Tour de France 2011: 10 (and Last) True Grit Wins

Cadel Evans richly deserved his victory in the Tour de France this year.  He is the oldest “modern era” victor at age 34, with a wealth of road racing experience and a wide range of skills.  He is versatile and multi-faceted, having begun his professional cycling career as a mountain biker.  He has won the World Championship race that traditionally ends the road cycling year.  As his skills evolved, Evans became a factor in the Tour de France, finishing second twice and fourth once, but holding the Yellow Jersey (indicative of the overall lead in the race) for only six days during the race in all.  Evans can time trial well, can climb well, descend quite well, and can sprint moderately well.  In none of these areas has he been the best, however.  His general strategy in the past few Tours has been to hang with the group of lead riders in the mountains, launching an opportunistic brief attack on some occasions, and to finish among the top handful in the Individual Time Trial.  His team has generally not been strong enough to give him a boost in Tours that have included the Team Time Trial.  But his US-based BMC team this year changed that.

What Evans has always had is “grit.”  He’s hung in there, plugged away, and put himself in a position to take advantage of his opportunities and the mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes of others.  Usually, though, he’s had one or two bad days, days bad enough to put him out of the running for the top spot.  This year he elevated his game just a bit, and everybody else had enough mistakes, shortcomings, and misfortunes for him to win, when his grit was factored in.

I think of four stages that illuminate his victory formula.  First, there was his sole stage win on the Mûr-de-Bretagne in Stage Four.  This is the stage with the short, steep ascent at the very end of a ‘bumpy” rather than mountainous route.  Evans did not get dropped on the climb by the star climbers; indeed, he participated in the flurry of small attacks in the last couple of kms, and used his superior sprinting skills to beat defending champion Alberto Contador on the line by just a few cms.  Andy Schleck dropped a few precious seconds here, and Evans delivered a “message” to all his rivals.  Then there was Stage 16, that finished over the Col de Manse, downhill past the “Beloki hairpin,” and into Gap.  Evans descended with the favorites, behind a breakaway group, but in the finishing kms attacked his chasing group, gaining up to 30 seconds over the favorites at one point.  He finished with an insignificant advantage of 3 seconds, but he had displayed his powerful will to be aggressive, something he’s not always done in the past.  The “Galibier Stage,” 18, on which Andy Schleck attacked with his long breakaway, was perhaps the most vivid one for Evans.  Again holding in grittily with the chase group of favorites, Evans let the Schleck attack go, not wanting to burn himself out with 60 km left to race by chasing.  However, Schleck’s inferior descending skills off the Col d’Izoard, the next to last climb, combined with Evans’ strong descending there, helped keep Schleck within arm’s length.  Then halfway up the last climb, approaching the Col du Lautaret turn, Evans took over sole responsibility for towing the chasers along, when Contador couldn’t and Voeckler wouldn’t help out.  First Evans’ gritty charge dropped Contador out of race contention.  Then it was Evans who assured that Schleck’s advantage would be minimized, reducing a 4:20″ Schleck lead at one point on the road to only 2:15″ at the finish.  And since Evans had nibbled a bit of time from Schleck in earlier stages, that left him a manageable 57 seconds for Evans to overcome in the time trial.

But races are won on the road, not on paper.  Evans had to go out and demonstrate his time-trialing superiority.  And he did just that and more, by putting an astonishing 2:31″ into Schleck in the ITT.  He came in second by seven seconds, but Evans was far and away the best time trialler among his General Classification rivals.  And so, although he only put on the Yellow Jersey after Stage 20, Evans wore it into Paris on Sunday.  As Lance always used to say, that’s the only point when wearing it really matters.  Congratulations, Cadel!

PS  And good going, Tom Danielson.  Everybody on this side of the Pond loved your 9th place finish!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.


