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Monday, July 27, 2009

Tour 2009 wrap: Winners and losers

The Tour de France Oscars: Tour summary

In attempt to alleviate my own withdrawal symptoms now that the Tour is over, I thought I'd do a somewhat tongue in cheek review of the Tour, styled as the Tour Oscars - the winners and losers from France.

The first Oscar - The Contribution award

It's been an epic Tour, at least in as far as trying to post on it goes! 18 articles, 100,000 visits, and maybe 200 comments in the last three weeks, and I'm ready for a holiday from cycling myself (imagine what a cyclist must feel like). But the first Oscar goes to everyone for their inputs and comments, for contributing to the discussion and debate (sometimes the arguments) and for enriching the site with informed opinions!

A particular thanks to Alex Simmons, who has commented maybe a dozen times, always with inputs and calculations of power output and performance analysis that helped enormously with the discussion. But to everyone, thanks a million and hopefully the end of the Tour won't signal the end of your input - there are still swimming and athletics analyses to be written!

Onto the cycling - Best performance award

I'm going to split the award for best performance, and say that it goes jointly to Mark Cavendish, and of course, Alberto Contador.

Mark Cavendish

Cavendish almost had a perfect Tour. It was perfect from the point of view that he won every single sprint he competed in - six out of six. When Mark Cavendish was in the group with one kilometer to go, he won six out of seven stages - the only occasion he did not win a stage was on the ride into Barcelona, when he was caught out by the final climb and never really contested in the last 300m. His "imperfection" was in failing to win the green jersey, something he has blamed on the decision to disqualify him on stage 14, which gave Thor Hushovd a big boost in points. To his credit, he has since acknowledged that Hushovd probably would have won green anyway, thanks to his superior finishes on the tougher days, and that brilliant ride in the Alps that saw him garner all the intermediate sprint points.

So Cavendish has unfinished business in the Tour, but he'll go down in history as the best British rider ever (in terms of stage wins) and considering he's only 24, he may well rack up a record number of stage wins by the time his career is over. He may be brash and cocky, and not all that likeable, but he sure is the dominant sprinter - the size of his wins, more than the fact that he's won, has been extra-ordinary. So he shares the award with the best cyclist in the world, Alberto Contador.

Alberto Contador

Alberto Contador won the Tour with three moves - first was his attack on the top of Arcalis, which saw him gain 21 seconds on his rivals, but perhaps more important, leapfrog his own team-mate into the leadership position of Astana. In hindsight, it would probably not have made a difference, so brilliant was his ride up to the Verbier just over a week later, but it was a significant message and a move that apparently created a difficult atmosphere within the team. Contador, who has been accused of being tactically naive, impetuous and inexperienced, actually showed something of his 'street smarts' there, because who knows how the Tour may have shaped had it been Armstrong who was in a position to inherit yellow.

The climb to Verbier was the decisive day in the Tour. For a week the Tour had been dormant, and suddenly it explosed and it was Contador who dominated with a breath-taking acceleration and climb. It said loud and clear to everyone else, including his own manager and team, that he was the superior cyclist, and served to set the pattern for the rest of the Tour. He would go on to mark attacks and control the race, before his third performance, the stage win in the individual time-trial, confirmed his dominance.

In his own words, it was a difficult Tour, one in which he never really had the full suport of his manager or some of the riders in his team. In the post-race interview, he said the following: "The preparation for this win was rather tricky, I had elements working against me, but I kept focused," said Contador. "Do I think Bruyneel wanted Armstrong to win the Tour? That is a very good question." Bruyneel was not at the press conference to answer this question himself. It's not only his words that testify to that, but the actions and quotes coming out from Astana throughout the Tour. It was very difficult to get a consistent message - was the attack planned? Was it against team orders?

No one knows, because no consistent message came out of the team. Twitter messages laced with insinuation, quotes contrary to Contador's, and the world's media began to pick upa very obvious pattern (so it's not only me suggesting this, just so you know!). Nothing seemed certain from the race's best team. With the exception, of course, that Contador was the number one Tour rider, and a deserving winner.

