Post Stage 13 Analysis

Stage 12 and stage 13 have provided some surprising results. While a breakaway did have its chances on these flat stages, a breakaway victory was by no means guaranteed, and in the early week of the Tour the peloton showed that it was going to pull back each and every break in the final kilometers. What we saw in stages 12 and 13 was a breakaway that was guaranteed: the sprinter teams didn't come forward, and Phonak set a tempo that pulled back no time on the breaks.

Even more puzzling about these stages was that two strong riders whose GC hopes had been killed off by the Pyrenees were allowed to escape, and Landis/Phonak not only allowed the breakaways to succeed, but also turned non-threats into contenders by giving them huge amounts of time. Where any concerted effort could have easily made the gains more modest, Popovych, sitting dead in 23rd place, was allowed 4:45 to move him into 10th. Even more shocking was the twenty-eight minutes given to Pereiro, who is probably more shocked than anyone that he is sleeping in yellow. Oscar Pereiro has never been touted as a contender, but he has finished in the top ten and was 2005's Most Aggressive RiderL he managed to be in successful breakaways on stages 15, 16, and 18 -- he won stage 16. Pereiro rode for Landis in that 2005 Tour, so he should know

These are dangerous games that Phonak and the peloton are playing. It means that Phonak is tired and lazy, and there will be gifts to be had. Phonak may regret these gifts because they rejuvenate a rider and his team. Popo probably can't win the overall, but now Discovery has had a big morale boost and we might see some real GC action from them in the Alps: if Popo finds some Alps legs, he and Azevedo can attempt to volley into the top five by Alps end. Hincapie will also be remotivated -- I think he'll try to see if there are still some gifts to be had tomorrow in Stage 14. A stage win and a yellow jersey would allow Hincapie to walk away from this Tour with his head held high.

Phonak's gifts also project weakness. Granted, no one thinks Landis is weak, but many, including me, have be criticizing the strength of his team all year. Their weakness in this case has been intentional, and another aspect of that is they may have worsened their relationship with other teams (as Bobby Julich discusses in his diary): if a team doesn't protect the treasured yellow jersey when it would have been easy to do so, will it be easy for them to get help from teams in future stages when the actually want to protect the jersey?

Armstrong won seven Tours by eliminating his competitors with a big attack and making sure that they stayed down; they raced for second. Armstrong may have used the same jersey-giveaway strategy (e.g. 2005 Stage 9 to Jens Voigt), but never out of a position of obvious weakness, and never to such a strong rider.

Landis is now attempting to win a Tour by a different strategy, one that asks his teammates to give 50% on some days where Armstrong would have asked for 100% every day. Landis has chosen to conserve his team's strength as much as possible through this stressful, difficult, and hot second leg, so that they can show up as strong as possible for the third leg through the Alps. Landis' different strategy from Armstrong's makes sense, as everything about Landis, from his training to his personality is markedly different, but it's a strategy that we will have to wait and see until Paris to judge.

So, brilliantly executed fumble, or one gift too many?

related articles: Tour de France 2006

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