Monday, July 30, 2007

TdF Stage 20: Search For Tomorrow

I always got a kick out of how Lance suddenly looked 12-years old on the podium, year after year. It was like after all the fight and the swagger and the ruthlessness, he was still a kid with a dream. I didn't get that so much with Alberto Contador yesterday, but maybe that's because he already looks 12! He kind of goes the other way, in fact; you get glimpses of fire and swagger that show he isn't just a babyface. Like the way he tugged his jersey around the collar - yeah, that's right, I'm the boss.

There was much made of the youngster versus the veterans in the top three. That works with Levi Leipheimer, but not so much with Cadel Evans. Cadel has a few years on Alberto, but has only been a pro for two more years, and had only a few more career wins coming into the Tour. It's only Cadel's third Tour - and it would have been Alberto's third Tour as well if he wasn't kicked out last year. Cadel has had an amazing path at the Tour - 8th, 5th, and now 2nd. He's not going anywhere, he'll be in the fight for a few more years to come.

Levi could taste it this year, and is rarin' to come back and win it. I'd give him a chance. He saw how much he had left at the end this year, so maybe he can fine-tune that peak-fitness dial and bring it on a little earlier next time.

I have grave doubts that Floyd Landis will ever get another shot. No matter what decision comes down on his case, I can't see him being "allowed" back in this climate. Meaning, even if he's fully eligible, his presence won't be tolerated. I fear he will be the victim of the sea change we saw this year, where no less than the yellow jersey can be plucked from the race by no less than his own team, in a sense because no one wanted to see him win. We thought there was a rush to judgment on Floyd last year, but that got dropped like a sprinter in the mountains compared to the lightning speed this year that the likes of Alexandre Vinokourov got branded an evil heathen after one blood test.

Riders, teams, organizers, fans, and press are all so fed up with the doping, they want it all gone, banished, never to return. There was instant talk of a lifetime ban for Vino, because he was seen as such an insult to the race. Now, whatever ban he might get for his two positives will spell the end of his career anyway, but that's beside the point, the prevailing mood is no mercy, no benefit of the doubt, no second chances. So even if Floyd is completely innocent, and people (other than his original supporters) actually believe it, I think he will smack too much of "that" past, that dark cloud that cycling is so desperately trying to be reborn out of. There were so many things lost by way of Floyd's situation, each of them a heartbreaker, and I hate to think that one of those things is that we'll never get to really see what he can do with that new hip. Maybe I'm being too pessimistic, maybe we'll at least get to see him racing in the other Grand Tours or big races. And maybe something will finally give at LNDD and Floyd can be welcomed back to France. I can't say I'm optimistic, though.

I never paid close attention to Tyler Hamilton's case. He never grabbed me as much as someone like Floyd, and he always has that kind of vacant look in his eyes that doesn't breed confidence. But some of it has come back to me in recent days, with all the Vino talk. And I remember that though this test sounds straightforward, it is fairly new in cycling, with Tyler being one of the first cases. Vanishing twins aside, I think we do owe it to Vino to at least hear him out. In addition to the general climate, I think there were aspects of his background that made judgment come quicker. But I think of how I reacted to people who just wrote off Floyd, and said vile things about him, and it makes me want to be careful with Vino. It has been shown that someone is still stupid enough to use testosterone in the Tour de France, so I know the stupid argument isn't foolproof, so to speak, but really, that would've been so stupid of Vino. Especially given that he doesn't just carry a team or a random company on his back, he's carrying his whole nation.

Oh, yes, we were talking about an actual race, weren't we? Happier thoughts - I thought it couldn't get any better than Eki leading off on the Champs last year, and that's still a Top-Ten moment, but how thrilling was it to see George Hincapie charging down the cobbles to lead the peloton home. Resplendent in his Stars and Stripes, the ultimate road captain shepherding another yellow jersey to victory. Tears and goose bumps all around.

George is a perennial favorite of mine, along with Jens Voigt and assorted others. This year added some new favorites, guys who represented the soul of the Tour and kept me smiling through all the difficulties. There was Fabian Cancellara, such a delight the first week. And even though he tired as the race wore on, he kept smiling and working for the team and trying to get another win here and there. He was even up amongst in yesterday, coming in just behind the sprinters.

And David Millar, wearing his heart and his prickly heat on his sleeve. I can't imagine how uncomfortable and exhausting it must have been to fight that rash every day, but it didn't dampen his effort one bit. He gave his all in a number of breakaways, and remarkably also in the mountain stages, sometimes setting a crushing pace for the whole peloton. His frank and heartfelt comments on the doping issue were moving and refreshing, and credible from someone who's been there. As if he hadn't been through enough already, then his tires explode, on two different bikes, on the final TT, unbelievable. He was close enough to the start that they could ride Iban Mayo's bike to him so he could at least keep on riding, but of course all was lost in terms of time on the stage. I look forward to seeing him bring it again next year, hopefully with fewer problems!

I guess there's only so many times I can express respect and affection for Yaroslav Popovych, but he just came through every day, how can one not take notice? His hard work and positive energy were a joy to watch and inspiring to witness, right through the final TT and the ride into Paris. Once upon a time he was going to be the Next Big Thing, but he hit a plateau, and here comes Contador just sweeping right by him. But Popo did take a big step up this year, and perhaps found he is better suited as a super-domestique. Or maybe he will be a late(r) bloomer, 8th on GC ain't bad! Wherever he finds his place, I'll be watching and cheering him on. Yes, there are an abundance of good memories from this Tour, I wish everyone could've seen as much of them as that other stuff.

A hearty thanks for all the support and encouragement to keep me coming back day after day. It's always great to talk Tour with people that "get" it! I don't know who's in and who's out, but I'm already looking forward to the Vuelta!

R.I.P. Bill Walsh, a genius and a pioneer.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

TdF Stage 19: Unchain My Heart

Yes, it's almost time for the Tour to set me free for another year, but I'm savoring every last drop. I can't say it was as emotional as in some years past, but the final TT was as thrilling as it gets and I was literally on the edge of my seat (when I could stay seated, that is). I was rooting hard for Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer, but also wanting Alberto Contador to make it through safe and sound. I'm always so relieved when nothing weird happens on the course, so it's just a true race against each other. Poor David Millar doesn't have that satisfaction, but I can't imagine he would've beaten Levi today. Levi finally showed that full fire, and took a well-deserved monster win.

I can't do the whole "8 Seconds" thing, it just makes me think of Luke Perry and a sad story about a bullfighter dying young. (Although, that would fit right in with Versus.) I know, 8 Seconds in the Tour means LeMond, but they didn't make a major motion picture called that, so I go with Luke. Anyway, the chain incident does indeed come back to haunt Levi - he was penalized 10 seconds in Stage 8 after getting a little extra help returning to the peloton after his mechanical. Would he really not have made it back to the pack without that? Who knows, and I doubt Levi will dwell on it.

I also don't think he (or we) should dwell on questions of sacrifices and maybe not having to lose as much time on Cadel. If Levi didn't take the second place bonus on Stage 16, you might have an argument, but he did and he was going as hard as he could, so I don't know that he could've taken much more time from Cadel there than he did. Levi had plenty of opportunities in the early mountain stages and in the first TT to get time or keep even with Cadel, but he just couldn't bring it. And it was Contador's success that blew Evans up on Stage 14, where Levi took over a minute on him. So I think it all pretty much shakes out in terms of Levi and Contador helping each other. All three of these guys are obviously pretty evenly matched, so it could have gone another way, but I don't think anyone was robbed by the way it did go. Levi seemed very happy and at peace with his emphatic stage win and his podium finish, as he should be.

Cadel might have gotten it if he didn't blow on 14, but maybe he had to do that to learn how to go in the remaining stages, so again, I think it all works out in the end. They can all be happy and proud of how they fought to the last and made it through. May they all be back again next year, when the lines are (hopefully!) more clearly drawn. Which perhaps would mean Levi needing to find another team, is Slipstream still looking for a top GC contender??

Hat's off to Carlos Sastre for holding his fourth position. And to Popo and George for making it four in the top ten for the TT for DC. Fun times tonight in the Discovery camp. And to Chris Horner and Christian Vande Velde, they've both had a great Tour, great attitudes, and they both finished strong.

I don't think Cadel will try anything tomorrow, the green jersey is still up for grabs and the sprinters won't let that opportunity go. Discovery will have to be attentive, though, and watch for the gaps at the end. Levi has already promised not to "pull a Vino," probably helps that he was on the receiving end of that one a couple of years ago.

Lance was pretty subdued. Probably jet lag, but also probably doesn't know what to do with not being the center of attention at the Tour. And he wouldn't want to be, but it will still probably be weird for him to take a back seat at the victory party.

There's talk of a major rider statement on the Champs tomorrow, that should keep things interesting. Again, we've got green up for grabs, but if they do something on the first pass and then let the stage run out, maybe everyone will be happy. Riders taking a stand is crucial, but so to is showing that the race lives on. The race was alive with a great three-way battle for GC today, so here's hoping the top three sprinters give us another thriller tomorrow in their battle for green.

