Beyond the Peloton

July 25, 2010 11:20 PM

One More Podium for Armstrong

Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, is indeed over. But not before winning one more time in the Tour de France.

Armstrong's 2010 Tour appearance isn't a complete waste, as his new RadioShack team won the team competition. During Lance's reign as a seven-time Tour winner, his team never won the team competition. But now his team has won two in a row, with Astana also finishing first last year.

lance.pngEven with that, Armstrong's final Tour certainly has been filled with more angst and disappointment than triumph. He had mechanical problems and crashed several times early in the Tour and was never a factor after the first week. And thanks to Floyd Landis, he has also had to spend the entire Tour talking about the ongoing/upcoming federal probe into whether he had doped while riding for U.S. Postal in the early 2000s.

In retrospect, does Armstrong regret making this comeback? After all, by his being an active cyclist and constantly in the news, he gave Landis a target to unleash his accusations that prompted the feds' inquiry. Had he stayed retired after 2005, maybe Landis would've gone away quietly. Now these investigations threaten to forever tarnish his legacy.

But after having made a successful comeback last year, it was nearly impossible for Armstrong not to ride this year. His third-place finish in last year's Tour was phenomenal, considering he was coming off a three-year retirement. It also may be credibly argued that he could've done better without being on the same team as Alberto Contador. And his presence led to the founding of the new Team RadioShack, whose express purpose for this year was to help Lance win one more Tour.

The team victory obviously is a bit hollow for Armstrong, though it did prove one last hurrah for the golden generation of American cycling. Chris Horner had a brilliant Tour, leading RadioShack with a 10th-place finish. Levi Leipheimer finished 13th and Armstrong 23rd. Adding Germany's Andreas Kloden in 14th place, it gave Team RadioShack four riders in the top 23, one more than Caisse d'Epargne, their chief competition.

After his last appearance on the Champs Elysees as a cyclist, Armstrong heads into retirement with a new battle ahead. Judging by Lance's history, he'll have no regrets about coming back. He's always been manically driven to meet challenges head on, and the federal probe is just a new project to be dealt with. He's beaten cancer, which probably afforded him a sense of invincibility, and he must feel certain that he can beat this, too, with his reputation and legacy in tact.

While Armstrong is over, the Tour will go on. We're putting our bikes away for now, and will be back next July.

97th Tour de France Recap

GC: Alberto Contador. His 39-second victory is the fourth-closest in Tour history (but only the second-closest for him as he beat Cadel Evans by only 23 seconds in 2007). Andy Schleck and Denis Menchov placed second and third, respectively.

Sprint: Alessandro Petacchi. He edged Mark Cavendish by 11 points even though Cavendish won five stages, including the last sprint on the Champs Elysees.

Mountains: Anthony Charteau. He beat fellow Frenchman Christophe Moreau by 15 points.

Young Rider: Andy Schleck. It was not even close. But after winning three white jerseys in a row, Schleck will not be eligible for this competition next year.

Team: Team RadioShack. They came out ahead of Caisse d'Epargne by 9:15.
July 24, 2010 1:40 PM

Did Contador Steal This Tour?

ap_Alberto_Contador_tour_de_france_eng24jul10.jpgAbout those 39 seconds ...

That was exactly the amount of time Alberto Contador gained on Andy Schleck during Stage 15's "chaingate." After beating Schleck by only 31 seconds in Saturday's time trial - not the 1-2 minutes most had expected - that's how much Contador is leading the Tour by, and most likely how much he'll win this Tour by.

So what would have happened if Contador did the sporting thing and not attacked while Schleck had his chain troubles? Presumably they'd finished the stage with the same time and Schleck would've gone last in the time trial, 31 seconds ahead instead of 8 seconds behind.

Maybe with the maillot jaune on him, Schleck would've gone even faster and successfully defended it? Maybe Contador would've ridden harder and either really gained a separation or bonked in the finishing stretches? And if you want to play turn back the clock, would Contador have gone on the attack on the second pass of Tourmalet instead of playing defense?

