Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Second day in the Alps

Second Day in the Alps – 22 July

Written before the Stage? And for no good reason, kept in the blog post. Predictions. Attack on descent of La Bonette by Sanchez or Nibali. Attack on descent by anyone who can do it. Several attacks by anyone but Evens on the ascent. One long attack by CSC on the Ascent of La Bonette. Nothing of interest, except scenery for most of the stage. Evans loses maximum of a minute on one or two contenders. Valverde doe something or other. Kohl does nothing. Either Sastre or Schleck fall out of contention. An escape of nobody special stays away and one rider makes beg advances in the GC that no one cares about.

The organisers of the Tour, and the riders, have continued to provide us with days and competitions that are full of uncertainty. Suddenly the third place guy in the white jersey is first. Well, actually, that’s about it at the end of the day, in terms of changes. The green jersey stays the same, the polka dot jersey stays the same only more so, the yellow jersey stays the same only more so. Yet, it was a rather good day of viewing, or rather a very good last hour or so. The stage winner was French, which is fine, since they have done so badly, they really should have another stage in their own Tour. They have tried so hard with the escapes nearly every stage.

Cyril Dessel is a lesson for us all. No one has ever said he was a champion. No one, except maybe the French, even suspect he is a “real winner”. Not like guys who are in contention for every race they enter “seriously”. He is a good climber, and good descender, not so bad a rouleur. He is a better than average French rider, which means he is average in terms of the riders who are in the Tour, who are the very best in the world. I have not Goggled him to check the details, but he has had a quite good year. Rather than be slowed and hampered by injuries, as he often has been, he has been well and has maybe three or four serious victories. He is not cited in my French mag as even an outsider for any jersey. Yet, he can say, all his life, in any context he wishes, “I wore the yellow jersey” and “I won a stage in the Tour”. And not just any stage, but a huge mountain stage. He speaks with a lisp. If you ask him a question he goes on slightly faster and longer, but a bit less boringly than Christophe Moreau. Couple of years ago they had a good year, sixth and seventh was it? But whatever goes on inside Cyril, and he seems a bit odd to me, he kind of overwhelms you with both his ego and his modesty. They seem to alternate. In the post-Tour show he went on far ages about his childhood and when he came to the area at 14, which he did. Or about today and the details of today, or about his trails and tribulations in recent years. Dessel goes on once you push the button. I would much rather interview him than one of the guys who is determined to say nothing interesting, or who has been trained to say nothing interesting, or who actually has nothing to say. Cyril is a good story about the Tour. I never have liked him at all, but I can see that one thing that is often forgotten is how the winning a stage can change a rider’s life. Dessel knows this too. Winning the Tour, of course, automatically changes your life. But even a stage can. Even a breakaway that almost succeeds can do it. In fact, when you get down to it, just riding in the Tour de France (or knowing someone who did) is a childhood dream for some hundreds of millions of people. It is not like driving a Formula One. In cycling you can ride the exact roads on the exact bike the giants of the road do. Cyril is just a regular guy. French. Good cyclist. But just a regular guy. He is now immortal, even if he does nothing of any national or global significance the rest of his life. I love the Tour. It is a bit like winning a million on the 15 question show called whatever it is in your country. “Qui veut gagner un million (euros)?”

I had the nap after I saw quite a bit of the first minutes when some part of the peloton attempts to form an escape. Over and over. The escapes were on from slightly before the waving of the starter’s flag, after the “fake start” but before the “real start”. I am glad I spent the time. I have a great idea for a new tape. Although someone must have done it. “The Escape”. I am trying to write about that elsewhere. The tape would be the case of maybe twenty or thirty escapes forming (or not) in various races. Maybe some attempts on the same day until one “works”. Other escapes might be very famous, for instance, a few “royal escapes” where the composition of the escape looks like a Classic one day race. Some escapes could be included from very average races, although most should be from the Tour. The escape of Chiappucci et al, that only got pulled back in the last time trial. Over this TV action you have a voice-over explanation, with arrows, and cool graphics that explains why the escape failed or why a few succeed. You could do judicious editing, so some of the real time interminable nature of an escape can be left out, but that you get the feeling nevertheless.