Friday, July 27, 2007

TdF Stage 18: Keep On The Sunny Side

As rumors swirl of another prominent positive, let's just enjoy today, shall we? It was hard to know who to root for in the breakaway, for there were three compelling stories to choose from. There was Axel Merckx, the son of the greatest rider ever, coming to the end of his accomplished career. It sounds like there's a healthy attitude in the Merckx family, no one expecting Axel to be Eddy, but still, it can't have been easy to follow in dad's footsteps when they were so huge. Sentimental as we all were for him, it came as a heart-wrenching surprise to see him so emotional at the end. It was so touching to hear him talk of how he appreciated every moment of the day, especially the crowds lining the roads. We've heard that from a lot of riders the last few days, how it is so heartening in these tough times to see that people still love the sport. But especially for guys like Axel, who have the misfortune to have their final cycling days marred by all of the turmoil. So it is gratifying, and instructive, to see that he could put that aside and take all the good from the day. There was a nice moment when one of the scribbling reporters in the scrum around Axel suddenly realized that Merckx was getting emotional, and the reporter's face instantly softened and he was drawn away from his notebook for a moment. Yes, folks, let's take a moment to appreciate the humanity.

And then we had Michael Boogerd, exhibiting the renewed attitude of the Rabobank squad, flying the colors proudly and hoping for a stage win to salvage things for himself and the team. Also on his final Tour, he certainly did not want to go out on the negative note of the previous day. A valiant effort, and even without a victory, it lifted everyone's spirits. The funny thing about Dutch TV - they will cut away from anything to show a post-race interview with Boogerd, no matter what he did in the stage. Aliens could come from the sky and pluck the yellow jersey from the road, and we would still be watching the Boogey-man and his beyond-pearly whites. Not that I blame them, he's been a great rider for many years, and did a classy job this year.

Sandy Casar became an instant compelling story after yet another spectacular dog-meets-bike crash. (And what is up with that anyway?) His painful backside had a long, hot day in the sun, not to mention his elbow and shoulder and whatever else got scraped up. It showed great heart and guts to continue on in the break, and then pull out a thrilling win. After his close seconds, and a day like that, I was happy to see him hold them off in the end.

Interesting to see Levi in the sweeper spot today, I guess he could trust Predictor-Lotto to have his back.

Loved what I saw from Cadel Evans today. He's left the whining behind and even had a bit of swagger in his pre-race comments. Not in an obnoxious way, but in a relaxed, confident way. Very encouraging. And love the heads-up move to take three seconds from Contador and Leipheimer, that's a guy on his game, ready to take it all!

You could parse lost seconds until the cows come home, and I don't think the Kid is going to lose sleep over it, but it's just one of those little signs. And I always wondered if those 10 seconds Levi got penalized after the chain incident would come back to haunt him. We shall see.

Please, please let it come down to silly talk about seconds, and not syringes. I was supposed to have a hard time going to sleep tonight in giddy anticipation of the TT, but now I've got the sickening adrenalin rush of anticipating more bad news. Alright, time to think of Axel and keep on the sunny side.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

TdF Stage 17: I Hear A Symphony

When text updates simply aren't enough, I pull up Dutch television on my computer to keep an eye on what's happening at the Tour. (Which means I watch some parts of the stage three times before the day is done, but that's a therapy subject for another time.) It being Dutch, I turn down the volume. So there I was today, just wanting a glimpse at faces and attitudes and mood in the peloton. I had NPR playing classical music on my radio, and there were the riders gliding through the heat and sunflower fields in their various bright colors. And it was really cool. It was relaxing, reassuring, and affirming.

There was a Disco rider (Popo?), with a gently guiding hand to place Contador in the sweet spot in the line - that's you, Kid, slide in. (Although, I did notice that Levi actually occupied that second-to-last spot in the Disco train for most of the day. The Kid may be "in" yellow, but Levi still wears number one.) And there was Chris Horner making Cadel Evans smile. And there was the break, David Millar with his purple body and Jens Voigt with his bandaged leg, this is what it's all about. Phil and Paul are great, but every once in a while, I would highly recommend turning them down and turning the music up and just letting the beauty soak in.

Speaking of Phil and Paul, kudos to them for mentioning the trees in Mali several times. Poor David Millar was in a press conference about the trees when the Vino news broke, and was sure everyone would forget all about it. Millar's time in the breakaway today will double the trees planted for every kilometer he rode.

I have no idea what Robbie said about the finish today, I couldn't take my eyes off the enormous T-Mobile bus headed straight for him!

Christian Vande Velde's diary at VeloNews is always a must-read, and no less so today. He's going to be so happy to see that baby girl of his when the race is over, how sweet that will be.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

TdF Stage 16: Are We There Yet?

Can we at least see rock bottom from here? Please? Everyone was dying for it to happen, if only Michael Rasmussen could disappear, we could all be relieved. But oddly enough, this made me cry more than anything. (Although honestly, Cofidis had me sniffling already, so I was ripe for releasing some stress.) As Discovery said, no one is smiling tonight. It's a horrid situation, and it is small consolation that at least it happened before Sunday. And before Saturday, so we can at least have one "real" race for yellow.

Unlike some previous leaders, Rasmussen was far from a lock in the final TT, so I think whoever wins shouldn't have too big an asterisk by their name. But if you're going to win the Tour, you really wouldn't want it to be this year. I don't know, we'll have to see how the remaining days go. If this is finally the end of the departures, maybe some joy can be salvaged. If I was doing anything illegal at this Tour, I would slip away now claiming fatigue from today's tough stage, and not risk taking my team and the sport down with me.

What I cry for, aside from the sport in general, is the teammates. I didn't feel it as much for Astana, because Vino was the reason the team existed and all ambitions were subservient to his. But Andreas Kloden's remarks today remind me that the sadness is felt just as heavily there. Cofidis, though, I wept for that tragedy this afternoon. I don't know the rest of the guys, I don't know if they're all clean, but I have no reason to think they aren't. And so I can't fathom the betrayal by Cristian Moreni (who has admitted to taking testosterone, at least we have that closure).

How many chances do you get to finish a Tour? How many chances do you get to be the best-placed Frenchman, as Sylvain Chavanel was at the end of today? And Bradley Wiggins, so proud to ride in a Tour that began in his homeland. It was the first Tour for some, and now they can't say they finished it on their first try. Was it the last for anyone? Stephane Auge busted his ass to get in a breakaway today, and suffered a long time before being caught up. All the while L'Equipe was breaking the news (don't even get me started on that). And who can forget the great sportsmanship between Auge and Chavanel around the mountains jersey back in the first week? That was a beautiful example of team loyalty. And now they get to leave with a team branded by the worst kind of team betrayal.

These riders had the skill, heart, and good fortune to get through the mountains, and Paris was in sight. But now they are forced to leave at the team sponsor's request. It's probably a good thing that Moreni was taken away by the gendarmes, I'd be afraid if I were him. Which is not to accuse any of his teammates of being violent, but one does get lost in a moment when presented with such a crushing blow. I can't begin to imagine.

And Rabobank. The remaining riders are allowed to start tomorrow if they want. I wonder, will any of them want to? They will be either completely deflated and wondering about the point of it all, or good and pissed and defiant and come out heads raised high. Because I think everyone knew the score there. They were sympathetic figures, it was clear there was no joy on the team, but they did their jobs unreservedly. Thomas Dekker has the spotlight of being a future hope riding in his first Tour, and then had the pressure of working like a dog for the yellow jersey, and he rose to the occasion. He hung in there and put in the extra kilometer each day, until he could give no more. Michael Boogerd, in his last Tour, did the same, giving his all, and getting up the next day and doing it again. And how about Denis Menchov? At least Levi could still sort of work for himself after Contador's rise. Menchov became a full domestique, following Boogerd and Dekker in their devotion to the jersey. Now, to be fair, he blew up himself, so it wasn't like he sacrificed his chances, but still, he's a Grand Tour winner dragging a questionable teammate up the mountains.

With the rider protest this morning, and who knows what is going on tonight in hotel rooms, and what tomorrow will look like, it is good to see the riders rising up to take a stand. I don't judge them for not doing it this strongly in the past, how can I say what those dynamics were. But so many are trying so hard to keep it clean now, the anger is there and the limits are being set. It's not just going to be suspensions or warnings anymore, I think it's going to be complete ostracism by your colleagues, and you won't be welcomed back in the peloton, no matter what the UCI says.

The way some guys are still going at it, who can say what it takes to get through to the remaining dopers, but I have to think this kind of rider against rider firmness will make an impact. And taking your whole team with you, that's got to make someone think twice, doesn't it? This is how it changes, but that doesn't make it fair that these innocent casualties of the past couple days are the guys that have to pay the price in the process.

I never got to make a real comment on Alexandre Vinokourov, though that seems so beside the point now. But I wasn't furious with him yesterday. I shook my head and laughed in disbelief at the stupidity of it all. Some immediately painted him as an evil-doer and couldn't wash their hands fast enough. But that's the thing, he wasn't a bad guy. People loved and respected him. David Millar talked of his class and beauty even while devastated by the news. Phil and Paul appeared to love him like a son. This is not to say he shouldn't be condemned, or that he didn't horribly betray his team, but just to say it's complicated.

