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  • Tour de France Preview - Part 2

       June 30, 2005

    Yesterday we looked at the race basics, the field and the contenders for the general classification (GC). Today we will look at the stages, tactics, and how the race might unfold. The stages consist of:

    • two individual time trials
    • one team time trial
    • eight flat road stages
    • six mountain stages
    • and four transitional stages that have significant climbs, but avoid the true mountains
    Traditionally, the GC will be decided in the time trials and the mountains. The sprinters will contend for the flat stages, and the breakaway artists will try their legs out on the transitional stages.

    The race starts July 2nd with a 19km individual time trial. This short time trial is flat and does not have many technical turns. It is the first chance for the riders contending for the overall to take time from their rivals. Lance Armstrong will be favored, although several of the other GC contenders could also win. Armstrong and Jan Ullrich will want to do well on this stage. Riders like Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso and Francisco Mancebo will be looking to limit their losses.

    After stage one, you can take the vacation we talked about yesterday as only the team time trial will interrupt a series of stages unlikely to affect the overall. Stages two and three are flat stages. There will be some early breakaways of riders from small teams going out to leads of several minutes. Because these riders are working hard and are out there alone you will begin to root for them. In the last 50 kilometers, however, they will be reeled in by the group (to your disappointment) and the race will come down to a sprint for the finish line. Donít be disappointed. After a while you will appreciate the beauty with which the main group, ambling along unconcerned, turns it on just in time to reel in the last of the escapees with 10km or so to go. You will also then appreciate the breakaway artist who has enough gas left in the tank to leave his fellow escapees and hold off the group to win by a minute as occasionally happens.

    Stage four is the team time trial. The riders compete as teams for time bonuses depending on their order of finish. The time of the team is the time of their fifth place rider. Any riders who do not finish with the team get their actual time up to a loss limit. This is a very important stage as the GC contenders can take time from their rivals again. The team that is now Discovery Channel has traditionally done well on this stage, but with two new riders, they may lose some time this year. If they do lose time in this stage, it will be a sign of some weakness in Armstrongís armor.

    Stages five, six and seven are likely to be sprint finishes with the possibility of a breakaway on stage five.

    Stage eight features the first serious climb of the Tour, it is only a Category 2 climb, but it is near the end of the stage. Most likely the stage will be won by a long breakaway, with the sprinters teams disinterested in chasing because of the finishing climb. With the serious mountains only a rest day away, the teams contending for the GC will also not be interested in chasing a breakaway. Donít be surprised if the breakaway wins by anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. The GC contenders will undoubtedly hit the climb very hard, and if anybody is having a bad day or is not paying attention, they could lose time on the stage.

    Stage nine features a Category 1 climb 54 km from the finish that should split the field. The riders who make it over the summit together will ride hard the last 54km, all downhill, to keep the field apart to the finish. For the GC riders, this stage is more of an opportunity to lose time than to gain it. It is unlikely that a rider from the main group going over the summit alone can holdout for 54km. It is equally unlikely that a rider dropped on the climb will get back to the main group without a lot of help.

    After a rest day, the real Tour begins. Stage ten (on July 12th) features two Category 1 climbs and the first mountaintop finish. The first climb will split the field. The second climb will separate the contenders from the pretenders. If Armstrong or Ullrich has the lead going into this stage, look for them to react to the other riders attacks or lack thereof. If a rider like Iban Mayo has good form, this will be the first stage to show it. If he is to contend, Mayo will need to gain time on mountaintop finishes like this one. Look for the true climbers to attack hard on the final climb in an attempt to drop Ullrich and Armstrong, or alternately, for Ullrich or Armstrong to establish themselves as the favorite.

    Stage eleven features two brutal Hors Categorie (beyond categorization) climbs followed by a 40km fast downhill to the finish. Only the best of the climbers will stay together on this stage, and itís possible we will see a climber break away on the first climb and stay away all the way to finish. This stage should pretty well establish the pecking order for the contenders.

    Stages twelve and thirteen give a break to the riders as the first is a transitional stage likely to be won by a breakaway, and the second is a flat stage that will go to one of the sprinters who has survived the mountains.

    Stage fourteen heads back into the mountains with another Hors Categorie climb followed by a mountaintop finish on a Category 1. By the end of this stage the list of contenders should be down to 2 or 3 riders, or possibly just 1.

    Stage fifteen is a brutal stage. There is a Category 2 climb, then four Category 1 climbs, and finally a mountaintop finish on the Hors Categorie Pla díAdet. For the GC riders this stage is so difficult, it will either be very conservative, with all the contenders waiting for the final climb to attack, or it will be epic, with someone escaping on one of the early climbs, a la Marco Pantani in 1998, and trying to hold out to the end. Donít be surprised if one or more of the contenders lose several minutes on this stage.

    Stage sixteen is the final mountain stage, featuring the Hors Categorie Col díAubisque followed by a 70km descent to the finish. This stage will probably not shake up the GC standings with the climb so far from the finish, and only a small group likely to make it over the summit intact.

    Stage seventeen is a flat stage that should go to one of the sprinters.

    Stage eighteen is a transitional stage that should impact the overall standings only if a rider or his team are too weak after the mountains to defend on a short, but steep, climb at the very end of the stage.

    Stage nineteen is another transitional stage that will likely go to one of the sprinters.

    Stage twenty is the final chance for the contenders to gain time on their rivals. It is a 55km individual time trial that features a Category 3 climb in the middle of it. This will not be to the liking of Jan Ullrich who would prefer a longer, flatter time trial in which he would stand to gain more time. The climbers will need to have gained several minutes to hold off the time trialists for the overall title. At the end of this stage, victory will be assured for someone.

