31 July 2009

A gentleman and a gentle man

Sir Bobby Robson CBE

After a long battle with cancer, Bobby Robson passed away this morning.

There's not much to say that hasn't already been said elsewhere, but I will just note a summary of his achievements below.

18 years a player, including 20 England caps.

13 years as manager of Ipswich Town, winning both the 1978 FA Cup and the 1981 UEFA Cup.

Manager of the England national side for eight years. Remains one of only two men to have led England to a World Cup semi-final. At the helm for two of the national team's most memorable World Cup defeats: the 1986 quarter-final against Argentina, which saw Diego Maradona's controversial 'Hand of God' goal, and the 1990 semi-final against West Germany, remembered by all for Gazza's tears and an emotional penalty shootout.

One of a tiny handful of English managers to enjoy success outside the British Isles, with stints in charge of PSV Eindhoven (twice), Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona, before returning to take charge of his beloved Newcastle United from 1999 to 2004.

Winner of the Dutch league title with PSV in 1991 and 1992, and the Portuguese title with Porto in 1995 and 1996.

Led Barcelona to three trophies, including a European Cup Winners' Cup triumph in 1997. While there, mentored a young Portuguese named Jose Mourinho.

Mere facts and statistics do not come close to telling the full story, though. Robson was a hugely respected manager and a man utterly without enemies. And his paternal smile concealed a man of immense strength; a man who, sadly, wilted away before our eyes as the effects of cancer took a cumulative toll. I watched his last public appearance for the tribute match in his name at St James' Park last Sunday and saw an emaciated fighter nearing the end; I had no idea quite how near. His passing will be mourned by all football fans.

Farewell, Sir Bobby. You were in every respect a gentleman and a gentle man. Football is a poorer place today without you.

27 July 2009


The Tour de France is a race steeped in tradition, and yesterday's 21st and final stage into Paris was no exception.

As is traditional, Astana, the team of the maillot jaune Alberto Contador, led the way onto the Champs Élysées. As is traditional, a breakaway launched itself off the front of the pack shortly after. And, as has become traditional during the 2009 edition of the Tour, Mark Cavendish won the sprint.

As if there was ever really any doubt.

The 'Manx Missile' contested six finishes at this year's Tour and won them all, bringing his career total in this race alone to ten. Add that to his three stages at May's Giro d'Italia and his win in the Milan-San Remo one-day classic, and he has already had a more successful 2009 than the majority of professional cyclists have careers.

Yesterday's win on the Champs Élysées was the one Cavendish has been most coveting all along, and it was the easiest of the lot. Despite Garmin's concerted, and initially successful, attempt to disrupt the Columbia HTC lead-out train in the closing kilometres, Cav's more experienced team was still able to take prime position in the final kilometre. Big George Hincapie drove them into the Place de la Concorde where Mark Renshaw took over; Garmin's Julian Dean, attempting to pilot Tyler Farrar into a position to challenge, tried a desperate kamikaze move to cut in front of Renshaw across the inside of the final bend but succeeded only in disrupting everyone else; Renshaw towed Cavendish unchallenged to the line to the extent that, easing up, he was able to finish second himself, and Cav kicked down for the sheer joy of it to win by around thirty metres - the equivalent of Usain Bolt's astonishing winning margin at the 100 metres in Beijing.

Afterwards, Cavendish was predictably ecstatic with his day’s – and his three weeks’ – work. “I said all along I wanted to win on the Champs Élysées and the feeling doesn’t disappoint. Every sprinter in the world dreams of crossing the line with their hands in the air on the Champs Élysées, and I wanted this so bad. I came here wanting to win as many stages as possible. I said I would have been content with one stage and reaching Paris, and I’ve done that and we can go home and be so happy with what we’ve done here. We’ve had a beautiful three weeks.”

And he went on to put the final full stop on his post-Besançon spat with Thor Hushovd, having already publicly apologised to him on Friday and joining him in a strictly-for-laughs mock sprint for 104th place at the top of Mont Ventoux yesterday. “Everybody knows I mouth off when I’m upset. It’s the mentality of the sprinter: you get upset in the heat of the moment, but when you have time to reflect on it you see you’re in the wrong. [Thor] is a great, great guy on the bike and off the bike. We’ve always got on well and to fall out over something so silly, it’s not really worth it.”

With yesterday’s win, Cavendish becomes the first rider to claim six stages in a single Tour since Bernard Hinault won seven in 1979. After a race in which only one other stage – the sixth, to Barcelona, won by Hushovd - was claimed by a fellow green jersey sprinter, and having dominated last year’s sprints as well, Cav can already stake a claim to being right up among the sport's greatest fast men, which would see him rubbing shoulders with sprint deities such as Freddy Maertens and Mario Cipollini. That’s pretty exalted company to be keeping.

Forget about Andy Murray. Never mind Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton. Here we have a Brit who is quantifiably, indisputably the best in the world at what he does. That is a cause for major celebration.

And, better still, it is not just Cav. Bradley Wiggins maintained his overall fourth place at the finish, matching Robert Millar as the best-ever finish by a British rider. With Team Sky joining the professional peloton next season, British cycling has never been in better health.

26 July 2009

Massa's miracle

Imagine a large bag of sugar falling out of a cupboard onto your head. Now picture being hit in the head by someone throwing it as hard as they can. Finally, imagine the same thing happening at three times that speed.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened to Felipe Massa during qualifying yesterday for the Hungarian Grand Prix. An 800g spring became dislodged from Rubens Barrichello’s car in front of him, which then bounced up and struck the Brazilian driver, following behind at 150 mph, on the head. The blow rendered him immediately unconscious, and his car speared off into the tyre wall at the side of the track. Photographic images of Massa being lifted out of his car by paramedics clearly show both where the missile struck the left side of his helmet and a nasty-looking injury to his left eye. He was immediately helicoptered to a hospital in Budapest with ‘life-threatening injuries’, where after a successful emergency operation he is now apparently stable and in a medically-induced coma to prevent further cranial damage.

It is testament to the safety measures which have been introduced into Formula 1 over the last forty years that Massa is still alive.

In the days of Moss, Fangio and their black-and-white TV brethren with their leather helmets, the initial impact of the spring would certainly have killed Massa. And if by some miracle that hadn’t, the resulting crash in his car – probably with a concrete wall (no tyre barriers back then) – would have finished the job. Without the strength of carbon fibre monocoques and energy-absorbing collapsible designs, the impact would have shattered both legs and body. Debris from the shattering car – untethered wheels, suspension parts, bodywork – might have punctured or caved in his head or rib-cage. And if that wasn’t enough, there is a strong chance the unprotected fuel tank would also have exploded, possibly incinerating him before help could arrive.

As it was, the combination of a modern F1 design and the tyre barrier did their job in dissipating the massive energy involved in a 100 mph-plus crash away from the driver. And Massa’s helmet, shattered though it was, largely withstood the bulk of the impact and would also have absorbed a massive amount of energy. Without it, his skull might well have been shattered rather than fractured. In short, contemporary safety measures ensured Felipe Massa was taken from the Hungaroring to a hospital for an operation, rather than to the mortuary for a post-mortem.

40 years ago, maybe even as recent as 10-15, that would not have been the case. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, coming as it does at the end of a week when Sir John Surtees’ son Henry was killed by an untethered wheel in a crash at Brands Hatch, it is easy to over-react and point to the obvious dangers of competing in open-topped, single-seater racers. But danger is part of the excitement of Formula 1 – without it, it is little more than live action Scalextric – and while huge efforts have been undertaken (and continue to be) to mitigate the risks, it will never be possible to remove it completely.

Instead, I believe it’s more relevant to consider how few major safety incidents Formula 1 has experienced in recent years. Yes, we have had pit-lane fires, spectacular crashes (Robert Kubica’s terrifying end-over-end cartwheel at Montreal two years ago, for instance), and some quite nasty injuries (Michael Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone in 1999, say). But in reality it has been 15 years since the last driver fatality at an F1 race (Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994), and the last two life-threatening injuries in F1 were, I believe, Karl Wendlinger at Monaco in 1994 and Mika Hakkinen at Adelaide the following year. Both Wendlinger and Hakkinen suffered terrible head trauma but recovered fully enough to return to racing – Hakkinen went on to win world titles in 1998 and 1999. We have become accustomed to drivers emerging from the most horrific-looking incidents with little more than a broken fingernail, ruffled hair and a mild headache; it's in this context that yesterday's events seem particularly shocking.

