Tour de France 2012: The Gentleman’s Procession

And so it all comes to an end for another year. For once, the final time trial wasn’t critical to the final result, merely a final exclamation mark added on the end of what’s been a pretty emphatic victory. Wiggins has continually referenced Miguel Indurain as his hero, and this has been a very Indurain-esque victory. Wiggins has blown away the competition in the time trials, and then dared them to try and attack him in the mountains, riding down anyone who tried. It’s been a Tour of brutal efficiency rather than style and panache, but there are many ways to win a Tour and Wiggins chose the one that suited him best.

There wasn’t a major shake up of the finishing order yesterday, mostly a stretching of some of the gaps, but we did witness one sad moment as Cadel Evans slipped down another place and was caught on the road by Tejay Van Garderen. All that scene needed to be complete was for Evans to have some symbol of the BMC team leadership to hand off to Van Garderen as he passed. I hope that’s not the last we see of Evans at the Tour, as it would be sad to see that as our last memory of the champion, and I hope he comes back to support Van Garderen next year.

I’ll have a proper look back at the Tour tomorrow, but as well as Van Garderen and Wiggins, the other two jersey winners have to be noted on the final day. Peter Sagan has had an incredible impact on cycling in the last year, and the green jersey is likely to be the first of many major prizes he’ll win. The question that’s still hanging is whether he can become a Grand Tour GC contender in years to come, but I think we’ve got a few years of him demolishing sprints and winning classics before then.

Thomas Voeckler’s King of the Mountains win has been conducted in traditional Voeckler style – with a face that could take part in professional gurning championships and an ability to break, and then attack the break at the right time. With Rolland’s white jersey last year, that makes it back-to-back titles for France, and perhaps their Tour fortunes might finally be getting back on track.

It’s the traditional-since-1975 end on the Champs-Elysees, and will feature all the sights we’re used to – the jersey winners sharing a glass of champagne, the peloton hitting central Paris at high speed, riders trying to get away and being chased down and then a Mark Cavendish victory at the end.

Well, all but the last are guaranteed, but after his sprint on Friday showed what form he’s in at the end of the race, I doubt you can find many people who’d suggest other potential victors. The only problem that might have caused is that other teams may not want to let it get down to a bunch sprint and will prefer to take their chances in a break, leaving Sky on their own to chase it down. Whatever happens, I do expect we’ll see the spectacle of the yellow jersey at the front of the peloton, either leading the chase or leading out the sprint, though we probably won’t get a repeat of 1979 or 1982, when Bernard Hinault won in Paris while wearing the yellow jersey.


Tour de France 2012: We are against all watches

Three weeks ago, we were all focused on Liege and the prologue of this year’s Tour. It seems odd that we’re not coming to the finish, with just two stages left before everything’s sorted, and this time next week we’ll be watching the Olympic road race.

And as if in practice for that, yesterday we saw Mark Cavendish at his best, reminding everybody just why he’s the world champion. It was one of the bext wins of his career, and a good way to finally match Andre Darrigade’s 22 wins as the Tour’s leading sprinter. I think the best perspective on it came from Nicolas Roche in an interview afterwards when he said he only noticed that Cavendish had gone past them when Luis Leon Sanchez started coasting to the line, assuming the bunch were about to swamp them. They hadn’t realised just how far he’d leapt from the bunch, and that if they’d carried on going, they’d have got second and third on the stage.

It’s also a signal of how confident Bradley Wiggins is in his overall victory that he was able to lead the chase through the last few kilometres and not worry about conserving all his energy for today’s stage. For anyone who hadn’t guessed it, it’s likely the same tactics Great Britain will be using next Saturday, as they’re the ones that worked out very well in Copenhagen last year. We’ll likely see a replay on Sunday in Paris, which may mean we get the spectacle of the yellow jersey leading the peloton in the last few kilometres, which will be somewhat different to the normal routine of the day.

