Sunday, August 12, 2007

End of an Era

Discovery is no More.

Tailwind Sports the owner of the Discovery Channel Cycling Team has announced the team will disband after the 2007 season. Even though the team has had significant success winning eight out of the last nine Tours de France in the current climate in cycling it is not surprising that the team elected to disband. Although team officials had announced that they felt they were close to having signed a prime sponsor for 2008 to replace Discovery Channel, the fact that they had not announced anything at the Tour lead some to believe that the team's demise was imminent. Historically, new sponsors have always been announced and attached to teams during the Tour.

Discovery has been one of the largest and best funded teams in the peleton. As discussed in previous issues, however, it is not unusual for most riders to be on short term contracts of one to two years. The period following the Tour de France is typically the time that teams and riders begin to announce their line ups for the next season. While the loss of major sponsors does result in riders losing their jobs, invariably another team steps into the void.

When Motorola met a similar demise in the mid 1990's, it was a dark period in American cycling as it was the end of the 7-Eleven/Motorola legacy as the first American team in Europe. Jim Ochowitz found himself unable to find a replacement sponsor for the team and it too disbanded leaving many young American riders scrambling for rides elsewhere. Although 3-4 riders signed with the new French team Cofidis, including Lance Armstrong, it was the small American team Subaru-Montgomery Securities that filled the vaccum created by the demise of Motorola. The team had signed USPostal Service and had began to look to expand its presence in Europe. Many former Motorola riders ended up at US Postal Service which after a couple of years of growth became a mainstay of the peleton.

The demand for top talent, including American talent is always present even in an environment that is as toxic as the current sponsorship environment in cycling. Teams are always hiring riders. It is just that some teams do not have the budget that other teams have. Some teams look to move up by hiring top talent, i.e. Slipstream, which has already announced the signing of David Millar, Dave Zabriskie and Magnus Backstead. Other teams hire riders based upon the marketing goals of its sponsors. Prior to the doping announcement regarding T-Mobile's activities in the mid 1990's there had been some speculation that T-Mobile was going to become less German and more American. George Hincapie had previously been linked to a move to T-Mobile although that has yet to be confirmed. Discovery's Belgian national champion was sure to move to either Predictor Lotto or Quik.Step this year as both teams are willing to pay a premium to have the national champion wearing their jersey for the first part of the season.

In reality Discovery Channel had largely ceased to be an American team as Americans were in the minority of its riders and Discovery did not even contest the races that make up Philly week in June. Levi Leipheimer should have no difficult finding a ride for next season. Alberto Contador will likely have some difficulty unless and until Operacion Puerto is finally resolved.

Teams fold and teams are born each year. It is a difficult process and it is sad to see a team with the history of Discovery Channel calling it quits. Just like it was sad to see Mapei and ONCE disappear. The key to the ongoing viability of the sport, however, is long term sponsor support and that is jeopardized by a culture that still does not seem to understand the long term damage that doping in pursuit of short term gain causes. As Lance Armstrong noted in announcing Discovery's demise, the ASO's threat to return the Tour de France to national teams makes the search for sponsors difficult as sponsors want quantifiable return on their investment. They want to make sure that the team has significant exposure and that the team does not undermine its core marketing goals or injure its brand. Right now in cycling, that is difficult if not impossible to guarantee.

So What Happens Next Year?

At the end of the day, all cycling is driven by sponsorship. Sponsorship is driven by marketing. Marketing is driven by the desire to get products and brands as much positive recognition as possible in a cost effective manner. The UCI needs a top level team with strong ties to the United States. The ASO needs a top American team committed to racing clean. I would therefore expect that Jonathon Vaughter's Team Slipstream will not only be lining up for next year's Tour start but that it will be invited to join the ProTour in Discovery's absence.

There are other teams which will potentially fold this off season but there will be others to replace them. At the end of the day, the UCI's real difficulty is its desire to have a 20 team ProTour paying 20 licensing fees to it for entry into all the top races, the Grand Tour organizers really only want to have to invite 15-18 teams to their races and want freedom to invite more domestic teams. The Vuelta has long shown that the Italian teams do not take it seriously. There really are only about 15 teams that have the wherewithal to actually compete at the level the ProTour demands.

