94 Seconds in the Tour de France

This year’s Tour de France demanded more patience, constant struggle and strategy from the Tour’s top riders than any Tour in the last decade. The long lead up to the Pyrenees and Alps, early crashes, and the closely matched mountain attacks and counter attacks by the top riders have left the final outcome of the Tour unknown until the final stages, and it pushed Andy Schleck to risk everything in one of the boldest solo mountain attacks I’ve ever seen?a move that positioned Schleck to take the maillot jaune the following day.

The usual Tour opening of a first day time trial was replaced with an open road race with the whole field up for grabs; a change that produced a nervous peloton and with it came lots of accidents. This is a tour with lots of dramatic crashes. Top riders have crashed out, while others, including pre-race favorite like Alberto Contador were caught behind massive wrecks leaving them with serious time losses. During Stage One, being caught behind a wreck left Contador a minute and a half behind his rival Andy Schleck. Several great riders crashed out this year, including, Chris Horner, Andr?as Kl?den, Jurgen van de Walle, David Zabriskie, with Alexander Vinokourov finishing his career with a broken pelvis.

The wrecks have been devastating. On stage nine a French press car suddenly swerved to miss a tree root growing out onto the road, and hitting Antonio Flecha and sending his crumped bike down to the pavement, while Flecha’s recoil pitched Dutch rider Johnny Hoogerland off the road into a barbwire fence?all while riding a speeds close to 35 miles per hour. Yet a few minutes later both were back on bikes, bloodily riding on. Flecha somehow stayed at the front of end of the race and Hoogerland finished the stage retaining the King of the Mountains jersey (for points awarded by dominating mountain portions of stages).

While not in the foreground, doping continues to cast shadows over the tour. Three-time Tour champion, and last year’s winner, Alberto Contador was booed at opening ceremonies this year over still pending accusations of doping in last year’s Tour. Because of the slow calendar governing the review of Contador’s doping accusations, his hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s Findings will not begin until August 1st, so Contador rides this grueling Tour with the daunting possibility that he will lose his last two tour champion titles (both would go to Andy Schleck) just days after the conclusion of this year’s Tour.

Post facto disqualification is usually an ugly way for a rider to win a race like the Tour de France. Just ask ?scar Pereiro, whose 2006 second place finish in the Tour was upgraded to Tour champion after Floyd Landis was disqualified for doping. Pereiro complained bitterly throughout the 2007 Tour that he was granted none of the usual respect or courtesies afforded the champion during the race, and his victory will always be one marked by an asterisk. But given that Contador gained his 39 second victory over Schleck in an attack launched against race leader Schleck during a minor mechanical mishap that many, like me, considered if not cheating, then extremely poor form, many fans would see at least one of any such post-facto championships for Schleck as delayed justice. Last year, Schleck handled Contador’s victory with grace, but many fans never completely forgave Contador.

I share the view with many cycling fans that Contador likely doped no more or less than most of the other riders. With stage victories comes increased test scrutiny, and increased scrutiny means both greater chances for false positives?and for getting caught. We are now left to wonder if Contador’s inability to dish out the sort of endless toying attacks on radical climbs that he hit Michael Rasmussen within the Tour four years ago, or in his freakish Stage Fifteen win in the 2009 Tour, is perhaps one measure of riding clean.

The focus on doping in cycling creates its own distortions, distortions which paradoxically exist because of cycling’s reputation is tarnished as a dirty sport, yet this reputation exists only because it remains the only sport to persistently and rigorously test its athletes at such high levels. If professional baseball, football or basketball ever adopted bicycling rigorous testing policies, teams would crumble without enough players to suit up and play.

Though retired, Lance Armstrong remains in the news as the US Food and Drug Administration continues criminal investigations of alleged drug use. Former teammate, Floyd Landis (who lost his Tour de France 2008 champion title in a testosterone doping scandal) publicly claims he and Armstrong both took illegal blood transfusions in the 2004 tour, while riding for U.S. Postal?a move bringing special interest of the federal government because of the team’s federal sponsorship. Things look grim for Armstrong, and his own ego may present more problems for him than the growing line of former teammates now ready to testify of firsthand knowledge of his involvement in doping, and Armstrong may risk perjury if he continues on his current course maintaining zero involvement in doping.

All of this impacts the Tour, and while it is impossible to know how clean any race is, the fear of getting caught has grown and spread to new levels, and there is at least an appearance of cleaner racing?with slower recoveries, and fewer risky attacks. Only a single rider, Alexandr Kolobnev, left the Tour this year when his own team suspended him after drug tests raised doping questions?Kolobnev’s Stage Five urine sample indicated the presence of a banned diuretic that can be used to mask the presence of performance enhancing drugs. But gone are the days of just a few years ago when a whole slate of top riders are disqualified for doping.