Complacency is the enemy of progress, but in the specific area of safety this is one F1 really does have a good record. Now is not the time for finger-pointing and over-reaction. It is a time to acknowledge the massive safety advances made in F1 over the years. And for prayer. It is no miracle that Massa survivied yesterday's freak accident; it is simply the appliance of science in a sport which is more than aware of its own dangers.

Best wishes to Felipe Massa for a full and speedy recovery.

25 July 2009

Damp squib

In the end, the stage which the Tour de France organisers had set up to guarantee fireworks on the penultimate day of the race delivered little more than a succession of damp squibs.

Sure, we saw the lead bunch quickly whittled down to just the main contenders. And yes, we did see a string of accelerations which repeatedly stretched and occasionally splintered the group. But there was never a truly destructive, sustained attack from anyone, and on a day which started with high hopes – and a mere 38 seconds separating third from sixth – by the time the leaders had crossed the finish line at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the only change at the top of the general classification was that Frank Schleck had swapped places with Andreas Klöden for fifth, and had missed out on overtaking Bradley Wiggins by four seconds.

In the end, it was a combination of the conditions (headwinds of up to 40kph near the top of the climb, hardly unusual for Ventoux) and tactics – Andy Schleck’s repeated attacks (12 in all), aimed primarily at trying to leapfrog his brother into a podium place, were generally abandoned within seconds because Frank could not keep pace. Every time an attack succeeded in dislodging one or more members of the lead pack, the younger Schleck would relent, allowing not just his brother but everyone else to regain lost ground.

After several rounds of quick-slow-quick-slow, it became obvious that the remnants of the breakaway which had led since the early kilometres were going to succeed in staying clear at the front, thanks to the chess game going on behind them. That should in no way diminish the achievements of Juan Manuel Garate and Tony Martin, who were the only two of the original sixteen to survive, but the fact is that a genuine flat-out race among the yellow jersey group would have swallowed them up before the finish.

Anyhow, the record will show that in the last couple of hundred metres, Garate sped clear to claim a fine win for both himself and his beleaguered Rabobank squad, who have endured a miserable three weeks, as both their overall contender, Denis Menchov (winner of May’s Giro d’Italia) and their sprinter Oscar Freire had disappeared virtually without trace.

And just because the pace was less than flat-out doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough going. While Alberto Contador seemed to have little problem responding to Andy Schleck’s constant attacks, Klöden was repeatedly dropped, and by the final three kilometres, at which point Schleck launched perhaps his biggest attack of all, it was becoming clear that Wiggins was at his absolute limit too. As he increasingly lost touch with the lead group, now also containing Frank Schleck, his fourth place came under serious threat. With just 23 seconds separating him from Wiggins, Frank endured an agonising wait after crossing the finish line, counting the gap until the Brit’s arrival. Finally, squeezing out every last scrap, Wiggins all but collapsed over the line … 20 seconds behind Frank. He had held onto fourth by three seconds – equivalent to maybe 20 metres – but it is a fine achievement for a rider who has never previously finished inside the top 100 in Paris.

That was pretty much it as far as the serious racing was concerned, although there was an amusing cameo some 25 minutes later as a large and tired gruppetto trundled towards the finish. New best buddies Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd shared a laugh and staged a mock sprint … for 104th place. Cavendish finished ahead – as he has done repeatedly throughout this Tour – but this was merely a microcosm of what we had seen with the leaders earlier: a slow-motion, not-quite race that had no impact whatsoever on the overall results.

It’s a shame. This final week of the Tour has been consistently thrilling, building to a crescendo today that never quite happened. No one is to blame, but at the same time I can’t help but feel slightly cheated, like turning up to a football match only to find it has been postponed.

But that’s just the way sport is. It has the capacity to delight and frustrate in equal measure, and on the whole this has been a good Tour, with twists and turns aplenty both on and off the road. We have seen Contador emerge victorious from his intra-team battle with Lance Armstrong; Lance himself has defied both his age and the sceptics by earning a podium finish four years after his initial retirement; Hushovd and Cavendish have engaged in a fascinating tortoise-and-hare battle for the green jersey.

I’m just hoping Cav will sign off with a (sixth) win tomorrowin Paris. I don’t think any sane observer could argue he doesn’t deserve it. Add that to Wiggo’s fourth place and it would end the 2009 Tour on a real high note for British cycling, which has never been in ruder health.

Overall standings after stage 20:
1. Alberto Contador 81h 46’ 17”
2. Andy Schleck @ 4’ 11" behind
3. Lance Armstrong @ 5’ 24”
4. Bradley Wiggins @ 6’ 01”
5. Frank Schleck @ 5’ 59”
6. Andreas Klöden @ 6’ 42”
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 7' 35"
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 12' 04"
9. Roman Kreuziger @ 13' 16"
10. Christophe Le Mevel @ 14' 25"

Is Mark Cavendish the new Lance Armstrong?

No, I haven't gone stark raving mad. No, I'm not suggesting that Mark Cavendish is ever going to wear the yellow jersey into Paris. And no, I'm not saying that he will still be racing in Grand Tours at the age of 37, as Lance Armstrong is doing.

What I am saying is that, on a day that Cavendish became the first man to win five stages in a single Tour de France since Armstrong himself in 2004, he is starting to show some of the characteristics which have made 'Big Tex' the centre of both competitive and media attention for so many years.

Three examples of how these two men – so different in so many other ways – are similar:

Yesterday’s stage from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas – relatively flat but with the category two climb of the Col de L’Escrinet just 16 km from the finish – was an obvious candidate for a harmless breakaway to have their day in the sun while the leading men saved their energies for Mont Ventoux tomorrow (in the case of the GC riders) and the Champs Élysées on Sunday (for the sprinters). Instead, it was Cavendish’s will which shape the outcome of the stage.

Like Armstrong in his US Postal & Discovery days, Cavendish has his Columbia HTC team focussed solely around him, completely subjugating their individual objectives. Having decided that, instead of trailing in behind in the autobus, he was going to get over the L’Escrinet and contest the finish, that then became his team’s sole aim. So when Cavendish and Columbia set off with the main bunch in pursuit of the day’s breakaway over the climb, that then forced Thor Hushovd to cover his wheel to defend his green jersey, which in turn ensured Milram worked for Gerald Ciolek, Rabobank for Oscar Freire and so on. From the repercussions of a single rider’s decision, the breakaway was thus doomed. Columbia nursed Cav over the mountain, worked hard to ensure the break was caught, and set up the sprint. Which, naturally, Cavendish then won, kicking with nearly 300 metres to go as Ciolek tried to sneak up on him and sustaining his speed to the line, eventually beating Hushovd by a length. It was mighty impressive stuff from a rider who is reputed to catch a cold at the first sign of an uphill gradient.

But like Armstrong used to do to his rivals in the mountains, Cavendish also sets the agenda for those around him, often influencing how the stage unfolds as well as its final result.

Secondly, Cavendish is always good for a quote and has the knack of dominating media attention even when he’s not winning. And, like Armstrong, you certainly don’t want to get on his wrong side. Such is the attention he demands, everything he says – both positive and negative - carries enormous weight, and he has the ability to manipulate the media accordingly with an openness and forthrightness which does not always win him friends, but certainly guarantees good copy.

There was a great demonstration of this yesterday, when Cavendish very publicly apologised to Hushovd for his derogatory comments after last Saturday’s stage to Besançon, when he said that it was clear the only way the Norwegian felt he could beat him to the green jersey was with the aid of the officials. (Cavendish had been relegated to the back of the field after supposedly obstructing Hushovd’s sprint at the finish, a decision which effectively settled the green jersey competition in the latter’s favour.)