The loss of Discovery, the impending suspension of Astana, and questions around the ongoing sponsorship of, Cofidis, Credit Agricole, and Gerolsteiner all make it likely that this could be the end of the ProTour as the UCI has desired. The UCI formed the ProTour to ensure that sponsors got value for their commitment. The problem is that finding sponsors who want to run the risk of the baggage that comes with cycling is diminishing. Having a Tour de France contested by national teams may not be the worst thing that could happen.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Way Post Tour Recap

For those of you waiting for my Post Tour Recap, who have been waiting a week, I apologize. First, having returned from vacation and having not seen much of the Tour's final week, it took awhile to get up to speed in the real world. Second, I followed up nine days of vacation by taking this Friday off to go to my niece's wedding. Third, I had committed to go climb a mountain with our older scouts on Saturday. So, when you have been out of the office for more than a week and you are going to be out of the office for a couple of more days immediately thereafter, you have to focus on first things first. Plus, I jokingly told someone who ask this week that this year I would not do a Post Tour Recap until all the drug tests had been processed. So here are my random thoughts on various things that transpired at the Tour.

Why Dope

The whole issue of drugs has been beaten to death by the cycling media, the regular media and average joes. However, in evaluating cycling, it is important to take a step back and evaluate what really causes the use of drugs in sport. It is easy to claim that cyclists are not very smart, but I think that is an argument which can be applied to all professional sports. First, have you ever noticed that with the exception of former US Senator/Rhodes Scholar and and New York Knick Bill Bradley, that there are very few athletes who had strong academic credentials?

But it is easy and elitist to claim that cyclists are just stupid. That ignores the fact that they like most people are rationally calculating hedonists who seek to maximize their economic return for their skill set. Cycling is no different that motorsports, soccer, baseball, basketball and other professional sports. Cyclists seek to maximize their economic return which is determined by their in sport success. In general, most cyclists are making very modest salaries. There are a few big named riders who make significant salaries. Most of the rest make very modest salaries with the riders on small teams making almost nothing. Very few of them have adequate health insurance. None of them have retirement plans. So, if you want to make money, you have to win. By winning, you get to keep the prize money you win, and you can turn wins into a move up to a bigger team and a better salary. Adding to that is if you win you can build your own brand through personal sponsorship arrangements.

Another factor cannot be ignored, and that is the fact that relationships in cycling are very short term. Cyclists are typically on very short contracts. The average guy in the peleton is on a one or two year contract. Only the top riders, i.e. dominating sprinters and strong GC contenders, ever get a three year deal. Deals longer than that are almost unheard of in cycling. If a rider has a bad year, it has very real economic impact on them. So there is a short term bias towards generating results now.

Moreover, with sponsors and team management demanding results, there is added pressure on cyclists. Teams want winners, and they claim they want riders to win clean, however, short of locking all your riders in their rooms when they are not training and racing, you cannot ensure that riders will not succumb to the pressure to get instant results and improvement. It is beyond dispute that many teams either engaged in active doping programs over the years or willfully ignored the evidence that their riders were engaged in systematic doping.

Cycling is a blue collar sport which, I posit, has much more in common with stock car racing than Americans would ever concede. If Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, Sr., had been born in Belgium, I bet you that their names would have been Eddy Merckx or Freddy Maertens. However, there are a lot of other guys out there who want to be the Intimidator, the King or the Cannibal who will never accomplish that who spend their weekends racing at lower levels in hopes of moving up. Most never will. Of those who do, most will have modest success.

So why do riders keep doping when they know it is bad for their health, they know that they may get caught, they know that it is expensive? It is because the think they have to in order to remain competitive. While the long term ramifications of doping are serious and severe, when a guy is concerned about making a living next year, you will never get riders to think about the long term. So mediocre riders cheat to compete. Star riders cheat to win. They all cheat because doing so is what they think they sport demands for them to be honored and appreciate and most importantly to get paid.

Finally, I find the press attention that cycling got from the American press during this last edition of the Tour focusing on the impact that drugs has had upon the validity of the sport incredibly hypocritical when Barry Bonds pursues Hank Aaron's career home run mark in the midst of an ongoing drug investigation by federal officials. Everyone knows Bonds did steroids and he even conceded to the federal grand jury that he utilized drugs provided by BALCO although he thought it was "flaxseed oil." Yeah, Barry, Richard Virenque claimed the same thing.

