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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tour de France Alp d'Huez

Sastre in yellow: But Evans is in range

Fascinating day's racing in the Tour de France yesterday, as the riders tackled what is arguably the race's toughest day - 209km including three out of category climbs, culminating in the most famous climb in cycling, Alp d'Huez.

And as expected, the attacks started early on the final climb, as the climbers were forced to go out looking for time on Cadel Evans, knowing that they required a buffer leading into the final 53km time-trial on Saturday.

The first attack, which proved decisive on the day, was by Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, right at the foot of the climb. In what became obvious as a planned tactical move, CSC propelled Sastre off the front, and then defended all the chasing attacks through the Schleck brothers. The result was that the chasing group was never cohesively formed, and momentum was lost every time another attack was chased down. On numerous occasions, the unsuccessful rider would sit up, wait for the group to rejoin, and the entire group began looking at one another as if to ask "What now? Who's next?".

In the surest indication of the tactics, Denis Menchov was dropped about 2km into the climb, and at one stage slipped about 25 seconds behind the yellow jersey, but was able to rejoin the group about halfway up the climb, such was the slowing down in that chase group. Meanwhile, Sastre grew his lead steadily, opening up about 10 seconds per kilometer, and putting himself in virtual yellow. With 8km to go, he was 55 seconds up, in yellow on the road.

The real action was behind, and Andy Schleck in particular looked in unbelievable form, such was the ease with which he controlled the attacks. Those attacks came predominantly from Kohl (The King of the Mountains leader, who'll go on to win that jersey now that the Alps are done), and the AG2R trio of Efimkin, Valjavec and Goubert (who were very impressive on the day - where have they beeen before this?). Every single one was easily neutralised, and Sastre benefited from the resultant hesitance.

Evans defends to limit his losses

Eventually, it was Evans, who would by then have recognized the danger of Sastre opening up too much of a lead, who went to the front and drove the pace on more steadily. By this time, with about 4 km to go, Sastre's lead was about 2:10, and threatening to become insurmountable. However, thanks to the fact that the attacks were not coming anymore, the gap started to stabilize, only growing by a few more seconds in the final 3km. And then, the combination of a levelling off of the climb in the final 2km, and the group sprints in the final 500m, saw the gaps come down a little, finishing at 2:03 to Sanchez and Andy Schleck, with Evans finishing a further 12 seconds down.

The slowest ascent in many years - EPO, anyone?

One interesting statistic is that Sastre's climbing time on Alp d'Huez yesterday was 39:31, almost two minutes slower that the record of 37:35 by Marco Pantani in 1998 (probably with a hematocrit of 60% and EPO coming out of his sweat glands). It was the 17th fastest climb in history. Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong share the top 5 times between them. The list of climb winners is actually littered with riders who've either confessed or tested positive for drug use (though that is probably not surprising, given what we know about cycling!).

Now, I realise that there are many, many factors that go into the final climb performance in the Tour - weather, tactics, race situation, preceding climbs etc. However, I think that an interesting analysis may be to look at the last 15 years of Tour de France data, and work out what the average climbing rate is on the big mountains. Given that there are probably 3 mountain finishes per year, that would provide45 climbs to analyse (at least), and I think it would be interesting to see whether the climbing rates have gone down drastically in the last two years. I suspect they have. In particular, I'd guess that if you looked at the tenth and fiftieth fastest times per year (to control the effects of attacks, tactics etc), they'd be much slower. Accessing that data is difficult, but I'm certainly going to try - if anyone has information on climbing rates or times taken on the big Tour climbs, please let me know, we'll work on a paper together!

An enthralling time-trial to come

Back to the race, and the result of yesterday's racing is that Evans is now 94 seconds behind Sastre (he is in fourth, with Schleck and Kohl ahead of him) with the 53km time-trial to come on Saturday. The burning question, then, is whether that gap is sufficient for Sastre to remain in yellow? There are of course three other riders with a shot at winning - Frank Schleck, Bernard Kohl and Denis Menchov are in range. However, Schleck and Kohl's time-trial credentials would suggest they're not likely to hold off Evans, and Menchov is (barring a miracle ride) probably not close enough. He also hasn't shown any sharpness in the last two days, so I expect it's a two man show.

