Tuesday, June 29, 2010

2010 Tour de France Preview: Does Lance Have a Chance?



"Few things can bring the country of France to a standstill. The start and end of world wars. A revolution. And, every summer, in the heat of July, a bicycle race, as millions line to roads just to catch a glimpse of the two wheeled missiles and the gods who ride them"

Jorgen Leth from the film "23 Days in July"


Stage 3. This early battleground could tell us a lot about what kind of a race this will be. Stage 3 finishes with seven sectors of cobblestone roads, some of which are very difficult. Traditionally, thin climbers (like defending champion Alberto Contador) have trouble riding the cobbles. In 2004, Spanish climber Iban Mayo lost huge chunks of time to Lance Armstrong on a similar cobbled stage. If Armstrong and his team can make Contador suffer on this stage--and take some time from him--then we could have a wild and dramatic race.

Before we get to how I think it will play out, let's look at the favorites.


Alberto Contador


Two-time winner of the Tour, and acknowledged best stage racer in the world. He has started four grand tours, and won them all. He chalked up some impressive early season wins in this year, and three weeks ago he won the l'Alpe D'Huez stage of the Dauphine. At 27, he is at the height of his powers. His team (a weakened Astana) is a question mark, but his ability is not. His only real weakness may be his impatient nature and lack of tactical nous.

Lance Armstrong


Seven-time winner. 3rd place last year after 3 years in retirement. Slow start this year, but in June finished 3rd in the Tour of Luxembourg and 2nd in the Tour of Switzerland. He's 38, but has said in the last week that he feels 28 again, and that his training and test times are close to where they were at his peak (at least on the climbs). Has a very strong, albeit very old, Radio Shack team. His time trialing has slipped--a lot. But, he's the smartest racer in the bunch, and may be peaking at the right time.

Andy Schleck


2nd place last year. Regarded as the 2nd best climber in the world, behind Contador. Not much of a time trialist, and not much in the way of race results this year. Crashed in training last week--scratched up. Has put all of his 2010 eggs in the Tour basket. May be the only rider in the world who can ride away from Contador in the mountains, and is backed by a strong Saxo Bank squad. He's 25 years old--should be coming into his peak as a rider.

Frank Schleck


Andy's brother, who has been better than Andy this season. Recently won the Tour of Switzerland, and was second in Luxembourg. Improved time trialist, gifted climber. May be a better bet this July than his brother. Also races for Saxo Bank. Frank seems to be a better all-around rider than Andy, yet always seems to sacrifice himself for his bother at the Tour. With his form this season, it may be the other way around this time.

Ivan Basso


Former Tour of Italy winner, then suspended two years for doping, and now recent Tour of Italy winner (two months ago). Does he have enough in the tank to win the Giro in May and then be competitive at the Tour? We'll see. If on form, he's a great climber and a good time trialist. Liquigas team is strong. Basso is this Tour's dark horse/wild card--he could be very good, or very bad.

Others:

Cadell Evans, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Bradley Wiggins, Christian Vandevelde. If anyone other than one of these ten riders wins the Tour, I will walk down Greenville Ave in a bra and panties.


How I Think It Will Play Out

Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) will win the prologue time trial, and the first yellow jersey. He will then try to keep yellow on Stage 3 over the cobblestones. Saxo Bank will have to be careful not to burn themselves out early helping Cancellara, as they'll need to save energy for the Schleck brothers and the mountains in the final two weeks. But they'll have yellow for a few days early.

Radio Shack will set a torrid pace on the cobbles near the end of Stage 3. Armstrong is good on those roads, and I think The Shack will try to rip the race apart. Contador knows this, but that doesn't matter--can he do anything about it? He trained a bit on the cobbles this spring, but he's never raced on them--big difference. I see him losing a couple on minutes on this stage. And that will set the stage for a delicious final two weeks. If Amrstrong is not able to pick up any time on Contador on this stage, then the race may be over.

The Alps come first this year, with one mountain top finish. The Pyrenees are more difficult, but will Ccontador be able to control himself until the final week? Will he need to make up time on Armstrong sooner that he thinks? I'm sure, given his mindset, that Contador will try to take time at Avoriaz, the first mountain top finish--Stage 8. If Contador has trouble dropping Lance on this stage, then lookout. If Amrstrong is climbing as well as he says, then this stage should be very interesting.

