Something happened last July that I genuinely did not think I would ever see. A British cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, won the Tour de France, and I was there on the Champs-Elysées to see him do it.
Obviously I follow the Tour de France religiously, even of it does mean tolerating Phil Ligget’s increasingly inane commentary. (Next year I am going to learn Flemish and watch it on Sporza.) By the end of the second week it was obvious that, barring a jour sans in the Pyrenees, Bradley Wiggins was going to win. With that thought in mind my mate Lord Wallington called me on the Monday suggesting that we make a trip to Paris to witness history.
” Brilliant idea” said I. So at five thirty on a bright and clear Sunday morning at the end of July, six middle-aged blokes set off for Paris in a car designed to seat five.
It was a fairly uneventful journey, punctuated only by a bacon roll and a cup of coffee while waiting for the shuttle and an inconsequential wrong turn on the peripherique. Somehow, we assumed by luck rather than judgement, Lord Wallington found a parking space just of the Place Charles de Gaulle (L’Arc de Triompe). Despite having to negotiate three roads coming off the Arc de Triompe we all made it to the Champs-Elysées to join the hundred thousand other Brits also there to see history made.
We had a few hours to kill while the peleton drank champagne and generally faffed about on their way into Paris. Finding something for lunch was in order. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a place just round the corner from where we had set up camp offering a cheese and ham sandwich and a cold beer for 5€.
The publicity caravan arrived shortly after lunch, and while reasonably entertaining for a while, partially clothed young men and women dancing to French disco music on top of a truck does get boring after a while. What I wanted was some cycling.
Finally at around four in the afternoon the peleton arrived on the Champs-Elysées. George Hincape led them onto the finishing circuit because this was his last ever Tour de France and he had been a participant in every single tour ever ridden, or at least quite a lot of them. Shortly after that the attacks started, most of them were fairly short-lived, but one attack featuring everyone’s favourite baroudeurJens Voigt and about a dozen others finally got somewhere and dragged out a lead of about 30 seconds. Sky and Liquigas kept it under control and with about a couple of laps to go it looked as if it was all going to come together when The Jensie took of again with a couple of companions. The move was always doomed to fail because Sky had decided that Mark Cavendish deserved a reward for all his faithful bottle carrying duties and sure enough with about 3km to go everything was back together. The Yellow jersey set about leading out the Rainbow jersey and shortly afterwards ‘Cav’ crossed the finishing line with his hands in the air.
Not that we saw any of that. Having positioned ourselves near the top end of the Champs, we caught a quick flash of the peleton every lap as it raced past our position at 55 kph. This video gives a rough idea of what we saw.
Neither did we see Wiggins presented with his trophy and final yellow jersey, but we did hear him announce the drawing of the raffle.
We hung around to watch the parade lap. After the race all the riders, and often the managers, do a lap of the circuit and in Sky’s case they included by Bradley Wiggins’ son. I did actually manage to get a photo of Wiggo in his yellow jersey, while he was doing the parade lap.
After that it was time to head home. We stopped for dinner in a place called L’Isle Adam, just outside of Paris. A good steak-frites and a beer later and we were on our way back up the Autoroute to Calais and the last shuttle of the day.
We arrived back in Wallington about 2:30 in the morning. To quote Wallace and Grommit “It had been a grand day out.”
I said in my last post that I would take a look at the potential winners of the Maillot Vert (Points) and the Maillot a Pois (King of the Mountains) competitions in this post. In these competitions, especially the King of the Mountains competition, it is a bit harder to pick out the potential winners.
Normally in the Green Jersey competition it is fairly easy to find the riders who could win it. You start the list with Mark Cavendish, then add a few others. This year predicting a winner is complicated by the Olympic Road Race taking place six days after the Tour de France finishes. The Olympic course suits the type of rider who would normally be targeting the Green Jersey, so there is a question mark over whether some or indeed any of the contenders will make it to Paris. Some, like previous Green Jersey winners Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen, have decided to opt out of the Tour completely, in order to concentrate on the Olympics. Other contenders may be tempted to drop out before the Pyrénées in order to fully rested on the start line in London. All of this makes predicting a winner difficult. In addition, this this years route appears to feature fewer stages that are suited to out and out sprinters.
The short answer is I haven’t got a clue. Alexander Vinokurov has said that he would like to at least try to win the thing. Every French breakaway artist would like to spend a day or two in the jersey. A climber like Dan Martin or Samuel Sanchez, who is unlikely to feature as a G.C. contender could take it, but for sentimental reasons I think it would be nice if David Moncoutie won the Polka Dots in what will be his final Tour de France.
It is time to fire up the blog again. Le Tour de France est presque sur nous mes enfants. Next Saturday on the 30th of June one hundred and ninety-eight riders set off from Liège in Belgium in the hopes that one of them will pull on that final maillot jaune on the Champs-Élysées three weeks later. It is starting a week earlier than it normally would because of some silly multi-sport event that London is staging the following week.
(More London-based whines about the Olympics will follow over the next month or two.)
One hundred and ninety-eight riders start but only one can win, so who is it likely to be? I can tell you who it wont be. It won’t be Andy Schleck, he is out with a fractured pelvis sustained in a fall in the Criterium du Dauphine. It won’t be Alberto Contador, he is banned until August because of doping violations or eating a dodgy steak, depending on whose story you believe. It won’t be Mark Cavendish, he will lose twenty minutes the first time the road tilts seriously upwards and at least another twenty on every subsequent occasion.
