Thursday, July 19, 2007

Numbers Game

I should have all kinds of exciting things to talk about, but I’ll settle for statistics instead.

Alexander Vinokourov and Team Astana played an interesting game on the roads of southern France this afternoon.

The Tour de France is in the flatlands of the French Mediterranean coast this week, between the excitement of the Alps and the challenges of the Pyrenees. The long, straight stages across the Riviera are called the “transitional” stages, which is a French word for “dull.”

That’s in a typical year. No two years are quite alike.

Vino is just about out of the Tour this year; he’s lost too much time already. But his teammate Andreas Klöden still has a fighting chance. Klöden has been in the top three finishers at the end of the race twice before, though he’s never taken the top position.

Today, in the middle of a long hot afternoon so dull you could hear crickets, Team Astana put the hammer down and suddenly charged forward for no apparent reason, just to see if anyone was paying attention.

Suddenly instead of a single ho-hum peloton, there were two pelotons, one seriously behind the other. Christophe Moreau, who had been among the top 10 riders in the general classification so far, was in the rear peloton, with no way to bridge over to the front peloton in the heavy crosswind. Astana hammered forward, putting an even wider gap between the groups. Vinokourov himself took the lead several times, setting the pace and driving the peloton to ride faster.

Effectively they stole the race from Moreau this afternoon. Nothing is final until the riders hit Paris at the end of the Tour, but it’s nigh on impossible for Moreau to recapture the time he lost today. This won’t help Vinokourov much. It might well help Klöden: He’s got one fewer competitor to worry about. For the fans at home, it made the race worth watching a little longer, even on a “transitional” day.

Let’s take a California-centric look, then, at who’s left. Vino is out. Moreau is probably out. In the top 10, we’ve got several veterans and a couple of newbies:

Michael Rasmussen, a cheerful Dane, is in the lead right now, after pushing hard in the Alps. Everyone says he’s likely to lose the lead in the time trials, of which two remain. He’s raced the Tour before, though, so he knows what’s involved.

Iban Mayo, from Spain, can do fabulously well some years; he chokes in other years. It’s been a few seasons since he had a fabulous year, but in this Tour he’s really been shining. He excels at mountains.

Cadel Evans, from Australia, has been riding long enough to know better; he placed 8th in the Tour in 2005. Anyone who’s been in the top 10 in a Tour de France has proved that they know how to ride mountains, how to ride the flats, how to ride time trials and team time trials, and (probably most important) how to play team strategies to secure an advantage.

Alberto Contador, from Spain, is relatively new and still pretty young. He rides with Team Discovery, and he’s been having a fantastic Tour so far. He’s in fifth place right now, and he showed up well in the mountains. At 24, he’s fairly young to be expected to win a Tour; normally more mature minds come out on top in this grueling physical contest. But he’s doing well.

Carlos Sastre, from Spain, has also shown his stuff in previous tours; Alejandro Valverde, the fourth Spaniard in the top 10, even beat Lance Armstrong in one stage the last year Lance raced. Valverde, though, is also young, and in both 2005 and 2006 he didn’t finish the Tour.

Rounding out the top eight that I care about is Levi Leipheimer, from California; I tend to look at the Tour from his seat, handicapping whether he’s got a chance of winning. Last year he did pretty poorly in the Tour of France, though he started off the season moderately well with a couple of stage wins in the Tour of California. That year’s Tour of California (the inaugural year) was eventually won by Floyd Landis, who’s now best known for leaving the 2006 Tour de France with the longest cliffhanger ending in modern pro sports. We still don’t know who “won.”

This year Levi Leipheimer owned the Tour of California from start to finish.

And then at the end of the top 10, you find Mikel Astarloza, the fifth Spaniard in the top 10, and Kim Kirchen. Astarloza has been in the Tour before; I don’t think Kim Kirchen has.

Since everyone claims Rasmussen will lose his lead in the time trials, it’s interesting to look at how some of these guys have come out of time trials before. Past performance is no guarantee of future behavior, but it’s a guide worth checking.

2006 July 22, Stage 19, 57 km time trial:
Sergei Gonchar came in first, at 1:07:45.
2. Andreas Klöden, 0:00:45 behind Gonchar
8. Cadel Evans, 0:03:41
20. Carlos Sastre, 0:04:42
30. Christophe Moreau, 0:05:33
34. Levi Leipheimer, 0:06:02
85. Michael Rasmussen, 0:08:51
94. Mikel Astarloza, 0:09:11

What if we imposed those results on this year’s race? Well, Rasmussen would lose his lead. Klöden would move up to pass Evans for the top spot. Evans would still be above Rasmussen, as would Sastre. Leipheimer wouldn’t have quite enough to pass Rasmussen, and neither would Astarloza. (That’s just one time trial; we have two left.)

