The Pyrenees on the Horizon

Bradley Wiggins Yellow Jersey Evans

Today’s rest day brings to mind Antonin Magne, winner of the Tour in 1931 and 1934 who said “the Tour is won by sleeping”. He didn’t mean he snoozed on his bike, instead that recovery was so important. Many riders today will have been working hard on their rest day, going for the right ride, eating correctly, stretching hard and getting a strong massage.

They’ll need it given the two giant stages in the Pyrenees. Playwright Antoine Blondin said the great cols of the Pyrenees “separate once and for all the racers from those who use a bicycle to go to the market” and more than the Alps these climbs can be traps with irregular gradients and twisty descents.

I’ve enjoyed the Tour de France but, so far, I think the highlights DVD won’t be a blockbuster because Wiggins and his team have controlled the race. For me a good race sees the yellow jersey flutter from shoulder to shoulder like a butterfly on a summer breeze. But this year Cancellara netted the yellow butterfly in the prologue. A week later Wiggins and Sky team have caught it and look to set to mount it in a glass case for display in a London museum.

The racing has been fierce but the strength of Team Sky has seen the race under control. As mental exercise, imagine if the British team was not in the race. This would have given rise to race where teams struggled to control the pace and where Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen van Den Broeck were be locked in combat whilst others tried to surprise.

Back to reality and instead the past week has seen phoney wars:

  • Wiggins and his team might have world class support but for a while their public relations looked amateur – odd for a team sponsored by a media company. They were forced to play catch up over the tales of doping. In the end they unleashed Wiggins who can be forceful and articulate. If it was just words and PR, his larynx was in the big ring and his word per minute rate on the keyboard was as high as his pedalling cadence.
  • A few tweets from riders’ girlfriends and wives get amplified as a proxy contest between Wiggins and Froome because we can’t see the two duel in the mountains. I wasn’t too bothered by the tweets, it was more that this briefly hit the newspapers because the two riders cannot be split apart.
  • Cadel Evans attack midway during Stage 11 on the slopes of the Glandon was exciting but quickly became painful to watch because if he went clear, he struggled to get any advantage. It was like watching a wounded beast leap clear of a predator, you saluted the courage but knew he’d get eaten alive by Team Sky. His team came equipped with some big hulks to protect him on the flat roads yet he’s relatively isolated in the mountains… but this was the case last year and he won. Still, you can’t help noticing BMC’s Steve Morabito and Yannick Eijssen had a very strong ride in the mountains during the Tour of Austria.

We’ll have to see what the Pyrenees bring. There’s a risk the race for yellow falls flat. Blondin described a stage of the 1972 Tour where the “Aubisque and Tourmalet had become boulevards” and we could Wiggins taking his Froome-dog for a stroll.

Things could change, the old “anything can happen” cliché still stands. For starters there’s talk of a heatwave. Tactically we could hope caution thrown to the wind and a flurry of attacks from Nibali, Van den Broeck and Evans… and even Froome. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Nibali and Evans.

But if “anything can happen”, the old “everything to play for” phrase doesn’t work, we’re now at the point where there’s everything to lose. As I’ve pointed out before an attack can cost more than it benefits, ask Cadel Evans who fell off the podium on the road to La Toussuire. Right now several riders are determined to camp on their positions in the top-20, riders like Nicolas Roche pass almost unnoticed compared to Luis Leon Sanchez but make it to Paris in 13th place overall and you win more UCI points than if you win a stage and your salary is a function of your points haul.

But there are other contests. There is all to play for with the mountains jersey. So far in the race a total of 699 points have been awarded for the mountains classification but the next two days see a total of 520 points up for grabs, 296 on Stage 16 and 224 on Stage 17.

Stage 16 has two HC climbs early in the Aubisque and Tourmalet with 25 points for the leader over each one, meaning a breakaway rider could be rewarded, indeed this seems to be the plan given the Aubisque is usually a first category climb. But Stage 17 reverses things somewhat with some lesser climbs until the big HC Port de Balès and then the summit finish in Peyragudes where points are doubled. So it looks like a battle between Froome who could score big on Thursday against the riders like Kessiakoff, Voeckler and Rolland who will hope to get in the the breakaway tomorrow.