Lots of what ifs. And without a doubt, Saturday's time trial would've been even more exciting had those 39 seconds not changed hands.

But all the second guessing isn't going to change this fact: Contador has won this Tour - and he deserves it.

We stand by our original observation that Contador's move was within bounds of fair play. As competitors, you play to win. Contador didn't cheat or break any rules. Sure, it would've been more sportsmanlike to have not taken advantage of the situation. But Contador is busy building his legend, and he'll dispense with niceties.

There's nothing wrong with that.

He was equally ruthless in imposing his will in an untenable situation last year, when it's obvious his team and even his manager did not have his back. Contador realized there was a danger that Lance Armstrong could steal the Tour from him and he went on the offensive and made it a fait accompli, despite the divided loyalty on his team.

El Pistolero obviously took Knute Rockne to heart: "Show me a good and gracious loser and I'll show you a failure." Not winning the Tour isn't something Contador would even contemplate. He's now on the verge of winning his fifth grand tour, in five attempts. He is already nearly the equal of Armstrong and Miguel Indurain, in terms of accomplishments. If he keeps this up, in a couple of years, only Eddy Merckx will be ahead of him.

Contador won't be able to soft-pedal to cycling's Mt. Olympus, though. Schleck will be a formidable foe for years to come. In fact, judging by his better-than-expected time trial Saturday, he may very well rip the yellow jersey off Contador next year.

Schleck is already at least Contador's equal in the mountains. If he can make the necessary improvement as a time trialist, he will be a multiple Tour winner. He will need to have a stronger team around him, however, as it's clear the loss of his brother Frank in Stage 3 due to a broken collarbone utterly crippled Saxo Bank's ability to assist Andy in the mountains.

For now, Schleck will have to settle for the white jersey for the third year in a row, tying him with Jan Ullrich. Schleck certainly would not like to have a role model in Ullrich, a supremely talented rider who made a career out of finishing second. Schleck already has two seconds now, and as we quote another racing legend: "Second place is just the first loser."

Dale Earnhardt would have slowed down for nobody's fallen chain.

Stage 20 (Longjumeau to Paris)

In the Tour's customary ceremonial ride to Paris, we'll see clicking of champagne glasses and a few pranks along the way, all in good fun to celebrate the end of another grueling ride around France. All the competition is over except for the green jersey and the final sprint on the Champs Elysees.

Prediction: Mark Cavendish. After crashing in Stage 1, he has fully recovered to win four stages, including a ridiculously easy victory in Stage 18 with absolutely no lead-out help. This isn't even going to be close. The more intriguing matchup is the one between Alessandro Petacchi and Thor Hushovd for the green jersey. Petacchi leads by 10 points and is a better sprinter, so he should be able to hang on. Hushovd can only rue the no-race decision in Stage 2 that would turn out to cost him dearly.

July 23, 2010 10:04 AM

Why Jay Mariotti Is an Idiot

We're certain we're not breaking any new ground here. The Fanhouse vuvuzela has made a career out of making a derriere of himself and his detractors are legion. But if you think he knows next to nothing about baseball, he knows even less about cycling.

Jay Mariotti's latest gem is this hit piece on Lance Armstrong. In it, he utterly exposed himself as one of those sportswriting glitterati who couldn't tell a peloton from a papillion as we have alluded to in the past.

jay.jpgLet's set the record straight: We're not Armstrong cultists, far from it. Has Lance doped, ever, in his career? Perhaps. Cycling is a sport that's so thoroughly disgraced over the past two decades, it's hard to imagine any one individual has stayed clean while everyone else around him cheated. During Armstrong's seven Tour wins, seven of his eight podium mates were either banned for doping or have been accused of doping by authorities.

At the same time, though, we don't have a conviction, i.e. a positive test against Armstrong. Not yet anyway. Perhaps something will come of this probe by the feds. Perhaps not. And as we have stated previously, Armstrong will defend himself vigorously; and Jeff Novitzky, whose notoriety grew partly from his questionable methods, will have a fight on his hands.

