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Tour de France 2010 review: Ten talking points, ten random photos

In the final part of my review of the 2010 Tour de France, here are my top ten talking points from the race.

Oh, and ten random photos from the camera of the excellent Graham Watson, just because.

In no particular order:

1. Does cycling need better etiquette – or better rules?

Cycling’s complex tangle of unwritten rules and conventions came under scrutiny repeatedly during this Tour, not least the incidents on stage two (where yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara neutralised the entire peloton on the final descent and sprint) and stage 15 (when Alberto Contador attacked immediately after Andy Schleck dropped his chain).

The problem with cycling etiquette is that it is informal and does not cover every eventuality. For every example of the pack waiting for a leading contender after a crash or puncture, there is an example of a situation where they did not. And every scenario is subtly different too. There simply is no hard and fast formula for determining whether riders should or should not stop.

This means that spur-of-the-moment decisions have to be made by the riders, often towards the end of a long, hard day in the saddle, sometimes at high speed, and frequently having had a poorer glimpse of the problem than TV viewers do. Is it any surprise the riders sometimes make a ‘wrong’ decision (whatever ‘wrong’ actually is)?

Cycling writer Anthony Tan suggests the only solution is to throw out the unwritten rules, and I am inclined to agree. Supplement the existing rule book to cover as many eventualities as you can, and take the decision-making out of the hands of the riders, the last people you want to make objective decisions in situations which can determine the outcome of their races and future commercial earnings. For instance, in the event of a dangerous, slippery descent or a mechanical failure for one of the leaders, let the race director decide whether or not to initiate a ‘safety car’ period, as happens in F1, and use a combination of the various official and team cars and GPS monitoring to ensure gaps are maintained. (I’m not offering that up as the best possible solution, but it is a solution used in another sport which does not require significant technical or equipment changes.)

Sports have rules for a reason, not least of which is to govern fair play. If the riders – either consciously or unknowingly – cannot govern themselves, then it should be up to the rule-makers to help them out, rather than blame the riders and engage in the kind of hand-wringing we have seen over the past week.

The peloton on the Col du Soulor on stage 17

2. Where next for Andy Schleck?

The big question mark concerns the hot rumour that the Schleck brothers will set up their own Luxembourg-based team next season. If this turns out to be true, there must be questions about whether this squad will be strong enough to support a Tour-winning bid next year. In leaving Saxo Bank, arguably the strongest team in the peloton, they will need to build a team from scratch. Sky, with their hefty budget, have already announced they want to significantly strengthen their line-up, and RadioShack are likely to want to inject some young blood following Lance Armstrong‘s retirement to supplement the ageing trio of Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden. There will certainly be a lot of competition for good riders.

It is rumoured that Fabian Cancellara will jump ship when cycling’s ‘transfer window’ opens on September 1st, and if Kim Kirchen recovers fully from his heart problems he would be a valuable all-round member in the mould of a Tony Martin. Whoever they sign (or have already signed), first-year squads rarely hit top gear immediately, so 2011 might be something of a transitional year.

In terms of physical capability, Schleck now knows he is there or thereabouts relative to Contador, and will no doubt spend time this winter focussing on his time-trialling. While he performed above most people’s expectations on Saturday, there is still scope for improvement. To my eye, his aerodynamic profile still looks blocky and awkward. Being relatively lanky, particularly compared to Contador, means he will always punch a bigger hole in the air than the Spaniard, but all the more reason to seek further gains.

Andy Schleck struggles to keep up with Alberto Contador on the climb to Mende on stage 10

3. Prudhomme deserves credit for a great parcours

While it is certainly true that it is the riders who make the race, sometimes the race makes the riders too. The Tour’s general director Christian Prudhomme deserves much credit for designing a race route that not only celebrated 100 years of racing in the Pyrenees with four memorable stages and a nerve-jangling one-on-one duel on the foggy slopes of the Col du Tourmalet, but set the stage for three weeks of twists and turns which gave us more drama and more unpredictability than any Tour in recent memory.

We have visited Rotterdam, the hills of the Ardennes classics, the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix (and what a memorable and exciting stage that turned out to be!), an Alpine section which proved to be more arduous and dramatic than anyone could have expected, transition stages with nasty climbs at or near the end to shake up the standard break-chase-sprint routine, and of course the final week saga that was the Pyrenees and the closing time trial.

The design of the route managed to walk that fine line between setting a tough challenge and keeping the racing tight, and it succeeded admirably in that aim. Now, how does Prudhomme set about giving us an equally exciting race for 2011?

