight.

Voeckler, while never giving up the fight, as evidenced by when he goes all gangly when he is at his limit, lost his beloved jersey with the pace on the Telegraphe and could never regain his time losses. KOM jersey holder Vanendert was also a victim of the pace and lost his jersey to eventual second place Samuel Sanchez on the climb as well.  The Schlecks were 34 seconds behind Contador at the top of the day's second climb, Col du Galibier, to no long term effect as the harrowing descent brought everyone (the leaders and the nine chasers including Hesjedal, Danielson, Evans) together with 25km to go.

After being given the green light to ride for himself on the Galibier by his Team captain, Voeckler, Rolland Ryder Hesjedal Rolland took off at the base of the L'Alpe climb in an effort to force the pace and maybe try and catch the big boys by surprise and possibly let them go. However, this the L'Alpe d'Huez and nobody gives this stage away or lets it slip away from them.
photo AFP
Contador attacked with about 12km to go, catching the pair ahead. He attacked again, shortly after sizing them up and realizing that they couldn't collectively help him. It looked for a while liked it was the winning move. Contador was clearly bothered by the raucous crowd, at one point punching an obnoxious fan in the face.  The motorcycled gendarmes got better control of the situation, with even Race Director Prudomme scolding the fans from his red car.The crazies might have been trying to tell him was that Sanchez and Rolland were coming, and he had better get on his giddy-up. Unlike in his three Tour wins and six consecutive Grand Tour wins though, 'Bert looked mortal. Not unlike Indurain in his last Tour, the Spainards face revealed that he was giving it all he could. A brief moment of hesitation and corollary perfect timing by Rolland, prevented Sanchez and Contador from immortality. A new moniker will be forever attached to the young French hopeful's name, Winner of L'Alpe d'Huez. Chapeau.

Stage 20 Grenoble Time Trial 42.5km
The exact course used in this year's Dauphine race in June should provide enough real estate to allow Cadel Evans to overtake the :57 second advantage that Andy Schleck has going into the stage to win his first Tour de France. However, they don't call this the 'race of truth" for nothing. If nerves get the best of Cadel, who has revealed that his strategy is "to ride fast" or if Andy rides with the uncommon strength that the yellow jersey can provide, we might have a totally unexpected outcome. It's going to be close. A result totally expected in this years totally unexpected Tour. Adieu.
1 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 82:48:43
2 Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:00:53
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:00:57
4 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 0:02:10
5 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre - ISD 0:03:31
6 Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard 0:03:55
7 Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:04:22
8 Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale 0:04:40
9 Thomas Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo 0:07:11
10 Pierre Rolland (Fra) Team Europcar 0:08:57

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Augusta, Daytona, and L'Alpe d'Huez Stage 19 Preview

Every sport has its shrine, a place where when the athletes compete, it means something. Whey they win, the stake their claim on immortality. A place that even casual fans recognize and respect what occurs there. Locations such as Augusta, Daytona, and Churchill Downs.

In the Tour de France, it’s L’Alpe d’Huez. Not the highest, steepest, or the oldest climb in the Tour, but when the world's best race here, always memorable. A twisty, high pitched mountain pass in the Alps that was first included in the  Tour in 1952 (Won fittingly by Fausto Coppi) and a fixture for almost the last thirty years. When a cyclist wins here, it’s mentioned with their name forever, like an Oscar winner, heretofore, “I’d like to welcome L’Alpe d’ Huez winner Mr. blabbity blahbity to our gathering/event/presentation. Winning the stage at L’Alpe d’Huez has brought many a man to tears, including many of the 600,000 who camp out for days prior, just to catch a glimpse of thier heroes ascending the roughly half-hour climb.
 The second ascent of the Galibier in this year's Tour will break things up quite a bit and the approach to the L'Alpe will be fast and furious with an elite group certainly forming by the time they hit the 9km of the climb. The fireworks between individuals will get lit and someone will try and launch themselves to cross the line first and follow the footsteps of Lemond, Armsrong, and Sastre who won the stage and went on to win the overall Tour.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sucker Punch Them - Tour de France Stage 18 Preview