I can't say I was shocked. He's old school, he was with heavily doping teams (the old T-Mobile, Liberty-Seguros), and came out of that Eastern bloc system. But you hope that people realize that time is over, that it just can't be done anymore. It just goes to show you how ingrained it is. For some riders, there may be nothing for it, the change will never come. Vino has denied it, it should be noted, but two positives from two different days on what is said to be a straightforward test does not bode well. I don't have hardness in my heart for Vino, I can be funny that way, just sadness at what we and he lost, and at what must be in his head to do such a thing.

It would be a really pointless exercise to go into all of the what-ifs, but just considering the scope of that is gut-wrenching. And something the other contenders will have to struggle with, to keep it at bay and focus on the future. But all Levi and Cadel and others gave under the pressure of Rasmussen, the way they had to race, what they might have lost, where they might have been, it's overwhelming. I believe Levi and Cadel are in a good position to get to where they should rightly be. Go Cadel, go Levi, one of you in yellow in Paris will go a long way.

I don't think Alberto Contador will wear yellow tomorrow, surely that will be one of several symbolic statements made. I'll be curious to see what else is expressed, and how.

It's largely pointless to comment on today's stage, I've found myself not paying much attention to my second viewing this evening, because so much of it doesn't matter or is frustrating to think about. But a few things still come through. Kid Contador finally looked like one today, young and vulnerable. I hope that's a good sign. Juan Mauricio Soler looks straight out of Triplets of Belleville, at least that still gives me a laugh! And have I ever loved Al Trautwig more - well, okay, I've never loved him period - than this morning when he so rightly put the Tour's woes in complete context with the rest of what's going in sports today. Who knows if anyone will see it that way after today, but at least he said it. Chris Horner (who I rarely mention, but I have been delighted with his success) and Christian Vande Velde (likewise) had great statements on Versus tonight (given this morning of course). I hope that pride and "let's move on without the garbage" attitude carries the day tomorrow and through Sunday.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

TdF Cluster@&$# Day: Vut Game Play?

But you know, in the moment, it was still a beautiful thing. And therein lies the problem, I suppose.

Flat out of time, and really ought to get a few hours sleep before the big stage, so I'll just leave it at those who are in the best position to comment and who have echoed my sentiments precisely:

David Millar, as quoted by Agence France, via TBV:

I'm sad. He's one of my favorite riders. You can't do that to cycling; you can't do that to clean riders; you can't do that to the Tour de France. I race the Tour de France without a single injection. I want people to believe in my sport; I want people to believe in the Tour de France.

Christian Vande Velde, at VeloNews:

Cycling will always be a beautiful sport no matter how many people disgrace it. And the Tour de France will always be the headliner.

Monday, July 23, 2007

TdF Stage 15: A Beautiful Thing

One of the more beautiful sights of this or any Tour took my breath away today. Alexandre Vinokourov, with that handsome aqua and gold jersey flapping, the sun shining down, and his compact body cruising up the Peyresourde on his way to an emotional victory for all involved. I swear, Astana should take on Kleenex as a sponsor.

Vino rode a smart race again, not going too early like some unfortunate others who were left gasping in the end. No use dwelling on it, but boy, he would've been a winner without that crash, that would've been nice to see. But we'll take what we can get, and today was a treasure. Bite my tongue, but emotionally it was similar to 17. Vino wasn't coming back to yellow, but he was coming back to himself, just as he did in the TT. He's still talking of this having been his last shot, and though I'd love to see him back, he may have a point, if the Contador years are about to begin.

Oh, how I wish tomorrow wasn't a rest day. It seems odd to say of a man who increased his lead over much of the field today, but I think Michael Rasmussen is on the ropes. Alberto Contador nearly cracked him more than once, and like Phil and Paul, I got the evil giggles in anticipation of Wednesday. On the up side, Rasmussen was not his best after the last rest day, so maybe he doesn't take them well. On the down side, rest is rest and he could take the time to recover mentally as well as physically, because I'd say he was about at his limit on both today. Plus his team, valiant as they have been, are starting to show the fatigue they must be feeling.

I think 2-5 still have a shot, and hope they have a good rest day and come out firing. Rasmussen could yet have his Stage 16 (sorry Floyd!) and not have another mountain day to make it up. And the final TT is flat, and he'll be that much more fatigued, so it could be a different story from the first. Remember, Andreas Kloden passed Cadel Evans on last year's final TT, so there could be plenty of shuffling right to the end. We may yet all breathe a sigh of relief. And yes, that is totally biased in favor of everyone else in the field, but so be it, Rasmussen doesn't give me the warm fuzzies. And we'll leave it at that on Vino's sunny day.

Cheers to Popo and George, heroic again on the day. Loved that feature on Serge Bolee, what a sweetheart for such an imposing figure! Johan has quite the man-crush on Contador, that was a cute bit, and interesting to hear that the Kid has a sound mind to match his body. Sounds like a danger man for years to come!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

TdF Stage 14: Disco Apocalypse

(apologies to Jackson Browne, if I must ;)

Down the mountain in the autobus
There be sprinters noodlin' two by two
Their jerseys open, laughs are few
And their bodies weary through and through
And it's a long way straight up to Plateau De Beille
While Johan gets on the radio waves

Gets big George on front, starts the fight
Peloton stretched, a tail on a kite
As the road goes up out goes the light
Then Popo hops on to give them a fright
Poundin' their hearts, swingin' their hips,
Turnin' their feet, lickin' their lips

Today's the day I'm gonna make you mine
Gonna dance on the pedals and make some time
Then Levi starts jumpin'
And some guys are crackin'
And there's Conta pumpin'
And the Chick is yackin'
And the world is right there waiting
At their finger tips
Disco… apocalypse

They've been clearing their throat, we knew they wanted to make a statement, things were looking a little risky for Levi, and finally today they came out to play in earnest. Bravo, boys, you're well on your way. Discovery played their cards to perfection today, and didn't appear to blow themselves up doing it, so here's hoping they can keep it up tomorrow and Wednesday. Don't get me wrong, I'd be perfectly happy for Cadel Evans and Andreas Kloden to still do well, and hope they come back strong in the next two stages. But for now Disco is the one making all the right moves.

What a fun time they'll have tonight at the dinner table. (In contrast to Saunier-Duval - yikes! - you couldn't pay me to sit in on that one.) Johan and the older guys will keep them focused on tomorrow, but they’ll have some laughs for sure. It's not always easy to see who's doing the work in the earlier part of the stage, so forgive me if I don't mention the entire Disco team, I'm sure they all worked at some point. But we have to give special mention to the final four.

There was George Hincapie on the valley road, setting a brisk tempo, and setting things up for the climb. And then when he faded as the climb started, there was my new hero Yaroslav Popovych. I've always loved him, but I really love him this year, he's just been outstanding. Catching back on on the previous descent, bringing water as Johan said, and then right up there on the final climb, setting a brutal tempo. My heart leapt the first time we got a shot of the group whittled down to about ten riders - yes, now we're getting to it! And then the group was eight, with three of them still being Discovery, well done. Then when Popo inevitably gave his gift to the commentators and "popped," Levi Leipheimer gave a nice little dig to keep the momentum going.

Then, after some delightful shadow-boxing amongst the final few, it was all Alberto Contador. Michael Rasmussen had been isolated for a while, he was looking a little panicky, and he could not shake Contador, try as he might. It looked like Rasmussen tried to make some kind of deal or something with Soler, because after they talked Soler shot up the road, but nobody took the bait, and then they all came up again. I'll be curious to hear what that was about.

Update: Something else I noticed upon the second viewing - when Contador took a minute to go to the back of the group, I thought this morning that he was just checking everyone out. But I saw this evening that he actually went back and picked up Sastre, and brought him back up to the group. (Sastre had dropped back with Kloden, who was just about officially dropped.) This accomplished two things: completely isolate Kloden, so he would have no help keeping tempo to limit his losses (until he got a teammate); and bring Sastre up as a little parting gift to Levi, since Contador was about to head up the road. Sastre is a steady climber like Levi, and since Levi didn't have to work, Sastre paced him right up the rest of the climb, until Levi put a little time in him at the finish. Brilliant!

And even more curious to hear about the argument Rasmussen and Contador were having in the final kilometers! Okay, we're finishing up one of the toughest ascents in the Tour, but let's take time and energy to argue! Too funny. You're in yellow, Michael, it's up to you to defend. Contador was working for Levi, he doesn't have to help you. Working for Levi? Darn right he was. The added bonus is, he helps himself in the process, and gets a coveted stage win. [Well, apparently it wasn't an argument, but a deal in the making. A deal Rasmussen promptly reneged on. Nice.]

