Friday, 1 July 2011

Pre Tour Introduction 2011

Tour de France 2011 – Pre Tour Introduction

Greetings. The Tour de France is starting Saturday, so I better get this out. Please send this introduction or the URL to anyone you think might be interested. Normally the blog will be about 1,000 words long, this one is an exception. This piece is immense. There also might be photos.

I noticed, in editing this especially long piece a few times, that I made mistakes. Endearing mistakes, bad writing, embarrassing ignorance or just plain being wrong. This will continue throughout the blog. I might make simple mistakes, I might be tired from riding the bike, I might write superficial and short pieces because I am busy with other stuff, and no doubt I will mention what people “in the know” say to the media (truth content always unknown). I am actually a simple Tour fanatic who reads the paper every day, surfs a bit, checks out my cycling forums, talks to the guys in the club, writes a blog for three weeks and momentarily imagines myself Alberto Contador when I suffer up the hills around here. So, in advance, I am sorry to talk rubbish, but … I can't help it. On the other hand, this is serious bullshit I am writing. Anyway, you should know by now that I love the Tour. So please read in that spirit. I write this blog with my friends in mind. Some are Tour nutters, others just vaguely interested. One or two like reading my writing.

At this point, we know all the riders. To find the list of the riders, go to That site is also a good one for fairly rapid results of each stage. I won't be copying 'results of the day', as nearly anyone can find them on the web. The special eight page section for “the day before the Tour” is waiting to be read. The teams were introduced yesterday on TV, but I missed it. The new TV is ordered. We are ready.

The route is known, it looks to be a “typical Tour”, a mixed route with some quite hilly bits, some sprints and some high mountains. It begins in the west of France and hits the Pyrenees first and then the Alps. Most of the early stages are flattish, although some finish with a short steep hill climb (not usual). Some say there are eight possible sprint finishes. There are four mountaintop finishes, but also a few mountainous stages which go downhill after the last climb. There is a team time trial on stage two, but it is not long. And an individual time trial at the very end, just before the finish in Paris. Also not too long. A year without a huge Time Trial Component. But overall, nothing much unexpected. Nothing wildly radical. Typical Tour.

The rules are pretty much the same, with one notable exception. This year, there is only one intermediate sprint, at about the time the television coverage begins. The rewards for placing in this intermediate sprint are much larger than usual. So this year. I expect there will be two all-out sprints on each flattish stage, each with its own emerging strategies, I suppose. A rider could not possibly win the green jersey (usually called the sprinters' jersey, but sometimes won by a climber), without making a huge effort in the intermediate sprints. So overall, there should be a bit more to look forward to on the flatter stages, two escapes, two attempts to catch the breakaway, two sprints. Maybe. We really don't know yet.

Generally, nearly everyone thinks that the race for yellow will be between Andy Schleck, second last year, and Alberto Contador, first last year. While a trifle boring to predict the same result as last year, it is pretty reliable and easy to guess that last year's winners and high finishers will also be this year's performers. During the past two years, Alberto has been first and Andy has been second, so there is no overwhelming reason to think things will change. Unless … (when I say that, I recognise the Tour is long, last year is not this year, and anything can happen). The candidates who might disrupt the party on sporting grounds (bad luck or accidents can ruin any prediction) are riders like Frank Schleck (crashed out last year), Cadel Evans (total bust last year), Ivan Basso (also a bust 32nd), Bradley Wiggins (especially if you are English, but a bust last year), even more outsiders like Samuel Sanchez (fourth last year), Christian Vande Velde (CVV), Robert Gesink (sixth), Andreas Kloden, Jurgen Van den Broeck (tenth), Ryder Hesjedal (seventh, 2010 big surprise) and quite a few others.

All my “picking a favourite etc” energy is in my fantasy leagues until Saturday. Recently the French sports paper l'Equipe had a poll of various riders and directors from all the teams in the race. The overwhelming consensus was Alberto first, Andy second and probably Evans third. Anything other than that will be a mild or immense surprise, although there are plenty of others who could also complete the podium. Maybe we will get really lucky and Contador will have a dramatic mano a mano with Andy, while behind, six guys will be battling it out quite fiercely, for the last place on the podium. That could be good.

