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Thursday, July 29, 2004

Hold the Mayo

After three days away and a tour post-mortem blackout, I returned back to the office this morning. In the process of dumping a recycling pile, I spied a headline from Velo News a month back or so concerning the Dauphine Libere: "Warning Shot!" Shoulda replaced "warning" with "wad." I'm looking forward to catching up on the recriminations from Euskaltel, Liberty Seguros, and a few others.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Bravo Lance!

Skipping past the incredibly obvious about how Lance is now, indeed, the cream of this year's Tour, one is left to marvel at one more telling statistic. In both of the races of truth, today's spin around Besancon and Wednesday's sprint up Alpe d'Huez, Armstrong beat second-best Jan Ullrich by 1:01. As interesting as this coincidence is, that's not what's so telling. Rather, what matters is that in both cases, this was the largest gap between any two riders on the stage, except for three outliers at the tail end of the Alpe d'Huez results. In other words, not only is Lance the best, but the distance between him and his nearest challenger is the greatest difference between any two riders in the peloton. His 6:38 GC lead is one of the largest gaps in the overall as well, although there are three or four other places on the GC where riders are separated by bigger chunks, mostly at the back. But the time trials are the races of truth, and here is where we can see exactly how Lance stacks up. The mind boggles...

Friday, July 23, 2004

No Gifts

My favorite sidebar to this year's Tour has been the re-emergence of the Vlaireau (sp?) Bernard Hinault to lend a little old-skool class to Lance's historic Boucle. As has been exhaustively reported, Hinault chided Lance gently for giving "gifts" of stage wins in the past, in the form of congratulations for Lance finally snatching some stages on the line. Lance got the message, loud and clear, and has owned the daily podium ever since.

What's going on is not merely trivia, it's a lesson in how to be le Patron from the master of the role, and the preservation of Tour history and culture. Hinault is around this year to watch new history be made, and probably wants to see it done right. No doubt, he has made peace with the demise of his own (shared) record of five Tour wins; he's been tipping Lance for the sixth this year since people began asking him. Hinault of all people knows, never ever bet against the patron. Hinault is sanguine, saying times have changed, and the records don't compare anymore. His legacy will remain what it is.

Hinault is something of a bridge between the old hardball era of Merckx and the modern peloton: his style suggests he had both feet firmly planted in the Merckx era but he seemed to get the modern era springing up around him too, adopting new technologies as they came along -- anything to gain an edge. His five tour wins were three parts grit, one part cunning, and dashes of arrogance and talent. He watched talented guys like Fignon become Ullrich-style footnotes to history; he tried to take the super-talent LeMond and mold him into the perfect weapon, with mixed results. He ground out victories in the mountains and time trials (more his specialty). He won everything his creaky frame and knees would allow, snapping and scowling at any challenges to his patron authority. No quarter asked, none given. No gifts.

Oh, you could argue that LeMond's deference to Hinault in '85 was a gift to Bernard. LeMond was more talented a rider, and in better shape after Hinault got felled and weakened by a pointless crash in the closing KM of a late stage. LeMond was strong enough the next day to attack his team leader and ride away with Roche for the win and the maillot jaune. But Hinault the patron said no, that's not how teams work, that's not what the boss hired him to do. The will of the patron forced Greg to wait his turn.

LeMond has always argued that Hinault's behavior that year and in 86 was unfair, but seen through the eyes of the patron at least, this was how life worked. In exchange for a year's loyalty in the service of Hinault's historic win, LeMond got to learn from the patron how to carry himself after Hinault was gone. I still contend that Hinault's attacks in '86 were not the backstabs LeMond whined about, but lessons in how to win. Hinault knew LeMond had far better form, that Hinault could not win in long breakaways on successive days, that he'd eventually pop and Greg would pass him by. But, dammit, LeMond wasn't going to win under Hinault's tutelage by sitting in the pack and covering his rivals. Hinault saw to it that his successor was placed under pressure, to see what he was made of. LeMond finally rose up, and I have a hard time believing he wasn't a better man for it.

