25 July 2009

After that thank God It's Over

What a stage! What a race!

The real battle of the Tour de France came down the the climb of Mont Ventoux and good choice by the Tour Organisers, the final hour of the ascent of the Giant of Provence lived up to it hype of being the place where the general classifications would be decided.

The seven heads of state Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins, Andreas Kloden, Frank Schleck and Vincenzo Nibali were the ones who kept together when the big group hit the slopes above Bedoin. They started to close down the leaders up the slopes Juan Manuel Garate and Tony Martin, but that wasn't the reason for their speed.

Frank Schleck attacked a number of times, but each time he was marked by Lance Armstrong determined not to cede his third step on the podium. When little brother Andy attacked it was the Maillot Jaune on the back of Contador that came with, but when Frank didn't follow he sat up. Obviously more determined to help his brother get a leap on Armstrong rather than try and get the 4'11" he needed over the man who was covering his every move.

Kloden was the first of the big 7 to suffer and slip off the back. But Nibali and Wiggins also at times seemed to struggle to get back. But over and over again 6 of the heads of state kept together. Kloden any time he thought there was a hope of getting back on the back wheel suffered as another acceleration pulled them away again.

Then in the final two kilometres Andy went again this time with brother Frank on his wheel. Armstong and Contador went with, but Wiggins seemed unable to respond. Was this the time that more British hopes were to fade, almost at the point when the memorial marks the death of Tom Simpson on the same slopes. But no Wiggins kept digging in finding reserves from somewhere.

At the line Garate crossed first, then Martin. Then the three leaders of the race A. Schleck, with Contador and a three second gap to Armstrong. But with Kloden down the road the only real gap that mattered was going to be between Frank Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. At 43" after Garate the elder Schleck crossed the line Brad had to get there before the race showed +1'06". Then on the left hand side of the road almost out of view of the camera Bradley Wiggin's reminiscent of Steven Roche he appeared crossing the line at +1'03" twenty seconds lost but 4th place retained for the procession towards the Champs-Éylsées tomorrow.

Of course the Brits have had a good tour David Miller has been doing sterling work, and just missed out on the run into Barcelona of individual glory. Wiggins of course has ridden high up the GC and has given hope of making a podium in Paris in the years to come (why did that Texan have to come out of retirement this year?). But a little man from the Isle of Man is going for 6 tomorrow. If only he hadn't been disqualified on the run into Besançon we may still have seen him and Thor Husovd competing the two intermediates as well as the final bunch sprint on the Champs-Éylsées tomorrow.

But as it is Britain's top stage winner Mark Cavendish and equal top finisher Bradley Wiggins can look forward to Paris tomorrow one to relax the other has one more goal, to be the first of the men to cover the 3252km of the 96th Tour de France, even if only by a few yards and hundredths of a second.

Crunch Day on Ventoux

Today is the day that the general classification will finally be settled in this year's Tour de France and for the 8th time in Tour history it will act as a mountain top finish. The roll of honour to win on the summit reads like a history of worthy post war recipients.
  • 1958 Charley Gaul Luxemborg Individual Time Trail (Champion 1958, King of the Mountains 1955, 56 )
  • 1965 Raymond Poulidor France (8 times on podium 3 times each behind Anquetil and Merckx)
  • 1970 Eddie Merckx Belgium (5 Time Champion 1969-72, 74)
  • 1972 Bernard Thévenet France (Champion 1975, 77)
  • 1987 Jean-François Bernard Individual Time Trail France
  • 2000 Marco Pantani Italy (Champion 1998)
  • 2002 Richard Virenque France (Most successful King of the Mountains (1994-7, 99, 2003-04)
  • 2009 ???
But what makes Ventoux special? It is not the tallest, not the steepest but has a mystique all of its own. It stands out on the horizon however you approach its 1912m summit. Indeed from the feed station at78km into today's 167 km stage the riders will start a circuit around it. Admittedly that circuit will include the 4th category Col de Fontanbe and 3rd category Col des Abeilles. Certainly the Mont holds a little bit of a psychological hold over the riders.