He went on to back that up last night in his interviews. "After Thor's ride two days ago [when Hushovd led the way over the mountains to gain maximum points at two intermediate sprints], no one deserves to wear that jersey in Paris more than him," Cavendish said. "OK, I wore the jersey and I thought that I could have it, but that was because I'd been delivered into the best position by my team. But somebody who's fought for it like that – I can't compete with something like that. It was humiliating for me the other day. That was a beautiful ride by Thor. He's not just been put in the best position by his team. I got a bit carried away when I was in the race for the green but now I'm just concentrating on stage wins like I planned when I came into the race."

For a young man who has a reputation for speaking from the heart and shooting from the hip – and who his many detractors accuse of being arrogant – this was a remarkable display of humility and maturity from a man who sometimes allows his undoubted passion for the sport to overrule his head.

And that brings me on to the third point of similarity with Armstrong. Even though both present a polished persona to the public – Armstrong the elder statesman and the ’corporate’ face of the sport; Cavendish the cheeky young scallywag – behind the mask both burn with the same intense, single-minded competitive fire and volcanic temper. The stories of Armstrong’s private reactions to anything which displeases him are legion, and Cav is no different. They both know what they want, they are both 100% focussed on getting it, and woe betide anyone who stands in their way. That rage is part of what makes them winners; it is clear that, just like the American, Mark Cavendish frequently produces his best when he is angry and thinks the whole world is against him.

Overall, I get the sense that - at the tender age of 24 and in only his third full year as a pro - Cavendish is already one of the most powerful men in the professional peloton, in some ways even more so than the maillot jaune, Alberto Contador, with his faltering English and relatively reserved personality.

That is perhaps the most amazing thing of all.

Don’t get me wrong, Cav isn’t Lance yet. But then Lance wasn't the Lance we know either until after his first Tour win in 1999, at which point he was 27: three years older than Cavendish currently is.

Right here right now, Cav already has nine Tour stage wins to his name – more than other elite fast men Hushovd (seven wins) or Tom Boonen (six) - is unquestionably the most feared sprinter in the peloton and is able to command considerable influence on the road and many column inches off it. Imagine what he could be like in three years’ time, with a dozen more Grand Tour stage wins and possibly a green jersey or two under his belt.

So, let me say it once again: Mark Cavendish could be the new Lance Armstrong.

Doesn't seem so far fetched now does it?

24 July 2009

Five into two won't go

Time trials are colloquially referred to as the ‘race of truth’ – the French use the more prosaic ‘contre la montre’ (‘against the clock’) - because they represent a naked test of a cyclist’s individual ability, stripped bare of tactics or the support of teammates.

Usually, they tend to be run over predominantly level courses which favour strong, powerful masochists such as Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins and Lance Armstrong, men who can generate huge amounts of power and have a high tolerance for pain. Specialist climbers often tend to struggle on such courses, the high power-to-weight ratio which works in their favour on the big mountains being nullified on the flat.

Which is what makes Alberto Contador’s performance in winning yesterday’s time trial round the shores of the lake at Annecy doubly impressive. In an era where specialisation is more prevalent than ever – the vast majority of leading riders are exclusively either climbers, sprinters or time-trialers – the Spaniard has developed himself into a rider who can be as dominant with a solid disc rear wheel as he is dancing on the pedals on a 10% gradient.

Such beasts are rare. If you look back at Tour winners of the past dozen years, Carlos Sastre is a fine climber but a distinctly mediocre time-trialer; Marco Pantani was perhaps the best climber of his generation but terrible agianst the clock; Jan Ullrich was a world-class time-trialer and, though a very good climber, lacked explosiveness and the ability to truly dictate terms on the steepest slopes.

Lance Armstrong was such a beast, dominant in both climbing and solo disciplines, but no longer. Merely rendered very good in the mountains, he was able to manage only 16th place yesterday, although that was still enough to move him back up to third. And his announcement that he will be leaving Astana at the end of the season to set up his own US-based team, Team RadioShack, ensured that he continues to command the lion’s share of media coverage.

Wiggins has always been an elite rider in time trials, who this year has become a top-class mountains man too, but he paid the price for his exertions in the Alps, starting strongly but fading against the headwind at the end of the course to finish sixth on the day, 43 seconds behind Contador. He moves up to fourth overall - just 11 seconds behind Armstrong but only two ahead of Andreas Klöden – the meat in an Astana sandwich.

Both Schleck brothers are known strugglers in time trials, and Frank duly trailed in two and a half minutes off the pace, dropping him from third to sixth. But Andy, highly motivated and aided by the presence of a testing category 3 climb in the middle of the course, was able to limit his losses, finishing 1’ 45” behind Contador’s benchmark time, but consolidating his advantage in second place at over a minute.

With his overall lead now standing at 4’ 11”, we can now say with virtual certainty that Alberto Contador will seal his second Tour de France win – and his fourth Grand Tour win in his last four attempts – on Sunday. There can be no argument that he has been head-and-shoulders the best rider over the three weeks, having finished first and second in the Tour’s two time trials, while winning one of the two summit finishes so far, taking time out of all the leading contenders on the other, and withstanding everything the Schelcks could throw at him on Wednesday’s multiple mountain stage to Le Grand-Bornand.

But the final order behind him remains in doubt. Prior to the time trial, I noted the possibility that second to seventh could be covered by as little as a minute. In actuality, only 34 seconds separates third from sixth, and there is less than two minutes between Andy Schleck in second and brother Frank in sixth. The yellow jersey is effectively decided, but it is still all to play for with regards to the other two podium positions. While today’s stage from Bourgoin Jallieu to Aubenas will likely see a truce between the leaders as they conserve their energy – don’t be surprised if a gaggle of minor riders escapes half an hour up the road - the ascent of Mont Ventoux tomorrow, the Tour’s third and final mountain-top finish, will be spectacular as the Schlecks, Armstrong, Wiggins and Klöden look to shake each other off.

Only then will be able to close the book on what has been an action-packed final week of the 2009 Tour de France.

Overall standings after stage 18:
1. Alberto Contador 73h 15’ 39”
2. Andy Schleck @ 4’ 11" behind
3. Lance Armstrong @ 5’ 25”
4. Bradley Wiggins @ 5’ 36”
5. Andreas Klöden @ 5’ 38”
6. Frank Schleck @ 5’ 59”
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 7' 15"
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 10' 08"
9. Mikel Astarloza @ 12' 38"
10. Christophe Le Mevel @ 12' 41"

22 July 2009

Game over?

It just goes to show how much (or little) I know. This morning I assessed Bradley Wiggins’ chances of securing a top three finish at the Tour de France at around 60%. After today’s stage to Le Grand-Bornand, in which he finished over three minutes down on Frank and Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, I have downgraded the odds to more like 30%.

I was correct in most of my other predictions, though, on a day on which two of the four individual riders’ competitions were all but mathematically ended, with near-decisive gaps being established in the other two.

The breakaways started pretty much from the off, with Thor Hushovd most notably getting involved for long enough to secure maximum points from the two intermediate sprints, extending his lead over Mark Cavendish in the points competition to 30 and all but guaranteeing himself the green jersey in Paris. Similarly, Franco Pellizotti effectively accumulated enough points in the King of the Mountains classification to secure the polka dot jersey.

The serious action, however, was reserved for the final two climbs of the day, the Col de Romme (making its Tour debut) and the Col de la Colombiėre, both featuring punishing long sections with gradients in excess of 10%.

First to try his luck at the foot of the Romme was defending champion Carlos Sastre, making one final attempt to ride himself back into contention. The attack was always likely to be futile, and so it proved to be as the leaders, in no mood to give any quarter, quickly reeled Sastre back in and then spat him out of the back. He would eventually finish 7’ 47” down and is now overall 13th, almost 12 minutes off the lead, his title defence over.

After that, it was the turn of the Schlecks, primarily Frank, to launch a series of spectacular, battering ram attacks which only the Astana duo of Contador and Andreas Klöden were able to match. The Garmin pair of Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde, Lance Armstrong and Vincenzo Nibali were all cast adrift. Armstrong played the faithful teammate, sitting in the wheels and refusing to drag the others back across the gap, and it was at this point that Wiggins’ podium place began to slip away. Lance would eventually ride away from him once he was sure he was spent, putting valuable time into the Brit ahead of tomorrow’s Annecy time trial.

