So you don’t have all day to listen to the soothing voice of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen on Versus, you don’t get all the jokes at NYVelocity.com, you find browsing through cycling-fanatic blogs like Podium Cafe a bit like sipping water from a fire hose, and you find VeloNews a little over your head as well. Yet you’re not quite content with the AP coverage: “XXXX XXXX took the overall lead in the Tour de France today, though XXXX XXXX won the stage. Lance Armstrong finished XXth, X:XX behind the leader. Am I done yet? Can I work on my fantasy baseball team now?”
Actually, AP usually gets some of the action by the time the “optional” version comes in from Europe, you can get a pretty clear picture. That’s about as close as you can get to a middle ground between the dry read on the overall standings and the crowd debating the circumference of Alberto Contador’s crankset.
So if you like the Tour but haven’t had two weeks to digest the events so far, here’s a quick read:
What the heck is Lance doing?: Lance Armstrong came into this Tour intending to win. That’s not as obvious as it sounds. A cyclist’s goals may change from year to year or even day to day. Team goals can be even more complex.
In Lance’s heyday, his teams (Postal Service, Discovery Channel) had a clear goal: Lance will win the Tour. Period.
Not every team is so clear. Some teams have two or three contenders, by design or accident, and they may or may not agree on who takes the lead. A hierarchy might not be clear until a couple of mountain stages and time trials have passed.
Other teams may go for stage wins, the green jersey (sprints and sprint finishes) or just an occasional bit of time in a breakaway to get the sponsor’s name on TV. Sponsors like that.
When Armstrong ran into everything but a plague of locusts on one stage, crashing multiple times and struggling to catch up, he knew his chances of winning were gone. Teammate Levi Leipheimer was still poised to make a run at the top three, where he finished in 2007, but that’s looking less likely by the day.
Armstrong hasn’t seriously contested the last several stages and is now 31st place, 40 minutes and 31 seconds back. Teammates Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner are ahead of him in the standings.
So is he saving strength for one last dash at a stage win?
The team title: Another competition that doesn’t get much interest each year, at least for U.S. audiences trained to watch Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis chase the yellow jersey and overall title, is the team classification. The times of the top three riders each day are added up. Team Caisse d’Epargne has little else for which it can contend, so this is a logical point of emphasis. But with Radio Shack no longer geared up for an Armstrong win or Leipheimer podium, this competition might be the best use of the team’s depth.
Radio Shack took back the lead today with a couple of minutes to spare, with Leipheimer, Kloden and Armstrong all finishing ahead of Ruben Plaza Molina, the venerable Christophe Moreau and Luis-Leon Sanchez. Radio Shack can always rotate Horner into that top three, while CDE has a long drop back to Vasil Kiryienka.
Thor! Green!: The green jersey/points competition is a strange one. For the most part, it’s given for what happens in the last 30 seconds of each of the flat stages that make up half the Tour. Hang out for 4 hours and change, then go for it. Teamwork is just as important for green as it is for yellow — the sprinters line up behind their “lead-out” men, who have taken it upon themselves to start head-butting each other out of the way this year. It’s a messy competition that usually sees the yellow-jersey contenders sitting about a third of the way back in the pack just to avoid the fray.
The contenders here spend half the Tour just trying to survive, making sure they don’t finish so far behind the pack that they’re tossed out of the Tour. Many a first-week stage winner doesn’t stick around for the third week.
But one person took it upon himself last year to prove he can get up and down the mountains, not content to win on a judge’s ruling after a final-sprint incident. That’s one reason why that rider, Thor Hushovd, commands a bit of respect and some fan loyalty in the race for green.
Besides — he has the coolest name in the race.
The race for yellow, or, don’t race on an angry stomach: The race for yellow was effectively whittled down to two people last week. We can all dream of seeing a daring breakaway from someone else farther down the standings, but the last time that happened, the Floyd Landis Endless Doping Saga began.
Andy Schleck, surely the best-known athlete from Luxembourg, is still eligible for the white jersey of best young rider. He looks like he’s 13 or 14, which explains why NYVelocity’s Tour day Schmalz is riddled with jokes about calling his mom and promising he’ll ride safely.
He had the lead over Alberto Contador and was attacking on the giant climb today. But just as Contador was clawing his way back, the chain slipped on Schleck’s bike.
Under cycling’s unwritten rules, riders often wait for fellow contenders when they run into trouble on the road. Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich, the Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty of the early 2000s, had a couple of cases in which one waited for other, including the famous “Hey, Lance! I love you so much I’m going to snag my snack bag on your handlebars!” incident.
Should Contador have waited? Schleck thinks so. He talked of much anger in his stomach and imminent revenge.
My former workplace neighbor, USA TODAY cycling guru Sal Ruibal, raises counterpoints:
- This wasn’t an accident in which some fan’s snack bag snagged a rider’s handlebars. Schleck likely made a mistake in trying to shift gears.
- Revenge riding can be a really bad idea. A big part of cycling is staying within yourself and knowing what you’re capable of doing.
Contador already was far from a beloved figure, and the boos he received upon taking the yellow jersey today underlined that point. Fairly or not, he’s more of a villain now.
But whatever you think of Contador, Schleck is easy to root for. He rode maniacally up the mountain after his chain slipped, sailing past such experienced riders as … well, Lance Armstrong. Without that, the Tour would be over.
He’ll surely be the underdog. Contador should blow him away in the Tour’s only full-fledged time trial on Saturday. And Contador isn’t easy to shake in the mountains.
So that leaves us with one question — how is it, with all the mechanical ingenuity available to bicycle-makers and all the money spent on Tour bikes, we can’t have a more reliable way to shift gears?