On Contador

Alberto Contador won the Tour in a manner that he himself conceded was not the way to win it. The young Spaniard is, however, a legitimate GC leader as evidenced by his win at Paris-Nice earlier this year. He was not able to match Rassmussen on all of the climbs, and I think that all the main teams made a major tactical mistake when they let Rassmussen go on the first big climbing stage. I think they all believed that Rassmussen would follow the approach he had done in prior years to win the KOM polka dot jersey, which was to attack on the first climbs, get a big lead and then defend that jersey. I don't think anyone thought he would improve as he did on the time trial. Contador will continue to be hounded by his link to Operacion Puerto which resulted in his exclusion from last year's Tour before being cleared of wrong doing. Contador did provide a DNA sample and has not been linked to any of the blood seized in the Puerto investigation. He may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time riding for a team that it has become apparent now was engaged in a systematic doping program.

On Leipheimer

Levi Leipheimer gives hope to hard working normal guys. He has never been flashy, never been dominating in a Grand Tour, has had more bad luck over the years than good luck. I felt that when he returned to Discovery that he would go from being a perennial top ten GC rider to a top five and maybe a podium rider. He becomes only the second American to finish on the podium in two different Grand Tours with his prior third place finish in the Vuelta to join Greg LeMond who finished on the podium both in the Tour and the Giro. No one has ever questioned Leipheimer's skill and he has never been linked to doping. He has always just gone about getting the job done in a consistent manner.

On Rassmussen

Dane Michael Rassmussen has always been something of an enigma. He has always been strong in the mountains, but he never seemed to engender confidence of his teams or teammates. He was always at best a KOM rider not a GC threat. His downfall this year comes from the fact that he not only may have lied about where and how he was training but also that he attempted to engender confidence in his "cleanness" by telling everyone that he could be trusted. As one contributor to VeloNews noted, challenging the media a la Gary Hart, just guarantees someone is going to take you up on the challenge and catch you in inconsistencies. Most importantly, no one is going to get the benefit of the doubt for accidentally forgetting to tell doping authorities where you are in this day and age. There is no excuse for a professional athlete to not know that failure to comply fully with all doping regulations will bring you under suspicion regardless of whether you are clean or not.

On Vinokourov

The man let down a whole country that was supporting his effort to be the first Eastern rider to win the Tour. As much as I have enjoyed watching his aggressive riding over the years, Vinokourov's career is over. It is sad to see him become an even bigger Kazakh joke than Borat.

On Hypocrisy

I was dismayed by the protest by the French and German teams at the start of Stage 16 who to protest doping held things up. While it is good for riders to take responsibility and address the issue of doping and their objections to those who do, Cofidis participated in the protest only to withdraw from the Tour later after its rider Christian Moreni failed a drug test and was arrested and T-Mobile participated after Patrik Sinkewitz had dropped out but was found to have failed a pre Tour drug test.

On Testing

Testing is working. More people are getting caught and more importantly more people getting caught are conceding that they cheated.

Reforming the Grand Tours

If Tour organizers really want to recapture the moral high ground, then it has become apparent to me that they have to change the way they organize the race. All three mountain stages in the Pyrenees were nearly 200km long. The tradition of six high mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrenees probably needs to change. Especially where riders are forced to ride over 5 or more categorized climbs. The time trials are also too long. If you don't want riders to dope, then you cannot have courses that are so demanding that they all but encourage riders to cheat. So here is what I propose for reform of the course to improve the likelihood that riders won't be forced to dope:

1. Mountain stages shall be no longer than 15o km and have no more than four categorized climbs. Mountain top finishes shall only be permitted to cities/resorts which are capable of housing all the teams at the end of the stage. Are you really committed to clean racing when you put 13 categorized climbs and 600km of racing in the final mountain stages of a grand tour and riders have to face a long transfer back down the mountain after a stage?

2. Rolling stages like Stage 5 which mimic some of the one day classics with multiple small categorized climbs shall not 175 km and shall not have more than eight categorized climbs. If you are going to have a "dangerous" stage, make it important, but not decisive.