You never say, "I'm gonna fight you, Steve." You just smile and act natural, and then you sucker-punch him. – Steve Zissou, “The Life Aquatic”
I know that 'Stomach of Anger' Andy Schleck is on all the covers of the cycling magazines and everyone has waited a year for him to exact his revenge after 2010's 'Chanigate", but I haven’t been sold on form since the middle of June with his participation in the Tour de Suisse. He got gapped rather easily on some of that Tour’s climbs and just didn’t look fresh. The other reason I didn’t pluck any money on the twice runner-up in the Tour was the tactics that his team were clearly going to employ when they announced their Tour team. True, there was a lot of climbing in this version of the Tour, but there always is, and the team protected against that surrounding Andy with some capable climbers, but no real studs that could also match his brother Frank and offer additional support, almost guaranteeing isolation when things heat up in the stage.
Setting up a situation that the brothers were almost always going to try and use their 1-2 punch to try and put time into Andy’s rivals. When their uppercuts and jabs didn’t work during the last two weeks, it has been clear that they didn’t know what else to do. Just look at this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege race, where they totally muffed the finale and handed the race, one of the monuments of the sport, to Philippe Gilbert. He literally turned around laughing at the Schlecks as he raised his arms in victory.
Another nail in Andy’s coffin may be his relatively poor descending skills. There was also a lot of climbing on this year’s tour, but what goes up must come down, unless it’s a mountaintop finish. This year’s route has a ton of really tough climbs sprinkled in the middle of stages and there have been numerous chances for someone to capitalize and gain time on the way down. The number of successful breakaways this year that have resulted in a stage winner is proof.
So when Frank and Andy said prior to Stage 15 that they didn’t expect any surges on the climb of the Col de Manse, then complained that the descents are too dangerous, they essentially gave their rivals a strategy for the day. Andy Schleck was subsequently caught out about 20 seconds at the top of the climb and lost even more ground when attacks came on the descent. He lost 15 seconds to Ivan Basso, 48 seconds to the Yellow jersey- Voeckler, 1:06 to Contador and Sanchez, and 1:09 to Cadel Evans. 
Don’t tell people you’re going to hit them and also don’t tell them when to hit you, especially if you don’t want to become this generation’s Raymond Poulidor.
Stage 18 Pinerolo - Galibier Serre-Chevalier 189km

Celebrating the100th year of the Tour’s use of the Galibier, the giant of the Alps, The Galibier, will feature the highest finish (2645m/8678ft)for a Tour stage in its long history. That's a tall order after a day that includes a total of 3 hors categorie (beyond classification) climbs in a single stage. The Col Angel is 23km long (and has a stretch of 8km with pitches averaging 9/10%), the Col d'Izoard 14km, and the Galibier 23km long with a nice biting 9% pitch to finish off a brutal day. I don't know who is going to win tomorrow, but at the end of the day we might know who just won the Tour.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tour de France Stage 16 recap; Stage 17 Preview

Stage 16 started with some mea culpa from Tyler Farrar, saying that his comments about Mark Cavendish's finish on stage 14 weren't completely accurate, taken out of context, and probably unfair. Cavendish's interview gave Tyler credit for his frustration and recognized that accusations will always be flying his way because of his success.

It took two hours of constant attacking and 100km to finally sort out who was allowed in the day's breakaway and ten riders finally were able to get away, including Ryder Hesjedal, Jeremy Roy (again!), HTC's Tony Martin, and a pair of Norweigens Thor Hushovd, and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Ryder "Weight of a Nation" Hesjedal found himself alone topping off the climb of the Col de Manse and had about about 11km to go to win it. Later on the descent he was joined joined by his teammate, World Champion Thor Hushovd, and Team Sky's Boasson Hagen, Hesjedal tried his best to distance himself for the win, but he had two pretty heavy hitters with him. Team tactics would certainly play a part.

Behind the trio, with about 3km to go to the summit of the Manse, Alberto Contador launched an attack which was immediately followed by Yellow jersey holder Thomas Voeckler, then Cadel Evans, but Andy Schleck couldn't match the speed. Voeckler fell back to rejoin the chaser including Italians Basso, Cuenego, the Highest place American Danielson. Gold medalist and stage winner this year, Sanchez joined up to the pair and summited the Col de Manse with Evans, and Contador and a gap of 18 seconds.

