Saturday, 7 July 2012

First Hill, Sky Wins

Stage 7 I have admit, quite happily, that a bit of racing went on today, at least in the last fifteen k, and we now know a few things. Or at least we can speculate a bit with some data from one fairly steep and short climb. Oh yes, Sagan lost many minutes. He can't climb (yesss!!!), but as he rode across the line at the end, he did a wheelie on his bike. Last guy to do that was McEwan, a controversial character. I am worried that the antics of the playful 22 year old might soon become a bit bothersome to a few more traditional people. I mean, if he hadn't won three stages and ridden the whole peloton off his wheel, people might not take it so well. So playful or arrogant or un-professional or showboating …. your votes will be counted. He went up the hill slowly and was feeling frisky. His job ends after ten minutes of climbing, I am sure. Although I noticed there was another Liquigas guy with him. Must be his sidekick and body guard, Daniel Oss. Good to see guys riding with injuries (like LL Sanchez), and sad to take account of all those who are not on the race, or even staying in hospitals. The effects of punctured lung and broken ribs always seems hard to imagine. How can they finish a stage with those injuries? One thing that you would gather from reading some of the apocalyptic posts on forums and news reports, is that the Tour is over. The only thing open for debate is who might join Evans and Wiggo on the podium. The candidates seem to be all the guys who finished just behind them, including Froome. I think this is short-sighted. That was my reaction at first, four Sky guys in the top 14, beating everyone but Evans on a climb, a team that rode like they were on something (but we know they are not), according to a plan that worked. So overall, Sky simply rode up the hill faster than anyone except a few others, including Evans. But I don't think the Tour is over. Nodding to the green jersey, it stayed with Sagan. No more points were awarded to any rider already in the top ten for green. But Cadel in thirteenth, Wiggins in 18th and Froome in 20th will begin to score a few points each mountain stage, and gradually one or more of them will enter the top ten. However, a sprinter will still win the jersey, mostly likely Sagan. This is when the finishing points in the mountains start counting, and the best of the climbers begin to approach the lesser sprinters. Spotted jersey goes to a real climber, the guy who got to the top of the steepest hill fastest. Froome will not be able to defend that jersey. He will have to stay with Wiggo. It is unlikely that on all the other climbs of the Tour, those three will finish together. There has to be some real climber that can try to escape, maybe on a descent, with another rider or two. Maybe they can outride the Sky team, but who would bet on it. The way Sky rides, it is hard to see a weakness. But the main point is that Tour is long, many things can happen. The stage today is not a stage of many climbs, like tomorrow. It had one climb. Wiggo is not known to really be fond of many climbs in one day. He likes just one at the end. But then again, they said he could not climb well where the gradient is as varied as the Planches des Belles Filles. I think his supposed limit of 10% is no longer a limit. It is important to remember that the Sky team demanded no work from anyone else. Every other rider in the peloton could have tried to keep up by simply sitting on their wheels, or the wheel of the guy sitting on their wheels. But the Sky riders simply rode off everyone, except Evans, Nibali, Taaramae, Rolland, Schleck, Menchov and others, who are really not that far behind at all. Considering there are only two more uphill finishes the gaps were not that great. Riders have off days, make a big mistake, crash, forget to eat, whatever. I think there is a lot to come. Pretty much anyone can figure out that in a mountain race, Sky might be able to ride as fast as anyone, so the only way to beat them is attack, attack and finally attack. That might not even work. On the positive side, it is clear that Nibali is in good shape. And that Taaramae might well have a little tussle with Tejay for the white jersey. In fact, if any of the guys ahead of him falter, Rein from Estonia might make the jump to the podium, at least on current evidence. I do not doubt for a moment that he is a very good rider (he was my pick for best young rider). We shall see if he steps up and stays in the top five. There are still other riders who might ride better, who might have had bad breaks today. Menchov is always a mystery, but he has won three Grand Tours, is not that old, and is still lurking about with intent. Valverde had a mechanical at the bottom of the climb and Jurgen Van den Broeck also had to chase back. Either of them could have a bit of fun on a long climb, if they don't start off with a big disadvantage. They both seem fit and well. Just a bad break today. The oddity that struck me most was to see Tony Gallopin helping Fabian up most of the climb and in fact finishing better than Fabian. Gallopin is meant to be a young sprinter being trained up by Fabian to be a champion of one day races. Nineteenth on a climb, for a sprinter??? Gallopin might yet be a big somebody one day very soon. Thibaut Pinot and Dan Martin, two first timers, also finished well. I suspect one of them might try something aggressive in the following days. What have they got to lose? Mountain jersey is on the right guy, Froome, and its future is uncertain. I like this. No doubt Froome could do a good job of keeping it all the way to Paris. Instead of riding for Wiggo, he would just ride up the last hill fastest. He can time trial