There’s less than 1,000km to go now and Bradley Wiggins is in a commanding position. If leading overall and with a team mate second isn’t enough, he knows there’s a long time trial coming up on Saturday too. Will he put under pressure? Yes, but with a strong team I can’t see him suffering unreasonably. The other contenders might be happy to sit tight although Cadel Evans has nothing to lose… except time.

None of this means the race is over. The next two stages promise superb scenery and a fine battle for the stage wins, all with the mountains jersey in play as well. Maybe the highlights DVD won’t sell big outside of Britain and Slovakia but the next two stages are unmissable.

44 thoughts on “The Pyrenees on the Horizon”

  1. The way this TdF is panning out reminds me a lot of Copenhagen last year. A British team arrived with a clear plan to dominate and effectively broadcast this to all their rivals beforehand. Despite the advanced warning (and none too sophisticated tactics), no-one has been able to topple the Brits from their perch.

    I hope to see some aggressive riding from all riders in the next few days, but I’d also love to see Wiggins do something. He is such a student of cycling history that I’m sure the unfair accusations that he is being “carried to glory” will hurt him. It would be great if he could validate his TdF crown (if he makes it to Paris) with a road stage win, or a gutsy ride a-la Evans on the Galibier.

    • I second that. Even if he doesn’t attack or deliver a pained damage limitation ride which we can all admire, I’d like to see the lead group in a mountain stage whittled down until it’s just him.

      Can’t see any of those things happening, like, but still.

      • Ya, and he’s nuts if he thinks the team will ride for him next year if Wiggo wins this year. I wonder even more than I did at the time why he signed for 3 more years… Clearly there must have been some extra dough in the equation and Sky knew what they were buying, maybe more so than Froome himself.

        • Oh yes, he certainly did. Must have cost Dave Brailsford’s budget a pretty penny back in 2010. What were Froomes results like at the time I wonder?

        • He did, but Sky had to fork out millions to buy him out of his contract. Can’t see any other team aside from BMC having the financial clout to do this.

  2. I guess dominant teams always get accused of being boring. Well it is up to the other teams and riders to do something about it or die tryin. I am sick of the carping.

    • Sick of the carping? Amen to that, I agree entirely. The back seat DS’s and course designers have been grumbling all Tour, but the simple fact is that the riders make the race. If Schleck A had turned up in good shape the whole race dynamic would have changed. And is it the fault of ASO that Sky turned up with the strongest and most tightly drilled team?

    • Are you saying that Sky’s domination ISN’T boring? Apart from a massive time trial win, Wiggins hasn’t really done much apart from be protected by the highest-paid super domestiques in the peloton, several of whom could (and should) be GC contenders in their own right.
      Our only hope at this point is that Evans or Nibali pulls off a massive solo breakaway to totally reignite the competition. We want some passion, some finesse, some PANACHE. Not “we trained for this”.

      • That is your opinion, I happen to disagree. I can see the appeal and merit of, selecting a strong team, training for the event and peaking at the right time, getting the support nutrition etc right. Sure people like to see heroic breakaways and attacks like landis and rasmussen but they have proved to be fantasies fuelled on EPO and other PEDs.
        The other teams have failed to challenge SKYs dominance, their weakness has made the tour “boring”.

  3. I think over the next two days we will see Wiggins lose the yellow jersey to either Nibali or Cadel and to finally take it back in the TT. You read it here first!

  4. Three weeks is a long time to race and you never know how well the major contenders have been recovering from each stage until one of them suddenly pops out the back.

    Wiggins has looked strong enough so far, but if people sense he’s faded a bit compared to earlier in the race, the attacks might begin.

    Or Sky might plough along at the front like black-clad baton-twirlers leading a procession.