3. Flat stages shall be no more than 200 km long. Isn't this a stage race lasting three weeks as opposed to three classics or semi-classics strung out over a week?

4. There shall be no more than three time trials, including the prologue, all individual time trials, and any team time trials. No time trial shall exceed 45km and the total of all time trial mileage shall be no more than 100km. Who really wants to watch the 95th rider on GC slog through a 55km time trial to lose another 6 minutes on the leaders?

5. Let teams have ten man rosters with seven riders allowed to start every day. Four riders must ride every stage to be considered for the GC competition and any other competition, i.e. points, KOM, young rider. Of the other six riders, teams can use them as they like. Even soccer allows large rosters and substitutes.

6. Make the Team GC competition more meaningful by increasing the prize money and increasing the number of spots that are paid. At any given Tour, there will only be ten teams with legitimate contenders for the GC, Points and KOM prizes. To encourage better team performance, make the team award more meaningful and eliminate any team from the running for any doping violation or significant sanction. Individual pressure to keep up and perform caused this mess, so rewarding positive teamwork and team performance will hopefully improve the situation.

7. If you are going to change race history to remove past transgressors, then remove them all. If Riis cheated to win in 1996, then you cannot remove him, without also removing the whole podium which consists of Ullrich his teammate and Richard Virenque of Festina, all of whom have been touched by doping. You cannot claim the moral high ground only when convenient.

8. Move the prologue to Friday night and have rest days every Monday. That gives you a prologue and two sprint stages before a rest day and then two more rest days later on. By moving the prologue to Friday night, you keep the same number of stages in the race. Give the riders a legitimate opportunity to recuperate on a reasonable schedule.

9. As a corollary to number 1 above, no city hosting a stage finish nor stage start shall be selected that has inadequate hotel facilities to accommodate all riders. Before starting or after finishing the need for immediate rest and recovery for all riders is imperative. Long transfers are bad and must be eliminated.

10. Implement a "fair play" team and individual award that is significant. Recognize those teams and riders who embody what is good and reward them appropriately. Poor sportsmanship, rules violations and doping all detract/eliminate riders and teams from contention and are to be discouraged. Provide meaningful rewards will encourage good behavior.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tour Top Ten

I am going to be on the road for the next ten days. I am not likely going to see much of the rest of the Tour so I will be relying on and for my Tour fix. In light of the fact that Mrs. Cycliste Moderne will be attending Monday's taping of the Letterman Show, I am going to give you the Top Ten Things to Look For in the Last Half of the Tour de France:

10. Will Michael Rassmusen lose less than ten minutes over the two time trials? The "Chicken" cannot time trial. He is in the lead now but I expect him to be more than three minutes behind come Saturday.

9. How far back will Vinokourov come? Vino has shown strength over the last two days. Probably cannot win, maybe able to climb back to the top five. Who knows with how the Tour is progressing.

8. Will Moreau be able to attack? French champion Christoph Moreau got caught out in the cross winds today and suffered as Astana hammered away at the front. Moreau has never been an aggressive rider but he will have to attack in the coming mountains to climb back to the top three.

7. Has doping been reduced? I think from how up and down the racing has been, see Vinokourov, that there is some evidence that riders are suffering more and are less enhanced. The only doping issue so far has arisen from a pre Tour test. I think the answer is yes?

6. Will Discovery find a new sponsor? Typically if teams are going to get a major new sponsor they make the announcement at the Tour de France or shortly thereafter. If Discovery does not announce a new sponsor by August 1, it is likely that the team's current incarnation will change significantly.

5. What will happen at T-Mobile and CSC? Both teams have aggressive anti doping policies and practices, but both have been rocked by doping intrigue over the last month. While T-Mobile appears to be moving in the right direction, the latest scandal involving Patrik Sinkewitz may be too difficult to over come. If the team survives it is clear that it will have a much more American flavor.

4. Who will win the Green Jersey? The sprint jersey is wide open this year. Every major sprinter except Zabel has won a stage. It has been a different cast of characters everyday. The real question is who gets over the mountains and too Paris. Probably Boonen, but you never know.