The peloton speeding through the French countryside

4. Is it still possible to do both the Giro and the Tour?

This year, both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France featured courses which were steeped in difficulty, and such is the intensity of competition at the top of the sport nowadays that – with just five weeks between the two Grand Tours – it is now virtually impossible for a rider to perform at the top of his game in both races.

This is partly down to the near-impossibility of trying to arrive at peak form for both races. But it is also a reflection of the increasing amount of physical punishment riders have to endure in both events as the organisers seek to increase the level of spectacle and excitement. From racing on dirt roads in teeming rain to cobbled roads to two ascents of the Tourmalet, it has been a brutal three months for anyone who has competed in both races.

Four of the top ten in this year’s Giro also raced in the Tour. This is how they fared:

  • Ivan Basso – won the Giro, 32nd in the Tour
  • Cadel Evans – 5th in the Giro, 26th in the Tour (although hampered by a fractured elbow)
  • Alexander Vinokourov – 6th in the Giro, 16th in the Tour
  • Carlos Sastre – 8th in the Giro, 26th in the Tour

Denis Menchov is also an interesting case study. He finished 51st in the 2009 Tour having arrived as the newly-crowned Giro champion, but was held out of the Giro this year to allow him to focus on the Tour, where he finished third.

Are we heading for a situation where all the top riders will have to choose between doing either the Giro or the Tour, because it is no longer possible for them to do both effectively? That would be a crying shame, and would inevitably weaken both races.

Climbing the Col de la Colombière on stage nine

5. Is Mark Cavendish the best sprinter of all time?

15 Tour de France stage wins in three years, as part of an overall record of 59 wins in less than four seasons. The best lead-out train in the business. Frightening acceleration. Capable of winning races with ease even when he has no lead-out man. It’s all in a day’s work to Mark Cavendish.

‘Dominant’ does not even begin to tell the tale of the stranglehold Cavendish currently has on sprint finishes. Since the start of 2009, his win ratio in sprints he has contested is close to 90%. And in this Tour, despite coming into the race with his confidence at an all-time low, and despite the loss of Adam Hansen (injury) on stage one and Mark Renshaw (disqualified) on stage 11, he won five stages – none of them even remotely close, and the last two by at least five bike lengths easing up.

It is not the sheer volume of his wins that is the most impressive thing about Cavendish; it is the manner of them. He does not just beat his rivals; he destroys them, taking whatever hope they have of ever catching him and pulverising it. He is in his world what Usain Bolt is in his.

Is Cav better than Mario Cipollini, Freddy Maertens, Erik Zabel and the other great sprinters of the past? Already, in only his fourth year as a pro, there is a strong argument in his favour. If he keeps on track, within a couple of years there will be no debate at all.

Lance Armstrong and Mark Cavendish enjoying a quiet moment

6. Farewell, Lance

His hopes of a podium finish were dashed by the end of the first week, after his untimely puncture on stage three and his involvement in three separate crashes on stage eight, but even so there is never a dull moment when Lance Armstrong features in the Tour de France.

Yes, there was the unseemly publicity stunt promoting cancer awareness, which delayed the start of the final stage by 15 minutes. (RadioShack sported non-regulation jerseys and were compelled to change back to their regular kit.) But generally Armstrong took his multiple setbacks with almost statesmanlike grace, and always gave good quote, my favourite being this thing of beauty after he punctured on the cobbles on stage three:

Some days you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. Today I was the nail. That’s okay. I’ve had plenty of days where I was the hammer.

And, although ultimately unsuccessful, it was great to see him join the successful breakaway on stage 16, attack like (a slightly slower version of) the Lance of old and then contest the final sprint. It afforded the only seven-time champion in the Tour’s history one final hurrah. He would no doubt have been smiling inside; half ruefully, half in quiet satisfaction.

Now he will depart cycling for the second and final time, straight into the teeth of a federal investigation. Like I said, there’s never a dull moment with Lance Armstrong, and without him the Tour will miss one of its biggest and most charismatic personalities.

An ill-timed puncture left Lance Armstrong facing a damage limitation exercise on stage three

7. Youth wins, but the old guys did pretty well too

Given its extreme physical demands, the longevity of professional cyclists is truly impressive. Okay, this year’s top two are mere whippersnappers by comparison – Contador is 27, Schleck 25 – but the sharp end of the peloton remains packed full of men who are nearer to their 40th birthdays than their 30th.