Without going into it yet, I will tell you, maybe, about the results of my various teams in the fantasy leagues I enter/follow. Maybe. Currently I have teams in three different leagues. I will also delight you by sharing my predictions for each stage, maybe after the stage is finished, maybe before. I am obligated by one fantasy contest to pick a winner EVERY day. Most of the contests just require picking a team and watching how they do. One, which I don't like, involves changing riders in mid-Tour. In any case, you won't find out how well or badly I am doing in anything else you read about the Tour. Exclusive here. I might be adding a word about the bike ride I might do on a given day. I will keep the twice/thrice weekly visit to the pool out of the blog.

On to the sprinters' or green jersey. You will recall that it is awarded for the rider who gains the most points at the finishes. That is, the rider who finishes well most frequently, thereby gaining most points. The sprinters get points at sprints, and climbers get them in the mountains, and various others get them here and there throughout. Usually it is the sprinters who do well in in their many sprint finishes (four mountaintop and eight flat, they say), so they win the highly respected green jersey. But ... if a race is very mountainous (like the Giro) it could be a climber who finishes well in the most stages, thereby gaining the most points.

The fastest sprinter in the world, over the last couple hundred metres, is usually Mark Cavendish, if the finish is flat, and if his lead-out train works well (more on “lead-outs” later). Cav has already won more Tour stages than anyone has ever won at his age (I should look up if Merckx had more wins in his mid twenties). If he keeps this rate up, he will break the all-time record of stage wins in the Tour, held by Eddy Merckx of course. Cav has 15, Merckx had 34. But careers are long, and many things can happen, like the emergence of better sprinters. This year, Cav claims he is going for the points jersey (as well as stage wins), so he needs to do well in many finishes AND intermediate sprints. He cannot merely win the flat stage finishes. He needs this green jersey win to be properly ensconced in Tour history. Numerous riders can beat him if his lead out train does not deliver him 200 metres from the finish, at the front, or if the finish goes up a bit, or if he makes a mistake, or if someone is just better on the day (sometimes happens). Previous winners of the jersey are always good bets to do well on a given stage. Allesandro Pettachi, Robbie McEwen, Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd, all former winners, and even younger and faster sprinters are happy to win the jersey if Cavendish fails. Thor Hushovd is the current world champion (and the winner in 2009) so he would like to win stages or intermediate sprints wearing the rainbow jersey. It would be an extremely cool photo. McEwen will be lucky to win a stage as he is a bit old, but he is also wily and experienced. Pettachi won last year, and there is no earthly reason why he should not work hard to win this year, even though he is getting on too. He should beat Cav in one stage at least. And Tom Boonen would dearly love to prove that, given the right finish, he too can still win. His results have not been great lately. Then there are plenty of younger, less well-known sprinters who will be desperately figuring out how to beat the big names. Australian Matthew Goss is the last leadout man for Cav, but sometimes Goss could do better on uphill finishes than Cav. Yauheni Hutarovitch, the Belorussian who rides for the French team Francaises des Jeux (FDJ) has been known to pop out opportunely, as have riders like Tyler Farrar, Romain Feillu and Andrei Greipel. Some are tipping the young Russian sprinter Denis Galimzyanov. To complicate matters, some experts are picking Philippe Gilbert to win the green jersey, as he is a handy sprinter and can win stages or sprints up short steep hills. One famous L'Equipe writer picked Edvald Boasson-Hagen (EBH) to win Green. There is such uncertainty over the green jersey that this COULD be the most interesting competition during the Tour. More about the individuals as they appear. Oh yes, I also like Ben Swift of the Sky team.

