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What's In a Photo? Alpe d'Huez, 2008

This was a great Tour. A colorful Tour. And a deeply weird one too.

Joel Saget, AFP/Getty

Time once again to play What's In a Photo? And for today's affair, I'm calling up the protagonists from the 2008 Tour de France. Cadel, Andy, Frank, Bernhard... come on down!

2008 alpe chase numbered

Photo by Joel Saget, AFP/Getty

In particular, what we see here is the heads of state suffering their way up Alpe d'Huez, in the heat of one of the more memorable days on that oh-so-famous mountain. It was stage 17 of the 2008 Tour, but it was also the last of the major mountain days, with a long time trial also looming amid the sprint stages. Much was at stake on this day. Everything, really.

1. I see you there, Andy Schleck.

Cycling is a weird sport, not entirely unlike baseball. Baseball is a stick-and-ball game that relies on certain measurable physical attributes, mixed in with the less visible ability to appreciate seemingly endless idle times AND the ability to summon your peak powers and repeat that special skill even after sitting around for a while, as millions of people judge you. Cycling is also an endurance sport based on a series of measurable physical attributes -- watts per KG -- plus a bunch of subtle skills, projected on the natural environment of an entire continent (Europe, in this case) and buffered by endless hours of unseen work. Like baseball, you have to endure the drudgery of five-hour stages, day after day, and still be ready for some crazy shit to go down on a moment's notice.

In baseball, plenty of careers shine brightly early on, and then fizzle, for reasons that are hard to understand. Confidence is one of those reasons, and a player's ability to regain and maintain confidence is one of those make-or-break factors we underestimate all the time. I can't say if confidence is what derailed the promising career of Andy Schleck; I suspect he had plenty of unwavering confidence in his basic strength, but the ability to stay upright is an entirely different skill, one that Schleck never mastered. He may have had confidence in it once, such as the day Fabian Cancellara led him to a fantastic 5th place on the Arenberg cobbles stage of the 2010 Tour. At some point it seems to have left him, and the crashes just kept piling up until he retired this spring.

In this photo, however, he is a fresh flower just beginning to bloom. Schleck burst onto the big stage in 2007 by finishing a surprising second in the Giro d'Italia, and in 2008 his CSC team brought him to the Tour for the first time, in service of his older brother Frank and maybe Carlos Sastre. Andy not only secured the white jersey, but he rode brilliantly on the day before this photo was taken, stage 16, and the stage prior to that. This was actually a remarkable turn of events.

Heading into stage 15, Liquigas' Vincenzo Nibali held the white jersey as the race entered his home country. Cadel Evans led Frank by a single second on GC, so any activity on the mountaintop finish of Prato Nevoso could flip leadership. Andy was nearly nine minutes behind, and in his first Tour he was a domestique, but what a domestique. It was Andy who set the blistering pace that left so many behind and put Evans on his heels. It was Andy who chased down Denis Menchov, who launched his own attack that wore out Kreuziger and Menchov. By stage 16, returning from Italy to France over the continent's highest road the Col de la Bonette, it was Andy again setting a murderous pace that helped Frank stay in yellow, that broke Nibali for good in the maillot blanc battle, and that again put Evans in difficult straits. It's funny to think of Andy Schleck crushing Vincenzo Nibali on a course that began in Italy and ended with a long, tricky descent (remember when John-Lee Agustyn fell off the mountain?). But it happened.

On this day, Andy Schleck would go on to take third on the stage, chasing down some attacks on the Alpe and varying the pace enough to put Evans in trouble. Andy confirmed on this day, his third major effort in the high mountains of the Tour, that he was the next big thing in Cycling.

2. I see you there, Alejandro Valverde.

The Green Bullet was a hypothetical contender in this Tour, for once, after a couple years of not making it to Paris and with his countryman, defending Tour champ Alberto Contador, not taking the start. [2008 was the year Astana were disinvited from the Tour by ASO for their unseemly connections.] Valverde was never terribly convincing over the three-week format, and by 2008 he was two years into jokes about his dog, Piti, a noted Eufemiano Fuentes client. To change the narrative, he came out flying, winning the Dauphiné and taking stage 1 of the Tour, sprinting up the Côte de Cadoual (which we will see in this year's race) to grab the yellow jersey, which he would keep until stage 3 But once again, Valverde could not maintain his form over the long climbs, dropping five minutes in the Pyrenées and sagging to Ninth on GC in Paris.