Contador may yet end up in yellow, it's quite possible, but the key is he doesn't have to. He's so young and has plenty of time for future victories, not to mention plenty of youthful energy. And this sets Disco apart from the other two-headed monsters in the race. So Contador can push hard today and get his stage win, and if he can push hard tomorrow as well (and I think he might), great. But if he can't, he worked Rasmussen very hard, and Rasmussen will be softened up for Levi and whoever else wants a shot tomorrow. I may be wrong, but I think Rasmussen can be cracked.

Levi kept up his end of the bargain, coming in fourth and putting time in on the rest of the contenders. Makes me (and no doubt him) wish he had been able to do better in the TT yesterday. But finally today we saw him do more than just hang in there. He didn't light it up, but in his steady way, he ended up ahead of most of the pack. If he can build on that, he's still in it for sure, go Levi!

Cadel, buddy, I was counting on you! I was very sorry to see him fall back, but tomorrow is another day. And Wednesday. And Saturday. He's still got some chances. Kloden as well, especially with his TT skills. Alejandro Valverde, on the other hand, not so much. His legs may come good again, but no one is going to let him take back big time if they can help it. He's another young one, though, he'll be consoled if he can make it through to his first Tour finish.

I shed very different tears for Alexandre Vinokourov today. I'm glad he went for it yesterday, he had no other choice, and he got his stage win. Easy for me to say, but don't give up Vino, come back next year for another go! Third time is the charm! (Third time coming to the Tour to win, that is.)

But on the whole, thanks for a great day boys, you make me feel like dancin', I'm gonna dance the night away…

Saturday, July 21, 2007

TdF Stage 13: Proud Vino

As if TTs weren't nerve-wracking enough, we get rain too? I'm so glad it let up for the later guys, but so sad it ruined Fabian Cancellara's day! I didn't want to see that face again coming across the line, the same he had in Stage 2. Ah well, if he's not too banged up, the final TT probably suits him better anyway! I don't know how these guys do it (and I guess some of them don't), the TT is such an intense, nervous endeavor. And when there's climbs in the TT, lordy! There was that guy running with the flag, I couldn't believe it. Hey buddy, this isn't Alpe d'Huez! And another fan appeared to give a butt smack, I think it was to Vino. Somebody lock these people up!

TTs are something of a paradox. The riders are so vulnerable, out there all alone with the vehicles having to keep a certain distance. And yet they show such great strength, cutting through the wind with enormous power.

Alexandre Vinokourov's ride brought me to tears, big surprise. Tears of pride and awe for his fighting spirit. He's such a quiet man, but what a fire he has deep inside. I hope there is some left for the mountains. I wonder if his thinking is that the TTs are where he needs to make up the most time, because he is impaired on the climbs by his knees. But his knees may also be getting better, we'll see tomorrow. Today was also perhaps his best chance at a stage win. In any case, he knew that today was a day to go for it and pour all of that frustration into one angry pedal stroke after another. Like Cancellara in the Prologue, Vino was here to win today.

And quite notably, Vino did not take all kinds of risks to do so. He rode very sensibly. He poured it on when he could, and eased way off when he had to. He rode a patient race - with fierce strength, but also with patience. Who would've thought it, that "crazy Kazakh" taught the peloton a lesson in control today. If his knees are coming around, and he can go for it in the mountains as well, perhaps there is a silver lining to the rough time he's had up to now. It prevented him from going all-out for three weeks solid and possibly blowing up at some point. So maybe now he'll be able to put in a concentrated effort in the final week and drag himself back to the podium. Speaking of the podium, he was quietly proud there this afternoon, just how he rode the stage.

His wasn't the only lesson of the day. Whether it was dumb luck or untoward risk, a lot of guys fell today. But a lot of them got right back up and got on with business, still taking the top placings. And it wasn't as if they all fell and that equalized it, they were mixed in with guys who managed to stay upright. I don't know if anything can really help the nerves (mine or theirs!), but it's a good reminder that even if disaster strikes, you can still be right up there if you don't panic. So hat's off to Andreas Kloden, Yaroslav Popovych, and Valdimir Gusev for keeping it together and finishing strong while their kits were torn and tattered.

Astana was the team of the day, but Discovery had a good showing as well. Alberto Contador is sitting pretty in third with the mountains coming up, he'll be fun to watch in the coming days. Levi Leipheimer was disappointing, it has to be said, but ended up not doing too bad. Definitely second-tier though. Interesting to note, I believe it was Dirk Demol in Levi's follow car. So I assume Johan Bruyneel was driving Contador's. Contador is higher in GC, so it makes sense, but you know, just interesting. Heck, it could just be a language thing, I gather Contador doesn't speak English. I already mentioned Popovych, and want to add that he gets an A for effort so far in this Tour. You can see it every day in his face, and it's producing great results.

But when it comes to really disappointing, thy name is Alejandro Valverde, ouch! He's been going so well so far, I was happy for him, happy that we finally get to see what he can do when he makes it through a couple of weeks in the Tour. But today was a hard, hard day in the saddle for him, getting passed by Michael Rasmussen no less. Now, Rasmussen showed he can actually TT today, so that's not quite the stigma it might have been, but still, not good to get passed by anyone if you're going for the whole ball of wax.

As for Rasmussen, you have to give him much credit for not folding under pressure today. Not only the pressure of yellow, but the doping stories as well. I don't know if anyone expected him to repeat 2005, but they expected him to lose more than he did today. I'm not sure how he'll go in the Pyrenees. I don't think it's a sure thing that he'll be able to pedal away on all three stages. He's used to doing one big stage and then trying to hang in there on the rest. He was struggling on the Galibier, though still towards the front. It will be interesting to see what he can do.

Good on Cadel Evans! He also handled the pressure well, and showed that his fine form in the mountains is translating seamlessly to the TT. Of course now the pressure will really start, but if he can keep up with Contador in the mountains, he's looking good for yellow. But not a lock by any means.

Today shook things up, but I'm not sure it sorted things out. Given how guys are going hot and cold, it could very easily end up entirely differently in the mountains. Even for the guys who lost big today, I wouldn't write them off. Any one of them could tear it up in the next three stages, and maybe no one can follow on the final climb. It's not such a guaranteed thing anymore, that if you've shown strength up to now it's going to stay at a certain level for the remaining week. And that's not necessarily a doping comment. Maybe that is a factor, but we also don't have a Michael Jordan in the bunch, they're more evenly matched plain and simple. Who knows what tomorrow brings, in a world few hearts survive…

TdF Stage 12: Blowin' In The Wind

Welcome to the yellow jersey, Michael. I bet Rasmussen wished he had some lieutenants to break the wind for him in the press scrum on Friday. The administrative issues appeared to be another tacky salvo in the war between ASO and the UCI, though the UCI is denying this vigorously. The cow blood allegations reported at VeloNews would appear to have no UCI connection, but it's annoying how it works out for them just the same. Which isn't to take ASO's side, I don't know what all those issues are, but either way, it ends up hurting the sport. As I made excessively clear at Marty's, I'm square on the side of cycling.

We'll have to see where the cow blood story goes, but after Christian Vande Velde's strong comments about Sinkewitz, I have to wonder about Rasmussen's safety in the peloton. If not his actual physical safety, then just about those little things that the peloton does to leave a rider swinging in the wind. This case is different, it's five years ago, and so far just a random allegation. But the riders can't be happy to have another big cloud over the race.

A pretty standard stage on the day, in terms of results, but the infantry was working hard in the wind again, protecting their captains. All the top teams were in good form, rallying around their guys, it must've been tiring, especially after doing the same the day before. Kudos to Cadel Evans for giving the guys a shout out at CyclingNews.

Gotta love that most of the jerseys are still in play, with a close top three in both the sprinter's and mountains jerseys. The polka dots may soon get out of reach in the Pyrenees, but Popo and Soler were still fighting on Friday. And it was 1-2-3 across the finish for the sprinters.

Nice handshake by the breakaway partners at the end. I have a little checklist in my head for each Tour, those little things I want to see at least once during the three weeks. Breakaway handshakes, newspapers up the jerseys on the descents, shenanigans in the peloton on a slow day, loyal teamwork - like Axel Merckx coming to life when Floyd came up to him last year, on L'Alpe d'Huez I think, giving his water bottle and his all as long as he could.

This Tour route has caused a lot of poker, but it is exciting, to have it all come down to the last week. I just hope the TT on Saturday isn't diminished by the mountain stage to follow. Should be a nail biter, though, looking forward to it!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

TdF Stage 11: Attack, Attack, Attack!

That one's for my brother. ;-) He likes to describe Vino that way. Ironically, one could've used it to describe Moreau the other day. But the worm turned today, and made for a great day of racing! Shades of the Vuelta as the wind and Astana split the peloton and sent the race into chaos.

Astana put on an impressive display to make the gap stick, and then all the teams started joining in to keep it going. After all the poker of recent days, it was great to see so many teams pulling together, rotating through in seamless fashion. It was awesome, it was like the United Colors of Beat the Crap out of Moreau (and Zabel and Hushovd).