too. But when there is a conflict of strategy between helping a guy with the mountain jersey or helping a guy with the yellow jersey, we know the answer. Sky have to let the mountains jersey go. If Sky kept the mountain jersey and the yellow jersey, as well as finishing one two, and winning stages, this would not be nice for other teams. Especially if Cav wins another stage or two. It would be stupid in fact. So I am glad he has the spots for a day or more. Could be fun if Froome rebels a bit against the strategy later in the Tour, when he realises he might be able to win the jersey or the Tour. Looking at the results, although the stage seemed very dramatic at first glance, and also as it unfolded, the time differences were not that significant, in the end. If there were three more mountaintop finishes, then nothing would have been sorted really. Seven other riders were within a minute, and at least as many within two. Some of them will not be that far behind on other climbs. On a stage with several big climbs, a team like Sky will find it hard, but not impossible, to control the entire stage. So early and serious attacks might get away. I still think someone like Thibaut Pinot might try something to mark his debut in the Tour. Or someone else, Scarponi, or someone who can descend well. So, given the few times left for a rider to make a difference in the climbs, we MUST have action on every stage even with medium mountains. Menchov is waiting. Nibali is utterly certain to attack at some point on a long climb. Rolland did really well today given his injuries. He might try something too. Plus guys like Johnny Hoogerland who seem to be going for spots, which we will find out by tomorrow night. The truth is that I only saw twenty minutes before my nap, and woke up just before the climb with the same six or seven guys in the escape. I missed the countryside, but not the action. The finish was terrific drama. Say, the last five k, as the Sky pace began to shed guys out the back. The tragedy and triumph of the Tour. Those Sky guys just rode fast all the way, and there were only four or five left at the end, two of them Sky. Watching guys get dropped is one of the great virtues of motorcycle cameras. The essence of mountain stages, on the box or live, is the shelling out the back. If nobody gets dropped, they all ride up together, then it is not much fun to watch. We shall see if they let an escape get away tomorrow. Tomorrow's stage has loads of minor climbs, and just before the finish, a first category climb. Then there is a 14k descent to the finish. No idea what kind of descent, but this stage is made for a guy like Nibali, Sanchez or Evans who are very good descenders, if they can get a few seconds at the top. So anyone who wants glory tomorrow has to attack very early, take loads of points and win the mountain jersey, or attack near the end, AND get lucky, to win the stage and take a few seconds on the Sky guys. My point is that there is a long way to go, many things can happen. I certainly hope the rest of the Tour is not boring. A little bit of surprise and uncertainty would be good. Fantasy League. I will get back to that on some stage when nothing happens. This stage, everything changed, except Sagan's green jersey. I currently have chosen two teams who are just accumulating points by themselves as the results come. I am doing pretty well with both. And I also have a team I am managing, that allows you to change the team in mid race. I don't like that game much. Since when can you change a team in mid race? It is a fantasy, but an unrealistic one. Then I choose riders to win place or show on each stage. Onward to tomorrow and then a time trial. After that we get a rest day. I can do whatever I want then, no need to write.

Sagan Makes It Three, Big Crashes

Stage 6 So it was a long flat stage, nothing should have happened, and at the end we could see if Cav could beat Sagan and Greipel on a flat finish. Wrong again. As they say with stages like this, a rider cannot win the Tour, but they can certainly lose it. And that was the case. Two huge crashes. Riders coming in with tattered jerseys, minutes late. Sprinters missing from the sprint. Riders leaving the Tour on account of injuries. Loads of events. In the end, a sad, rather unsatisfactory result. The kind of stage you wish would not have happened. I will go over the various losers, but first the winner. Prior to this stage, we might have thought that a flat stage, one with no uphill finish, might have been the weak spot for Sagan. Clearly, with his huge body he is unlikely to be able to climb well, the high mountains anyway. But it certainly looks like he can ride fast in any sprint finish. He tucked himself behind Greipel and just went around him. Greipel gave up in the last few metres, recognising he was beaten. He also had a slight problem of an injured wrist and a dislocated shoulder that “popped back in” after the crash. Goss was beaten too, in spite of the fact that he had a train (like Greipel) at his service. Sagan had no train, he just followed the wheels and won. The guy is astounding. Three wins in his first Tour. Admittedly it would have been better to have Kittel (quit the tour) and Cav (caught in the crash with EBH) and Greipel uninjured, to make the victory a decisive and meaningful one. But no taking it away, the guy is the best sprinter to enter the Tour since, well, Cav. Apparently Sagan wants to win not only the green jersey, but the Olympic Gold as well. Not obvious at this point that Cav would beat him in a sprint. Although Cav might just want the gold more than the Slovakian lad. Cav certainly has a stronger team. What caused the crash? Same thing as usual in the Tour. Nervous