The presence of Evans and Sanchez, definitely benefited Contador who was the weakest descender of the three. Evans a Mountain Bike World Cup Champion took advantage of his fearlessness on the wet roads to gain 3 seconds on Contador/Sanchez and over a minute on his other main rivals. The knock on Evans has always been that he doesn't attack, but he certainly was not sitting and waiting today. Chapeau!

The cat and mouse tactics started about 2km out from the finish, with Boasson Hagen and the Garmin teammates looking at each other to see who was going to try a go first. All three knew that it had to be Ryder, and although he tried, it didn't work. That left the two Norweigens to battle it out. Thor timed his move perfectly to surprise Boasson Hagen to take his second Stage of this Tour and Garmin's fourth.

Jersey's: Voeckler still has the yellow. Vanendert the Polka-dot, and Cavendish the Green.Uran the White

I've watched A LOT of the Tour this year, and although that's not very remarkable compared to other years, I have not seen a lot of 'The Devil' Didi Senft. So it was good to see him for the second time in as many stages today. European bike races wouldn't be the same without him.
Stage 17: Gap - Pinerolo 179km
The Stage to to Pinerolo will be where someone will lose their tour and others show that they are ready to win it. The weather is foul, the climbs are brutal. It should be an epic day. It wouldn't be surprising to see someone attack on Sestrieres. I'll take the Sanchez to attack and then try and stay away. He'll need help though, maybe his riding campanion today, Cadel Evans, is willing to go again. Time will tell if today was Andy's 'bad day' that everyone says each Tour contender always has, but tries to hide. The will be nowhere to hide tomorrow. Adieu

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Tour de France Stage 16 Preview - July 19th

Stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux - Gap 163km
The stage to Gap is going to be hard:
  • if you're on a team that doesn't have a stage win at this point. (Lots of em)
  • if you have a rider in contention for the overall GC (Saxobank, Liquigas, BMC, Lampre). 
  • if your team has a jersey holder on their team (maillot jaune-Team Europcar, KOM-Omega Pharma-Lotto). 
  • if your team if your team is within striking distance of grabbing a jersey (King of the Mountains Euskaltel-Euskadi, Young Rider-Cofidis)). 
  • if you need to improve your position in the Team competition before Saturday's Stage 20 Time Trial (Europcar, AG2R). 
  • if you need to gain every second back that you carelessly lost in stage 1 and need to attack on the col de Manse. (Contador) 
  • if your're the latern' rouge-Tour's last placed rider (Andrey Amador Bakkazakova (CRc) Movistar) and you've struggled to get this far and you don't want to quit. 
  • if your team risked the elimination of four riders and had to ride what was essentially a team time-trial to get your team leader prior to the time cut and thus eliminated on stage 14. (HTC, Cavendish)
  • if you have your foot in your mouth and are finding it hard to breathe. Tyler 'shut your mouth and ride" Farrar
If you think your sport is harder or has tougher atheletes, I respectfully submit the following as evidence that unless your response rhymes with 'jockey', you might be wrong. The guy's name is Laurens. Mr Laurens ten Dam. He stated the day after this picture was taken, he was talking to reporters how he is planning on taking a stage. In hockey they wear pads.
Photo credit © AFP
Look for a breakaway to get away and possibly get a big gap if the right riders form the mix. If the mix is not right, meaning that there is no one within a deep breath of the overall or any of the jersey competitions, or comprised of the wrong team, they will held close. Expect some of the big guns to try and fire on the Category 2 climb which crests just 11km before the finish in Gap. Keep your eye on Basso to gain time. Voeckler will still be in Yellow. Millar to take the stage. (but how can you not pull for Jeremy Roy to finally get one?) The next three days will even more difficult. Adieu

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Tour de France Stage 15 Preview

Stage 15: Limoux - Montpellier 187km
Whew! Has it been two weeks of the Tour de France already?! So far we have been witness to great stories, cheered our favorites, and learned some new names along the way.