Not that I don't feel bad for those who got dropped, Zabel and Hushovd are great guys, and Moreau has been doing so well for France. But the racing was great, and it was fun to watch! Guys must've been peeing their pants, and not just out of fear. No way you could slow down for a nature break during that!

It's already being called revenge on Moreau, I don't know about that, it would be no more revenge than Moreau's attacks the other day were. It's bike racing. Vino's a racer, he knows there are no real rest days. There's always something you can do, you keep fighting, even if it's getting one guy at a time. I wondered as it went along if he wanted to take the stage, salvage something and show he's still there. He's beaten sprinters before, on the Champs no less. But he went early on his little flyer, so I don't know if he was really going for it there or just trying to keep the pressure on. In any case, he did remind the field that he and Astana were still a force to be reckoned with, great to see.

Fabian, you nut! Going for the hat trick, I love it! Note to CSC - don't ever leave this boy off the Tour team again!

Glad for Robbie Hunter, he's been trying so hard. And it was such a heartbreak last year, when he got timed out a day before Paris, because he had to ride the TT standing up.

Tomorrow's no slouch of a stage either, can't wait to see what unfolds!

TdF Stage 10: Will They Ever Learn?

Trick question. Am I talking about riders who continue to dope? Or am I talking about the media, riders, and administrators who jump to hasty conclusions before all of the evidence is in? Time may tell on the first one (and that's a big may, given Floyd's situation). But either way, the second one applies, and is about as frustrating as the first.

We have Versus putting up a graphic on the screen saying that Patrik Sinkewitz had high levels of testosterone back in June. Do we know that? It was weeks (months?) before Floyd got his full results, showing his normal testosterone level. From what I've seen, we have a leaked report of a 24:1 ratio on an A sample. Is it that hard to understand that the high ratio can come from either of two factors (high T or low E)? Are we so concerned about image that we have to make the harshest statements we can, even though we don't even have a B "confirmation" yet? It's moments like these that make me wonder if there are only a handful of us Floyd geeks out there, and no one else has been paying an ounce of attention to the devilish details.

One wonders what Floyd is feeling this evening. On the one hand, seeing this same pattern of leaked information and rush to judgment, he must be banging his head against the wall, feeling like all his work this past year has been for nothing. On the other hand, if Sinkewitz continues to protest, and it's another case of questionable science, it adds credibility to Floyd's case. Although, he might be banging his head on that one, too, to see that the science hasn't changed yet either.

What an odd twist of fate that saw Sinkewitz already out of the race with his crash. I doubt T-Mobile is feeling it, but it is just a little better this way. We don't have to see him ceremoniously stripped of his number and taken away in "disgrace." Yes, quotation marks on that one, because I hate it whenever I see Floyd described as "disgraced Tour champion." I don't believe he did a thing to bring all that on himself or the sport, yet that shit always gets laid at his doorstep. And now Sinkewitz's.

People didn't mince words today in their reactions. They were pissed, condemning, and leaving no room for this to be a false positive. Even the usually good-natured Christian Vande Velde showed no mercy in his VeloNews diary. I understand their anger, no doubt. If I had just suffered an unbelievably long, scorching hot day in a thus-far well-received Tour, and then had to answer a barrage of questions about doping again, I'd be pretty damn pissed myself. And if Sinkewitz did bring this on the sport, they have every right to want to break his nose again. I can't imagine the frustration and betrayal the clean guys feel. It's a good thing they're all tough as nails, hopefully that will get them through it.

But at this point I think some of that anger should be directed at whoever leaked the results, and whoever ran with them, and German television, and officials who are more concerned about being politically correct than due process. I hated to see Jens Voigt lose today, I'm such a big fan. But at least German viewers didn't miss another great Jens victory. Again, I can understand the anger and feeling helpless, but I don't understand punishing clean riders and avid German fans by just pulling the plug entirely. What is taking your ball and going home going to solve? Why let the (possibly) dirty few control the enjoyment of everyone else? And the endless question in all of this, why only cycling? Are the non-cycling Puerto athletes ever going to be exposed? Is real testing ever going to happen in other sports? Why are they so untouchable and yet cycling can be bashed, trashed, and discarded?

Shoot, I'm not usually one to do the endless question thing, sorry. Or ignore the race and go with the doping, seems a bit hypocritical. But this is what happens when we finally have a typical day in the Tour! And really, it was the contrast between that, the workman-like day the guys had in the saddle, and what they had to deal with off the bike.

A few things stood out today in great contrast to destruction and betrayal. There was Saul Raisin's story on Versus, and then Saul himself, full of hope and enthusiasm for the future. And demonstrating the great brotherhood of loyal teammates. He told of Thor Hushovd calling him after winning on the Champs last year, wearing his Raisin' Hell bracelet and making sure Saul shared in the victory. And of Saul calling Thor a few days ago, telling him to win the stage, and Thor going out and doing just that. Today's call didn't work quite so well, but who cares, it's the thought that counts! See Marty, sometimes the teams are a family.

Another family plan that didn't quite work out today, but was equally moving, was Voigt's intention to win the stage for fallen CSC brother Stuart O'Grady, as told at VeloNews. He's on a big Tour breakaway, and he's thinking of Stuey and his two broken collarbones (among other things) and due-in-three-weeks pregnant wife. Jens said the whole team has been thinking of O'Grady, wanting to do something special for him.

And the ever-delightful Chris Horner, describing how he takes care of himself on a day like today so he can be strong for Cadel in the mountains, with no concern for his own time.

All is not lost; I don't know why some people are so eager for it to be.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

TdF Stage 9: Brad Marsh

Big fat caveat right off the top: I wish Fabio Casartelli was here, to be the "old man" in the race, or a hot new Director Sportif. And I wish Andrei Kivilev was here, to be Vino's first lieutenant, seeing him through these tough days. So I'm not saying helmets are a bad thing. These two very gifted young men might still be with us today if the helmet rule was in place earlier. (It was Kivilev's death that finally got a rule in place.) So with a very careful however, I have to say that I really miss seeing guys without their helmets in the heat of battle.

Whenever I see an old clip, whether it be in black and white or as recent as Armstrong and co. on Luz-Ardiden or L'Alpe D'Huez, it just jumps right out at me, how great it was to see their faces. We saw the hair glistening with sweat, the furrowed brows, the tension in their cheeks. We get so up close to the riders, for hour after hour, day in and day out, it seems silly to complain about not getting more. But something has been lost; they are just that little bit more hidden from us. I still wonder about the uphill exception there was at first, when they could toss their helmets on the final climb. But I guess Lance proved on Luz-Ardiden that the danger never stops!

Some guys push their helmets up, so we get a better view, like dear Linus Gerdemann today. And we still have a lot to see and recognize in our favorites, or to compare in rivals. We still see the grimace or the smile or the cool breathing. We still see the unmistakable pedaling styles, the straightening up or slumping down, the steady push or the bobbing and weaving. We still see the supple slender frame or the beefy powerhouse. We just don't get in their heads quite so much anymore. And then when they get off the bike, so many of them shove a hat on their head and tug it right down to their eyes - come on boys, give us something!

I don't know if Brad Marsh was the last NHL player to go without a helmet, but he was the last Philadelphia Flyer to do so [when I was watching the team - thanks Larry!]. (Older guys were grandfathered in of sorts, they didn't have to follow hockey's helmet rule.) I remember this: one, because I used to be a hockey nut, but two, because he was one of the last guys I felt like I knew. It's even worse in hockey, because you don't get those in-your-face camera shots, so guys became even more anonymous. As with cycling, you could still appreciate what they were doing, and get to know styles and moves, but it's a more detached experience. It's more like watching playing pieces than flesh and bone human beings.

Seeing the whole picture added to their personalities - Rick MacLeish and Hound Dog Kelly zoomed around with their flowing hair, Bobby Clarke guts it out with his curly locks, Gary Dornhoefer was dashing with his matinee-idol looks. Sorry, misty water-colored memories, back to cycling.

Fabian Cancellara almost pulled off "dashing" last week, but seeing his curly and flowing locks in pre-race interviews helped that along. You can't really be dashing on the road anymore. You can be a lot of other great things, but dashing, I think that's lost to the record books. Yaroslav Popovych has that great grin, thank goodness, but with his big sunglasses and helmet, he sometimes looks like a cartoon character, or maybe a Muppet. Seeing him in interviews, he has a bit of hockey great Bobby Orr about him. That would've been fun to see out on the open road today as he was eating up the course. But endlessly more fun to see him for years to come, so helmets it is. Can't wait to see Saul Raisin racing again.

Race notes: To borrow a device from Bill Maher: New Rule - commentators are hereby forbidden from bringing up Lance Armstrong's infamous bluff every single blessed time someone is hanging off the back. Let it go, P&P, I know Lance made you pee your pants that day, and you felt all hurt and duped and silly, but dudes, Let It Go, please! It's okay, if you ever get fooled again, I'll forgive you, but if you keep this silliness up forever, I won't!

Can Cadel Evans be on the Versus contenders list now? What's a guy gotta do? I'm sorry all the names don't fit on one screen, such is life in today's peloton, but leaving him off is pretty insulting! They'll leave Vino there probably, fine, but how about Menchov? I think it's safe to take him off now, and give Evans his rightful place!