Tour de France 2011: 9 Going All In

So much for prognostication and judgment.  Last time I wrote about the 2011 Tour de France I said that by Thursday night the race might well be “Contador’s to lose.”  I also said that Andy Schleck hadn’t shown a “speck of form” for the entire Tour.  Well, on the judgment part I think I was right, until today.  As for the prognostication, I can always claim I was just a day early.  On Wednesday perhaps the race was Contador’s to lose.  In any case, he lost it today.  He’s sitting in 7th place tonight, 3 1/2 minutes behind Cadel Evans, who’s in 4th, and about 2:20 ahead of 9th-place Tom Danielson.  I’m sure Tom’s pleased to be where he is, but if you’d told him before the start of the race that he’d be 2:20 behind Contador after Stage 18, he’d have assumed he’d be in 2nd or 3rd place.  Often races like this are lost by contenders before they’re won, and that’s so today.

I praised Contador for attacking and going all-out on Tuesday’s stage.  He picked up so much time on Andy Schleck, who fell behind on a wet, slick descent to the finish, that I thought Andy Schleck’s chances for overall victory were dim indeed.  On that day Cadel Evans put in an all-out rush to the line, only to wind up gaining all of 3 seconds over the main rivals besides Schleck.  Yesterday it was sunny, and it was Contador and Sammy Sanchez putting on the “no guts, no glory” dash in to the finish after Contador had attacked on the last descent and gapped the contenders.  But the principle was the same: attack at any credible opportunity, squeeze all the advantage you can from the situation, and try to create some distances in the standings that you can continue to widen in coming days.  It made for very exciting racing.

Yesterday’s descent, though not on cold, rainy, slippery roads, was equally vertiginous.  The road through Alpine forests was steeply downhill, twisty, and without shoulders.  It could not have been wider that Beulah Road, west of Vienna, where it’s so steep and shady.  Several riders overcooked turns, including at least two who missed a left-hander and went through the mercifully open gates of a private parking area, where they had to do a U-turn to get back on the road.  The tight, dizzying conditions led to another round of whining by Andy Schleck, who contended that the descents in this year’s Tour are unnecessarily dangerous.  Yeah, Andy, they are dangerous for a fast but nervous racer who has not succeeded in honing his descending skills.  It’s called separating the sheep from the goats.

At the bottom of that descent Contador tried to pound home with Sanchez and retain the 20 or 30 seconds he had gained on the other contenders.  As it ended up, they came back to him just before the line and he gained nothing.  But one had to admire the competitive racing effort, the utilization of strategy, and the seizing on opportunity.

Today the world turned upside down for the Schlecks and for Contador on the third of four Alpine stages, and the most brutal, ending on the top of the Col du Galibier, at 2645m (8678 ft) the highest finish in the 108-year history of the Tour.  But the Galibier was the third HC (“Beyond Category”) climb of the 200.5 km stage.  Suffering was in the cards.  The action began on the second of those climbs, the Col d’Izoard (pronounced by English-speaking cyclists as “Is-So-Hard”).  Halfway up, after a bit of jockeying around, Andy Schleck took off from the leading group containing all the favorites.  Up ahead by several minutes was a breakaway of about ten riders, including two from Schleck’s Leopard-Trek team.

Somewhat surprisingly, the pack let him go.  They surely thought that Schleck could not sustain his attack for the entire 60 km remaining in the race, and he’d be reeled back in.  Schleck’s “very early” attack used to be par for the course in the Tour of 50 or 40 years ago, before the close-to-the-vest style took over.  But Schleck needed to gain more time than he could if he waited for the final ascent.  And so, as he said later, he decided to “go all in,” using a gambling metaphor.  And a gamble it was.  Could he work that hard for that long, especially in the thin high-altitude air?  Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were saying in their TV commentary that they’d seen nothing like this kind of attack for ages.  Apparently the official cycling world has been selectively lobotomized; it was 5 years and 1 day ago, Thursday, July 20, 2006, that Floyd Landis had a 127 km solo breakaway on a long stage that finished with a downhill into Morzine.  Of course that was the day that Landis tested as having 11 times the normal amount of testosterone in his body after the stage.