Big disappointments - Cadel Evans

It's easy to forget that Cadel Evans was actually the first person in the whole race to launch an attack - he went with about 2km to go to the summit of Arcalis. It would be Evans' only real contribution to the GC race. The next day, he tried to get into a break right at the start of the stage, but his fellow breakaway riders were having nothing of it and effectively ordered him back to the peloton (It seems that "playing by the rules" is the only way to win in cycling, which is a pity because it renders 90% of the race meaningless. What this event did was to demonstrate that you can try to win in cycling, but only if you do it the way everyone else wants you to)

From that point onward, it just got worse and worse for the runner up from the last two Tours. The Alps were a disaster. He entered them well off the pace anyway, thanks to a weak team that had lost time in the team time-trial, and he continued to lose more. Contador's Verbier attack cost him just over a minute, but it was on the day after the rest day that his race exploded, and he was dropped on the final climb of the Petit St Bernard, losing 3:55. The next day was worse - dropped on the very first Cat 1 climb (there were 4 it total), he ended up in the grupetto and his Tour was well and truly over.

In the end, he finished the Tour in 30th, 45 minutes behind Contador. All in all, disappointment for Evans, who refused to comment on his form for "personal reasons", which may or may not mean anything!

A "dubious mention" goes to Carlos Sastre, who came in as the defending champion, but never really featured. He was predicted by commentators and Armstrong to be a danger man in the third week, but his only occasion to feature was on the climb of the Col de Ronne, where he attacked, and was caught within a kilometer before being comprehensively dropped. He would go on to finish 17th at 26:21 down. His other contribution was an outburst over the "lack of respect" he'd been shown in the media, but to his enormous credit, he apologized for this later in the Tour, showing class that seems to be relatively rare in cycling. Perhaps Sastre simply trained too hard, too early this year, the weight of defending the title pushing him over the edge? He was good at the Giro d'Italia, and while few would have made him a favourite, it was a surprise that he was quite so far down.

Another mention to Denis Menchov - the Giro champion never featured, unless it was to show him picking his bike up after an accident. Perhaps he was a 'victim' of the same problem as Sastre, peaking for the Giro and then simply not having the form in France.

The Prix de la Combativite - most aggressive rider

Forget what the Tour said - they gave this award to Franco Pellizotti, for his frequent attacks and presence in break-away groups especially in the mountains. The real winners of this award should have been the Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy. Pellizotti rode well, sure, and he was aggressive, but it's a lot easier to be aggressive when 98% of the peloton are perfectly happy for you to go on the attack, because you're no threat to the overall GC, and are simply indulging yourself in the King of the Mountains.

When you're lying in the top 6, and you are attacking the best five cyclists in the world over and over, trying to squeeze out seconds in the race for the podium, then you are truly deserving of the prize for aggression.

Andy and Frank Schleck lit up the Tour - but for their aggression, the race would have been a procession, with Contador putting himself firmly in the lead in Verbier. The Schlecks promised to attack in the Alps, and they did exactly that. Even on Mont Ventoux, with the Tour title all but secured, Andy made no fewer than 20 accelerations. Contador was good enough to mark them, but the Schlecks are easily the most combative and exciting climbers to watch. So Pellizotti may be the official winner of this award, but it should be given to Andy and Frank Schleck.

The get well soon award

One of the worst accidents in many years was that of Jens Voigt - he basically lost his grip on the handlebars, and fell face first onto the tar at 80km/hour and skidded for what looked like 50 m before coming to a halt. A fractured cheekbone and concussion, and what must be the worst road rash ever were the injuries, and it could have been far worse, so here's hoping he recovers well and is racing again soon!

On the whole, it was not a Tour with many big accidents. Levi Leipheimer was the biggest 'casualty', breaking his wrist bone in what seemed a fairly innocuous fall. Boygues Telecom had a pretty impressive co-ordi accident during the team-trial, with four men riding off into a field. Denis Menchov fell off often, compounding his poor Tour, but overall, not as eventful as some Tours regarding crashes.

