Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Friend of My Enemy: The Drama Thickens

Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France looks likely to end in a blistering mountaintop duel among the best of the best. Have a look, at . Webcast starts at 7:40 a.m. EDT. Today’s stage raised the odds that some riders Sunday will be out to settle scores. Here’s some back story:

George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong rode on the same team together for years as Lance racked up 7 Tour de France victories in a row. Here and there George got a stage win or some other plum; outside the Tour he won national championships and other prizes, but riding in Lance’s shadow he seldom had a chance to shine at the Tour.

George now rides on U.S.-based Team Columbia-HTC. Lance now rides on Team Astana, sponsored by a consortium of businesses from Kazakhstan. Astana is angling for the overall victory at the end of the Tour next weekend, hoping either Lance himself or Alberto Contador will ride into the No. 1 slot. Columbia isn’t likely to place high in the general classification, but they have been pulling for stage victories. With one of the hottest sprinters on the Tour in Mark Cavendish, they’ve been cleaning up.

Since Astana’s and Columbia’s interests aren’t in direct opposition, both teams have been doing each other favors in this year’s Tour. Columbia knows that they can let Astana lead the peloton for most of a stage, and Astana’s riders are likely to get out of the way at the end of the day and not steal Cav’s thunder. Astana’s not after the stage wins. Likewise, Astana knows that on a tough mountain day they can let Columbia ride in front and protect Astana’s riders from having to work hard against the wind, saving their energy for the day’s critical climbs, when Astana will earn their way into the overall lead. Columbia isn’t trying to win the overall, so they don’t mind falling behind at the end of a mountain climb.

This is not a formal entente, but it’s an obvious advantage to both teams. The teams trained together on the Tour’s first rest day. Lance and George are old friends. They know each other’s minds. Nobody on the Tour is blind to this.

Columbia-Astana becomes, informally, a superteam that’s hard for everyone else to beat. (They also have some of the world’s best cyclists on board.)

So far, Astana has been riding right where they want to be: near the front, but not in the high-pressure first position. Traditionally, the mountains bring an opportunity for the general-classification riders to push uphill ahead of the lesser riders. Somewhere in here, everyone knows that Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck need to attack Astana and try to ride out in front of them. (So will Carlos Sastre, last year’s winner, if he thinks he’s able.) Astana needs to attack the current leader, Rinaldo Nocentini, and put either Lance or Alberto—or probably both of them—ahead in the GC.

And then there’s Garmin-Slipstream. Garmin is also a U.S.-based team. Their man Bradley Wiggins is riding just behind Lance and Alberto in the general standings. Their Christian Vande Velde is not far behind. So far, their sprinter Tyler Farrar has been pretty frustrated as he’s watched Columbia’s Mark Cavendish beat him to the finish line by fractions of a second four times already.

Well, today Garmin slapped George Hincapie in the face.

For all the years he’s raced the Tour, George Hincapie has never worn the yellow jersey, which belongs to the rider who’s at the top of the overall GC standings so far. Today George, who was more than six minutes behind the leader, rode way out in front of the peloton. Since he was seven or eight minutes in front of Nocentini, for a lot of today George was riding in “virtual yellow,” which is to say that if the race ended right there, he had a better time than anyone else.

Lance Armstrong had no reason to keep George Hincapie out of the yellow jersey. He knows his old friend isn’t going to be the first one over the Alps, and would give up the yellow gracefully to Lance or Alberto when the time came. For personal reasons I’m sure Lance would have been very happy to see his old friend ride into the lead, even if it was for only one day.

And Rinaldo Nocentini’s team, even though their man is in yellow right now, didn’t seem to object. They expect Nocentini to lose the yellow jersey before long; they were content to let George take it from him.

So the peloton wasn’t working terribly hard to catch up to George and the dozen other riders who were with him way out in front of the main pack. A lot of riders in the peloton were probably saving their strength for tomorrow’s stage, which will require every ounce of energy a rider can bring.

Then Garmin-Slipstream put the hammer down.

Who knows what was going through their heads? Maybe they wanted to take some revenge for the stages Tyler Farrar has lost to Columbia. Maybe they didn’t want to let Lance do any favors (or appear to) for George, so George wouldn’t feel obliged to help his old friend through tomorrow’s mountains. Maybe they wanted to keep the other top contenders from saving too much strength before tomorrow’s big test. Whatever it was, they started leading the peloton ahead faster and faster, until Big George was no longer the race leader.

