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The Ultimate Endurance Sport


Cycling is not for the impatient. Races roll on for hours on end, and regardless of the course profile they are almost never kind to the riders who jump before the final half hour. Stage races are worse: you can pounce with great patience for early victories but that may or may not help you in the final classification. Grand tours, it thus follows, are even more extreme. Since there are only three of them, it's easy to generalize: course organizers like to save the fireworks for the final few days, so fans don't drift away too soon.

On top of all that, succeeding in a grand tour is perhaps the ultimate patient man's game. For every story of a rider who won on his first try, there are other stories of riders trying again and again before breaking through... and many, many more stories of riders who, however quickly they climb the ladder, must still go a few rounds before becoming a contender.

Cadel Evans ranks as one of the most extreme examples of patience: from the mountain bike scene as late as 2001 to the maglia rosa in 2002, Evans' early shock appearance was followed by three years of reality setting in, before he ascended to serious Tour contention in 2005, finishing a terrific 8th. Already 28 by then, Evans beefed up his grand tour credentials while also becoming an all-rounder, winning races like Romandie in 2006 and the UCI Pro Tour in 2007, the year he first stepped on the podium in Paris. He repeated his second place the next year, under vaguely similar circumstances: a superior (Spanish) climber got too far ahead for him to pin back in the final time trial. But from a distance the 23 seconds he lost by in 2007 started looking like the apex of his career. The Contador Era had dawned, Evans tipped into his 30s, and he fell out with his Belgian Lotto squad only to join a new-ish outfit at BMC. The World Championship in 2009 won him the respect his career was missing, but he took a couple big steps backward in the Tour. When he rolled up this year, 34 years old and three years removed from contention, there was no reason to feel too confident in his chances.

But a closer examination of his last three seasons says a lot about what it takes for even a top contender to win the Tour de France. First, he didn't have good health in 2010, riding with a cracked elbow (try pulling on the bars up Mont Ventoux with one of those). Next, good preparation, which he also didn't have last year, as BMC rode the Giro in earnest, along with plenty of other early races, to earn a Tour de France wild card. An exhausted Evans crept into Paris in 26th place. Finally, a very good plan. In the post(ish)-doping era we don't see riders soaring up major mountains one day and acing a 50km crono the next. The race is a grind. Moreover, the number of guys in contention is only growing, even with Contador's long shadow looming, so for anyone else to get a chance to steal one from Bert, they have to ride a perfect race, with no time wasted.

Sastre_on_the_alpe_mediumA lot of eventual Tour winners don't pull these chances together right away. Carlos Sastre, then 33, won on his eighth try. His DS, Bjarne Riis, won on his seventh attempt, aged 32. The ultra-talented Stephen Roche needed five attempts to win. Joop Zoetemelk, the ultimate yellow warrior, won a single Tour, in his tenth (of sixteen) tries. Lucien Van Impe won on his eighth try -- and back then 29 was old. Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo, won at age 30 on his fifth try. Gastone Nencini, the Lion of Mugello, was 30 when he broke through for his lone win.

Almost nobody in history truly resembles Joop Zoetemelk, but Evans' career has some parallels. Both won a lone Tour (so far in Evans' case) in their mid-30s, and both on the strength of their time trialling. Neither was an Angel of the Mountains, but competent climbing kept them in position to strike against the watch. In 1980, Bernard Hinault withdrew to a knee injury, and Zoetemelk won both the time trials to fend off Hennie Kuiper, Raymond Martin, et al. with relative ease. Evans too saw a dominant Tour winner slowed by a knee, or maybe just overcooked, and seized his opening in the time trial.

So what does this have to do with Andy Schleck? It's a reminder that your best shot may not be your last. Schleck, all of 26 years old, is only entering his prime this year, by conventional wisdom. Not that he's a conventional property; young Andy was a climbing prodigy from the get-go, ascending into Tour contention on the highest peaks of France, Italy and elsewhere. After one year as a domestique to Sastre, Schleck has been a fixture on the Tour's second step, with three runners-up and counting. At some point, though, "finishing second" morphs into "losing the Tour," and that was certainly the case this year, if not last year too. So the question is, will Schleck ever stop losing the Tour?

Bahamontes_mediumHistory says yes. Sure, he has two primary obstacles in his path. One is Alberto Contador, who seems to always win the Tour when he arrives in prime condition. But last year showed that Schleck is very, very close in ability. You might even say Contador's aggressiveness brought out the best in Andy, as the two battled up the road day after day, one jumped chain from an absolute stalemate. Contador is king, but Andy is close enough to steal one from Bert, particularly when the inevitable obstacles (like a knee problem) get thrown the Spaniard's way. Oh, and Contador might have a July vacation or two in his future as well.

The other primary obstacle for Andy is the time trial. There are two possible explanations for his failure Saturday, his head and his legs, and while only Andy truly knows what was in his head, a likelier explanation points to his legs. Unlike some riders (coughCunegocough), the time trial is hardly Schleck's mortal enemy at the Tour. The best possible data point -- the most recent Tour -- shows that Schleck can at times hang with the best, as he lost a mere 31 seconds to Contador in last year's 52km penultimate stage. Then, there was a day between the final mountain stages and the crono. This time, it seems Andy paid on Saturday for his two long efforts Thursday and Friday. Drop a recovery day in between and maybe things turn out better.

Again, history says this will probably happen. Look at Sastre's ride for one parallel. Like Schleck Sastre was OK in most facets of the sport -- didn't fall off his bike too much, generally kept himself in position -- and similarly used his climbing to overcome deficits in the time trial. Finally, with his team controlling the race brilliantly and Sastre himself improving just enough against the watch, his victory happened. Look at Bahamontes' 1959 win, where the Eagle took the lead by staying close in the early time trial, passed Anglade and Anquetil in the GC on the Tourmalet, and padded his lead enough to drop five full minutes to the two Frenchmen in the final crono to win by over four minutes.

It can be done. It can happen the Sastre method by stepping up a bit more against the watch. It can happen the Bahamontes way, by dominating the climbs. It can happen by showing up, year after year, waiting for everything to click.

Bahamontes photo via Flickr, rights reserved Eduardoasb; Sastre by Jasper Juinen, Getty Images Sport; Cadel and Andy by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport