THE WEDNESDAY COMMENT
We took a break during the Tour de France but now we’re back to keep an eye on cycling as the season takes in the Olympic Games, the Tour of Britain and presses on to the end of the year.
Expect the same mix of comment, analysis and general ranting – just a day later.
All previous editions of the comment are available to read by visiting the July 1 comment linked here. The Tuesday Comment – January to July 2008
Wednesday, it’s the new Tuesday, apparently.
|ASSESSING THE TOUR|
That day it was like someone had turned back the clock 20 years. Now, I am not going to make a fool of myself by saying that all of the protagonists were absolutely squeaky clean, and I am definitely not willing to risk saying they have never doped, but I will say that last Wednesday was what cycling used to be like.
CSC took a fair bit of flack from fans who perhaps do not remember what the racing was like before the early 1990s.
The questions over the team’s strategy were legitimate enough. Why didn’t Carlos Sastre attack on the Croix-de-Fer if he needed to take more time? Why didn’t Frank Schleck attack on Alpe d’Huez to pile on the pressure? And if Sastre was really that deserving a winner of the Tour, why could he only drag out two minutes and 15 seconds in nearly 14 kilometres of climbing?
Criticising CSC’s tactics is fair game. This is sport and everyone is entitled to interpret events in their own way. We all see ourselves as a tactically-shrewd armchair directeur sportif – myself included.
Part of the reason I fell in love with this sport was because it was always so difficult to know what would happen next. Watching tired men make decisions that turned out to be mistakes was what made the Tour de France the greatest sporting event in the world.
And Wednesday’s stage was just that. Men thinking their way around the problem in front of them.
The simple fact was that CSC and Sastre did as much as they possibly could given the circumstance. There was a headwind at the top of the Croix-de-Fer and it was a long way to the foot of the Alpe.
Look at how quickly Jérôme Pineau got across to Milram’s Peter Velits. That is how easy it would have been for Evans to shut down a Sastre move, and the effort would have left the Spaniard lacking on the Alpe.
It does not necessarily follow that in order to take more time you attack further out. It just doesn’t work like that.
On the climb, perhaps CSC could have given Evans a dilemma by getting Frank Schleck to attack, but a Schleck attack could have led to the Evans group eating into Sastre’s lead. CSC really were walking a tightrope, trying to achieve the best possible result.
It was edge-of-the-seat stuff – a real tonic for those who had grown tired of the tedious pattern of the recent past where the favourites got dropped one by one and we never got to see any racing because the pace was kept so insanely high by one team.
Look at how long it took Sastre to stretch that lead. For three or four kilometres the gap hovered at around 20, 25, 30 seconds before finally it started to go out.
Look at Denis Menchov, who hurt himself trying to match Sastre’s acceleration and then got dropped. He fought for a long, long time to get back on. That simply wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. When you got dropped, you stayed dropped.
Look at how CSC tried to think their way round the problem they had, which was to keep the pace high enough to discourage a dangerous counter-attack, while not damaging Sastre’s chance of getting further clear.
Andy Schleck lifted the pace and let it relax again, trying to upset Evans’s rhythm. The Aussie wanted a steady pace, not a wildly varying one. The Schlecks tried to give him as uncomfortable ride as possible. It was fascinating stuff to watch.
Christian Vande Velde attacked – trying to gain time and not seeing an attack as a hopeless cause. He genuinely thought there was a chance.
Bernhard Kohl went through the full range of emotions. He looked okay one minute, awful the next. He was putting himself through the ringer.
And Evans, steady old Evans, drifting from back to front of the group simply because he was riding as consistently as he could. Sometimes that meant he was at the front, sometimes at the back. He let the group flow around him while he time trialled to the top. But there wasn’t a single moment when he wasn’t working his hardest to save his Tour de France ambitions.
This was old school racing and there was absolute beauty in its nuance. It wasn’t crash, bang, wallop, take-some-of-that stuff. It was a battle that included brain power as well as leg and lung power. And hopefully it is a sign that the super-human speeds are a thing of the past and that the future will see the big men trade tired blows in this way once again.
|CLEAN? NO. CLEANER? DEFINITELY|
It’s the question I get asked as soon as I get home and, in the light of Manuel Beltran, Moises Duenas, Riccardo Ricco and Dmitriy Fofonov, the answer is obvious.
Of course it wasn’t. It probably won’t ever be. But I do believe it was cleaner, and here’s why.
It’s impossible to point to one factor and say it indicates a cleaner race, but if you take several indicators into consideration, the signs are there.
1 - The French and riders on French teams did better.