It was evident from the character of Schleck’s effort today that it was well-planned.  By the time he was in the valley between the Izoard and the Galibier he had a 3-minute lead on the chasers and was the virtual race leader.  The peloton, about 40 riders big, seemed confused and irresolute; they developed no chase plan.  Meanwhile Schleck was picking up the fragments of the break, from which Maxim Iglinsky had attacked–he was the single stage leader at that point.  Schleck caught both his teammates in turn, first Joost Posthuma, who provided pace and a wind break for a couple of km, and then Maxime Monfort, who gave him powerful pacemaking for a number of critical, heroic km riding along the false flat of the valley into a brisk headwind.  Three other riders were in their group but did little work.  yet the gap over the leader’s group grew to about 4:20 by the time Schleck hit the base of the Galibier.  By halfway up the Galibier he was alone at the head of the race.

On the final ascent the leader’s group, 30 at the base of the climb, clawed back time slowly.  Frank Sckleck shadowed Contador, Evans stayed near the front, and Thomas Voeckler hung in there with a single teammate.  Evans finally decided to take leadership of the chasers since nobody else was.  Voeckler, to his discredit, waved off several appeals for help.  Contador helped Evans for a short time, but then slipped off the pace so suddenly that he caused a traffic jam because his shadow, Frank Schleck, slowed too.  By that time the group numbered 10 or 11, and it soon was even smaller because Contador completely lost contact.

As Andy Schleck struggled up the last, 9% grade, kms of the Galibier he ceded his “virtual” yellow jersey back to Voeckler, who kept the real Yellow Jersey by a truly magnificent struggle to keep pace.  At the end he was so exhausted that he could not speak for several minutes.  Evans also limited his losses and now sits 1:12 off Voeckler’s pace, with Andy at 0:15 and Frank at 1:08.  Cunego and Basso are both 3:46 behind.  Contador lost almost two minutes in the las 5 or so km, and is 4:44 off Voeckler’s pace.

So for Andy it was a great ride, an impressive display of great form, and a move that opened up the race to at least four contenders and “shelled out” the defending champ, Contador.  Assuming all challengers remain relatively competitive, one or two might be eliminated from serious contention on l’Alpe d’Huez tomorrow.  The rest will duke it out for overall victory at the Individual Time Trial on Saturday.  Should be fun to watch!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Tour de France 2011: 8 Gap Gaps

The leaders of the Tour de France proved today that it’s never too late to show that you actually want to win the race.  The first pre-Alpine stage after the Second Rest Day bumped slowly uphill across the northern hills of Provence, beginning at 99m above sea level, rising as high as 1268m, and finishing at 744m in the town of Gap, a great place name for a low-altitude takeoff point at the gateway to the high Alps.  The route featured a steep and technical descent over the final 12 meters from the Col de Manse into town, using the twisting, narrow roads that the Tour rode in the hot summer of 2003 when the tarmac was melting and Josebo Beloki crashed horribly in front of Lance Armstrong when his glue-on tubular tire slipped off the rim.  That’s when Armstrong put his cyclo-cross skills to use, riding downhill across a farm field and carrying his bike over a deep ditch and back onto the road, thereby averting certain disaster.

This year, today, it looked as though the leaders would once again just watch each other as a formidable breakaway group with Thor Hushovd, Ryder Hesjedal, and Edvald Boassen Hagen opened a huge gap before the only rated climb of the day, the Col de Manse, shortly before the finish.  Those strong men did stay away, with the wily Hushovd taking a sprint from his countryman Boassen Hagen.  But a few km before the top of the Col, Alberto Contador showed that he could indeed sustain an attack, and was inclined to want to use his skills to win a bike race.  After a few accelerations he found himself tailed only by Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez.  The three of them put a huge distance between themselves and the rest of the chasing peloton containing the likes of game Thomas Voeckler, the Schleck brothers, and Tom Danielson, now the most proficient American in the race.