Up the road, an exploratory attack by Contador served only to dislodge his own wing-man Klöden, but even then the Schlecks were unable to shake the Spaniard in the maillot jaune, and the three would finish together in Le Grand-Bornand - Frank first - over two minutes ahead of everyone else.

In so doing, Contador stretched his advantage over new second place man Andy Schleck to 2’ 26” (with Frank a further 59 seconds back), a sizeable advantage which he is likely to extend significantly tomorrow, effectively sealing overall victory barring catastrophe. And Andy Schleck now holds an advantage of nearly three minutes over Nibali in the white jersey competition for the best young rider, which should be more than sufficient for him to clinch the award for the second year running.

Wiggins eventually finished, alone, a creditable seventh, but 3’ 07” down on the leading three and is now relegated to sixth overall, 4’53” behind Contador. His deficit to Frank Schleck in third is only 79 seconds, so he stands an excellent chance of overhauling him tomorrow, but even if he does he will probably only have a small cushion to take to Mont Ventoux on Saturday to defend his podium place.

My best guess is that Contador will take an almost bulletproof advantage of four minutes or more to Ventoux, but that the next six – Wiggins, Armstrong, Klöden, Nibali and the Schlecks - will be separated by as little as a minute.

We may not see a head-to-head showdown to decide the maillot jaune on Saturday, as the race organisers had hoped, but with six riders likely to be in with a realistic chance of second or third, we are likely to see some serious fireworks on the ‘Giant of Provence’. I can’t wait.

Overall standings after stage 17:
1. Alberto Contador 72h 27' 09"
2. Andy Schleck @ 02' 26" behind
3. Frank Schleck @ 03' 25"
4. Lance Armstrong @ 03' 55"
5. Andréas Klöden @ 04' 44"
6. Bradley Wiggins @ 04' 53"
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 05' 09"
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 08' 08"
9. Christophe Le Mevel @ 09' 19"
10. Mikel Astarloza @ 10' 50"

Dream the impossible dream

I’ve mentioned this before, but it is worth reiterating that Britain’s Bradley Wiggins is currently third in the overall standings at the Tour de France, with five of 21 stages remaining.

In fact, it’s worth a look at this morning’s standings to see the stratospheric company ‘Wiggo’ is keeping these days:
1. Alberto Contador 67h 33' 15"

2. Lance Armstrong @ 01' 37" behind
3. Bradley Wiggins @ 01' 46"
4. Andreas Klöden @ 2’ 17”
5. Andy Schleck @ 02' 26"
6. Vincenzo Nibali @ 02' 51"
7. Christophe Le Mevel @ 03' 09"
8. Frank Schleck @ 03' 25"
9. Carlos Sastre @ 03' 52"
10. Christian Vande Velde @ 03' 59"

(And this is a top 10 which does not include Cadel Evans, runner-up in the past two years, and Denis Menchov, winner of three Grand Tours including the Giro d’Italia in May.)

We are talking here about a rider who has never finished in the top 100 at the Tour, but who this season has focussed on road racing with the same dedication he has formerly applied to the track, where he has won three Olympic golds, including two at Beijing last summer.

Before the start of this year’s Tour, Wiggins talked about how he had lost 7kg to improve his ability to climb in the high mountains, and that a finish in the top 15 or 20 was a realistic ambition. That alone seemed a stretching target at the time: he was expected to perform well in the time trials, but had never previously shown any ability in the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees.

But his performances in the Tour’s first two summit finishes at Arcalis (stage 7) and Verbier (stage 15), where he was able to live with – and in some cases ride away from - most of the elite climbers have catapulted him into a podium position.

Yesterday he underlined his new-found status by being able to follow every acceleration the Schlecks could throw at the leading group, a task which proved to be too much, at least initially, for such dignitaries as Armstrong and his own Garmin team leader, Christian Vande Velde.

Wiggins now appears set fair for a top 10 finish at the very least, and despite the extreme tests which will be provided on three of the next four days, a podium place is now a distinct possibility.

But, which place exactly?

It would be foolish to take a top three finish for granted, as the time gaps among the leaders are not that big. The 2’ 13” which currently separates him from tenth-placed Vande Velde could easily be lost in one go on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, the ‘Giant of Provence’, on Saturday. Even today’s five-climb stage, with the one-two combination of the Col de Romme and the Col de la Colombiėre (both category 1) at the end is also fraught with danger, as we can expect multiple breakaways and continued attacks from the brothers Schleck.

But if Wiggins can stick with Armstrong, Klöden and Nibali, and do no worse than sustain limited losses to Andy Schleck - who will lose at least a couple of minutes to everyone else in tomorrow’s time trial – then he has every chance of reaching the summit of Ventoux in the top three.

And if he can ride the time trial of his life tomorrow and eke out, say, a minute over everyone other than Contador, then second suddenly becomes a strong possibility, as he will then have the luxury of a small cushion to defend on Saturday, rather than having to attack.

So, consolidate third spot. Possibly sneak past Lance into second. What would it take to – dare we even think it – overhaul Contador?

This is an entirely different proposition. Contador has already demonstrated that he is the strongest climber of the current generation, he has strong teammates in Armstrong and Klöden to help defend against attacks (not that he needs them, based on the evidence so far), and is now also a top-level time trialist. It would take a major loss of form for Contador to lose his advantage of nearly two minutes over Wiggins over the next two days, so the only realistic chance is that he cracks under sustained pressure on the slopes of Ventoux. If that happens, a rider can easily lose three or four minutes in as many kilometres. But, it has to be said, it’s pretty unlikely: Contador is just too strong, both physically and mentally.

However, if 90% of the battle is won or lost in a cyclist’s head, then at least Wiggins is in good shape to capitalise on any opportunities. The difference in both his words and his body language over the past two weeks has been immense, as this comment after yesterday’s stage highlights: “When Andy puts it down there's only three or four of us that are really there.” He now knows he belongs among the elite, rather than thinking he might do.

And it is clear that he has more than just a podium finish in Paris on his mind. When it was pointed out to him that at one stage yesterday it looked like he might be about to leapfrog Armstrong into second overall, his response was, “Yeah, but there's plenty of time for that.”

Wiggins will probably not achieve his ultimate, unspoken objective – wearing the maillot jaune on the Champs Elyseės – but we can rest assured he will not be completely satisfied ‘merely’ settling for third or second-best.

I will leave the last word for the current yellow jersey and odds-on favourite, Contador, who now recognises Wiggins as perhaps his biggest threat. “Bradley Wiggins did sensationally in the climb up to Verbier and he is going to have to be taken into consideration. I will have to try to put as much distance as possible from him during the next mountain stages, because he is a really strong contender when it comes to the time trials."

There can be no higher praise than to be recognised as the biggest threat to the best rider in the world. And that’s exactly what Bradley Wiggins now is.

For what it's worth, my money is on Wiggins defending solidly today, gaining a minute or so on Armstrong, Klöden and his other immediate competitors tomorrow, and then covering only the attacks he really needs to worry about on the way up to the top of Ventoux on Saturday. I'd give him a 60% chance of securing at least third, with maybe a 25% chance of jumping up to second; he won't catch Contador, barring accident or injury.

Go Wiggo!

21 July 2009

Life in the old dog

Well, well, well.

Euskaltel-Euskadi's Mikel Astarloza won his first ever stage at the Tour de France in Bourg-Saint-Maurice this afternoon, timing to perfection a solo attack off the front of the day's breakaway.

But that was just a footnote on a day when Alberto Contador withstood, with apparent ease, everything the Schleck brothers could throw at him, and Jens Voigt, one of my favourite riders - a German who rides with tireless effort and a sense of humour, what's not to like? - crashed heavily on the descent of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, a reminder of the perils of descending an Alp at speeds which can exceed 100km/h. (Fortunately, according to Lance Armstrong's Twitter feed at least, Voigt seems to be okay. And Voigt's teammate Andy Schleck has just tweeted that he has a broken cheekbone and stitches, but nothing worse.)

What caught my eye today was two unexpected displays of climbing strength: one from the still-effervescent Bradley Wiggins, who is visibly growing in confidence with each passing day and had no problem staying with Contador and Andy Schleck; the other from the old patron himself, Lance Armstrong.

