The worst and the best of cycle racing

I finally got around to watching the TiVo’ed coverage of last weekend’s “Amstel Gold”, one of the “Spring Classics” pro bike races. Unusually for them, the weather was beatiful – probably too hot for the tastes of the riders, but it made for good coverage and I’m sure the fans appreciated it. In previous years it’s been wet or snowy or so foggy that the tv coverage was almost non-existant.

As usual on these sorts of races, there wasn’t much happening until the last 30 minutes or so. There was a break-away group up the road and a big peleton, but a couple of the race favourites manged to bridge up to the leaders. That’s what I mean about “the worst”. 2 hours of watching a bunch of guys cycling without any changes in leadership, without teams organizing chases, without anything really interesting happening. Yawn.

With only a few minutes to go, the lead group consisted mostly of guys who had a reasonable expectation or hope of winning, because of previous wins on this or similar races. The only wild factor was that one of these favourites, Davide Rebellin, also had a team mate with him. I expected this would mean that his team mate, Stefan Schumacher, would attempt to launch him on a break-away on the second last or last climb of the day. But instead, their team played a very clever card.

Schumacher attacked alone. The other guys in the bunch wouldn’t counter attack to bring him back because none of them wanted to tire himself out and give the upper hand to one of his rivals. You could see Paulo Bettinni and Michael Boogerd trying to get the others to lead the counter attack. They just couldn’t get it together to cooperate, knowing that Rebellin would sit on any counter attack but wouldn’t contribute to it. So Schumacher sailed on ahead and won by a good margin. Even better, Rebillin used his tactical advantage to grab enough rest that he could outsprint the rest of the group to take second. And that’s the best of bike racing, the team tactics that say it’s better for some second banana in your team to get a clear win than for your team leader to fight it out in a bunch sprint. Every team has its star, but when it comes right down to it, it’s the team that matters.

Athletes and drugs

I didn’t write a summary of the last couple of days of the Tour de France as I usually do because I didn’t actually get to watch them on TV until I got back from Oshkosh, and by that time the news was all about Landis’ failed drug test. I want to reserve judgement about Landis until we hear the full results of the investigation. But one thing I read in several discussions of this whole thing is “we should just allow the athletes to use whatever drugs they want”. This is a damn stupid idea for a couple of reasons, and I’d like to expand on this.

The first reason it’s a stupid idea is that athletes will do anything to get an edge on their competition. If everybody else is using drug X, then you have to use X or you’re going to be at a disadvantage, even if you’re a better athlete than them. The drugs would become just another arms-race situation. The various sports governing bodies have done what they can to reduce technological arms races – they want technology to evolve, but they don’t want it to decide competitions. Back in the days when fibreglas skis were new, the FIS had to step in and say that cross country skis had to be a minimum of 44 mm wide at the widest point, because people were trying narrower and narrow skis to get a speed advantage, to the point where a large number of competitors were breaking their skis in a race – if you didn’t break, you’d gain a few seconds over everybody else. The UCI does the same thing in bike racing with their weight limits on bikes. The limit is arbitrary, but you have to draw the line somewhere. If drugs got to be the next arms race, people would be doing major damage to themselves.

And that’s the second reason why it’s a stupid idea: athletes don’t care about the future. If you told an athlete that if they take this drug they’d win the Tour de France but they’d drop dead two weeks later, but their win would still stand, there would be a line-up around the block for the drug. How do I know this? Personal experience.

Most of my competitive life was in pain. I was pretty sure that continuing to compete would make the pain problems worse in the future, but I cheerfully accepted that trade-off. I’m not as cheerful about it now, but I stand by the decision. And I wasn’t competing for prize money, million dollar endorsements and world wide fame. The sports I was competing in were obscure to the point where most of my friends had never even heard of them. And I wasn’t even winning most of them – I never won a Canadian Championship in anything. In cross country skiing, I wasn’t even in the top 4 on our university team. But I loved the competition against myself, and the feeling of doing my best, and the knowledge that I’d tested my limits and come through them. I basically ruined my knees and condemmed myself to lifetime pain for nothing more than a feeling. Can you imagine what an athlete would do to himself if there was more at stake?