Now, it only takes one idiot to ruin it. Step forward Dmitriy Fofonov, of Crédit Agricole. He bought a substance on the internet and he used it without letting the team doctor know, but it shouldn’t alter the fact that – generally speaking – the French had more of an impact on the race. There will always be those who insult our intelligence by suggesting that the reason for their improvement is that they have ‘started training properly’ but that’s ridiculous. The incessant speed is a thing of the past and clean riders can compete.
2 – Breakaways succeeding in the mountains
The main group of favourites couldn’t simply shut down the breaks in the mountains. There was a chance to get away and stay away.
3 – They looked like they were trying
I’ve said before that we do not want comedy faces and tortured gurning from riders to convince us that it’s hurting. But the poker faces have gone. Mouths were open, gulping in air, shoulders were rocking, faces were scrunched up.
4 – Christian Vande Velde finished fifth
The Garmin rider allowed all his blood test results to be analysed by an independent expert, who declared that there was no manipulation. Vande Velde finished fifth in the Tour clean. Let us hear no more nonsense about how it can’t be done, how everyone in the top ten is doped, how you have to manipulate your blood to have a chance. It’s not true. You don’t need needles to ride into the top five of the Tour. It’s not easy, but nor should it be easy. The Tour de France is the hardest sporting event in the world. And if any other riders want to complain that Vande Velde is being singled out – let an independent expert analyse your blood too, then you can shout about how you were clean. This is the future.
5 – The cheats are being caught and there’s no sympathy
Ten years ago, on the road to Aix-les-Bains, the Tour de France ground to a halt. Disgusted by the police response to the Festina Affair, they sat in the road in protest at officers invading their hotels and taking riders away for questioning. Ten years on, guilty riders are expelled from the race and sacked. That’s a massive change in attitude.
6 – Tired riders got dropped
People finished off the back on the routine stages, such as the final Friday and even on the Champs-Elysées. This did not used to happen – certainly not to the same extent. It’s also a reminder that there’s no shame in being dropped. If you can’t keep up, you can’t keep up. Just dig in, hope to make the time cut and believe you can recover enough to fight another day. Don’t resort to doping to finish in the pack because no one – not the fans, not the media and not even the team – should ask you to finish in the bunch when you are dog tired.
Of course this doesn't meant there aren't any cheats, but it does mean that the rampant abuse of blood-doping techniques and substances is on the decline. As time goes on, it should lead to more exciting racing too.
|THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING|
Coffers stuffed with money from Russian firms Gazprom and Itera, it’s said the team will have a budget of 30 million euros.
Andrei Tchmil is set to be a key figure in the management of the Katoucha team and just about every out-of-contract rider has been linked with them.
Oleg Tinkov joked that he had enough money to sign Evans, Cancellara, Contador and Boonen.
While new sponsors are always welcome, a huge influx of cash to distort the market is not. Tinkov did add that the team wouldn’t spend a penny over the market price, and it is to be hoped he is true to his word.
Here’s a word for the UCI and ASO (or whoever it is that ends up sanctioning new teams) – There should be a new requirement for any team taking out a licence that they sign up to an independent, external anti-doping programme.
Because when you start splashing 30 million euros about, there is just the tiniest temptation that scruples may go out of the window. And that would set cycling back.
The last thing we want to see is some kind of real-life take on the movie American Flyers – which, coincidentally, feature Christian Vande Velde’s dad – with the clean-cut Americans Garmin on one side, and some shady, bearded Russians on the other.
You could hardly think of a better statesman for British sport than Chris Hoy. And you’d have to think Bradley Wiggins would be in the frame after he won a gold, silver and bronze in Athens four years ago.
Some have sounded a word of caution saying that the prospect of travelling to the stadium and standing around for a couple of hours is not ideal with the start of the track programme just around the corner.
But there’s almost a week between the opening ceremony and the track. Certainly the road riders will not attend the opening ceremony, with their events taking place on the first weekend, but the trackies will.
And what better boost for the cycling squad than the honour of leading the entire British team into the Olympic stadium?
The 23-year-old finished his first Tour in good shape, with 16th place in the time trial on the final weekend.
He was disappointed that his bid to make the British team for the Olympic road race came to nothing. Eventually time ran out. At first the Kenyans blocked Great Britain’s application to field Froome. The IOC rule states you cannot represent your new country at an Olympics within two years of switching nationality.
But Kenya’s stance was adopted based on misinformation. They didn’t realise they had not qualified a place in the road race. Once they did, they said they would not stand in Froome’s way, but by then it was too late and the four-man team was named.
Froome’s time will come, though. I’d expect him to be in the picture for the road race team at the World Championships in late September, and with the British-backed pro team on the horizon, there could even be a place for him there.