An escape like today’s would never have been allowed to get away the first day in the Pyrnees. But today, it was more or less allowed to get on with deciding who would win the stage, while the battle for the yellow jersey took place in another peloton. Although everyone rode together for much of the day (over the first huge climb), when the pace went up on the last long hard climb, lots of riders were just dropped. They were the third peloton and the suspense for them is will they finish within the delay and stay in the race. Everyone knows that third race is “fixed”. No way they would eliminate eighty riders or more. So in hard mountain stages you really just stay inside the big bus. Every day, three races, if we are lucky. The race for the stage was pretty good. The race to get inside the time limit was not anywhere near close. And the yellow jersey race promised much, but in the end, not a lot is terribly different. This means that Evans and to a lesser extent Menchov have to be the two most obvious possible victors.

Yellow jersey. What did not change? Who is wearing it. The closeness of the gaps between six contenders. Who is most likely to win. The general feeling and high entertainment value of the mountain stages (and sometimes the other stages). Seeing the tragedy of one or two people losing. So Frank still has it. Evans still knows he is going to take it after the time trial. Several people have the utterly obvious objective reason to attack tomorrow or pull of some clever strategic move. Sadly, you could have said that yesterday, about today. But no attacks really and not big strategic moves. The result is that everyone high in the GC basically stayed together and no one got any significant time on anyone, and no one lost all that much. Details.

Looking at the GC, comparing it with yesterday you see that the first three positions have not changed at all, even in time difference. Then you realise that Menchov lost a bit of time. Not a big amount, but he has done this three times before on stages, either by not quite finishing it off well, or by accident. This is bad luck for a Tour winner. And he is not as good as Evans in the time trial. Vande Velde seems to have drifted right out of obvious contention, losing two and a fair bit minutes on yellow today. Sastre and Kirchen are still there, about where they were. I really did not believe that Kirchen would be in the top ten, although some said he might be. I say the same about Kohl, no way would I have put an each way bet on the guy at the beginning, although I noticed the odds were exceptionally good. I am sure over a hundred to one for the win. Valverde and Sanchez have every right to be in the top ten, no one would disagree. And then the question arises, who will be the slightly less than expected top ten rider, besides Kirchen and Kohl and Vande Velde?

So the same necessity for attack is valid for tomorrow. I think the CSC guys lost the Tour today. It was not really their fault, but I figure they blew it. They never could execute the plan if Frank was on an off day. And any plan would have Carlos attack the rest and then see what happened. They did not dare do that today as maybe Frank would be dropped. Then the others would smell blood and attack. But maybe Carlos was not tops either, or the idea of attacking your own yellow jersey was too much. In any case no one really attacked. They just put young Andy in front to ride hard to see who would get dropped. It turned out that all his competitors for the young rider jersey got dropped. He did not get dropped at the end. So he has the white jersey. And none of the other contenders had the legs or the will to attack. So Cadel just sat on the best guys and will wait until the time trial. Although I still say that CSC were the losers today because they just could not figure out how to use three riders to put Evans in difficulty, given Frank’s and Carlos’ condition today. In any case it is obvious that if Andy would just concentrate and eat and drink like a professional, he would have been in contention too. Valverde will never get back enough time on Alpe, he was a bit challenged on the last steep bit of the climb, where a “puncher” like him might look a bit better. On the other hand, the alpe is not that high or that long, maybe he might make a move. He has “top ten” sorted, and I figure by the time the time tidal is over, might be up in fifth or so, or sixth like last year. Although circumstances of the race might dictate otherwise, the race must really be decided by the time the lads get up the Alpe.