Stages 16 and 17 are brutal Pyrenean climbing stages. Most feel that Contador will stamp his authority on the race here, in the mountains that border his native country. I think we may have three or four men (Contador, Armstrong, and the Schelck brothers) all within a minute of each other at this point. Whoever can handle the Tourmalet the best will emerge as the likely yellow jersey in Paris. Safe bet here is Contador. He should leave the mountains with a couple of minutes advantage on his rivals, and he should add to that in the final time trial the day before the race ends.

My final picks:

1. Contador
2. Armstrong @ 3:00
3. F. Schleck @ 3:15
4. A. Schleck @ 4:00
5. Evans @ 5:00

(If I had just a little more faith in Conatador, I would pick him to win by 10 minutes. This is the year he should be able to do that, but part of me doesn't trust him, and part of me believes the way the Tour is raced these days--with race radios and director sportif's controling almost everything--that the days of the Merckx-like 10 and 20 minute gaps are over)

It's hard to pick against Contador--he's in his prime, he's had a nice season so far, he's motivated to beat Lance, and he's the best in the world. Lance will put up a good fight--he probably knows he can't beat Contador straight up, but over three weeks, anything can happen. Contador could crash, test positive, have one really bad day, get sick--anything can happen.

I expect Lance to be better than last year in the mountains, but I worry about his time trialing. You can win the Tour if you're in the top 5 in the time trials, but you can't finish 15th in the time trials as he's been doing. Lance can get time on the cobbles, stay close in the mountains, limit his losses in the time trials, and finish on the podium again.

I like Frank Schleck better than Andy this year, but Frank and Andy have a way of throwing away their own chances in order to help each other. If Frank gets greedy and doesn't worry about Andy, he can finish in the top 3. Andy could be playing possum, but something just doesn't look or feel right about him this season.

Cadell Evans is a cagey, gutsy rider who has twice finished second in this race. He'll ride well again. It will be good to see the world champion's jersey racing to win the Tour de France--we haven't seen that since the 90's with Abraham Olano and Greg LeMond.

It will be a fascinating three weeks. With Lance and Alberto on different teams this year, the race should be much more interesting than the '09 edition. This will be Lance's final Tour, and I think he'll go out with a bang--another podium finish, and a fight with Contador through the final week. But, in the end, 27 year old legs beat 38 year old legs.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Cup, From The Outside Looking In


I have never been a soccer fan, though not for a lack of trying (more on that later). I have no bias against the sport. I do not hate soccer. I do not hate soccer fans. Or soccer balls. Or soccer moms. On the show this week, we've taken a lot of grief from irate soccer fans who think we deserve a red card for our take on the world's most popular sport. Allow me some time to explain...

I have always been a fringe sport/Olympic sport fan. Like any good American, I've always enjoyed football, basketball and baseball. But I've also always loved learning about sports that most Americans don't know much about. If you've listened to our show for any amount of time, or read this blog, you know that cycling is my passion. Since childhood, I've also always followed and/or played tennis, golf, World Cup skiing, track and field, triathlon, surfing, motorcycle racing, F1--you name it, and I'm open to watching it, learning about it, and trying it.

I would stack my love for and knowledge about international sports up against anyone at The Ticket. Nobody was more into the Winter Olympics than I was. Bob has me on soccer, boxing and hockey. Corby has me on soccer and golf. George has me on golf and swimming. Norm has me on horse racing and gambling. But I'm guessing I've got everyone on most of the sports I listed above, and then some. As a kid, I thought it was great that everyone in school knew who Roger Staubach was, but that I was the only one who knew who Bill Rodgers was. Everyone knew of Larry Bird, but I was the only one who knew of Dave Scott. Everyone had heard of Pete Rose, but no one had heard of Niki Lauda. Walter Payton, Reggie Jackson, Dr. J? That's easy. But how about Laurent Fignon, Gustav Thoni and Guillermo Vilas? I knew them all, because I loved all sports.

Which brings us to soccer. I tried to play it as a kid. I lost interest in a hurry. Not being able to use your hands was a big drawback, I thought. It just didn't have the constant, hands on (sorry) excitement that other sports did. As an adult, I tried watching it, but it never hooked me. I tried getting into the World Cup in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the event--I even went to a game at the Cotton Bowl. Fun atmosphere, but it never grabbed me. I've tried (maybe not hard enough--still more on that later).