    Stage twenty is a flat stage into Paris ending with eight laps on the Champs Elysees. It is a prestigious stage that all the surviving sprinters will contest.

    So thatís the race. How will it shake out? Armstrong will try hard to get a lead on his GC rivals after the first time trial and the team time trial. If he does so, his team will ride very hard up front to discourage attacks, and he will be able to pick and choose when to follow or attack as his rivals will need to gain time on him and not vice versa. If he is in good form, he will counter the attacks in the mountains, allow no one to escape, and increase his lead in the final time trial ending with a seventh win. This is the formula that has won him six Tours already. So how can he be beat?

    The first way Armstrong could be beat is by a better version of himself. The only rider in the Tour that has ever shown that form is Ullrich. If Ullrich can out time trial Armstrong and stay with him in the mountains, he can win.

    The second way Armstrong could be beat is with some sound team tactics. Several teams have multiple riders who could contend for the overall. If they send one of those riders up the road on the attack they can force Armstrong to react or risk losing time to a legitimate contender. This is a tried and true tactic that has been used amazingly little against Armstrong at the Tour, although when it has, such as with Vinokourov in 2003, it has put Armstrong in trouble. Discovery Channelís main defense against this will be to ride so hard such attacks are just not possible. Additionally, the other teams will have to work together and not against each other. Armstrongís team has been very good at finding allies in the past to carry some of the workload.

    Third, Armstrong could be beat by a pure climber. The Tour has not been kind to the pure climbers in recent history, with only Lucien van Impe in 1976, Marco Pantani in 1998, and maybe to a lesser extent Pedro Delgado in 1988 (you gotta like a guy who shows up late to the start of the Tour de France) winning this way. These guys can win because if their form is good, there is no defense against them. Your team can have 9 riders or 900, it doesnít matter. When one of these guys attacks in the mountains, all the other riders can do is watch and hope they limit their losses. The only rider in the field who has shown that ability in the mountains is Iban Mayo, and his form is suspect heading into this yearís Tour.

    Fourth, simple aggression could win the Tour. The Tour has been kind to riders who take risks and go for it. Being aggressive forces other teams and riders to choose whether or not they want to chase you and potentially weaken themselves against other attacks. The two riders who fit this profile are Vinokourov and Valverde. Look for one or both of these guys to attack whenever they feel good.

    Finally, fortune and the weather could play a role. Armstrong has never had bad luck such as a bad crash or a flat tire halfway up a mountain in this race. In addition several of his rivals have experienced bad luck over the years. An incident beyond his control could cause him to lose time. As to the weather, Armstrong has shown that extreme heat, like the Tour had in 2003, can bother him. A really hot day on say, stage fifteen, could lead to a disaster. Alternately, a cold rainy stretch could leave him vulnerable to a virus or infection, leaving him weakened.

    So who do I think will win? I think T-Mobile and Jan Ullrich will finally get some redemption at the Tour. I just think Ullrich is in good form, and his team is capable of, and serious about, helping him win. Who do I hope wins? A win by Iban Mayo would be great, and the way he would have to win would be spectacular to watch. Alternately a miraculous comeback by Joseba Beloki would be cool, or a super aggressive Valverde would also be fun to watch. My sentimental favorite is Francisco Mancebo (pictured above), as this is the guy I most resemble when Iím riding (without the speed or climbing ability of course).

    So have fun watching the Tour, and hopefully Iíll keep you updated with some insightfully biased commentary. P.S. It has been suggested that people may have a lot of basic questions, so go ahead and shoot. Iíll answer everything I can.

    Read more about the Tour de France

    Posted by BVBigBro at June 30, 2005 08:39 AM

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    #  June 30th, 2005 9:40 AM      kris
    I've read conflicting reports about the route this year. Some people say that there are MORE mountain stages, but others say that the setup is not conducive to a climber winning. What do you think?  
    #  June 30th, 2005 9:43 AM      BVBigBro
    There are only three mountaintop finishes. Many of the climbs are in the middle of stages. On the other hand, there is only one long time trial, and it has a climb. I think the route suits an agressive climber. If we see the usual defensive ridng as we have for the last five years, than it will not suit a climber. Note that pure climbers rarely win the Tour anyways.  
    #  June 30th, 2005 9:49 AM      kris
    Another question. You called someone the world's best at descents. What makes someone good at that? Is it just fearlessness?  
    #  June 30th, 2005 9:56 AM      BVBigBro
    Largely, yes. Going fast downhill on a bike, with lots of turns, especially on bad pavement, is dangerous. There's no way to stop a bike quickly. It helps to have a low center of gravity, and heavier guys can go downhill faster, at least on straight sections, but all of these guys are pretty lightweight so that is not that great a factor. Also realize, that most roads normally have cars on them, so its difficult to train for descents. Savoldelli is called "Il Falco" for his desecending ability.  
    #  June 30th, 2005 7:55 PM      kris
    So where is that Piil guy this year? Also, I'm bummed to see that Simeoni isn't in the race. I read about his feud with Armstrong and it would have been interesting to see that simmering again.

    Finally, I can't believe you didn't mention a certain rider on Team CSC: Giovanni Lombardi. Wisconsinites have got to love that guy!  
    #  July 1st, 2005 12:38 AM      james
    i was just checking out for the last few years, the flag for the "english" edition of the site was half uk and half US. this year, thought, it's just a UK flag. intentional?
    #  July 1st, 2005 7:10 AM      BVBigBro
    I've never seen it as half and half. I've always seen a union jack when I go there.  



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