But it is the 21 km ascent to the summit from Bedoin to the peak that is the real test. It starts in the airless forests at the base before exploding into the barren lunar landscape at the peak. From Saint-Esteve at 5 km up the climb to the peak (with only brief respite through Chalet Reynard and the treeline) it is greater than 6% climbing and for long stretches greater than 95 all the way to the top.

Ventoux was first climbed in the Tour on 22 July 1951 when it was including in the 17th stage from Monpellier to Avignon. On that occasion a lead group of 12 were together at the foot. At Chalet Reynard Hugo Koplet attacked*, only Raphaël Géminiani**, Luison Bobet, Gino Bartali and Lucien Lazardes*** could stay with him. 2km from the summit Lazardes attacked and reached the top alone followed by a lone Bartali and thus was Ventoux first conquered in the Tour.

Its not just the breaks but the mountain that has claimed men. In 1955 Jean Malléjac who had finished second two year previously was described 10km from the summit "Streaming with sweat, haggard and comatose, he was zigzagging and the road wasn't wide enough for him... He was already no longer in the real world, still less in the world of cyclists and the Tour de France". He collapsed as was taken to hospital struggling and shouting after regaining consciousness on the side of the road.

The same year Swiss racer Ferdi Kübler was setting such a vicious tempo that Géminiani survivor of that first ascent warned him off. Advise he ignored to his cost. He started to struggle in the last kilometre of the ascent and fell repeatedly on the descent finishing 26 minutes back on the line for his efforts on the climb.

In 1967 the British cyclist, that Bradley Wiggins is most closely competing with for prestige in the major tours, Tommy Simpson came to his own fate. He began weaving across the road in the last kilometre and fell twice. The tour doctor Pierre Dumas reached him after the second collapse spent more than an hour giving him heart massage and mouth to mouth. But realised he was dead and had him removed from the mountain by helicopter to Avignon where the cyclist was pronounced dead at 17:40. Of course Simpson's death is an object lesson on how the drugs don't always work.

So what of today's stage. Alberto Contador may well have a 4'11" lead over Andy Schleck but this is the sort of stage that that might be clawed back, especially as tomorrow there is just the gentle roll into Paris to come.

The Schleck brothers will well be aware that their fellow countryman Gaul was the first winner on the summit here. Older brother Frank will need to do something to climb back unto the podium. He'd gained that spot on stage 17 on the Col de Colombiere but lost it the following day on the TT around Lac d'Annecy. Expect him to attack at some point on Ventoux.

As for younger brother Andy lying in second he may go with his brother, and they may launch tandem attacks to see it Contador has anything to give. If they can get a gap then it is just a matter of how big they can get it. Although he may well already know that Contador is not going to be beaten this year, but then Ventoux does await.

As well as Frank Schleck wanting to get back unto the podium don't forget that Bradley Wiggins is sitting just 16" behind that spot over a man he has climbed better than on a couple of mountain finishes this year. But that man is the man who came second to both Pantani and Virenque on those other two Ventoux top finishes this decade and in that 2002 pursuit of Virenque set the record for the fastest ascent at 50 minutes. He also has the small matter of 7 successive victories in this race to his name, so don't rule out Lance Armstrong from the challenge of Frank Schleck, Wiggins or Vincenzo Nibali just yet.

Today is going to be a very interesting day and coverage live on ITV4 starts at 13:00 BST but it already underway by text on the BBC website.

*The eventual winner.
**That year's eventual King of the Mountains and 2nd overall.
***Who would be first when the Tor reached Paris.

18 July 2009

Is Cavendish DQ French Revenge for TeamGB on Track?