Having been dropped by the repeated one-two attacks by Frank and Andy Schleck on the slopes of the Petit-Saint-Bernard, Armstrong and a group containing several other top GC riders quickly fell 30 seconds behind the yellow jersey group containing Contador, Andy Schleck and Wiggins. But then, just as the journos were firing up their laptops to write his obituary, Lance kicked hard and decisively to bridge the gap. It was a hugely impressive recovery, doubly so because Christian Vande Velde and Kim Kirchen followed but were unable to sustain Armstrong's tempo and soon fell away.

Maybe it was just the last hurrah of a once dominant champion now rendered merely very good, but for a few brief minutes it was like watching the man who fixed Jan Ullrich with 'the look' before riding contemptuously away from him in 2001, or the one who charged through the field to win on Luz-Ardiden in 2003 having been felled by the handles of a spectator's bag.

It was like watching the real Lance Armstrong again. To see him rekindle that dying spark at the age of 37 was, for me, a moment as special as any during his seven winning Tours. And it has kept his hopes, however slim, of wearing the maillot jaune in Paris on Sunday alive.

Tomorrow's stage to Le Grand-Bornand - four category ones and a category two climb - is this year's toughest in terms of cumulative ascent on a single day. Contador and Wiggins would both probably prefer to defend tomorrow to save the maximum amount of energy for Thursday's time trial, in which they would expect to have an advantage over virtually all the other lead contenders. Therefore expect further attacks from the Schlecks, moderate time-triallers both, on either or both of the final two climbs.

As for Lance, who knows what he will do tomorrow? Will he play the faithful teammate and fulfil his promise not to attack Contador? Or will he find the legs and a convenient excuse to jump away with the Saxo Bank pair, one final roll of the dice before Paris? Probably the former, but the latter remains a mouth-watering, if unlikely, prospect.

For now at least, there's life in the old dog yet. Rumours of his demise may yet prove to be premature. But no matter where he finishes, Lance Armstrong's performance in the 2009 Tour de France has already been nothing short of stellar.

Youth defeats experience in the Tour's generation game

It would be too easy to say that Sunday’s stage to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier determined the outcome of this year’s Tour de France. However, as the second of only three summit finishes this year - and with a rest day immediately following – it was always going to be a key barometer as the final order among the race’s heads of state started to take shape.

After two weeks of cat-and-mouse in which we have only had the stage 1 individual time trial in Monaco to give us any real indication of form, at last we had a day on which the major contenders would have to show their hands. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

And so it was. Saxo Bank gave notice on the lower slopes of the mountain, setting a high tempo in support of the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank. But it wasn’t until Alberto Contador launched a brutal attack with 5.6km to go that the race finally blew wide open. In a matter of seconds, the Spaniard opened up a lead of a hundred metres and continued to ride away from the rest, with only Andy Schleck able to respond in any way.

Contador won easily, gaining 43 seconds on Andy Schleck and over a minute on everyone else, finally assuming the maillot jaune which AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini had been keeping warm for him for the past week. Overall, he leads Lance Armstrong by 97 seconds, with – and this is no typo – Britain’s Bradley Wiggins a further nine seconds behind in third place. Andreas Klöden trails Wiggins by 31 seconds, giving Astana three of the top four spots.

It had taken over two weeks, but Armstrong finally started to look every one of his 37 years in the closing kilometres. It was not so much that he was unable to follow Contador’s attack – it wasn’t as if anyone one else could, and it would have been poor form to chase down a teammate anyway – more that he was unable to respond as, one by one, the other top riders eased away from him, a sight we have not seen since, well, pretty much ever.

I’m not sure which was the more astonishing: the sight of Wiggins first riding comfortably alongside and then accelerating away from Armstrong, or the American’s frank and magnanimous admission afterwards that "he [Contador] showed he’s the best rider in the race, certainly the best climber. You know, when everybody is on the limit and then you can accelerate again, that's how you win the Tour. Hats off to him.”

It was a gracious – if inevitable - concession by a man whose competitive rage has fuelled him to a record-breaking seven Tour de France victories. And there was a real sense of a passing of the torch from the old to the new, a feeling underlined by the order and ages of the top nine finishers on the stage:

1. Alberto Contador (26)
2. Andy Schleck (24)
3. Vincenzo Nibali (24)
4. Frank Schleck (29)
5. Bradley Wiggins (29)
6. Carlos Sastre (34)
7. Cadel Evans (32)
8. Andreas Klöden (34)
9. Lance Armstrong (37)

It's certainly not all over yet, but it would take a brave man to bet against Contador staying in yellow all the way to Paris. And after his impressive efforts on Verbier – and with Thursday’s individual time trial, for which he will be one of the favourites to win - to follow, Wiggins is now looking like a strong bet for the podium. No British rider has ever finished in the top three in Paris; Robert Millar’s fourth place in 1984 remains our best result. Add that to Mark Cavendish’s four stage wins (so far), and it has been a truly memorable Tour for us Brits.

So now, after the tedium of the middle week, the final leg of the Tour is a doozy. Today’s stage from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice features two savage climbs, the Grand and Petit-Saint-Bernard. Thursday's time trial round the lake at Annecy is preceded by five major climbs tomorrow (including the Col de la Colombiėre) and followed an easier-but-not-that-easy medium mountain stage. And then there is the small matter of the legendary Mont Ventoux to negotiate on Saturday.

Whoever wins – and my money is firmly on Contador - will certainly deserve it. It has taken a while for the pecking order to establish itself, but it is now firmly taking shape. And the advantage is firmly on the side of youth.

19 July 2009

Bad day at the office

They say bad things come in threes, and that was certainly the case in the Tour de France yesterday.

It was a bad day for the race itself: tragically, a woman was killed by a police motorcycle while attempting to cross the road. It was, twice over, a bad day for Team Columbia HTC, with George Hincapie just missing out on the yellow jersey, and Mark Cavendish conceding a near insurmountable advantage to Thor Hushovd in the points competition. And finally, it wasn’t a great day for the race commissaries, whose questionable decision to disqualify Cavendish from the stage suggested that, at best, they are making it all up as they go along and, at worst, smacked of political motivation.

Let’s start with the story of the stage. A 12-man breakaway, which included Hincapie, successfully slipped away from the main field, with Katusha’s Sergei Ivanov making a decisive solo break in the closing kilometres to claim the stage, 16 seconds ahead of the remains of the breakaway group and over five minutes ahead of the peloton.

Columbia attempted to control the peloton’s sprint to the finish, leaving the charge as late as possible, in part because the finish was slightly uphill, but also to maximize the gap between Hincapie and maillot jaune Rinaldo Nocentini in the hope of getting their man into yellow.

As they sped into the last 250 metres, and with green jersey Hushovd sitting on his wheel, Cavendish looked over his shoulder and appeared to squeeze out his Norwegian rival. Cavendish led across the line, but soon had his points taken away by the commissaries, who deemed that he had deliberately and dangerously obstructed Hushovd.

With only one sprint finish remaining – the finale in Paris – Cav’s disqualification increased Hushovd’s advantage from three to 18 points: not insurmountable, but it will require a crash or a major error on Hushovd’s part for the Manxman to overhaul the deficit.

Having now seen the sprint finish – including the more revealing overhead shots - maybe ten times, I have to agree with TV commentator Paul Sherwen’s view that Cavendish maintains a straight line in his sprint – he certainly does not deliberately chop across Hushovd - and it is in fact the barriers which encroach onto the road in the final hundred metres or so.

Essentially, it appears Cavendish did nothing more than check Hushovd’s position and maintain a straight line to the finish; the Norwegian simply ran out of space. The only racing reason I can see for the commissaires’ decision is the look over the shoulder, which suggests the possibility of a deliberate block. But, applying even the tiniest bit of common sense, it is difficult to see why Cavendish would choose to baulk an opponent he knows he can easily outsprint anyway, a fact Hushovd himself readily accepts.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what Robbie McEwen – who has more experience than most when it comes to the argy-bargy of sprint finishes – had to say on Twitter last night: “Cav didn’t really move much; the barrier did. Full disqualification is harsh. The most they should have done – if anything – was to reverse their placings. If Cav hadn’t had a look, he wouldn’t have been DQ’d. It’s a fine line, and a shame to ruin a good battle [for the green jersey].”

