As I am writing this, I am watching the second stage of the Tour de France, and what was looking like a routine day for the sprinters has just gone ‘live’ because of a split in the main field with about 28km to go. That split was the result of strong cross-winds, which always causes some drama in the peloton as riders get into echelons to try to “hide” from the wind. Slight lapses of concentration and gaps can easily appear. If the riders at the front are alert to this and they force the pace, gaps can be created pretty quickly. A lack of organization in the dropped group then contributes and what should be a routine day out can have crucial bearings on the overall race.
Those in the 27-strong front group include the Maillot Jaune Fabian Cancellara, Lance Armstrong, and just about the whole of the Columbia-High Road team, who were responsible for the pace at the front, as they tried to put their sprinter Mark Cavendish in for his second stage win to go with yesterday’s comprehensive win.
Assuming they stay clear, the odds are that Cavendish will claim win number 2, but it’s the time gap to the main field, which includes all the other big names, that is of most interest in the larger scheme of the race. Alberto Contador, pre-race favourite and best-placed of the GC contenders in the opening prologue time-trial, is in the second group, and so the debate around who the team leader for Astana would be is about to be given a little more flavour!
Currently, the time-gap to the chasing group is 35 seconds, with 23 km remaining, and by the time I finish this post, we’ll know just how much time, if any, has been lost as a result of the split.
Until then, a quick look back on Saturday’s time-trial:
Cancellara supreme, but Contador lays down his marker
The opening prologue was won by the favourite, Fabian Cancellara, which was no great surprise. Most of the attention was reserved for the Astana team, who find themselves with the “dilemma” of having potentially 4 overall race winners in their team. Between Kloden, Leipheimer, Armstrong and Contador, one of the main talking points of this race is how they’ll manage the team. The main focus has been on Armstrong and Contador, and team manager Johan Bruyneel announced before the Tour that Contador would be the team leader.
That did little to dispel questions around Contador’s leadership, and so when he finally left the start gates after 7pm, the pressure was on to see whether he could do the ride of a leader. Given that by this time, three of his team-mates were already in the top 5, he had to do a great ride.
And he did. The first check-point at 7.5km saw Contador fastest of all by 6 seconds, ahead even of the time-trial specialists like Brad Wiggins and Cancellara. Admittedly, it was an overall uphill section, but it showed that Contador has some great form. He did fade a little in the second half, losing 24 seconds to Cancellara and eventually finishing second about 18 seconds down.
But, he did succeed at establishing the “pecking order” within his own team, at least for the time-being. The gap to Armstrong, incidentally, is another 22 seconds, with Leipheimer 12 seconds down and Kloden only 4 back of his team leader.
It’s a marker that the team time-trial will belong to Astana – 4 out of the top 10 says that they should win tomorrow’s stage and put their top 4 men into the top 4 of the overall race.
Sastre – the biggest loser
The big losers from the opening prologue were Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre. Sastre, the defending champion, was 1:06 down on Cancellara, and 48 seconds behind Contador. Given that this year’s Team Time-trial has no limited time losses (the last two have had a “cap” on the time that can be lost), Sastre faces the real prospect of going into the Pyrenees almost 2 minutes down. That was always going to be the case, of course, a 48 second gap over a 15.5km time-trial is big and damaging to his overall chances.
Contador – too strong too soon?
Contador’s ride was excellent, but there is doubt in my mind as to whether he might be too strong too soon. He was the best to the first time-check, and was crowned Spain’s time-trial champion only a week ago, both signs of a rider in top shape.
The problem is that we know that in a three-week race like the Tour, you have to be ‘underdone’ on the start line, because the cumulative training effect of the first week or two leaves you either slightly overtrained by week three, or completely overcooked. Most of the research around the Tour has found that power outputs are about 10% lower by week 3 than in week 1, and so the race is a war of attrition. No one gets better, but without a doubt, some riders get a lot worse than others, and a big part of it is how primed they are in the first week.
For Contador to be that good so early raises some serious doubts about whether he’ll be strong at the end. This is particularly true if you bear in mind that Contador was in great shape as far back as Paris-Nice. In that race, Contador dominated the race until he blew completely when he became hypoglycemic. That happens, of course, but the more important thing is to note that Contador was in good condition back in May, and now enters the Tour de France again in great shape. Physiologically, there may be danger signs for Contador.
This tour is especially fascinating because of the climb up Mont Ventoux on the second last day. Ordinarily, the overall GC contendors will rely on the big mountains to do the damage, and then limit time-losses on the last time-trial (which usually comes on the second last day). The biggest time-gaps are created around days 7 to 14, and not day 20, which will happen this year.
So the climb up the Mont Ventoux means that this is a very long tour, and there is a very real chance of massive time gaps being created on Mont Ventoux – they will be larger than the gaps that can be created in a time-trial.
Therefore, it’s more important than ever for riders to start the Tour slightly under-trained, so that they can maintain their form during the Tour. The concern for Contador is that he’s already there, and has only one way to go. Time will tell…
Stage 2 – the race is “live”
Stage 2 is done – it’s been won by Mark Cavendish, his second stage win. But the big news is around the main pack, and Contador, who has lost 39 seconds to Armstrong. So too have Cadel Evans, the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre and all the other GC contenders. It is Armstrong who now assumes the position of highest placed rider on his team, and if the Astana team delivers in tomorrow’s Team Time-trial, then Armstrong will wear yellow by this time tomorrow.
Team leadership questions raised anew
And so the same questions will be raised anew – Armstrong in yellow, Contador to be the domestique? Or will the team be split in support of BOTH when we hit the Pyrenees come Friday? Many have brought up the great duels between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault in 1986, when LeMond was the stated leader of the team, and Hinault was meant to be riding in support of him. Hinault had other ideas, and attacked his own team-mate on numerous occasions, unable to contain his own competitive instincts.
Having laid down a marker in the prologue, Contador might have felt that his claims to team leadership were established. Today’s time loss did little to retain the pecking order, and as many suspected, the battle within the Astana team might take centre-stage.
In Armstrong’s own words, the day before the Tour began, were “If Alberto is better, I will ride for him”. Note the conditional nature of the support – “If” is a very loaded descriptor, a loophole that keeps options open, which is precisely why so much doubt exists around the team. There is no commitment there, no guarantee of support, and that means Contador is under pressure from within.
And more to the point, Contador’s case for being “better” is a lot less clear cut than it was an hour ago…