Tour de France 2011: 3 (America Ascendant)

The last couple of Tour stages have been great for Americans: the cycling team Garmin-Cervélo, the sprinter Tyler Farrar, a Garmin team member, and Jonathan Vaughters, the Garmin Directeur Sportif.  Yesterday Garmin won the Team Time Trial.  One of the most crowd-pleasing events in bike racing, this format requires each team to race to the finish as a group, starting at seven-minute intervals.  Their time is measured against the clock.  The fifth rider across the line defines the time for the whole team, so there have to be at least five riders in the bunch at the end.  The ideal is for all nine to stay together, since individual riders take turns hammering at the front of the line, serving as windbreakers for the rest (a rider saves about 30% of his energy when riding behind the leader).   If all nine are together, everybody rides faster because they don’t have to take a turn at the front so often.

Garmin was one of the favorites in the event, and they lived up to their potential over a short course where large time gaps between teams could not develop.  The first five teams finished within five seconds of each other; the top seven within twelve seconds.  Garmin have their fair share of non-Americans on the squad, such as Scot David Millar, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, and Norwegian and current yellow jersey wearer Thor Hushovd.  Hushovd is a contender for the overall points jersey for the Tour; he’s a strong sprinter and powerful rider who can handle uphill finishes better than some.  The whole team was so elated after their well-planned and excellently executed finish yesterday that they hoisted Vaughters onto their shoulders on the podium.  One-time US Postal Service teammate of Lance Armstrong, Vaughters has insisted on a high-profile anti-drug ethos on his team, and it, along with his excellent strategy and management and the team’s execution of it, paid off yesterday.

And Alberto Contador, whose Saxo Bank squad finished 28 seconds off the pace, lost between 16 and 28 seconds more to most of his main rivals.  The Tour will be decided in the mountains, but Contador is now over 1½ minutes down, and will bear the onus of making up time.  He only won the race by 38 seconds last year, and was not tired from riding (and winning) the Giro d’Italia in May, as he is now.  I’m still guessing he’ll launch a couple of blazing attacks at key moments in the mountains and blow everybody ‘way off his wheel.

An interesting tangential point about yesterday’s TTT is that Radioshack finished 6th, just 10 seconds off the pace.  It’s a team of excellent time trialists, some indeed a bit long in the tooth, but powerful riders.  In the Armstrong days this bunch, then US Postal, made winning the TTT a fetish, and pretty much the same group of riders as this year, along with Lance and Contador, won it in 2009.  I think the difference this year was the absence of Lance, a tough and insistent leader who did not brook a less than 110% effort.  That little uptick in intensity might have pushed them up ten or fifteen seconds to victory.

Today was a typical first week sprinter’s stage of the Tour.  A breakaway group of five riders was reeled in near the end, the last two riders being re-absorbed into the peloton with about 9 km to go.  All the “sprinter’s teams” then lined up for the finish, notably HTC-Highroad, whose rider Mark Cavendish is my pick for the green jersey.  But there were some tough, tight turns leading into the last km, where the sprinters find their openings, the lead-out wheels they’ll follow, and their lines.  With about 2 km to go a solo rider broke away and gained a couple of hundred meters lead.  An HTC leadout rider had to chase him down, breaking up the string of riders (the “leadout train”) ready to launch Cavendish.  meanwhile Garmin got into position, and on the last tight right-hander they had the inside track.  Cavendish just evaporated, and Thor Hushovd himself, in the yellow jersey, led out Julian Dean, who in turn launched Tyler Farrar, who thundered to a half-bicycle-length victory.  Cavendish actually did finish fifth, but was not a contender for victory.

One wonders if HTC, to reassert dominance, will begin to resort to the aggressive and dangerous tactics that got mark Renshaw DQ’d from the race last year; today Cavendish and Hushovd were DQ’d from the intermediate sprint, the latter for riding off line and the former for a head butt.  Head butting seems to be a favorite tactic of Australian and British sprinters.

At any rate, so exciting to see Tyler Farrar, a guy who fought injury and circumstance in last year’s race, win his first Tour stage.  An American, on the Fourth of July.  Sis, Boom, Ba!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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