The "so near yet so far" award

This goes to us, and just about everyone else who would love to fully analyse the performance's of the worlds' best cyclists. Cycling is a sport that really does lend itself to analysis - power output data, gradients, inferring from lab studies, and endless debates about heart rate, speed and performance ability.

All of them are within reach, but frustratingly, impossible to access in a meaningful way. The folks over at Training Peaks do a fabulous job of monitoring cyclists, and you can track a couple of Tour riders on their site - well worth a read, and a brilliant system for scientific analysis.

But what I think most would love is an indication of what Contador did on the Verbier? What would it take to match Andy Schleck's attacks on the Mont Ventoux? What kind of physiology is required to produce a podium performance in the Tour de France? How can one predict performance based on lab tests? Can one predict performance based on lab tests? Is there a physiological "limit" to performance? (of course there is - but we don't know it for sure...yet!)

These are fascinating questions, but unanswerable for the most part - too many 'ifs' and 'buts', too many factors unaccounted for. We've done our best to bring you the insights, the implications and the analysis, but unfortunately, definitive conclusions remain just out of reach. Perhaps some day it will be compulsory to publish power output data, I certainly see a great deal of value in it. Until then, we can only speculate and surmise, debate and discuss, based on the best case scenario!

And that's exactly what we'll do! Thank you once again for following our Tour de France coverage for 2009! It's been a tremendous race to analyse and discuss, and we promise that we're not done with cycling - whenever the opportunity presents, we'll come back to it, because there are so many unanswered questions and topics for discussion.

But for now, our attention shifts to the pools and tracks of the world, for what is hopefully equally intriguing discussion!


P.S. Feel free to nominate your own "Oscar" winners - I had to stop eventually!

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Unknown said...

The whole tour was very exciting. Spain's Alberto Contador snatched the Tour de France 2009 title for a second time Wednesday while American legend Lance Armstrong finished third. I wished Armstrong to take the top position, but anyway tour was great. I love Tour de France, so collected a list of great sites and articles (around 220 links) related to that (Pictures, Videos, Teams, Routes, minute to minute race details etc.,). Check the link below if you are interested.

PMTG said...


Allen Lim has posted some data from Brad Wiggin's TT, among others. This is at the Saris website. Check it out!

Meg & Dave said...

I'd like to nominate Wiggo for the long shot award. Anyone know what kind of odds he had to be in the top 5 coming in to the tour? He is a super impressive rider. I'll be routing for him in years to come for sure!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi energetich20, and thanks for your nomination for Wiggo!

I had a quick look and what I could find showed Wiggins as a 39:1 favorite to win the tour this year. . .and from another site he was 66:1 to finish in the top ten---kind of wish I had some of that action, a small wager could have paid for The Sports Scientists to cover the tour live and direct from France next year!

Who knew he was going to be in such form? Well the car is out of the bag now, and so currently the odds for him to podium in 2010 are 3:1, and to win the GC he is now at 25:1.

Regardless, it was a great result for Garmin-Slipstream, as they placed two riders in 4th two years in a row. Next year they need to spend some time in yellow to boost their credentials and keep the progression going.

Kind Regards,

Sprocketboy said...

I enjoyed the summary. In terms of accidents, the other disappointment was Robert Gesink who, like Leipheimer, broke his wrist. He is the Coming Thing for Rabobank, a team that really needed his climbing skills on this tour.

Chris R said...

hooray for Contador and for Armstrong... oh and Andy Schleck.

It was a great race that removed much of the negative impact of previous doping claims.

I am particularly proud of Armstrong.

Eric Boyd said...

Whether or not you like him, Armstrong has to go in your "winners" category. Sure he didn't win anything, but to come back 3 years removed from the tour and be such a factor in the tour and in position to challenge for the win is impressive. It's really too bad that he and Contador were on the same team because it would have been more interesting to seem them face off. I'm quite convinced Contador would have demolished him, but we didn't really get the chance to see outside of 1-2 stages, and Lance always had the argument that he was being a "team player" by not chasing Contador down.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Ross and al. for the great analysis.

