TdF: Day Twenty-two

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.

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One thought on “TdF: Day Twenty-two

  1. Only once did Contador appear to counter-attack Schleck, and it really did look like an attack for about 4 seconds until Schleck counter-counter-attacked, as if to say “I’m not done yet…I’m not going to let you go.” And Schleck clearly was the power source going up the Tourmalet…but you’re right, as fast as he was riding, the accelerations were a little too gentle to shake Alberto (who looked quite busy but not in true distress) loose.

    As for the final ITT, I think Contador was not feeling his best and the riders nearer to the top of the standings had more difficult weather conditions than, say, stage-winner Cancellara, in terms of a headwind. You’re right though that had Contador really felt stronger he would have launched real attacks that could shake Schleck and everybody else loose…but only on the terrain that really suited him did he take a few seconds launching a late attack that stuck. The remainder of the time, it was Shleck dictating the pace, and it was a pace that Contador could handle but couldn’t really better.

    A lot was made during this tour of ‘bad luck’. Well, chance favors the prepared.

    Lance’s worst crash on his worst day was not bad luck, it was a lapse in concentration–of the type that he would have had the focus to avoid in his heyday. He clipped a pedal in a corner, nobody else made the mistake there but him. And then he compounded the error by panicking and putting himself into debt before reaching the base of the big climbs of the day…and then bonked on the way up, unable to match the pace of the other strong men. I wonder if in his panic he forgot to eat & drink enough.

    Schleck’s ‘mechanical’ was also somewhat self-inflicted. This wasn’t a chance flat tire by picking up an invisible thorn…he blew a shift while pedaling at full throttle. I say it was more clumsy mistake than equipment failure. Not so different than the rider (I believe a young Garmin rider?) who accidentally unclipped from his pedals down the start ramp of the final ITT and crashed only a few meters off the ramp.

    That said, I have mixed feelings about that ‘Schleck mechanical’ episode. First, Schleck probably shouldn’t have put himself in that situation. And he nearly caught up, only ~11 seconds down at the top of the col? But he never closed on the descent and Contador’s group made another ~30 seconds on Andy in the final km’s during the run in to the finish. This was the heat of battle, perhaps Contador should be excused for not feeling the need to wait up for the rider who just 3 seconds earlier was attempting to attack and leave him behind. That said, man-up and say it. Don’t tell everyone that you didn’t see it, when clearly it happened right in front of you.

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