Mariotti, whose grasp of the legal system is less firm than his on cycling (how low can you go?), declared that Armstrong is doomed merely because the feds have decided to start a probe. American jurisprudence functions exactly the opposite of hot-air public opinion (or sports columnists), where presumption of innocence puts the burden of proof on the prosecution. But we digress. Since this is a cycling blog, we'll just rip his declarations apart, spoke by spoke.

- "It's disturbing enough to see him crash his bike regularly, go limp on the mountain climbs that used to be his signature and fail to win even one stage of what he swears -- and we hope -- will be his final Tour."

Really, Jay? You know who else is having a terrible Tour because so far he's failed to win a single stage? Alberto Contador. Armstrong was beset by crashes and mechanical failures in this year's Tour, true, a combination of bad luck, old age and some rust. But is he a pathetic has-been? Hardly. Armstrong finished second in the Tour de Suisse, the last warm-up race before the Tour de France, with many of the same riders in the field. But wait, Mariotti probably didn't know there are other bike races since they're never on SportsCenter.

- "His Tour return was uplifting a year ago, but it fell flat when he fought with teammate Alberto Contador, then lost to him."

By consensus, most people who know cycling (that automatically excludes Mariotti) consider Armstrong's 2009 performance legendary. He was coming off a three-year absence. At the age of 37. On several occasions couldn't go full out because he was obligated to hold back when teammate Contador attacked. In one of the most savage races, with the penultimate stage held on dastardly Mont Ventoux. And he finished third, behind the two guys who are once again leading this year's Tour. But Mariotti doesn't appreciate context, just cheap, ignorant shots.

- "For the first time, Armstrong is acknowledging that some of his teammates might be culpable."

Again, did Jay just wake up this morning and realize there's doping in the peloton? Armstrong has had many teammates caught and banned from cycling throughout his career. Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton and Frankie Andreu, just to name three. This statement is so preposterous that we'll just let the ignorance stand on its own.

- "Suddenly, the fact he never has tested positive for PEDs doesn't seem to matter to some. Like so many baseball players, football players, track athletes and fellow cyclists, the instinct is to view him as guilty until proven innocent."

Exhibit A: Jay Mariotti.

- "It would be a wonderful story for humankind if, somehow, he turns out to be innocent and all of his anti-cancer work holds up in the wash. But I'm highly doubtful. And if you are a savvy American, your antenna are as high as mine today."

Please don't pat yourself on the back. Besides, Armstrong has been dogged by doping allegations throughout his entire career. Ever heard of L.A. Confidential? As much as his work with cancer research, this is what Armstrong has been doing in the past decade: defending his reputation. People who have always doubted Armstrong will continue to do so no matter what happens in court. Those who follow him with complete devotion, probably won't be swayed, either, one way or the other.

Do us a favor, Jay. Please go to the federal court house when the proceedings are going on and actually practice some journalism by talking to those involved. Novitzky, Landis, maybe even Armstrong himself. Yeah, we know, that's a radical concept. Ozzie Guillen is still waiting for you to show up in his clubhouse.

Stage 19 Preview (Bordeaux to Pauillac)

This is the only individual time trial in this year's Tour, and it will decide the winner and podium finishers. The 52 km course is long and flat, so it will give a huge edge to the riders who are already the strongest in this discipline.

Prediction: Alberto Contador. He has not won a stage this year and this will be his chance to break the ice. He won the second individual time trial last year, besting his chief rival Andy Schleck by 1 minute and 45 seconds in a 40.5 km course. He took 41 seconds from Schleck in last year's first time trial (39 km) and 42 seconds in this year's 8.9 km Prologue. If all goes according to form, Contador should gain at least one minute on Schleck, cushioning his now tenuous 8-second lead. The third-place battle will come down to the wire, as Sammy Sanchez, who won the Beijing Olympics road race, leads Denis Menchov by 21 seconds. The two finished in a dead heat in the Prologue.
July 22, 2010 9:29 AM

Contador's Fashionable Victory

It's not often when one can win - and win big - by finishing second. But that's exactly what Alberto Contador managed to accomplish in Thursday's Stage 17.