I am a bit glad really. I am already looking forward to the end of the Tour, it just takes up too much time for too long. I look forward to the day and the lifestyle, when I could consecrate my entire day for all three weeks, to the Tour. Even then, I think about halfway through the last week, I would still be ready for it to be over. I bet most of the riders are too, even if they have hopes of snatching a stage in the last four days. The time trial can be ridden very easily by all but about twenty riders. Not shamefully, but not for big prizes. The Champs Elysées means you have to do the same routine every year, although the outcome is different. You ride around the Paris area, joking about, and then race up and down what the French are fond of calling “The Most Beautiful Avenue in the World”. After tomorrow, the order will be established for the Tour 2008. Obviously some things can change during the time trial, but probably not much. The two stages in between the Alpe and the TT are for people who get lucky. No one would be allowed to gain so much time they threatened anyone’s top ten or their podium or their jersey. So it is for the lower ranked riders to make a go of it, or for the sprinters’ teams to shut down escapes. Although the breaks will want to get away, the sprinter teams, the GC teams, the jersey teams will all want the status quo. All of them. Maybe if we get lucky two CSC guys might be six and ten seconds behind Evans. Or Menchov might be. Then we could do a little more suspense. But basically it’s over after tomorrow. I am gong to take a day off, I need to start winding down into normal life soon. I need a break of landscape to ease the Post Tour Blues, when emptiness invades my life, and I stop buying L’Equipe every day. Until the bleeding Olympics. Maybe I will give the Olympics a miss, watch the edited daily programme. Not buy the paper.

White jersey. Schleck lived up to his billing and devotion to his brother and the CSC team, in that order. In doing so, he accidentally dropped all the other young guys in the race. It would be an injustice if he does not wear the jersey in Paris. Besides, even though it was a quite normal guess, it would mean that one of my predictions would come true. My small scenario guess for tomorrow is that somehow, Frank and Bjarne Riis say to Andy that he can just ride as fast as he can up the Alpe. Frank follows for as long as they can, until they drop everyone in the race, then Frank motors slowly to the top and Andy takes the stage of legend. They really don’t need Andy’s help after this stage tomorrow, assuming Frank does not crack. Frank should do well as today was a bad day for him and most good riders do not have two bad days in a row. If he does it is proper that he should lose the Tour. Anyway Andy has white and should keep it. If my prediction comes true then I deserve to be published in lights. I noticed that yesterday, John Lee Augustyn; the guy that fell over the edge of the road, is now in fifth place, only four minutes down on Andy. Just one good day and things can change a bit in some competitions for jerseys. He was 48th with six points before this stage, and now suddenly he is fourth.

Spotted jersey. I guess the guy who wants it is Kohl. He seems in fine shape so should do the right thing tomorrow, and then jersey is his. He deserves it I suppose, but really, talk about a damp squib of a competition. I mean, until a few days ago a time trialist had the jersey. So Kohl. The only interesting thing might be if former yellow jersey winner Tommy Voeckler, the regular guy of French cycling, who made it big, managed to do something to get more points than Kohl. Voeckler can go in any escape. No one cares in the GC. Kohl could NOT go in any escape. So my fearless prediction is that Thomas will go off if he can, grab some points and try to hang on to win the jersey. Let’s see how many points are up for grabs for the winnerof each mountain climb. Eighty points are up for grabs. Suppose Voeckler picks up 40 and Kohl is trapped behind a large escape, with the leaders. So he scores 10. they would be even. So one long escape like today could mean a close competition. Probably not. Too bad Kohl is second on GC, he could have the jersey wrapped up with a tiny escape.

Green jersey looks sewed up too. Oscar did the business. He did everything right, even though the young English kid whupped them all four times. But when the kid was gone, Oscar then won the stage. Said he was glad to win, but the kid was faster. Sadly, the kid left the race, leaving Oscar a near certitude. Kirchen could have made it slightly more interesting by not blowing the mountain stage so badly. Like he got ZERO points today, same as the Sprinters. I still support Zabel, just one more time. One more stage, one more jersey, and he can kiss the training goodbye. Out at the top. But I am I dreaming. He will probably finish as he does in the sprints these days. Fast but not the fastest. Wise, but not the youngest. At the front, but not a winner. I want Eric to win one more time. Hushovd didn’t do anything really wrong either, he just was not the fastest for some reason we may never know. Maybe he could win a stage too.