The mountains jersey, the spotted one, has been quite boring in the past few years. Basically, no one seems really that keen on winning it, so there is no real competition. Not many riders aim their Tour riding at this jersey, unlike Richard Virenque (retired seven-time winner), who planned his entire Tour around winning this jersey. So this 'contest' has become deadly dull. Last year the winner was a guy that absolutely no one (except SOME French aficionados) had ever heard of, Anthony Charteau. Most people still have never heard of him, because he has not had a brilliant season and generally is not one of the best riders. He simply cannot ride up a given mountain as fast as at least 20 other riders. The 'winner' of the polka dot jersey, the 'best climber' is the result of a flawed scoring system. The actual best climber seldom wins or even wears that jersey. Points are scored for each hill in the Tour, more for difficult climbs than easy ones. Big points are scored for the very last climb if it is the finish of the stage. The boring, but recently successful strategy, is to pick a long stage with loads of high mountains. The rider escapes early on, no one cares. The stage is long. He takes most points over all the high scoring (difficult) mountains before the end, mainly because no one cares. This opportunistic rider might not win the stage, in fact is usually swept up by the real climbers in the last kilometres. But in the meantime he has picked up big points for climbing against no one. The opportunistic rider then hang on desperately during the rest of the Tour, maybe making it into another break and taking a few more points here and there on hilly bits no one cares about. This is the Virenque/Jalabert technique. I will explain it in context during the race, as it is a little bit complicated. The only part of the race where the best climbers really care and try to go really fast, is the last climb. They attack there trying to win the stage or at least go faster up the hill than their real rivals, thereby gaining time, which means they might have a better chance to win the whole shebang. Charteau finished 42nd last year. He just got dropped a lot at various points in the Tour. Even though he rode over the early climbs in the mountain stages first, since no one else cared. We shall see if anyone else cares this year. Who might care? Maybe David Moncoutié. Maybe Damiano Cunego, Egoi Martinez, no one really has a clue. More likely the winner will be a very good climber who accidentally gets in a break in an early mountain stage, and hangs on. What would really please me is if we actually saw a real battle for the jersey between two or more riders who actually want to win it. But that has not happened for well over a decade, so I am not really thinking this year will be different.

The white jersey for the best young rider is usually no 'contest' in an of itself. It is awarded to the best rider below 26, based on the Overall Time, that is the General Classification (the yellow jersey is awarded to the first place on GC). So if you are trying for a high place in the yellow jersey competition and you are young, the white jersey is a recognition of a status rather than a specialised contest. It is the GC contest, the top ten contest, the yellow jersey contest. Usually, after the first two mountain stages, the best young rider is obvious and there is no real extra interest generated. This year could be the same. Andy Schleck is too old for this jersey now, so someone else will win. The overall best guess is probably Gesink, the young Dutchman who also aspires to the podium. Kreuziger might do well, or someone who will be a complete surprise. With only Kreuziger and Gesink as serious contenders, this jersey is likely to be rather uninteresting this year. Frankly, as a 'contest' it just does not exist.

So that takes care of the jerseys, although we will hear more about them later. At least the ones which require explanation or the ones which are actual contests.

French riders. Since I live in France, I hear a bit more about the French riders than you might. I will write a bit about some of them to remind you about French riders, and amaze you with my inside knowledge, if you are not living in France. I can't do that for Spanish or Italian riders, but one could, I can't. One of my fantasy teams has ONLY French riders in it. None of the French riders are likely to make it into the top ten. If any of them do it will be a grand surprise and everyone will be delighted. If there are two, it would be cause for national celebration. Most likely the top French rider will be 12th. John Gadret might do well, but he is most likely wiped out after his fourth place in the Giro. People big up Nicolas Roche. The French generally go for stage victories at this point in history, they just don't have anyone remotely near a contender for the overall. Sylvain Chavanel is the most likely to win a stage, partly because he has done it before and partly because he is wearing the jersey of the French champion and would be desperately keen to win with the jersey on his back. Total lifetime memory. Thomas Voeckler is everyone's favourite Frenchman, mainly because he is of moderate talent, and yet he attacks constantly to win stages. A genuine, clean, mentally strong, polite and modest attacking rider. I am keeping my eye on Blel Kadri and Julien El Fares, who as you can tell are not from the Jean-Claude Dupont type of French origins. I am keen to have some non-vanilla French guy win, and either could take a stage. My other young hope is Anthony Roux, who could also take stages, and certainly will do in the future. He is more a puncheur, a guy who can make it up smaller hills at the end of stages (like stage one). Another young guy is Cyril Gautier, more likely to win something in a breakaway that goes all the way. A long time favourite is Samuel Dumoulin, who has a big punch even though he is not a proper sprinter. He is also very little, which is why I like him too. Guys like Jean-Christophe Peraud and Christophe Riblon from AG2R will be looking hard for openings. And the one Frenchman who might make the top ten is Jerome Coppel from a smaller, weaker Saur Sojasun team, invited only because they are French. But overall, it does not look like the French have not yet solved the question of where their proper big time champions have gone lately.