So, against that backdrop, and armed with that information--here are my unbiased, non-sarcastic, from the heart observations on the sport of soccer and the World Cup.


THINGS I LIKE

1. Commercial free halves. Greatness. No other sport gives you that bang for the buck. You invest 110 minutes total and it's over. You have zero commercials per half. There is not another sport in the world that can make that claim. I love it.

2. The passion. I would stack the passion of the soccer fan up against the passion of any other fan from any other sport. I've never experienced anything like standing on the side of a mountain road during the Tour de France--the fans are insane. But I hear that the soccer fans at a Premier League game are just as nuts, if not nuttier. I would like to experience that one day.

3. The international flavor. I love any event where, in the stands, you will hear 10 different languages being spoken and see 10 different flags being waved. I enjoy the political/geographical rivalries. I enjoy countries whose hatred for each other goes back centuries. You don't get that in many sports. I also love the color--the jerseys and logos, etc. Very rich.

4. The history. While the game itself doesn't reel me in, the history of the sport does. I like reading about Pele and Beckenbauer. I like looking at the list of the Cup winners. I like the stories behind the stories. Any sport with a thick, global history and with lots of characters and intrigue is ok by me.

5. The United States climb to dominance. Soccer is one of the few sports remaining that we haven't figured out. We've reached the top of the mountain in just about everything else, but the road map to international soccer success is still confusing to us. I like that we are a hungry nation. America is usually at it's best when it's hungry.


THINGS I DON'T LIKE

1. The lack of scoring opportunities. My biggest beef with the sport. There is too much time where the ball is being kicked around at midfield, or kicked out of bounds, or when play just bogs down to the point that you realize nothing exciting is going to happen in the next minute, guaranteed. However, in other sports, there is almost always a chance for a score or something dramatic at any moment. In baseball, every pitch gives you a scoring opportunity. In football, every snap delivers the promise of something big. In basketball, almost every trip down the floor results in a payoff. Even in a slow sport like golf, every single stroke for Tiger counts towards his score--every swing could win or lose the tournament. Every one. Yet, in soccer, I would estimate that you get a legitimate scoring chance once every 5-10 minutes. Not enough, for this reporter.

2. The clock. "Extra time" is the most unstable thing in international sports. Can you imagine watching an NFL game where time was kept on the field and basically hidden from the players and fans? How outraged would we be? I don't understand why the clock can't start at 45:00 and count back, and be stopped when the official wants it stopped. It would make the game much easier to follow, instead of forcing fans to constantly do math and then guess at how much time might remain.

3. The flopping. I don't like it in the NBA, and I like it even less in soccer. At least in the NBA they get right up. In soccer, they bring out a stretcher. Really??

4. The ABC/ESPN announcers. The American announcers (save for a few) act like they've been around the sport forever--they haven't. The Euro announcers that they've imported for this event sound like they would rather be somewhere else. That doesn't get me fired up. Heck, we get so few scoring opportunities, I want those announcers losing their sheet in those moments.

5. The hyperbolic soccer media and fandom. Claiming that the extra time goal against Algeria was one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history is a bit of a stretch to me. Likening it to the Miracle on Ice (Mike and Mike, Matt Laurer, and dozens of spare soccer scribes) is a joke. The Miracle on Grass? Come on. Should the U.S. beat Spain in the semi-finals on a last-second goal, then yes, let's all roll out the Lake Placid comparisons. But not beating Algeria (who didn't score a goal in any of their three World Cup games) in the preliminary round. As one listener said, it was the equivalent of Texas beating Iowa State 3-0 on a last second field goal. Nice, exciting win--but not epic.

MY PLEDGE

Then again, maybe it's me. So, as an olive branch to the soccer fan who thinks I haven't given the sport a chance or who thinks I haven't thought out my "soccer is boring" opinion, I offer this...

I've been told by many of you via email that the World Cup is not the best soccer to watch--that big-time European pro soccer is. So, I will get into Euro soccer for a season and see if it grabs me. I'll pick one team to follow (suggestions, please), and I will watch all of their games. I will read about it. I will talk about it. I will corner Bob at work and make him answer my questions, at gunpoint if that's what it takes. I will give it an honest effort. I will update my findings along the way. If, at the end of that season, it still hasn't grabbed me, then you'll just have to accept that one of the worlds best sports reporters finds the world's most popular sport boring.

