Category: Tour de France 2009

August 1, 2009

Sport Economist on Hushovd vs. Cavendish

Glynn sent me this article from the Sport Economist on different point structures in different sports, with a focus on Hushovd's green jersey victory over Mark Cavendish. I admit I was disappointed to see Cav lose the green jersey, though I was biased by the fact that Cav was my pre-race prediction. Still, if one equates the yellow jersey with the best overall rider, the polka dots with the best climber, and green with the best sprinter, it's hard to come to the conclusion that Cavendish wasn't convincingly the best sprinter in the Tour -- six stage victories was a dominating performance.

Of course, this year's point total was messed up, as it sometimes is, by the role of relegation. Perhaps it's not the point structure for the Tour that was incorrect, but rather the penalty structure that allows Cavendish to lose all of his points for a stage for a non-flagrant infraction.

I actually think that its the polka dot jersey that has more issues than the green jersey. It's heavily biased towards crazy breakaways. If you happen to make it in the break on a heavy mountain stage, you can pretty much sew up the competition. Great climbers who are also GC contenders have a heavy disincentive to compete for the King of the Mountain title, though it does establish a good secondary contest for climbers who have no GC chances.

Sport Economist: Stage Wins, Points Losses

July 19, 2009

With today's stage over, a tactical analysis of yesterday's stage

Much has been made over the denial of Hincapie's yellow jersey, in part due to Astana setting a high enough tempo to keep the break reachable, and the rest due to AG2R and Garmin vigorously chasing in the final kilometers. In fact, every interview that Versus did this morning focused on this rather than the upcoming explosive stage.

I make less of Astana's efforts -- I do think in Astana's analysis, AG2R was too weak to chase the break down and it wasn't like HTC-Columbia was going to come to the front to set things up for the sprint. I do think that Garmin was a major factor in reeling it in -- Zabriskie and Pate had enough firepower to make up the 5-second difference.

Garmin has offered this reason for the chase: there had been splits in the peloton that cost them GC time in previous stages, so they wanted to ride a hard tempo and keep their guys up front.

Bruyneel stomped all over Garmin's reasoning this morning, instead claiming that the move made no strategic sense whatsoever. While I think Garmin's reasons were bunk (this wasn't a sprint stage, AG2R wasn't going to cause a split in the peloton), I disagree with Bruyneel's analysis: it made plenty of sense.

Sure, HTC-Columbia is a more successful team than Garmin if you count stage wins, but HTC-Columbia has no viable GC contender. Garmin, on the other hand, has two GC guys: Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vandevelde.

So here's my theory as to why it made plenty of strategic sense: if Hincapie had been in yellow, HTC-Columbia would have been forced to defend the yellow jersey today. HTC-Columbia, unlike AG2R, is fresh enough and has the firepower to really put on a show of defense, even if holding the jersey was an unlikely result of the day.

From Garmin's perspective, it's far better off keeping the yellow jersey with AG2R, because AG2R is weak enough that Astana has to keep coming to the front and tiring themselves out. If HTC-Columbia had the jersey, Astana may have been able to keep a couple more cards in the deck for the final assault, rather than spend them keeping any breaks at the proper range.

As it was, Astana really only needed the Contador card to play. Saxo and Garmin set the climb up, but it was Contador who delivered. Nevertheless, Garmin's Bradley Wiggins delivered the GC ride of his life and it's Garmin, not HTC-Columbia, who has the chance at seeing themselves on the podium in Paris.

July 18, 2009

"Chance of a Lifetime"

George Hincapie - (c) Ken Conley

The story of today can be summarized via Twitter (5 seconds!):

@lancearmstrong: St14 done. Sounds like there's quite a bit of confusion over this one... Noone, and I mean noone, wanted George in yellow more than me.

@lancearmstrong: Our team rode a moderate tempo to put him in the jersey by at least 2 mins. Ag2r said they would not defend then they started to ride.

@lancearmstrong: Until 10km to go he was solidly in yellow until GARMIN put on the gas and made sure it didn't happen.

@lancearmstrong: And I reiterate. @ghincapie deserves to be yellow tonight. He deserves more than that. Look to who pulled the last 50k to see who to blame..

@lancearmstrong: @bfogelstrom And george should be pissed. Very pissed. He can talk to his teammates who were n the bunch w/ us then perhaps it will be clear

@dzabriskie: Pawns in their game...