Lance is not a product of the old skool; he's a rock star who some say is delivered to victory by a great team. I would venture to guess Hinault sees a worthy successor in Lance, though: Armstrong works like a fiend, and hungers for victory like any great champion. His talent in both key disciplines is obvious. But Hinault has a few lessons to teach Lance about how to be a patron. Victory is every day, not just in Paris. The patron does not give out presents, just crumbs here and there, such as the flat stages where the leaders belong in the back, away from the flying bodies in the last KM. And the evidence shows Lance understands. His chase of Simeoni today shows that Lance is the one to decide who breaks away, and Simeoni being an ass who has accused the patron of cheating means he doesn't get the opportunity for glory in Lance's race. No quarter given.

Hinault has stamped his authority on the Tour again, seeing to it that Armstrong learns the craft of the patron in time to hand it down to his own successor. Saturday is a 50+km TT. Lance can win these stages, and you can be virtually certain he will. No more gifts.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

... and one more thing

Lance threatened the record for climbing the Alpe, according to, falling a second short of Pantani's official record of 36.50. But what's more impressive is that there's a local amateur race up the Alpe where the record equates to about 41 minutes. Add on two minutes for the 1.7 km lead-in, and that amateur Patrick Bruet would've been around 30th, breathing down Levi Leipheimer's back.

Kos on Tour

Fun reading: my favorite polit-blog has a Tour open thread. Not surprising, the site carried news of Heras's win in the Vuelta final TT last year. Read the comment chain (where I inserted a plug for our site), some amusing commentary in that grey area between cycling and national politics.

At Long Last

The day we were waiting for, for the last year, has come and gone. And I have to tell you, although the stage was slightly overrated in terms of its decisiveness, it carried all the tension the Fontecchio household could stand. The construction at our house was spreading to the exterior where the satellite dish is located, and every time they moved something the dish would go out for about five seconds while the signal was recovered. As Lance made his way up the Alpe, the outages became more frequent, and there was no telling whether he could get across the line before we lost the signal entirely. Coming down the last 500 meters, there were 2 more outages, but at the last moment, the signal came on with about 10 meters to go, so we saw him hit the tape. Talk about clutch.

A few notes on the day:

* People will look at Ullrich's second place, a very respectable finish, and say stupid shit about how he's recovered his rightful place at the head of the non-Lance peloton. He may well make it onto the podium if Kloden bonks or can't keep up in the final TT, but I still think he totally blew it. Think about this: if he had signed with Riis before 2003, where would he be? He might have won last year; certainly would've had a far stronger team going up to Luz Ardiden. And there's no way he would've been overweight at the spring classics or struggling for form in Switzerland. The guy made his weight just before the tour with some crash diet that cut into his strength. This is ridiculous.... he's a Tour winner, he knows from hard-earned experience what it requires, and he still cuts corners. Riis would never let him do that, he'd kick his ass first. Jan's problem is he needs his ass kicked, and there's nobody at T-Mobile to do it. So now he's peaking... well, guess what? The race was decided in the Pyrenees.

* Leipheimer finished a mediocre 29th, but then he's a mediocre climber for a GC threat. Still, he will probably say he's upset, but it's simply not his terrain. If I'm him, I'd find a way to save as much energy as possible for Saturday's TT, the perfect Leipheimer stage. He may yet crack the top 7, a personal best... if he can put four minutes into Totschnig Saturday.

* Adios Roberto. It seemed like a tragedy when Heras went his own way, but not only is Lance doing fine on his own, but unless Azevedo is leaving it all in France, I would say he's a better GC guy for Postal in the Vuelta. He's been damn impressive, while Heras is 57 minutes back. Heras is entitled to his shot, but he doesn't seem to be doing much with the opportunity Liberty Seguros gave him. He among all the mysterious disappearances by GC threats is the most perplexing. At least with Mayo we know he peaked too soon. What's Roberto's excuse? Did he get a virus or something? He got beat on the Alpe by Ronny Scholz, Didier Rous, half of Postal, Bobby Julich, Kim Kirchen, every Basque watercarrier...

* Stuart O'Grady finished six seconds behind Heras, while McEwen was popping wheelies with the red lantern types. Still, I laughed at McEwen's assessment of Rabobank. He was being an asshole, of course, but it was funny.

* Voeckler is in serious danger of giving up his next jersey too. Vlad Karpets put over 4 minutes into him on the Alpe, and now trails him in the best young rider comp by 3.33. With one more climbers' stage and a long TT, this one's going down to the wire.