Stage 15 should be a sprint finish and really the last time for the sprinting specialist to fight it out before the race finishes in Paris in a week. They will surely be sending thier teammates to the front to try and lead them out perfectly for a battle royale in the town of Montpellier. Mark Cavendish has really seemed to struggle over the mountain stages the last few days and may not be as fresh as he needs to be to take the win. Look for someone like Greipel or Farrar to confirm their newly acquired status as a Tour Stage winner. Adieu.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

'I Don't Believe What I Just Saw' - Tour de France Stage 13 Recap & 14 Preview

There are fewer things in cycling more beautiful than a high mountain stage in the Tour de France. Ascending a Pyrenees or Alp giant in good weather or bad is inspiring, the descent, thrilling. The high mountains are for the specialists, the mountaingoats of the peloton. Riders who can fly up a mountain, in part to their power to weight ratio, but also their tremendous heart and spirit when the road turns upward. The mountains are not made for the big men of the peloton, the sprinters or the one day classic riders. These guys make up the autobus', the group of riders that forms at the back of the peloton on these types of stages and band together to try and finish within the time limit cutoff and subsequent elimination from the Tour.

Another beautiful sight is when the Rainbow jersey, worn by the current World Champion, takes a stage win. A confirmation with hands raised, resplendent in white, that they can best the world's elite in the world's hardest race. The Rainbow Jersey rarely wins a stage. They are just too easily identifiable, too easy to keep an eye on and just are not given any leeway or freedom to seek victory. Oscar Freire - "The Cat" (Spain) did it in a stage sprint in 2002 and before that Five-Time Tour winner Bernard Hinault - "The Badger" won a stage in 1981. Three time Tour winner, Frenchman Louison Bobet, won a stage while wearing the Rainbow jersey and went on to win the Tour in 1955. It just doesn't happen very often.

So today when sprinter, one day classics rider, and World Champion Thor Hushovd (The Norwegian 'God of Thunder) passed Frenchman Jeremy Roy (my hero of this tour) to win today's stage, I immediately flashed back to 1988's Major League World series. If you remember game 1, Kirk Gibson (my boyhood hero and former Detroit Tiger) hobbled up to the plate, in his only plate appearance of the series, pinch hit a ninth inning, 2-run walk off home run. Nobody could believe what just happened. Even announcer Jack Buck could only haphazardly, albeit beautifully, expressing what what remains a lifelong memory for me "I don't believe what I just saw."

Finding himself two minutes off the pace of two French riders Jeremey Roy and David Moncoutie after cresting the Col d'Aubisque, Thor (isn't that a great name?) spent 30 km chasing down Roy, finally passing him with just 2km to go. It was a heartbreaking moment for Roy, who had tears in his eyes as he punched his heart, indicating that he gave it all he could, as he crossed the finish line. His consolation prize for just missing glory was that he earned the Polka Dot jersey as the new leader of the King of the Mountain competition. Neither Roy, Moncoutie, or the cycling world would have put money on a Rainbow jerseyed sprinter to take a high mountain stage. Another reason why I love this race.
Photo: Graham Watson |
  • It was communicated post-race by Gamin-Cervelo managment that Thor hit a top speed of 112km/hr during his descent of the Aubisque. (that's 69 mph for those on imperial measurements) 
  • Roy will also wear red jersey numbers on tomorrow's stage, as he obviously was the most combatif today
  • Further endearing himself to the cycling world, especially to those who know the heartbreak of losing, despite their best efforts Roy said, “I had great legs on the climb, unfortunately I got caught on the descent. I’m not a big champion, so I do what I can with what I’ve got.”
  • Andreas Kloden (Radioshack) abandoned today in a devastatingly sad scene on the roadside, when he had to be helped off his bike, manually clipped out of his pedals, and had to be helped to the team car, as he could barely walk.. At least he didn't have the indignity of having his raced numbers ripped off his back, as team support gently took his jersey off his pained body that had clearly given all that it could to the German rider.
Johan Bruyneel, Director of the decimated Radioshack Team, reminded us with a tweet today that every winner of the Plateau de Belle stage has gone on to win that year's Tour de France and wondered if history would repeat itself. The thing about the Plateau de Beille climb is that there are steeper, longer, and more punishing climbs, but this one is just plain brutal and unrelenting (averaging almost 8% over 16km). Watching it on TV, it just seems to go on forever. You can watch these guys just seem to crawl up the long slopes and can almost feel the pain in their legs. Stage 14 has 'the Beille' climb as a mountaintop finish at the end of a very long day, with some very hard climbs (Six tough tests: the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, the Col de la Core, the Col de Latrape, the Col d’Agnes, the Port de Lers ) beforehand. This climb might suit Cadel Evans, but my guess is that he'll be watching the Schleck bros. try and put Contador on the ropes, then try and flip him out of the ring. I just hope the race doesn't bring me to tears two days in a row. Well actually, I wouldn't mind. It's why I watch. Adieu.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tour de France Stage 13 Preview