@lancearmstrong: @bbelshaw told astana 2 chase? Not true @ all. My vision was george would have YJ by 2 mins. Was reality til ag2r and garmin started 2 pull.

@lancearmstrong: Last thing. There were 13 guys in the breakaway. We had 2 guys riding "tempo". That is not chasing by any stretch of the imagination.

July 17, 2009

Levi Out

TechCrunch posted some internal documents from Twitter that shows that Twitter aims to be the "pulse" of the planet. @LeviLeipheimer offers his own support of this, Twittering directly from the operating room as doctor's insert a 22mm titanium screw into his wrist:

We'll miss him in the Alps, especially as he had a chance at podium this year, but we'll always have the tweets.

July 15, 2009

Cav unbeatable

Not an exciting stage, but a great battle for the sprint finish as sprinters Thor Hushovd and Tyler Farrar had their best shot at disrupting Mark Cavendish to get a win -- but they failed. Milram came to the front with just over 1km to go, but Columbia's Tony Martin held the Columbia train together and broke on through. The Columbia train continued to win up as Hincapie then spun it up for Mark Renshaw, with Cavendish and Hushovd behind.

Hushovd went first and managed to come around Cavendish, who waited until late to leave Renshaw's wheel. Hushovd faded as Cavendish wound it up, but Tyler Farrar was on Hushovd's wheel and got a good slingshot to the finish. It didn't matter -- Cavendish again, Four Wins.

VeloNews has a nice article on Mark Renshaw. Renshaw is basically Cavendish's guardian. When Cav was off the back at the Tour of California with a mechanical, it was Renshaw who came back to pace him back. When it comes to the final sprint, Renshaw organizes the train as is the last to break off. Solid experience, so bravo to him as well.

Update: podiuminsight sent me a link to this sporza interview with Mark Renshaw

Mark Cavendish - (c) Ken Conley
Photo by Ken Conley

July 14, 2009

Well that didn't work

The organizers decide to ban race radios to make the stage more exciting, but they choose a dull, sprinter-friendly stage to do it. A break goes down the road, the teams eventually chase, the break gets caught in the final kilometers, Cavendish wins. I'm not sure what sort of improbability they were hoping would arise, but this stage was duller than any other sprint stage this Tour and with exactly the same result.

July 11, 2009

Stage 8: Luis Leon Sanchez Wins From the Break, Yellow Jersey Hot Potato

CYCLING: MAR 14 Paris-Nice 2009 - Stage 7

Luis Leon Sanchez won from the break after playing the tactics of the last 3km perfectly, egging on his breakaway companions to chase back Vladimir Efimkin, then launching his own sprint for the line. Sanchez's win should take away some of the sting of losing Oscar Pereiro, who retired from fatigue.

The tactics back in the peloton were more interesting as it looked like Saxo Bank was trying to put Astana's Contador in yellow. It's not often that you see a team trying to put its rival in yellow, though it makes sense: Astana doesn't want to wear itself out, especially with so many "leaders" and not so many domestiques (though Kloden and Leipheimer have moved into support roles). Astana made no secret of the fact that they wanted Nocentini in yellow and I'm sure they were disappointed to see AG2R pay them back by putting riders in all the breaks and not chasing.

Saxo Bank's "Get Contador in Yellow" campaign started when Andy Schleck put in an attack on the final climb, which Levi Leipheimer ably controlled. Sure enough, all the GC contenders made it. The only rider of import left behind was Nocentini in yellow. Saxo Bank certainly doesn't feel threatened by Nocentini, but they continued to press the attack with Frank Schleck. Contador was in virtual yellow.

Astana worked its way back into control of this group and then proceeded to slow it down so that Nocentini could catch back on. AG2R may not be the willing defenders they were looking for, but clearly Astana wanted to use them for one more day.

Levi Leipheimer was impressive as a lieutenant today as he spent a lot of time in the wind today throughout the stage to control the race.

July 10, 2009

Are we clear yet?

Disco Posse - (c) Ken Conley

It's Contador's team

Nocentini - (c) Ken ConleyBrice Feillu and Christophe Kern went 1/2 for France from the breakaway as the race transitioned from Spain to France with its stop in the tiny country of Andorra. Cancellara put on a good show of defense of his yellow jersey, but the writing was on the wall as the climb in Arcalis dragged on. No one probably predicted that another rider in the breakaway, Rinaldo Nocentini, would be the one to take it off his shoulders, but that's the rare promise that motivates a great breakaway.