Still with the poker, these boys! Oy! Yes, do leave Vino's name on the list. At the rate the other contenders are messing about, he's still got the outside chance if he can come good. All the gap-forming before that wasn't poker, I suppose you have to try, but it seemed a lot of wasted energy in the end. Oh well, maybe it's psychological advantage in the bank for next week.

LMAO when Phil called Paul "Phil"!

Quote of the day: "It was disappointing that Menchov couldn't get his ass over the Galibier." - Michael Rasmussen, quoted at VeloNews. Alright, Michael, you are now the de facto team leader, but it seems to me that's no way to lead! You think Denny's going to help you now? Or any of his buddies on the team? They will, of course, for the team, but I imagine not with as much devotion as they might. You like to do your thing solo, but yellow requires friends.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

TdF Stage 8: Wicked Game

I was going to use Risky Game, but that would entail recreating a scene from Friends featuring Jennifer Aniston. Great scene, and the best line delivery she's ever given, but rather beside the point on a whirlwind day like today. As it is, I'm tempted to quote the entire Chris Isaak song, so fitting is it, but be a good reader and just follow the link, won't you? Sing along as we go, from the point of view of the riders or the fans, works either way.

Today was painful to watch at times, but not always for the reasons I thought it would be. For much of the morning, it was like a 3-hour slow-motion end of a breakaway. The favorites were playing cat and mouse, or just plain poker I suppose, to a baffling degree. All but Michael Rogers, that is, who inexplicably managed to get in the breakaway. I understand not panicking in the peloton, you can't chase everyone, but giving him five minutes?? In the mountains? It's not like he's going to lose it in a time trial, being a three-time TT world champion and all. And it's not like he was going hard, so he wouldn't be expected to crack on the last climb. He was going fine, and not having to do a lot of work. So even if he just stayed at the same pace as the contenders up to Tignes, he would have a healthy lead.

Some teams had good guys in the break, like Discovery with George Hincapie, and CSC with Jens Voigt, so I also understand that makes it tricky. Maybe the break will make it, or maybe you'll need those guys to be up the road. But still, if you balance those maybes against a legitimate GC contender getting five minutes, you at least have to bring it a little closer, don't you? Or the other teams without so many conflicts do. For the longest time, they mostly let T-Mobile set the pace - and they were setting a slow pace, to keep Rogers gaining time!

For once, I thought, T-Mobile has got it brilliantly right. At first glance, it may have looked to some like old times, chasing their own guy. But then when you saw they were actually blocking for Rogers, that guys were catching back up on the rear, you saw that they were in fact executing a great plan. I can't believe no other team took charge for so long. Rabobank finally did, and Michael Rasmussen came through on his slingshot. Maybe not the same risk as Rogers, but I don't know that you want to give him so much time either. He may fall off once he's secured the mountains jersey, but he's declared he's going for GC, so maybe not. I guess if there were only one TT left it would be riskier; with two, maybe several minutes is safe. The Chicken is in Yellow, but neither remotely indicates a coward in this case, so the peloton better keep an eye out.

Well, I've avoided it as long as possible, I suppose we have to talk about Rogers' crash. So the risk paid off for the other teams after all, but still, you can't count on that! It's not like he was taking crazy risks up to that point. But in any case, here's the first place we cue up the Chris Isaak. When would Rogers ever have this kind of chance again, to be up several minutes on the other contenders without turning himself inside out to do it. He wasn't the only one crying when he pulled over, what a horrible, sad sight. With two abandons on the day, T-Mobile's great day was quickly going south. So hat's off again to our young Linus, who limited his losses well and is still in contention. He was ahead of several contenders in the Prologue, I wonder how he is at the longer distances? Not to put any pressure on you, dear!

The other sad sight of the day being Stuart O'Grady taken out on a stretcher, bad luck for a good guy.

Yes, so while all that was playing out, poker night continued among the contenders. Heaven knows I wouldn't know what to do in a Director's car, so with that large grain of salt, I'll continue being curious about the tactics of the day. We don't have a Lance here, fine, no one could just rip off a huge extended attack. But if you're going good, there's a rest day tomorrow, get this party started! Christophe Moreau finally obliged, doing France very proud today. And a good number of contenders had the good sense to follow him, including Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, and Alberto Contador. But Levi Leipheimer, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Andreas Kloden, and Alexandre Vinokourov could not. Poker time is over boys, time to put down the hammer and cut your rivals in half! Moreau knew that, and did his best, but he needed help, and the others were still looking at their cards. I have my favorites, and I'd hate to see them go down, but I'm also all for the best man winning, so I don't want to see wasted opportunities either! The latter group was able to put on an acceleration at the end, but I think the first group wasted a lot of energy with their games, and could've still put in a good gap. Moreau must be fuming, and with good reason.

Levi, Levi, Levi. What will we do with you? He seemed to be a different rider this year, but I'm less sure now. He limited his losses, but the contenders are all so equal now, especially with Vino hurt, is he really going to be able to do the reverse on all these guys on some future day? It's a long way to go, I guess, but it's several guys, not just one. It is starting to look like Contador wears the pants in this family, we'll see. He would've been right there with Valverde I think, if he hadn't had a mechanical. He should be good and fired up for Tuesday.

Speaking of wearing the pants in the family, we always knew Vino did, and he proved that today with Kloden dropping back to help him. Now, maybe Kloden isn't going to last as long as Vino, and they would know that best, so it probably makes sense. I agree with P&P, Kloden was a hero on the day, driving the stragglers back to the others. I think more than Vino's knees will be hurting tonight. For surely, without those bandages, he would've taken charge and taken no prisoners on that final climb. But I imagine Vino won't dwell on that, the race is what it is, he'll concentrate on what his body can recoup on the rest day.

I thought I was more than ready for the rest day, but I don't know, now things are getting interesting, I can't wait for Tuesday! Wicked games or not, I'll be there with bells on.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

TdF Stage 7: Feelin' The Joy

I always love riding my bike, but it's especially fun to ride during the Tour. Even more so if you're Robbie Ventura, who gets to pull out the bike and ride up the day's Cat 1 climb for a first-person preview! My ride today wasn't quite that ambitious, just a couple of hours in glorious sunshine, but it had plenty of Tour feel to it. They say the yellow jersey lets you ride with the strength of two men, and I think riding between watching 5-6 hours of Tour each day does the same! Now, in the jersey's case it's the strength of two top-level professional racers, and in my case it's two avid recreationalists, but it's all relative. Even if I'm only going a fraction faster, it feels like much more. I can go forever, climb any mountain (well, steep hill), descend with ease.

When I watch the Tour, as you've probably gathered, I watch the Tour. And when I'm focused on something, I zero right in. So when I get out on the bike, I have all these hours of watching top form and technique imprinted on my psyche. Again, I don't know how true it is, but I feel like I ride with better form, I feel like I'm ticking over the pedals and holding myself better on the bike. And it feels great!

Of course, if I'm not careful, it can be dangerous too! Because I am most certainly not a racer, and I cannot take corners the way they do, or descend at 50 mph, and so on. But like I said, it's all relative, so I don't go too crazy, I just have a lot of fun.

When I turn back onto my street at the end of a ride, there is a tree-lined ribbon of [road]way stretched before me as far as the eye can see. No matter how I felt on the last hill climb (which is pretty much all you get around here, can't go a mile without going uphill), I'm tempted to keep going. Fortunately, the road that way isn't particularly good for riding, so I usually come to my senses and turn in my driveway, tired and happy.

Speaking of tired and happy, times a million, how 'bout that Linus Gerdemann? I know we've only had two, but I like this year's yellow jersey wearers. Guys in yellow are always thrilled, and the jersey always demands respect. But last year we had Tom Boonen, looking positively sheepish by the, what, fourth day wearing yellow without having won anything. And Serhiy "did they mix up my pee with Floyd's" Honchar.

Fabian Cancellara, as has been said elsewhere, wore it with real panache this first week, and good humor, like when he gave a wave goodbye before the base of the Colombiere. And Linus' joy today was infectious to say the least, kissing the jersey more than the podium girls! We'll see tomorrow if he has anything left to hold it until the rest day, but even if it's just one day, he'll enjoy the ride!

TdF Stage 6: Measure Of A Man

It's been a long week, and we have a big day tomorrow, so just a short note about the Tom Simpson anniversary. David Millar lamented to VeloNewsTV that today's 40th anniversary of Simpson's death on Mont Ventoux was getting short shrift at the Tour. As VeloNews also noted, to comical effect, journalists were disappointed to hear at the end of the stage that Bradley Wiggins' escapades had nothing to do with Simpson. Wiggins hadn't even expected to be alone on the break, just turned out that way. Versus advertised a feature on Simpson in primetime, but it was a disappointing little afterthought.

It was left to John Wilcockson to give the proper tribute, in a stirring piece at VeloNews. "Simpson remembered" is a very apt title, for his piece is a true memory that brings that day richly to life. For many of us, the unfortunate image of Simpson is the grainy black-and-white film of vain resuscitation attempts and the cautionary tale that brought on the first modern anti-doping measures. So it is nice, and humbling, to be reminded that Simpson was so much more than that. Wilcockson gives a full picture of the man, and an emotional first-hand account of that July in 1967.

In this day and age, when I'm checking the internet constantly for live updates and post-race reports, and watching the stages live on television, it's amazing to think Wilcockson didn't even find out about Simpson's death until the next morning, and he was there at the race and knew Simpson personally. But the important thing is that he did know him, and gave us all a gift today with his memories.

Just one observation on the race - much was made, myself included, about Vino's slit to the throat motion. But upon watching it again, I think maybe he was just asking the cameraman to give him a break, let him suffer the finish in peace. He intends to start tomorrow, but I fear it will be very painful for him, and very painful for us to watch.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

TdF Stage 5: Piece O' My Heart

This is where I perhaps would fail as a professional Tour blogger. Watching and talking about the Tour is not a game or idle entertainment to me. I can't detach myself and talk blithely about Vino's ass looking fit as it hangs out of his shorts, raw and bloody. This sport, these riders, they're in my heart and soul. I broke out into a cold sweat the first two times I experienced the stage (following online live, and then watching the morning show on disc, even though I already knew what happened). I fared slightly better watching the evening show, but the heart was still pumping. Sometimes I wish I didn't care so much; I would get more sleep and my arteries wouldn't be shredded on a day like today. But on the other hand, I think - how can you not get attached, how can you not live and die with these guys, what would be the point?

Being so attached, I can be exhilarated for Sylvain Chavanel, claiming the mountains jersey in style. Good karma coming back to reward him, for being Lance's final victim on Luz-Ardiden, and for his gracious patience in not taking the jersey yesterday.

I can cry right along with Erik Zabel during his emotional podium ceremony to get the sprinter's jersey. (Hope you caught it on the P&P show, because primetime didn't show it, in a serious lapse in judgment if you ask me, but sadly, they never do.) As he explained afterwards, he thought his career might be over after the EPO confession, and every day racing now is a blessing, let alone a day on the podium.

I can go on a roller coaster for Team Discovery, as I get excited for Levi when I see Sergio Paulinho looking so sharp at the front of the peloton. And gasp when I hear about Benjamin Noval crashing through a team car rear window, and riding 8 kilometers with deep cuts in his armpit and chin.

I can cheer for the jury's decision to allow Geoffroy Lequatre to continue tomorrow. He's the one that wiped out in the feed zone, and ended up coming in almost 45 minutes after the finish, normally outside the time cutoff. Let's hope he can continue.

I can laugh with great affection as the Puppy almost takes out the Bear. (The first being my term of endearment, the latter apparently CSC's.) Yaroslav Popovych took one of his typical flyers, but the descent was dicey and he went off into the grass. Fabian Cancellara had him in his sights, so much so that he followed him right off the road. A brief excursion, though, and all was well.

And, I can cry, writhe, and fuss over Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov as they struggle to even stay in the race, let alone contend for it. Kloden did indeed fracture his coccyx and is questionable to start tomorrow. No word yet on Vino. His troubled ankle will be a distant memory now. Even without injury, a rider's system is taken down to the bare bones (literally) over the course of the Tour. How overloaded will Vino's be if it also has to try and mend all of those injuries, one wonders if it can hold up. Quite moving to see ex-teammate Bernhard Eisel looking after Vino in the final kilometers, several times putting a hand on his back, talking to him.

On the lighter side, Bob and Al win the prize today, they actually assessed the Kloden crash better than Phil and Paul! They got that it was serious, Al saw the perhaps offending rock, and they figured out that it was a pain reliever Kloden was getting from the doctor's car, not a spritz on his arm. Bravo, boys.

In honor of Lady Bird's passing, bless her soul, I purposefully took a moment today to stand in the sunshine and enjoy the wildflowers. Always a good idea, but necessary for me during the Tour. It's got my heart and soul, but with a little care perhaps it won't make me lose my mind. :-)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

TdF Stage 4: Hope For A Legacy

One of my favorite lines from the classic mini-series Brideshead Revisited comes when Charles (Jeremy Irons) hears that his best friend and man-crush Sebastian is gravely ill, naturally wants to rush to his side, and breathlessly tells his father he must go. The inimitable John Gielgud, as the enigmatic father, gives a vaguely quizzical look and asks, "Do you hope for a legacy?" Today I'm thinking of a different kind of legacy, but such are the twisted workings of my mind, do forgive me.

For most riders, the conventional wisdom goes, winning just one Tour stage sets them up for life. They all know this, and often toss on a little extra in their victory salute, to ensure that immortality will be theirs. It may seem a little cheesy or silly, but you know what, it works. Carlos Sastre has distinguished himself a number of times, but I always remember him with that baby binky. And one of my all-time favorites is the slick arrow salute of Juan Antonio Flecha on that steamy airport runway a few years ago. Not only a great image, but the explanation (Flecha means arrow) requires repeating his name, so you never forget it. Ever since that victory, I look out for him, and smile when he's animating the race, as he did today in the breakaway.

Also in the breakaway was Sylvain Chavanel, proof positive that a failed break is not always lost in the shuffle. For who can forget the gentle tap on his shoulder by Lance Armstrong as he cruised by Chavanel on his tear up Luz-Ardiden in 2003. I can't tell you how many times I re-played that, but maybe that just proves what a geek I am!

As much as Al Trautwig frustrates me, I felt genuinely sorry for him today - I can't believe he didn't pick Thor Hushovd this time! Guaranteed awkward ribbing on the pre-race show tomorrow, can't wait. ;-P

I would give anything to see a picture of Dave Zabriskie with his basket of apples; if anybody knows of one, for heavens sake, let me know!

I know cyclists aren't choirboys, but there are all of those lovely sporting gesture traditions, like the handshake between Christian Knees and Flecha before they got caught at today's finish. The contrast between this and the ever-intrusive promotion of cage fighting on Versus this year never ceases to alarm me. Especially when poor Phil Liggett has to read that copy, what must he be thinking? And most frightening when you don't get to the remote quick enough and the actual show comes on! What a strange world we live in.

Sending LiveStrong thoughts out to Sebastien Joly, diagnosed with cancer in the midst of great form.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

TdF Stage 3: The Cheese Stands Alone

Get back that "Fabulous Cancellara" typeset! Everyone will be reaching into their suitcase of clichés again with today's marvelous stage. I can see it now - What a difference a day makes - Cancellara made short work of the longest stage - It doesn't matter if it's the shortest stage or the longest, Fabian can get it done! (I wonder if anyone has won both the shortest and longest stages before, I'm sure it's in a record book somewhere.)

It's hard to write about the Tour without clichés. We've all got countless hours of Phil and Paul in our head for one thing, and if you've ever played P&P Bingo, you know they love their clichés. Which is not at all a knock - when you've called as many races as they have, how many new things can you come up with? If it fits, use it!

It's funny, this cliché thing. We see the same kinds of things in race after race, but it doesn't get old, it's rather what keeps us coming back, it's those things we love. We laugh or gasp with recognition, but it's also a new thrill each time. Because it is new - for this day, this combination of riders, this set of hopes and dreams and talent. I wouldn't want to miss a single minute!

I suppose it's more tradition than cliché, there's a fine line there, but I can never get enough of a guy going ahead to greet his family in his hometown, as Laurent Lefevre did today. And even on a languishing day such as this, watching the laughter and interchanges amongst the peloton keeps things lively. Even Gert Steegmans got a laugh out of a botched knee!

Things got crackin' after Stephane Auge went to snag that polka-dot jersey, a couple of days after he'd thought it was his. David Millar seemed content enough to let it go, but of course the other consequence was that the breakaway got a bit more serious. No matter how many times the break gets caught, the chase is still a heap of fun to watch, especially when they very nearly make it like today! I already knew the result when I finally got to watch the video, and I was still on the edge of my seat!

And then the biggest thrill of all - oh, why not - Fabulous Fabian. While the break and sprinters couldn't help but play a little cat and mouse, Cancellara took his big Swiss cheese ass and just plowed right through them all, declaring "get out my way" with his raw power. And the cheese stood alone at the line, in a much happier pose than yesterday.

Hat's off to Erik Zabel, for sorting through the confusion left in Fabian's Wake and nipping the line for second. Robbie Hunter up amongst it again, showing the Barloworld colors, his buddy Floyd must be pleased for him. And poor Mark Cavendish, finally got himself up there in the mix, I hope he's a little happier today! After reading Dugard's description of the finish, I'm so relieved there wasn't another crash. That's one thing I don't need to see in race after race.

Monday, July 9, 2007

TdF Stage 2: Alive and Kicking

I'm waiting as breathlessly as anyone for the Floyd Landis verdict, but whichever way it goes, it will be a shame when it overshadows the Tour for a news cycle or three. The Tour has had a fantastic start, with unprecedented crowds and brilliant racing. If an ounce of that could be conveyed to the general public, they would see that cycling and the Tour are very much alive and kicking.

