Tour de France

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

We like to format our final review in a cute representation of the race, from Tete la Course to the Peleton to Abandons.  Weíre going with Jasonís rankings, but Iíll comment where I would move teams.  Last year I moved them to my rankings, so itís only fair that Jason gets final say this year. 

Under each team is their top GC rider and their rank if team time was calculated by adding the top FIVE finishers.  Itís my own ranking, but gives more value to team depth.  We do the same with the points title and the polka dots, first listing the team leader and their placement and score, followed by the teamís combined points and where that ranks in the field.  Itís a cheap tool, but it gives us an idea of how each team did.  Feel free to disregard it. 

 
Tete de la course

USPS:
6 stage wins,  WON yellow jersey
GC: Armstrong (1, 0:00)/ 1st Ė -2:34:24
PTS: Armstrong (8, 143)/ 10th Ė 203
DOTS: Armstrong (2, 172)/ 2nd Ė 330

JASON: Iím tempted to remove the other teams from Tete de la course because USPS belong in a class of their own. They control the peloton with an iron grip whenever they wantóon the cobblestones, or in the mountains. The domestiques made attacks in the mountains unlikely, and they chased down the few that did get away. Four Posties finished in the top 30; all nine finished the Tour. Even the last man finished 80th.  Best rider, best strategy, best manager, best team.

STEPHEN: Actually, I included one other team in my Tete, and that was T-Mobile, but your point is valid.  Not only did they take home the yellow, they controlled the peleton on virtually every stage.  If there was a breakaway, it was the Posties who decided whether the peleton would chase it down.  They set the pace even in stages they didnít try and win.  Just remarkable dominance.

Telekom (T-Mobile):
Best team time, 2nd & 4th in GC.
GC: Kloden (2, -6:19)/ 2nd - -4:27:33
PTS: Zabel  (3, 245)/ 1st Ė 524
DOTS: Ullrich (6, 115)/ 3rd - 292

JASON: For a team that didnít get a stage win, they were great. They won the team time because Ullrich, Kloden, and Guerini were great in the mountains. They even wore the white jersey for a day, and Zabel was third in the green jersey competition. They did all this with Vinokourov watching the Tour on TV.

STEPHEN: Zabel finished in third in the points competition without ever winning a contested sprint.  Thatís how good Telekom is at supporting their sprinter.  They had two riders in the top five, three in the top 25, four in the top 50, and eight in the top 75.  Thatís how deep they are in the GC.   They had two riders finish in the top 10 in climbing, and they scored the third most climbing points as team.  Simply put, Telekom is the only team that does everything at the very highest level.

Quick Step:
4 stage wins, polka dot jersey.
GC: Virenque (15, -28:11)/ 5th - -6:09:53
PTS: Boonen (6, 163)/ 8th- 284
DOTS: Virenque (1, 226)/ 1st- 337

JASON: They owned the polka dot jersey from start to finish. Three different riders won stages: Virenque in the mountains; Boonen in 2 sprints; Mercado on a long breakaway. They were fifth on team time. Despite the fact that no one tries to challenge Virenque for the dots and we take every opportunity to disrespect him, this team was good in all facets.

STEPHEN: The poor manís Telekom.  However, they did something the boys in pink couldnít muster, and thatís taking home some hardware.  If they can hold this team together, we are looking at one of the new powerhouses of cycling.  They still lack a real GC contender, but Rogers did finish 22nd, a pretty good Tour for a young guy. 
 
CSC:

1stage win, 3rd place GC, 3rd in team time
GC: Basso (3, -6:40)/ 4th- -4:42:49
PTS: Basso (15, 78)/ 9th- 206
DOTS: Basso (4, 119)/ 4th- 240

JASON: Basso was a great addition to this team. If they and he get just a bit stronger, weíre looking at a Tour winner here. Theyíve got great talent all over with Sastre, Voigt, and Piil. Letís give Bobby Julich a pat on the back for a nice come-back Tour.

STEPHEN: The poor manís US Postal.  They found a team captain, and thatís a huge, huge deal.  Sastre is about as good as a domestique youíll find.  Julich has really rebounded, and Piil was a complete maniac.  CSCís already a powerhouse, but the future is very bright.

Parsuviants:
 
Brioches La Boulangere:
10 days in yellow, 14 days in white.
GC: Voeckler (18, 31:12)/ 10th- -7:33:45
PTS: Pineau (14, 79)/ 13th- 169
DOTS: Chavanel (15, 53)/ 8th- 83

JASON: I want to bump them up to Tete de la course, but my problem is they never won anything. No stage wins, and they lost both jerseys. Superb effort, though. They were much better than we expected. Iíd say the future looks bright because they had 3 riders in the top 30, and all of them were eligible for the white jersey, but their sponsor pulled out, so the team might get scattered about. Good news for everyone else.

STEPHEN: I agree.  As impressive as they were, letís not get carried away.  They didnít win anything.  Had, say, CSC, performed like this weíd be all over them with harsh criticism.  Itís an expectations game.  And really, is this a sign of things to come, or just a one year fluke?  Is Voeckler going to be a yellow jersey contender?  Chavanel?  Pineau?  I highly doubt it.  Theyíll be nice pickups for somebody, but letís not think theyíll be the future of French cycling.

Fassa Bortolo:
3 stage wins, 1 day in yellow, white, and green.
GC: Gonzalez (45, -1:17:23)/ 17th- -10:34:56
PTS: Kirchen (16, 78)/ 7th- 288
DOTS: Flecha (26, 21)/ 16th- 32

JASON: The jerseys were all worn by Cancellara, who won the prologue. Aitor Gonzalez and Filippo Pozatto each won a stage. It shows what an elite team can do even when they donít give their best shot. Cancellara were both young punks in their first Tour, so Fassa has reason to be happy with the young talent.

STEPHEN: They won three stages, which is nice, but they were completely non-competitive for any jersey.  Forget about not winning anything, they werenít even close.  They lost the yellow by over an hour and both the points competitions by about 200.  Three stage wins is supposed to make up for that?  I have them down in the peleton. 

Banesto (Illes Balears):
White jersey, two riders in top 15
GC: Mancebo (6, -18:01)/ 6th- -6:27:20
PTS: Mancebo (13, 86)/ 15th- 130
DOTS: Mancebo (8, 77)/ 7th- 114

JASON: Mancebo led them in 6th, and thatís after falling apart in the last week. Karpets won the white jersey. They were active in a few breakaways, though they never panned out. Imagine how well they would have done with Denis Menchov.

STEPHEN: Mancebo really carried this team.  Karpets came out of nowhere to get them on the final podium, so I feel obligated to agree with your ranking.  You win a jersey, you merit a bump up.  A solid, unspectacular Tour, but they go home with some fabulous parting gifts.

Peloton:
 
Credit Agricole:
1 stage win, one day in yellow, two days in green
GC: Moreau (12, -24:36)/ 8th- -7:25:57
PTS: Hushovd (2, 247)/ 3rd- 357
DOTS: Moreau (5, 115)/ 6th- 124

JASON: They did well to focus on Thor Hushovd. He picked up the stage win and the jerseys. He ended up second to McEwen in the race for the green jersey. His team really did a good job in support with lead outs and chasing down breakaways. Oh, Christophe Moreau did another respectable ride. Maybe he should get serious about riding for the King of the Mountainsóit would be good to see some competition in that again. His problem is that heís pretty weak as a climber.