Tour de France Stage 17

“Ride like you stole something”

Before I tell you about today’s stage, let me tell you about a similar stage several years ago. Back then, Landis was on Lance Armstrong’s team. Lance was already in yellow, and Landis had pulled him ahead of all his rivals at the top of the second last climb of the day. Armstrong only needed to finish with his rivals, he didn’t need to make any time on them. So he turned to Landis and said “Do you want to win the stage today?” When Landis said yes, Armstrong said “Ride like you stole something.” The idea was that Armstrong would hang back with the hopes that any approaching rivals would be content catching him and not need to catch up to Landis. Unfortunately Ullrich and Kloden caught up to Armstrong and Landis, so Landis didn’t get his stage win. (The story of how Armstrong won the stage is worth a blog entry on its own – it was a pretty amazing race.)

Today, Landis rode like he stole something. It was another brutal stage, with lots of vicious climbs and heat. He attacked on the first climb, and a few tried to stay with him but failed, and the rest just let him go. I don’t know if they were unable, of it they just thought he’d crack today like he did yesterday, but it was a big mistake. He caught and passed the 11 man break-away, and while one T-Mobile rider in the break just sat on his wheel for the next couple of climbs. He looked so calm and cool and determined all day, while his rivals looked under terrible pressure.

Because he is the team leader and on a lone break-away, he had the team car right up beside him, so every time he needed a water bottle he just gave a jaunty little wave, and up would come the car. And boy did he go through a lot of water bottles. He rode most of the time with a bottle in his hand, and every time he called up the team car he’d take one, put it in the bottle cage, take another and empty it over his head, and take another and drink most of it. He was constantly eating and drinking – he knew that the main reason he bonked yesterday was a lack of food and drink, and he wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.

At the end, he ended up 30 seconds off the lead in GC in third overall, with Periero still in yellow and Sastre in second at 12 seconds back. It’s still anybody’s game, but I think Landis has to be the overwhelming favourite based on his time trialing ability.

One of the things I find most impressive about Landis is that he’s amazingly concentrated. As an orienteer, I participated in many two or five day events. And one thing I struggled with was the fact that a bad day could throw me off for subsequent days. But look at Landis. On the prologue, he got a flat tire riding up to the start house. He ended up missing his start by 7 or 8 seconds, but it didn’t faze him and he ended up only about 9 seconds down. Then on the first individual time trial, he was told a few minutes before the start that the position he uses, the position that he’d done all his time trial training in, had been banned by the UCI. So he had to change the position with no time to take a test ride to adjust it – and then, probably because of the adjustment of his bars, he broke his handle bars early in the race, and needed a bike change. And in spite of that, he finished second to a world time trail champion, Sergei Gonchar. And now after a performance yesterday that would cause a lesser man to quit, he came storming back and is now in an amazing position.

Overall, I think one of the factors that made this race so crazy is that the riders are too used to the Armstrong era. Traditionally, the team of the rider in the yellow jersey controls the peleton, riding the tempo to bring in the gap to the break-away groups according to the strategy of the day. But twice this year, the riders have sat back expecting the yellow jersey’s team to bring in an break-away and the team was too weak to do it. First it was the 30 minute break-away that put Periero in yellow – Phonak should have chased that gap down to 10 or 15 minutes, but they were too weak. And today it was Floyd Landis breaking away, while the GC men were sitting there waiting for Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears to start reeling them in, but they didn’t have the power. By the time CSC and T-Mobile realized that they needed to step up, it was too late.

Tomorrow is a pretty flat transition stage. Early in the race this would be a sprinter’s stage, but I think everybody is pretty tired and Robbie McEwan is pretty secure in green. And the GC contenders aren’t going to have any opportunity to make time on each other. So look for a small break-away group, hopefully controlled by the major teams, while the favourites all rest up for the crucial time trial. That one is going to be an exciting time. Too bad I’ll be in Oshkosh.

Tour de France Stage 16

One of the things that makes the Tour de France much more interesting to me than a one day spring classic is the aspect of having to save enough energy for the next day, and the day after. It’s “easy” (in relative terms) to go all out to win a stage or a jersey, it’s harder to do it in such a way that you have enough energy to go out the next day and do it again.

On the final climb of a stage full of hard climbs, Floyd Landis, sitting in a pack surrounded by multiple T-Mobile, CSC and Casse de Eparne riders but without any real support from his own Phonak squad, was attacked hard, and bonked hard. He just ran out of gas. It was painful to watch as he slowly crawled up the mountain, getting passed by riders who had been dropped by the peleton kilometers earlier.