I submit:

Joint "Oh, so close!" Award for buddies and former (soon to be again?) teammates Armstrong and Hincapie: 0.22 and 5 seconds respectively.

And Best Comeback Award to Armstrong as well. (Who knows what would have happened if he had kept his hands on the handlebars instead of tweeting away on his Blackberry?)

It's tongue-in-cheek of course but I do wish the Astanas had kept their eye on the ball.


Anonymous said...

Another great coverage this year. Well done.

Re Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers was quoted, pre-start, as saying he didn't think Evans could be a contender because he wasn't fit enough. Maybe some inside knowledge there.

Ultimately, it wasn't going to be a happy year for him. The doping scandal that lost him Dekker (and Kohl) from Silence was bad enough, but then Van den Broeck spat the dummy after he fell and they didn't wait for him in the team time trial. That would have been a 50/50 decision by any leader.

I think it was probably all over by then, even allowing for the time lost. I don't think VDB was going to be a great helper after that. So why wouldn't you just ride around.

A few other inexplicables for me: Sastre's poor performance in a reasonable team (just check out the last time trial); and Menchov's virtual disappearance after the Giro (despite the crash) - and some things going on behind the scenes.

Contador and Armstrong and the Schlecks were magnificent and I admired Contador for taking his destiny into his own hands. There was big money to be made by various people from an Armstrong win. Let's hope the goodwill stays with them all.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi All

Thanks for the comments and nominations!

The accident of Gesink was a bad one - I'd forgotten about it, thanks Sprocketboy. It compounded what was a pretty unhappy tour for Rabobank (until the second last day). I guess they'd be up for disappointed team of the Tour award!

Then to Eric, you're right, maybe we should hand out the "golden oldie" or comeback award to Armstrong. Like you, it was frustrating that we didn't get to see a "race" - same goes for Kloden, I guess. It would have been great to see a real race in the Alps, particularly on the Wed and Thurs, and I couldn't help feeling cheated watching it. Next year will hopefully produce a more combative Tour, though I hear rumours of Andy Schleck joining Radioshack, which would neutralize at least one opponent for Armstrong! We'll see!

To alex - yeah, that's a good one, who'd have thought two guys would be denied yellow by that small a margin!

To Aussie:

Thanks for the info - maybe he knew. The commentators sure didn't, they were going off about how great he was looking, "form of his life" and so on. But maybe you're right. Certainly, team issues didn't help. I wonder if that will be that for Evans, or whether he'll be back?

Thanks for the comments!


greenjersey said...

Whats not to like about Cav.? So he was pissed off when he was declassified for "pushing" Hushovd but who wouldn't be? And he was ready to give Hushovd due credit for his great attack in the mountains. Cav is always very appreciative of his team's work for him.
I don't recall so much anti Cipo feeling and he appeared on the podium in a toga and laurel leaves! Compared with that polishing green shades seems a modest gesture.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI greenjersey

I'd forgotten about Cipo's toga! Wow, that was amazing!

I think with Cavendish, it's not his victory celebrations or his team-status, both of which I actually quite enjoy. It's just his manner of criticizing others - it's understandable to be disappointed after the DQ, but not to slam Hushovd for it, a full day later (his worst comments came a day after, long after the excuse of "heat of the moment" had worn off). To his credit, he retracted those statements, and seems to have shown the respect due to Hushovd, so good for him. Other things are his slanging match with Garmin in his book, his general rubbing people up the wrong way.

He's good for cycling and I certainly enjoy him on the bike, but he seems a bit brash - different strokes, I guess...


robert merkel said...