Monday, July 19, 2004

LeMond and Hinault

Now this is cycling journalism at its finest. Thanks to Drew from Liege.

Rest Day Notes

* Nice of Hinault to emerge from his badger hole to inject some sanity into the debate among ex-winners over Lance's drug use.  Hinault called LeMond "jealous," which may be partly Hinault's fault, since LeMond's mental state was nearly undone by Hinault's attacks in the '86 Tour.  Bottom line, IMHO, Hinault is a man and LeMond is not.  Hinault attacked LeMond in '86 possibly with ambition in mind, or the pride of a defending champ, but also to make Greg stronger.  That year there was almost nobody besides Hinault who could challenge LeMond, and Hinault's point in riding hard was, if you want to be a champion, ride like one, don't coast to victory.   LeMond couldn't do it, not then anyway.  He was never a patron, and his only real Tour glory was in '89 -- when he won the most glorious Tour victory ever.  The other factor may be that those buckshots in his heart are releasing lead flakes into his brain.
* Hinault's other point about Lance's six wins (presumably) won't be worth as much because he focuses on the Tour, is not so well taken.  Could Merckx have won 15 Tours if he honed his focus?  No, because eventually his challengers would have honed their focus on the Tour too.  Everything is relative, and if in the late-90s and new millenium the best riders are gambling it all on the Tour, then the winner is just as much a champion now as in past eras.  Lance is not beating Ullrich and Basso and Hamilton and Heras and Mayo because all those guys are exhausted from the Giro; they have similar calendars, so in that sense the playing field is just as level now as it was in Hinault's time.  The only legitimate complaint about Lance is that he was the first to focus on the Tour, so if other riders are skipping the Giro to prepare for France, it's due to Lance's influence.  The only people with a right to complain are the Giro organizers.
* Does anyone have worse luck than Hamilton?  Just when you can't think it could go worse than last year's broken shoulder, his dog dies and he has to abandon because of a seemingly innocuous but actually brutal little injury.  He still has maybe one more shot at a podium, but at this point maybe he should focus on winning other races; the Tour is getting out of reach.  And it pains me greatly to say this.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Stage 12 Notes
After nearly a year's anticipation, the 2004 Tour is underway.  And over.
I blogged last week that today and tomorrow were the best chances to gain time in a non-TT stage, but apparently only one person got the memo.  Actually, to be fair, it appears Lance is back on top of his game and there is only so much anyone else can do, again.  Face it: Ullrich, Hamilton and Leipheimer are cut-your-losses climbers like Indurain; their domain is the TT... but Lance isn't a c-y-l climber, and he's the favorite in the individual events too.  More disappointing are the efforts of all those brilliant Spanish climbers who can't fall back on the TT to make it up, cuz they all just got blasted too.
But you know all that.  A few interesting notes:
* Interesting names in the top 20 today:  Aitor Gonzales and Gibo Simoni at 1.32, ahead of the other favorites.  Also, who was the huge guy with long hair in the top 10, Totschnig?  Strange sight, rolling in with the Mayos and Sastres.
* The photo of today's finish might become a legendary moment: this generation's star crossing the line with the next generation's.  Basso has been impressive in the past but has clearly arrived now.  He's at 1.09 on Lance (assuming the French guys all melt away tomorrow) and is the threat to Lance in yellow right now.  Not that I like his chances this year, but with geezers like Ullrich, Hamilton, Heras and Leipheimer falling off, who else is there to receive the passing torch?  Mayo, Mancebo... but he can lick them in the TT.  Also, is there any doubt Riis is the #1 DS?  He harnesses talent.
* What's up with Andreas Kloden?  Are people afraid to attack him because he has an umlaut in his last name?
* It's easy to criticize Leipheimer when he gets dropped by Lance, but in reality he's having a good Tour.  He's right in the mix for the podium and up a bit on Jan and a lot on Tyler.  Considering his TT prowess, he could definitely be top 5, depending on how Mancebo, Kloden and a few others respond.  That's about the best he could hope for, so good on him if he gets it.  Tyler's dream is fading, however.  He needs the ride of his life on the Alpe.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Speaking of dogs...