Contador didn't win the stage - Andy Schleck nicked him at the finish line. But it's that very act that made him the big winner. And oh, by the way, he has also just about wrapped up his third Tour de France victory in four years.

103035394-430x296.jpgAs expected, the epic Stage 17 up the rugged western side of the Col du Tourmalet turned into a personal battle between the Tour's two best riders (two years running). Through fog and mist, Schleck and Contador obliterated the field. They left the peloton behind at the bottom of the Tourmalet and then picked off the breakaway pack one by one.

Schleck rode hard and set the pace, but he never came close to shake Contador. The defending champ made one attack, but Schleck caught up quickly without much difficulty. After that, the duo took a much deserved victory lap, with Contador not even contesting the finish, allowing Schleck his moment of glory.

That, more than his words of contrition, repaired Contador's reputation, which was tarnished by his questionable attack when Schleck's chain came off during Stage 15. Unlike Contador-Armstrong, Contador-Schleck is a friendly rivalry, and it was evident Contador was shaken by Schleck's angry words after that stage and the public's overwhelmingly negative reaction.

In retrospect, Contador really didn't need to gain those 39 seconds with that attack. He could've burnished his legacy by insisting to the other riders to slow down and allow Schleck to catch up. But at the time, Contador himself was compromised by doubt, and his ill-considered decision gave him the maillot jaune, but not the honor the jersey customarily bestows upon the wearer.

Contador perhaps regained that on Thursday. He not only answered Schleck's every challenge, he also proved himself a worthy sportsman. All that's left for him is locking up the victory in Saturday's individual time trial and let his legend grow.

Stage 18 Preview (Salies-de-Bearn to Bordeaux)

At long last, the sprinters get to come out to play, after spending a brutal week in the mountains. The completely flat stage will be suited for a great sprint finish. With only this and the final stage to contest for the sprint, no breakaway will be allowed to succeed. The GC riders will mostly sit back and stay away from trouble.

Prediction: Mark Cavendish. No one will be happier to see the flat roads than the Manx Missile. He doesn't have his lead-out man anymore, but he's got enough motor (human edition) to out-sprint anybody. Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi will be looking out for each other in the tight race for the green jersey.
July 20, 2010 4:55 PM

End of an Era for U.S. Cycling

Lance Armstrong gave it a shot. He rode gallantly for nearly 200 km, in search of his 26th and final stage win in the Tour de France, only to be beaten in the final sprint.

With that, it's curtains for U.S. cycling for this year's race, and maybe for sometime to come. Except the scandal-plagued 2008 Tour in which the best U.S. riders were kept out, an American has mounted the final podium in every Tour since 1998. But that won't happen this year. No American will win a stage in this year, either.

Armstrong will retire (for real this time) by the end of this weekend. Levi Leipheimer, the best U.S. rider in the GC, will finish somewhere in the top 10, but at 36, his best days are behind him. Christian Vande Velde crashed out early in this year's Tour and he'll be 35 next year. George Hincapie is 37. Chris Horner, 38. And it'll be easier to find Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton in a courtroom than in a bike race.

America's best hope to win a stage this year was Tyler Farrar. But for the second year in a row, he couldn't get over the hump (one named Mark Cavendish). Farrar, who abandoned after a wrist injury became too much, will be back in the Tour to contend for sprint stages, but he's not a threat for the maillot jaune.

The golden generation of American cycling, one that grew up inspired by Greg LeMond's breakthrough, is heading to the retirement home. Those guys don't have anyone to hand off the baton to.

LL.pngSadder still, U.S. cycling is at war with itself. Team HTC-Columbia and Team Garmin are already at each others' throats because of the Cavendish-Farrar rivalry, and because last year Garmin denied Hincapie a rare chance at a yellow jersey (when Hincapie was riding for Columbia). But that's like a border skirmish between a couple of banana republics compared to the LeMond-Lance all-out war.