While it’s a relatively long time trial at 51km, it’s not a very complicated route. There aren’t too many technical parts, and no steep climbs or descents, which makes it the perfect course for the power time trial specialists. It would have been interesting to see how Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara would have done on this stage, but as it is, I suspect the winner will be either Wiggins or Tejay Van Garderen. Froome’s a good time triallist, but his best results have come on courses where he can use his climbing abilities more, but I suspect he’ll be happy finishing in the top 5, protecting his second place from Nibali.

Barring an absolute disaster, though, Wiggins and Froome will remain first and second at the end of the stage. The real battle will be taking place behind them. Van Den Broeck probably won’t be able to make up three minutes on Nibali, but it’ll be fun to watch him try, and Van Garderen probably won’t move up from fifth, but if he’s on form this could be BMC’s best chance for a stage win this year, and a chance for him to get his first Tour stage and lay down a marker for future years.

The interesting battle comes from seventh to eleventh place with just a couple of minutes separating Zubeldia, Rolland, Brajkovic, Pinot and Roche and all of them looking to grab a place in the top ten, both for the bragging rights and the ranking points. Further down the rankings, some riders will be looking to try and get their moment in the spotlight, or showcase themselves and their time trialling abilities. Others may be indulging in personal rivalries – David Millar was talking on Twitter last night about he and Dave Zabriskie will be fighting to avoid having to say that the other’s a better time trial rider.

Three weeks ago, I think we were expecting more drama on this stage, but Wiggins and Sky have dominated this Tour to such an extent that the final weekend’s a bit of a procession. Perhaps the main enemy Sky have to fight is complacency, losing focus and making mistakes. Two minutes isn’t that big a gap if you hit a crisis.


Tour de France 2012: The home stretch

It’s been a while since we’ve a Tour where all the major issues have been settled so early. After his performance yesterday, there’s no way Thomas Voeckler can lose the King of the Mountains title, and while Peter Sagan could theoretically be caught in the points competition if Andre Greipel won every sprint up to and including the Champs-Elysees while Sagan barely figured, it’s not likely to happen. In the young riders white jersey competition, Tejay Van Garderen has a three minute lead over Thibaut Pinot (with third place Steven Kruijswijk an hour behind) and isn’t likely to surrender that in the time trial.

And in the general classification, Bradley Wiggins still has his two minute lead over Chris Froome, despite the odd way they finished the stage yesterday. Behind them, the rest of the finishing order seems pretty settled, unless there are some superheroic performances in the time trial to gain a place or two.

Of course, you should always take a moment to let it sink in when you’ve pulled off a big achievement, but I’m guessing Wiggins now wishes he’d waited till after he crossed the finish line for his. Now we’ve got yet another round of debates on whether Froome should have gone and tried to catch Valverde, and if he would have been able to beat Wiggins without team orders in place. As many people have pointed out, though, it’s not as if Froome wasn’t aware of what the situation would be when he signed his contract with Sky after last year’s Vuelta – and he was offered the chance to lead other teams, but turned it down. I also have a feeling that we’ll be seeing this same debate ironically repeated in years to come, only with people questioning why Geraint Thomas or Peter Kennaugh aren’t being allowed to attack Froome, their team leader…

Sadly, with the King of the Mountains jersey settled, we won’t get the spectacle of Voeckler and Kessiakoff sprinting up category four climbs in a desperate battle for the single decisive point. The question today will be whether the peloton want to chase down the break or if the terrain will let it stay away. There’s a small climb just 10km from the end which will keep things interesting, either as a chance for someone from the break to launch an attack or for a team to really force the pace and try to split the peloton. We might also see Sky working hard for Cavendish today now the mountain duties are over. This will be a chance for them to practice tactics before the final sprint in Paris and for Cavendish to start getting his routine for the Olympics right.

TV coverage is on ITV4 from 1pm and Eurosport from 12.30. If you’re watching it on Eurosport, then keep watching after the Tour coverage for some highlights from the Women’s Grand Prix Series that happened earlier this year. You may even see me amidst the rain-sodden crowd in Colchester.