STEPHEN: Well, that hasnít stopped Virenque.  Hushovd is an absolute stud, and all things being equal, I think heís better than McEwen.  Unfortunately, things are not equal, Lottoís a better team and thatís the difference. 

Phonak:
3 riders in top 30
GC: Pereiro Sio (10, -22:54)/ 3rd- -4:35:47
PTS: Pereiro Sio (28, 46)/ 16th- 126
DOTS: Gonzalez (22, 31)/ 13th- 47

JASON: When Tyler Hamilton went down it was a disaster, but this teamís talent was there under the radar. They come away with no hardware, but Santos Gonzalez, Oscar Pereiro, Jose Gutierrez, and Oscar Sevilla are a solid team. If they can ride this well with their captain out, imagine what they can do with their best incentive in the race.

STEPHEN: They rode well without their leader, but they were completely non-competitive in the secondary classifications.  A top ten salvages some for this Tour, and they still win the ballsiest move of the Tour during the TTT.  A nice debut, and they should be a real force next year.

Rabobank: 
2 riders in top 15
GC: Leipheimer (9, -20:12)/ 7th- -7:25:20
PTS: Leipheimer (29, 45)/ 12th- 181
DOTS: Rasmussen (3, 119)/ 5th- 158

JASON: Without any hardware, itís tough to put them in the peloton, but I canít see sending them to the Autobus because Leipheimer and Rasmussen did so well.  Leipheimer continues to hang with the elite, though it doesnít appear that heíll ever be aggressive enough to win. Michael Rasmussen had a great first Tour. Heís got to decide if he wants to go for stage wins and the polka dot jersey, or if he thinks he can try to be one of the contenders.

STEPHEN: What a deep team.  Outside of Postal, they were the only team to finish all nine riders and five of them were in the top 100.  Five riders scored more than 20 sprinting points, and six total riders got climbing points.  They are just a deep, solid team. 

AG2r:
2 stage wins
GC: Goubert (20, -37:11)/ 12th- -8:01:24
PTS: Nazon (7, 146)/ 6th- 308
DOTS: Brochard (27, 20)/ 17th- 28

JASON: And can you believe they had two top 30 finishers? Kirsipuu and Nazon delivered the stage wins while Stephan Goubert and Laurent Brochard made the top 30. I was critical of them in the preview, but they responded pretty well.

STEPHEN: This is about as good of a Tour as they could ever expect.  They even scored two top tens in the Green Jersey classification.  Itís like they took your advice and decided on an identity.  They even seemed organized at times, they really could win somebody a green jersey.

Lotto:
2 stage wins, green jersey, 1 day in yellow
GC: Merckx (21, -39:54)/ 16th- -10:10:40
PTS: McEwen (1, 272)/ 5th- 320
DOTS: Merckx (10, 65)/ 9th- 70

JASON: Iím tempted to put them in the Autobus, but Robbie McEwen once again did enough to salvage his team. McEwen is great, Merckx and Verbrugghe have their brief moments, and the rest of the team is anonymous.

STEPHEN: So you put Fassa in the Parsouivants despite competing for nothing, but you want to relegate Lotto because they won a Green Jersey and two stages?  Lotto came here with one goal: win McEwen the green.  Mission accomplished.  Give Ďem credit.  Youíre just mad because Merckx is a big baby.

Autobus

Gerolsteiner:
1 top 10 finish
GC: Totschnig (7, -18:27)/ 14th- -9:54:42
PTS: Hondo (5, 227)/ 4th- 227
DOTS: Totschnig (16, 53)/ 10th- 65

JASON: The good news is that they did better than last year. Totschnig had another great race, finishing 7th, but their next best finisher was 53rd. Danilo Hondo was pretty good in the sprinterís competition, but never won a stage and wasnít really in contention after the first week.

STEPHEN: Wow, youíre a tough crowd.  Autobus for a team with a top ten finish and a top five sprinter?  Sure, they arenít world beaters, but isnít that what the peleton is?  A solid team?  I think youíre confusing the mediocre with the bad.
 
Cofidis:
2 stage wins, 2 days in green
GC: Moncoutie (34, -1:04:37)/ 19th- -11:23:31
PTS: OíGrady (4, 234)/ 2nd- 385
DOTS: Moncoutie (20, 36)/ 12th- 51

JASON: Two stage wins is great. OíGrady and Moncoutie both did well on their breakaways. But as a team, they were really weak. Only one man from their team finished in the top 60. I guess if youíre not a good team, you need to save everything for one day.

STEPHEN: See, Cofidis was clearly worse than Gerolsteiner.  When the team sprinter finishes second in the GC on your team, you probably had a lousy Tour. Even OíGradyís fourth was pretty weak.  They had zero riders within an hour of the front, only two within two, and four within three.  They got smoked.

Saeco:
1 top 20 finish
GC: Simoni (17, -29:00)/ 9th- -7:26:00
PTS: Simoni (63, 19)/ 21st- 30
DOTS: Simoni (11, 64)/ 11th- 64

JASON: No hardware at all, but Iím putting them in the Autobus because they donít deserve to be with the chumps at the bottom of the barrel. They didnít do much at all to distinguish themselves, but they rode to the finish line without doing anything genuinely bad.

STEPHEN: Itís one thing to put all your eggs in one basket and ride for one man.  Plenty of teams do that, but when the one man finishes in 17th, thatís bad.  Itís not so much that this team sucks, itís just that the strategy is so remarkably dumb that it makes my head hurt.  Look, things went well and they still were a total non-factor.  Iím putting them in the Abandons just for stupidity.  Pick a strategy.

Abandon
 
Euskaltel:
GC: Camano (26, -47:14)/ 11th- -7:47:47
PTS: Landaluze (22, 50)/ 14th- 134
DOTS: Martinez (33, 14)/ 18th- 22

JASON: The good news is that Iker Camano was 26th in his first Tour. Aside from that, it was a total disaster. Mayo had the energy of a corpse. Zubeldia abandoned even before Mayo. The team was ineptóthink of the failure to catch the peloton off of the cobblestones, the blown breakaways. Come onÖLandaluzeís breakaway was caught 10 meters from the line. A nightmare.

STEPHEN: A total and unmitigated disaster of a Tour.  Letís put it like this, a team that specializes in climbing only earned 22 mountain points as a team.  22 points would make them 27th as an individual.  It started bad and only got worse.

 
RAGT:
GC: Calzati (71, -2:09:34)/ 20th- -13:48:23
PTS: Calzati (52, 28)/ 20th- 32
DOTS: Martin (21, 33)/ 14th- 38

JASON: Iím not going to be too hard on them because this was their first Tour, and they really were in over their heads. Ludovic Martin did us a favor by being in a breakaway so we could see what their uniforms look like. But their best rider was 71st, and the team was dead lastó6 hours behind Telekom and over an hour behind the second to last team. Yeah, they were in over their heads.

