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Saturday, July 26, 2008

le Tour de France 2008: It all comes down to 53 km!

Six riders within reach of the podium or yellow

The year's tour has so far covered 19 stages and nearly 3,500 km, and during all that time we have seen no fewer than seven different cyclists in yellow. Yet after all that, it comes down to the final 53 km individual time trial, and even more, we have six cyclists with a chance at either the podium or yellow. Could we have asked for a closer race? It brings back memories of the 1989 tour when Greg Lemond beat Laurent Fignon by only eight seconds, a unit of time since immortalized as "one Fignon" by sports scientists like us. Indeed, we could see an even closer finish this year!

The situation: six within five

The top six cyclists are separated by only five minutes. That may sound like an eternity in the tour, but consider that Cadell Evans (4th), Denis Menchov (5th), and Christian Vande Velde (6th) all beat Sastre (1st) and Bernhard Kohl by just over one minute, and Frank Schleck (2nd) by 1:45. And that was over 29.5 km. . .Stage 20 covers nearly double that distance (53 km) and so in theory we should see larger time gaps. Therefore we do not need to tell you that potentially we have a huge toss up on the GC and a quite unpredictable situation.

To add another twist to the race this year, you might know by now that no time bonuses are at stake, and so even if only one second were to separate 2nd place from yellow, that marginal difference would remain intact with no hope of 2nd place earning a time bonus in an intermediary sprint or on the line in Paris on Sunday. So we can say with confidence that tomorrow the tour will be won or lost.

The strength of the yellow jersey

With an event as old as the tour, we do not often see "firsts" anymore. There have been close finishes (eight seconds, 1989 as mentioned above) and not-so-close finishes (28:27 by Fausto Coppi in 1952), and everything in between. Add to this the "benefit" of wearing the yellow jersey, when a rider who rides our of his skin when defending the lead---think back to only a few years ago when Thomas Voeckler nearly rode himself into a coma to stay in yellow for 10 stages during the 2004 edition of the tour. He was dropped early as Armstrong and US Postal attacked and rode away into the distance on the Plateau de Beille. However Voeckler fought long and hard all the way to the line, keeping yellow by about 20 s and barely able to lift his arms as he approached the line! Not once did anyone think Voeckler would defend the jersey all the way to Paris, but many cyclists report being able to ride that much harder when defending the maillot jaune, and Voeckler's courageous effort in 2004 demonstrates this.

If pressure had a color, it would be yellow

But alas, there is the pressure. . .and more than one rider has cracked under it! Most notable in recent years was now shamed Danish cyclist Mickael Rasmussen. In 2005 he had a phenomenal tour and a strong grip on third as he was only 60 s behind Ivan Basso but over two minutes in front of Jan Ullrich. Surely he could hold off Ullrich in the final time trial and squeak onto the podium. . .? You can watch what followed next in this short video:

Rasmussen crashed, changed bikes, crashed, changed wheels, and generally crumpled like a tin can under the pressure, eventually dropping four places and finishing seventh overall.

le Tour 2008 - Can you feel the pressure?

Which brings us to this year's race situation, pondering who will rise to the occasion, dig deeper than ever before, and turn in a performance of their career to take or defend yellow. As we say, on paper Evans should take the time from Sastre and Schleck and even Kohl, but as collected as Evans appears he too is susceptible to the pressure of the race. On the other hand, all the circumstances are right for Sastre to rise to the occasion. He has been perennial contendor for the past seven years in the tour:

2001 - 20th
2002 - 10th
2003 - 9th
2004 - 8th
2005 - 21st
2006 - 3rd
2007 - 4th

And when we consider that the difference between first and tenth in any given year of the tour is normally less than one percent, that is an incredible string of finishes for the Spainiard. And so is he primed finally to take yellow? He has been on the podium before, but also performed badly in the final individual time trial on more than one occasion. But tomorrow could see him finally get it right, and we will easily give any yellow jersey winner an additional 3-5% in this situation.

In any case, it will suspenseful watching the live coverage of Stage 20. We give the nod to Sastre, but honestly it is up for grabs and any of the top five can snatch yellow tomorrow and ride it into Paris on Sunday.

The shadow of doping looms

Doping has cast its shadow over this year's tour, and let's not forget that the results for the controls for the past few stages might only be announced in the coming days, so we still might see some postives yet. However the real question this year is are the contenders doping? It is so close, and the lead has changed so many times. Many will argue that this is a sign that they are not doping, as no one rider clearly dominates the others as has happened in previous tours. We woud love to hear what our readers thin about this issue, but will say that we remain skeptical!

Enjoy the time trial!



Anonymous said...

As you intimated yesterday, Andy Schleck looked almost too comfortable. I'd made the comment ("anonymous") criticising Evans, that on a climb it's all about your own pace, rather than tactics. Phil Liggett kept on about Andy breaking up the attacks - I think it was more the fact that whilst he wasn't allowed to go with (or chase down) Sastre, he wasn't breaking attacks at all - he was just demonstrating (to himself, the other riders, and everyone watching at home) that he was really the strongest by far. Liggett's logic confounds me - if someone, say Vandervelde - even Evans himself - goes off, why would him following help Sastre? Doing absolutely nothing (not even being there!) would be more helpful (if it made any difference at all).

Anyway, I meant to talk about doping (as we were invited to comment on - so sorry for going back to my favourite Liggett complaint) - did Andy have "something in his water bottle"?

Dunno. Again, he's clearly at home on the climbs, and looked like me on a Sunday ride with my mates - they're 10 years older than me, 20kms heavier. They leave me struggling on the flats but I "play" with them on the hills, effortlessly. In our case, it's easy to understand a distinction arising - can it exist in a professional arena at the pinnacle of the sport? Surely not. Then you have to ask about Lance...

Anonymous said...

Hi, Ralph.

I am afraid I never got to actually see Andy Schleck's ride, but in general, cyclists do "break up the rhythm" of a chasing group by taking the lead and slowing down, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. I believe some people also call it blocking. One can imagine that on a climb, losing momentum can be very difficult on a struggling rider.