3. Will Leipheimer win? I don't think so. I think he can finish top five but he has ridden much to defensively. We will see what happens with the time trials. He is not even the best climber on his team, that is Contador.

2. Which sponsor has the best podium girls: Credit Lyonnaise, Aquarel, Champion or PMU? That is a matter of personal preference.

1. Who will win? I really think that Cadel Evans is likely going to be the first Australian to win the Tour. Predictor does not have to defend Robbie McEwen's sprint interests since he went home already. The team has not had to put any real efforts in and Evans has ridden a perfect race to date. He sits in fourth and probably is the best time trialist of the current leading group.

I will see you all in about ten days. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

But can Danes Time Trial?

This Has Been Fun

This year's Tour de France has been much more exciting than I really thought it would be. The crashes and carnage has been wide spread. Team CSC, T-Mobile, Discovery and Astana have all had riders in spectacular crashes.

The first week has been marked with spectacular individual efforts. Michael Rassmusen's victory Sunday was a herculean individual effort. It was not unexpected as the stage was of the type that favored the former mountain bike champion. Rabobank's mountain goat has historically attacked on such stages and proven himself able to get off the front, seize the King of the Mountain's jersey. He rode a really strong race dominating the day.

In past years Rassmusen has taken a page from Richard Virenque and Laurent Jalabert who grabbed the polka dot jersey with a huge effort on the first climb and then defend the lead in the mountains competition for the rest of the Tour. While Rassmusen is a very strong climber, do not forget that he cannot time trial. Unless he has done significant work in the off season in the wind tunnel and worked on his equipment, Rassmusen could conceivably lose ten to eleven minutes in the two remaining individual time trials totaling more than one hundred and ten kilometers. The time trials are too long and too flat for Rassmusen. He can go uphill really well but just cannot keep it together on the flat.

T-Mobile's Linus Gerdemann had a short but quality stint in yellow with his win on Saturday's first Alpine stage. Because it was a downhill finish, it was unlikely that any of the expected leaders would have gotten away from the other leaders, so the stage favored the very type of breakaway that succeeded. Although T-Mobile did not expect to defend the yellow during Sunday's stage, it was good to see a young rider get yellow and enjoy it.

All of the sprinters you would have expected to win stages have done so. Quick Step's Boonen, Predictor's McEwen, Credit Agricole's Hushovd, Liquigas' Pozzatto were all deserving winners during the first week. Additionally, Team CSC's Cancellara honored the yellow jersey with his attack of the front to a second stage win. So far there has not been a single stage where the ultimate winner did not put in an effort that was worthy for the victory.

It is apparent that we may be seeing a return to some of the classic Tours. No team has been able to stamp its control on the race like Banesto, Telekom, and USPostal Service/Discovery have done in the past. Astana could not get Vinokourov back into the peleton after his big crash. That would not have ever happened in the past.

Moreover, Astana, Discovery, Team CSC and Caisse d'Epargne all came to the Tour with multiple leaders free to ride for themselves. The all for one approach is not being followed this year in large part because there are no really dominant riders on any of the team. Even though Astana was built for Vinokourov, it is clear that it came with more than one card to play with former podium finisher Andreas Kloden on its roster.

As impressive as Rassmusen's ride was on Sunday, Christoph Moreau gets my nod for the best old school ride. Historically, Moreau is not known for his attacking prowess. However, on Sunday Moreau rode like Bernard Hinault going off the front and aggressively attacking. Moreau very well may have his best chance to win the Tour ever.

My Saturday Ride

Saturday I raced my first triathlon in eleven years in Twin Falls, Idaho. I had a decent swim, a really good bike, and then totally blew up on the run with severe knee pain. At the end of the bike leg, I was ten minutes ahead of my goal for the race. Then I proceeded to have a disastrous five mile run. I am not too depressed about that.

I knew the run would be tough and I ended up only four minutes slower than my goal time. It was very frustrating to have a run that was as poor as it was. There were only four people that had slower run splits than I did. I can honestly say, however, that I had as good a day as I could have hoped for. My food and water intake were good, I had good legs on the bike, I got out of my wetsuit without too much difficulty. A year ago there is no way I could have done the race. I do not have any knee pain today which leads me to believe that it may just be a shoe problem that can be resolved with new shoes and more miles. So next year, I know I can easily shave fifteen to twenty minutes off my time if I can have the type of run that I know I can do.

