Tour de France: Five Storylines

Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Tour de France

Five seems to be the theme of this year’s Tour de France here at Podium Cafe. Really, I don’t pretend to understand why. But I’m running with it, especially because I baked my brains out on today’s ride. There was sun! And hills! And it was so very awesome. There was sun on my back and wind in my face and burn in my legs. Which is all as it should be. But it didn’t make me smarter. So, doing what everyone else is doing? Yes.

Here, my friends, are five stories from the coming Tour de France. Five narratives that are certain to be part of the race, and one of which, we will all be wishing would just go away. The Tour, one way or another, it always brings the drama.

Doping and the Suspension of Disbelief

It’s nearly impossible to watch this year’s Tour de France without confronting straight-on the messy complications of doping in cycling. For the Rip van Winkle’s among you, the favorite and last year’s winner Alberto Contador comes to this race in the midst of an on-going doping case. In a controversial decision, the Spanish Federation declined to sanction him for the positive test at last year’s Tour de France. No harm, no foul, they said after Contador argued that he had not ingested Clenbuterol intentionally. The UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed the decision, and we remained suspended between the Spanish absolution and the forthcoming appeal. Alberto Contador, Tour de France, doping

What does that mean for us? For one thing, it means we won’t know the winner of this year’s Tour de France when the race reaches Paris. This isn’t the first time in recent years that the results of a bike race have not lasted much longer than a bottle of champagne an afterparty. But it is the first time that we have begun the race, opened the front cover and started reading chapter one, insecure in the knowledge that only uncertainty awaits us in the end. Le Tour du Temps Perdu.

As every cycling fan knows, bike racing is a social sport. While you can revise the results, you can never erase the influence of a particular rider on the outcome, since every move an individual rider makes sets off a chain reaction of moves and countermoves. It’s a game with multiple players unfolding serially. The butterfly wings flap, the whole world turns over. There is something absurd about a race with no result, but we are well accustomed to the absurdities of the cycling life by now. Really this year’s Tour is just one step beyond our normal suspension of disbelief.

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Doing the Double

Set aside the doping question, if you can, and this Tour de France may well make history. In May, Alberto Contador won the Giro d’Italia. The victory in Italy was Contador’s sixth grand tour victory, and he is one of only five riders in the history of the sport to win each of cycling’s grand tours. In short, Contador has achieved an unusual degree of dominance in the major stage races.

Alberto Contador, Giro d'Italia, Tour de France Why is this year’s Tour potentially historic? By winning the Giro d’Italia, Contador has set himself up for an unusual double victory. If he wins the Tour, he will become one of only seven riders to win both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia in the same year.

The most recent Tour-Giro double was in 1998, when the Italian climber Marco Pantani won both races. Pantani later became embroiled in doping scandals, and the following year in 1999, Italian authorities expelled him from the Giro d’Italia for an overly high hematocrit. Before Pantani, Miguel Indurain achieved the Giro-Tour double two years in a row in 1992 and 1993.

Contador comes to this Tour de France as the favorite, despite the rarity of winning the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Did Contador ride too hard to win the Giro d’Italia? The race only finished at the end of May, which left Contador little time to recover and rebuild his form for the Tour. Will the Spanish grand tour specialist show his usual dominance? That, my friends, is one of the central stories of this year’s race.

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Philippe Gilbert and the Elusive Stage Victory

If Contador is the dominant stage racer of the current era, Philippe Gilbert is cycling’s dominant one-day rider. In 2009, he won the Fall Double of Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia, an odd couple of races if ever there was one. Paris-Tours? So flat. Giro di Lombardia? So not flat. Gilbert has also won the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Philippe Gilbert, Andy Schleck, Tour de FranceTo collect them all, he has only Milano-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix yet to win. He also got in a fight with a bleach bottle, this week. But that’s a whole different story.

For all his one-day successes, Philippe Gilbert has never won a Tour stage. Can you believe that shit? I didn’t. But it’s true! For reals! For the past two seasons, Gilbert has skipped the Tour de France to focus on his one-day racing ambitions. Now, he’s back, and this year’s course offers a selection of stages with punchy uphill finishes. It’s like the Tour de France wanted him so badly, they tailor-made the first week just for Gilbert.