So, let's get going. Let me know which league and team I should follow. Let me know when and where I can watch them. Let me know which websites are the best to keep up with them. I even pledge to attempt to see a game in person, if possible. It's just my way of showing you that I don't hate international sports, and that I don't hate soccer. I just don't get it. Yet.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Conference Realignment and The Year 2025

In sports, like in life, things change. The NFL used to be a 10 team league. The NBA used to be an 8 team league. The NHL used to be a 6 team league. They are not anymore. Things change.

College sports conferences used to be very small and very regional. The Big 6 became the Big 8. The Southwest Conference was 7, then added Tech and Houston. The Pac 8 added Arizona and Arizona St. to form the Pac-10. The Big 10 has grown. The SEC has grown. Things change.

Now, things are really changing. The demise of the Big 12 is the first step in what I believe will be a radical and total reshaping of Division One college football. Think about it this way: things have changed very rapidly in the last 15-20 years. In that time, the Big 12 has come and gone. Other conferences like the WAC and Mountain West and Big East and ACC and C-USA change seemingly all the time. The Big 10 is always looking grow. The haves want more, and they want to distance from the have nots. And it's going to happen in a big way, sooner than you think.

Consider the panic that has set in during the last week. You will, from here on out, see teams constantly trying to set themselves up in a super-conference. Nobody will want to be left out, which will cause things to happen at a rapid pace.

I believe we are headed for four, 20 or 22-team, super-conferences. By the year 2025 at the latest, things will look something like this:

The Pac-20

Northwest Division
Washington
Washington St
Oregon
Oregon St.
Boise St.

California Division
USC
UCLA
Stanford
Cal
San Diego State

Mountain Division
Arizona
Arizona St.
Utah
BYU
Colorado

Southwest Division
Texas
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Oklahoma
Oklahoma St.


The Big-20 (formerly the Big-10)

Plains Division
Nebraska
Iowa
Wisconsin
Minnesota
Missouri

Lakes Division
Michigan
Michigan State
Ohio State
Syracuse
Cincinatti

Northeast Division
Penn State
Pittsburgh
Boston College
Rutgers
West Virginia

Valley Division
Notre Dame
Indiana
Illinois
Northwestern
Purdue


The SEC

West Division
Arkansas
Alabama
Auburn
LSU
Ole Miss
Miss. State

North Division
Tennessee
Vanderbilt
Kentucky
Louisville
South Carolina
Maryland

South Division
Clemson
Georgia
Georgia Tech
Virginia
Virginia Tech
Wake Forest

East Division
Florida
Florida St.
Miami
Duke
North Carolina
NC State


The Super-West

Patrick Division
Kansas
Kansas State
Colorado State
Air Force
Wyoming

Adams Division
UNLV
Nevada
Fresno
Hawaii
New Mexico

Smythe Division
Baylor
SMU
TCU
Houston
UTEP

Norris Division
Marshall
Memphis
Ohio
Tulsa
Southern Miss

(Late editor's note: I just realized that the Super West might really suck in football, and nobody will think they deserve a Final Four bid. I may have to change out a few teams to create balance)

That's it. That is your new Division One. Each football team will play 11 games--4 or 5 against your division mates, 4 or 5 others against rotating members of your super-conference, and a few non-conference games. Then, at the end of the regular season, each conference will have a playoff featuring the four division winners to determine who goes to college football's Final Four.

The Final Four, of course, will feature the four conference champions. The schools will love this format because each conference will make lots of money with their own, four-team playoff. College football will make a ton of money in the end with the Final Four. We will have a playoff, conferences will make a ton of cash, and everyone will be happy--everyone except the former division one schools who got left out. I can't really see that any of the schools left behind would have much of a case, based on program success, revenue, stadium, size, etc. Anyway, that's life. Things change.

Given the events of the last 7 days, the exact configuration of each conference is of course subject to change. I may not hit on all of the teams and their exact landing spots, but I am confident that we will be looking at this kind of set-up. And perhaps a lot sooner than 2025, because things change. They always have in conference and league lineups, and they always will.