I often ignore the team competition. They calculate the team standings by taking the top three finishers on each team, adding their times, and averaging for the team. Then they continue this each day adding the time to the previous total for the whole race. In the end there is a total for “the first three riders” on “each separate day”, for “each separate team”, added up from the first day. Often this ranking system corresponds with what you think it should be, that is, a list of the “best teams” in the Tour, in a relative ranking. This indicator is constructed like most quantitative measures, they are refining it all the time. “Being the best team” used to get you a guaranteed invitation to all the Top Tours. This is a prize worth going for, if you have the possibility of doing it. So in the last few days of the Tour that this comes into the construction of strategies. So at present, the best team is Team CSC, rather closely followed by AG2R. Then there is an awesome, never-to-be-breached gap to all the other teams. The others have no chance at all of beating the two top teams. Each of the others is slightly better than the next one down the ladder. But the difference is slight and can change in one day. For example, fifth could be third by the end of the Tour. Rabobank is third, followed by Lampre, Euskatel, Gerolsteiner, Caisse, silence, Credit Agricole and Team Columbia. There is something more or less satisfactory about that list. But if it were a Tour de France geek quiz, I would ask the perfectly answerable question, “Explain the position of Euskatel and Columbia with regards to the failings of quantitative ranking systems.” I presume that you, like me, think that Columbia is a brilliant team, and Euskatel has one guy with class. But maybe you agree with the rankings. Or even the idea of rankings.

They went so slowly up the Lombarde, the first big pass, that the sprinters were not even dropped. I know why, but this is a bad spectacle. When you can only guarantee racing excitement for an hour and it is televised for four, then the product needs improvement. On the other hand, some people like watching cricket. In the Tour you can have two races in one, like we did today. In cricket, there is only one game at a time. It is even slower to develop.

I love the controversy about the “highest road in Europe”. This is what the French believe the road over the Col de Bonette Restefond is. The Tour is the greatest event in cycling, and possibly in all sports. The highest climb in Europe fits right in with the hype. BUT, what this really means (to eliminate the more than three thousand metre road in the Sierra Nevada in Spain) is the road today is “the highest paved road that doesn’t just go to the top and stop being paved or even stop entirely. “A dead end” as we used to say. Sans Issue, I now say. On the other hand, there was some mention of Austrian passes which were actually higher. One of the French commentators, the one in charge of “Cocorico”, tried to claim it is the highest. Fignon sort of snorts in the background, and Jean Paul Olivier, with his sense of accuracy and keenness on facts, does bring up the Austrian rumour, without giving the name of the pass. Its hard when a pass might not be highest and you always thought it was. On the other hand, there are two passes, the Iseran and the Stelvio, in Italy, which WERE higher than La Bonnette. But someone decided in 1961 to make a wee loop in the road going all the way to the very top. This meant that instead of being third, La Bonette became top. As long as you ignore Austrian claims and claim the road has to be paved both up and over. You have to find stuff to talk about in a long Tour. I did a bit of goggling and I think the French might be right. The highest pass you can ride a road bike over, fast, is La Bonette.

The brother story is always a good one. Fathers and sons does well on the Tour too. Brothers and sons of former riders always adds spice to the storyline. Although Sebastian just dropped out, the Chavanel brothers were one story. But the Schlecks clearly have moved it to a new level. One in yellow and one in white. I wonder if this has ever happened, and won’t take the time to find out right now. I reckon its a first.

Further, we have had six different riders wear the jersey. I would like to, and can, invent a scenario where we get past six. It can be “hoped” that Kohl, Menchov or Sastre wears yellow, or even someone else, as a result of some outstanding or lucky performance tomorrow. I would like that. Things would be so uncertain that maybe we would find an eighth rider before Paris. But the odds seem to be that when and if Frank loses it, he will lose it to Evans. Stuck at six.

Must go now. I get to ride the bike tomorrow and must get some sleep.

All the best. Nearly done now.