  5. I’m hoping for some excitement tomorrow and the next day – if last year’s history repeats itself the fireworks will be while I’m on a plane returning to the US of A. Whether I get to see it on live TV or not, I really hope Nibali and/or Evans will at least go down fighting against the juggernaut of Sky. This tour has been as boring as many of the Indurain years – the “kill ’em in the chrono and defend in the mountains” strategy may be effective but it’s BORING to watch. I’ve said before that pro cycling’s sponsor problems are mostly related to doping scandals – but with the biggest race in cycling so far the boringest race in cycling, they have other problems to deal with….one wonders what the TV ratings will be like for this less-than-stellar (so far anyway) edition of Le Grand Boucle?

  6. The only way for Nibali and Evans to gain some time is to make the race as hard as possible, meaning attacks right from the start. This will wear the SKY-train out and leave Wiggins and Froome exposed. I think they will get some help from Van Den Broeck as well, he is the only rider that can throw out multiple attacks on the slopes like Contador and Andy can. I’d put my money on him for a stage win the next couple of days.

    • Unless Nibali, Evans and VdB draw straws before the depart tomorrow, how will they attack themselves if they’re only wearing down the Sky domestiques? It’ll only happen if Tejay and Basso are up the road in the breakaway. Strong teams are needed to defeat Sky, and BMC and Lotto at least aren’t up to it.

  7. Doesn’t it make sense that Sky will try to get Froome into the polka dot jersey? Surely that’s a perfect consolation prize…

  8. Inrng, do you really think Froome can beat Kessiakoff et al to get the Maillot a pois? If so, why and how? If he’s going to go for the hilltops, why not just go for the overall then? And if he did this (go for the summits), how would he be helping Wiggout? It seems to me that Sky would be wise to have Froome help out early in the mountains — tire him out so to speak — and let some more docile domestiques do their jobs toward the end as they are less likely to jump ahead towards the end….

  9. Just seen a headline saying Franck’s been busted. Would that be a first offence? I’m afraid I can’t claim to be 100% surprised, but to those outside cycling he probably seemed clean – which can only alienate more JCLs.
    Bad news anyway.

    • He was slapped on the wrist for paying “gynecologist to the cycling stars” Dr Fuentes for “training advice”…and served an off season suspension, levied by the Luxembourg Cycling Fed (3months? If I recall correctly) a few yrs back… Luckily Schleck has a heavy coating of teflon…and this incident passed relatively unnoticed…

  10. Here in the states the analysts talk up the impending Pyrenees stages as if it will be the best cycling event ever. I suppose one needs to so as to keep the viewership for what has otherwise been a very dull tour. I don’t get why teams can’t work out some joint tactics to go after Sky with? At least Nibali and Evans should have a skull session of sorts and collaborate on how to put it to Sky. Sky is the 1999-2003 version of Postal; it’s deja-vu all over again. But, what can I say, Wiggins is in yellow and will be in Paris thanks to Sky’s tactics. I am just bored off my ass.

  11. Where is Sylwester Szmyd? He could always be counted on to pull the Liquigas leaders up the steepest slopes, and dish out an extra helping of fatigue to everyone else but I’ve not seen him at all on this year’s rendition of “La Grande Boucle”. He should be up there assisting and protecting Nibali…
    Unfortunately, the UCI point system rewarding defensive riding, as stated in the article above, and the Sky strategy outlined by LarryT (where have you been? I’ve missed your insightful comments and thorough Italian bias) has made for a dull race indeed. The only redeeming factor in my eyes has been the four French victories earned after exciting, good old fashioned breakaways and attacks. Oh, and the L.L. Sanchez win was all right too.

  12. I have to say that I am becoming more and more of a Wiggins fan as the race progresses. His sportsmanship (waiting for Evans and Co after “Tack-gate”), his articulate comments in the press and gracious words for his fellow competitors, his (outward at least) confidence in himself, his obvious interest in the history of the sport married with his strength on the bike are the mark of a true champion.

    Having said all of that, up to this point the Tour has been a very boring Indurain style affair and looks likely to follow that trajectory all the way to Paris. This has nothing to do with Wiggo of course. He is a time trial specialist who can follow the wheels in the mountains and at this Tour he is playing to those very strengths (and so he should). As an Evans supporter I have to be honest with myself and aknowledge that Evans falls into the same boat. Last year’s Tour was somewhat similar in that Evans won the race with his time trialling and by limiting his losses in the mountains – I would however argue that 2011 was more exciting Tour than 2012 (so far) particularly given BMC had nowhere near the presence that Sky have this year.