It’s a complicated business for a dominant one-day rider like Gilbert to win a Tour stage. Rarely does a late attack from the field succeed at the Tour de France. The climbers and classification riders win the mountain stages. The sprinters win the flat stages. The breakaway riders go long and early to win the stages in between. If Gilbert joins an early break, watch the other riders sit up and go back to the field. No one really wants to go to the line with a rider like Gilbert. So, he’ll have to do it the hard way by attacking late from the field. Will he succeed? Watch and see.

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King of the Final Kilometer

In the past three Tours, Mark Cavendish has won fifteen stages. That’s like a lot and stuff. There are fewer sprint stages this year, so Cavendish may have difficulty equaling his haul, but in recent seasons, the HTC-Highroad train has nailed sprint after sprint, delivering Cavendish to the front at just the right moment. So far, none of the other teams has found a way to crack the HTC-Highroad code. Mark Cavendish, HTC-Highroad, Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Cervélo, Tour de France, sprints, Green Jersey

Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Cervélo has beaten Cavendish once in a head-to-head sprint, but has yet to win a stage at the Tour de France. The team has clearly brought riders with the ambition of setting up Farrar at the expense of the team’s climbers like Dan Martin and Christophe Le Mével who will wait for the Vuelta to try their chances. It’ll be a tall order for the Garmin-Cervélo kids, who also have World Champion Thor Hushovd for the sprints. Will Hushovd go on the escape, or try for the bunch sprints? Only the Evil Sideburns know for sure.

Over at Team Sky, meanwhile, Ben Swift is riding his first Tour de France and will share sprinting duties with Edvald Boasson Hagen. Alessandro Petacchi brought his lead-out guy Danilo Hondo, and the two would no doubt love to add to Petacchi’s tally of six Tour de France victories. The Italian is also in the top five in the all-time rankings for grand tour stage victories. Not bad, eh?

The past two Tours, the final kilometer has really been all about HTC-Highroad. It’s hard to imagine this year will be significantly different with the talent the team is bringing to the game. But I’ll be watching the sprints, anyway, because I do like a good bunch sprint. You wait all day, watching the French countryside flow by, then Bam! It’s over! Just like that.

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Gamble on the Galibier

It’s become all the rage lately for race organizers to strive for the Perfect Climactic Moment. In 2009, the Tour tried to make Mont Ventoux the decisive finale to the race. It failed, as conservative tactics and headwinds on the climb led to a snoozer of a stage. The classification riders pedaled along together in a little pod, and no one really did much. Zzzzzzzz.

Last year, the Tour celebrated the Col du Tourmalet, and the race climbed it twice. The final ascent evolved into a battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck that ended in bro hugs at the finish line. Alpe d'Huez, Tour de France Critics castigated the top two riders for racing conservatively and Andy Schleck, in particular, for failing to attack. Schleck looked content to race for second, though he later claimed he was at his limits on that final climb. It was a good day of bike racing, but maybe not the epic battle the organizers had hoped to see.

Well, maybe three-times is a charm, because the Tour dudes have tried again to manufacture the perfect ending to their three-week-long story. It’s the anniversary of the first climbing of the Col du Galibier at the Tour de France, so this year’s Tour climbs the Alpine giant twice. Just to make sure that the Galibier brings the drama, the Tour has paired it with the reliably crowd-pleasing Alpe d’Huez for the final climbing stage of the race. Surely, something will happen on the Alpe d’Huez. If nothing else, it’s a ridiculously prestigious climb to win, even if the Yellow Jersey battle is done and dusted long before the riders reach the mythical 21 switchbacks.

One of my favorite Tour finishes in recent years came on the Alpe d’Huez, when Carlos Sastre went up the road and won his only Tour de France. That was some drama right there. Is it too much to ask that this year might see a similarly climactic final mountain stage? Probably. But the Galibier-Alpe d’Huez combo certainly has potential on paper to be a big show. If the riders play stare down, I will shun them all. Attack! Or there will be a shunning!

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There are always an infinite number of plots and subplots to the Tour de France. The rich narrrative explains its hundred-year appeal. It’s my favorite summer beach novel, the best box of bon bons, the espresso perfetto, the cherry on top. I often hate the players but I’m seduced year after year by the game. Vive le Tour!

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