Watching the Tour de France is like digging into a good summer beach novel. At its best, the Tour offers us stories within stories entwined into a scrumptiously thick narrative of cycling goodness. The multiple narratives and constantly changing characters are what make the grand tours so grand. If a one day race is a short story, with a single narrative, a main character, and a central plot turn, the grand tours are a long novel teeming with plots and subplots and characters galore. Paris-Roubaix is Hemingway, the Tour de France, Tolstoy. Let’s look now at a few likely stories from this year’s Tour de France.
Each year at the Tour, one of the favorites exits the race or drops several time zones out of running for the Yellow Jersey by the end of the first week. This time around, an early exit looks nearly inevitable for some unlucky rider. The first week of this year’s race bucks the trend of easy, routine flat stages.
Instead, the Tour pays tribute to the Spring classics with a trip to the Ardennes and a jaunt across the cobbles. The roads in the Ardennes region are narrow and twisty, and by all accounts, very technical. The strong teams like RadioShack and Saxo Bank will try to keep their leaders out of trouble, but not everyone can ride at the front at the same time. Sardines!
If the Ardennes doesn’t offer challenge enough, the next stage runs over several sections of cobbles. Robbie McEwen predicted CARNAGE for this stage. All the bigs will want to ride at the front over the cobbles to avoid the inevitable splits in the field and the possibility of crashing. The positioning battle ahead of the cobbles could bring more CARNAGE to the field than the cobbled sectors eventually do. The contenders with the strongest teams will have the advantage on these stages. All the same, expect at least one of the bigs to fall out of contention in this first week. It’s bike racing, and Luck always has her say.
Thirty-Eight, it’s just a number
Outside magazine recently put Lance Armstrong on the cover of their mag with a photoshopped t-shirt reading, "38: BFD" Armstrong claimed offense on Twitter. Feigned outrage or no, Armstrong can’t avoid inevitable speculation about his age, and whether he is past it. It, in this case, being the ability to win a grand tour. He made the podium last year after his long lay-off, so he’s certainly no sightseer at this trip around France. Currently, the oldest rider to win the Tour de France is Firmin Lambot, who won in 1922 at the age of 36. If he were to win this year’s edition, Armstrong would add a record to his Tour palmarès and push outward the possibility that anyone could possibly overtake his string of Tour victories. It’s a long way to Paris, though, so it’s perhaps a tad premature to be talking records just yet.
A Mean Game of Pinball
It’s hasn’t been the best of seasons for Mark Cavendish. More like the worst of times. Dental problems marred the early season, and left him without his customary zip at the sprinters’ classic Milano-Sanremo. Disgruntled to be dropped on the Cipressa, he blamed Katusha, Pozzato, Italo Calvino, Cadel Evans’s dog, Internet Forum People (waving) Hi Mark! (waving) ... and well just about everyone else. The results continued to prove elusive, and Cavendish continued to run his mouth, much to the amusement of the Internet Forum People.
Then came the Tour de Suisse. Cavendish did Abdoujaparov proud, playing the human pinball in the final kilometer. Heinrich Haussler and Tom Boonen paid a high price for Cavendish’s heedlessness. Cavendish, he needs a good Tour. A few good results will push the polemica into the background, and focus attention back on the British sprinters’ speedy legs. Though Boonen and Haussler are both at home, Farrar, Hushovd, and Freire will be in the house to challenge Cavendish. Mark, sprint straight, and don’t be stupid.
The Contador Conundrum
Riddle me this: Who can beat Alberto Contador? That’s really the big question of this year’s Tour de France. The Spanish talent has ridden invincibly in the grand tours in recent seasons and collected two victories at the Tour de France, a Maglia Rosa from the Giro d’Italia, and a win at his home country’s Vuelta a España. He climbs, he time trials, he even wins prologues.
Contador didn’t dominate the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, though he won the prologue. What does the Dauphiné result mean? Generally, it does not much of anything come July. Last year, Contador rode a tranquil Dauphiné behind Alejandro Valverde. Then, he floated up the high mountains of the Tour de France and killed the final time trial. His rivals found no way to slow his steamrolling progress through the Tour. With his trademark cool, Contador defeated his rivals on the road, while also surviving an ugly battle with Lance Armstrong behind the scenes.
Will this year be any different? Certainly, there are some tricky stages in this Tour de France. The first week romp in the Ardennes, the cobbles, the transition stage around Gap, the mountain stages with the final summits well short of the line: These stages open the way for team tactics to play a role in determining who wears Yellow in Paris. How? Well, that’s for the Big Brains in the team cars to figure out. If nothing else, it should be clear by now that a frontal assault on Contador’s climbing and time trialing prowess will not win the day.
Fireworks or Fizzle
The Tour organizers try once again this year to create a grand finale. Will they succeed? Last year, the battle for the Yellow Jersey was all supposed to come down to the final mountain finish on the mighty Mont Ventoux. Instead, it came down to a stalemate, brought on partly by the relatively even match-up among the bigs and partly by the screaming headwinds characteristic of the Géant de Provence. A bit of a fizzle, this grand finale turned out to be.
This year, the Tour organizers have set out the early mountain stages to taunt and tease. There are few obvious opportunities for anyone to secure a decisive advantage in the early climbing stages through the Juras and the Alps. The Tour organizers declined to include an early long time trial, and in a departure from the norm, there is only one long time trial in this year’s race. And it’s the near-final stage.
The course design begs for the Col du Tourmalet to decide the Yellow Jersey race, or better still, for the Yellow Jersey to remain in play until the final time trial. In the famous cliché, the riders make the race, and last year showed us even the best laid plans can fizzle. It could be an grand anti-climax of the Col du Tourmalet this year, but it should still be a wild ride to get there.
D is for Doom
The Tour de France always brings out the doping rumors. Certainly, the huge confabulation of journos in one place doesn’t help. Just today Bill Strickland, editor-at-large for Bicycling Magazine, said he heard rumors that RadioShack would not even start the Tour. For reals? Well, he later disavowed the rumor, saying that he’d heard from two solid sources that the team would ride the race. Whatevs.
Rumors, meanwhile, continue to swirl on the expectation of another installment of the Landis Revelations from the Wall Street Journal. So far, that story hasn’t dropped. But when better to launch a big doping story than the day before the Tour begins? The Landis story isn’t going away any time soon, and we can expect continued doping talk throughout this year’s race. C’est le Tour in these post-Festina, post-Puerto times.
Of course, we also celebrated the annual pre-tour ritual of bickering between the UCI and the French anti-doping officials. The UCI will lead the testing this year, but they must allow observation by the World anti-doping agency. The French anti-doping organization can request additional tests from specific riders. Confused yet? I am, but last year, recrimination followed the UCI’s conduct of testing at the Tour, with the French authorities charging the UCI with favoritism. The new regime should foreclose a repeat of that cycle. Still as the Tour begins, we can expect the rumors to swirl. Here’s hoping the Tour avoids the big D of Doom, this year, and it’s mostly about the bike race once the Rotterdam prologue begins. A girl can hope anyway.
Yes, it’s France in July and it’s time for cycling’s biggest shindig. It should be quite a ride. Me, I’ll be glued to my internets - it’s a series of tubes, you know - and watching the whole fandango. Like Christmas, the Tour only comes once a year. And of course, there will be Gossip and lots of it. Viva le Tour!
Photos: Top, by Tom Able-Green; Iban Mayo by Doug Pensinger; Cavendish by Jasper Juin; Contador by Bryn Lennon; Alps by Mike Powell, Prologue by Mike Hewitt. All photos courtesy Getty Images Sport.