The camera work was excellent today, stunning vistas in this wide-open area of Belgium and exquisite close-ups of a hard-working and good-natured CSC team at the front. For whatever reason, I don't generally crave a trip to Europe like so many people do. But today, when the peloton were streaming alongside the canal and Phil and Paul were extolling the many bike paths in the area, I was ready to pack my bags!

And the crowds were equally inspiring, out in force even when the weather turned cold and wet. Didn't seem to slow them down a bit, still lining the roads in costume or hanging off sculptures and scaffolds. The rain didn't keep the race from being thrilling either, as the breakaway went through some crazy maneuvers and attacks before being swallowed up.

The crash was as ugly as they come. Sliding and flying through the air have their disadvantages to be sure, but the one today was like hitting a brick wall, no room to save any part of your body. I can't imagine what that feels like, and I hope to never know. I've never seen so many similar excruciating poses crossing the line, one arm cradled uncomfortably across the body. Tomas Vaitkus got a steadying hand from teammate Alberto Contador as he finished, always a sad but moving sight. Fabian Cancellara didn't have a teammate nearby, but was talking with the group he was in. I'm sure any one of them would've lent a hand to the yellow jersey if needed. And the saddest sight was Freddy Rodriguez, dead last, already having lost his helmet and glove, and holding his arm the most gingerly of all.

Robbie McEwen gave us a fine preview yesterday, but today was an even greater example of the true grit of professional cyclists. They'll whip through the rain and cold, and when they fall hard, and must not want to move a muscle, they get themselves up, haul themselves back on their bicycle, and make it across the line. It reminds me of Dave Zabriskie on that fateful TTT a couple of years ago. You could practically see the smoke coming off his burned flesh, and yet he somehow made it through the long, lonely trek to the line.

It's when I see moments like these, and moments like Alexandre Vinokourov winning a race just days after his best friend is killed in that same contest, that I say no one but a fellow member of the peloton has a right to say a thing against cyclists and cycling. We fans appreciate it on some level, but you realize that we have no idea what they really go through, the pain and suffering and anguish, day in and day out. Who am I to tell them what they can and cannot do? It's a moment of blind sentimentality, yes, but there is something to it.

And so I was humbled and happy to see everyone alive and kicking at the end today. It looks doubtful for some, but I hope they are all back again tomorrow.

Random observations: as Robbie McEwen told Versus, Levi Leipheimer came up with Robbie's "Dumb and Dumber" salute (where he's pumping his arms, like he's running). The meticulous and proper Levi, a closet comedian, who knew? Favorite penalty of the day, as noted at VeloNews: Moreau (Ag2r), 100SF - compertemont incorrect for "stopping between the depart fictive and the depart reel to satisfy his call for nature"

Sunday, July 8, 2007

TdF Stage 1: Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose

Borrowing from another sport again, that's Peter Berg's line from the great football show Friday Night Lights. The clear eyes and full heart today at the Tour de France belonged to Robbie McEwen, who had me cackling with laughter as he pulled off one of his best reappearing acts ever in the closing meters. There he was off the back, just a few K from the end, grimacing in pain as his team paced him back. When they got back to the peloton, Phil and Paul cautioned, "but now he has to work himself up through 150 riders in just a few kilometers." The unspoken caveat, though, was that if any rider could do it, it would be the crafty McEwen. And sure enough, he came charging through at the end and showed the field how it's done.

McEwen explained his difficulties to VS.' Craig Hummer afterwards - someone with tired eyes rear-ended McEwen as he was stopped by traffic in front, tossing him over his handlebars. He said he couldn't even move his arm and leg at first. Veteran that he is, though, he didn't panic and eventually got rolling again. Mark Cavendish can certainly take a lesson on the day. It wasn't clear what happened to Cavendish, but he was seen having a tantrum at the side of the road, helmet pushed up on his forehead, screaming at someone off-camera. He may well have been in the right, but at that point in the race, you need to concentrate on the bike, get it going again, and save recriminations for later, when you're not wasting energy. Ah, he's young, he'll learn, it's just unfortunate for him that today's image is the one he'll leave on the final day in his home country. Speaking of homeboys, David Millar played it just right, getting the polka-dot jersey by the skin of his teeth. He's a squirrely one, but I think he looked happy on the podium!

Random observations: Fun to see CSC on front for much of the day. I'm sure it wasn't fun for them, but I like seeing some of my favorite guys on display. Is there any sight more heart-stirring then big Jens Voigt powering away at the front, seemingly pulling the entire peloton with his strength and will?

There was a great and unusual camera shot, on one of the narrow roads, that started with the crowd before the riders arrived, and let you feel the anticipation, and then the thrill as they rounded the corner and the crowd began to cheer. Actually got me teary-eyed, sentimental fool that I am.

Almost, and I emphasize almost, made up for the interminable commercials! This first weekend always reminds me why I don't mind following online at work during the week - you get a much better sense of the flow of the race, and catch a lot of things missed on the broadcast. Kind of like when they make a movie out of a long book. If you've read the book first, the movie is enjoyable, because you have all the information to fill in the blanks, and you get some visual highlights. The primetime show last night was made eminently more bearable by a visit from Chris Boardman - I hope that wasn't just for when they're in England!

Love all the fresh buzz-cuts on the guys. They're ready to rumble! CyclingNews again with the George Hincapie going to T-Mobile next year, they're talking like it's a done deal! VeloNews hints at big signings by Slipstream. DZ mentioned them the other day, I wondah! VN also said they've heard that USADA will "carefully review" the arb's verdict before deciding whether or not to appeal. Can we dare to hope??

Saturday, July 7, 2007

TdF Prologue: What Do You Want?

For someone who doesn't even like baseball, I have a curious penchant for quoting this movie, but another scene from Field of Dreams comes to mind. "Ray" and "Terence" are at the ball game, and Ray says, "What do you want?" Terence runs down the litany of his peeves from the past thirty years, and Ray says, "No, what do you want?" Terence realizes they're standing in front of the concession, and says, "Oh, dog and a beer."

And so we arrive at today's Tour de France Prologue, and we see who wants what. These are the best of the best, so this is not to take anything away from the field of amazing athletes who have reached the top of their sport. But to be the best, that is reserved for a very special few. They are the ones that come to win. Many come with hopes and dreams, and a more select bunch come to contend. But coming to win is a big step from coming to contend, or even wanting to win, and I believe we saw that difference today.

Fabian Cancellara, he came to win the Prologue. He felt it was just and right that the rainbow jersey fly his colors at the top of the top, and he made sure he did just that. Bradley Wiggins wanted desperately to win, but I think when you throw all those nationalistic hopes and pressure in there, it gets in the way of flat-out coming to win, and he just missed the podium. George Hincapie certainly came to contend, but I imagine it's a little bittersweet again for him this year, hanging on for third.

For the overall, Alexandre Vinokourov came to win. The feisty Kazakh who longs for the Soviet training days doesn't want to hear about short distances and specialists and plenty of time down the road - he came to win, so he put in a top performance. The rest of the GC contenders were perfectly respectable and remain within striking distance, but it would appear they came to contend, just that one step down from Vino. There will be lots of spinning about how Levi Leipheimer did fine, and is building his form. That may well be true, but I can't help but be a little disappointed that he didn't bring it from the start. It's time to rock and roll, baby, and as Sting says, you've got to burn from the first bar.

Levi wants to win, and very well could win, but he still talks the contender instead of the winner. He'll try to win, he'll think about winning, but the podium is okay for him. Maybe Disco needs to hire Ivan Basso again, give Levi his fire back! (He certainly came to win in CA and GA.) Vino talks about now or never, he's not interested in just the podium. And how many times did we hear Floyd Landis say it last year, "I'm here to win it," nothing else would satisfy.

Now, coming to win isn't the only thing, there is a long way to go, and any number of outside things can happen. So all of the contenders are still very well in contention. As I said, these are all top athletes and they will show us amazing things in the weeks to come. But there are those very special riders who simply aren't like the others. They have the extra fire, the extra capacity for suffering, the place they can take their body and mind that the other riders don't even know exists. Obviously Lance Armstrong had that, and Floyd has it (one can only hope he gets to show us more of it in the future). Just as Floyd was a step above last year, it would appear Vino is that step above this year. Now if we could only get those two in a Tour together!

But what about Andreas Kloden, you say? (Second on the day.) Ah yes, he is a puzzle. I think he comes to win, but despite himself, without really knowing it. Much will be made in the coming week, as the contenders await the mountains, of what must be a brewing rivalry among Vino and Klodi. As Phil Liggett would say, I wondah. Kloden seems to enjoy that lieutenant role, it would seem he's perfectly happy to come to contend. Someone forgot to tell his body though.

And what do the lay press want? To pump up a scandal to hyperbolic proportions, because I suppose that's what passes for sexy in our life and times. But what do the people want? Turns out they want to watch a bike race, as the throngs of crowds packing in all around the course from the first pedal stroke showed today. Vive Le Tour indeed.