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.

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