Since they got over the top first, they picked up more time on the way into Gap.  And behind them the chase group split, with Voeckler and Frank Schleck in the leading half, and a bedraggled and disconsolate Andy Schleck in the second half.  Among the three race leaders seeking to gain time on the others, Evans put in an attack over the last couple of level kms to the finish, though he ended up putting only three seconds into Contador and Sanchez.  The point is, though, he tried, laying his skills on the line and creating for a few minutes the hope of a 20 or 30 second gap.  All three of these guys rode like men possessed, though coming in over 4 minutes after the breakway leaders.

And more importantly, Evans, Contador, and Sanchez picked up 18 seconds on the first chase group with most of the other favorites, about 50 seconds on Basso, and a minute and five seconds on Andy Schleck.  True, Contador is still behind Voeckler by 3:42, Evans by just under 2 minutes, and Andy Schleck by 39 seconds.  But Andy is now behind his own brother, who intended to ride in a supporting role, by over a minute.  If Contador is going to face serious competition in the high Alps it just might be from Evans, who (unlike Andy Schleck) really can time-trial.  By Thursday night, we might see clearly that the Tour is really Contador’s to lose.  Schleck hasn’t shown a speck of form in the whole race, and only Evans seems capable of spoiling Contador’s tactics.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Tour de France 2011: 7 Mountains 1

At my college, tucked among the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, we had a college song called “The Mountains.”  (Only in Massachusetts would the Berkshires be called “mountains”; there was one mountain, Mount Greylock, and even that was much like a high hill.)  I don’t recall the verses of our song, but the refrain was: “The mountains, the mountains, we greet them with a song, / Whose echoes rebounding the woodland heights along, / Shall mingle with anthems than winds and fountains sing, / ‘Til hills and valleys gaily, gaily ring.”

Cycling fans greeted this week’s Tour stages with a song too.  This would be when the rubber hit the road, when the pretenders would be exposed, when the contenders would show what they had to offer.  Never mind the flattish Tuesday and Wednesday stages.  Never mind that the defending champion Alberto Contador strongly hinted he was not planning for much to happen until the Alps next week.  After all, his rivals would have something to say about that.  No, beginning Thursday we would see some fireworks.  There would be some heart-pounding finishes; some hopefuls would find their hopes dashed.  After all, there were to be two mountain-top finishes perfect for serious contenders to gap the weaker riders, sandwiching a ride over the formidable Col d’Aubisque, where attackers could break away and stay away.  Instead, the Tour finds itself a single flat stage away from the second Rest Day with Frenchman Thomas Voeckler firmly holding the Yellow Jersey he won back on stage 9, no favorite for GC having won a stage (Samuel Sanchez’s victory Thursday being the closest), and serious doubts beginning to emerge whether any of the main contenders has what it takes to claim a decisive stage victory, much less a commanding GC lead.

Now I admit that Thor Hushovd’s strong victory at Lourdes yesterday at Lourdes (though all the headline writers worked in the cheesy “miracle” puns) after a fabulous descent from the Aubisque was great, and the flat stages yielded some mildly interesting sprints.  The American rider Tom Danielson’s ride uphill today was pretty impressive too, though he ended up coming in about 1:45 behind the main contenders; he hung tough for quite a while and sits in 9th place overall.  But to admire these details is to cherry-pick a couple of gems from generally uninspired racing that left me wondering “does anybody have the talent plus the fire in the belly to try to win this Tour?”

Recent Tours have generally lacked the overall no-holds-barred give and take of the days of the 1950s through 1970s.  Then time gaps were bigger, and daily stages featured decisive breakaways over mountain stages by the top riders.  Now the peloton controls almost all of every race.  If, as on today’s stage to Plateau de Beille, there are any attacks at all, they will be made on the last climb, and especially within the last few kilometers of the finish line.  Caution rules; don’t even think about riding hard enough to risk going into the red zone (where a rider’s energy spent exceeds his physical resources) or you could lose big time.  Better just to stay even with your main rivals and let them take the risks.