I always liked doing "local" triathlons. The kind that attract the locals who want to prove themselves and who are not necessarily concerned about how much carbon fibre they have or how aerodynamic their helmets are. They are just there to do it and have fun. One older guy who racked his old Dave Scott steel Ironman bike without any aero equipment by me, raced in his 1980's navy blue shorts and old headband. Of course there was also the guy who rather than walk the 100 yards to the restroom to change into his race shorts. No, he stood behind a tree right in the corner of the transition area dropped his pants and took about thirty seconds to get his lycra pulled up. Buck naked in the middle of a city park in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Wild Week

The first week of the Tour has been much more exciting than I really expected. Good crowds, exciting racing, the expected long breakaways and aggressive riding have all been present this week. Additionally, the fact that there has been no dominant team in the sprints and no team has seemed to be able to really put its stamp on the race and control the final lead out day after day after day may be evidence of the fact the peleton is cleaner than it has been in years. Teams and riders do seem to be paying for their big efforts. So here are my brief highlights of the first week so far.

The Big One

There is always a monster crash in the first week of the Tour. In variably it is some over aggressive inexperienced rider who causes it and knocks somebody important out. However, this year "the Big One" came during Stage Two and was caused not by a neophyte but rather Erik Zabel one of the best and most experienced riders in the peleton. Zabel swerved violently setting off the chain reaction that took down the Tour leader Cancellara from Team CSC, who initially seemed to have suffered a severe injury. Zabel is better than that and amazingly only Discovery Channel's Lithuanian sprinter Thomas Vaitkus had to abandon after the carnage.
However, Belgian Tom Boonen failed to win at home as he did not manage to get around his lead out man and settled for second.

It was Just a Flesh Wound

Proving that he was a worthy yellow jersey wearer and doing something that has not been seen since the reign of Bernard Hinault in the 1970's and 1980's, Team CSC's Cancellara roared past the four man break away in the final kilometer and held of the sprinters to win Stage 3 in Compiegne. Cancellara is not only the world time trial champion but he is also a former Paris-Roubaix winner which starts near the finish of Stage 3. It was an unbelievable finish as Cancellara showed grit, speed and determination in jumping off the front and managing to stay away to the finish. You do not see that much anymore. Obviously the winding finish over cobbles kept the peleton's speed low enough that the man in the Maillot Jaune could attack when he did.

Doping is not the Story

German officials and media continue to focus on doping as opposed to racing. Governmental officials threatened to pull funding for this year's world championships in Stuttgart due to doping issues. The ARD network took discraced pro Jorg Jaksche to Ghent for the finish this week. The ZDF network claims that cyclists are cheating because they are left alone. And then German rider Matthias Kessler's B sample comes back positive for testosterone which he claims must have been caused by the four packages of "natural supplements" with "chinese writing on them" he ingested before Fleche Wallone.

I am starting to think that the Germans just don't get it. If they want to combat doping then really take a stand as opposed to just keep threatening to shut down races or to stop TV coverage. Second, do not reward guys like Jaksche who has been under a cloud of suspician for several years now and who like Richard Virenque before, denied, denied, denied, before then spilling the beans on everyone he knew when it was good for him. Third, they need to recognize that the doping culture within German cycling arose largely in the context of the rise of cycling nationalism as Team Telekom/T-Mobile functioned as the defacto national team for Germany during the 1990's and early 2000's. has all of the details of the German media's frenzy but reported that irate viewers called demanding that the commentators covering the race stop talking about drugs and start talking about the race.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Tour Begins

Prologue Recap

This weekend's British launch of the Tour de France has to have made Tour organizers happy. London embraced the Tour with incredible crowds. Racing the prologue through central London past many of the famous sites resulted in huge crowds. The television coverage showed wall to wall people along the entire route. Because it was a slightly longer route than past prologue courses have used, it is clear that the British certainly have not turned their backs on the sport especially since Great Britain really is not a great cycling hotbed. Although there have been some great British cyclists the country's laws and sporting culture have not fostered a long term relationship with the sport.