STEPHEN: Hey, by ranking the top five, they nose ahead of Domina!  Itís nice that youíre being generous because Iím not.  They had no business getting an invite and did nothing over the last three weeks to change my opinion.  Their bid was joke, the team is a joke, and their uniforms are a joke.  And not a good joke, more like a joke told by Carrot Top. 

FDJeux:
1 top 20 finish
GC: Casar (16, -28:53)/ 15th- -9:55:30
PTS: Cooke (12, 95)/ 11th- 202
DOTS: Casar (54, 3)/ 21st- 7

JASON: Last year everything went their way, but nothing went right in 2004. Brad McGee didnít make a peep in defending his green jersey. Aside from Sandy Casarís second place in the young rider classification, they had nothing to be happy about.

STEPHEN: Shield your eyes.  SEVEN climbing points?  SEVEN?!  47 riders managed to earn that many, what are the odds none were on FDJ?  And what the hell happened to Baden Cooke?  Casar had a nice Tour, so Iím tempted to bump them to the Autobus, but he does not make up for the overwhelming crappiness around him.

Liberty:
GC: Gonzalez Galdeano (44, -1:16:45)/ 13th- -9:32:16
PTS: Davis (17, 67)/ 19th- 85
DOTS: Vandevelde (43, 8)/ 20th- 11

JASON: Can you believe this is the old ONCE team? They were awful. Heras was terrible in the mountains and abandoned the Tour. Their only highlight was a very late attack by Christian VandeVelde. Thatís all they brought to the table. Fóterrible.

STEPHEN: Man, looking at the their final results makes you vomit a bit in your mouth.  Some teams down here in the dregs we expected to suck, but what the hell is Liberty doing down here?  When did Heras forget how to ride?  They managed to make Euskatel look good.

Domina Vacanze:
GC: Scarponi (32, -1:03:01)/ 21st- -10:24:20 four finishers
PTS: Scarponi (19, 60)/ 17th- 119
DOTS: Simeoni (23, 25)/ 15th- 35)

JASON: Michele Scarponi did quite well, finishing a respectable 32nd, but he was their only finisher in the top 100. What will you remember about this team? Cipollini quit, and Fillippo Simeone got bullied by Lance Armstrong. Only 4 riders made it to Paris.  Yeah, that qualifies as a bad Tour. Itíll be another 5 years before the Tour invites another second tier Italian team.

STEPHEN: For years, weíve railed about the Tour not letting in mid-level Italian teams while they stacked the field with French teams.  Um, nevermind.  This was beyond bad.  Scarponi was decent, but they will be remembered mainly for one of their riders getting bitched out by Lance.  Four riders in Paris?  Thatís embarrassing.

posted by Stephen 1:34 PM

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Tour de France All-Star Team

GC men: 
JASON: Lance Armstrong (USA-USPS) and Andreas Kloden (Germany-Telekom)

Big surprise here. Youíd have to be a moron to leave Lance off your team. Kloden was not a flashy competitor, only attacking once, but in a war of attrition survival is the key. His time trials were great, and he was excellent in the mountains. When he was dropped he was among the last to go.

STEPHEN: Lance Armstrong (USPS) and Thomas Voeckler (BLB)

Youíre right, Lance is a no-brainer.  Heís really, really good.  The only real argument is how he ranks historically (still behind Eddie Merckx), and what else he can do.  Win seven?  Go for a double? 

Voeckler may have finished 18th overall, but he held the yellow jersey longer than we had any reason to suspect.  He showed just an amazing amount of grit, holding on to the lead which he knew that would not hold up.  In a race in which Lance won number six, Voeckler became the lead story.

 
Time Trialist:
JASON: Jan Ullrich (Germany-Telekom)

I thought Ullrich might struggle on the Alpe díHuez time trial, but he proved me wrong. Yeah, Lance beat him by a lot, but he beat everyone by a lot. And Ullrich beat everyone else.

STEPHEN: Jan Ullrich (TMO)

Since Lance already has an all-star slot, I very well canít put him on the team twice.  The only guy to even be on the same planet as Armstrong in the time trials was Ullrich.  But I almost gave Armstrong two slots.

 
Sprinter:
JASON: Robbie McEwen (Australia-Lotto) and Thor Hushovd (Norway-Credit Agricole)

Another big surprise. Zabel stayed in contention by being steady, and OíGrady exploded in two days, but McEwen and Hushovd were simply faster than anyone else in the race.

STEPHEN: Robbie McEwen (LOT) and Thor Hushovd (C.A.)

McEwen was just the strongest guy.  Lottoís not the greatest team on earth, but they know their mission: lead out McEwen.  They do this reasonably well.  Hushovd, on the other hand, got spotty and disorganized help from his team.  Credit Agricole gave him nothing, and Hushovd looked like the strongest sprinter throughout the race, but he just didnít get the support of Zabel and McEwen.  It cost him the Green Jersey.

 
Climber: 
JASON: Ivan Basso (ItalyóCSC)

Yes, Virenque picked up the points no one cared about. Basso was the one man who could keep pace with Lance Armstrong. Iíll pick him.

STEPHEN: Ivan Basso (CSC)

Weíre agreeing far too much.  Basso took Lance to the line several times, and he was definitely the best mortal climbing the mountains.  Did you also see that the Tour awarded Virenque the Most Aggressive rider award?  If picking up uncontested cheap points counts as aggressiveÖ then, yeah.  Since Piil didnít finish, he was ineligible for this award, so how about the organizers throw Voeckler a bone?  Or Tom Boonen, winner of two stages?  Or Jerome Pineau, who authored several breaks?  Or give Rabobank something, what about Rasmussen?  There are other Frenchmen they couldíve handed this thing to.

 
Domestiques:
JASON: Floyd Landis (USA-USPS), George Hincapie (USA-USPS), Jacob Piil (Denmark-CSC).

Iíll take Landis as my mountain domestique, and what an unlikely candidate. Now, you can make a case for Jose Azevedo, but after the week Landis had, I canít deny him. After all, he did drop Azevedo, and he beat him in the time trial. Sure, Azevedo is a better climber than Landis, but since Iím awarding them for what they did over the last 3 weeks. In third week, when Azevedoís legs were weary, Landis stepped up to fill the void. Thatís greatness in a domestique. Not only does he do his job, but he takes on anotherís when heís having trouble.

George Hincapie has grown into a pretty good mountain climber. But if I need a man to drive a peloton anywhere, mountains, flats, or cobblestones, Iíll take Hincapie.

Jacob Piil. He busted a tendon and had to abandon, but Iíll pick him anyway. In the first week he was in almost every attack. He can lead out a sprint, heíll pull in the mountains, and you know heís itching to attack on command.

STEPHEN: Floyd Landis (USPS), Jakob Piil (CSC), Mickael Rasmussen (RAB)

If we were totally honest, weíd just give it to the whole Postal team, but Landis is my standard-bearer for all of them.  Azevedo came over and did what heís supposed to do, and Hincapie has been Armstrongís faithful sidekick for so long that its no longer noteworthy.  Landis, however, was a revelation this year.  Heís never been able to carry Lance for this long, and he picked up the slack when Azevedo slowed in the third week.  Simply put, an amazing job.