This years route goes clockwise round the country, with the Alps coming before the Pyrénées.This is normally reckoned to favour the all-round riders like Cadel Evans against the pure climbers like Frank Schleck. This year’s course also features two long individual time-trials for the first time in a few years. All in all including the prologue there is about 100km of racing against the clock. Again this doesn’t help the climbers. The climbers will have to think about how they are going to win this years tour. I don’t think the will be able to wait to the final climb of the day before they attack, because they won’t gain enough time that way. They will need at least three minutes over the likes of Cadel Evans or Bradley Wiggins going into the final time trial to have a hope of winning. The moyen montange stages could prove to be crucial. The other stage that I think will be important is Stage 16. This the classic Pyrénéan stage from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon as won by Robert Millar back in 1983.
So who is going to win? For the first time, probably ever, we have a British rider, Bradley Wiggins, with a realistic chance of overall victory. Some bookmakers have him odds-on to win, which is ridiculous. There are far to many variables in a three-week stage for any rider to be odds-on to win it. Wiggins isn’t Frankel, streets ahead of the opposition, he is one of about five or six riders with a realistic chance of winning the race. They are in my opinion, and in no particular order; Cadel Evans (last years winner), Frank Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal.
Cadel Evans (BMC) (Aus) has been there done that and last year finally got the tee-shirt. There will be no doubt about who is the BMC team leader and what the teams object is. He is strong, determined, more than a good enough climber to stay with the best in the mountains, and even if he can’t always match the sudden accelerations of the pure climbers, has repeatedly shown the ability to drag himself back up to them and limit his losses. He is also one of the peleton’s better time-trialists, especially at the business end of a three-week tour. This years course probably suits him even better than last years. However last year he was one of the oldest riders ever to win the Tour de France and this year he is one year older. At the Critérium du Dauphiné he did not seem to be at full form, but neither was he at his best last year, besides there is a saying in the peleton “Good Dauphiné, bad Tour, bad Dauphiné, good Tour”, meaning that it is possible to peak too soon.
Bradley Wiggins(Sky) (Gbr) had a good Dauphiné, he won it. He has also won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie this year. He is undoubtedly the man in form. He is a similar rider to Evans, in that he is a good climber albeit one who generally prefers to climb at a steady pace and he is probably the best time-trialist in the world at the moment. If he is within three minutes of anyone bar Cadel Evans at the start of the final time-trial I will expect him to in Yellow by the end of it. I think that he can even give Evans a minute. In the three races that he has won this year he and his team have made controlling the race look easy. However in the races up to now the team has been wholly dedicated to making sure that Wiggins is on the top step of the podium. In the Tour Mark Cavendish will be looking for stage wins and probably trying to keep the Green (Points) Jersey that he won last year. The riders required to take care of “Cav” and lead him out in the sprints are not the same type of rider that Wiggins needs in the mountains. Possible conflict there.
Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan-Trek) (Lux) is one of the climbers in the race who could win it. Normally he is slightly in his younger brother Andy’s shadow. Andy being out injured perversely could actually help Frank. Last year they had a tendency to try to make sure that one brother’s attack wasn’t putting the other brother into difficulties, so when they did attack in the mountains, they didn’t persist, allowing the other riders to come back to them. This year when he goes, he wont have to worry about his little brother being left. Having said that, he is generally not as strong a climber as is brother and in last years final time trial he lost 2:34 to Cadel Evans over a course that was 11 km shorter than this years. In addition, rumour has it that he (and Andy) are not happy with their current team and the Team Manager (Johan Bruyneel) in particular. So while I think that Frank Schleck might influence who wins I don’t think that it will actually be him who stands on the top step in Paris.
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) (Ita) is another rider whose main strength is his climbing, but he also rides a reasonable time-trial, if not in the same league as Wiggins and Evans. He has won a Grand Tour before, the 2010 Vuelta d’Espana (Tour of Spain) so he knows how to defend a lead if necessary. Liquigas’ normal tactics in the mountains seem to be set a high but steady pace to make sure that there are no surprise attacks and then for the leader to try to nip off at the end. This plays right in to the hands of the likes of Wiggins and Evans, both of whom are quite happy to sit behind anyone who is setting a steady pace, almost no matter how high. What they find more difficult is a pace that is constantly changing, having to constantly put in an extra effort to drag themselves back up to an attacker. In this years Giro d’Italia those tactics didn’t do the eventual winner any harm.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) (Can) won this years Giro d’Italia in the final time-trial. A similar rider in many ways to Evans and Wiggins, this years course should suit him. He rides for a team that works as a team, and regards a victory for anyone on the team as a victory for the team. He will have some of the most experienced riders in the peleton working for him, but the Tour de France is a step up from the Giro, and we will also need to find out if he has fully recovered from the Giro, something that might not become apparent until the third week.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) (Ned) is a tall skinny Dutch climber with a reasonable time-trial. He won this years Tour of California with a superb attack on the principle mountain stage, so his form is there. The Tour of California, however doesn’t attract a very strong field because it takes place at the same time as the Giro. A fourth place at the recent Tour de Suisse show that he is still up there. His main problem, however is a tendency to fall off.
Because the course suits all-rounders rather than climbers, and because the two climbers (Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador) who are able to disrupt the equilibrium of the all rounders in the mountains are both out of the race, this is how I think the final podium will be. It’s an all Commonwealth affair;
First Bradley Wiggins
Second Cadel Evans
Third Ryder Hesjedal
Of course a rider could appear, if not exactly from nowhere, but from below the radar, and surprise us all. Last year’s White Jersey winner Pierre Rolland is one who springs to mind.
I shall have a look at the Green (points) Jersey and the Polka-dot (King-of-the-Mountains) Jersey competitions in my next post.