It feels good to put the Astana leadership debate to rest, for now. Contador showed why he can win the Tour by putting in an explosive attack that none of the other GC contenders could chase down. He went so fast it looked like he was descending as he freewheeled around a switchback. Armstrong and Levi were loyal teammates, following the wheels and keeping themselves in a strong position in the GC. Overall, Astana did a great job setting the early tempo on the Arcali, controlling the field up until the moment of Contador's attack.

If there's any doubt that Astana is in the driver's seat, just look at the GC standings:

  1. Nocentini
  2. Contador 0.06
  3. Armstrong 0.08
  4. Leipheimer 0.39

July 6, 2009

Questions on Leadership

Coast - (c) Ken Conley

A friend e-mailed m a question on team leadership, so I thought I'd share the response here:

Q: I know Contador is the team leader for Astana right now, but how set in stone is that for any team? I know that's what they sort of shoot for at the beginning, but is that something that just changes as the race progresses or does something official have to happen?

It's not an official matter who the leader is, merely a strategic one. There's generally an idea of who the best rider is on the team, as well as second-best rider for that matter. You can usually be 90% certain who that is, but a crash may take your leader out, or your leader may not have the form you hoped, so someone else steps in. That's how Oscar Pereiro won the TdF (i.e. the Floyd year). Valverde crashed out, and Pereiro got a really lucky break. Another way a leadership situation can change is by semi-accident. For example, you may want to send your second-best rider up the road. If the other teams chase, they burn their matches and you get to rest. If they don't chase, your second-best rider takes a huge chunk of time and is put in a position to win.

It's important to understand who is in charge as the rest of the team must focus on protecting that rider. Discovery Channel (the first year post-Armstrong) and other teams in the past have tried to go into a race like this with "options", but they ultimately fail because you can't build a cohesive strategy around that. One could argue that CSC won last year's Tour with the options strategy -- Sastre and 2 Schlecks -- but when push came to shove on the Alpe d'Huez, Sastre was sent on the attack and the two Schlecks worked their butts off to protect that move.

So, where it becomes important is in the mountains. If Saxo Bank whittles down the Astana team so that it's only Armstrong and Contador left, you want to know who is going to work for who. If Armstrong attacks and a top GC contender like Andy Schleck goes with him, does Contador pull it back or let it go?

Leadership battles have compromised Astana in the past: Contador won the Vuelta, but Levi was a close second. Contador complained that Levi didn't work as hard for him as he should have been, and Levi even beat Contador in the final TT. Granted, Contador still won, but it could have been different if other teams were in a better position to take advantage.

As for Lance vs. Contador, Lance doesn't really stand a chance, so I'm not understanding what's going on there -- unless this is intentional subterfuge on Astana's part to confuse other teams. Given their past tactics, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a game that they were playing, though it would have taken a lot of effort over the past several months and a lot of acting to pull this off. The fact is, Contador is a much better rider than Armstrong is right now. Armstrong is either lying to himself that he's a potential leader, or he's playing games. The only way Armstrong could win is the second-best rider strategy, i.e. if Bruyneel uses Armstrong as a carrot and the other teams don't respond.

Stage 3: A Columbia TTT and a dash of Astana Leadership Rivalry

Greg Henderson Leads the High Road Paceline - (c) Ken Conley

Today looked a little like a bit like that -- Columbia hit it as the winds picked up and soon found themselves 30 seconds up the road doing a team time trial. Some important names like Fabian Cancellara and Lance Armstrong (with Popovych and Zubeldia) tagged along. I hope Columbia saved a little for the team time trial, because that was an impressive display. Cavendish, of course, got the win, though his leadout train was a litlte ragged. Renshaw put in an impressive pull to contain a last-minute break and leadout Cav, who proceeded to ride Hushovd off his wheel.

It may pour a little salt in the Astana rivalry as Popo and Zubeldia both helped Lance Armstrong gain time on the field -- with Contador in it. But, given that Zubeldia was doing work, I imagine that the Contador was tranquil -- in the grand scheme of things, Contador is more than 30 seconds better than Armstrong and it may have been a tactical move to put pressure on the other teams not as well represented.

