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Monday, July 06, 2009

Tour de France 2009

LeTour rolls on: Drama on the flat roads as gaps appear and Contador loses time

As I am writing this, I am watching the second stage of the Tour de France, and what was looking like a routine day for the sprinters has just gone 'live' because of a split in the main field with about 28km to go. That split was the result of strong cross-winds, which always causes some drama in the peloton as riders get into echelons to try to "hide" from the wind. Slight lapses of concentration and gaps can easily appear. If the riders at the front are alert to this and they force the pace, gaps can be created pretty quickly. A lack of organization in the dropped group then contributes and what should be a routine day out can have crucial bearings on the overall race.

Those in the 27-strong front group include the Maillot Jaune Fabian Cancellara, Lance Armstrong, and just about the whole of the Columbia-High Road team, who were responsible for the pace at the front, as they tried to put their sprinter Mark Cavendish in for his second stage win to go with yesterday's comprehensive win.

Assuming they stay clear, the odds are that Cavendish will claim win number 2, but it's the time gap to the main field, which includes all the other big names, that is of most interest in the larger scheme of the race. Alberto Contador, pre-race favourite and best-placed of the GC contenders in the opening prologue time-trial, is in the second group, and so the debate around who the team leader for Astana would be is about to be given a little more flavour!

Currently, the time-gap to the chasing group is 35 seconds, with 23 km remaining, and by the time I finish this post, we'll know just how much time, if any, has been lost as a result of the split.

Until then, a quick look back on Saturday's time-trial:

Cancellara supreme, but Contador lays down his marker

The opening prologue was won by the favourite, Fabian Cancellara, which was no great surprise. Most of the attention was reserved for the Astana team, who find themselves with the "dilemma" of having potentially 4 overall race winners in their team. Between Kloden, Leipheimer, Armstrong and Contador, one of the main talking points of this race is how they'll manage the team. The main focus has been on Armstrong and Contador, and team manager Johan Bruyneel announced before the Tour that Contador would be the team leader.

That did little to dispel questions around Contador's leadership, and so when he finally left the start gates after 7pm, the pressure was on to see whether he could do the ride of a leader. Given that by this time, three of his team-mates were already in the top 5, he had to do a great ride.

And he did. The first check-point at 7.5km saw Contador fastest of all by 6 seconds, ahead even of the time-trial specialists like Brad Wiggins and Cancellara. Admittedly, it was an overall uphill section, but it showed that Contador has some great form. He did fade a little in the second half, losing 24 seconds to Cancellara and eventually finishing second about 18 seconds down.

But, he did succeed at establishing the "pecking order" within his own team, at least for the time-being. The gap to Armstrong, incidentally, is another 22 seconds, with Leipheimer 12 seconds down and Kloden only 4 back of his team leader.

It's a marker that the team time-trial will belong to Astana - 4 out of the top 10 says that they should win tomorrow's stage and put their top 4 men into the top 4 of the overall race.

Sastre - the biggest loser

The big losers from the opening prologue were Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. Sastre, the defending champion, was 1:06 down on Cancellara, and 48 seconds behind Contador. Given that this year's Team Time-trial has no limited time losses (the last two have had a "cap" on the time that can be lost), Sastre faces the real prospect of going into the Pyrenees almost 2 minutes down. That was always going to be the case, of course, a 48 second gap over a 15.5km time-trial is big and damaging to his overall chances.

Contador - too strong too soon?

Contador's ride was excellent, but there is doubt in my mind as to whether he might be too strong too soon. He was the best to the first time-check, and was crowned Spain's time-trial champion only a week ago, both signs of a rider in top shape.

The problem is that we know that in a three-week race like the Tour, you have to be 'underdone' on the start line, because the cumulative training effect of the first week or two leaves you either slightly overtrained by week three, or completely overcooked. Most of the research around the Tour has found that power outputs are about 10% lower by week 3 than in week 1, and so the race is a war of attrition. No one gets better, but without a doubt, some riders get a lot worse than others, and a big part of it is how primed they are in the first week.

For Contador to be that good so early raises some serious doubts about whether he'll be strong at the end. This is particularly true if you bear in mind that Contador was in great shape as far back as Paris-Nice. In that race, Contador dominated the race until he blew completely when he became hypoglycemic. That happens, of course, but the more important thing is to note that Contador was in good condition back in May, and now enters the Tour de France again in great shape. Physiologically, there may be danger signs for Contador.

This tour is especially fascinating because of the climb up Mont Ventoux on the second last day. Ordinarily, the overall GC contendors will rely on the big mountains to do the damage, and then limit time-losses on the last time-trial (which usually comes on the second last day). The biggest time-gaps are created around days 7 to 14, and not day 20, which will happen this year.

So the climb up the Mont Ventoux means that this is a very long tour, and there is a very real chance of massive time gaps being created on Mont Ventoux - they will be larger than the gaps that can be created in a time-trial.

Therefore, it's more important than ever for riders to start the Tour slightly under-trained, so that they can maintain their form during the Tour. The concern for Contador is that he's already there, and has only one way to go. Time will tell...

Stage 2 - the race is "live"

Stage 2 is done - it's been won by Mark Cavendish, his second stage win. But the big news is around the main pack, and Contador, who has lost 39 seconds to Armstrong. So too have Cadel Evans, the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre and all the other GC contenders. It is Armstrong who now assumes the position of highest placed rider on his team, and if the Astana team delivers in tomorrow's Team Time-trial, then Armstrong will wear yellow by this time tomorrow.