On this day, Valverde would be in good shape, taking fourth just behind Andy Schleck, who had personally shut down Valverde's attacks, with Sastre already up the road. The varying pace, by one account, is said to have hurt Evans, and some (on Wikipedia) have argued that Valverde appeared to be helping crush Evans. If so, one wonders who laughed last? Evans got his Tour win, and a world championship as well, the latter at the direct expense of Valverde, the presumed favorite in Mendrisio.

Valverde is still supposedly a Tour de France contender, with his best-ever result (fourth) coming last year. But there's a torch-passing happening next month in his team, and Valverde is the passer, not the passee.

3. I see you there, Samuel Sánchez.

Before the Shark, there was Samu, slayer of descents, smiling presence on a cool team, and all-round entertaining rider. Sánchez was something of a rarity in his time, a rider from Spain with no noticeable suspicion around his blood contents, although the I-Can't-Believe-It's-a-Suspicion Index leaked by the UCI in 2010 had him at 4/10, level with Lance Armstrong, among others. El sigh...

Anyway, Sammy was one of those outsiders taking his shot at the Tour, with nothing to lose, throughout this era. With no credible history in France, he was a real longshot in 2008, but broke through with sixth overall, confirming what we sorta thought after his third in the 2007 Vuelta, that he can in fact ride a three week race, if not quite at the front. Throughout the Alps Sanchez had done little to boost his hopes, but he salvaged respectability with second on the day, outsprinting Schleck for the top spot after Sastre, and suggesting that maybe his form was coming around.

Here's a picture of Sanchez three weeks later:

Samuel Sanchez Olympic Gold

Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

4. I see you there, Fränk Schleck.

Older brother Fränk, seen here in the Maillot Jaune, was a far more interesting person on this day than his results (fifth, ceding his overall lead) suggest. And by interesting, I mean in a not entirely good, decidedly mixed, very Schleckian kind of way.

By 2008 Fränk had proven himself a fine climber, occasional one-day stud, and pitiful time triallist. Sure, 2008 was his third Tour, and in the first two it's not altogether certain he was doing much more than testing the waters when it comes to the GC. But those two Tours saw his best finish in a Tour ITT at 30th overall, essentially last of the contenders, and his first crono of the 2008 Tour saw him concede nearly two minutes to Evans over a mere 29.5km. There were another 53km worth of time trialling left to be done on this day, and so Fränk's position in yellow was one of almost universal dismissal.

In fact, for all their mind-bending tactics throughout the race, CSC came into the Alpe having maybe blown the entire race, albeit to a more highly rated rival in Evans. The eight seconds he had on Evans would probably not survive the first km of the Stage 20 ITT, definitely not the second. His hold on the jersey was, in essence, a joke. Unless something could be done on the Alpe. But what? On his shining moment, the climb to Prato Nevoso that put Fränk in yellow, he had only stolen nine seconds from Evans. The next day they came in together, and even on the Alpe, Evans' Waterloo, Fränk only took two seconds from the Australian. Fränk in yellow was never going to work. Andy was too green, too far behind. They were always going to need a Plan C.

5. I see you there, Vlad Efimkin.

Vlad, we hardly knew ye. There's a story here someplace, but I have no idea what it is. Efimkin matriculated to the AG2R program, and I'm guessing he found AG2R via Saint-Etienne where so many young Russian amateurs come over to get established. Maybe not, I dunno. Anyway, by 2007 he was lifting the moribund French team's hopes with a victory atop the Lagos de Covadonga mega-stage of the Vuelta, and taking sixth overall. That put him in the team's Tour plans for 2008, and he did not disappoint. He was barely two minutes back coming into the Alps, taking second to Ricardo Ricco on stage 9 (shall we call that a win?), and though his trip to and from Italy didn't go well, Efimkin bounced back with an excellent ride on the Alpe, even attacking 3.5km from the finish, to give his team a bit more excitement. His final placement, eleventh overall, was a tad disappointing (following a poor ITT) but a sign of good times ahead.