Hushovd and Cav having words after the line
Here are some facts:

  1. Thor Hushovd rides for the Cervelo Testteam in the Tour de France
  2. In most of the bunch sprints he is not to be found on his own lead out man's wheel* but that of Mark Cavendish's team Columbia Highroad
  3. Thor has yet to beat the speed of Mark Cavendish in a straight sprint to the line this Tour de France**.
  4. On today's stage into Besancon the barriers are narrowing as the sprint gets towards the end instead of staying consistent; see here.
  5. Mark Cavendish has always gone to the right when Mark Renshaw peels off to launch his final push to the line (Hushovd knows this see point 1 he's always in the prime spot to observe)
  6. There have been occasions of leaning in sprint finishes in the past has not led to disqualification.
  7. The head race commissaire has announced that once he makes a decision it is final. There is no right to appeal. However, a few days ago the morning after he made a decision that there was a split in the peleton he changed his mind overnight and reinstated 15 secs that many including Britain's Bradley Wiggins had been docked on the line.
  8. This is the second incident in which a British cyclist in jersey contention has been penalised by French cycling officials in this year's Tour.
  9. France have repeatedly been losing out to Team GB cyclists including Wiggins and Cavendish on the track in recent years.
  10. The Tour while under the auspices of the UCI is also somewhat a law unto itself at times (which is both good and bad at times).
One does wonder if it had been Tom Boonen against Hushovd whether a disqualification would have been the decision, or whether a reversal of line placings (an alternative penalty) would have sufficed, or even if the result would have held.

Why did the course at the end narrow so much? Could the race not have stopped further up the road if the road was wider there? Have the race officials noticed they have got the course wrong on this occasion but are afraid to admit their mistake? Does it have anything to do with the ongoing success of British cycling?
I may be a little cynical but both of the controversial line decisions in this weeks tour have affected British racers. Brad Wiggins was less that 20 metres behind Lance Armstrong, 5 positions in that 'split' 15 seconds may well have be enough to prevent him doing anything in the General Classification. On the last sprinters stage before the Champs Elysees was the finish made deliberately tighter on Cavendish's launch side, thus effectively ending the close Green Jersey contest?

UPDATE: Just like to say that a number of the anti-Cavendish comments on Twitter this evening are homophobic in nature. Our use of language really needs sorting out.
UPDATE 2: Here is what Robbie McEwen, an experienced Tour Sprinter who was also robbed of a final Green Jersey, had to say via Twitter:
18:32 Cav didn't really move much, barrier did but his looking over shoulder lining up Thor is what judges would have dq'd him for. full dq harsh
18:33 most they should have done if anything was reverse placings.
18:54 re:Cav DQ.Trying analyse impartially-both mates of mine.Calling it like i see it.Sprinting tactically is very fine line.I lost a green by DQ
18:57 if Cav hadn't had a look, he wouldn't been DQ'd I think. Fine line.again, total dq is OTT. shame to ruin a gd battle. gd luck to both

*Indeed does anyone know who that is?
**Barcelona where Thor did win beating Cavendish in the same group was a tough uphill finish.

4 July 2009

Liberté, Fraternité, Echappée*

The news this morning that the Statue of Liberty will mark Independence Day with public being allowed to the crown from the first time since 9/11 is good news. It also coincides with the start of Le Grande Slog across France, Spain, Andorra, Switzerland and Italy towards her sister who sits on another Isle in the capital of the country of her birth. The full route is shown visually below.

On the 40th Anniversary of the moon landings is suitable marked with the penultimate stage up through the lunar landscape to the peak of Mont Ventoux, though it is 4 days late on the 25th to be a really fitting tribute for the day that there was 'one small step'.

Today however many Formula One fans will recognise parts of the course for the opening individual time trial of the 2009 Tour. Indeed the finish line is more used to the checkered flag than the kite marking Arrivée, and the Flamme Rouge marking a kilometre to go is in a very famous tunnel. They even race past the Casino though not through the iconic square. The pit lane instead of having mechanics working on cars will have mechanics doing last minute tweaks to machines about to ride up the the depart hut for 15.5km course that will take them up the steep climb of Moyenne Corniche to the high point a Category 4 climb of Côte de Beausoliel 2o5m up.

For the Grand Départ is taking place in the streets of Monaco some of it very familiar to speed fans of the four wheeled variety. See below for a full look at today's course.

*Translation of Title: Liberty, Brotherhood and Breakaway Group.