Team leadership questions raised anew

And so the same questions will be raised anew - Armstrong in yellow, Contador to be the domestique? Or will the team be split in support of BOTH when we hit the Pyrenees come Friday? Many have brought up the great duels between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986, when LeMond was the stated leader of the team, and Hinault was meant to be riding in support of him. Hinault had other ideas, and attacked his own team-mate on numerous occasions, unable to contain his own competitive instincts.

Having laid down a marker in the prologue, Contador might have felt that his claims to team leadership were established. Today's time loss did little to retain the pecking order, and as many suspected, the battle within the Astana team might take centre-stage.

In Armstrong's own words, the day before the Tour began, were "If Alberto is better, I will ride for him". Note the conditional nature of the support - "If" is a very loaded descriptor, a loophole that keeps options open, which is precisely why so much doubt exists around the team. There is no commitment there, no guarantee of support, and that means Contador is under pressure from within.

And more to the point, Contador's case for being "better" is a lot less clear cut than it was an hour ago...



Unknown said...

Just saw the stage myself some hours ago and I wonder what the athmosphere is within the Astana team after the domestiques in the front bunch started working with Columbia... and then franticly looking on the net waiting for interviews of Contador and Armstrong talking about who the team captain is and such.

I do believe Contador will "open up a can of whop-ass" in the Andorran stage so the sunshine team is looking to dark storm clouds on the horizon. So this will be an interesting Tour i'd imagine. It is difficult to say how the race will unfold but if both perform similarly and not more than 1% above everybody we will see both suffer and go home defeated by some random guy. It is safe to assume that somebody(even Evans lol!) will break away a la Sastre and Armstrong and Contador will be practicing their intervals behind him, don't expect colaboration.

However I do not expect a srong Arm this year and anymore for that matter... Contador is my favorite to win the Tour. Evans is good obviously, as long as you discount his team, which you can since the penultimate stage will be the main and pretty much the only event this year(the course is plain bad), so there is no fear of taking the jersey too early. Sastre is actually in an expected position, i would not say he is in or out of form given stage 1. As you mentioned the TTT is his greatest obstacle.

Menchov won the Giro which he did not officially target, but did he? Also Basso did not skip the Tour because he was unwelcome, so was Boonen but ASO does not have the authority to issue suspensions, he made a pragmatic decision to dodge the competition and try beating a weaker peloton. So friend Menchov might not be down because of fatigue or vodka but because he had different ideas for this season.

Other lesser favorites like Andy Schleck, Vandevelde, Pereiro Sio, Kirchen, Rogers could fill the top 10, but what do you think about the Cancellara speculation? That would make my day, it would be awesome.

Noted your point about how Contador might have peaked early but we would have thought this about mr.Bolt when he first broke the WR only to be surprised/overwhelmed later with more, so let's give the pros credit for their own preparation.

I won't make predictions for the podium, though I have some ideas. I leave those up to you! Let's enjoy the race.


Anonymous said...

Not much of a time trial from Sastra, considering his 'wonderful' final trial last year to cement his win in the Tour.

Am I missing something?

Anyway, looking forward to your excellent coverage and opinion.


Jai said...

I agree with you in terms of being too good too soon. However I thought I would remind you of previously years where Armstrong blitzed field in the Dauphine and prologue and actually got stronger as the tour went on.

Also just a little correction, there was no prologue this year so it was stage 3 with the split not stage 2.

Thanks for the great blog.

jim said...

The time trial on the first day used to be called a "prologue." And like that narrative device, used for hundreds of years to provide a thumbnail sketch of the story to come, Stage 1 had Contador busting at the seams at the start then fading over the back half. He is hands down the most naturally gifted grand tour rider out there but I'm afraid he does not have the head for the kind of competition that will unfold over the next 2000 miles. Let's not forget, his Tour "win" came after Michael Rasmussen beat him and all his Astana buddies rather convincingly in the Pyrenees. Rasmussen was riding mostly alone, Contador had the best team money could buy behind him and still, he lost.
Okay, Rasmussen got thrown out but I'm far from certain that actually leveled the playing field.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

hi everyone

Thanks for the comments and responses.

To Mircea:

Contador's problems come if Armstrong is wearing yellow when they hit the mountains. Does he attack? Does Bruyneel tell him not to attack, but that he can follow moves? Or neither? That's where it gets really juicy. But you're right, the dinner table must have been very interesting last night, because there's no doubt that something changed for Astana to give the instruction to push that break-away group. A shift in power, perhaps...?

As for his preparation, yes, he might have got it right, like Bolt did. I raised it because he's the one guy in the race who has had good form since the beginning of the year. None of other big names were featuring in May, but he was. So it will be interesting to see how he goes.

To Jai:

Yes, that is true. But I'd say Armstrong used to time it so that he started peaking in June to win the Dauphine, then hold it for 6 weeks until the end of the Tour. And that was that, no more racing. Contador, on the other hand, had good form in May, so he is stretching it out over another month, which is a challenge. Perhaps he's got it right, it will be an interesting side-story to follow! And yes, thanks for the correction - I just automatically count Stage 1 and Prologue out of habit. But you're right.

To Jim:

Yes, there seems to be that chink in the armour of Contador. Certainly he has made some mistakes, but then so did Sastre, Evans, Schleck, and a host of others so maybe it was just one of those things.

Time will tell - I guess if the race gets into the mountains and it becomes man on man, and he's good enough to build a lead of 2 or 3 minutes, then his naivety won't matter too much. But if it's close and tense, with a lot of teams jostling, then you may well be right!


Mark said...

Thanks for your posts. Really love your insights.

One slight addendum to this statement of yours:

“Most of the research around the Tour has found that power outputs are about 10% lower by week 3 than in week 1, and so the race is a war of attrition. No one gets better . . .”

I’m sure Oscar Pistorius would get better in the third week! :-)