So Evans or Sastre? Evans took 1:16 out of Sastre in the first time-trial of only 29.5km in week 1. That would suggest that 1:34 over 53km is no problem. However, there is the small matter of 17 days of racing between then and now, including two mountain ranges, which tends to level off those gaps in many instances (it could also grow them, of course, but I think the last few days have shown that Sastre is in better form later in the race). Also, Sastre in yellow, starting after Evans, with a huge incentive, means he should ride better than he did in week 1. Evans will of course be equally motivated, hungry to claim yellow after the close finish last year.

So at this stage, too close to call. Personally (if I may voice an opinion), I hope Sastre holds on (at the risk of incurring the wrath of the Aussie readers!), because he's been more aggressive and yesterday's win combined with attacks earlier in the Alps make him my favourite. Call it "romanticism", but I like the rider with panache and attacking flair, which Sastre has more of than Evans, it would seem (though Sastre is certainly not a flamboyant rider - if I could give the jersey away, it'd go to Andy Schleck).

Evans, for his part, will certainly be deserving of the win if he does claw back the time. So I certainly think he's a great rider. But he's a grinder, a non-attacker who controls and is decent at everything but not spectacular at any one discipline. Then again, who knows, perhaps on Saturday he whips out the fastest ever time-trial in a Tour and wins it by 2 minutes?!

Time will tell. We'll bring you that action!


P.S. Update on drug detection: Addendum to a previous post

Yesterday we reported on an article that quoted WADA President John Fahey as saying that WADA and Roche had worked together to develop a test for the new generation of EPO by "labelling the molecule" in the development process. That report has now been refuted, with WADA issuing a statement saying that there was no "label" attached. Instead, they are saying that the report was inaccurate, misled by confusion around the fact that CERA, the name of the EPO, has another molecule attached to it to help its function, and not to assist with detection.

A spokesperson from Roche (who made the drug) said that Fahey had "misspoken", and that Roche had worked with WADA to develop the assay for detection, but had not proactively labelled it to help the testers catch dopers. That clears up a lot of confusion about the issue, and I guess means that the whole "proactive" approach I was praising must be toned down a little. It's still good, of course, that WADA and Roche did collaborate, but some of the comments in our previous post will have been addressed by this news, hopefully.



Anonymous said...

Hey Ross

Your findings on the climb rates of the tour over the past 15 years would be eagerly anticipated, but good luck finding a complete log of these figures. Although I have absolutely no idea where you manage to find some of your data from ie. Lap splits from seemingly obscure marathons, so maybe there is hope yet :-)

As a matter of interest and something to do over my tea break, I took the race weights and climb times of a few of the riders and plugged them into a calculator to figure an estimation of the Watts\Kg used to climb Alp d'Huez. There will be minor discrepancies such as wind and drafting, but these effects should be minimised as Alp d-Huez is more sheltered than say Ventoux and the effects of drag and drafting are minimised at lower speeds.

2008 - Sastre - time: 0:39:31 - W\kg: 6.81

2004 - Lance - time: 0:37:36 - W\kg: 7.02

2001 - Lance - time: 0:38:01 - W\kg: 6.91

1997 - Jan Ullrich - time: 0:38:23 - W\kg: 6.77

1997 - Pantani - time: 0:37:35 - W\kg: 7.57

1994 - Pantani - time: 0:38:00 - W\kg: 7.45

Now, I know that this is far from an exact science, but notice that most of the chaps norm around the 6.8W\kg mark, Armstrong being an exception as he just tipped the 7W\kg mark. Dumbo Pantani is at 7.5!!