Team CSC's Fabien Cancellara showed why he is the world champion in the time trial. His dominating performance was the ride of the day. To win by more than thirteen seconds is really impressive. My toddler and I sat down to watch the coverage off the DVR and he stood and screamed at the television "Go, Go, Go" which is exactly what the Swiss rider did.

As I had predicted last week, however, the prologue's length resulted in the unfortunate outcome that none of the sprint favorites will likely be able to wear the yellow jersey this first week. The time gaps are just too large as a result of the fact that the prologue took most of the riders nine and a half minutes to complete. A shorter prologue results in smaller time gaps leaving sprinters within shouting distance of the lead as the time bonuses available on flat stages can catapult a sprinter into yellow. However, all of the favorite sprinters, Milram's Erik Zabel, Credit Agricole's Thor Hushovd, Predictor-Lotto's Robbie McEwen, Quik.Step's Boonen and Rabobank's Oscar Freire, lost more than forty seconds to Team CSC' Cancellara. Even with twenty second time bonuses available to stage winners on flat stages, for a sprinter to wear yellow this week they will have to likely win three or more stages to close the gap to the leaders. That is unlikely to happen.

Team CSC will likely be somewhat motivated to keep and defend Cancellara's jersey this week. While Carlos Sastre is the team's leader, the doping news regarding team manager Bjarne Riis has clearly had an impact on the team and has caused Riis to stay away from the Tour. The team seems to have its sponsor's support, having only lost one secondary sponsor but naming a new important sponsor just before the Tour. CSC is a well disciplined team and knows what it needs to do to make sponsors happy and that is lead. I would expect Cancellara to be in yellow until the race hits the mountains.

Stage 1 Recap

Sunday's crowds for Stage 1 finishing in Canterbury were just as large and as impressive as Saturday in London. However, the amazing event of Sunday was Predictor-Lotto's Robbie McEwen who came from nowhere to win. McEwen had been involved in a crash about 20km from the end. His team dropped back and raced him back to the group with about three miles to go. McEwen did an incredible job getting through the peleton, getting to the front, and timing his sprint for the win. He won by a big margin.

Now, I am not a big McEwen fan but you have to give him a tip of the hat for today's performance. He did not panic, his team worked him back to the front and he positioned himself perfectly.

The tactics of Quick.Step, Lampre and Milram have to be questioned though. All three teams were at the front setting up the train over the last 10km for their sprinters: Boonen, Benatti and Zabel. However, their speed was not high enough. The basic physics of cyling dictate that if the peleton is moving along fast enough at the end, anyone dropped in the closing kilometers just cannot get back on. Although the three teams were cooperating to some degree at the closing setting up the trains for their leaders, the peleton was not strung out in the long single file line that you used to see for Mario Cippolini in his days at Saeco. The peleton was strung out but clearly was not moving along fast enough to keep McEwen from getting back on and getting to the front and then getting around the lead out men for those teams. Really smart riding by McEwen and his team. Really dumb riding by the others.

Tour Ephemera

Somethings you may have missed:

Discovery Channel is wearing green accented team kit to highlight its environmental program.'s Jim Caple gives you an irreverant explaination of why the Tour is still cool and relevant. Like Caple, I am debating whether it is time to buy a Slingbox so I can watch the last week of the Tour while I am in New York from my laptop. has an interview with Anthony Pope, the man behind ProCycling Magazine's Plastic Peleton People cartoons depicting cycling events with Playmobil people.

Lance Armstrong has released a strong and detailed rebuke of David Walsh's latest doping book.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Tour Preview and Who Will Win?

Why I am not yet Excited about the Tour Preview

It is less than three days before the Tour de France’s historic launch in London and I really have yet to get excited or interested. It is a combination of factors really. First, with the doping cloud hanging over the sport, it has been tough to get excited about the most important race in the world when the media and even race organizers seem to surmise that everyone is cheating.

Second, organizers have shied away from some of the more classic stage finishes. While different is good, a race that included more of the classic climbs and finishes would better link the old with the new and help the race move beyond its recent tarnished history. Throw us a bone. Why not return to Mont Ventoux, L’Alpe d’Huez or have the classic finishing sprint in Bordeaux. Those are classic “comfort” stages.

