Sunday, July 25, 2010

Was It A Good Tour?

The man who we all thought would win the 2010 Tour de France, Alberto Contador, won. He was far from dominant, yet nobody was able to take advantage of his less-than-stellar form. Contador didn't win a single stage. He struggled in the final time trial (when is the last time a Tour winner finished 35th in the final time trial--never??). The Spaniard was very beatable this July, but nobody was good enough or lucky enough to knock him off.

It was a very entertaining three weeks, yet the Contador/Schleck battle almost got a little stale to me, with neither able to drop the other on the climbs. The fireworks we all waited for in the mountains never really came about because the two were so evenly matched. Still, the race produced some interesting twists and turns, good story lines, and a result in doubt until the final weekend.

I loved the route of the Tour this year. The cobbled stage was great. There were enough flat stages for the sprinters, but not enough to bog down the flow of the race. There were rolling stages with tricky finishes like the one to Mende. The Alps did not disappoint, and the four days in the Pyrenees were terrific. Thumbs up to the race organizers for finally understanding how to lay out a three week stage race and keep it interesting--something they have had a tough time doing since 1989.

One thing we will all remember about this Tour: crashes. They were everywhere, and costly to many of the GC contenders. Frank Schleck broke a collarbone. Cadel Evans broke an elbow. Lance Armstrong crashed three times on the stage to Avoriaz, basically taking him out of the race in week one.

Could Lance have mustered a challenge had he not hit the pavement so often during that stage? What if he hadn't flatted on the cobbles? I think the answer is no. As good as I felt about his chances to podium before the race, I thought it became apparent during the event that his age had caught up to him. He had one great moment--the prologue. But after watching him for three weeks, two things stuck out to me...

One--his cadence in time trials is not what it was. He used to turn the gear at what seemed like 150 rpm. Now, it's more like a normal 90 rpm. I don't have a answer for that, other than to say his system is not trained like it was to put so much pressure on his aerobic engine. Second--he lacks that pure power and pure explosion in the mountains. At 28, Lance could accelerate and ride away from the best climbers in the world. At 38, he seems to only be able to follow wheels--and just for a while before having to give in and go at his own pace. He's still good at climbing and good at the time trials, but he's not great anymore--understandable for a racer of his age and recent retirement. It makes his 3rd place last year look even more impressive.

Many of us were fooled by Lance's good June results, but in hindsight perhaps we should have looked at his entire season for a better indication of what his Tour would be like--underwhelming. That's OK--I think he's done enough over his career for us to not worry about a 23rd place finish this year. And, as some consolation, Radio Shack won the team competition, giving Lance one last appearance on the podium in Paris, which was cool.

If Lance had been a few years younger, or come to the race in great form, he would have smashed Contador. For whatever reason, Alberto was below his level from last year. Maybe Schleck made him work harder than expected in the mountains. Maybe his race build-up was less than it should have been. Maybe he was ill. In the end, it was one of the least-impressive Tour wins ever. Add to that the controversy over not waiting for Andy on the Port de Bales, and you have a race that Contador would probably like to have a few do-overs in. I can't help but think that somewhere the likes of Merckx and Hinault are thinking "35th in the last time trial and he won the race--I would have crushed him!"

Will Andy Schleck win this race next year? I'm not so sure. Everyone is raving about his final time trial and how much he pushed Contador, but he finished 44th! I thought it was much more that Alberto had a bad day than Schleck having a good day. Andy will have to greatly improve his time trialing still to beat Alberto, because I don't think he'll ever be able to just ride away from him in the mountains.

Get ready for the Contador vs Schleck show for many more Tours. They are both young enough to be at the top for another 7-10 years. Basso? Menchov? Sanchez? Evans? I just don't see another real challenger to Contador's throne outside of Andy. And, there don't seem to be any really bright young hopes on the horizon. Of course, five years ago we didn't really know the names Contador and Schleck, so you never can tell.

Now, anybody up for the Vuelta?