Anonymous, any idea *where* Rogers was quoted? I'd like to see the full quote if possible.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thought provoking posts on the Tour. I have thoroughly enjoyed the power output analysis. It is fascinating to see what the cycling professionals have achieved and how they can push (and sometimes exceed :-)) the boundaries of human performance. As far as using these power estimates as a comparative tool however, I am a little sceptical. I do not believe that they tell us much about how this year’s cyclists compared to those of previous years. As with most sports, comparing athletes from different eras relies more on speculation than science, but the special nature of the sport of cycling calls even the science into question. You mentioned variables such as possible doping, the benefit of more advanced equipment and nutrition, weather conditions and the placement of the climbs (both in terms of the stages and the Tour itself). Even if these were scientifically controlled for and the exact gradients and distances were measured, I still believe that the power figures and relative speeds on the climbs would mean very little. And the reason for this is what I like to call the “P-Factor” (The Phenomenon of the Profound and Pervadingly Powerful Pack Psychology of the Professional Peloton), otherwise known as PRO (The Peloton Rules, OK!)
Those outside the sport have a hard time understanding the forces at work, but basically every professional cycling event is “rigged”. And by “rigged” I mean more than the handing out of sheets detailing who will be in the break and who will win as described by Alexander Wolff in his Sports Illustrated article. I mean all the unwritten laws by which the peloton lives and dies. Laws which dictate who the leaders and the domestiques are, who can attack and where, who can sit out the wind and why, who is “allowed” to contest a sprint and ultimately who the victors can be. As Wolff says, you pretty much have to pay your dues and kiss the ring. Although this is a very cynical view, cycling is unique in the manner in which all the competitors need to work together and trust each other in order to bring the competition to a successful conclusion. Without these unwritten rules, it would soon degenerate into WWF on wheels (or WWW). And most of the chaps in the Tour de France cycle with/against each other all year long so adherence to the unwritten rules allow them to come out each week and earn their living without fear of reprisals or vindictive cycling.
So as well as rendering 90% of the race meaningless, the “laws of the Peloton” probably render 90% of comparative stats meaningless as well. The amazing performance of Contador and the Schlecks on the steep hills this year had a lot to do with the fact that they all had such a free ride during the rest of the Tour. I am sure that Lance probably found this the easiest Tour of all those in which he has competed. The race was dominated by the strength of the Astana and Columbia-HTC teams who between them chased the majority of the breaks and neutralised the attacks. Added to that was the numbing “fear factor” of Mont Ventoux which meant that most of the top contenders were not prepared to over-commit earlier in the Tour for fear of having no legs for the dreaded climb.
I would just like to end with a piece from Wikipedia on the history of the Tour:
“True mountains, however, were not included until the Pyrenees in 1910. In that year the race rode, or more walked, first the col d'Aubisque and then the nearby Tourmalet. Both climbs were mule tracks, a demanding challenge on heavy, ungeared bikes ridden by men with spare tyres around their shoulders and their food, clothing and tools in bags hung from their handlebars.”
This probably puts power stats in perspective. These were the true warriors who paved the way for the Tour as we see it today. Regardless of the power outputs of today’s elite cyclists, compared to these first pioneers they are soft, spoiled, high-tech namby-pambies.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Mark

Great comments, and insights. Thanks a lot for that!

You're 100% right, there are a lot of things that make this kind of analysis very difficult to apply. I think it may be a quiver in the bow one day (only if we can actually measure power rather than estimate it), but it will always be just a quiver, rather than the evidence.

Great post though, thank you! very amusing, but accurate too!


Anonymous said...

Robert Merkel said:

>>Anonymous, any idea *where* Rogers was quoted? I'd like to see the full quote if possible.<<

Okay, found it - in The Age newspaper on July 3.



Anonymous said...

Ross wrote:

>> I wonder if that will be that for Evans, or whether he'll be back? <<

There's talk of him joining Armstrong or the new UK Sky team. But anything could happen after negotiations start. I think he would still want to lead.

He's still one of the best climbers in the business, as his second in the Dauphine Libere showed -- to Valverde . . . ;-)


Anonymous said...

Thank you Ross and al. for the great analysis.

I submit:

Joint "Oh, so close!" Award for buddies and former (soon to be again?) teammates Armstrong and Hincapie: 0.22 and 5 seconds respectively.

And Best Comeback Award to Armstrong as well. (Who knows what would have happened if he had kept his hands on the handlebars instead of tweeting away on his Blackberry?)

It's tongue-in-cheek of course but I do wish the Astanas had kept their eye on the ball.