The commissaires’ decision was harsh, but perhaps understandable, particularly given how vague many of cycling’s rules are. What was more annoying was the attitude of the chief commissaire when interviewed later about it, during which he stated that his decision was final and that the appeals procedure was that there was no right of appeal. Because he said so. So there.

It was a bit like listening to motor racing’s FIA, another organisation frequently accused of applying its own rules with all the consistency of unstirred porridge. And it was also a prime case of selective amnesia, as it was only on Tuesday that the race referees decided that a split in the peloton had appeared at the finish at Issoudun – a decision which cost Bradley Wiggins (among others) 15 seconds – only to change their minds overnight.

So why the unequivocal statement that there was no possibility of a review yesterday? Could it possibly have anything to do with the article published by L’Équipe earlier this week in which some unnamed riders claimed Cavendish had uttered several anti-French comments while waiting to catch a transfer flight last Sunday?

Petty politics interfering in sport? Nah, it could never happen, could it?

I wonder what the commissaries would have decided if it had been Cavendish who had been supposedly blocked off by Hushovd. Hmm.

As it turned out, Columbia’s attempt to slow down the sprint to Hincapie’s benefit failed, as Nocentini retained the yellow jersey by five seconds. After the stage, Hincapie was livid, accusing both Astana and Garmin of conspiring with AG2R to help defend Mocentini’s maillot jaune by working with them to close the gap to the breakaway.

Hincapie had the wrong end of the stick. For sure, Astana took a number of turns on the front of the peloton, but it was clear they were tapping out a pretty easy tempo. If anything, they appeared to be controlling the pace of the main pack to ensure the breakaway continued to eke out their lead. That seems the more logical scenario to me, for the 36-year old Hincapie is a much-loved elder statesman within the peloton, and was also Lance Armstrong’s key lieutenant on each of his seven winning Tours, for whom the directeur sportif was Johan Bruyneel, who just happens to be in charge of Astana.

Armstrong’s post-race Twitter comments are certainly consistent with this view. “No one – and I mean no one – wanted George in yellow more than me. My vision was George would have the yellow jersey by two minutes. That’s why we were riding medium [tempo] to let the gap get as big as possible. When we started [the gap to Hincapie’s breakaway group] was 6:00; when we stopped it was 8:40. Until 10km to go he was solidly in yellow until Garmin put on the gas and made sure it didn’t happen.”

Garmin certainly worked extremely hard at the front of the peloton in the final 20 kilometres or so to help reel in the gap to the leaders, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why, given their long-running feud with Hincapie’s Columbia team. It was, to be honest, poor form on the part of the Garmin management - there was no need for them to send their men to the front, other than as an act of spite to prevent one of their rival’s team members enjoying one final day in the sun.

Violating cycling’s unwritten code of honour often comes back to bite the offender. Mark Cavendish was arguably punished as much for his cockiness and perceived lack of humility as for his alleged anti-French comments, and it will be interesting to see if Garmin’s actions yesterday come home to roost them at some point. Cyclists – like elephants - have long memories.

18 July 2009

Double team?

As I've noted before, cycling is as much about what happens off the road as it is about on-road events. Which is why I'm increasingly wondering whether the highly anticipated battle between Astana teammates Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong will be less of a head-to-head fight and more of a team-to-team battle, involving both factions within the Astana team and - most intriguingly - two (possibly more) other teams.

The most likely external sources of support for the two rivals are, I would say, Caisse d'Epargne (Contador) and Columbia HTC (Armstrong).

Why should Caisse d'Epargne help Contador? Well, here are five good reasons:
- The team and six of its nine riders are, like Contador, Spanish
- They are competing in this Tour without their leader, Alejandro Valverde, so they do not have a general classification hopeful to support
- Without Valverde, they have already fulfilled their expectations for this race with Luis-Leon Sanchez's win at Saint-Girons last Saturday
- At last month's Dauphiné Libéré, it appeared Contador was riding to support Valverde en route to his eventual victory in the traditional pre-Tour warm-up race. There can be little doubt he has banked a favour he may call in once the Tour hits the Alps - Contador remains unhappy about not being named as clear team leader for the Tour, something he believes is his right having won the last three Grand Tours he has entered. There is a strong chance he will leave Astana over the winter - his most likely destination being Caisse d'Epargne.

And here are five reasons why Columbia (and potentially other riders in other teams) might opt to help Armstrong:
- George Hincapie, his old loyal lieutenant from his US Postal Service/Discovery Channel days, is one of the senior riders at Columbia
- Columbia's team leader, Mark Cavendish, has become friendly with Armstrong and developed a strong mutual respect. With only today's stage to Besançon and the finale in Paris earmarked as sprint finishes, the Brit could allow one or more of his men to slip away with the leaders into the mountains, potentially to either defend or support Armstrong, knowing it will not severely hamper his chances of winning further stages
- If so, that rider is most likely to be either Tony Martin or Kim Kirchen, both of whom will be keen to improve their overall standing in the general classification anyway and have their own motivations for riding up front. (In the case of the former, he is also defending the white jersey for the best young rider, which will undoubtedly come under heavy attack from Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck)
- Generally, Armstrong still commands a lot of power in the peloton, and could potentially call in a number of favours
- In addition to past favours, it is strong rumoured that Armstrong will create his own team for 2010, potentially branded Livestrong after his cancer charity, the lure of which may be attractive to many riders who are looking to establish themselves as genuine contenders. Martin and Kirchen, whose objectives are ultimately subservient to Cavendish's at Columbia, would certainly fall into this category.

Even though it's an open secret, both Contador and Armstrong would probably prefer it if the intense rivalry between them could be resolved without forcing their Astana team to take sides one way or the other, which could be ultimately destructive and open the door for another rival such as Schleck to steal the maillot jaune. Utilising their political power to engage other riders to bolster their ranks carry the fight on their behalf seems a far more palatable option.

Here are a couple of potential scenarios of what we might see:

1. On the climb to tomorrow's summit finish at Verbier, Andy Schleck attacks, looking to improve his overall position. Contador is forced to mark him, as is Martin, but the latter allows Armstrong to sit on his wheel and drags him across the gap, saving Lance valuable energy to jump Contador further up the climb.

2. On next Saturday's pivotal finish on Mont Ventoux, Armstrong still trails Contador by, say, 30 seconds and is forced to attack. A group of Caisse d'Epargne riders, with Contador riding in their wheels, repeatedly covers every move he makes, affording a less tired Contador the luxury of launching a later attack on his own terms.

It may all sound terribly far-fetched and delightfully Machiavellian, but that's the way cycling has always operated, with deals being constantly negotiated between riders and teams, and favours being set up to be cashed in at a later date. It all helps make cycling the incredibly fascinating sport that it is, because it's so much more than just the immense physical challenge of covering over 2,000 miles in three weeks: the psychological and political chess game that goes on in top riders' heads is every bit as demanding.

Don't get me wrong, Grand Tours such as the Tour de France are generally won by the rider with the best legs. But sometimes they are also won by the one with the best wits. Contador appears to hold the physical advantage, but Armstrong has frequently been linked with a future political career, and certainly has the upper hand when it comes to wielding personal power.

We shall see how things pan out, but don't be fooled for a minute into thinking this is just a simple mano a mano battle.

Will Levi stress cost Lance the Tour?

Two days, two very different breakaway wins.

Yesterday's mountainous stage in miserably wet conditions was decided when Heinrich Haussler’s strong climbing and audacious descending produced a fine solo victory, reaching the finish in Colmar over four minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

Thursday's potential bunch sprint never materialised, as Mark Cavendish's Columbia HTC team chose to save energy to negotiate the mountains, allowing a breakaway of seven to slip away. Saxo Bank's Nicki Sorensen launched two well-timed attacks in the closing kilometres, first to reduce the group from seven to just himself and Sylvain Calzati, and then soloing away to easily win his maiden Tour stage.