Photo: © Bettini

Today was Bastille Day in France and the national holiday certainly brought out the crowds. Frenchman Jeremy Roy once again put his team's colors in front of the cameras for a long spell as he got into the breakaway once again.They also saw their National Champion, Sylvain Chavanel, try and fly the colors while giving the victory a go, but he hasn't looked at all like the rider we saw in last years Tour and finished way down on the day. The yellow jersey smacked into a car after he cooked a corner, sliding his rear tire and causing a crash behind him. He was okay and subsequently rode what Paul Sherwan characterized as a 'storming ride' to keep his jersey, for unexpectedly or maybe characteristically, another day or more.

Leopard Trek tried to hurt Andy Schleck's rivals, but didn't have the success that they wanted. Ivan Basso (Liquigas), directed his teammates to turn up the pressure on the Luz-Ardiden today with a little over 10 km to go. It was great to see American Tom Danielson climbing with the best in the world as he fell in behind the Team Liquigas boys and finished 11th on the day. With 5.5km to go the chase was still behind the two lead riders by about a minute. Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez and Omega Pharma-Lotto rider Vanendert. With about 3.5km Andy Schleck, then his brother Frank, tried their best 1-2 punch, but couldn't knock anyone out. Until, when a little over 2km to go, Frank hit again and got a gap and tried to whittle down the :48 gap to the leaders. Then, Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans took off and Contador and A. Schleck stayed right with them. Frank almost caught them with 500m to go and the Belgian Vanendert took off in a panic, but it was Sanchez who took the win. It was a great win for Euskaltel-Euskadi who had their orange army of fans out today. Contador lost another :13 seconds and down 4 minutes on yellow and about 2 minutes behind Schleck. There is still a lot of racing left though.

Stage 13
Tomorrow's major climb, the Col d' Aubisque is 16km of climbing at an average gradient of 7.1%, with sections of 10% & 9%. That's 7ft of vertical rise for every 100 ft traveled vertically. Steep, long, and exceedingly difficult. The riders will welcome the long descent into Lourdes, where Italian great Gino Bartali won the last stage to finish in this town back in 1948 when he won the tour for his second time, after a nine year gap caused by the war.

The main GC riders will be happy to let a breakaway go ahead and fight it out, while they watch each other and make sure their rivals don't attack. An attack by the big boys isn't likely however, but an opportunist might take advantage of Contador and Schleck's relatively poor descending skills.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tour de France Stage 12 Preview, Bastille Day

Photo: © Bettini

I'd sure like to be able to say that Mark Cavendish's win today in the 167km Stage 11 to Lavaur confirms my prognosticating abilities, but really, who would have bet against him? Cavendish made it look easy after a miserable day in the rain and a hard day of chasing a pesky breakaway (including American Danny Pate). The group was determined to stay away, until that is, when the last of the group, Dutchman/Cyclocross Champion- Lars Boom, was caught with 2km to go. Cavendish felt that he had let his team down yesterday, when he didn't delver the stage win, saying "When the guys ride like they did yesterday and then I don't finish the job it's hard to take." Almost immediately, he watched the replay with his teammates on the jumbotron at the finish, then gave his brother in arms a victory hug. Then he stepped on the podium to kiss the pretty girls to celebrate his third win of this Tour and then slipped on his newly claimed maiilot vert (Green Leaders Jersey), dedicating his win to Tyler Blick (diagnosed with Leukemia year ago).