In other TV-related news, this year has unsurprisingly set new records for ITV4 in terms of viewer numbers, and they’ve announced that they’ll be showing Saturday and Sunday’s stages on ITV1 as well.


Tour de France 2012: 340 miles to Paris

Just four stages to go, and is it all over bar the shouting? There was a lot of expectation about yesterday’s stage, with predictions of explosive attacks, big changes in the general classification and some dramatic riding from individuals. We did get all those, but mostly from Thomas Voeckler who’s now moved up to 23rd place in the overall standings as well as leading the King of the Mountains.

In the race for the yellow jersey – or what we saw of it, given that French TV were rather preoccupied with Voeckler and Feillu alone at the front of the stage – it was another day of the attritional warfare that’s come to be the standard for Grand Tour racing over the last few years. That the change in style of racing – fewer huge attacks and racers sprinting up long mountain climbs like they weren’t there – occurred after drug testing regimes improved dramatically is purely a coincidence, of course. The racing’s not about dramatic breaks but slow torture, going right at the edge of your threshold (hence why they all have power meter and heart rate monitors) until either you or your opponents drop off the back. It’s an endurance sport which rewards those who can make themselves suffer the most.

I saw an interesting discussion earlier where someone suggested that one of the reasons why some European fans don’t like Lance Armstrong is that we never saw him beaten in his prime. One of the features of the Tour over the last few decades has been that there comes a point when the champion cracks – Hinault finally beating Lemond, then Indurain beating Lemond, Riis eclipsing Indurain etc – but that never happened with Armstrong as he retired as champion. Yesterday was when that definitively happened to Cadel Evans as he slipped off the back of the peloton and this time the team didn’t order Tejay Van Garderen to go back and help him. The torch is passed on to the next generation as the top three of this year’s race go off ahead of everyone else.

Today’s the last chance for a lot of riders to make a serious impact on the overall classification, as it’s the last mountain stage and mountain top finish of the race. It’s a short stage, starting with a few smaller climbs, then leaving two big climbs to the end, including a re-ascent of the Peyresaude at the end, with a final climb up to Peyregaudes to finish. If Nibali has any designs on winning, then he needs to attack today, but if he merely wants to hold on to a podium place then he has to watch out for what Van Den Broeck, Zubeldia and Van Garderen might do to try and knock him out of third place.

The real drama today could be in the battle for the King of the Mountains jersey – Voeckler has a narrow lead over Kessiakoff, but there are plenty of points available today and it could come down to how much energy Voeckler has left after his heroics. Of course, it’s also possible that the two could end the day very close on points, leading to some interesting battles for the five points available on Friday and the two on Sunday.

Today and tomorrow are also the last chance for many teams to get a stage win from this year’s race. Teams not expecting to have a chance in Saturday’s time trial or Sunday’s sprint on the Champs-Elysees will be looking to get riders into a break and hoping they can do a Voeckler. Movistar, Euskaltel, Katusha and Lampre would have expected more coming into this race and they’ll be wanting something to keep the sponsors happy.


Tour de France 2012: Wait a Schleckond

Yes, it’s a bad pun, but circumstances mean I haven’t been able to use ‘Andy Schleckond’ this year, so an oblique reference to Frank’s troubles will have to do. And in case you missed the news last night, Frank Schleck is now out of the tour after an ‘adverse analytical finding’ from a doping control on Saturday. The lab found traces of a diuretic in his sample, and while that’s not a banned or performance-enhancing substance in itself, it’s on a controlled list because it can be used to mask use of other substances.

As I understand it, the principle would be to take some performance-enhancing substance, then consume lots of liquid and a diuretic to wash traces of it from your system, and then more liquid to rid the system of traces of the diuretic. RadioShack have said that none of their medical staff possess or use Xipamide, the substance found in Frank’s sample, and things don’t look good for him. However, they will now test the other half of his sample to see if he gets the same result – for testing, a sample is divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’, with the B sample being tested after the A has come out positive to guard any contamination or false positives.