It was his last Tour. He did not appear in 2009, and quit cycling in 2010. The following year he joined his brother Alexander in Team Type 1, but was gone again the following season. I have no idea why. Did he become disillusioned by the sport? Plenty of people would. Did he have his own secrets? I wouldn't want to speculate, but never say never with cycling. Maybe he just didn't enjoy the sport as much as the top riders do. Maybe he took that contract money and started the life he really sought, doing something else. I hope so. He's still only 33 years old.

6. I see you there, Denis Menchov.

Speaking of Russians, here's perennial maybe-contender Denis Menchov, still in the wait-he-won-two-Vueltas? phase of his career. After so much of the dead wood got cleaned out by Puerto, Menchov was one of the riders expected to fill the void. But Evans revived his career (re: left Telekom), and Contador happenend, leaving the Puerto-era guys with no great void to fill. I'll always pair Menchov and Sanchez together in my mind for the battles they fought at the Tour, more or less on the same level. Both could time trial, and on their good days climb too, but there were never quite enough of those. The Russian on a Dutch team who loved Spain was a good match for the Spaniard on a Basque team who seemed to not really love racing at home. In 2010, with Andy and Bert fighting for the win, Samu and the Pope (Menchov) staged a cracking battle for that last podium place, won by Menchov. Or should I say "won;" his results from 2010 on were eventually negated for doping offenses, and he was found to have doped in 2005 too. But I'm sure in 2008 he was totally clean. Riiiiight.

Menchov was actually in first place heading up the Alpe to victory for maybe a second or two. He alone had matched Sastre's attack at the bottom of the climb, and lasted a couple seconds. Well, maybe that's not true, at most he was slightly ahead of Sastre as the Spaniard coiled for his big blow. And even then a hopeless Jerome Pineau was marginally up the road. But Menchov alone smelled trouble when Sastre moved, and alone he tried to match him. But to no avail. Another two minutes later Menchov was off the back, but he eventually regained his wits and finished with the Evans group.

7. I see you there, Bernhard Kohl.

Ah, the chimney sweep. Kohl was one of several warm, fuzzy stories that (as usual) went horribly wrong at the 2008 Tour. The Gerolsteiner climber was coming into his physical peak and a 31st-place finish at the Tour the year before. So when he took off in 2008 and seized hold of the mountains jersey as the race entered the Alps, it was a revelation. Kohl actually finished an outstanding fourth on the Hautacam stage of the Pyrenées, and kept on rolling through the Alps. I remember feeling relieved that he had taken the venerable maillot-a-pois from the likes of Sebastian Lang and Thomas Voeckler, and rode it to actual climbing success. [That classification was in deep disrepair back then.] On the Alpe, Kohl would finish with the Evans group, but not before launching several probing attacks, and doing his part to disrupt the pace and allow Sastre to win. Kohl moved into third on the day, which he maintained to Paris, Austria's best-ever result matching Adolf Christian in 1957.

Of course, by October he'd been exposed as a fraud and entered training to become a chimney sweep, with at least a two-year vacation from cycling looming. He had some company by then too. Another revelation, not shown here, was Ricardo Ricco, the Italian sprint-climber who had won two stages by then, but had been busted for CERA in a test taken on stage 4 and announced on July 17, after days of rumors. Ricco was effectively done as a cyclist from then on.

Another story I don't know what to do with is that of Kim Kirchen, the third Luxembourger to impact this strange Tour. Kirchen, riding for HTC, won stage 4 and rode well enough in the mid-mountain stages to take over the maillot jaune for four stage, before dropping back in the Pyrenées. Never regarded as an overall winner threat, Kirchen hung on through the high mountains for seventh overall in Paris, a valiant effort beyond his palmares. Well, maybe not, he was also seventh in 2007, another wide-open affair. But he would never be a high-alpine winner. A heart attack scuttled his career in 2010. When young cyclists have heart attacks... well...

