Saturday, July 21, 2007

More Numbers

Anyone who thinks a bike race is just about being the fastest rider should study Alexander Vinokourov’s climb out of the basement over the past few days to learn how much it’s a sport of strategy.

It’s a little like playing chess, except that in chess (where the strategy is much more complex, yes), once you’ve decided where to move your piece, you don’t have to make your move at the end of 5 hours of riding, on an uphill slope at high altitude, against someone else who’s pretty sure he wants to move his piece there instead. In cycling, as in baseball or other sports, you have to know what tactics to deploy, and then you have to have the physical talent to deploy them.

Yesterday Vino and his Tour de France team used their wits to drop Christophe Moreau from the top 10. Today Vino rode a time trial to save his career, in the rain, and muscled his way back into the top 10. He shaved 1:14 off his gap with Cadel Evans, who finished 2nd today, and even more with everyone behind Cadel.

A couple of yesterday’s top contenders weeded themselves out of the top 10. Alejandro Valverde and Iban Mayo struggled in the rain and dropped back considerably. With every day that goes by, there’s one less opportunity to earn that time back later in the race.

With Valverde and Mayo gone, Leipheimer bumps up two places, and he also outrode Carlos Sastre today, leaving Levi in 5th overall.

The surprise today, which was not as big a surprise as it might have been, was Rasmussen’s performance: He’s still the overall leader, by a margin of a minute. It’s no surprise when the race leader puts in an effort larger than expected to keep the yellow jersey. But Rasmussen has shown now that he does not intend to surrender the lead easily. He’s shooting for Paris.

Going into the mountains, then, we have an interesting end game shaping up. Rasmussen is strong in the mountains and will be riding hard to try to stretch his lead before the next time trial, where everyone expects he’ll lose some time again. Evans and Andreas Klöden can both be dangerous in the mountains, and both will be fighting to gain any splinter of time they can against Rasmussen and each other. Leipheimer announced some time ago that he’s planning to try to dominate the Pyrenees, pulling hard up the steep mountain stages to gain precious minutes and seize the lead. Vinokourov not only rides mountains well but has a point to prove—and his knees are starting to heal, as today’s ride showed.

That’s five serious veteran contenders, all within 5 minutes of each other, as the race heads for the Pyrenees—and it’s easy for a rider to blow out in the mountains and lose that amount of time, dropping out of competition. It will be harder for any of these guys to gain that much time against any of the others, unless someone blows out completely. They’re all going to be fighting hard, playing it safe but putting in every ounce of effort to win.

Add newcomer Alberto Contador to the mix—still very much in the top 10, now moved up to No. 3 in fact—and you run into something else that will keep the mountains entertaining: Each of these riders is bringing a strong team with him.

Probably Rasmussen is the most vulnerable here, coming from Rabobank. But he’s more than shown his ability so far, and he’s got several old hands on his squad to support and protect him. Cadel Evans has Chris Horner in his corner, an enthusiastic American who called himself “paid insurance” yesterday for Cadel’s efforts in the mountains to come. Contador and Leipheimer ride together for Discovery, and they’ve got Yaroslav Popovych on the team to help them over the mountains, plus George Hincapie, who rode with Lance Armstrong for seven straight victories. So far Popovych is third in the mountain-climbing competition, so he’s no slouch. (I should also give props to Discovery’s coach, Johan Bruyneel, who has to deserve at least some of the credit for the team’s stellar performance over the past decade.) Klöden and Vinokourov both ride for Astana, whose turquoise jerseys have led more than one stage already, showing the depth and commitment of the riders who are ready to help push their leaders up over the summits.

For most of the last decade, the Tour de France has been dominated by Lance Armstrong and the Discovery team (formerly U.S. Postal). Last year, with Lance retired, the race was in a little disarray, seeing some early surprises (Mayo dropped out, Leipheimer choked) and some wild rides (a 30-minute gap at one point between peloton and leader, Floyd Landis’s outlandish comeback).

This year the competition is shaping up to be more even and stronger than it’s been for a while. Any one of the top several riders is a serious contender; each of them has a strong team; none of them can be said to be dominating the chase. Even if a few of the leaders choke, there are still others ready to step up who are very strong. Astana and Discovery both have not one but two serious contenders in the top 10.

The mountains will give some of these guys a chance to try to put on the gas and move ahead of the others, playing both brute force and team strategy. And then there’s another time trial, another opportunity to win minutes back or lose them forever.

Whoever rides to final victory in Paris this year will have earned it.

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