The most dramatic stage of the 2011 Tour was last Thursday’s Stage 18, a day with three non-categorized climbs (long climbs so steep they are rated beyond the standard 1-3 rating system) and a grueling high altitude finish on the famed Col de Galibier. Andy Schleck began the day in fourth place, 2-minutes and 36-seconds behind race leader, Thomas Voeckler, after days of racing in the Pyrenees and the two previous days in the Alps had so far left him unable to leave distance between himself and the other race leaders. Andy Schleck made a daring move over 60 Km from the finish in the midst of the brutal slope of the non-classified climb of the Col d’lzoard. He sprinted away to try and capture the just over two and a half minute cumulative lead that Thomas Voeckler held over him. Moments before his attack, Schleck wrenched his head around grinning while looking at the faces of the other riders sizing them up before wrenching away in an uphill sprint, leaving his prime rivals Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans behind in the peloton. The look on Schleck’s face as he sized-up rival before attacking in the midst of racing up a hill most humans would abandon said a lot. While Schleck’s face seldom reveals his own state of pain, the calm grin as he looked at the small group of race leaders said everything: here was someone who could remain calm while undertaking an almost impossible acceleration that if it failed could crack him, leave him losing his position in the standings and with difficulties recovering during the final days of the Tour. The group left Schleck’s breakaway go unchecked simply because with sixty kilometers of treacherous climbing and descending still to go, the other race leaders bet that Schleck could not maintain the effort, and they let him go unchallenged.

Schleck’s team, Leopard Trek, laid a brilliant tactical foundation for this move by running two riders ahead of the peloton in a breakaway, leaving Andy with a rider to support him in the climb, and one to help with the dissent. Schleck joined a six-man group up in the breakaway as he approached the final ascent of the legendary Col de Galibier climb, and then climbed off by himself.

Andy Schelck’s brother Frank hung behind Contador, matching and repaying any effort that came. At twenty-three kilometers from the finish, Schleck held a 3:15 lead over the peloton, at fourteen kilometers he’d stretched this to 4:00, but at the finish his lead compressed to just fifteen seconds under the 2:36 he needed to seize the yellow jersey from Voeckler. But more important than taking the jersey was the time he took out of Cadel Evans’ lead over him, gaining almost a minute on Evans. With a time trial on Saturday’s penultimate day of the Tour, Schleck didn’t just need time on the yellow jersey; he needed time on Contador and Evans.

Friday’s Stage 19 was another day of unclassified mountains, and early on Alberto Contador came alive and led an aggressive uphill breakaway with Andy Schleck and Voeckler following, but soon Voeckler fell away. Twelve and a half kilometers from the finish at the top of the final climb, Contador tried to reenact Andy Schleck’s tactic of the previous day and began attacking on the grueling final climb, and the Schlecks were unable to check him. Cadel Evans hung with Andy Schleck as they followed Contador and finished the stage together about a minute behind Contador.

The importance of all these final moves is that the following day’s time trial (a stage in which all riders ride the short course, 40 km, one at a time alone racing against the clock) will determine who rides to Paris on in yellow on Sunday. Evans and Contador have been better time trialers than Andy Schleck, so Contador’s move was designed to cut enough time get within reach of Schleck on the penultimate day, and Evans worked to not lose any further time to Schleck, with hopes of gaining enough time on Schleck in the time trials to ride to Paris in yellow. But Schleck held Contador’s lead to a manageable distance, and Contador only gained about a minute on the 4:39 gap he had behind Schleck at the day’s beginning.

As the premiere cycling race, obviously winning the Tour de France requires incredible physical strength. But everything about Andy Schleck uphill in mountain stages confirms just how mental cycling is. He presents himself as a modest and unassuming strong rider, but he also has a ragged determination, an ability to withstand incredible pain and to remain alert during 100 kilometer per hour descents, with the rare daring streak needed to pull off the sort of victory he won in the 18th stage. When standing next to a great sprinter like Mark Cavendish, Schleck’s boyish slight build and wiry-thin, gracile arms makes it appear unlikely that these athletes could be competing in the same sport, much less that Schleck could dominate a race. Obviously, Schleck’s physical strength is remarkable, but his mental focus and ability to withstand punishment is difficult to fathom.

Today’s Stage Twenty time trial set Evans against Schleck, and despite Schleck’s 57-seconds cumulative time advantage over Evans before the stage, Evans is an exceptionally strong time trailer, and he clawed back his lost time, winning the maillot jaune off of Andy Schleck’s back. Schleck gave it everything, but he looked as if his superhuman effort in Alps was taking its toll as he struggled to find strength while Evans rode with firm power and speed, besting Scheck’s time by two minutes and thirty two second, and leading the Tour by ninety four seconds.

The form of the Tour dictates that sprinters battle over the stage win on the final ride to Paris, but it would be poor form to fight for yellow jersey in Paris, so Cadel Evans wins the Tour with this impressive, hard won time trial victory. Tomorrow’s ride in to Paris will end with a battle of great sprinters pitting Mark Cavendish against Tyler Farrar, but it was the work of Voeckler, Contador, Basso, Evans, and the Schleck brothers in the mountains that showed how a great Tour combines strength, strategy, nerve, and for fans of Andy Schleck: heartbreak.

David Price is an avid bicycle commuter who only races cyclists who don’t know they’re racing him. He has been the CounterPunch Tour de France correspondent since 2003. His new book, Weaponizing Anthropology, has just been published by CounterPunch / AK Press. He can be reached at: dprice@stmartin.edu


David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.