I thought about leaving Piil off because he didnít finish the race, but come on, he was just all over the place in the first two weeks.  Thereís no way I could leave him off.  I bumped Carlos Sastre, who did some heavy lifting for Basso.

Finally, we tend to focus on the domestiques of the podium guys, so Iíd like to take the time to recognize the guy who did the hard work for Levi Leipheimer.  Rasmussen ended up third in the climbing standings, and during the epic stages, he was able to set a pace for Leipheimer, who had his first top ten finish.   

Other Awards
 
Best rider never mentioned during the Tour:
JASON: Oscar Pereiro Sio of Phonak. When Tyler Hamilton abandoned this team wasnít left with much hope. It was hard to notice him hanging in the back of the elite group of climbers, but he was there. He finished 10th, and that should be good enough to get his name in the paper.

STEPHEN: Georg Totschnig (GST)

Seemingly always the last guy dropped, he was never a threat to win the race, but he ended up finishing 7th overall.  He had a consistent, unremarkable, and ultimately very successful Tour.

 
Best Stage
JASON: #13 to Plateau de Beille

Azevedo shredded the field for Lance, and Basso was the only one who could hang on. By the end of the day Armstrong had a comfortable lead on almost everyone. Stage 13 also had the best moment of the whole Tour. Despite being dropped repeatedly in the mountains, Thomas Voeckler just would not give up. In the final kilometer his manager rode up to him in the team car to tell him he had to cross in a couple minutes or heíd lose the race lead. A short while later he made the final turn, looked at the clock, and pumped his fist, knowing he had kept the yellow jersey. He knew he had no chance to win, but he defended that jersey like mad.

STEPHEN: Stage 16

Virenque and Rasmussen go out ahead of everybody, only to get swallowed up on the final climb.  It was the perfect stage: Virenque gets the climbing points and Lance gets the stage.  The group of ten riders that duked it out on the final climb was a whoís who of contenders, and that was when Armstrong decided to win this thing. 

Biggest disappointment
JASON: Tyler Hamiltonís abandon. We thought he would be a contender, but that crash took a lot out of him. He was weak on the first climb, and decided to go home once he realized he couldnít win. Dishonorable mention to Roberto Heras and Iban Mayo.

STEPHEN: Iban Mayo

Hamilton hurt himself quite badly, and given that heís never abandoned before, heís earned the benefit of the doubt.  Itís a shame he got hurt, but at least he has an excuse.  So what the hell happened to Mayo?  This course was designed so he could beat Lance and he was down by half an hour before we even got to the mountains.  We thought he could then at least challenge for the dots, and he did no such thing.  He eventually abandoned because he was riding so poorly. 

 
Iron Man award
JASON: In the past Daniele Nardello and Tyler Hamilton earned the Iron Man award by finishing after horrible injuries. This year the award goes to a guy who couldnít finish the Tour. Matthias Kessler of Telekom had a vicious crash into a wooden post. Though he had to abandon, he finished the stage with cracked ribs and a punctured lung. Dude, you could have died. Get into the ambulance.

STEPHEN: Kessler

We didnít have the joy this year of watching a guy absolutely torture himself just to make it to Paris.  Any rider who finishes is a tough man, surviving inhuman punishment and enough scrapes and bruises to leave most of us in bed.  But Kesslerís crash was just brutal.  He didnít finish the Tour, but just finishing the stage was unbelievable.  These guys are tough.

 
Anemic man award
JASON: It was fitting that Alessandro Petacchi and Mario Cipollini abandoned on the same day (amazingly before a mountain!).  We came, we saw, we went home.

STEPHEN: Alessandro ďAbandonĒ Petacchi

When the mountains come into view, itís time for Petacchi to throw in the towel.  If youíre not even gonna try to finish, why bother showing up?  At least Cipoís finished this race before, and heís an old man riding an almost ceremonial victory lap.  Iíll give him a pass.

 
Best quote
JASON: ďThe Vikings have returned to BrittanyĒ Thor Hushovd after his stage 8 win.

STEPHEN: ďNo gifts.Ē Lance Armstrong, pretty much defining the way this Tour would go.

 
Biggest whiner
JASON: Axel Merckx complaining about Richard Virenque stealing stage 10, even though Merckx lost a 10 minute lead and finished 71st.

STEPHEN: Fillipo Simeoni

Yeah, itís not fair that Lance rode your wheel so you couldnít have a shot at the breakaway and a stage win.  But donít make enemies with Lance and then bitch about it when he makes your life hell.  And itís not just Lance who hates Simeoni, nobody went to the back of the peleton to talk with Simeoni.  You reap what you sow.  You start bad-mouthing the peleton, and they will enact revenge.

 
Funniest moment
JASON: When Lance Armstrong chased down Fillippo Simeoni in order to prevent him from staying in the breakaway and having a chance at a stage win. It must suck to be Simeoni.

STEPHEN: Thomas Voeckler demanding extra kisses on the podium.  Hey, the cycling babes are hot and Voecklerís a hometown boy done good.  Give him that fourth kiss.

 
Best free agent
JASON: Vladimir Karpets is a future winner. Every single team should contact his agent tomorrow.
If youíre looking for a sprinter to win the green jersey in 2007, take Tom Boonen.
Telekom has Ullrich, Kloden, and Vinokourov. Someoneís going to have to leave the team.

STEPHEN: Sylvain Chavanel (domestique), Andreas Kloden (captain), Jean-Patrick Nazon (sprinter)

Chavanel put his personal goals on the shelf to help out the emergent Voeckler.  Thatís what domestiques do.  Heís not good enough to win the Tour, so he can either ride out his career as the captain of a mid-level French team, or he can go help somebody like Basso win a Tour.

Telekomís got Ullrich, Vino, and Kloden.  Thatís three GC contenders.  Thereís no way in hell they keep all three.  Who do you keep?  Ullrich is about to enter his decline, so personally Iíd cut him loose, but thatís not a popular decision.  Iíd want to keep Vino and Kloden, but I think theyíll retain Ullrich and Vino.  Klodenís nobodyís domestique.  Not anymore.

And AG2R suddenly has two pretty good sprinters.  Nazonís the better of the two, and with a really good team, he could contend for green.

I think QuickStepís trying to become a top team, so theyíll throw money at Boonen, Rogers, and Virenque to stay.  Thatís a good core.

 
Mr. Invisible
JASON: What happened to Brad McGee? Did he miss the memo that the Tour started? Youíd think that he might try to defend his green jersey. He was almost 200 points behind McEwen.

STEPHEN: And itís not like OíGrady was having a good Tour either.  Is there some Aussie holiday we missed?  But McGee was awful.  Also, what the hell happened to Heras?  A total non-factor.