Finally, there's Stefan Schumacher, winner of both of the 2008 Tour time trials. He had been parrying with the testers since the 2007 worlds where he took bronze on home soil in the ITT (and then crashed his car drunkenly into a fence in the middle of the night, looking for his missing girlfriend). The testers got him for good in October, 2008, and took his Tour wins down with him.

8. I see you there, Cadel Evans.

Evans was the presumptive favorite coming in, a bulldog of a rider whose high-alpine climbing wasn't exceptional but who did just about everything else well, particularly in the Race of Truth. That plus two long ITTs plus Contador's exclusion made him the man to beat in 2008.

The 2007 Tour, which deserves its own photographic treatment, saw Evans come from the T-Moblivion that engulfed his career after his 2002 Giro breakout all the way to virtual leadership in the final ITT, before succumbing to Contador by 23 seconds, one of the closest results in history. Riding for Silence-Lotto, Evans would be known by the end of the 2008 race as a man on an island, and I don't mean his home continent. I mean his team. Taking second is hard enough, but knowing how little help you had was one of those things that would bedevil Evans and his supporters for another couple years. In 2007 his top lieutenant was Chris Horner, who would finish 15th, plus some sprinters and generally useful Belgian guys. In '08, his most painful loss, that team lost even Horner, featuring only Mario Aerts, Yaroslav Popovych, and some flatland guys. By the next season Jurgen Van Den Broeck arrived, and even then he only drew support away from Evans as the Belgian Climbing Sensation of the moment. Finally Evans left for BMC in 2010, took a year to put it all together, and got his just desserts in 2011.

Ascending the Alpe, it was clear everyone was against him, but it was also clear that they acted thusly because they knew he would eat all their lunches in the forthcoming time trial. Menchov and Sanchez were OK against the watch but not better than Evans -- at anything, really. Christian Vande Velde, a fine cronoman, was hanging around but not likely to threaten Cadel on the climb. Kohl and the Schlecks were nonentities against the watch. Sastre? He could limit his losses in the time trial, but only if he had enough cushion.

Sometimes I wondered, back then, whether it really mattered that Evans was isolated. Evans tended to do his own pace regardless of where his rivals were, so wouldn't he make it up the Alpe in about the same time no matter what? Maybe, but riders always swear up and down that either pacing help or moral support is worth a lot, and Evans had none of the above. And so he came in second.

But there's one rider missing... Oh yeah:

Sastre numbered

Photo by Joel Saget, AFP/Getty

9. Now I see you, Carlos Sastre!

Above I referred to Sastre as "plan C" but that's not really accurate. Andy was never a plan A, B or C, and if I searched out the 2008 previews I'm sure Sastre, finishing third at the previous two Tours, would have been higher than Frank. Not a strong favorite but CSC's best hope in this epic battle of team versus individual.

How likely was Sastre's winning ascent of the Alpe? He was lying 49 seconds down, 41 behind Evans, and needed to not only wipe out that time but another maybe two minutes if he was to survive the time trial in yellow. Sastre needed to go long, as they say in American football. He needed the Hail Mary. Sastre rode in an era where the Alpe featured pretty prominently, included in the 2001, 03, 04 and 06 Tours previously. In those years he never finished better than ninth on the Alpe, hardly evidence that he owned the thing. And in finishing ninth in '06, he lost 2.23 to Frank. So how was he the guy to win here?

In short, he had the ride of his life. Carlos put 2.15 into Evans for a lead of 1.34, and he would only concede 29 seconds in the final ITT. Sastre's ascent of 39.31 is the 17th-fastest Alpe climb in a Tour de France in history. Moreover, 15 of the faster ones were by guys later found to have doped at some point (and by inference, in association with their day on the Alpe). And a sixteenth is Miguel Indurain, the one guy nobody wants to discuss. It's possible that Sastre owns the fastest legitimate climb in the Alpe's glorious history. It's also possible that we should stop talking about it before we start to fret. So I'll shut up and let you watch.