Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Away in the Hollow Ships

On the final rest day of this year's Tour de France, a moment's reflection on the 97th running of perhaps the world's best known bicycle race.

1. This year's Tour seems to be more of a grinding endurance test than ever. The cobblestones didn't help. The weather didn't help. The crashes didn't help. After 16 days of racing there are five riders within eight minutes of each other, but many of the pre-race favorites; Armstrong, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, are far down and many minutes out of contention.2. I think we can stop wondering whether if Contador is a one- or two-year wonder, or a great champion in the Hinault and Indurain mold. If he can win this year, and not be brought low by injury or drug use I think he has established himself as a potential successor to the greats of the sport.

That said, I can't help but think less of the man for his attack on the summit of the Port de Balès. If sport is about anything it must be about the measure of the sportsman or sportswoman. The play should be fair; that's why cheating, whether it's doping or foul tackling or buying umpires is so poorly thought of. If sport is to matter anything, it is about testing one person against another to see who can go faster, higher, stronger, further. Regardless of the course of events that day, Contador lost his chance to prove that he would have beaten Schleck fairly. That isn't his job; his job is to win the Tour. But my job as a fan of the sport is to choose who I believe best honors the sport.3. I have talked a lot about this before, and there really is no point in rehashing it. The Armstrong Era of the Tour is over, and in a spectacular fashion; "Your father was no merciful man in the horror of battle.
Therefore your people are grieving for you all through their city,
Hektor, and you left for your parents mourning and sorrow
beyond words, but for me passing all others is left the bitterness
and the pain..."

4. I find that perhaps the saddest part of the Fall of Hektor is that his Patroclus, Levi Leipheimer, inherited a team in disarray. Johann Bruyneel's name has been mentioned when the great organizers and coaches in the sport are mentioned. But this year has to make one wonder; was Bruyneel a great tactician or merely the trained bear for great riders, Armstrong and Contador? He seemed unable, once Armstrong fell, to find a way to get his backup GC contender, Leipheimer, into position to threaten the podium in Paris. Leipheimer seems destined to find a place in the Hall of Near-Fame, a position in the pantheon of the Demi-Gods of Cycling.5. And, again, this year is a tale of woe for Cadel Evans. The Australian rider had suffered from atrocious team support in last year's Tour, finishing 29th, after three years where Silence-Lotto provided barely enough enough help to get him on or near the podium. But the truth is that the man had to do most of the hard work himself. His new BMC Team has done no better for him than Lotto did. But, let's face it, the man cracked on the Col de la Madeleine in Stage 9. He has not ridden like a champion this year. But it's sad to see him fall so far, and land so hard...

As always, the Tour is a pretty good reflection of people in general, with all their hopes, and fears, their greatness and the smallness. It is pain, and fear, bravery, and weakness. It is a great spectacle, and the battle promised for the Tourmalet tomorrow should not be the least of its enticements.

Update 7/21: It is beginning to look very like another Tour victory for the man from Pinto; he paced his rival Andy Schleck all the way up the Col de Tourmalet. I think that Schleck's chance was to drop the Spaniard on the big climb today by a minute or more - he couldn't. And barring disaster I suspect this means a third climb to the top of the podium for Alberto Contador.So as always...Vive' Le Tour!


Big Daddy said...

Re:#2 There are multiple interpretations of chaingate, the more sympathetic is that Schleck initiated the attack and Contador, Menchov and Sanchez were responding and fully committed by the time his chain dropped so Contador was forced to continue since he had no guarantee that Menchov and Sanchez would also back off. Personally I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Contador, mechanicals happen and sometimes you can pause and sometimes you can't. In this case I think losing time to Menchov and Sanchez was too great a risk. Personally I don't expect the guys I'm racing to stop if I drop a chain or crash lightly, but I race at a lower level for lower stakes.
As an aside Contador reminds me of Michael Schumacher, the same robotic efficiency and bland personality.

FDChief said...

BD: I'd be more sympathetic to the "But Menchov and Sanchez were racing..." argument if the sequence of events hadn't been:

1. Schleck attacks
2. Vino attacks
3. Contador attacks
4. roughly simultaneously: Schleck loses his chain AND Menchov and Sanchez attack.

Based on the visuals I have no doubt that 1) Contador knew about the mechanical, and 2) if he had sat up Menchov and Sanchez (who were still behind him as he passed Schleck) would have sat up, too.

Again, I'm not trying to pass the Judgment of the Gods on Contador. He did what he did, he's not in the race to be some sort of Spotless Knight. But to me, now, he will have to beat Schleck by more than 40 seconds in the TT to prove to ME - just me, not anyone else - that he deserves to be in yellow on the Champs-Élysées.

As for the man himeself, I suspect you're right, but I've always had a hard time reading Contador. Part of it is his demeanor and part of it is the Spanish; it's hard to tell if he's being smart or funny or irascible when he's being filtered through the interpreters, who are usually terrible.