 
Oh, and a special congratulations to Jimmy Casper of Cofidis.  Heís now finished dead last in two consecutive Tours, but at least he finished.  Thatís something 42 riders who started this race cannot say.

posted by Stephen 4:03 PM

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Stage 20

How many?

photo from velonews.com


1) Be sure to check this page  Tuesday and Wednesday. We'll have more posts of TdF digest--an all star team, a team evaluation, and maybe some more stuff.

2) Congrats to Tom Boonen. In his first Tour he picked up two stage wins, including the big one on the Champs Elysees.

3) Robbie McEwen won the green jersey and Thor Hushovd was the runner up. They sparred over the intermediate sprints, but actually picked up equal points. In the first one, Hushovd had a perfect lead out from his team, but he was too busy looking back for McEwen to notice that Robbie had already passed him on the other side. In the second sprint, Hushovd shot out like a cannonball and McEwen couldn't keep his wheel. But in the final sprint to the finish line Hushovd made a bad turn around the corner, lost his position, and was out of the running. Green for McEwen.

4) Richard Virenque took home his 7th King of the Mountains competition, a record. Vladimir Karpets won the white jersey. Telekom won the team competition.

5) I love hearing my national anthem played in Paris.

6) You don't need me to tell you Lance won. He was amazingly dominant against a very deep field. Now, the guys at OLN (the Only Lance Network) are canonizing him, and that's fine, but let me bring up a few points. In 1964 Jacques Anquetil won his 5th Tour at a time when no one else had more than 3. Ten years later Eddy Merckx won his 5th, and it was obvious that he was the greatest cyclist ever because he was dominant in a way Anquetil couldn't have imagined. By 1985 Bernard Hinault had joined them, and just a decade later Indurain had won five in a row. Now, another decade later Lance Armstrong has passed them all. So maybe there is a pattern of a driven champion meeting the challenges of the greats, and maybe we will see someone match or top Armstrong. It's very hard to make meaningful comparisons over several decades, this much we can say--Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France, arguably the most difficult sporting event in the world, more times than anyone ever. Records are made to be broken, and this one will take a minimum 7 years to break.

Al Trautwig has been asking everyone to put this into perspective, and that's why OLN is paying him, but we really can't. I think of it this way. I'm a pretty good athlete. I play soccer; I've run a few marathons, but it's not like I could have been a pro at anything.  While I can survive a 4 hour run in the middle of winter, I have trouble walking the next day, so I have a rough time understanding what it's like to ride a bike 6 hours a day for three weeks in July. And I didn't even mention the mountains. So, as much as I think I know about the Tour, and as much as I appreciate the tremendous work of these athletes, they're on a level so far beyond what we are familiar with.

A year ago I tried to explain Lance's accomplishment of 5 consecutive wins by listing the men who had started and finished the same 5 Tours, 1999-2003. There were 10. So rather than try to tell you Lance is better than a guy who won a few decades ago, I'll re-visit the contempories.

How did the 10 iron men do in 2004? Massimiliano Lelli and Mario Aerts didn't start. Sebastien Hinault crashed and ended up in a hospital. Tyler Hamilton crashed, hurt his back, and couldn't go on. So who remains in this select group?

name (best finish, average finish)

Christophe Mengin (70, 91)
Erik Zabel (59, 82)
George Hincapie (33, 59)
Giuseppe Guerini (22, 38)
Francisco Mancebo (6, 12)
Lance Armstrong (1, 1)

There are only 6 human beings on the planet that have finished the last 6 Tours. Only two of them have ever finished in the top 20. But Lance has won all 6. Winning the Tour not only requires talent, but preparation, strategy, mental toughness, teammates, and there are many things outside of a rider's control, like crashes and illness. Simply put, Lance Armstrong towers above the finest athletes in the world. If you are I were to go riding with Mengin, we'd probably think he is a freak of nature.

That's what he thinks about Lance Armstrong. 






posted by Jason 11:16 PM

STAGE 20
 
Lance wins! 

OK, when I say Lance is slipping, I mean that he looks like a mortal out there.  He's still the best cyclist by a pretty wide margin.  It's not like his reign is gonna end tommorrow, it's just that we can finally see the end of it on the horizon.  and most of that is due to the incredible quality of riders coming up right now.  I would've loved to see Vinokourov in this race, but even without Vino, it's not impossible to imagine one of the younger riders beating Lance next year.

Is it likely?  No.  He's still the heavy favorite.  But he's only one year removed from only winning this race by a minute.  If they ride this thing again, does Mayo have such a miserable race?  Does Hamilton crash out again?  Does Vino stay home?  Lance won last year when everything went wrong, he won this year with everything going right.   He's dropping hints about retiring or at least trying other races.  The point is, he has nothing left to prove in France.  And Indurain seemed invincible too when it all came crashing down. 

But, yeah, I'm clutching at straws.  Lance is the Man. 

The last two stages of competitive racing brought the unspoken doping controversy to the forefront.  So let's talk about it.  The American media, which has been instrumental in creating this image of Saint Lance, has seemingly tired of the storyline and is now trying to push the Lance the Cheater story.    I don't think they are out to get Armstrong, it's just that there's only so many times you can write a column about a sport you don't understand which says: "Hey, there's this Texan who's really frickin' good."  And with the recent doping scandals in track and baseball, expanding it to cycling is a logical step.

Of course, the American media's about five years late on this story.  Hell, they are about four years late on the track story.  The key question is ultimately unaswerable: Is Lance doping?  The answer is: I don't know and neither do you.

So what do we know?  We know that cycling had a rampant drug problem just a few years ago.  Because of this, a black cloud of suspicion hangs over every rider.  It also means there's a lot of drug testing.  Lance may be the most tested athlete in the world, yet the accusations still just hang there.  Which pretty much means to me that no athlete should ever concede to a drug test to clear his or her name.  Because it won't work.  A positive test means that the sport is dirty and a negative test just means you're doing a good job of hiding that you're dirty.  It's a ridiculous standard and a game Lance, or any athlete, should not play.  You think I'm dirty?  Screw you. 

I call it the Bonds approach.

Actually, I like Lance the best when he's sniping at the media or enganging in petty feuds with anonymous riders.  It's those times that we deviate from the official St. Lance script that he becomes a really interesting guy.  What makes him so good is that he really can be a collossal prick.  He's arrogant, cocky, and unbelievably driven.  That's how he wins.  It's also why he'll make Simeoni's life hell or take cheap shots at Richard Virenque in the press room.  Because that's who he is.

Maybe he should give Barry Bonds a call.

 

 

posted by Stephen 9:05 PM

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Stage 19--the final time trial

1. Lance Armstrong (1:06:49). Gee, I can't believe Armstrong won. What a shocker. He'll go to Paris with a lead of 6:38. For a guy that Stephen says is near the end of his road, he sure stomped one of the deepest TdF fields in recent memory.

2. Jan Ullrich (+1:01). Why does Ullrich keep losing to Lance by 61 seconds? For the first time ever, Ullrich will not finish on the podium. Ullrich was really strong in the last week of the race with his attacks in the mountains and his great time trials. But two days off form in the Pyrenees were too much to overcome.

3.  Andreas Kloden (+1:27). Outstanding job by Kloden to stay close to Ullrich. Kloden only made one attack in the three weeks, but he was strong throughout. He was among the last to get dropped in the climbs, and he was superior to Basso in the time trials, so he jumps up to a second place finish.