Tomorrow is Bastille day in France. There is certain to be fireworks, crazy costumes, and mass partying. In addition to these Tour celebrations, the French will also celebrate their La Fête Nationale or The National Celebration that commemorates the storming of the Bastille, when craftsmen and artisans laid seige to the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison and symbol of the absolute power of King Louis XIV. The initial impetus of the revolters was to to obtain powder for their recently stolen rifles, but their bloody victory at at the Bastille was the starting point of the French Revolution that forever changed France. Fun fact: The colors in the French flag are representative of the Monarchy (white) and the colors of Paris (Red and Blue) and were on the rosette that Lafayette gave to the King when he arrived in Paris to accept defeat. Of course, the King was executed a few months later.

The High Mountains
Stage 12 is one of the the stages that fans have been waiting for. The Pyrenees begin with three BIG climbs to  start the high mountain stages that last for three days in a row. Beginning with 10 km long Hourquette d' Ancizan, then the legendary Tourmalet, and then finishing with a climb up the steep Luz-Ardiden. Luz Ardiden might be familiar to some Americans as the stage where in 2003 Lance Armstrong was thrown to the pavement when a a fan's errant musette bag strap caught his handlebars on the climb up. According to the story, Jan Ullrich, told Iban Mayo, and other riders on that stage to wait for Armstrong (wearing the leader's yellow jersey). It is an unwritten code that you don't attack the yellow jersey when they are down. However, if you watch the tape, yes I have it taped. It was Tyler Hamilton, Lance's former teammate,  who was telling everyone to 'whoa up' Interestingly, it is Tyler Hamilton who is blowing the whistle on Armstrong and is a likely witness in the Federal investigation of fraud of the US Postal Service Cycling Team.

When Pedro Delgado, Tour Champion in 1988, won the stage to Luz Ardiden in 1985, he celebrated by drinking a milkshake, a rare treat for a cyclist. Turns out the shake was spoiled and made him sick. He lost almost a half an hour on the subsequent stage.

I hope that the big guns (Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans) go firing at each other to help determine, who is in this to win this. I, for one, am sick of watching them, watch each other. I don't think that Andy Schleck has looked particularly sharp so far. Contador tweeted today that his knee was feeling ok and expressed his excitement for the mountains ("After many troubles finally the mountain is coming! My knee is going better"). Evans looks determined to win. The dark horses are really looking interesting right now and tomorrow we'll see if Peter Velits and T. Martin have what it takes to contend. The HTC boys might have their own 1-2 punch to match the Schleck Bros.
 Time to light the fuse and Bastille Day is about as appropriate as it gets. Bang!


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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tour de France Stage 11 Preview

Photo: © AFP Photo

Andre Greipel let loose a ferocious sprint to overtake Mark Cavendish in the final 50 meters of today's Tour de France-Stage 10 to take his biggest win of his career. Greipel beat his former teammate in a validation of his feeling that he should have been allowed to ride for his own wins more often during his tenure at HTC-Highroad. Before Greipel left for Omega Pharma-Lotto at the end of last season, HTC-Columbia management typically directed him to ride in a support role for Cavendish.

Greipel left HTC-Highroad for a team that he felt would support his efforts to go for wins, which is why he was so incensed at the beginning of this year's Tour when he felt (with a nod to Yogi Berra) like it was deja vu' all over again. Greipel  felt that the team was supporting his superstar teammate Phillipe Gilbert in the green jersey competition, instead of helping him get lined up for the stage wins. However, it looks like things turned around today, as Gilbert rode away from the peloton on the Cote de Mirandol-Bourgnounac to attack with about 12 km to go in, what was revealed later, an effort to drop Cavendish before the finish and subsequently setting up Greipel. It was a great strategy that worked to perfection. The peloton stretched out in the hard efforts to catch the storming maiilot vert (Green Jersey) storming up the road with Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) and the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, whose presence greatly disturbed the peloton. Gilbert's effort hurt the peloton and forced the sprinter's teams to chase if they wanted a chance at victory. Cavendish, by his own post-race admission, said that he started his sprint too early. He didn't diminish his ex-teammate win, potentially reigniting their fractious relationship, but admitted that he just plain got beat.