Today it was evident that Andy Schleck (4th place overall), who leads Alberto Contador (7th place overall) by 1:45, tried several “feints,” or “test attacks,” to see if he could create a gap between himself and Contador.  He couldn’t, not easily anyhow, so he waited until about 200 meters from the finish and then sprinted away, gaining all of 2 seconds over the other main contenders.  But he was 46 seconds behind Jelle Vanendert, who won the stage.  It was Vanendert, riding his first Tour initially as a support rider for a teammate who has since crashed out, who broke away with several km to go to create the gap.  The favorites let him go, content to watch each other.

Nine years ago on the same mountain Lance Armstrong, already wearing Yellow and pairing with teammate Roberto Heras, attacked his prime rival Josebo Beloki to gain an additional full one minute advantage.  Lance could almost be forgiven for relaxing by one of his swimming pools (he was recently identified as the biggest private user of water in water-conscious Austin), watching today’s stage, and starting to plan another comeback.  Yeah, Lance, I didn’t see the same combination of resolve, passion, and ability out there today that I, and Beloki, did back then.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Temptation to Ride

Why go out on the W&OD on a day like this?  A conglomeration of mixed motives and emotions, I guess.  The little weather logo on my WeatherBug® forecast page reflects the prediction of near-100° weather by showing a glowing sun, radiating heat, over barren sand and a cactus.  The cactus appears to be a Giant Saguaro, so I assume the reference is to the Sonoran Desert and maybe Tuscon, places that God clearly did not intend to be inhabited by large numbers of persons dependent on cool water and air conditioning.  My usual response to such an image is to reflect that I am not cut out to cycle in Sonoran conditions.  And that’s based solely on weather factors, never mind the scorpions and Brown Recluse Spiders.

But today my legs were aching for a ride, the morning air seemed drier and even cooler than the 78° reading at 8:15 promised, I was oddly hankering to see how bad it would really be out there.  So I suited up, threw a few extra ice cubes in my hydration pack, and went.  I promised myself I would turn around if the heat got out of hand or my body responded negatively.  Along the way I was even tempted to climb Hunter Station Road, the hill that had given me such problems last year that I decided to ride it rarely this summer.  I was oddly attracted to climb it yesterday but resisted.  Today I went for it.  I tried deliberately not to push myself, to let what felt right happen, and all was well.  Though all was also slow; on the steepest section I was cranking all of 5.1 mph.  But of course, that’s just a number.  the experience was great.  It was almost as if I feared truly diabolical heat, and got nothing more that a bit of southern summer.

Summer’s hottest day
Tempts me to know sweat; I climb
Hunter Station Road.

As the ride went on I noticed that the air was not as “close” as I’d have expected.  Obviously there was more sheer heat and less humidity.  And when I turned around in Herndon, what little breeze there was blew from behind.  I didn’t do my usual rest stop because I wanted to take full advantage of the shade.  On these near-solstice summer mornings the sun rises so far to the north that there is lots of shade covering the Trail, which essentially runs southeast to northwest, well into the morning.  Parts of the downhill inbound section between Sunset Valley and Hunter Mill are true “bowers,” shady almost all the time because the trees form a tunnel.  (Don’t tell Dominion Power, or they’ll cut them down out of an “abundance of caution.”)  More importantly, the false-flat inbound stretch from Hunter Mill to Vienna is also very shady in the early morning.  Even at 10:15, between the bridge near Hunter Mill and the one near Vienna it’s covered maybe 75%-80% in the right lane, and a rider who cheats to the left gets almost 90%.  But by 11:00 most of that’s gone and you’re lugging it home in full sun.