Neither breakaway had a direct impact at the top of the general classification, but a small crash involving Levi Leipheimer close to Thursday's finish in Vittel could have a significant bearing on the final result of the Tour. Leipheimer sustained a broken wrist which ended his participation in the race and required surgery yesterday. (Levi even included photo updates from the operating room via his Twitter feed.)

It was a real shame for Leipheimer, who had been fourth overall after a strong first half of the race and stood a real chance of at least a podium finish. But his friend, fellow American and Astana teammate Lance Armstrong will also be cursing his ill fortune, for Levi would have been Lance's strongest ally in supporting his plan to surpass Alberto Contador on the decisive climbs in the Alps next week. The one-two combination of using Leipheimer to attack first, and then Armstrong to kick hard once Contador had been softened up a bit would have been the most obvious - and probably best - opportunity for Lance to win his eighth Tour. Now he will probably have to do it alone, or at best rely on less capable - and potentially less loyal/motivated - teammates.

That's not to say that Armstrong would have beaten Contador if Leipheimer hadn't crashed; few observers would dispute the Spaniard's position as race favourite. Equally, Armstrong may still prevail flying solo, particularly given his long-standing relationship and friendship with Astana directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel. But there can be no doubt that Leipheimer's early exit has damaged the Armstrong dreadnought. Whether that hit has been sustained above or below the waterline will likely provide the key narrative to the closing stages of one of the most intriguing Tours in recent memory.

16 July 2009

No uphill struggle

We're just past halfway in the 2009 Tour de France, and after the excitement and controversy of the first few days, the race's middle week is, quite frankly, a bit dull - at least on paper - as the route saves its biggest challenges for the final leg next week, giving the leading GC contenders the opportunity to spend several days cruising along in the relative anonymity of the main field.

Truth be told, after an exciting summit finish at Arcalis on Friday, the final two days in the Pyrenees proved to be a massive anticlimax - with long downhill run-ins effectively neutering iconic climbs such as the Col du Tourmalet and discouraging any attacks by the leading GC riders. Luis-Leon Sanchez won Saturday's stage into Saint-Girons, with Pierrick Fedrigo first into Tarbes the following day, both at the end of long breakaways which the peloton was content to let go. Pretty routine stuff, really, although Fedrigo's win marked the third stage win by a French rider in this year's Tour: a good return for the home fans.

Following Monday's rest day, the last two days have been standard transition stages as the race blasts its way northwards again, with some high octane excitement in the form of two big sprint finishes. Now it's the turn of us Brits to celebrate, with Mark Cavendish notching up his seventh and eighth career Tour stage wins, equalling Barry Hoban's long-standing British record.

Tuesday's stage from Limoges to Issoudun was yet another example of Columbia HTC's exemplary team work, with all nine riders controlling the front of the peloton on the run in to the finish, leaving first George Hincapie and then Mark Renshaw to do the hard pulling inside the final kilometre, setting up Cav to launch himself inside the final 200 metres to a routine win over Thor Hushovd.

Yesterday's stage into Saint-Fargeau, while nominally a flat stage, featured a nasty uphill kick in the final 500 metres which looked to count against Cav - in last Thursday's finish at Barcelona, which featured a longer but similar finish, he had only finished 16th. Which made the Maxman's win all the more impressive. Hincapie and Renshaw did their bit, but Cavendish then had to go shoulder-to-shoulder - literally- with Hushovd, and then had to withstand Tyler Farrar's challenge, the young American pulling within a bike's length before Cav kicked again in the final 50 metres to secure the win.

It was the closest of Cavendish's four wins (to date) on this year's Tour, but it was probably the most impressive. Not only did he have to negotiate an uphill finish which theoretically favoured the power of Hushovd or Rabobank's Oscar Freire, not only did he have to stand his ground physically as he touched shoulders with Hushovd, but he also demonstrated that most precious of sprinter's abilities: the final change of gear to close out a full-pelt sprint when others are already maxed out.

There is no doubt that Mark Cavendish is currently the best sprinter in the world in road race cycling. But it should also be recognised that he has the best sprint team in the business too - Columbia's work in chasing down breakaways, controlling the tempo in the final 10km and then dropping their man into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is unparalleled. At the end of a long, hard day in the saddle, it is a pleasure to watch.

Today's stage to Vittel features six smaller categorised climbs. In days gone by, this would probably have worked against Cavendish. In his current form, it would be foolish to discount him. Don't be surprised if this afternoon Cav delivers his fifth stage win this year - and third in a row.

10 July 2009

Let battle commence

One week in, and this year's Tour de France has already packed in more variety and excitement than we have seen in the entire three weeks in some previous editions.

In recent years, the first week has been dominated by long, flat stages resulting in bunch sprints, which do not require the main overall contenders to show their hands. This year has been very different, with the prologue (which essentially reveals nothing) being replaced by the 15.5km Monaco individual time trial, which opened up some meaningful gaps between the key players.

Stages 2 and 3 were more traditional sprint stages, but fierce crosswinds during the latter produced a stunning tactical masterstroke, as Team Columbia HTC split the field and effectively rode a 30km team time trial to deliver Mark Cavendish to an easy win, while leapfrogging Lance Armstrong 19 seconds ahead of teammate and race favourite Alberto Contador.

Stage 4 saw the return of the team time trial proper after a brief absence. This year’s course, however, was much more technical than usual, featuring some tricky climbs, twists and turns which resulted in several crashes and many teams struggling to finish with the requisite five riders. Tantalisingly, once everyone had been bandaged up, Armstrong had missed out on taking over the yellow journey by 22 hundredths of a second.

And the last three days have been equally fascinating. Wednesday’s fifth stage produced a welcome French win for Thomas Voeckler, who had been part of a breakaway from the opening kilometre of the race, and who himself timed an attack off the front of the lead group to perfection to lead the peloton home by a handful of seconds. Voeckler provided me with my most enduring memory of the 2004 Tour, claiming the yellow jersey after a breakaway on (coincidence!) stage 5 and then defending it for ten days with heart-warming tenacity, repeatedly falling back from the leaders on the big climbs but somehow always clawing his way back. But this was his first ever Tour de France stage win, and there can rarely have been a more popular winner.

Yesterday’s finish in Barcelona was notable for several crashes on the run-in – mostly on slippery road markings – and the agonising sight of Britain’s David Millar, who had launched a late solo breakaway, being caught halfway up the final small but taxing climb to the Olympic Stadium.

And today finally took us into the high mountains of the Pyrenees – where the top riders have no choice but to show their hands – culminating in the hors categorie climb at Arcalis in Andorra.

Only now can we be begin to discern how the race is likely to shake out on the road to Paris. While Brice Feillu won the stage and Rinaldo Nocentini took over the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara, Contador launched a blistering late attack which key rivals such as Armstrong and Andy Schleck could not follow, opening up an eventual advantage of 21 seconds that now moves him ahead of Armstrong by a meagre two seconds.

So now we know: as widely suspected, Contador has the best climbing form among the leading contenders. However, his advantage was not significant enough to seriously discomfort most of the big players – and certainly not enough to suggest that, as fatigue and fluctuating form take their effect in the final week, the situation could not be easily reversed.

For sure, Contador has won the first major opening skirmish. But with less than two minutes still covering the top ten, the race remains delicately balanced.

Fantastic. Let battle commence.

8 July 2009

Is Lance Armstrong destined to win the Tour de France?

On paper, it seems ridiculous to suggest that Lance Armstrong can win the Tour de France at the ripe old age of 37. After all, it’s hard to argue he is even the best rider in his own team. The arguments are manifold: too old, preparation disrupted by injury, form not good enough, common agreement that Astana teammate Alberto Contador is too strong all round – I could go on and on.

But then again, the race isn't always necessarily won by the best rider, and the Texan has always proven remarkably adept at both beating the odds and playing the political and psychological games which are part and parcel of professional road race cycling.

On the face of it, over the past two days he has been the beneficiary of two gigantic slices of good fortune. But I am also reminded of the old Gary Player quote about how the more he practised, the luckier he seemed to get.