2006 July 8, Stage 7, 52 km time trial:
Sergei Gonchar came in first, at 1:01:43.
8. Andreas Klöden, 0:01:43 behind Gonchar
11. Cadel Evans, 0:01:49
15. Christophe Moreau, 0:02:03
18. Carlos Sastre, 0:02:10
33. Mikel Astarloza, 0:03:18
82. Iban Mayo, 0:05:36
96. Levi Leipheimer, 0:06:05
114. Michael Rasmussen, 0:06:29

Again we see Leipheimer not having enough oomph in the time trial that (with last year’s performance) he could pass Rasmussen. Again we see Klöden and Evans duking it out for top honors, with Sastre right behind them. Also note: Iban Mayo this year is ahead of Klöden and Evans so far. But with a performance like last year’s he’d drop way behind.

It’s really hard to guess how a rider will perform in a particular multi-stage race in a particular year. Even a very solid rider can start failing early in a long road race and not catch up to his form for a week or longer. In the season’s next challenge, he might go home with top honors. Sometimes a slump lasts all season.

So far in this race, Leipheimer’s been playing a conservative hand but a strong one. He’s watched Vinokourov, a top contender, drop out of competition, and today Moreau. Both times Leipheimer was able to conserve his energy. He’s already said he’s saving his fight for the Pyrenees. It’s troubling to see five Spaniards up against him in the top 10 as the race inches closer to the Spanish border. These guys know the Pyrenees the same way Levi knows the hills of California. Strange things will happen in the mountains; they’re where the race can really start breaking apart and taking its final shape. It’s absolutely safe to bet that some of the top 10 contenders will choke in the mountains, though there’s no guess which ones will go down.

But assuming Levi can pull a mountain out of his hat this year and look good, what hope is there in the time trials? Last year’s record makes it look as if Klöden and Evans have it pretty well stitched up, even if they can just hold steady against Leipheimer in the mountains.

Well, compare Levi’s time against Rasmussen’s this year and last year. Last year in the Tour de France, Levi finished within a minute of Rasmussen once and within three minutes of Rasmussen the other time. Let’s assume Rasmussen’s in the same form this year (a big risk, but let’s). How is Levi’s form stacking up? In Stage 5 of this year’s Tour of California, Levi won the time trial; Rasmussen was 4:42 behind him. That’s in a time trial only half as long.

That was back in February. Everybody’s bodies have changed since then.

More recently, in the very short time trial from this year’s Tour de France prologue in London:

1. Fabian Cancellara won in 8:50
2. Klöden, 0:13 behind
14. Astarloza, 0:35
15. Contador, 0:35
17. Evans, 0:36
26. Leipheimer, 0:40
32. Valverde, 0:44
53. Kirchen, 0:49
92. Sastre, 0:57
109. Mayo, 1:01
166. Rasmussen, 1:18

Leipheimer still comes in behind Klöden and Evans, but he’s much more in the same league with them, instead of being way behind. A short time trial like this is different from a one-hour time trial; it’s hard to guess how similar the results from the longer stage will be. But it’s the best data we’ve got.

So to win, Levi has to pull out a couple of stunning time trials, and he’s got to win back a few minutes in at least one stage in the Pyrenees, probably two. Right now he’s only 1:09 behind Cadel Evans, 0:14 behind Carlos Sastre, 0:03 behind Andreas Klöden. Presumably Contador will drop behind if told to do so by the team captain; it’s very sensible to keep him hammering for now, though, in case anything does happen to Leipheimer—Contador could still contend for the final yellow jersey if Levi dropped out.

Of course, Evans and Sastre and Klöden, and Rasmussen, are doing the same math, and they’ll all be fighting hard to win in the next two weeks.

The other interesting thing to watch in today’s ride, beside the field splitting into two groups: Alexander Vinokourov was taking long stints at the front of the field for Team Astana, breaking the wind for the guys riding behind him. Normally a team’s No. 1 guy doesn’t ride in the front; his domestiques are supposed to protect him from the wind so he can save his energy to pour it on right at the finish.

So we’re left with two possibilities: Vino was so annoyed at Christophe Moreau for attacking a few days ago, when Vino was in pain, that he wanted to personally lead the charge that stripped victory from Moreau. Or—and to me more likely—Vino has acknowledged that he’s out of the running for a Paris triumph, and the team is rallying behind Klöden. Klöden riding with Vino as a domestique is just as threatening as the other way around.

We’re roughly at the midpoint of the Tour, and it has proved intriguing as the riders charge up and down hill and dale. A lot of shakeout has already taken place, but there’s no given leader as we come into the Pyrenees. Should be fun to watch and see how the positions evolve from here.

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