I think he must have glowed in the dark.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you speak of the EPO effect in certain riders and then hope that Sastre will win the Tour, its somehow contradicting: Just recall the last of Armstrongs Tours: Who was there in the leading group ? Armstrong, Ullrich, Basso and..Sastre.. Armstrong, Ullrich and Basso were full of drugs.. I leave it to your judgement to draw the right conclusions.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Your question is certainly pointed and worth asking. I guess the dilemma we find ourselves in (and you're in this one too, I might add - what's that about glass houses?), is that cycling's last five years are littered with people who are known dopers. But there are also guys, never caught, who rode with those known dopers.

Are they then guilty by association? I suspect so, and like you, I'd group all these "great" riders in the same category.

Unfortunately, if you follow this logic through, then you should not support a single rider on the Tour - for as much as Sastre is implicated, so are Evans and all the other guys who featured in this Tour. When Evans beat Sastre last year, and in this year's time-trial, does that implicate him?

You see what happens here though? We rapidly degenerate into a "guilty by association" problem and the sport collapses inwards on itself, and no one deserves to win the race. Except perhaps for Jimmy Casper, who was in last place on yesterday's stage by about 20 minutes, after the first climb...!

Sastre is, given the effect of drugs and the fact that he rode in the top group full of dopers for a long time, a likely doper. Is he using now? Who knows. Is Evans? The Schleck brothers? AGain, who knows.

But an opinion on who should win the race can still be made independent of this "fact" (there is an inherent problem in basing an entire discussion around suppositions, which is kind of my point here). I don't condone doping, and I'd love to see every single doper eradicated from the sport - if you've read our posts on drugs and the attitude we have to the likes of Rasmussen, Marion Jones, Dwain Chambers, then you'd appreciate that we're as opposed to it as the next guy.

But given the question: Evans vs. Sastre? We can either throw our hands up in defeat and say "who cares, because in all likelihood they're doping anyway" (based, in this case, on weak historical associations that may not even be present today), or, we can say "I go for Sastre, because he did more than try to control the race in the Alps".

The doping issue is separate, and if Sastre gets caught, then let him take his chances and face the punishment.


Anonymous said...

Great posts. May I just say, Go Cadel! Australia loves you!

Dan said...

I remember cyclingnews.com discussing some of the highest Vertical Ascent Meter (VAM) rates after Ivan Basso beat Gilberto Simoni in a stage during Basso's Giro victory.

Cyclingnews.com must have some data or at least a source for you.

I hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

It's probably a bit rich to call Evans a 'grinder'. One way or another, for this race, he is one of the most talented riders. He has huge reserves of endurance and sustained speed over time and effort, if not the attacking quality of others.

BTW, he has raced the CSC team virtually by himself. Popovych has been virtually useless to Evans for all the money Lotto allegedly paid.

You'd be a 'grinder' as well if you had 6 riders attacking you one after another.

Evans' time trial won't fade. Let's see what Sastre can do . . . ;-)


Anonymous said...

As a keen weekend roadie, I completely understand the benefit of the peleton, and getting sucked along almost effortlessly at 40km/hr. But when you hit the hills, it's every man for himself. So I don't get this tactical thing - Evans should have tuned out to the nonesense and just did exactly what Sastre did - slogged away as best he could from the bottom, ignoring everyone else. In fact that's also proven by what Menchov did.

I also don't get the team tactics on such stages - I can understands it seperates the wheat from the chaff, but CSC did as much damage to Evans as they did to everyone else coming up to the climb - there is no benefit to Evans just because he wears the same jersey, apart from perhaps a phsycological one, and i'd say that's limited...

On the climb, Andy and Frank (not sure if the latter had much in the tank anyway) clearly helped Sastre by not grinding a steady pace for Evans, but he could have done it himself.

I'm sure I'm wrong here (somewhere) but as a rider (and actually a good climber) I don't get it...!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks for the feedback and comments.

A couple of things to respond to:

First, to "Aussie", don't be too defensive, I did say that Evans would certainly deserve a win (if he gets it) and that he's a great rider - you've honed in on the "grinder" term, and missed that one.