Third, downhill finishes on Stages 9 and 15 waste the efforts of the riders. Stage 9 climbs the Col du Galibier from the north, which requires the riders to first climb up the Col du Telegraph, which results in nearly 40km of climbing over what is arguably the longest climbing section racers ever face in the Tour de France. However the short finishing climb into Briancon comes after a 35km downhill and almost trivializes the effort.

Fourth, the time trials will be boring. The opening prologue is almost too long at 7.9km as it will likely result in time gaps that will prevent the frequent changes of the yellow jersey among the sprinters the first week. With the start in London, Saunier Duval’s David Millar and Cofidis’ Bradley Wiggins will be gunning to win at home. The first individual time trial does not come until after the Alps in stage 13, but comes the day before the first stage in the Pyrenees. At 54km, it is quite long and will result in significant time gaps. Stage 19 is similar as it is even longer at 55km. Neither are particularly technical, so look for big time gaps as the strong time trialists should be able to put 4+ minutes on the climbers like Rabobank’s Michael Rassmusen and Team CSC’s Carlos Sastre.

Fifth, I have a conference in New York and then family vacation in Washington DC from July 20-29. Versus access is suspect at this point, so why get excited when you don’t have a guarantee that you will be able to see that much of the race anyway. For that reason alone, it may result in being one of the greatest Tours ever.

So who will win?

As is the case most of the time only a handful of teams come to the Tour with reasonable possibilities of having a rider win. So, you can automatically rule out the winner of this year’s race coming from Agritubel, Barloworld, Bouygues Telecom, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Francaise de Jeux, Gerolsteiner, Lampre, Liquigas, Milram, Saunier-Duval. Cofidis, Credit Agricole, and Rabobank will not threaten in the GC but will likely have multiple stage winners, but they likely cannot put a man on the podium either. So that leaves you with the possible winners.

Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov is the favorite. He has been preparing to be a leader for years and is one of the most aggressive riders in the peleton. His team is focused on deliverying him to victory. He is the second most famous Kazakh in the world, after Borat, naturally. However, Vinokourov has never raced the Tour as a leader and that is very different from racing opportunistically as he has done in the past. If Vino does not win this year, then he probably never will win. I am not sure that he can, however.

Predictor-Lotto’s Cadel Evans has shown good form this spring in preparation for the Tour. He has had good results previously in the Tour, but Predictor-Lotto goes to the Tour to support Robbie McEwen in the sprints and in the Green Jersey points competition. The two long time trials and the lack of a totally dedicated team, probably mean that Evans can finish on the podium but cannot win.

Levi Leipheimer of Discovery is being advertised as the next great American hope. He has been consistent over the years at the Tour showing annual top ten potential when he stays out of trouble. The move to Discovery has paid off with strong time trial results this spring. However, Alberto Contador is probably a stronger climber and Johann Bruyneel’s stated goal of getting him on the podium probably is a reasonable one under the circumstances.

Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d’Epargne is advertised as the next big thing, however, he has yet to finish a Tour de France. You need to finish one before you can win one. Maybe a top 5 is possible although I think his time trialing will be exposed with the 110km of time trials squeezed into the last nine days of the Tour.

CSC’s Carlos Sastre should finish in the top 5 again, however, like Valverde, the long non-technical individual time trials likely preclude him finishing on the podium.

T-Mobile’s Michael Rogers should have no trouble with the time trial as a multiple world time trial champion, however, he has never shown that he can hang in the high mountains. Top ten is likely top five would be a surprise.

So, that brings us to AG2R which is not on any of the lists above. Christophe Moreau is my dark horse. He recently won the Dauphine Libere and capped off the French national championships with his first ever national title. He will race the Tour in the national champion’s jersey. He has twice finished fourth in the Tour and he is a perennial top 10 rider. Since moving to AG2R, he has shown more aggression than he did in all his years at Credit Agricole. He will have all of France pulling for him. Do you think the guys down at the Tour headquarters have noticed that it has been more than 20 years since a French rider won? If ever there was a year where the Tour de France needed a French winner to keep the home crowds and sponsors happy it is 2007. However, Moreau is the only French rider with the remotest possibility of being anywhere near the top 10. 2007 could be Moreau’s best shot ever at winning Le Tour.