Lance Armstrong, who turns 39 in September, was the Tour’s most obvious senior citizen, and yet he was only the third-oldest man in this year’s race. Christophe Moreau, already 39, had the distinction of being this Tour’s oldest rider; he narrowly missed out on winning the King of the Mountains competition. And everybody’s favourite hard-man and team player, Jens Voigt is a day older than the seven-time champion; his Saxo Bank teammate and fellow super-domestique Stuart O’Grady is a comparative spring chicken at close to 37.

Sprinting is a young man’s game – specifically, Mark Cavendish’s game (Cav is 25) – and yet the green jersey was eventually won by Alessandro Petacchi, who used every one of his 36 years to emerge on top of the standings. And while Robbie McEwen‘s outright speed has abandoned him at the age of 38, he used his smarts and consistency to finish fourth in the competition, despite picking up a wealth of injuries throughout the race.

Spare a thought also for Chris Horner. The forgotten man of the RadioShack team, he was in fact their highest-placed finisher overall in tenth position. Not bad for a man who turns 39 in October, a month after Armstrong, and who gained his high placing without a shred of help from the rest of his team.

Blue skies and wheat fields as the peloton enjoys a lull in proceedings on stage four

8. Does anyone other than the French care about the King of the Mountains any more?

Or, as I now refer to it, ‘the competition for riders who are quite good at climbing but not good enough for the general classification’.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely support the existence of the mountains classification. I just happen to think it’s a waste of time in its current format.

Yes, I know the French love it: Richard Virenque, Laurent Jalabert, 11 French winners in 17 years. I get all that. But can someone put forward a serious argument in favour of Anthony Charteau as the best climber in this year’s race, and not, say, John Gadret, Robert Gesink, Damiano Cunego, Luis León Sánchez or any of the Euskaltel-Euskadi boys?

What is the problem? Too often the best climbers are sacrificed in support of their team leaders, and even when they have free rein to ride for themselves, they will often prioritise a top 20 GC finish over the polka dot jersey. Even if they wanted to, they are generally too close to the race leaders to be allowed to slip away in a break. Which means the riders who rack up the big points in escapes on the big mountain stages that determine the jersey are, by definition, poor GC riders who represent no threat.

The King of the Mountains competition is in danger of becoming something of a best-of-the-rest consolation prize. And for the competition to be decided on a monster final day where up to 73 points were available, only for Charteau to win by default when neither he nor Moreau could muster a single point between them, is just wrong.

I don’t know what the solution to this conundrum is. But I know that what we currently have is seriously flawed.

The first ascent of the Col du Tourmalet on stage 16

9. Is the Tour winning the war on drugs?

What do the following men from the 2006-8 Tours have in common? Floyd Landis. Michael Rasmussen. Stefan Schumacher. Bernhard Kohl. Riccardo Riccò. Leonardo Piepoli. Alexandre Vinokourov. Alejandro Valverde.

The answer is that they were all either wearers of one of the leaders’  jerseys or stage winners. And they have all been banned for doping offences.

The nadir was probably the 2007 Tour, when it seemed that every day a new scandal was breaking. At first it was relatively small names like Manuel Beltrán and Moisés Dueñas. But then came the expulsion of Vinokourov and yellow jersey Rasmussen, and the Tour virtually imploded. 2008 wasn’t much better, with Schumacher, Kohl, Riccò, Valverde and Piepoli – winners of six stages and the polka dot jersey between them – caught either during the race or retrospectively.

This year (as in 2009) it has been relatively quiet, with no whiff of a positive test during the three weeks – although there is currently an investigation looking at Alessandro Petacchi, and of course a Landis-initiated federal inquiry looking at allegations against Lance Armstrong and several other riders. (And Vinokourov’s breakaway win on stage 13 wasn’t exactly the most warmly-received either.)

But – and it is always a big ‘but’ in cycling – it is all relatively quiet at the moment on the doping front. Whether that means the testers have caught up with the cheats or the cheats have found new ways to deceive the testers is debatable. But it has been enjoyable this year to focus on the race itself, rather than the dark rumours behind it.

Fabian Cancellara en route to winning the stage 19 individual time trial

10. Eating humble pie

The more I grow to understand the technicalities and intricacies of cycling, the better I am becoming at predicting what will happen from day to day on the Tour – and I certainly made a lot of good calls over the three weeks. But I still made some major howlers, like dismissing both Menchov and Jurgen van den Broeck as also-rans pre-Tour, or snorting at Ryder Hesjedal‘s strong first week. Oops. Sorry about that.

The thing is, the Tour never ceases to surprise. And that unpredictability – whether it is animals on the road or watching a major contender crack on a steep climb – is a big part of why so many of us keep coming back to it year after year.

