2009 Tour de France: More Thoughts on Le Tour

I had this weird dream last night. I dreamed that my cousin, my brothers and some of my Fishing, Drinking and Stinking buddies were Astana cyclists. We were out carousing and got news of the team’s new sponsor for the next year. It was some sun glass manufacturer whose name began with a “Y”. We were then handed a crumpled piece of paper telling us what races we were scheduled to ride in the upcoming season. We were all excited about our new sponsor and I was particular pleased because I was scheduled to ride in the 2010 Vuelta Espana. Let me tell you, I felt truly honored.

And then I woke up. I think I possibly might be a little to into the Tour this year. I’m not saying that I am but I have a tiny, nagging suspicion. The good news is that there are only four more stages left.

Well, that’s good news if you’re a slightly obsessive fan. It’s bad news if you’re a Tour rider and you want to catch Alberto Contador. Because that is not happening. The 2009 Tour de France belongs to Contador and the only question that remains is who might join him on the podium.

Right now the two Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, are the best placed riders and I think it likely that at least one of them will be on the podium. I do not think it likely that both of them will. Andy probably makes it but Frank, winner of today’s stage, probably misses.

Here’s the setup. After today’s ride, Contador sits in first, two minutes and change ahead of Andy Schleck. Brother Frank sits back in third, another minute or so behind. (If you want actual time gaps, visit http://www.letour.fr.) Armstrong is in fourth, another 30 seconds adrift, followed by Andreas Kloden and Bradley Wiggins in fifth and sixth. As far as overall standings, that is as far back as you need to go to get an idea of who might end up on the podium on Saturday. There would have to be a spectacular crash among the leaders of the race to get someone further down the list into the top three come that time.

Tomorrow’s stage, stage 18, is an individual time-trial about 40 kilometers in length. Contador, Armstrong, Kloden and Wiggins are all better time-trialists than the Schlecks and will likely put time into those boys tomorrow. Whether it will be enough to bring them back into contention for the podium is up the air but at least some time will be pulled back in all likelihood. The first four all finished in the top 10 in the opening 15.5 kilometer time-trial while the best of the two Schlecks, Andy, finished a respectable 18th, 20 seconds behind Armstrong.

Extrapolating that 20-seconds-lost-over-15-kilometers to 40 kilometers, Lance puts about 53 seconds back into Andy tomorrow. That’s not enough to overtake Andy but a similar extrapolation between Lance and Frank puts Lance solidly into third. This, of course, discounts Kloden and Wiggins, both of whom did better than Lance and, theoretically, could claw back even more time using the extrapolation method. Given the right set of circumstances, both riders could vault ahead of Armstrong and take third and fourth.

I don’t think that will happen, however. I think Lance will be more prepared for this time trial for various reasons. For one, the opening trial in Monaco was over a course for which it was difficult to prepare. Traffic alone probably made it impossible to prepare the course in a truly technical fashion. This course is probably more amenable to preparation. Lance has always been methodical in preparing for courses that he expects to make a difference in the GC.

He also, by his own admission, suffered from opening jitters on the first course and may have made some technical mistakes that a more relaxed, comfortable Lance wouldn’t make. Because of these factors, I expect Lance to ride a better time trial tomorrow than he did in Monaco.

I also wonder how much energy the Schleck brothers will have after spending the better part of two days attacking in the mountains. They put on a pretty good show in stage 17, leaving everyone but Contador on the slopes of the last climb. This may mean a slightly worse ride for both of them in stage 18.

Even considering all those factors, I still think Lance falls short of catching Andy tomorrow. At the end of the day, I predict the standings will be Contador, Andy Schleck, Armstrong, Wiggins, Kloden and Frank Schleck. Kloden and Wiggins are pretty evenly matched but I think Wiggins pulls ahead in the time trial. It’s not inconceivable that Schleck falls one more spot to seventh place but I think he’d have to put in a disastrous ride to fall further.

Normally, a time trial this late in the Tour would probably more or less settle the podium pecking order but this year is different. There are still two tough mountain stages to ride before Saturday’s ride into Paris. I don’t know what the 19th stage will bring but I can almost guarantee the podium contenders will go at it tooth and nail on the slopes of Mount Ventoux on Friday.

The Schlecks will either want to defend their positions or, if lost in the time trial, want to regain them. Any rider who gains the podium in the time trial will want to defend his spot to the uttermost of his ability. This probably means a make-or-break ride for Armstrong. Not only will he be fending off the Schleck brothers but I’m sure Bradley Wiggins will want to take a shot.

Hopefully Armstrong will have enough left in the tank to rise to the occasion. He did put a hell of a move on Bradley Wiggins with one kilometer left in the final climb today. His acceleration looked a lot like one he would have made as a younger man and Wiggins could only watch him ride away. It was the highlight of my day.

I’m sure third is not going to be entirely satisfactory for Lance this year and I’m sure he will use it as motivation as he trains for 2010. He’ll have his own team by then and won’t have to worry about splitting leadership duties with Contador, if news reports are to be believed.