So I relished the shade, the belated onset of humidity and high heat, and got in an old favorite climb as well.  Great ride!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Tour de France 2011: 6 Rest Day

To be clear: I did not rest today.  Nope, after two days off the bike, I was out there at 8:32 this morning.  I arrived home at about 10:42, after a ride that lasted about 1:45 and (apparently) about 25 minutes of waiting for lights at intersections, plus my brief “rest” at the turnaround point.  When I left the temperature was about 77; when I got back it was about 84; now it’s about 90.  The humidity is creeping up.  If I want to ride tomorrow I will probably have to start earlier or ride a shorter route.  My ride this morning was about aerobic exercise, health and conditioning, and pleasure.  I told my wife when I got back that “only an idiot would go out on a day like this.”  But I’m a happy idiot.

Every rider left on the Tour rode this Rest Day morning too (offset by a 6-hour time differential).  For many of them, however, it was about survival.  Crashes in the first week of this Tour have been unprecedented in my memory for their frequency and severity.  Eighteen riders have abandoned the race altogether, almost all because of injuries suffered in crashes, and there could be a couple more who announce their abandoning before the stage begins tomorrow.

One of the latter is Andreas Klöden of RadioShack.  I spoke too soon in my prior blog about him staying out of trouble.  He was caught behind a crash yesterday and lost a few seconds to the other main contenders.  But he was relatively lucky.  Contador actually did crash, and in the process banged his sore knee again.  Klöden rode today, as did every other able-bodied Tour participant.  But for many it was a training ride, just enough effort to keep their muscles supple and used to hours in the saddle.  But Klöden was also testing his injured back to see if he can line up for the start in the morning.  Others also were assessing their injuries.

Something really ugly, and in my opinion still underplayed, in this year’s Tour is the crash factor of motor vehicles colliding with racers on bikes.  This has now happened twice in 2011.  The first one was a photographer’s motorcycle, which is bad enough.  Yesterday it was a car operated by reporters and photographers for French TV.  The driver had the choice of sideswiping a tree or hitting a rider.  he chose to hit the rider.  That choice in itself shows such fundamental disrespect of the athletes and the race itself that none of the occupants of that car should ever be allowed in the Tour entourage/motorcade again, ever.  Worse yet, the rider who was struck was pushed into a second rider with such violence that that second rider was launched airborne across the road and into a barbed wire fence.  Incredibly both riders finished the  stage, and the second rider currently holds the Polka-Dot jersey indicative of supremacy in the mountains (of course the big mountains really don’t start until Thursday).  But he may not be able to start tomorrow depending on how his lacerations are responding to treatment.

Two vehicle-rider collisions in a Tour is two too many.  I can’t think of one other instance in the last 25 years except for Greg LeMond being rear-ended by a team car at very low-speed when there was a sudden halt in the peloton.  These journalists are getting to be like The News of the World.  Abandon all principle in the quest for the best shot, the best quote.  It’s all about them; they consider themselves more important than the race.  There need to be strict new limitations imposed on their operation within the race during stages, and legal penalties for violations like these two idiots who thought about themselves and not anybody else.  I deplore the fact that the Race Director and the ASO organization he represents have not been aggressively vocal in their responses to these incidents.  They are not “accidents” in these sense that they should be absolutely preventable.  Safety of the riders is paramount, a value that ASO seems to have forgotten completely.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Tour de France 2011: 5 Dashes and Crashes

The last four stages of the Tour de France have been a further departure from the days of yore, let’s say 25 years ago, when the only question in the first week was whether then-superstar sprinter, the handsome Italian Mario Cipollini, could win four or five stages in a row with his fabulous team Saeco lead-out train.  The long, straight, wide finishing kilometers are absent this year, as the Tour organizers have preferred twisty small roads, bumpy hills, and dramatic turns leading to the finish line.

However, Mark Cavendish got his chance on Friday.  Thursday’s and Friday’s stages were the longest two of the tour, at 226.5 km and 218 km respectively.  My question is, why have an extra-long stage when the course is designed so that the whole day’s ride comes down to a mass sprint inside the last kilometer?  Do the legs need to be that tired to “test” the true hard men?  This results in dull racing, when the small break of two or three riders gets swallowed up by the peloton within 2 or 3 km of the finish.  It’s fascinating one time to witness the fact that a large group of riders can outlast a few over the long haul, and can (and do!) calculate exactly how fast they will have to ride to, first, let them “dangle” off the front until they are really tired, and then roar by, 50 or 100 riders strong, as the exhausted breakaway riders fade quickly through the bunch and end up trailing in a couple of minutes after the others.