No, Pete, this is not a column about Virginia... Cycling News reports that Tugboat is terminally ill. Hamilton can't possibly win now, with his dog in the hospital.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Injury of the Week

The French AG2R team, which started so well in the first week with two stage victories, lost two riders today when unlucky Samuel Dumoulin was forced out with a broken elbow. This was diagnosed during Monday's rest day after he crashed into a dog near Quimper on Sunday's stage in Brittany.

I feel for him. A dog ruined my first attempt at the Seward Park crit last month.

Friday, July 09, 2004


Of the three non-TT stages in the Alpes, only the first one has an uphill finish, and even that is a slight exaggeration. The stage to Villard de Lans, where the peloton enters the Alpes, heads up to the finish for a KM or two, after a 15K descent. The supposedly deadly five-climb stage the day after Alpe d'Huez ends with a 13K descent after crossing the Col de la Croix-Fry, the lesser of the day's ascents. The next day the race departs the Alpes with another 13K descent to the finish. And the Alpe d'Huez TT is really only a half-hour ride or so.

So as deadly as the mountain stages are said to be, is there really any meaningful chance to make huge time gaps in the latter part of this tour? Not really, except in the TTs, and especially the Besancon 50K'er. And although the protagonists are talking about peaking at the end, my bet is that there's a subtle bluff here. The real action will be next Friday and Saturday in the Pyrenees. Stage 12 goes up 15km at the end to La Mongie -- some opening there. And the next day's climbs to Plateau de Beille are the Tour's toughest test... and best chance for real glory.

Forget the Alpes. This tour will be won at the Plateau and Besancon. Alpe d'Huez will be great fun, but not the critical test. My sense is that this race doesn't do much for the pure climbers like Heras; and the EE slackers are totally screwed. This is one for the multi-discipline guys, with an emphasis on TTs. Predicted finish: Lance, Ullrich, Hamilton.

Friday Notes

The crashes are getting a little ridiculous. It's not like the organizers aren't well aware of what conditions cause a crash. Paul, what would be so hard about staging a finish on the outskirts of town before the road gets narrow? Surely even these small towns have some better roads for mass-peloton-sprints.

Tough day for Eki, though I suspect they'll have to drive a stake through his heart for him to withdraw. Speaking of steak, no truth to the rumors that Petacchi and Cipo withdrew so they could go get a nice steak in Chateaubriand. Apparently they were hurt. I hate to challenge their manhood without knowing what really happened, but why do the Italian stars fall out of the tour so quickly every year?

Anyway, it's amazing more GC contenders haven't been hurt by the messy first week. Only Mayo and Zubeldia lost time, and that wouldn't have happened if their team had done their job getting in position before the cobbles. Lance finally went over the bars today, but nothing eventful. He's had a great run of luck over the years, though it seems like last year was his unlucky year, and he survived that too. If Hamilton makes it to Euskadi without a broken shoulder, it will be a watershed event.

The Media

So what is the state of the American press on the Tour? I would politely call it a work in progress.

One hour on OLN shows how far we've come from the CBS coverage of the mid-80s, with John Tesh on keyboard and mike, forcing Phil to explain to the audience why a domestique retrieves water for star riders. If you got stuck down that information well as I did (how many Sundays at Paul's Cape house did I skip for Greg LeMond?) you can appreciate even Bob Roll.

But that still leaves a lot to be desired. Yesterday I was listening to sports radio (Fox??) coming back from Portland, and they had a Tour segment, where the hosts seemed pretty excited about how things were progressing. But they stopped to ask, will American audiences get lots of news stories saying "Lance screwed up, he lost 10 minutes!"? The question went unanswered.

To me it's mostly audience-driven. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the sport, and any dedicated journalist will get themselves up to speed in a week or so. (That leaves out TV). But the question is, what do they think they need to feed their audience? How much do Americans know about the Tour?

I think the answer is, the ones watching it have become extremely knowledgeable, and the ones only casually paying attention don't deserve to have the story brought down to their level. Lance is a Michael Jordan figure, and if people want to understand why, they should expend a little effort to understand the sport.

Interesting moments watching Steve Berthiaume do Tour coverage on SportsCenter. This is the guy who introduced me to the sport in 1984. He knew the LeMonds, Kellys, Hinaults, Vanderaerdens, Andersons etc., when I had no idea; in other words, he knows European cycling. His delivery is a mixture of dumbed-down for the masses, and code-speak to the real fans. I just KNOW he's dying to get into the minutiae, I can almost guarantee he has been lobbying ESPN for more Tour coverage for years. Amusing.

