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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tour de France: Andy throws down the gauntlet

The high Alps, Part 1: Andy Schleck rides to a big win

So if anyone saw today's stage coming, I'd be very impressed.  In case you missed it, Andy Schleck, one half of the Schleck brothers who had been widely criticized for their lack of aggression and attacking in the Pyrenees, attacked on the second to last climb of the day, with fully 60km to ride, and was able to first build the lead, then extend it, then defend it, and he won the day by just over 2 minutes from a group that contained brother Frank, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, and Thomas Voeckler, who produced enough to hold onto yellow by 15 seconds.

Andy Schleck moves into second overall, and Frank Schleck is third, 1:08 off Voeckler. Evans is still well positioned in fourth, 1:12 off Voeckler but only 57 seconds behind Andy Schleck and with the long individual time-trial to come, still looks a good chance to win this Tour overall.

Notably absent was Alberto Contador, who fell out of the chase group with just over a kilometer to ride, but who never looked particularly sharp throughout the stage.

Schleck's break

Schleck attacked on the steep parts of the Col d'Izoard, 60km from the finish, and soon found himself a minute clear.  Nobody in the group behind was chasing, and by the summit, his lead was over two minutes.  On the descent, he opened up further time and put himself into virtual yellow, and still the urgency from behind was not apparent.

At 16km to go, it was 3:45.  14km to go, 4:01.  At 12km, 4:08.  It maxed out at around 4:24 with 10km to go, and then it gradually began to come down - it was Cadel Evans who led the chase, going to the front of a big group of over 30 riders and slowing eating into the lead.  The steepest part of the climb was the final 8km and this is where the lead would come down more significantly.

Cadel Evans did all the work in the final 10km, and eventually, his efforts did reel Schleck back in somewhat. But Schleck climbed at a strong pace for most of the climb, conceding perhaps 5 to 10 seconds per kilometer, and it was a question of how much time he'd gain, with the stage win already secured.

The final kilometer saw Schleck finally pay for his long, solo effort.  Having had a 2:38 advantage with 1 km to go, Schleck finished up winning the stage by 'only' 2:07.  He thus lost a full 31 seconds in the final kilometer (having lost 52 seconds in the first 7 km), and that was enough to allow Thomas Voeckler to claw back control of the yellow jersey, for at least one more day.

In the end, then, Schleck was the big winner today, of course.  But, it's interesting to note that he climbed the steep Galibier (8.3km) about 1:45 slower than the chase group (give or take timing errors - I haven't had the time to manually time it, just yet.  Maybe later tonight).

That's obviously because his effort was spread out over the Izoard, the descent, and the more gradual climb of the Lauteret, whereas the chase group really only rode aggressively in the final 10km of the race.  All in all, a great ride by Andy Schleck, and perhaps opportunistic is the word for it, because he capitalized on the race situation.  However, having said this, I still find myself agreeing with Chris Boardman, who tweeted "I am speechless at these tactics" when he referred to the chase and how lacking in urgency it was on the easier descents and flatter parts of the day.

The chase tactics and a lack of urgency

Not to take anything away from Andy Schleck, but the urgency in the chase was noticeably absent today.  Schleck was thus the beneficiary of a game of 'poker' behind him, with none of the leading riders wanting, perhaps, to risk expending energy over so long a period to pull him back.

And this is partly understandable, of course - it's a risk to pull everyone along and be beaten in the final climb.  No GC teams wants to do work and lose out in the final reckoning.  But the problem is that it wasn't necessarily about charging on up the road to eat into the 2 minute lead that Schleck was allowed to gain on the Col d'Izoard.  Nor was it about going to the front on the Col du Lauteret to get Andy back before the summit with really aggressive riding.  All it needed was upping the pace just slightly, showing some urgency, to hold the lead to say 3 minutes, rather than the 4:30 it got to on the easier part of the race (the descent and gradual slopes of the Lauteret), so that the time gaps could be controlled.

The fact is, when you have 30 + men in a chase group, then it's not a true 'chase' group - it's just the front of the peloton.  And what is curious about this is that it's not as though any of the main leaders were isolated - all had team-mates with them, and again, we're talking a small increase - descend at the same rate as Schleck and climb the easy slopes at the same speed and the gap is held to 3:00.  What happened is that the GC rider's teams didn't want to work together, and the pace of the race at the back was really very slow.

We'll get confirmation of this when the power output data become available, but the climb of the Izoard was done at a relatively comfortable pace by the main peloton, and that is what allowed a) Schleck to build over 2 minutes by the summit, and b) about 25 riders to stay in the group.  That this lead grew on the descent, and in the transition to the Lauteret, further tells the story of a race that was allowing 'poker' to have an influence on the result.

So we'll look for Sorensen's data to give some insight into how the elite race progressed on the Izoard and the early slopes of the Lauteret, because he was there until the pace was ramped up 10km from the finish.  But expect some pretty low numbers - if I had to guess, I'd say that the main group rode the Izoard at 5.6 to 5.7 W/kg (and so Andy Schleck would have produced around 6W/kg for the final 5km of the climb), and the Lauteret was even slower.

The fact is, the chase group would eventually do the final climb fully 1:43 faster than Andy, and that's entirely down to the allocation of energy resources in the stage - basically, it's pacing strategy.  And to finish that fast relative to Schleck paints a picture of Schleck's huge efforts early (and remember, 31 of those seconds came in the final kilometer), but also of a really sedate effort from behind.

