Thursday, July 09, 2009

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

If you have ever been curious about watching the Tour de France, Friday will be a great moment to see what it’s all about. You can watch free online at (just click “Continue”), starting at 8 a.m. EDT. Why such a great day to watch?

The race is at the end of its first week. Opening gambits have been played by individual riders and teams, and Friday the real fun begins as the riders hit their first major mountains. The best riders in the world will duke it out mano a mano on the final climb to Andorra, more than 5,000 vertical feet of continuous uphill ride that gets steeper as it goes, with two “sprint” sections along the way.

By the end of the stage—an uphill finish, a treat for the best climbers—only a handful of riders will be left in the front, with the rest of the field still struggling to follow along behind. Even the best riders will have to pull their hardest to keep climbing, in a gripping battle of wills more than legs, fighting for a few seconds’ advantage. On a flat stage, generally all the riders finish almost at the same time. Little advantage (if any) is gained on the field. In the mountains, a bold rider can climb ahead of the pack and gain precious minutes—if nobody else can keep up.

Every mountain stage is an epic battle, but here’s why the toughest nuts are going to be trying particularly hard on Friday:

Lance Armstrong is hundredths of a second behind No. 1 rider Fabian Cancellara; everyone expects Cancellara to drop behind early in the mountains. He is a great rider on flat land; mountains are not his specialty.

Right behind Lance (19 seconds behind) is Alberto Contador, who won the Tour two years ago and wasn’t invited to race last year. This year he considered it his right to defend his earlier victory. Then seven-time winner Lance Armstrong came back and joined Contador’s team, and Contador’s spotlight was in danger. Will Contador try to beat Lance? Will they ride neck and neck? Will Lance’s 37-year-old legs be able to keep up?

Lance and Alberto ride for Team Astana, and right behind them in the overall are two other legendary team members, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden, who have also both finished among the top three riders in previous Tours. You have to count back a minute or two to get to the rest of the top contenders for this year’s overall win: Australia’s Cadel Evans, Spain’s Carlos Sastre (who won last year, without Contador or Lance or Levi racing), the Schleck brothers from Luxembourg, and maybe a few others. Christian Vande Velde, born in Illinois, has proven his legs in the mountains, and he is in 8th place. All these riders will be trying their hardest to ride out ahead and gain back time they have already lost to the Astana boys.

And when any of the top contenders ride out in front of Lance or Alberto—or Andreas or Levi—the Astana team will be forced to respond. Will Lance and Alberto be so focused on beating each other that they’ll let the lead slip to riders from other teams? Will they work together to dominate this climb and cement their team’s advantage? No matter their strategy, how will their legs hold up?

The race so far has been a matter of positioning the best riders for the mountain stages. Every stage has something to watch, but not every stage is a critical turning point. Tomorrow’s stage will shake out the chaff from the top slots, bringing to the front the riders with the leanest legs. This early in the race (coming to the end of the first week of three), the game is still open and anyone can still pull ahead. But all the top riders know that they can’t afford to lose any time in Friday’s stage, and some of the very best are going to be mighty hungry to gain back an edge.

That should make Friday’s fight to the mountaintop finish a particularly great day to watch the Tour de France. Certainly the overall lead will change hands. But who gets it, and how, and where that leaves everyone else, make up an epic whose stanzas will be written on the asphalt climb to Andorra.

2007 Stage 16 from

Image of Levi Leipheimer at top from


Papa Bradstein said...

Wouldn't that be pie al pie?

CaliforniaGirl said...

velo a velo?

Thanks for the link. I will try it when I come home from the pool. They should be into reruns by then.