While I am no sport scientist, I do have an appreciation and understanding of the greatest bike race on earth, and as it dominated the discussion on our Monday night run, I am going to share a few more thoughts from the 2011 edition of the race. If you are one of the 6 people that reads this daily (average), feel free to share any thoughts you have in the comments!
1) How did Thor Hushovd do that (win Stage 13 in the mountains) without drugs?
Thanks Ben, for that great question. Sprinters attacking in the mountains is not entirely uncommon, although it is not often very successful. Sometimes they'll do it just to have a little head start on the climbs, so they can make it inside of the hors delai, or time cut, of the day's stage. In the twilight of Erik Zabel's career, he knew his chances for winning straight-up sprints were diminished (particularly without PEDs), so he had to climb better than the other sprinters in hopes of winning some of the intermediate sprints, and possibly get over the easier mountains with the GC guys and only have to outsprint them to the line. Back then there were usually 2 to 3 intermediate sprint points, with 6, 4 and 2 points on the line. Zabel also had an appreciation and respect for the Tour, and the Maillot Vert, so he always enjoyed showing that he was worthy of the honor by getting through the mountains better than the other sprinters. As we know, the Tour is mostly a race of attrition, and he knew if he established a lead early, some of the other sprinters would call it quits in the mountains.
As for Thor, we are looking at the reigning World Champion, and a strongman of the Spring Classics races. These are grueling, one day, 250km+ sufferfests that only the best of the best can win. Much like Zabel did, Thor has realized that he no longer packs the punch to compete with a Mark Cavendish type sprinter, so his only chance for stage wins, or the Green Jersey, is to outfox everyone, as we saw in both Stage 13, and later in Stage 16. Since those stages were hard, but not Stage 18 or 19 hard, he knew he could suffer just enough to win the stage, and also that nobody would bother him as he was not a GC threat.
Keep in mind, too, that the riders in those breakaways were not necessarily "climbers" - but rather guys who were instructed by their Directeur Sportif to get in the day's breakaway. Each day teams try to fulfill different objectives, and sometimes it's just about being in the break for some TV time. Certainly, none of them was a World Champ like Thor, so it wasn't like he was attacking Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck. In Stage 13, he outlasted FdJ's Jeremy Roy, who had been in almost every breakaway since the Tour began. The guy's legs must have been stripped. In Stage 16, he was able to bridge to his own teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, as the two sandwiched Sky's Edvald Boassen Hagen in the last kilometer. Hesjedal, playing the role of teammate and leadout rider, realized he could not outsprint either of the two, so sacrificed his own chance for the win to enable Thor to win for the second time. A win for Thor is a win for the team, and that's why Garmin-Cervelo had such a successful Tour.
2) Contador looked untouchable in the Giro, and Andy Schleck looked terrible in the Tour de Suisse. What happened?
The Giro is almost always a harder race than the Tour, at least on paper. The race takes place in May, a time of year when the weather is still pretty fickle throughout most of Europe. This year's Giro was exceptionally difficult, perhaps the hardest Grand Tour of all time, and Alberto Contador owned everyone and made it look real easy. His form looked so incredible that he was the odds-on favorite to win the Tour, pending his trial (today, another delay was approved, so who knows when this thing will ever happen). Meanwhile, just a few weeks out from the Tour, Andy Schleck rode the Tour de Suisse. He looked lackluster, to say the least, be it climbing or in the time trial. We all know the brothers Schleck do not like the discipline against the clock, and it appeared as if neither had made any improvements in the months since last year's Tour.
But another thing we know is what every Tour hopeful knows, and that is you do not want to come to the Tour on 100% of your form. The Tour is three weeks long, and it gets progressively more difficult all the way to Paris. Ideally one will race themself into shape by the time the stages get harder, and you saw that with most of this year's real contenders. Andy Schleck was clearly using the TdS to prepare for the Tour, while Contador had chosen the much harder Grand Tour to prepare. Schleck's legs were building into form while Contador was already pretty tired.
Contador, meanwhile, suffered from a severe lack of paying attention in the first week of the Tour. He was involved in a number of crashes, and he and the team manager, former Tour winner/admitted PED user Bjarne Riis, kept the actual impact of his injured knee close to their chest. Contador seemed to be riding in the middle to the back of the peloton on most days, and it never looked like he had any teammates near him. He seemed to be out of it from the start, and lost some time - almost insurmountable time - on stage 1, and again in the 2nd week.
I will say this: I've never liked Contador. I didn't like him in 2007 when he won his first Tour. Because of the problems with his team, he was not allowed to defend his title in 2008, but came back and won in 2009 and again in 2010. The infighting on Team Astana in 2009 as Lance tried to ride for the win again was petty, and the creation of RadioShack split the team for the 2010 Tour. Each year he's ridden the Tour, I feel like he's looked worse. He was vulnerable last year and perhaps had it not been for Andy Schleck's chain slipping at a critical moment in the race, maybe he wouldn't have won. When he popped positive for clenbuterol, a banned substance, following last year's Tour, it cast a shadow of doubt on his entire career. For a guy who so easily won the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta in succession, this stained his reputation and possibly his legacy as one of the greatest stage racers of all time. But, he handled adversity this year like a champion. He could have dropped out after losing time, and blamed it on his knee. He could have said my knee hurt and that's why I couldn't keep up. Instead, he just said he didn't have the legs, he didn't know what happened. Having been there (a lot) I know what he's talking about, and it's refreshing to know that even someone like Contador has bad days. And even when the chips were really down, he still went on the attack just 10km into Friday's super hard Stage 19. He didn't even win the stage, and you could tell he was hurting. He then rode Saturday's time trial as if he were going for the win. I respect that, and seeing as I feel like he was clean this year, I will now give him a little more respect.
3) How did Thomas Voeckler keep yellow for so long, isn't he not very good?
In 2004, a 25 year old Thomas Voeckler earned the yellow jersey by getting into a good break. Those were in the days of long breakaways that Lance and his Postal squad would allow (like Stuart O'Grady gaining a 35 minute advantage in 2001). Wearing the yellow jersey means pressure; pressure for the rider, pressure for the team to defend, especially when the rider, and the team, are French. Back then, nobody expected Voeckler to hold onto the jersey very long, so when he did, for 10 days, it was a coup. When Lance finally took it back, he took it hard. Voeckler cracked, finally ceding that he couldn't climb well enough to entertain thoughts of winning.
Over the years he has been one of the most animated riders in the peloton, and is always a threat for a good breakaway stage win, and the possibility of wearing yellow. Compared to some of his French generational compatriots, such as Sandy Casar, and Sylvain Chavanel, Voeckler has always been the runt of the litter, carrying less pedigree, but riding with much more heart, than almost anyone. He's been having a great 2011, and it was no surprise to anyone that in the first week of riding he was itching for opportunities for either a stage win, the yellow jersey, or both. He finally got that opportunity, and mixed with a little bit of good fortune (avoiding getting hit by a car in the break combined with a cautious peloton) he was able to snag the yellow jersey. He knew it would be short-lived, honestly believing he couldn't carry it beyond a day or two, but he steadfastly vowed to defend it.
What happened next flumoxed most people involved in the Tour - media, riders, viewers alike. Thomas Voeckler somehow found the legs to match pace with the best in the mountains. And it wasn't like they were riding easy enough for everyone to be there, toward the end of each stage it was a very select group, usually just the top 7-10 guys on GC. One would attack, and Voeckler would aggressively move to cover it. He appeared to be climbing better than Schleck or Contador on some occasions. Always near was his faithful domestique, the best young rider Pierre Rolland, who I did actually say would win a stage by the end of the Tour when the race first hit the mountains. He looked extremely comfortable in the high mountains and Stage 19 atop Alpe d'Huez he earned a great win. But back to Voeckler, when he was asked by the media whether he felt the fact he was able to defend his jersey was a sign of a cleaner Tour, he said absolutely.
Now, whether that's the case or not, I think he benefitted from historical precedence. Thomas Voeckler has never been a climber, and I suspect that, after this year, probably won't be again. The real contenders never seemed to care if he did anything, they were too busy marking each other. Until, with 3 stages to go, he still had a lead. Even then, it seemed impossible that this guy, from Team Europcar, was still clinging to the lead over the best in the world. This will go down as one of the most remarkable stories in Tour history, and if he wasn't already, Voeckler will be a folk hero in French cycling lore.
But, he will never be allowed in a breakaway again, so I hope he enjoyed it.
4) Was this Tour cleaner?