4. Floyd Landis (+2:25). You've got to be kidding me! Landis had every reason to take it easy after the job he did over the last week, but I suppose he wanted to shock us again. Holy cow! Landis is awesome. Never again in his career will he have as good a week as this last one.

5. Bobby Julich (+2:48). You've got to be kidding me! His career ended a few years ago. He looked dead after a crash last week. What has gotten into these guys? There was a time when American cyclists were a joke in the Tour. Today they were 1st, 4th, 5th, 11th (Hincapie), 12th (Leipheimer) and 24th (VandeVelde) on the stage. 

Julich had a much better day Saturday.
 

6. Ivan Basso (+2:50). Basso may catch some heat for losing his second place to Kloden. The good news is he held off Jan Ullrich and will finish 3rd. No shame in that. He had to be expecting to fall a spot--Kloden was close and Basso isn't an elite time trialist. Really, he turned in a gutsy race today to cap off a fine Tour. Come this time tomorrow, he can say he's one of only 5 men ever to beat Ullrich in a TdF. That should put it in perspective.

Other notables:
I, too, was hoping Thomas Voeckler could hang on to his white jersey, but Vladimir Karpets was just too strong. Voeckler was even passed by Sandy Casar, but earned a spot on the podium, finishing 3rd in the young punk category. I'm glad he gets some hardware. Maybe he'll develop into a good climber and a good time trialist. If he does, he'll win the Tour someday, because he definitely has the heart for it. That image of him pumping his fist as he approached the finish of stage 13 at Plateau de Beille, knowing he had dug deep enough to retain the yellow jersey another day is my favorite moment of this Tour. Rocky on a bike.

But let's not forget Vladimir Karpets. He'll win the white jersey, and he's young enough to defend it next year. You think he'll get some offers from other teams?

Telekom barely held off USPS in the team competition. They had a 5 minute lead to start, and Kloden and Ullrich provided a great 1-2 punch. The counterpunch was Armstrong & Landis, leaving the two teams separated by a few seconds. Postal's third rider was Rubiera (+3:40), and Telekom's was Botero (+6:45). Since team time is based on only the top 3 riders, Telekom escapes with one of the smallest margins of victory I've ever seen in the team competition, just 2:04. Think of it this way--CSC is the only other team within 50 minutes of Telekom. And if the team time trial were done on time, not place, Telekom would have won by about 1:24.

But on the day Postal blew Telekom away. Botero was Telekom's third man, and he was close enough to Rubiera to retain the first place for Telekom, but he actually finished behind SEVEN USPS riders. That's right, 7 of 9 were faster than Telekom's third man.

The 2004 USPS team is THE BEST TEAM I HAVE EVER SEEN AT THE TOUR DE FRANCE!



posted by Jason 3:24 PM

Friday, July 23, 2004

Stage 18

We could have easily expected Stage 18 to be uneventful. The contenders would take it easy on the day in between the Alps and the time trial. A breakaway would escape and an unknown would have a chance to win the day.

Juan Mercado was the happy fellow taking the stage win. Even though we werenít so interested in this stage, Mercado will make a highlight film out of it because he made a well-timed attack of his breakaway group. He and Acosta did a great job working together to keep their advantage on the other threeóthe Euskaltel guys should take note of thatóand then Mercado finished the stage with a savvy attack just before the line.

The other story line was the horseplay of Lance Armstrong. Early in the stage Fillippo Simeoni tried to join the 6 man breakaway, but Armstrong followed him and they bridged the gap. This is really bizarreóthe yellow jersey never goes out of the way for such nonsense. See, Armstrong and Simeoni sort ofÖhate each other. Simeoni has filed a defamation suit against Armstrong, so Lance decided to kill any chance of Simoni getting a stage win by shadowing him. See, Telekom and CSC would never let the yellow jersey go away like that, so the breakaway was doomed. The guys in the breakaway knew this, so they kicked Simeoni out. Lance and Simeoni sat up to be caught by the peloton, and the breakaway went on without Simeoni. Thatís why they call Lance ďThe Boss.Ē If ďThe CannibalĒ werenít taken by Eddy Merckx, that would fit too.

Yeah, this illustrates why some guys hate Lance. But if you were a five time winner, on your way to Paris for #6, you could inflict your will on people too.
Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!

Oh, are Banesto and Rabobank ever going to win a stage again? Just curious.

posted by Jason 11:42 PM

Lance finally lost a mountain stage. He'd won four consecutive mountain stages, and I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to lose a climb ever again. Yeah, it was a breakaway of riders too low in the GC to be a threat to anyone, but I had gotten used to seeing Armstrong sprint to the line ahead of Basso, Ullrich, Kloden and a random fifth rider. Jason's brought up the elephant in the room, so let's get right to it: has this gotten boring?

I'll be the first to admit that Indurain bored the crap out of me. Part of my love of Claudio Chiappucci is that he stood in perfect contrast to the Big Mig: colorful, quotable, reckless, and let's face it, tactically inept. Indurain had no signature moment, just a quiet demolition of the field in five consecuvtive colorless races. He was methodical, brilliant, and so boring that it's hard to think of any details of any of his triumphs. That's just how Indurain was. Lance is interesting to us for three reasons: his backstory, his style, and the fact he's an American.

Let's not kid ourselves, we're more interested in Americans. We try to keep a global perspective here, but we all know the Tour wouldn't get a mention on SportsCenter were it not for the Americans in the race. Well, one American in particular, though in the old days, Andy Hampstead used to get a quick mention before the baseball highlights. And the cancer survivor angle gets even non-sports fans intrigued. It would be silly to think the ridiculous amounts of coverage isn't triggered by Armstrong's American story. But I'm going to focus on his race style.
Lance stays interesting to me because he has had signature moments: the Stare, the Fall, that first stage win, his cut through the field, the war of words with Pantani and Ullrich, and his complete domination of every time trial. Armstrong is fun to follow because he is a ruthless competitor. Like I've said earlier, he doesn't just want to win, he wants to dominate. In a way, Pantani was right when he said that Lance giving stage wins was an insult. Lance's gesture though spoke the truth: "I'm winning the race, so here, have a stage win for your effort. I don't need it."

And we can see the end of his dominance on the horizon. Basso, Kloden, and Vinokourov lead a new generation which will eventually overthrow the old master. It's fascinating to see the end of the era while also watching this new generation come of age. And guys like Ullrich, Beloki, Mayo, and Hamilton aren't done, they still could find a way. It's almost a race to see who becomes the man to beat the man. This year just wasn't time yet, but even with Armstrong's authoratative victory, it's not like he's winning by ten minutes. He's trying to win every stage, and he's got four minutes on Basso. That's real good, but it's not the same level of destructive dominance Lance once held. It's beginning to slip. He's still the best, but the margin is slipping.