That war, a Cold War since its low-temperature beginning in 2001, is about to go thermonuclear. LeMond for years has insinuated that Armstrong had doped and Armstrong has done his best to dismiss LeMond as a bitter ol' has-been. But because of Landis' recent tell-all, LeMond will get (and has gladly accepted) a chance to testify against Lance in front of a federal grand jury.

Armstrong has hit back, now with his own insinuation that LeMond was on something when he nipped Laurent Fignon by 8 seconds on the Champs Elysees in what's still the most thrilling Tour finish of all time. "We will have the opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989, I hope," said Armstrong.

While these legends squabble, probably in front of prosecutors and jurors who can't tell a peloton from a papillon, U.S. cycling continues to rot. For all of Armstrong's contribution to cancer research and cycling, he hasn't quite inspired a new generation of American kids who would get off their Xboxes and get on their bikes.
After his 38-year-old legs failed to deliver him to the finish line first in Tuesday's final sprint, Lance knew that was it.

"Lance Armstrong is over in about 4-5 days," he said.

And maybe the American era in cycling, too?

Stage 17 Preview (Pau to Col du Tourmalet)

The epic final mountain stage should settle things. Three climbs, culminating in the Tour's first finishing climb up the western side of the Col du Tourmalet, will leave lots of riders in the peloton completely beaten and exhausted. The first two climbs are no picnic, either; each a Cat. 1 ascent at more than 7.5% gradient.

Prediction: Andy Schleck. This stage will not be yielded to some Frenchman on a breakaway. Instead, it will crown the strongest man in this year's Tour, and that would be Schleck, without question. The real question is, will he build a big enough lead to withstand Alberto Contador's assault in the individual time trial. To achieve that, Schleck will need to drop Contador by at least two minutes. The battle for third place will rage on as well. Sammy Sanchez and Denis Menchov will have their own death match for the final podium place, with Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Broeck having a faint chance to sneak by both of them. 
July 19, 2010 12:27 PM

Fair Play or Unsporting?

"My stomach is full of anger right now. I will take my revenge."

With that, Andy Schleck promised the next two stages in the Pyrenees will be riveting drama, with bad blood rising with each climb, culminating in Thursday's death match up the Col du Tourmalet.

96d180c6-f195-48b0-8427-ad83f7b5d050_part6.jpgSchleck had just launched an attack up the HC Port de Bales in Monday's Stage 15 as Contador scrambled to respond. But just as quickly, Schleck's chain came off his bike. As he slowed to fix the problem, Contador zoomed past him on his left and a few others followed. Schleck regained some of the lost time with a spectacular effort on the rest of the climb, but lost it all - and then some - on the descent into the finish.

The result left Schleck fuming, and without the yellow jersey that he's worn for the past six days. Contador now leads by 8 seconds, as he was given the maillot jaune to a smattering of boos and jeers.

The reaction from the peloton was mixed. But the consensus seems to be that Contador had the right to do what he did, but he has lost some honor and respect - from both the riders and fans - for his tactics.

We side with Contador in that a mechanical failure is part of racing. In any motor sport, a mechanical failure can easily decide the outcome of a race. Cycling's unwritten rule on not attacking during a crash doesn't quite apply here. We do take issue with Contador's disingenuous claim that he had already launched his attack before Schleck's chain came undone, that was patently untrue.

But Monday's incident also was a revelation. Contador is scared of Schleck. Scared to death, in fact. So far in this Tour, Schleck has looked the better man in all the climbing stages but one (Stage 12). Schleck has been far more assertive and put Contador on the defensive repeatedly. Contador's reaction Monday was an admission that he doubts he could continue to keep up with Schleck and therefore he needed to take every advantage he could, fair or not.

There is little question Schleck will attack again, probably as soon as Tuesday's first pass through the Col du Tourmalet. Even though the setup of the Stage, with a 60-km descending finish, isn't suited for an attack, Schleck just might do it to send a message.

He would be better served, however, to save his righteous anger for Thursday, when the Tour really will be decided on the second pass up the Tourmalet, up the nasty and untamed western side. In short, a ride from hell.