Vous etes ici (you are here) 
Stage 11 - Blaye-les-Mines - Lavaur (168km)

I know a couple of things after today's stage. One, Mark Cavendish, does not like to lose and tomorrow he will be sure to not make any mistakes that will cost him a win. Two, eventhough there is a slight bump towards the end of the stage, it is too far to keep it coming down to a bunch sprint. Especially, since tomorrow is the last stage before the Pyrenees.

Other Stage notes
  • It's nice to see Raymond Poulidor continue to attend the Tour and greet stage winners. A great French Champion is beloved by all for his 'eternal second' underdog status in the Tour, Poulidor completed 12 Tours, but never wore the yellow jersey, despite finishing 2nd three times and on the final step of the podium (3rd) five times!
  • It's also nice that the 'Badger'-Bernard Hinault, the five time Tour winner is finally wearing long sleeve shirts on the podium. Much classier than the mid-manager look that he has had going on for years.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Tour de France Stage 10 Preview

 Thomas Voeckler takes the maillot jaune to lunch.

The peloton continues to head south, ending tomorrows stage in Carmaux. A couple of 'bumps' aong the way in the form of  some lower categorized climbs that shouldn't have much of an impact on what should be a sprint finish. I'm actually going to go against my better judgement and say that Tyler Farrar will out sprint Mark Cavendish tomorrow for his second win of this Tour. Nah...Cavendish wins. That didn't last long.

Other things we can watch for or count on for tomorrow's stage.
  • French TV will not be driving anywhere near the peloton after getting kicked out of the race by the organizers of the the Tour, the ASO.
  • Thomas Voeckler will still be wearing yellow at the end of the day.
  • The Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans, and Alberto Contador will finish crosseyed after watching each  other for yet another day.
  • 14 of the 18 riders who have abandoned the race are due to injuries suffered in crashes. Yikes
  • Johan Bruyneel will do something, anything to make the UCI mad or fine him.
  • Jeremy Roy or Sandy Casar will try to get into a breakaway.
  • Thor Hushovd will find the first finish-line reporter he can find to say that Cavendish sprint was irregular.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stage 9's Crash Recap, I Mean Race Recap

Once the flag was dropped today, the peloton sped off and covered 45 km in the first hour. An elite breakaway was established including, Juan Antonio Flecha, Thomas Voeckler, Luis Leon Sanchez, Sandy Casar and Johnny Hoogerland. It was a very experienced breakaway, sharing a total of 39 tours between them. Some classy riders in this group and with the most KOM available in the Tour so far, it was sure to be an exciting day.

The six breakaway riders had little time to watch the wild horses on the Puy Mary, an extinct volcano, and Terpstra found himself in trouble dangling off the back of the category 2 climb. Voeckler jumped to take maximum points over Hoogerland. Sylvain Chavanel, current French National Champion, struggled on the climb and would later finish 175th with the 'autobus' 21 minutes down.

Just before the 2nd climb of the day, the col du pas de peyrol (Le Puy Mary) with about 120 km still to go, Alberto Contador appeared to get purposefully bumped by Vladimir Karpets and caused him to crash into a spectator falling on his right hip. Subsequent mechanical trouble with his bike delayed his rejoing the peloton, with just the team car tailgating him down the back slopes. That little crash may have turned out to be a good thing however, as a horrific crash happened on the way back down. On the high speed descent, a terrible crash took out American David Zabriske (broken wrist), Omega Pharma-Lotto's main GC rider, Van de Broeck (broken collarbone), and Astana's Vinoukorov who fractured his femur and elbow. Causing all to abandon the race.

Later in the stage after  the breakaway had been whittled down to five riders, a TV car clipped 'the archer" Juan Antonio Flecha while trying to avoid a tree. The driver's 'unheard of' carelessness, in what Phil Ligget described as disgraceful, caused a spectacular crash. Johnny Hoogerland was flipped and literally flew into a barbed-wire fence in a somersaulting wreck. It was doubly heartbreaking for the man from Holland as he had earned the Polka dot jersey as leader of the King of the Mountains on the road, but it looked like he wouldn't get to experience the reward of his hard work. Hoogerland took the polka dot jersey off the HTC-Highroad's Teejay Van Garderen's back after battling for the KOM points available on the road today. Both Flecha and Hoogerland finished the stage with remarkable toughness.

