The “Twenty-three Days in July” that obsess us every summer are almost at an end. When they hit the finish line on the Champs Elyseé tomorrow, the riders who finish will have ridden over 3,000 km. Every one of them must be exhausted. The race is so hard partly because the route is the most difficult in the world, and partly because no championship-level rider misses this one on purpose. Everybody is there; the competition level is enormously high.
I have groused this year about the small and unvarying time gaps. My last blog was a whine that nobody really attacked in the Pyrenees for the first three days, except for Contador at the point when his chief rival, Andy Schleck, had a mechanical problem. Well, Thursday’s stage, the last in the Pyrenees, produced some tough, championship-level riding, but no fireworks. Sizzle, mini-boom, blah. Schleck and Contador, race leaders, led the charge up the last climb, the legendary Tourmalet, that’s been in the race every year since 1910. That first year one of the riders screamed “Assassins!” at the race officials as he went over the top. This year the two contenders overtook the breakaway riders and rode together to the top of the mountain pass. They were never as much as a bike length apart from each other. Schleck led up the whole way. And Schleck crossed the line first for the victory.
Does that mean they were perfectly evenly matched? Not necessarily. Schleck was clearly riding as fact as he could go, about 99% of maximum all the way. Contador was riding just hard enough to stay on his wheel, benefiting from his slipstream, “marking” him. Schleck’s pace was very high. Could he have been riding so hard that Contador could not attack? Perhaps. But with about two km to go Contador rode easily up beside Schleck as if to say “I could attack and win the stage, but I don’t have to. All I have to do to stay ahead in the race is stay on your tail.” Schleck claimed after the race that he attacked fifteen times, and that his energy rate monitor readings could prove it. He even said in effect that “you might not have been able to see it on TV, but . . . .” What I saw was that he rose from the saddle on about fifteen occasions, stood on his pedals, and maintained almost exactly the same speed and cadence. I conclude that an attack that is not visible to the naked eye is not an attack, not matter what the monitors say.
After his one symbolic foray, Contador dropped back and resumed his wheel-sucking role, confident that he was the better time trialist and would cement the victory today in the ITT from Bordeaux to Paulliac. He did not try to come around Schleck at the end and take the stage, and thereby he avoided compounding the questionable sportsmanship of attacking during Schlecck’s mechanical. It’s also an unwritten rule that you don’t deny somebody the fruits of their labors when they’ve done all the work on the stage, even if you technically can. As somebody said a day or two ago, the trouble with unwritten rules is that they’re, well, unwritten.
Contador’s race was in the mold of the current era of cycling. We don’t have any brash, energetic, “go for the glory” kind of guys. It’s the Wheel Sucker vs. the Imperceptible Attacker. Contador didn’t endanger his slim, semi-ill-gotten lead by expending one demi-watt of unnecessary effort. I will guarantee that Lance Armstrong in his heyday would have attacked Schleck. If he had an 8 second lead going in, he’d want to come out of the mountains with a 2:08 lead, so that he could beat Schleck in the ITT by 3 minutes and win the race by 5. Instead we have in Contador a man who is going to be one of the very few in history to win the Tour without winning a single stage of the race. That’s consistent, but it’s close-to-the-vest behavior, not all-out aggression. But they were making an effort on the Tourmalet: 3rd place Sanchez lost 1:32, 4th place Menchov lost 1:40, and fifth place Van Den Brouek lost 1:48, relative to the leaders.
So today was the ride against the clock through wine country. My biggest challenge would have been to resist the temptation to stop along the way at a vineyard or two. Schleck, who has not been a great time trialist and who lost about 1:45 to Contador in last year’s ITT, rode very strongly today. Contador, however, got to ride last, as they depart in reverse order of the overall standings. Riding last allows that rider to know what all the split times of his chief rivals are (these are times taken at two or three intermediate checkpoints as each rider passes). Thus he’ll know just about how much he’s ahead or behind at defined intervals on the course and can react accordingly. Contador finished 5:43 behind the winner, in 35th place. That’s something of a shock, as he won the long time trial last year. But he was up 39 seconds on Schleck, and so victory in the Tour de France is his, barring disaster. The last stage into Paris is treated as a ceremony, a celebration, a ritual. Only the sprinters vie for new glory at the very end of the day.
Thirty-nine seconds is exactly the amount of time Contador took out of Schleck by attacking during the mechanical. Without that they’d be dead even on time. (Of course if the time relationships had been different Thursday’s race would have been different too, so that means nothing.) Next year Andy better return in even better shape, with another year of maturity, and with an ace mechanic in tow. Contador deserves the Yellow Jersey in Paris, but he looks less than I thought he would like a man who is going to threaten Lance’s record of seven lifetime victories.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.