So, on to the minutia:

  • Johan Bruyneel says that he is done with Astana after this year. Apparently the Kazakhs want Alexander Vinokourov back as their leader next year, even after his suspension for doping and Contador’s all-but-in-the-bag Tour win. Bruyneel apparently has problems with this and is using it as his excuse to bolt. That confirms my suspicion that he’ll be paired up with Armstrong on a new team next year.
  • Bruyneel also denied that Nike was going to be the American sponsor of the new team. This makes me happy because my conjecture of yesterday was truly nothing more than that and now I’m convinced I was right. Why deny it unless it’s true? Odd logic, I know, but still.
  • Bruyneel also blasted Contador for dropping Kloden with an attack today. Levi Leipheimer and Lance both had things to say about the attack on Twitter today. Following them both via Twitter has been wonderfully educational, btw. Levi gave Contador the benefit of the doubt and blamed any miscommunication on the language barrier. Lance…not so much.
  • For my money, I’m all for Contador’s attack. I was reminded of former Tour champions Eddie Merckx and Bernard Hinault. Eddie Merckx, probably the most overpowering cyclist to ever sit a bike, used to ride away from everyone on every stage of every race, just because he could.

    There were no team considerations. The strongest man went out and raced and, if you couldn’t keep up, (and you couldn’t), then tough luck. Contador’s attacks have reminded me an awful lot of Merckx, especially given that he, like Merckx, has won all three of the Grand Tours. Lance, for all his Tour wins, relied heavily on having the best team and on preparing only for the Tour de France.

    I’m reminded of Hinault because of his “no gifts” quip to Lance a few years back. Lance was going to win the Tour but that didn’t stop him from going for his third stage win in a row. Contador is going to win this tour but that hasn’t stopped him from showing everyone just how strong he can be. If his own teammates cannot keep up…so be it. I for one applaud him and I hope he keeps it up. Let the strongest riders win.

    That’s all for the night. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow might bring. Coverage begins at 8:30 EST on Versus.com. Check it out!

  • 2009 Tour de Lance: Begun and Done

    The opening stage of the 2009 Tour de France is in the books and it looks like Lance Armstrong’s comeback is done as soon as it’s begun. It may sound like it’s a bit defeatist to call it done after one stage but I think it’s realistic.

    Lance Armstrong built his Tour de France wins on the strategy of winning the time trials and then holding off his rivals in the mountain stages. Lance finished a very pedestrian 10th in the opening time trail and I’d be stunned if he were a good enough climber to gain all that back in the mountains, especially against a rider like Alberto Contador. Contador finished second in today’s time trial, twenty-two seconds ahead of Armstrong, proving his all-around strength as a rider.

    Even more damning is the fact that Armstrong was beaten by two other teammates, American Levi Leipheimer and German Andreas Kloden. Armstrong is not the first, second or possibly even third best rider on his own team, never mind the rest of the field. I think that, once the tour reaches the mountains and it becomes clear that Armstrong’s chances are slim, he’ll fall in line and ride for Contador. I am not sure of this, as I think it will be difficult for him to give up his pride and a shot at the podium, but it would make sense.

    As an aside, the Astana team looks incredibly strong and it will be shocking if they don’t win the team time-trail, a stage making a comeback of it’s own, having been left out of the last several tours. Putting four men into the top 10 of the opening time-trial is amazing. Leipheimer had a great ride in the Giro d’Italia and Kloden has finished on the podium in the past. It’ll be an interesting to see if Astana can hold together as a team given they have so many strong riders, several of which are capable of finishing on the podium.

    I know there will be many who disagree with me and who will say it is early yet. As a huge tour geek and Lance fan, I am pulling for Lance but have to be realistic about his chances. I think he’ll pull out a stage win or two but this year’s race is designed to favor the younger, better climbers like Contador, Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. The race ends, for all intents and purposes, on an uphill climb to the summit of Mount Ventoux. If Lance is still contending by then, I’ll be surprised.

    Given all that, it is possible to pull back remarkable amounts of time in a single climb. Even the best climbers have bad days and can crack under the heat and strain. Even if Lance is a minute or two back, it will be possible for him to pull off the upset on Ventoux. He’s never won a stage on Mount Ventoux, finishing second in two tours and one Paris-Roubais.

    I guess there’s a first time for everything and the last mountain stages guarantee the drama remains high until the very end. Armstrong tends to improve as a rider in the second and third weeks of the tour so anything is possible. But, after today, it looks like he’s only human after all.

    Post Script: If you’re an American like me that doesn’t have cable or who wants to follow the Tour when you can’t be in front of a television, you can watch live video of the race via SBS.com out of Australia. You’ll miss Bob Roll but you get to listen to Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett call the race. And you’ll get to spoil the day’s stage for any of your friends who have to wait to go home to watch the Versus coverage.

    Update (07/05/09): It looks like SBS has blocked the US from viewing their live video feed. I’m looking around another free and live video stream but haven’t had any luck. Bummer.