Vive Le Tour!

The peloton passes through the Grotto of Mas d'Azil on stage 15

See also my stage-by-stage review and review in numbers.

(All images are copyright of photograher Graham Watson. Visit his website here.)

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to Tour de France 2010 review: Ten talking points, ten random photos

  1. txtmstrjoe says:

    As always, top-notch!

    A thought about talking point# 1, though: I’m not sure I agree with the “informal rules” of the sport being made official or codified in any way. Such informalities as not attacking the race leader when he hits trouble, or the Cancellara-initiated gesture of neutralizing the peloton in the wake of the slippery conditions in Stage 2, are part of the beauty of not just the Tour, but of sport itself. My girlfriend, who only this year (after many years of my telling her about it) started watching the Tour on TV (ironically, she saw almost the entire race, while I’ve seen maybe three hours, maybe four, in total) and fell in love with it because she saw such gestures exemplifying the ideals of sportsmanship. By the time “chain-gate” happened, even a raw novice like my girlfriend felt a little unhappy about Contador’s apparent exploitation of Schleck’s problem. The informal rules in cycling may sometimes make it difficult to ascertain, in an absolutely objective sense, but I think there should always be room for the subjective.

    After all, life is a mix of the objective and subjective, isn’t it? Sport, which I think is one of those things which makes the human condition as beautiful as it is, should perhaps be a mix as well.

    Thanks again for the great read!

    • Tim says:

      I’ve been mulling this one over for a while, and I’m not 100% sure either way – although I am leaning towards increasing codification after the events of the last three weeks. I think that if it gets to the point where it is perceived that riders are using or exploiting the ‘unwritten’ rules to their own advantage, then the UCI will have to step in before it gets silly. If the riders themselves can self-regulate more effectively, that’s OK – I have my doubts, though! But I agree it would be easy to over-react and then overdo it in terms of making rules for everything. A fine line!

      For me, the biggest ‘offence’ was not ‘Chain-gate’ but Cancellara’s decision on stage two to neutralise both the final descent (debatable) and the finishing sprint (ridiculous). The former decision clearly benefitted his teammates, Frank and Andy Schleck, but was understandable given the sheer number of crashes. The latter one was odd in the extreme – all sprints are inherently dangerous, whether wet or not. I know it was more dangerous because the peloton was all bunched up, but I would have been gutted if I had been standing for hours at the finish at Spa to see them all roll slowly over the line.

      • txtmstrjoe says:

        Has there ever been a precedent for the finish at Spa this year? I mean, has the yellow jersey ever instigated a full peloton finish due to adverse weather?

  2. Tim says:

    Not that I can recall. And remember, until comparatively recently, the riders wouldn’t even have been wearing helmets.

    I understand there was a potential issue with the peloton being so tightly packed and the risk of a sudden acceleration from crawl to flat-out top speed, even with 4 or 5 km to go, but they’re big boys and if anyone thought it was too dangerous they could always have sat up (think of Niki Lauda in Japan in 1974).

    Besides, in F1 they will restart a race in pouring rain after the field has been bunched up behind the safety car, with no visibility, cold brakes and cold, under-inflated tyres, and they generally manage not to crash. I know it’s not quite the same, but even so …

    • txtmstrjoe says:

      I honestly have no stance regarding the finish at Spa as I didn’t see it (my girlfriend wants me to write about this year’s Tour, but I told her I really can’t comment much on it because I’ve not watched nearly enough of it to be able to do a fair job), so I can’t judge whether Cancellara’s initiative was “right” or “wrong.” I do appreciate your point that perhaps Cancellara overstepped his bounds to neutralize the finish the way he did, as well as perhaps his possible motivations for slowing the pack.

      Perhaps the right thing to do, as you say, was to let them all decide for themselves whether or not the risk was worth taking. In F1, Lauda (*in 1976 :-)) and Prost (1988, 1989) were man enough to not be a madman and race in conditions they judged to be inadequate to race in; it would have been curious to see who would have been the Hunts and Sennas in the peloton in Spa that rainy day had Cancellara not canceled the final sprint.

      • Tim says:

        1976. You are, of course, quite right. Oops.

        Even though I’m firmly against Cancellara’s decision (or was it really directeur sportif Riis’s decision?), it’s still not absolutely clear-cut one way or the other. The problem is that cycling has a habit of operating in some major shades of grey when it comes to issues of sportsmanship. F1 has made a much bigger effort to cut these out, but then doesn’t always enforce them – the “one move” rule, for instance. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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