There is already talk of Lance retiring. As a fan, I'm begging Lance not to. He doesn't owe us anything, and in the end, it's not me who has to sacrifice my well-being to ride up these mountains, but I would like to see him go for seven. Don't just break the record, obliterate it. Don't win, dominate. It fits in with his career so well. Also, now that six is secure, wouldn't you love to see him ride the Veulta? Go for the double, it's the only thing missing from his career.
Greatness is rarely boring. I'll tune in to watch greatness, even in sports I don't particularly like.

To complete the contrast with Indurain, Armstrong's competition is interesting. The continued French struggles to find a contender, the changing of the guard at Telekom, the emergence of Basso, the Spanish Armada, the new generation of Italians, and the next generation of Americans. Lance has made his competitors better, as it takes perfection to beat him. Panani was always terrific, but Armstrong put him on the next level. Ullrich has never found a way to beat Lance, but he's established himself as a great. Let's put it like this, Stephen Roche won the Tour in the late eighties. A man with his skills, riding today, would be lucky to crack the top ten. This generation of cyclists is that good. The Ullrich of today would beat the Ullrich of his early years by 10 minutes... and he won the Tour back then. Armstrong's inspired a generation of guys who attack relentlessly, as its really the only hope they have of beating him. He's made the sport better. When he retires, there will be a generation of terrific talent ready to take over.

posted by Stephen 4:41 PM

This just in...Lance Armstrong is good.

Well, if you win 4 out of 5 stages at the Tour de France, I'll tell everyone on the web that you're good too. Armstrong has set up all his TdF victories by winning on mountains and in time trials. It's easy to forget that the pre-cancer Lance was a good sprinter who specialized on the flats.



I keep comparing Lance's dominance to that of Miguel Indurain. I wonder if Armstrong is winning so much that he's making it as boring as Indurain did. But I can't make that conclusion. Lance wins by attacking, and it different ways. He could have been boring and just followed his rivals to the finish, like Indurain did so much. He even tried to set up the win for Floyd Landis. But when that didn't pan out, he decided to take the win for himself rather than see Andreas Kloden win. On www.letour.com they compared him to Eddy Merckx, the cannibal. Lance would back away from such a comparison, but the truth is, he's the closest thing to the cannibal that we've seen since Merckx retired.

OK, what has gotten into Floyd Landis? When did he become such a stud climber? Prior to this year, when did you ever see him set tempo on the big climbs? In the Alps he's been Lance's right-hand-man. Today he set such a strong pace that none of the contenders could attack. And when Sastre attacked, he reeled him in. Landis rode everyone except the top 4 off the back--even Azevedo. Landis has had more highlights in the last week than in his entire career.

Today Richard Virenque clinched the King of the Mountains competition. Hooray! We gave him credit for stepping up to the rule changes by riding hard for more days than he usually would. He's earned it (provided he doesn't fail another drug test), but let's be honest--he has no competition. Name another rider that tries to win the KoM. You can't, because there isn't one. A couple riders flirted with the idea, but not seriously. Axel Merckx, Christophe Moreau, and Francisco Mancebo all picked up points on a stage, but no one aimed to pick up points day after day. Lance Armstrong is second in the KoM, not because he gives a hoot, but because he likes to beat his rivals in the mountains, and it's pretty tough to do that without picking up points. No, Richard Virenque is the only rider trying to win the KoM. Congratulations! You beat no one, again.

There was a lot of action at the end of stage 17, but CSC lost out. Basso lost a few seconds to Kloden and Ullrich because of time bonuses. Not big stuff, but believe me, Basso would rather have the extra few seconds in his pocket for the final time trial. Kloden's going to jump him, and Ullrich stands a good chance of doing it too. And CSC lost plenty of time in the team competition. In fact, they fell to third behind USPS, thanks to the great rides of Lance, Landis, and Azevedo. Telekom has a 5 minute lead on USPS and 10 minutes on CSC, so if CSC has any chance, they've got to send a man up in a breakaway tomorrow, hope it survives, and hope Telekom doesn't have a man in it. So, it's up to you, Jens Voigt.

Thomas Voeckler fought hard to maintain his white jersey, but his lead is just 45 seconds over Vladimir Karpets, and he's going to give Voeckler a serious beat down in the time trial.


posted by Jason 12:17 AM

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Final Four

After the Alpe d'Huez time trial there are only 4 men with legit shots at the 3 podium spots. By now you already know that Lance Armstrong beat the snot out of everyone to get the stage win. His lead over second-place Ivan Basso is now 3:48. Basso did a respectable time trial, but he still lost big time to Ullrich and Kloden.

OK, Ullrich was weak in the Pyrenees, but he's back on form in the Alps. He was second on Alpe d'Huez, gaining 40 seconds on Kloden and over a minute on Basso. Ullrich still has an ace in the hole for the long time trial on Saturday, so he's a huge threat to move up. Currently, Basso is just more than a minute ahead of Kloden and 4 minutes ahead of Ullrich. The next man is Lance's teammate Jose Azevedo at 9 minutes back, and we know he's not gunning for the podium. Azevedo is just ahead of Mancebo, who has fallen off the map in the Alps.

Now that the boys at OLN have decided the race is over, you might think there is no reason to watch anymore, save the green jersey race on Sunday. But there is a huge race brewing between CSC and Telekom. I already covered the Basso-Kloden-Ullrich triangle, but there is another race for the team competition. Telekom and CSC have swapped the lead each of the last 4 stages. Telekom is now 3:44 ahead, and you can expect that to grow in the final time trial.

So, what is CSC to do with their podium spot and team time at risk? They must strike in stage 17, regardless who's tired from Alpe d'Huez. It's Basso's last chance to gain time on Kloden and Ullrich, and the team's last gasp for the team title (probably). Simply put, Basso must attack on the final climb of the day. If he attacks early on the Galibier, or the Madeleine, it'll be too far from the finish. He'll burn out, and USPS will chace him down. About 100 km after the climb to Madeleine they hit the category 1 Col de la Croix Fry, 12 km at a 6% grade. Basso needs to go all out to put time on his rivals and secure his podium spot. And while he's vying for a podium spot, he needs to act like a team leader and throw his weight around. That means having Bobby Julich and Carlos Sastre set a heavy pace on the penultimate climb in order to weaken Telekom. 

Stage 17 profile--CSC vs. Telekom

 
Kloden is too close to Basso for comfort, and Ullrich is coming too. Basso needs to act now on his terms rather than being at the mercy of his competitors in the time trial.



posted by Jason 11:43 PM

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

What no one noticed on stage 16
 
There was a sprint bonus in between the category 2 and category 1 climbs. Stuart O'Grady and Thor Hushovd took a stab at it. Neither one is a climber, but O'Grady picked up 6 points and Hushovd picked up 4. Zero for McEwen and Zabel. Hushovd creeps into second place now, one point ahead of Zabel, and now 12 behind McEwen. Meanwhile, McEwen says he's worried about staying within the cut-off time in the Alpe d'Huez time trial. Remember a few days ago I said that it's no biggie for McEwen to pick up 1 point on Hushovd, but if it were reversed, I'd make a big deal about it? There you go.
 
As for the nitpicking of Armstrong, put it into perspective. The guy just sprinted to a stage win in the Alps and picked up the yellow jersey, but you find a problem with it. Cheap gin indeed!
 
We should not have expected a massive attack from Lance Armstrong today. When he attacks the contenders, he does it on the biggest climbs and at stage ends--a category 1 or HC climb. Stage 15 had 7 categorized climbs, but the last three were category 2 or 3. The last killer one was 50-60 km from the finish. Why attack on the day before Alpe d'Huez when there isn't much to gain? Why attack when he's got time over everyone? Once Voeckler cracked, I suspect Lance was content to ride to the finish without going hard so that he could conserve energy for tomorrow. Jan Ullrich's attack changed the tempo of the day. So, in exchange he got the stage and put time on Mancebo and Totschnig. Thanks for the assist, Jan.

Anything left in the tank, Jan?

photo from www.grahamwatson.com

 
Ullrich's move was certainly an act of desperation, and it didn't work the way he wanted. But it shows that both in his team and on his race he's going down swinging. The question is...did he tire himself too much today? How will he do on Alpe d'Huez? Will he claw back enough to be within striking distance of the podium for the final time trial?
 
 

And, oh, by the way, Floyd Landis earned his yearly salary today, pulling back all the leaders in the mountains, including Ullrich. When did he become a climber?

Note: I neglected to include this in the team preview that I did before the Tour started, but Vinokourov (reportedly) stayed out of the Tour because of a crash he suffered in the Tour of Switzerland in June. He busted his shoulder and wasn't ready to ride. At least that's what the team says.
 


posted by Jason 7:53 PM

STAGE FIFTEEN
 
First, let us pause today to recognize the two riders who did not start the stage: Iban Mayo and Jakob Piil. Sometimes, even the best cyclists have lousy Tours, and this was a spectacularly bad Tour for Mayo. He decided after a warmup yesterday that his form was off, so he decdied to pull out of the race. Yeah "off" is a way to describe it. A pre-race favorite who got a course designed almost explicitely for him, Mayo is down by 45 minutes. It's hard to find a team captain having a worse Tour. He's been non-competitive from the word go, and he's been even less of a factor in the mountains. We normally criticize those who abandon, but come on, just make the torture end and go home. I can't really blame a guy who was supposed to be, at worst, a top ten finisher going home when he's trailing guys like David Moncoutie by 20 minutes.

Jakob Piil, however, has rode a brilliant Tour so far. If there was a breakaway, there was Piil. Without reservation, I will call him the most aggressive rider of the 2004 Tour, and we love our aggressive riders here at BartCopSports. In Stage 14, he finished in dead last due to a torn tendon in his right knee. Let's give the guy credit for trying to ride through the pain, but it was just too much for him in the end. That's a shame, as Piil's been a real treat to watch this year. The race is a little poorer for his absence.

Today, also, we mourn Voeckler's loss of the yellow jersey. when he cracked, he cracked big time, but this takes nothing away from his epic defense during week two. The peleton split early today, and despite several attempts, Voeckler could never rejoin the main group. He's been riding over his ability for a solid week, and today it just caught up with him. There's no shame in cracking, particularly after the truly heroic defense he gave.

I think it's also safe to concede the King of the Mountains title to Richard Virenque. I make no secret of my dislike of Virenque, but today I'm gonna say nice things about him. Usually, he attacks early and picks up points on the smaller climbs, only to get crushed on the final climb of the day, so it was nice to see Virenque hang with the leaders during the final ascent today. He didn't win the climb, but he at least finished among the leaders. He acted like a real climber, not a guy just picking up cheapie climbing bonuses. He still sprinted at the top of each ascent, but he contested the biggest climbs of the day, a rarity for Virenque, so that was a positive development and one I was happy to see.

All right, enough beating around the bush. Armstrong took the yellow jersey today by winning the stage, but this wasn't vintage Lance. He won, but he didn't destroy and demoralize. A group of ten riders rode the final Col de Chalimont together, and it's worth looking at the group, as it involved the heaviest of heavy hitters. In recent years, heck, in recent stages, Armstrong has blown these little groups apart. He just didn't do that today, just methodically racheting up the pace until he won the stage in the end. That's how normal people win stages like this, not Lance Armstrong. Hey, I'm nitpicking, but Armstrong sets the standard at perfection, so let's hold him to that. Let's look at the elite group:

The Posties. Only Armstrong and Azevedo after Landis did the heavy lifting early on. Azevedo set the pace for the group while Lance sat near the back watching for breaks.
Rabobank. Both Leipheimer and Rasmussen were in this elite group. Levi's flexing his muscles and showing he's one of the top cyclists, and Rasmussen spent most of the day out front with Virenque. After getting reeled in, he managed to hang on.
Virenque. The King of the Mountains. OK, he wasn't gonna win the stage and he wasn't up front setting the pace, but he was in the elite group, which counts for a lot.
CSC. Ivan Basso brought two domestiques with him. Sastre made sense, but how the hell did Jens Voigt manage to hang in this group? As a reward, he got to play pacemaker along with Azevedo.
T-Mobile. And of course, the tenuous duo of Ullrich and Kloden. Ullrich attacked early on the previous climb, but Armstrong didn't even react, slowly just pulling him back in. Nothing demonstrates the changing of the guard better, can you imagine just one year ago Lance allowing Ullrich out of his sights for even a second? And Kloden wasn't there to set a pace for Ullrich.

Notably absent from the group is Mancebo. We didn't expect Totschnig or Caucchioli to hang on in this kind of group, but I thought maybeMancebo would make a run at the podium. I don't think I saw him once during the coverage today. He was a complete non-factor. Today, the favorites finally asserted themselves. We know who is for real and who isn't. Guys like Simoni are having nice Tours and may even finish in the top ten, but they aren't a threat. If you weren't in this group, you're the peleton (or a sprinter). This was strictly A-list.

It's also interesting to note who got dropped in what order over the final five K. The first off the back were the two CSC domestiques. Basso's having a great Tour, and he's got tremendous support, but they are just a hair weaker than US Postal. If Basso and Armstrong changed teams, there's no telling who would win this race. Not to say CSC is weak, they are the strongest team not in blue.

The next group off the back was Azevedo, Virenque, and Rasmussen. Azevedo peeled off secure in the knowledge of a job well done. He brought Lance to the 2km flag and let him take over. Virenque and Rasmussen, spending most of the day all alone well ahead of the peleton, just cracked close to the finish. Not a suprising event, and mainly due to Azevedo's work. He cleared the field.

Leipheimer just couldn't make it to the final sprint, getting dropped in the final kilometer. Hey, he's just not as strong as the top four who made it to the final sprint. And the leaders of that final sprint were, of course, Basso and Armstrong. They are the strongest, leaving the two Telekom teammates to fight for third (which Ullrich won today). Ullrich is never going to be a domestique, and his race to the line over Kloden is his last gasp of authority over the team. No upstart's gonna take the team from him until he's good and ready.

So, it's down to two men. Basso and Armstrong will race up Alpe d'Huez. This is the way it should be. No teams, no help, no nothing. Just a man and his bike going up the mountain. May the better man win. It's still an open question of who that will be.

posted by Stephen 4:33 PM

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