riders, teams trying to all ride at the front to avoid crashes. Roads six metres wide. Directors telling the riders the road is narrow, get to the front, the end is in sight (24k for the last crash). No doubt a closeup video will show exactly which rider did what, but really, crashes are part of the sport. Apparently, Vigano was putting Pettachi's shoe covers in his pocket, had one hand on the bars only, could not brake properly when riders slowed in front. That is one story anyway. Freire won't start, maybe Txurruka too. There are many people who think that after such a massive crash, the Australian team, Green Edge should not have been riding like crazy, but maybe slowing things up a just a bit to allow some of the riders to get back on. The ones who were just held up by the crash, as opposed to injured in the crash,might have been able to catch up. Others claim that the Australians rode to make sure Goss was in a good position to win the sprint. The break was only 45 seconds ahead at that point, with 25 k to go, so there really was no hurry. I suppose the debate will go on about the ethics of not waiting a bit for the rest of the crash victims. Fabian was silent this year, when a couple of years ago he successfully slowed down the peloton when there was a huge crash. Schleck was also in that crash, but got saved by Fabian's action. My view is that the Greenedge team and those who rode hell for leather were just over the line of acceptable behaviour. They could have slowed a little. Who gained and who lost? Wiggo and Evans managed to avoid all trouble. They are the two big favourites. Losing one of them would have been a bit disappointing, in terms of the race for yellow. Four riders, including Danielson of Garmin and Wout Poels, both of whom could have influenced matters are now out of the race. I expect a few more might not start. I suppose that Garmin was the biggest loser. Martin, Vande Velde had already lost minutes. But today those two and Ryder Hesjedal, the recent winner of the Giro and their main GC hope lost 13 minutes. Danielson is already out. There is no possibility on earth that Hesjedal can take back 13 minutes, so I guess we will see some attacks by one or two Garmin riders in the mountains. Any of them could still take the climbers' jersey, with a huge attack, which would upset none of the GC teams. But they are going to have to rethink everything. Losing a couple of minutes is bad, but not a disaster. One good stage in the hills can get back that time. The following riders, all of whom were among the contenders, if outsiders, lost over 2 minutes. Scarponi, Brajkovic, Schleck, Rolland, Mollema, Pernaud, Valverde. Gesink lost three minutes. In my mind, although I find it a minor sadness they lost time by crashing rather than being beaten fairly and squarely, the time loss might mean they have a bit of freedom to do something bold and decisive, trying to win a stage, trying to win back the two minutes, whatever. Surprise is the potential bonus of all this. Tomorrow is the first big mountains stage and the first long time trial follows, so it is still all to play for. I am not going to go into a big analysis of the GC today, as after the stage tomorrow, it will change drastically and begin to look like the real one. Among other things, Fabian will lose the jersey and someone else will have it, although I have no idea who. Sagan will drop out of the top ten for sure. The white jersey still on Tejay's back, and he can climb, but if another young guy attacks, like Rein Taaramae or Thibaut Pinot, he might lose it. Sagan even further ahead in Green, but looking at the gaps, Goss is still stubbornly hanging on, and Greipel is within striking distance. Cav, as mentioned earlier has lost it, especially after two stages with complete blanks. Nothing will change much for the Green Jersey in the near future, although Goss and Greipel could try to eat away at the margin in the intermediate sprints. There are one or two stages that might end in a sprint. The one I will be watching on the 14 July could end in a sprint, except there is a wee steep hill before the run-in to the finish. Sagan can climb that hill easily enough, as can Goss. But there is not too much left for the sprinters in this Tour. I expect Cav will want to win on the Champs Elysée, and there are usually no crashes on the last stage. So tomorrow they have a climb at the end of the stage. It is one of the two or three times that a stage ends with a mountaintop finish. Not a classic one, not a high one, a never before visited climb. Mind you, every team in the race has sent their riders up this hill, as it is rather crucial. The kind of thing you get from Twitter. Mark Cavendish ‏‪@MarkCavendish For the record, today I wasn't caught up by the crash, I made it through & rode 3km with a puncture just off the back of the group. David Millar ‏‪@millarmind As a matter of fact @Chris_Boardman fankle is a perfectly good Scottish word: So there! Chris Boardman ‏‪@Chris_Boardman @millarmind invented a new word today, frankled. Context: To be fankled in a crash. I think it should henceforth be adopted as std English David Millar ‏‪@millarmind Somebody partaking in the Tour de France knows they caused that crash. Whoever you are: THAT WAS NOT COOL. Mark Cavendish ‏‪@MarkCavendish Lucky to just miss 2 flying bikes in todays massive crash, but punctured just to be part of the chaos. @richie_porte came down but he's ok. David Millar ‏‪@millarmind Knee caps smashed, chainring in chest, thigh + ankle bruised. Didn't even notice this scratch... David Millar ‏‪@millarmind Oh sweet jesus that was scary. Approx 70km/h pile up, like a tidal wave of debris smashing towards us, could do nothing but brake and pray.