Tactical games 

The thing about race strategy is that there's always an interplay between what is good for one and bad for another.  Ideally, you want to do what is best for you at the exact time that it is worst for another, whether it's in a bike race, a marathon, or even a rugby or soccer match - your best scenario, their worst.  Simple equation, and it works because tactically, one's gain is often another's loss! (this is not always the case - sometimes there's mutual benefit, or neutral scenarios, but often this it is a zero-sum game)

Now, there can be no doubt that Andy Schleck and Leopard-Trek pulled off a major tactical coup today - over 2 minutes gained, and a protected day for Frank Schleck (who may see the benefits tomorrow on Alp d'Huez).  For them, the tactics were just excellent.  But inherent in this fact is that the tactics for others were not.  A few people have debated this, suggesting that there was nothing unusual in the response of the riders to Schleck's attack and the lack of urgency of their chase.

But there's an internal inconsistency here, because if you believe that Andy Schleck rode with a tactical plan that was ideal for him today, then inherent in this is that the strategy adopted by other GC teams was definitely not optimal.  Neutral for some, perhaps, but certainly strange for others.  If Andy benefitted from his attack, then someone lost.  So the likes of Evans, Contador (although to be frank, he didn't have it today) and co lost out as a result of failing to deny Schleck and Leopard-Trek what they wanted, what was ideal for them.  One's gain is another's loss!  Had this been rugby, football or soccer, analysts would say that they were outplayed, and in that case, they are tactically questionable.  And that's why the tactics left some speechless.  Given that Evans ultimately pulled back so much of that gap, having begun so late, it's worth wondering what the perception is from the teams.

The saving grace is that Evans has, by virtue of his earlier form in the Tour and the fact that he lost time to the "right person", stayed close enough to be the favorite for the TT, provided he loses no more time.  Contador, as mentioned, didn't have the legs to do anything anyway, and probably neither did Voeckler.

Ultimately, as good as Schleck was, he didn't do anything outrageous - it's not like he produced the fastest ascent ever to ride away from an aggressively pursuing pack.  He rode an incredible ride, over sixty brutal kilometers, but opportunism won the day, not pure wattage.

The race from here - Alp d'Huez all set for another Schleck showcase

As has been the case almost every day, the Tour leaderboard looks subtly different every day.  Today, it sees Andy Schleck rise up to second and put himself squarely into the yellow jersey argument.  The only consistency in that leaderboard is Cadel Evans, who remains a strong likelihood to top the podium in the Tour.  He is now only 1:12 off Voeckler, and 57 seconds behind Frank Schleck, and you have to think that with the individual time-trial to come, someone needs to take time out of Evans.

Today, Evans rode incredibly hard, doing a mountain (literally) of work to claw back almost two minutes on Andy in the final climb.  Tomorrow sees the final climb of the race up to the finish of Alp d'Huez and that may be where Frank Schleck looks to attack and gain time ahead of the time-trial.  Frank Schleck had about as comfortable day as one can have on a stage with three HC climbs on it, but it sets tomorrow up well for him!

Given Andy's efforts, it would not be too surprising to see him ride more conservatively tomorrow, but he too would want more time.  So both perhaps will be bargaining on Evans' efforts from today costing him too much.

Voeckler - one more day in yellow.  Or how about two?

And what of Voeckler?  He has shown so much heart, and let's give credit, riding ability in this Tour, that he can't be totally discounted yet, not for a podium finish at worst.  He has not yet cracked, and today, he showed that when the race goes as fast as possible, he is able to ride with the very best.  The lead group of the Tour, led by Evans, climbed the Galibier at what really is maximal effort today - nothing was held back, it was pure max effort, and Voeckler was able to stay in the group.  A great ride, again, of more than just guts, but also ability.

He has only 15 seconds advantage on Andy Schleck, but if Andy feels today's efforts in his legs tomorrow, then the gap to note is the 1:09 to Frank Schleck and 1:12 to Cadel Evans.  And based on what I saw on the Galibier today, I wouldn't bet against Voeckler holding that yellow jersey for one more day!  As I said the other day, to lose 1 minute on a climb will require that Voeckler cracks - if he climbs at the level he has on three mountain-top finishes so far, then he will not lose that much time, and so only Andy Schleck is in position to claim yellow off a strong Voeckler tomorrow.  And that's the key - Voeckler needs one more climb like he's shown all Tour, and I can't see anyone but Andy taking yellow.  Once the time-trial begins, of course, it's another story.

As for Contador, his Tour is now over, he lies in seventh, 4:44 down.  I wouldn't count out some big effort tomorrow, since this is really his last chance, and given his standing in the race, he may be allowed to go clear with a few kilometers to go.  However, I think the larger race situation will probably mitigate against this.  More likely is another conservative day for Contador, and the relinquishing of his title confirmed.


The Tour of questions is now starting to see answers taking shape.  If I had to guess at the likely result now, I'd make Evans the favourite, by virtue of that time-trial.  Unless he loses time tomorrow, he is in the best position to top the podium.  Will he pay for his efforts today?  Only time will tell.

The Schlecks and Voeckler seem most likely to battle it out for second, third and fourth, the relative positions hopefully becoming a little clearer tomorrow, on the sport's most famous climb!