Voeckler waved the white flag and signaled his breakaway companions to shut it down and wait for Flecha to rejoin them. The gap on the peloton was still around 5 minutes with 32km to go. However, with 20km to go it was clear that Flecha would not rejoin his former breakaway partners and with the time gap closing to 4:45 from a maximum of about 8, it was time for the three riders out front, to get on with it.

The cat and mouse tactics stayed away as the Sanchez, Casar, and Voeckler worked together to bring each other to the bottom of the final climb. Voeckler's priority changed from winning the stage to gaining as much time to take the maillot jaune that made him famous him 2004, saying later "I sacrificed the stage to win it (maillot jaune/yellow jersey). Luis Leon Sanchez jumped with about 500 meters to go to put a gap on his breakaway companions to win the stage.

On the podium, with totally acceptable and understanding lingering, Voeckler, France's favorite son, soaked up the adulation that only a Frenchman can experience at the Tour de France. Magnifique'

Monday July 11th is a rest day for the Tour. Good thing, 'cause I'm exhausted! Check back tomorrow for what might happen in week two of the greatest bike race in the world. Adieu

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tour de France Stage 8 Recap; Stage 9 Preview

For American cycling fans, especially the Joe Schmoes amongst us, it was a disappointing beginning to stage 8 to Super-Besse Sancy today. Chris Horner (Radioshack) didn't start due to his injuries suffered in yesterday's stage 7. He's an everyman who used to work in a bike shop, deciding one day to become an elite bike racer. So he went out and rode 100 miles, rested, then went out for another 100 the next day, and so on. Struggling with his first European assignment with FDJ, he came back to America with various teams and formed a reputation as a stud that could race with the best of them. Tenacious, lovable, and a terrific spirit. His tell it like it is' integrity will be missed for the rest of this Tour.

Late in today's race, American Teejay Van Garderen, in his first Tour, was close to grabbing the KOM points at the top of the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, when Astana's Alexander Vinokourov took off from the peloton with a determined move to move into the virtual Yellow jersey on the road. Always a dangerous rider, Vino,  was clearly riding for Yellow as he hooked up with the day's early breakaway to try and gain +:32 seconds ahead of the nervous peloton. Whatever you think of Vinokourov, stripped of stage wins and kicked out of the Tour for blood doping, he makes things happen. When he wants to win, he goes for it, which is not régulière in recent tours, as the big contenders are sometimes content to wait for somebody else to make an attack.

The four breakaway riders were desperate to stay :30 seconds ahead of the second group on the bumpy approach to the final climb of the day, Super-Besse. They didn't want to bring Vino with them to fight out the finish. No matter, because in the end, Rui Costa (Portugal) who was in the lead for 185km today, took the first Tour stage win for Movistar.

A late charging Phillipe Gilbert, fed up with team management, grabbed 25 more points in his mission for the green jersey to grab second place on the stage, just 12 seconds behind. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) HTC-Highroad will wear the red numbers tomorrow as he rightfullly was designated the days most aggressive rider. AND the Tour's Polka Dot Jersey as leader in the King of the Mountain competition! The youngster, 22, from Montana, commenting after the stage that his first Tour has been pretty stress free. Ahh, naivete'.

No change in the overall standing and Thor Hushovd, unexpectedly gets to keep the Yellow jersey for one more day. He is certainly riding with the added strength of the maillot jaune.

Stage 9 Issoire to St. Flour (208km)
The 4km climb, Col du Perthus, lies about midway in tomorrow's stage and has two 1km stretches of 13.8% and 11.6% gradient. The second kilometer in the col is three times steeper than the average American highway overpass! This stage could be very unpredictable, due to the unrelenting up and down nature of the profile, and has the potential to shake things up a little bit.If a rider fancies a stage win on a hard day, they should do themselves a favor to get in a large breakaway early and let the big names look at each other, while you pedal for glory. Maybe Thomas Voeckler, or Jeremy Roy. Let's go French and root for Sylvain Chavenel. Adieu.

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