Schleck has ridden an amazing Tour, especially considering that he's without his most trusted lieutenant, brother Frank, and constantly isolated in the mountains. So far the only thing that's stopped him was his bike chain. If he plays it smart, he should wait to hit Contador until the final climb on Thursday and take perhaps three or four minutes off the Spaniard.

Then he'll have won, fair and square.

Stage 16 Preview (Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau)

This will be the hardest day in the saddle in this year's Tour. There are four climbs of either HC or Cat. 1, with the toughest being the third, the first pass through Tourmalet. The stage actually isn't set up for a major selection among the GC contenders as the final climb up the Col d'Aubisque, though very long at 30 km, isn't very steep. And it finishes on a long descend into Pau, allowing anybody who have lost time to catch up.

Prediction: Lance Armstrong. He might not get it done, but this will be his last shot to win a stage in his final Tour. With him so far down in the standings (40 minutes behind Contador), he will be allowed to break away, then it'll be a matter of whether he can outsprint whomever he's with at the finish. Schleck and Contador will fight to a draw, waiting for the ultimate denouement in Stage 17.
July 17, 2010 11:42 AM

Four Days (of Pain) to Glory

After a prologue and 13 stages, the Tour de France enters its piece de resistance. This year, it's four stages of pure climbing hell in five days in the Pyrenees. At the end of this savage test, there will be no doubt who deserves to wear the maillot jaune.

Barring an accident or illness, the race will be won by either Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck. They have clearly separated from the pack and they will be duking it out in the next four stages. There will be more desperation on Schleck's part, even though he has a 31-second lead. He knows he must have at least a 2-minute, maybe a 3-minute, lead after the Pyrenees to have a chance to keep the yellow jersey.

Can Schleck do it? We would say no. They're both very aggressive riders and both will seek to attack first to put the other on the defensive. Schleck might put Contador temporarily in trouble, but it'll require a herculean effort to gain two minutes on the indefatigable Spaniard.

Let's take a look at those four stages and see who has the edge:

Stage 14 (Revel to Ax 3 Domaines)

This stage will unfurl in a pretty benign fashion before reaching a crescendo with the final two climbs. The first, up the HC Port de Pailheres is longer and maybe a bit harder, but the selection will come at the final climb, 7.8 km up Ax 3 Domaines on an 8.2% gradient.

Advantage: Schleck. The climbs are not terribly savage until the end and Schleck's team is fresh. It sets up well for Saxo Bank to dictate the pace and for Schleck to launch the first attack. Prediction: Schleck wins this stage with Contador close behind.

Stage 15 (Pamiers to Bagneres-de-Luchon)

This may be the easiest of the four stages, with three moderate climbs before the final climb up HC Port de Bales. And it concludes on a 20-km very technical descent to the finish. The route passes a white marble memorial of Fabio Casartelli, who died on a descent of Col de Portet d"Aspet during the 1995 Tour. His Motorola teammate won Stage 18 three days later and paid tribute to his fallen comrade. It was Lance Armstrong's last Tour stage win before he was stricken with cancer.

Advantage: Neutral. Any time gained on the attacks here may be offset on the descent so it doesn't set up well for an attack. Look for a breakaway climber to succeed here as the main GC contenders will try to use this stage to conserve some energy. Prediction: A breakaway succeeds as Schleck and Contador fight to another draw.

Stage 16 (Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau)

Col_du_Tourmalet.jpgThis will be the hardest stage in this year's Tour, with four climbs rated either HC or Cat. 1, including the first pass through Col du Tourmalet. The final climb is not terribly steep, but it's long, at nearly 30 km, up Col d'Aubisque. After that, it's a 60-km downhill ride to the finish in Pau.

Advantage: Neutral. It's more of a war of attrition. With such a long, descending finish, this stage will not act as a big selection for the main contenders. A breakaway pack also may succeed here as the GC contenders will not try to reel back anybody who's not remotely close to a podium finish.