I do think that it would be great if he put that talent to use to actually either ride his own race and show his ability or to attack himself, instead of just following wheels. The post below yours, also by an "anonymous" makes the point that Evans missed out on Alp d'Huez, and I think he waited far too long to take some initiative for the chase. That's what I'm referring to - I prefer to see an attacking rider win than a defensive one. I appreciate the value of courage and guts (here in South AFrica, as you may know from our rugby exploits, we're all about guts and brawn and muscle). Brain power doesn't feature much, and few would ever accuse us of having flair!!

Same for Evans. So while I agree that he's a great rider, I'm behind the positive approach.

As for the next Anonymous commenter, I couldn't agree with you more. I have exactly the same thought. Evans should have said to himself "I know that by myself, I can ride this climb in 41 minutes (that's conservative, I suspect it would be closer to 40), and then he should have gone out and done it. Instead, he allowed the Schleck brothers to dicate the pace to him and he may just pay for it come Sunday's final result. So I'm fully in your camp here - it's obviously easier said than done, but I think a rider like Evans, who clearly can't respond to shifts in pace as well as the guys he was with, should have pushed them aside, found a rhythm and done his own climb.

I suspect that people who disagree with that do so because it doesn't fit their "model" for explaining performance in the Tour!


Anonymous said...

Tour De France should allow EPO and steroids in their rules. I want to see athletes become all they can be.

Anonymous said...

Re Evans on the Alp d'Huez. He almost certainly would have been under team management instruction. His timing would not necessarily have been his own.

Not saying that necessarily would have made any difference, but it is a factor.

Sastre and CSC had no choice but to go for it. Lotto did have choice.

Anonymous said...

"I prefer to see an attacking rider win than a defensive one. I appreciate the value of courage and guts (here in South AFrica, as you may know from our rugby exploits, we're all about guts and brawn and muscle)."

You're much too modest!

I think you confuse intent with ability. You would have to admit that in any rugby team, or any team sport, there are players with flair -- who are often up and down in performance -- and there are those that rely on consistency and outstanding performance at near max of their ability. Both types are essential to team success. It doesn't make sense to discriminate against the "Evans" type in a bike race. If you win, you win.

In any case, if you're not a good attacking climber, it's probably no use trying to do it that way. Menchov tried to go with Sastre and could not. This can hurt you big time, as any bike racer will know. The last thing you want to do for a team that's relying on you to win the Tour -- and there's big dollars to be had for the wining team and sponsors one way or another -- is to bonk on a stage when you're within reach of winning!

And one more thing: we've been spoiled by the big explosive, attacking climbers fueled up on speed and epo over many years. This is, hopefully, a new ballgame. We might not ever see the likes of the past again.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Aussie

Greetings from the other side of the Indian! Thanks for the comment, very well put.

On the note of rugby, not too modest, I'm afraid. I watch the South African team playing you guys and the All Blacks, and I see that we make 200 tackles a match, you guys make about 60, and I'm thinking how is it possible to win matches when you make 3 times as many tackles? Guts and heart, I guess. That, plus the fact that our guys have figured out that if you want to win the game, give the other team the ball!

But enough of that, this is a cycling post! Rugby is for another day!

Onto the cycling, you're quite right that you will get different style of riders, I'm just saying my preference is for the attacker, not the defender. But yes, both are great, and either would deserve the win as much as the next guy, as I said in the post. If Evans claws back 1:34 today, good for him, and he'll have deserved it on the balance of 3 consistently outstanding weeks. But my personal opinion (hopefully allowed on an otherwise "scientifically objective" site) is for a panache to win, but that certainly doesn't take anything away from Evans' ability or performance.

As for the change in cycling, that's true. We have seen in this year's race that the mountains actually hurt the riders, which is a change! The only exception, in the Alps, anyway, was Andy Schleck, who seemed to be in a spinning studio rather than on an Alp d'Huez - it was insane, and the cynic in me is expecting the worst.

Still, bring on today's stage - I'll try to do a "live" commentary while it happens!

Thanks for teh comments!