Drew Has Arrived!

So Elisa spent 2 hours on the phone with Comcast TS yesterday getting our new digital cable box hooked up, just so I could tape the TTT last night. She's the best there is and clearly loves me.

While it was very enjoyable to be watching the tour again, 2 things were glaringly apparent straight away.

1. Al Trautwig is not fit to report, let alone comment, on the tour. He not only brings nothing to the table, he takes things off it. He doesn't have a fucking clue what's going on other than the cheap summary's he's either cribbed from other reporters or been handed. OLN should trade him to CBS so he can call Arena Football games, something I'm sure he's well qualified to do.

2. Bob Roll is not much better. He's got exactly 3 descriptions of what's happening at any given time (last night's were "the best teams are cohesive", "the weather is 'incredible' " and every rider who is over 160 lbs is "big". His continued butchery of riders and town names (in a variety of languages, not just french) is beyond irritating.

Why Paul and Phil weren't being utilized more is unknown. Phil may have fallen asleep and Paul may have been trying to wake him up. Was it just a case of last night's stage being more Al and Bob centric than others have been so far, or is this an alarming trend for the rest of the tour (90 minutes of Al and Bob, 30 minutes of the final with Paul and Phil)?

Other than that, it's great to be able to watch it again while it's

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Whose poor form?

Tricky matter today: did the peloton commit a cycling sin by speeding away from Iban Mayo after his crash on the pave? There are several factors to consider... does Mayo occupy "favorite" status among the peloton itself? Just because the press and tifosi are tipping him, well, to the peloton I imagine you only win that kind of respect on the road, over time.

Another factor: did he fall back solely because of the crash? This is a factual question, I don't have the answer yet, the CyclingNews blow-by-blow suggested he was 1.41 back going into the cobbles, but I can't tell how to read that. This one we should have an answer to soon.

Also, did the peloton know what was happening? Damn right they knew where he was, since Phonak and Postal and T-Mobile were all right up front pulling. Did they know he fell back on a crash, if he did, or did they think he just slipped off?

Finally... do the same rules apply in the north? Crashes in the mountains and the sprints are truly bad luck (usually), but in l'enfer du nord they are part of the game, and it's a team's responsibility to manage the danger. Does the peloton have less sympathy on the road to Wasquehal than it does on the road to Bourg d'Oisins?

Bonus Question: Which profanity did Lance utter when he heard the Maillot Jaune belongs today to his good friend Robbie?

Saturday, July 03, 2004

La Course

Lance has been a surprisingly good sport about the Boucle course, designed to favor people who can pack a lot of intense riding into several days because they climb really well or recover fast or both. Lance, as we know, is a world class stickler, and a blunt talker too. But faced with a course that looks specifically designed to unseat him, he's been respectful and even accepting of the challenge.

Lance is old, so it'd be great for him to have the mountain stages spread around a bit, enabling the older guys to recover. So the Tour has saved all the key climbs, including the deadly Alpe d'Huez TT, for the last week. And the decisive TT comes right on the heels of the mountain stages. So who does this favor? Mayo is a spry fellow, and can be expected to come to the line pretty ready each day, being several years junior to the other big guns. But also Ullrich... still in his prime, likely to be able to save hs best ride for the long TT right after the mountains. Lance's strategy has to be to get time on Ullrich in the Alpe TT and maybe another of the extreme ascents where he can usually slip away from Jan for at least a little while. If they are neck and neck coming into the last TT, I don't like Lance's chance on the rolling course.

So Freakin What!?

It's always exciting to watch Lance accelerate toward a stage win, and Saturday's time trial was tantalizingly close. Raising the question, so what? Does the prologue really set the tempo for anything? It's fun to obsess over the day it's run, since there are no other stages to consider instead. But by the middle of week two does anyone ever remember who even won it? Lance put 15 seconds into Ullrich, but was it worth the effort? I suppose so, since nothing of consequence happens for a couple days (save dodging slippery cobbles). But seriously, as Big Jan says, in the mountains they go for minutes, not seconds.

Now, about those cobbles...

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