The knock-on effects from this could have quite an effect on professional cycling. There have already been reports that the whole RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team is in financial trouble with stories of riders not being paid, a sponsor that’s not interested now Lance Armstrong’s finally retired (and possibly in trouble of his own) and a team that’s not functioning as a cohesive unit, with the Schlecks and team boss Johann Bruyneel openly disparaging each other. This could be the nudge that sends the team over the edge, and other teams are already circling RNT riders with juicy contracts, while there are also stories of yet another new Schleck-focused team being established with the sponsorship of Alpecin shampoo. The reverberations from this could kill one team and strangle another at birth.

Back to the race itself, and it’s the first of two big stages in the Pyrenees. Four climbs in all, and after an early sprint, expect the big men to struggle for most of the day while the leaders and the grimpeurs head off down the road. For Nibali, Evans and Van Den Broeck, today and tomorrow are the last chance they’ll have to take time out of Wiggins and Froome. There’s tests for other riders too – Kessiakoff will be looking for King of the Mountains points, while other riders will be wondering if they can gain a handful of minutes to move up a few places in the overall classification. It’ll also be interesting to see if Rolland and Pinot battle to be the leading French rider, and if Rolland is allowed to get away to try and claim the polka dot jersey.

For the leaders, though, the question isn’t whether there’ll be attacks but when and who’ll launch them. Nibali and Van Den Broeck have looked the most likely to in the previous mountain stages, while Evans has shown signs of weakness. Will Tejay Van Garderen be ordered to escort him again if he gets into trouble, or will he be allowed to push on, especially as Pinot is challenging him for the young riders’ white jersey?

There’s lots of TV coverage today – ITV4 are showing it from noon, while Eurosport start at 9.30, giving us plenty of time for Sean Kelly to umm and talk about bonifications. The riders set off from Pau just after 10am UK time, with the leaders expected to reach the finish in Bagneres-du-Luchon around six hours later.


After the peloton took a bonus rest day on Friday, it seems they decided to do the same yesterday as well. After some frantic early attacking – so frantic that Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernie Eisel were trying to calm the pack down because of the chaos at the front – a break got away, and after a bit of chasing from Lotto-Belisol, they were allowed to go clear for the win. That was also because of the nature of yesterday’s stage – while there were only a few categorised climbs, there was over 2000m of ascent in it, which isn’t conducive to a fast hard chase and setting up the sprinters.

And so, Pierrick Fedrigo got to pick up France’s fourth stage win of the Tour, which means that they’re now tied with the UK as the nation with the most stage wins this year. Behind them, there’s three each for Slovakia (Sagan) and Germany (Greipel) and one each for Switzerland (Cancellara) and Spain (Sanchez).

In terms of the team performance at this point, there’s an interesting chart at the Inner Ring showing the amounts of prize money won by each team. Unsurprisingly, Sky are top with Liquigas-Cannondale second, Europcar third and then all the way down to Movistar in last place. Of course, that chart will change a lot over the next week, especially when the big prize money from the end of the race is added in, though it does give a good indication of which teams have and haven’t been successful on this Tour.

More important to the teams isn’t the prize money itself but the world ranking points that come along with results. These points go towards their ranking in the UCI World Tour, and while there is a rivalry between the teams and riders to come top in that, for the smaller teams, it’s more important to not come bottom. There’s no explicit relegation from the top tier of the World Tour down to the next level (Professional Continental), but performance is one of the criteria by which the UCI judge whether a team is allowed to stay as a ProTeam on the World Tour. The eighteen teams with that status are guaranteed invites to the World Tour events, and promoters and race sponsors want to know that they’re getting the best. If a team’s not performing at the right level – or don’t have the riders to compete at that level in the upcoming season – then they can be dropped.

World Tour points are also important to the national cycling federations, as the national rankings determine how many riders you can enter in events like the Olympics and the World Championships. A key part of British Cycling’s strategy last year was getting British riders scoring points in World Tour events to ensure that they could enter a team of 8 to support Cavendish.