I think it was. First, you saw a tremendous level of parity when it came to the final climbs. If Tom Danielson, at age 33 and in his first Tour ever, is able to keep up with the likes of the Schlecks, Evans and Contador, you know something's up. Second, you really could see the fatigue on the riders, moreso than in the past. People have been quick to point out that they climbed slower than the last decade or so, and that could be something, or it could be nothing. To me, it looked like the climbs were slower, because the pace TO the climbs had been so rapid, that the teammates of the GC guys were dropped earlier than in the past. When Lance had the full force of Postal behind him, they ran it more efficiently than the real Postal Service. Lance was a real boss, a patron of the peloton. He was feared, and respected. Every day his team was on the front, and they would set the tempo up the climbs, peeling off one by one until it was Lance, maybe one or two rivals, and a teammate of Lance's. There was nothing like that this year. LeoPard Trek was riding so hard in between climbs that they were all gone by the time the climbs started. BMC didn't have the firepower, neither did SaxoBank. Maybe that is the sign of cleaner riding, that the domestiques lost their climbing legs. But to say it was cleaner solely because the climbs were slower, well I don't think that means much, at least not yet.
What changed from Tours of the past to this one? Last year Mark Cavendish won a bunch of stages. This year, he won a bunch of stages. He was untouchable in most sprints. So, let's assume last year they were all doping, and this year they weren't. He's still better. Almost everyone finished where they were supposed to finish. The green jersey went to the best sprinter. The polka dot jersey went to a climber (maybe not THE best, but it hardly ever does). The yellow jersey went to the best rider in the race. The race was exciting from start to finish.
5) Was Cadel really the best? And will Andy Schleck ever win a Tour?
First answer - yes. Second - I don't think so. Cadel is a World Champion, and has proven his worth as a cyclist time and time again. He came from a champion mountain bike background, like many others, but has catapulted himself to the top of the road cycling ranks, which is not something that the others can say. He has poured his heart into winning this race, and this year he looked sharp from the beginning. Crashes and bad luck are part of the sport. You can't control what happens around you, unfortunately, and in some of his other attempts, he really just has suffered bad luck. You can feel bad for that. Bad form, you can't.
I've always pointed out that Lance Armstrong didn't win 7 Tours in a row (SEVEN) because he was the best. I honestly don't think he was. And, speculations of PEDs aside, Lance won for a few simple reasons: he prepared the best, he wanted to win more than the others, he had the best/most prepared team around him, and he rarely suffered from bad luck. Lance was only ever focused on the Tour, and was fortunate to have a team (and, importantly, sponsors) who backed that pursuit. They were allowed to focus on that. They were not required to win stages, put guys in the break, win other jerseys. It was all about yellow. Other contemporary teams, including Jan Ullrich's Deutsche Telekom team, still had to satisfy sponsors with dual objectives: win stages. That meant at the end of each stage, some of the team's 9 riders were told to work hard to get Erik Zabel in position to win the stage.
In this day, I think it is almost impossible for a team to satisfy both objectives. You can either go for stage wins, or you can win the Tour. Of the top 10, only three won stages during the Tour (Cadel, Andy, Sanchez), and just two of the others (Voeckler, Danielson, we'll discount Frank Schleck) even had stage winners come from their team. Not one of those teams had a sprinter they worked for.
For Cadel, BMC was fully committed to the cause. I actually believe it helps being an American team with American sponsors, because here in America, we only know about yellow. We don't care about the other classifications, or TV time for sponsors, or stage wins, like the European-based teams might. LeoPard Trek was the same way. SaxoBank, same. Cadel benefitted from his great skill in the time trial, so he really never had to attack. I was personally disappointed to see him not light it up in the mountains, but even if he had been able to, I don't know that it would have been beneficial in his attempt to win yellow. Instead, he did what he had to do to win. I can get behind that. He rode sensibly, near the front at all times, he did dig it out for that sprint to win that early stage, stayed out of trouble with the crashes, mechanicals, had teammates around. He just rode smart. And then he knew even if the TT was only 42km that he could take out probably 2 minutes on Anyone But Contador so he didn't have to do anything other than work to bridge some time on Stages 18 and 19.
As far as Andy Schleck, I think last year was his shot. Yeah, I know he's young, but Contador has already stated emphatically that he will "never ride the Giro again" and will focus solely on winning more Tours. This may not work out if his court case turns out unfavorably, but he seems adamant that he will be back and in the hunt next year. Cadel I'm sure will come back to defend. Who knows who else could be in the mix. Andy Schleck has proven that he can climb, nobody doubts that, but until he works on his time trial, he cannot be a champion. His team needs a better strategy, and Frank needs to be used better. The one thing Schleck has going for him, as Arjun and I discussed last night, is that he seems to get the idea that you build your season around just racing the Tour, and build the team that can support that plan. If he doesn't win next year, or the year after, will he still be hungry enough to win the Tour? One can only get second so many times, just ask Raymond Poulidor.