Still, it was thrilling to see, on Friday, the HTC-Highroad team lead Cavendish to victory.  (The team, but not all its riders, is American.  Tour TV commentator Phil Liggett loves to remind viewers frequently that the team is based in San Luis Obispo, CA; he seems to like the exotic sound of the name.)  On Friday HTC hit the front of the peloton with roughly two km to go, blazing away at about 60 km/h.  All 9 riders were there.  Cavendish had EIGHT guys to lead him out!  The TV shots were great, the telephoto from a frontal angle with all nine jerseys spaced as evenly as if it were a military drill, “HTC” showing on every bicep sleeve at exact intervals.  Cavendish, last in the line, was ahead of every non-HTC rider in the race.  Other sprinters were trying to stay on his wheel, knowing that he’d be the one to follow inside 200 m or so.  This finish was straight as a ruler for the last 1.5 km in, and when they started pounding for the line it was no contest, as one after the other leadout rider peeled off and let Cavendish go.  As Liggett said, perfect “textbook” form.

The week has featured a lot of rainy riding and wet roads, not great for Brittany/Normandy tourism.  When we were in Normandy last May the weather was mostly nice, at the very least dry.  What’s with the July monsoon?  So many days with riders having a black line of road dirt up their backsides, and skidding around on their thin, slick tires.  The wet, as well as the narrow roads, as well as (ironically) the desire of all contending riders and their teams to be near the front of the pack to avoid crashes–all these factors have caused crashes.  These crashes have usually come in the middle of the race, at seemingly innocuous points, rather than in sprint melees right near the finish.  The result of the mass pileups (when everyone is riding tightly together and somebody goes down, the “domino effect” is illustrated perfectly in the heaps of entangled $10,000 bikes and their spindly riders) has been unexpected, unpredictable time gaps among some of the contenders.  And worse, it means concussions, broken collarbones and wrists, ending tour dreams.  It takes only one careless spectator, stray dog, moment of rider inattention, flat tire, or the like to make it happen.

And the American team RadioShack has been hard-hit.  This is the continuation under new sponsorship of Lance Armstrong’s old team, and it contains many of his ex-colleagues.  Two ‘Shack riders are out of the race: young Jani Brajkovic and old Chris Horner are gone with concussions and other injuries.  Horner came in 12 minutes after the main field the day he crashed, and apparently remembered very little about it.  Both of these riders had a shot at leading the race; Horner finished eighth last year.  And then there’s Levi Leipheimer, who crashed yesterday mainly because he was pushed to the side of a narrow, wet road by the force of the pack, was not paying attention, was not well-positioned, and skidded on the white paint demarking the edge of the road.  He hit a guard rail, got thrown off his bike, and skidded 50 or 60 feet down the road sitting up and facing forward, on his butt.  He had to get up and run back to his bike.  Chasing back behind the peloton, he lost about two minutes and now sits 4:43 behind the leader and 3:01 behind Contador.  If Contador’s behind the 8 ball, Levi’s lost his pool cue altogether.  In 2009 Leipheimer crashed similarly in an innocuous, non-critial moment of Stage 12, breaking his wrist and thus dropping out of the race.  Some people just don’t have the knack of staying out of trouble and riding without crashing in tight quarters.  Andreas Klöden, who is now the RadioShack leader pretty much by default, Is 12 seconds off the lead and 1:29 ahead of Contador.  All Leipheimer had to do was ride with Klöden and he’d be well-positioned too.  Now he’s destined to be a support rider to keep his teammate in contention.  C’est la guerre; c’est la vie.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.