Stage 17 (Pau to Col du Tourmalet)

The Tour celebrates its 100 years in the Pyrenees with an appropriately brutal stage. It begins with two Cat. 1 climbs before the second pass through Col du Tourmalet, but this time from the more difficult western side, where no Tour stage has ever been contested before. The final climb is nearly 20 km long with an average gradient of 7.5%.

Advantage: Contador. If he's either leading or trailing close behind Schleck at this point, look for a tactical ride by Contador early on before launching a final attack that would serve as the coup de grace. Though Contador knows he's better than Schleck in the time trial, he'd rather not take any chances there and allow Schleck to go into the penultimate stage with the maillot jaune.
July 16, 2010 12:13 PM

Contador Sends a Message

Alberto Contador finished second in Stage 12, but he was the winner in a stage as tension-riven as advertised.

Up the savage final climb at over 10% gradient, the GC leaders seemed content to let Alexandre Vinokuorov (our pick to win the stage) to get away with his breakaway. Then Katusha's Joaquin Rodriguez decided to launch an attack, and this is when Contador spotted a weakness.

t1larg.jpgThe defending champ took off after Rodriguez, and, as he noticed that Andy Schleck couldn't keep up with the acceleration, Contador stepped up the pace. The duo soon caught up with Vino, Contador's teammate, and blew right by him. Schleck did well to recover and limit the loss to 10 seconds.

Contador, in fact, could've won by more if he didn't momentarily get caught up in a cat-and-mouse game with Rodriguez trying to win the stage. But what's more important to Contador is the psychological edge he gained on Schleck. In effect, "I can drop you."

Schleck had looked the better climber so far on the Tour, dropping Contador to win Stage 8 and gaining 10 seconds. Contador now has those 10 seconds back and a clear advantage in the time trial in his pocket, as the four mountain stages in the Pyrenees loom.

Behind the Contador-Schleck title chase, the race for the final podium spot also promises to be intriguing and wide open. Anyone currently in the top 20 as of the standings today all still have a chance. American Levi Leipheimer, who did well to finish 17 seconds behind Contador, is best positioned if he can keep up in the Pyrenees. He's by far the best time trialist among the group racing for third, and he's currently sixth, 1:21 behind Spain's Sammy Sanchez, who's currently in third.

Stage 13 Preview (Rodez to Revel)

The last day before four days in the Pyrenees is no picnic, either. There are five climbs, none over Cat. 3, but unappetizing enough that the sprinters probably will not be too inclined to chase back a breakaway. The GC leaders will also be content to sit back to let somebody far down the standings to grab some glory.

Prediction: Thor Hushovd. It really could be anybody because it's almost certain that a breakaway will succeed. But look out for the sneaky Hushovd. He gained 10 points and took back the green jersey by going out early and grabbing two intermediate sprints in Stage 12. For the GC contenders, it will be a day to save their energy before the savage days in the mountains. Schleck's yellow will be safe for one more day.
July 16, 2010 7:41 AM

Mark Renshaw Loses His Head

Mark Cavendish wins his third stage of this Tour with another fantastic sprint finish. He now has 13 career stage wins, inching toward a place in the top 10 all-time.
But it was his teammate who really made news during Stage 11. His wing man, Mark Renshaw, a great sprinter himself and probably the best lead-out man in the business, got thrown out of the Tour. He committed two outrageous fouls in the final 500 km and his DQ is wholly deserved.

Watch the video here, pay particular attention at the 1:40 mark, where overhead shots provided all the evidence race officials needed to see:

Renshaw's most egregious foul actually was not the three headbutts he dished out to Julian Dean. It was his clear interference on Tyler Farrar, riding far off line and nearly pushing Farrar into the barrier on the left. It's hard to say if Farrar would've chased down Cavendish in a fair sprint, but he never had the chance for that. Farrar clearly had to slow down and then get around a slowing Dean to re-accelerate. And of course by then, Cavendish was long gone.

renshaw.jpgIt was really perplexing how Renshaw just lost all his marbles and decided to channel his inner Zinedine Zidane (but we are in France, after all). He doesn't have a reputation as a dirty rider and Cavendish probably could've won this stage anyway without his extracurriculars.

