Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

le Tour de France 2008: The race comes to life!

Big GC shuffle after the first time trial

Le contre la montre. The race of truth. The individual time trial. Today saw Stage 4 of le Tour 2008, and although it was short in duration, it was long on impact. The racing is off to a great start as we saw the third yellow jersey of the race in only four stages---and no doping allegations yet! Viva le Tour 2008.

Going into the action today it was French hero-of-the-day Romain Feillu who stole yellow from Valverde in Stage 3. In that stage the sprinters' teams let the four-man break have their way, which was a maximum lead of 15 minutes. At 50 km to go they still had about an eight minute advantage, and the catch seemed unlikely. Indeed it was not to happen, and Feillu and his fellow escapees took the stage with Feillu taking both time and the yellow jersey from Valverde.

Time to ante up

With the short time trial (29.5 km) any one rider's losses would be limited. However we mentioned yesterday that it would still create a pecking order among the GC contenders, as well as present an opportunity for serious competitors to ante up to the table and take a few (or more) precious seconds from their rivals. Accordingly, GC riders like Cadell Evans, Denis Menchov, and Kim Kirchen came out swinging and "attacked" each other and their rivals with the clock.

The hot pre-race favorites were Fabian Cancellara and David Millar, two time-trial specialists who have performed well previously. In fact Cancellara is the reigning world time trial champ. It was a nearly flat course, with only a few bumps in the road to break it up slightly. This neutralized the climbers and favored the time trial specialists like Cancellara and Millar. Sadly but not surpisingly, overnight French hero Feillu lost out a bit, giving 4:59 to the eventual winner and new maillot jaune Stefan Schumacher.

Next stop: Super Besse

It was a very tight race with the top ten finishing within 47 seconds of each other. That is a deep field and rearranges the standings just in time for the first mountain stage on Thursday. Schumacher is an interesting maillot jaune. He won two stages in the 2006 Giro d'Italia, won the Amstel Gold Race in 2007, and was third in the World Champs the same year. So he has had some success, and appears to be a budding all 'rounder whose climbing ability will be tested in Stage 6 this year. He will defend the jersey vehemently, but remains enough of an unknown to make it unpredictable up the two Category 2 climbs, where there will be plenty of attacks as riders test each other and try to gain more time.

Only one minute separates places 2-9 from yellow. Among the top ten, the only likely contenders are Kirchen, Millar, Evans, and Menchov (11th). And even among them Millar's climbing has always been inconsistent and not his strength. Team Garmin-Chipotle also have Christian Vandevelde, who can be a good climber but has never performed that well in the grand tours. Having said that, however, Garmin-Chipotle is in a superb position. They are a wild card entry this year with zero expectations, and have gone from strength to strength since the start of the year. Yesterday they nearly won the stage (2nd) and again today Millar placed highly (3rd).

But Evans is the big winner from the Stage 4 time trial. He sits currently in 4th place, 21 s behind Schumacher but only nine seconds behind Millar and Kirchen. Furthermore, he is over one minute clear of Alejandro Valverde and 1:20 ahead of Carlos Sastre, two Spanish climbers and favorites of many to take yellow in Paris. Obviously Millar and Kirchen can match Evans in the race of truth, but surely Evans will climb better than both of them. With his team throwing their support behind him and leaving sprinting legend Robbie McEwen to fend for himself, Evans then looks able to take and defend the yellow jersey.

Le Tour 2008: We like it!

It has been a great tour so far, with three lead changes and a likely fourth change on Thursday. The Super Besse stage on that day will no doubt produce another shake up as the yellow jersey will be attacked on the final climb (or even before). Add to this the fact that it is a mountain top finish, where time losses can be decisive, and you have a winning combination for some fantastic racing, with a rider like Evans possibly amassing a substantial lead over his rivals. Look for Silence-Lotto to try to deal a knockout blow to the likes of Valverde and Sastre and perhaps even Menchov. If not, the pressure is firmly on them to make up the 40+ seconds they owe to the Australian.

Roll on Stage 6 and Super Besse!


Seb said...

One says 'le' contre la montre. And for stage 6, it will be 'la montagne' (mountain!).

Keep up the nice posts!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again Seb

Merci...you've exposed our French ignorance - is the word "faux pas"?

I think we'll stick to English!


Ian Simon said...

Hopefully a storm in a teacup, but there is talk about stefan schumacher - http://www.velonews.com/article/79595
As I understand it, he was caught drink-driving and the police tests showed traces of amphetamines, although presumably their tests are not as sophisticated as 'official' doping tests. My concern is similar to that with Boonen - if a professional athlete is prepared to take drugs for recreation, the automatic assumption is that they would also be prepared to take them for performance-enhancement.

Still hoping for a clean race, though - Paris-Nice earlier in the year was superb, with exciting racing every day. This year's TdF has started the same way.

Colin R said...

My concern is similar to that with Boonen - if a professional athlete is prepared to take drugs for recreation, the automatic assumption is that they would also be prepared to take them for performance-enhancement.

I'm not sure I agree with that assumption. Recreational drug use is about the pursuit of pleasure; systematic doping for performance enhancement is about cheating. The only thing they have in common is that they are illegal. Sure, there is some correlation between doing the former and doing the latter, but not as strong as it is made out to be.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Seb,

Merci indeed! I was unsure of whether it would be "le" or "la," and took a risk that since it was la montre then surely it must be "la contre!"

Spanish is easy that way. . .nearly all nouns ending in "a" have the feminine "la" article.

At this rate we will have to make sure we have at least one faux pas per tour post to keep our streak alive!

Thanks for the language lessage (again)!

Kind Regards,

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ian and Colin, and thanks for your comments here.

I had heard about Schumacher's run-ins with the law and out-of-competition tests. Ian, your point about a pro athlete taking recreational drugs is valid, unfortunately. While it could be benign, it could also tell us something more about him.

There are many accounts of former pros, domestiques and winners alike, whose gateway to drug use was via the sport. The issue is that taking performance-enhancing drugs lowers ones inhibition to other (recreational) drugs.

We only must look to Willy Voet's book "Breaking the Chain," in which he describes how the staff and riders would party all night long with amphetamines and "pot belge."

I have also read other accounts of former domestiques in Time magazine (of all places), and of course there is Marco Pantani, too.

So again, it does not entirely implicate him as a doper, but I think in these situations we must always keep our eyes wide open and remain somewhat skeptical.

Thanks again for visiting!

Kind Regards,

Christopher Tassava said...

Too, there's a fine line between a recreational/hedonic drug and a performance-enhancing one: cocaine and amphetamines can easily qualify in both categories. I'm waiting to hear of someone using EPO for that pleasurable rush of oxygen...