And so it was that Armstrong was in the right place – near the front of the peloton, rather than hiding in its middle – at the right time on Monday’s stage from Marseille to La Grande Motte, as Team Columbia HTC engineered a sudden and brutal breakaway just over 30km from the finish, with all nine men accelerating off the front of the pack as the road turned into a cross-wind. Armstrong and yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara were among only a dozen or so riders who were well-positioned enough to jump on to the back of the break, while behind them other leading riders such as Contador, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck were caught with their lycra pants down (so to speak), unable to respond quickly enough to prevent a decisive gap opening up.

Mark Cavendish won his second stage in consecutive days, and Armstrong gained a useful 41 seconds on all the other main contenders, at one stroke catapulting himself from fourth to first in the Astana rankings, 19 seconds ahead of Contador.

Was Armstrong in the right place at the right time because his experience told him that a breakaway was likely given the shifting winds? Had someone in the Columbia squad – Lance’s old US Postal/Discovery Channel lieutenant George Hincapie, say – quietly tipped him off, maybe in return for a favour later in the race? Or was it just plain luck? It could be either of the first two; I very much doubt it was pure serendipity.

In yesterday’s team time trial (TTT), Astana came out on top but Cancellara held onto the yellow jersey by the slimmest of margins, just two-tenths of a second ahead of Armstrong overall. Again, this has worked very much in Armstrong’s favour, as the onus of defending the maillot jaune over the next few days remains squarely on the shoulders of Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad. Meanwhile, Astana can hide in the background, conserving energy for the big mountain stages, which start on Friday.

Interestingly, in the TTT the team’s time is taken as the fifth rider crosses the finish line which, in Astana’s case, just happened to be Lance Armstrong. Video replays clearly showed him easing off slightly in the final metres rather than driving hard all the way to the line. Was this part of a calculated effort to avoid the yellow jersey, as a number of conspiracy theorists were pondering in the aftermath of the stage? In this case, probably not. The margins were too fine, and coasting across the line in all likelihood only cost him a couple of hundredths rather than two-tenths.

But that’s not really the point. The fact is – good fortune or not – without the 41 seconds lost to Armstrong in Monday’s breakaway, Contador would not only be in yellow this morning, but more importantly he would have a much greater claim to outright team leadership of Astana.

It may only be 41 seconds – but it might as well be 41 minutes for the psychological and tactical impact it has. At the very least, it has postponed any potential day of reckoning where Armstrong has to set aside his own ambitions and work for Contador for the good of the team.

There is certainly no mistaking the change in Armstrong’s tenor over the past two days. Whereas before he has talked about his key aims being promoting his cancer campaigns and just being there to enjoy the ride, over the past two days he has started talking openly about there being “two team leaders” at Astana and that “Alberto came to win, and quite honestly so did I”. He has also obliquely referred to the critical role of Astana directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel in determining the team’s ultimate strategy and avoiding any potentially destructive head-to-head battles, saying, “We don’t want a scrap. Johan will have to manage the situation.”

Make no mistake, Lance Armstrong is very much back in the game. Ultimately, he may not quite have the legs to beat Contador on the road, but off it he is running rings around his young teammate. And if winning the Tour this year requires a combination of form, mind games and political shenanigans in equal measure, then maybe – just maybe – Lance Armstrong can prove everyone wrong and claim the seemingly unthinkable: an eighth Tour de France title.

One thing you can be sure of: by the time the race arrives in Paris on the 26th, we may well find that Lance Armstrong was destined to win the 2009 Tour de France – but he certainly won’t be leaving it to chance.

6 July 2009

Eastenders on two wheels

For pure soap opera, only cycling - and in particular the Tour de France - comes close to matching Formula 1.

This year, they even shared a common glamorous venue, with Monaco providing the setting for stage 1 on Saturday, a 15.5km individual time trial around the streets of the principality.

Already, with just two of the race's 21 stages complete, the key plotlines are simmering nicely.

The teaser: It wouldn't be the Tour de France without a drugs scandal, and this year we got our dose (pun intended) before the race had even started, with Thomas Dekker falling foul of a positive drugs test at the eleventh hour, and sprint ace Tom Boonen being reinstated against the wishes of Tour organisers. That may be the end of the story on the doping front; being the Tour de France, however, I doubt it, with Lance Armstrong in particular being singled out for special attention by officials and media alike.

Family in-fighting: Speaking of Armstrong, his return to the Tour for the first time since 2005 has stirred up a veritable hornet's nest of politics within the Astana team. Lance says he's just racing to promote his cancer campaigns - a smokescreen which no one believes - but after more than three years in retirement and an injury-affected return, his real and ruthless ambition of claiming an eighth Tour win runs the risk of destabilising a team which already suffers from a case of too many chiefs. In addition to race favourite (and 2007 winner) Alberto Contador, both Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden placed ahead of Armstrong on stage one, and while Leipheimer will undoubtedly defer to Lance, Contador also has his loyal lieutenants within the team, and Kloden straddles the fence as a wild card who is himself capable of a podium finish given the chance. If the team doesn't fracture during the race itself, Alexandre Vinokourov's stated intention to return to lead the team when his two-year ban ends after the Tour - which will be supported by the Kazakh sponsors - is liable to lead to wholesale defections from Astana. An implosion is inevitable: it's just a matter of when.

The upstart: Mark Cavendish isn't backwards in coming forward about anything, not least when it comes to proclaiming himself the fastest man in the world on two wheels. The thing is: he's right. Towed to yesterday's finish in Brignoles by a textbook lead-out train formed by his Columbia-HTC team-mates, Cannonball Cav delivered as routine a sprint win as you will ever see, his fifth career Tour stage win (and 41st overall), a total which he is likely to add to during the next three weeks - possibly as early as this afternoon.

The forgotten men: Beyond the media circus surrounding Contador, Armstrong and Astana, it's easy to forget that last year's winner, Carlos Sastre, and runner-up, Cadel Evans, are actually in the race, albeit in teams (Cervelo and SIlence-Lotto) which will struggle to provide the level of support needed to secure the yellow jersey. While both are relatively long odds to win the race outright, expect both these men to feature prominently in the narrative at some point - they may not become king, but they could easily play the role of king-maker (or breaker).

Anyhow, there are 19 stages and three weeks of racing still to come before the traditional finish on the Champs Elysées, with the penultimate stage finishing with the killer climb to the top of Mont Ventoux. Whatever story unfolds, expect drama, spills and thrills aplenty, because that's what the greatest bike race in the world is all about.

5 July 2009

Quantitiy versus quality

It's interesting to note that Serena Williams remains number two in the ladies' rankings, despite being the reigning champion in three of the four Grand Slam singles events after her 7-5, 6-2 victory over sister Venus yesterday.

Dinara Safina retains her status as the women's number one, at least according to the official rankings, on the basis of her overall record over the past twelve months, as well as decent runs in the Grand Slams - finalist in Australia and France, semi-finalist at Wimbledon - which have marked her out as a consistent performer, although not actually a winner as such.

And therein lies the point. Safina, like Jelena Jankovic last year, has ascended to the top of the rankings without ever having won a major.


The ranking system rewards achievement in terms of quantity and consistency of performance; it does not reward 'winners', as such. That's not to say Safina hasn't done well over the past 12 months; she has, reaching ten finals (winning five) in the past year. But she has consistently failed to win the big matches against the big players at the big tournaments. Her Grand Slam final record makes for sorry reading: played three, lost three, all in straight sets. Indeed, she has been obliterated by both Williams sisters in majors this year: 6-0, 6-3 by Serena in the Australian final and 6-0, 6-1 by Venus in her Wimbledon semi-final. In particular, in the latter match last Thursday, her body language throughout the second set gave the impression of a player who knew she was outgunned and resultantly couldn't be bothered.

Safina's performance in these big matches throws her number one status into sharp relief. She may have more ranking points than anyone else, but you would not back her to win a match against either Williams sister, or indeed a major final against anyone. (Two of her three Grand Slam final defeats have come against Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova, neither of whom have a reputation for either consistency or mental toughness.)

So, while the official standings state that Dinara Safina is the top-ranked women's player in the world, nobody really believes she is anywhere close to being the best player.

There's a big difference between the two. It's a shame the ranking system doesn't reflect it.