His expulsion is shocking, but hardly unjust. The Tour had been lenient with Spain's Carlos Barredo and Portugal's Rui Costa after their dustup at the end of Stage 6, fining them each 400 Swiss francs ($435) but allowing them to stay in the Tour. But in this case, the fouls had a direct impact on the race itself, and the referees decided to crack down.

Renshaw's ouster will hurt Cavendish in the remaining two or three sprint stages that he has a chance to win. His team is already weakened by George Hincapie's defection after last season, and now, without his launch pad, the Manx Missile might not be so explosive the rest of the Tour.

Stage 12 Preview (Bourg de Peage to Mende)

This won't be a day for the sprinters, with the route coursing through the Massif Central. It will be a day of extreme paranoia by the GC leaders, because it's just the kind of stage a sneak attack may materialize and big chunks of minutes can be lost suddenly and easily. The course ends on a Cat. 2 climb - but don't be fooled, the 3.1 km ride will be as brutal as any in this year's race because it's on a killer 10.1% gradient.

Prediction: Alexandre Vinokourov. He's been itching to win a stage in his first time back in the Tour after a two-year ban. But if he's allowed to win the stage, it won't be by much, as the leaders still view him as a threat. Andy Schleck will keep his yellow by watching Alberto Contador very carefully. He'll let Vino go unless the gap gets out of hand.
July 14, 2010 10:33 AM

Happy Birthday, France!

On this day 221 years ago, the Bastille prison was stormed and a French Republic was born. The French still know how to buck against authority all these years later, just ask Raymond Domenech.

41367_1578193535_9195_n.jpgFor me, it was 12 years ago that I had the pleasure of spending a summer in Paris, covering the World Cup (say hello to Footix) and traveling the country. I caught my first Tour in person that year, one that was more soap opera than race, with cops hounding teams for doping everywhere on the road and catching them. Le Tour de Dopage, as it became known, in many ways destroyed cycling's image, from which it has not recovered.

It was the last Tour before the age of Lance. During that Tour, Armstrong was not on anyone's radar as a Tour contender. He had been to four Tours and abandoned in three of them. Then he was on his deathbed fighting testicular cancer. Not many people thought he'd live, let along come back and win seven Tours in a row.

Coincidentally (or maybe not so), it was the beginning of a long decline in French cycling. In 1997, Richard Virenque finished second to Jan Ullrich. Since then, no French rider has mounted the final podium and only two has managed to finish fourth in the ensuing 12 Tours. Most of them have been reduced to support riders or leaders on also-ran teams these days.

Today, two French riders went for the obligatory breakaway, trying to win glory for France on Bastille Day. Of course they failed miserably, unable to finish in the top three. A rider from Team Radio Shack - not Armstrong, not Levi Leipheimer, not Andreas Kloden - carried the day. Portugal's Sergio Paulinho nipped Vasil Kiryienka in the closest finish of this year's Tour.

It's been rough to be a French sports fan. The once vaunted national soccer team has become a global joke. France has been sliding in the medal standings in every Olympic Games since 1996, barely placing 10th in Beijing. And their grandest annual sporting spectacle has been utterly dominated by Americans and Spaniards, who have won 20 of the 24 Tours since Bernard Hinault last won for France in 1985.

But give the French this: They're still great sports. They flock to the Tour each year, support it and cheer the riders on, no matter the weather or who's winning. And they'll always have Paris.

Joyeux anniversaire, France!

Stage 11 Preview (Sisteron to Bourg-les-Valence)

After surviving four days of climbing, the sprinters will come out to play again in the next three days. Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Petacchi will fight for the green jersey while Mark Cavendish, whose mishaps in the early stages left him too far behind, will be out to win as many stages as he can. After an early Cat. 3 climb, the stage points downhill all the way to the finish, should be ideal for a furious sprint finish.

Prediction: Mark Cavendish. He's back to being his bad self. In Stage 10, he out sprinted both Hushovd and Petacchi to the line even without the help of a lead out. Andy Schleck will keep his eye on Alberto Contador and hang on to his yellow jersey.

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