    Course planning surely has to take the majority of the blame for this – when will the ASO realise that time trials are boring? When will they show some flair and produce a parcour that is conducive to attacking racing? Do we really need a repeat of 1991-1995, particularly when the current dominant GC riders all appear to be time trialists? Why not break it up a bit? Maybe there is some subtle planning involved on the part of the ASO who have seen how the sport has been exploding in popularity in the UK/Australia. Perhaps they have deliberately tailored the route to allow the best English and Australian riders of the day a good chance to win. Evans winning the Tour has had such a massive impact in the sport in Australia (population 22m). A British winner will be huge for the sport in the UK (pop 62m). The US (pop 311m) is already hooked given the success of LeMond and Armstrong. The international TV rights will continue to climb in value.

    I may have answered my own question.

    • I have to disagree regarding Evans being a similar rider to Wiggins, for the following reasons. First, he did not have 3 super domestiques TTing up the mountains – indeed he did a 10K individual effort that dropped everyone off his wheel, and responded himself to the attacks of contador into Gap etc.

      The most notable thing about Cadel’s GC win last year was that he finished top 10, or maybe even top 5, in Mountains, Points and GC. That says something about the way he raced. He also had to respond to some monster attacks by Contador and both Schlecks.

      I hope Wiggins has to face the same challenges, and if he can take the race in his hands, i say good for him. I hope Nibali and VDB do an Alberto and charge off. Then we shall see what Wiggins is made of. If not, Chapeau for a well planned team win and a stoking TT, but not a glorious and exiting tour. Here’s hoping the next 3 days live up to all our expectations.

  13. Nibali is a glorious climber, but he’s running out of road. He needs to forget about his less than helpful team and turn on the afterburners with a solo run. Riding behind Sky is not a winning strategy for him.

  14. Wiggins wins one race, rides behind the wheels of others thereafter, sounds like Evans 2.0 of last year.
    Nice to see FDJ win some races.

  15. “For me a good race sees the yellow jersey flutter from shoulder to shoulder”. That’s absolutely right when we’re talking about GC contenders, and when the yellow jersey flutters because of actions that will affect the final result in Paris. If it’s about the jersey switching hands in the first week between some prologuists, sprinters, and punchers, with no consequence on the final GC, why should one care? Yellow only means something in Paris.

  16. I think that a Sky tactics is a purely scientific approach and we will see much more of this in a future.
    It has been tested that riding a stable lets say 360watts is much more effetive than riding 450+ for one minute on the climb and than 340 for few more minutes, followed by another surge on 450+ etc. The average output could be in both cases the same around 360 but the second rider burns a lot more matches than the first one. A steady race tempo results in a better time than a race full of attacks, average watt the same.
    Given the fact that top riders are all on the human limit of performance and their fitness is almost identical, it is the tactics that determine the winner. We´ve seen this several times – a bold attack for a few kilometres and than fading and losing time. A succesful attacking could come only from a rider who is a level above the rest like AC in Giro 2011.

    • Exactly. What a lot of people are craving is a “superhuman” performance.
      Give me clean and “boring” over dirty and exciting (in cycle sport anyway)

      • “Almost identical fitness”??? How can that be? There must surely be a difference at one point. And it’s up to race organisers and participants to ensure this difference is visible.

    • “…riding a stable lets say 360watts is much more effetive than riding 450+ for one minute on the climb and than 340 for few more minutes, followed by another surge on 450+ etc.”

      Spot on. I try telling this to my 5yr old lad when we walk to school. He runs, he dawdles, he runs, he dawdles… #neverlistens #getsdropped 😉

  17. For mine, the real interest of this year is Peter Sagan. What a monster, and still only 22. And he showed heading into Pau that he can hold a pace up hills too – not the HC’s yet, but Cat 2’s and 3’s …

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