Anglophone riders. Although the Tour is globalised, English speakers and readers often become interested in the fate of Anglophone riders. They read more about them, they get interviewed more on Anglo channels, the Anglo commentators talk about them. This year there are two who have some kind of good chance to do quite well in the Tour. Cadel Evens, the Australian and Bradley Wiggins, the British champion. Cadel has finished second twice, was the world champion last year, and could, maybe, crack the top two. Wiggins seems to have found a better training regime this year, recently won the Dauphine, and could possibly finish in the top five. Cavendish and Farrar, we already mentioned as sprinters. One young guy, American, who might do well, although usually first-time young Tour riders hang back and watch for a bit, is Tejay Van Garderen (a name most of you won't know). I am hoping that Geraint Thomas (Welsh, where are the iconettes when you need them), although mainly helping Wiggins, will show well during the Tour. He is tremendous talent. Although he is assigned and committed to helping Alberto, Richie Porte is an Australian rider who has no serious weaknesses, he can ride in high mountains, and time trial. One way or another, he will be shining in the Tour, but maybe not this year. I would be remiss not to mention the Radio Shack trio, anyone of whom might make the top ten, Levi Leipheimer (recent victor of the Tour of Switzerland), Andreas Klöden, and Chris Horner. The one thing they all have in common is maturity, all in their late thirties, Horner (who recently won the Tour of California) is nearly forty. However, they are all very good riders, and along with younger Janez Brajkovic, the ostensible leader of Radio Shack, might well pick up the 'best team' award. I will explain later how this prize is calculated. The Irish have high hopes for Nicolas Roche, who is the only non-French guy on AG2R, but who speaks fluent French. But a top ten will be the best he can aspire to. I am hoping that Sky's Ben Swift, English, will nip in a take a few sprinting points, but there is an awful lot of competition. Garmin-Cervelo is full of Anglos, David Millar, Christian Vander Velde, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal, David Zabriskie and Tyler Farrar. At least three of them could be candidates for the top ten, and Millar and Zabriskie can always ride a good time trial. In fact, the entire team might well win the TTT on stage two. Overall, whether one is keen on British, Irish, Australian or American Anglophones, the time is ripe for language based or nationality based chauvinism.