Meanwhile up the road, Rasmussen repeated the same strategy that won him the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey last year, and went on an attack. By the second last mountain he was alone, and he looked unstoppably strong until about 5km to go on the last climb, but by then he had such a huge lead that even Sastre couldn’t catch him. Sastre had attacked out the front of the main peleton, and had gotten major time on the rest of the GC men, but only got within 1:41 of Rasmussen as the rest of the GC contenders without Landis nearly caught him back up. Leipheimer went on a daring solo attack but eventually bonked on the last climb and ended up behind the “Groupe Periero”.

Landis finishes 10 minutes out, and is now 11th overall and has basically no chance of seeing yellow again this year. But he’s not a complainer and he’s not going to make excuses, and I expect him to come out agressively and try to prove he’s still a great rider, either on the last mountain stage or in the time trial.

Periero has to be the surprise of the tour – he was 28 minutes out of GC, and didn’t look like he had a prayer, until the Phonak led peleton let his break-away get 30 minutes ahead. Once he tasted yellow, he started riding like a contender. Will he keep it? I doubt it. I have to say that it’s probably going to be Sastre or Kloden, because they’ve got the strong teams, the experience, and the ability.

Over the Armstrong Era, we’ve come to think of the Alps as the place where the favourite made time on his rivals, gaining time on most or all of his rivals by attacking on the last major climb of stages with several killer climbs, never losing time to any of them. Well, it’s a new game in town, and favourites are human too. No one team and no one man is as dominant now as Armstrong and US Postal were. That’s both sad and exciting.

Tour de France Stage 15

Ok, I guess the verdict is in on Floyd Landis strategy a few days ago of giving the yellow to Pereiro. And that verdict is “Good thinking”.

Today Phonak seemed to be doing everything right. They had one guy in the main break-away, Axel Merckx, and they had two guys near the front of the peleton protecting Landis while Periero’s Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears team did a lot of work. Good team strategy for a team I was almost ready to write off as not being strong enough for this task. T-Mobile was essentially playing from the same strategy book, while CSC seemed to be putting major effort into the break-away.

At the base of the last climb, the infamous Alpe D’Huez, the field basically consisted of a 15 strong break-away, and the peleton. There were some interesting names in the break-away group, including Hincapie and Damiano Cunego. As soon as the road tilted up, both groups splintered into little chunks.

A large group of GC men went off the front of the peleton, including Floyd Landis and Andreas Kloden, but NOT including Pereiro. Landis Phonak team-mates immediately attacked to launch Landis, and Kloden’s T-Mobile team-mates counter attacked Kloden. As the attacks came, the group off the front (Groupe Landis) got smaller until the only names of consequence were Landis and Kloden. And then they started picking up people from the original lead group – as they caught up to Merckx, Merckx looked a bit surprised to see Landis up with him, but gave him a bidon (water bottle) and lead Groupe Landis for a few km. But he soon fell off the pace, but then they caught up to a T-Mobile rider Mazzolinni, who did the same for Kloden as Merckx had done for Landis. Various people tried to stay with them as they stormed up the mountain, but ultimately only Garzelli and Lobato could stay with them. Up ahead, the leading group ended up down to just Cunego and Frank Schleck.

Frank Schleck ultimately attacked Cunego and finished a few seconds up on him. Then Garzelli outsprinted Landis for third. The Groupe Malliot Jaune finishes far enough back that Landis is back in yellow, and looking like he has the legs to keep it.

Besides Landis, the great interest today for me was Cunego and Kloden. A few years back, Cunego surprised everybody including his team leader Gilberto Simoni by winning the Giro D’Italia. And Kloden surprised his team leader Ullrich by finishing second overall in the Tour de France behind Armstrong but ahead of Ullrich. Both riders were considered quite young to do so well in major tours, and both of them have done bugger all in the intervening years. It’s great to see that they’ve started to get back that form from before.

In surprising news today, Tom Boonen quit the race early on, citing problems breathing. I think McEwan is pretty assured of the green jersey now.

I think this sets or ties a record for most yellow jersey changes in a race in a long time. Is that just because there isn’t a single dominant rider with a dominant team, or is it because they’re all off their drugs because of Operation Puerto? Either way, this is in many ways more interesting that the last couple of years of Armstrong dominance.