July 5, 2009

Cav wins his first, Tour is stickin' to the predictions

Mark Cavendish - (c) Ken Conley

Cancellara wins the opening time trial and Cavendish wins the opening sprint with a commanding leadout from his team. Tyler Farrar showed some promise by being the only sprinter to hang with the Columbia train -- it looks like he could notch his first TdF stage this year. I'm hoping for some strong crosswinds tomorrow to throw a dash of unpredictability into the mix.

July 4, 2009

Who else but Cancellara?

Fabian Cancellara - (c) Ken Conley
Photo by Ken Conley

Cancellara winning was the easy part to pick and watching him catch Menchov as his 1:30 man was a treat, but now that Contador (0:18) laid down the law with a second-place finish, well ahead of Armstrong (0:40), will Armstrong admit the obvious and commit to being a loyal lieutenant? One thing Astana did settle is that they really are the strongest team if they can settle the pecking order: Contador 2nd, Kloden 4th (0:22), Leipheimer 6th (0:30), Armstrong 10th (0:40). Cadel Evans also put in a respectable 5th (0:23), so count on him to be a thorn in the side of the GC.

July 2, 2009

Tour Time: Predictions and Light Blogging

Contador-Armstrong.jpg

It didn't hit me until the middle of this week at the Tour is starting on Saturday. After shooting Lance at the Astana Training Camp, Tour of California and the Nevada City Classic, you'd think that I'd just be counting down the days, but shooting the American Velodrome Challenge and Manhattan Beach Grand Prix in one weekend has a way of keeping you distracted.

When I first saw Lance at the Astana Training Camp I thought, "No way." He looked different on a bike, he looked... fat (for a cyclist). Then I saw him at the Tour of California on a TT bike, and that only reinforced the fact that he looked fat. Then I saw him a couple of weeks ago at the Nevada City Classic and he looked thin.

Does this mean that I think he can win? No. But whereas I thought in February he was certain to realize this and be forced to work for Contador, I now think he's strong enough to cause more than enough trouble for the Astana squad -- with Vino back in the picture, is there any team under more stress right now? Another way to think of it is: Armstrong won his final Tours largely on the strength of the team supporting him; now there's little chance that the entire team would ever support him.

That's not to say Armstrong hasn't been trying to build his own mini-squad. Armstrong has spent a good portion of this year cementing his relationship with Levi Leipheimer, burying himself to help Levi win the Tour of California and luxuriating him in the world of private-jet travel. And he did well enough by Horner than Horner was sniping at Contador for getting left off the Tour squad, not at Armstrong for giving Contador more than seven reasons to think about wanting more allies on the squad.

I still think Contador is the best overall rider of this generation and is stronger than Armstrong, but Armstrong may cause just enough discord to provide an opening. The worst thing that can happen, and could easily happen, is that Lance and Levi beat Contador on Saturday's stage. Levi we know can beat Contador in a TT and who knows what Lance will bring. Or maybe even worse is that Contador overly focuses on establishing his primacy with his team on this opening stage and leaves himself open to harm the rest of the Tour. No other team has as much riding on the very first stage.

As for other contenders, Bjarne Riis is obviously salivating at the opportunity to exploit the conflict and has enough weapons to force Astana to figure out who they're protecting. Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans is also just boring enough to slip in during all the fireworks and run off with the prize. It's harder to drum up support for Sastre. I feel bad not rallying behind the reigning champion, but as good as Cervelo Test Team has been, can they really help him win the Tour? Not likely.

NOTE: I've decided not to do my normal Tour link roundup this year around, and my summaries may be infrequent. When I first started blogging about the Tour in 2003, there weren't that many sites out there blogging about it, there was no Twitter or Facebook, and I had not yet embarked on my cycling photography career. Perhaps I'm faking my memories, but back then I felt it was necessary to blog about the Tour because it was a beautiful event that needed many more voices in the up-and-coming blogosphere. Now there are many voices out there and the return of Lance has turned the dials back up to 11 for this event. I also find that I'd rather shoot bicycles and ride bicycles than write about bicycles, so look for me this month at events like the San Rafael Twilight Crit. Rest assured that I will still be up every morning at 5am to watch the Tour.