Now remember, the Tour is a race. It’s unusual for anyone in a race to have to apologize for going faster. But at the end of the stage, with tongues clucking at how Big George’s apparent yellow jersey had been snatched from his shoulders, Lance Armstrong Tweeted indignantly to the world that he had deliberately not been working his hardest on this stage, so George could get the yellow—a curious brag to be making—and Astana’s manager Johan Bruyneel called Garmin’s tactics “BS.”

Later on Bruyneel dialed that back to “it’s not really sportive,” which is closer to the truth. Like any sport, the Tour offers opportunities to give a nod to a deserving player without sacrificing any advantage, and George Hincapie has certainly earned his way to recognition over a decade and a half of bike racing.

But the yellow jersey is not Lance Armstrong’s or Johan Bruyneel’s to deal out as an award to their friends; it is a prize to be earned. George rode his heart out today, and if that counts as winning, he won. But no team was under any obligation to ride more slowly to let him take yellow for a day. Maybe the classy move would have been to let him have it. And class, and style, and tradition, count more in the Tour de France than they do in some competitions.

(Incidentally, real money changes hands for teams and individuals when someone wins a stage victory or makes it over a mountain pass first or finishes the day with the yellow jersey. These are professional athletes. For Nocentini and his team to “let” someone take the yellow is not a hollow gesture; it’s a financial prize too. In some races, the victory also brings a “time bonus,” which means extra seconds are shaved off your finishing time; this year’s Tour is not offering time bonuses.)

I suspect Garmin’s “strategy” was just that if Lance wanted George to take yellow, for whatever reason, and if Garmin wanted their guy to beat Lance, they should combat Lance’s strategy. Fair enough in a short-term sense: The friend of my enemy is my enemy, and Lance’s own words were “The scenario of George in yellow was perfect for our team.” I’m sure there was also a trace of payback for Columbia’s domination of the sprint finishes. Garmin took no immediate satisfaction from riding harder today; none of their team finished in a better position today than they would have if Garmin had eased back.

But in the larger strategy, it will be interesting to see whether Garmin’s move today comes back to haunt them for the rest of the Tour. They do have two contenders in the top 10 riders overall, and they had a chance to compete in the Alps on an even footing with every other team. But now some other teams will think a little less of Garmin for their “not really sportive” move, and there may be less sportive assistance offered to their riders in the mountains.

More important—and Garmin knew exactly what they were doing—they have now ticked off both Team Columbia and Team Astana, and Lance Armstrong is famous for using anger intelligently to turn himself into an animal on the race course. Lance’s and George’s combined teams have plenty of firepower to surge out ahead of Garmin’s guys if they choose to, and now there’s all the more reason for Columbia to help Astana deal out a drubbing to Garmin.

This comes at a key time, since Astana just lost one of their major riders, Levi Leipheimer, to a broken wrist.

Stage profile from

Any stage in the Alps can break a lead rider unexpectedly, so the general leadership can change on any day in the mountains. But most mountain stages end with downhill finishes. Even when a rider doesn’t make it over the last peak in first place, he’s got a chance to catch up on the way down to the finish line.

But tomorrow’s finish line comes right at the end of a daunting climb. Whoever gets to the top first will win the stage. So Sunday was already likely to be a key stage in determining who will lead the pack into the final week of the race.

And now Garmin-Slipstream has stirred the hornet’s nest.

Lance Armstrong tried to impose his will on today’s stage, and Garmin frustrated his efforts. Lance has had trouble so far this season dominating any races. Maybe Garmin wanted him to get all het up and fire all his powder tomorrow, to try to get him to blow himself out before the rest of the week in the Alps. I doubt they thought that far forward. For the better part of a decade, trying to frustrate Lance Armstrong has been a losing gambit.

And Monday is a rest day, so there’s no reason tomorrow for any rider not to give it his all. Garmin may have punk’d themselves. Bob Roll, a former Tour rider turned commentator, forecasts that payback will be “swift and Old Testament-style.”

I’m looking forward to see how it plays out on the road.

(Tune in also at, for text updates and commentary, plus links to deeper background information on riders, teams, history, stage maps and elevation profiles, and so on.)

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