That’s another reason why doing well on the Grand Tours can be the key to a whole season – there are points available to the first five riders on every stage, as well as points to the top 20 overall finishers. A good Tour means you can rocket up the table, and a rider who’s managed to pick himself up a few points can negotiate himself a much better contract in years to come. As an example, FDJ-BigMat have just 79 points so far this year. Thibaut Pinot’s stage win and second place is already worth 30 points to them, and if he carries on to Paris in 10th place, he’ll earn another 50, meaning he’ll have earned as much in one race as the rest of the team managed all season.

Which, of course, is what some of them might be doing this rest day. While the big guns like Wiggins and Sagan aren’t going to be going anywhere, there’ll be a lot of teams looking to build up their rosters for next year, be it Saxo-Tinkoff trying to ensure they have enough points to keep the UCI happy or a Professional Continental team like Europcar looking to get enough ranked riders to move up to join the big boys of world cycling.


Tour de France 2012: Getting a bit tacky

And lo, the headlines were filled with puns, just as the road was filled with pointy things. It made for an altogether odd day as Mark Cavendish led the peloton up a climb, while Peter Sagan sprinted up a steep climb with a breakaway as the leaders all found themselves needing new wheels – and in some cases, new bikes. The upshot of it all was that what could have been a tough stage for Bradley Wiggins turned into another day when no-one except the breakaway gained any time on him and he became as the potential new patron of the Tour.

I was thinking last night that professional cycling is perhaps unique amongst sports in the amount of time rivals spend in each other’s company. There’s the hours on the road in the peloton each day, then everyone’s usually staying in the same place afterwards, possibly even the same hotel. While riders might not socialise with each other much outside of races, when they’re competing, they’re spending a lot of time together, and many of them will have spent years in the peloton together, even if they’ve never been on the same team. That sort of proximity, coupled with cycling’s long history, brings in a certain etiquette amongst competitors, notably yesterday that you don’t profit from someone else’s externally inflicted misfortune.

The status of patron is a nebulous one, but generally applies to a rider who carries a certain authority and inspires a certain amount of respect and fear amongst the peloton. Wiggins basically telling the peloton that they were going to neutralise the race while those affected by the tacks got back into the group was the action of a patron, laying down the law which just about everyone accepted. It’s a sign of the respect he’s gathered this year, and the respect that’s automatically given to the yellow jersey, that such requests are obeyed by the other riders. Except for Pierre Rolland, of course, though I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes if he suffers a problem in the last week.

And yes, we are into the last week and the chances to take the advantage back from Wiggins and Sky are slipping away, though the press are now trying to create drama by heating the embers of the supposed Wiggins/Froome internal feud. It probably stung more than anything attempted going uphill yesterday, anyway.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget that there was an interesting race at the front yesterday, and Luis Leon Sanchez found one way to beat Peter Sagan by starting the sprint a few kilometres before the line. It was very interesting to see Sagan’s relative ease on the climb yesterday – perhaps he finally worked out what the inner ring on his bike is for? – which suggests he could become a GC contender in years to come.

Interesting fact of the day: The only riders in the top ten to have taken time from Wiggins in a stage this year are Froome, Rolland and Pinot.

After entering the Pyrenees yesterday, the race heads out and comes back in again today. It looks like a flat stage, with only three categorised climbs, but there’s a lot of up and down before the run-in to Pau, and there’ll be a lot of teams without wins this year who’ll be wanting to get one. That could make for an interesting battle between whoever gets in the break and Orica-GreenEdge trying to pull them back to give Matt Goss another chance to come second in a sprint. Toss a coin – heads says the break stays away this time and someone gets his moment of glory, tails and it’s a sprint, with Greipel, Cavendish, Goss, Sagan et al battling to the line. My tip for the day is Cavendish – after his work yesterday, and with a rest day tomorrow, Sky will be doing more to help him and I think they’ll want to start rehearsing their sprint train for Paris next Sunday.