A word about Alberto, one of the two big favourites for the win. He was found to have clenbuterol in this blood during the last Tour. In fact, it stayed in his blood for several days, so it was found in four tests in a row. He was a bit unlucky to have got caught, as they sent his sample to one of the very few labs that would have have been able to detect that amount. But the limit is zero clenbuterol, so the minutest amount is illegal. He claims he ate some contaminated beef. Nearly everyone else reckons he was doing some drugs and hiding it with clenbuterol, which he took at the wrong time. There is another factor too, but it is seldom mentioned now. Although it is not yet illegal to having “plasticisers” in your blood (Google it, as I got bored trying to figure it out), most people think that the plasticisers found in Alberto’s blood came from a bag of plasma, that he had auto-transfused. Re-injecting your own blood to increase the red blood cells is illegal. But they have not yet figured out how to detect it reliably, if the blood is taken skilfully, at the right time. Apparently there are plasticisers in the blood bags which prevent the blood from coagulating. He might have taken out some of his blood well in advance of the Tour and re-injected it during the Tour. The sad joke of it all is that although cycling seems to have good testing procedures, maybe, it has no way to deal with the violations judicially, with even a reasonable rapidity. So the Contador drug process is still going on, and Contador can continue to ride. The acute silliness comes out when we see that Contador is found guilty on appeal (he has been whitewashed by the Spanish Federation), he will lose the 2010 Tour (2011 Tour result) and his win in the Giro 2011, plus all other victories since July 2010. If he is declared innocent, he will have won two (or three) Grand Tours, if not, he will have won none of them. He gets to ride even though he is under review. Not like the cop shops on TV in the USA, when you have turn in your badge and gun while under review. Anyway, it is all a mess and shows that the UCI (the governing body of cycling globally) as well as other national and international bodies, are slow and incompetent, and perhaps corrupt as well. Huge mess. I hope to avoid all writing about drugs and legalities and medicine during the Tour. Hah!

What are the crucial stages of the Tour, the ones you just don't want to miss? Fortunately my careful research on the subject found an article this week in the most popular daily newspaper in France. I will often share insights gleaned from l'Equipe during this Tour, since I read every word every day, normally. L'Equipe asked 92 staff and riders of all the teams to predict the winners, the 'revelations' (riders who shine unexpectedly), AND the most crucial bits of the race. Their collective verdict? Although the climb of the Galibier (stage 18) got most votes (31), the following crucial stages were not far behind. The stage to Alpe d'Huez was second with 26 votes and the time trial at the end, in Grenoble, got 25 votes. Plateau de Beille and 'the last week' got 8 and 5 votes. So, no big surprises. Watch the mountain stages in the last week, and if you are really keen, check out the time trial. I would also say that the first and fourth stages might have some interesting action at the very end. Furthermore, watching a team time trial (second stage) is always an aesthetic treat. The third stage, will be a sprinters' stage, we should have a pretty good time in the first four days. I will warn you about each stage the day before, very briefly. So you have time, and feel a bit relaxed, watch the last bit of the stages for a week or so. Most of the action should take place at the end. On the other hand, if you have a HD big screen TV, which I should have before they get to the Massif Central, lolling in front of the box is a very good way to spend most afternoons for three weeks. Unless of course, you have something better to do. Me, I declare it my annual holiday and ride the bike and watch the Tour and write the blog. Unless I have something better to do.

If you got this far, you are clearly a bit interested. Remember, if you are, you have to surf find the rest of what I write. For those of you new to these writings, some days I don't spend a lot of time on the blog. Maybe LESS than 1,000 words. Perhaps the stage was not really that interesting, or I had something better to do. One year, just at the end of the Tour, I got seriously ill, and stopped writing altogether as I was in hospital, without a connection. Rather dramatic and I hope it will never happen again. Normalement, the daily piece should be on line by about 2300 French time. I have to sleep.

I am, as ever, looking forward to it. I can see that if most of the punters are right, there might not be a very exciting race for the yellow jersey. But maybe more than two guys will be battling it out! Would that be good?

In case you are betting, or care to guess who might win the first stage, I would say two obvious choices might be Matthew Goss (HTC) or Philippe Gilbert (Omega-Lotto) and a long odds outsider could be Anthony Roux (FDJ). On the other hand it could be Thor Hushovd, he is good on uphill finishes. I should think the last half hour might be full of action and exciting. The stage ends on a long hill, where most of the frantic action should take place. Since the yellow jersey will be up for grabs, everyone will be trying very hard. I will tell you who I picked later, I must get this off.

Next blog after the stage fisnish on Saturday, although it might be shorter than usual. As predicted above, I already have “something better to do” on Saturday night. Sorry. This really was way too long. Editing took many minutes, maybe hours. 1,000 words from now on.

Vive le vélo.