Tour de France 2014: Parallels

I for one am pleased that Vincenzo Nibali won the 2014 Tour de France. He’s a worthy winner who got himself to the Tour start line in good form, and was able to handle the rain, the cobblestones, the nervous first week, the climbs and mountaintop finishes, and the Individual Time Trial without a significant weakness. Others fell off their bikes—multiple times—or had a single bad day in the mountains or flubbed the time trial. Nibali answered every bell. A climbing specialist, he put at least two minutes into every serious contender on the Stage 5 cobbles, finishing only 19 seconds back himself. Defending champion and favorite Chris Froome dropped out on that stage; Andy “The Wuss” Schleck was already long gone. On the climbs, he won three stages, all decisively, with an especially grand flourish on Stage 18, Hautacam, where all his rivals were at least 1:10 behind at the finish. As for the time trial, Stage 20, he finished fourth, again putting time into every other top GC rider, all of whom by that point were scrambling for the second or third podium spot because Nibali was already over 7 minutes ahead. He bested all but that top trio of time trial specialists at their own discipline. And as Phil Liggett, long-time Tour de France broadcaster asserted, “when you win the time trials and you win the climbs, there’s nothing much to do but win the Tour de France.”

Liggett said that in his broadcast during the 1999 Tour, when another first-time winner was emerging, astounding everybody with his dominance in all aspects of the race. That rider, of course, was Lance Armstrong. You know, the rider who crossed the finish line first in seven straight Tours through 2005, but is now a ghostly absence in the record books, albeit a vivid memory among those who followed the sport then and remember how dominant he was for all those years.

In 1999 Armstrong devastated a field weakened by the absence of, among others, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani. Nibali, it’s suggested, dominated in the absence of his two top rivals, the aforementioned Froome and Alberto Contador. Then and now, one might well argue you can only race against the others who are there, but the result for each rider may have been an artificially inflated impression of dominance. Armstrong came into Paris with a 7:37 minute margin over second-place finisher Alex Zülle, and Nibali finished with the exact same margin over Jean-Christophe Peraud today. Armstrong’s average speed that year over 3687 km was 40.276 kmh; Greg LeMond insisted then and now that the speeds on the road in the Tour had increased dramatically from the early ‘90s. Indeed LeMond’s speed in 1990, his last victory as the “only American” ever to win the Tour (who was that yellow-clad man all those years??), was 38.621. Interestingly, Nibali’s average speed this year over 3664 km was about 42.29 kmh, a greater increase over Armstrong’s first Tour speed than Armstrong’s was over LeMond’s. In 1999 Armstrong wore the leader’s yellow jersey for a dominant 15 days of 21, while Nibali was an even more in-control 19 of 21.

What are we to make of this? Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, Armstrong’s results look like a result, in part, of his successfully concealed doping regimen. Dominant in all phases, wide victory margin, high speed, in the race lead most of the time. Armstrong passed all the doping controls, but was caught retrospectively years later when tests emerged that detected his methodology of deception. I have no basis for accusing Nibali of anything, nor do I wish to. But when all the “clues” that might have been seen as evidence of doping are present in 2014, just as they were 15 years ago, who’s to say that exactly the same gap could not exist between the current “biological passport” and some unimaginable, undetectable, new doping scheme? Everyone who says “it’s now impossible to cheat” would have said the same thing in 1999.

Come back in 2029 and we’ll see how these results look then.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

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A Game of Flinches

The Washington Nationals game today exemplifies the way sport results can hinge on the most minor, random actions, things that go unnoticed to the unobservant or casual fan.

First, the Nationals’ closer, Rafael Soriano, blows a save by allowing the Brewers to score the tying run in the top of the ninth inning. He throws a ball up and in that is hit for a single with a runner on second. But in the last of the ninth, with Anthony Rendon on first, Jayson Werth hits a screaming liner into the left field corner. Rendon just takes off and keeps on running. The third base coach backs up halfway to home plate to get a good look at the play, and waves Rendon in. Usually that would be risky. The ball got out to left field in a hurry, and Rendon has to run 270 feet from first base to home.

Meanwhile the left fielder, Chris Davis, runs to cut the ball off by circling a little bit behind it, so he can glove it on the bounce while running forward, giving his throw to the infield more momentum. But in doing so, he has to run onto the warning track, made of a gravelly substance. As he gloves the ball he loses traction and skids for a fraction of a second just before he throws to the plate. The skid causes him to (a) double-pump before he throws, losing a little time, and (b) throw off-balance and miss the cutoff man. The skid is what the coach has seen when he waves Rendon home. He scores standing up, without even a throw.

Game over.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Tour de France 2014: Rain Matters

In sports, weather plays differing roles. I have never seen cricket, for instance, played in anything other than full sun. Baseball games used to be called in wet conditions, either “rained out” if 5 innings had not transpired, or shortened when the clouds burst open in the seventh inning, let’s say. These days, thanks to the true driving factors of commercial TV and travel schedules, no thought given to fan interest, ball games are sometimes suspended for hours while the storms pass, and completed before tiny crowds in the wee hours of the morning. At other times, they are delayed as long as possible (possible for the schedule, not the fan), and—as in one recent Washington-Baltimore game—called off just as the rain is ending. Go figure.

In the Tour de France, however, the weather is simply the weather, and the race goes on regardless. As Jesus once said, God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Since every cyclist is getting rained on, the race conditions are still equitable. And man, did the Tour riders ever experience equitability this year! Starting the race in England for the first three stages assured that the likelihood of liquid sunshine was high, and that potential was fully realized. Ironically, the main casualty in those English stages was the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish. On the sprint finish to the very first stage, in damp conditions, trying to get a line, he displayed his best Robbie McEwen imitation by lunging to the left and putting his head and shoulder into Simon Gerrans. The videos of the crash show the high-speed violence of professional cycling and the abrupt swing of fate in such circumstances. Two riders are down in an instant, and their momentum carries them for many yards along the finishing straight, scraping along the tarmac as the crowd screams. Cavendish assumes a fetal position, rightly fearing for his safety if somebody in the following pack hits him. Nobody does, but while the prostrate Gerrans looks over at him as if to ask “are you OK?”, then gingerly arises and starts seeing if his bike is still functional, Cavendish just lies there in pain. They get him over to the side wall, where he sits in anguish, and very soon the ambulance arrives to take him to hospital. His shoulder is separated; his Tour is over.

The rain followed the Tour to France, and really played hob in Stage 5, which the Tour planners had made interesting by including large sections of cobblestone farm roads, usually reserved for the specialized realm of one-day “Classics” races in the Spring rather than the 23-day stage race that is the Tour.  Cobbles are hard to ride on when they’re dry, as classics riders will tell you. But they are doubly difficult when rain has made them slippery and has transformed the roadside dirt and dust into mud. Riders cross the finish line caked from head to toe, with only their eyes, protected by just-removed goggles, uncoated. And this year on Stage 5, “rain was general all over Flanders and Northern France,” as the cyclingnews reporter described it, channeling his inner Joyce.

Road riders often have problems dealing with cobbles in the best of circumstances. In 2004, the Tour’s Stage 3 covered some cobbled sections, and Iban Mayo lost several minutes to Lance Armstrong, who continued on for his 6th of 7 Tour victories. Armstrong himself lost time to Alberto Contador on cobbles in the second and last year of his “comeback,” 2010. But those stages were run in dry conditions. In this year’s cobblestone encounter, Vicenzo Nibali, heretofore best known as an excellent climber, picked up major time over all the other contenders for overall victory by surviving the cobbles with a third-place finish only 19 seconds off the winner’s pace, while other contenders were dropping huge chunks of time. Nibali found himself more than two minutes ahead of the likes of Alejandro Valverde, Andrew Talansky, and Tejay van Garderen, and over two and a half minutes up on Alberto Contador. And as for the defending Tour winner of 2013, Chris Froome pulled a DNF after crashing twice, once near the start and then again in the midst of the cobbles, severely injuring his wrist and hips. His jersey and shorts were ripped to shreds, and the areas of skin beneath looked like raw meat.

Chris Froome after his Stage 4 crash; he abandoned after another the next day.

Chris Froome after his Stage 4 crash; he abandoned after another the next day.

And the ranks of the contenders have further thinned over the last several days. Andrew Talansky crashed on a wet descent on stage 8 and lost two minutes. Other crashes reduced his strength and he lost 10 minutes on the rainy Stage 10. Finally on a dry sunny Stage 11 he just could not cope and sought to abandon, but after team Directeur Sportif (“coach”) Robbie Hunter urged him on he heroically finished the stage alone, 32 minutes behind the day’s winner and a full 12 minutes behind the next-to-last rider. He did not start Stage 12.  Alberto Contador went down on a wet mountain descent during Stage 10, breaking his bike with the impact of the fall, tried to continue on, but could not. He had fractured his tibia.

So this, it could be said, is a Tour that was virtually over after five Stages because of the weather. One could argue that it wasn’t really the weather’s fault. Why didn’t the riders use, for example, “grippier” tires, or even tires with treads, when it was raining? They do make such things. But professional riders can handle bikes equipped with treadless racing tires (“slicks”) in wet weather, and usually do. Maybe they should slow down when it’s wet? Even I can tell you that goes against the grain of most riders. Especially in racing conditions, nobody is going to willingly give up the chance to gain a little time, or concede even a little time to others. The basic fact, however, is that some cyclists are better bike handlers than others. The combination of wet roads and slick tires is going to throw a bright and cruel spotlight on those who can’t control their bikes, and woe be unto those other riders around them who are victims of their inabilities.

Weather exists independently of human plans. The wind blows where it wants to; the rain falls on us all. And when that happens in bike races, the result is not “unfair” or “distorted.” Rather a new, unexpected range of criteria has been introduced. We discover which climbers also ride well on wet cobbles. We discover who can really handle a bike on a slick descent. We learn who has a team who can keep him out of harm’s way in dodgy circumstances. This year that man is Vincenzo Nibali. And unless he has a horrendous day in the high mountains, or somebody else has a great one, He is going to be wearing the yellow jersey on the podium in Paris on July 27.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.

Nature Report

Riding the W&OD in the relatively early morning to beat the early July heat.  I am finding myself more sensitive, if anything, to heat these days.  The summer flowers are in their prime, including yarrow, deep blue cornflowers (as yet unfaded), black-eyed Susans, St. Anne’s lace, and trumpet vine.  The fauna are about as well.  Squirrels and chipmunks scramble as the bike rolls by, and of course there are the domestic fauna: dogs on leashes (keep those leashes short, folks!), and hunting cats patiently waiting for some small rodent to make a mistake.  Todays’s special sighting was an Eastern Box Turtle, about halfway across the trail, head up and alert, contemplating his next half hour of activity in reaching the other side.  Actually, of course, I exaggerate; it would only take him a minute or less once he saw that the coast was clear.  Oddly, I did not see even one of the species this area is cursed with, though I often do see them up close, unafraid, and personal: the hoofed, hosta-eating, tick-hosting Ibmab, the evil anti-Bambi.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.