Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Tour – Sports Best Annual Sorting Hat

As it does every year, the Tour de France makes you think about life choices.

So what did you do on Saturday? If you were someone sane you did stuff with the family, maybe some shopping, had a lie in, went out to the movies, gardening perhaps. Or you could have been a poor fool who for some unknown reason was born with a synapse in your head that sends impulses zinging around your brain that make you want to become a professional road cyclist. Even worse, you could have been born with the physique – wiry yet strong – and mentality – insanely dedicated and impervious to pain – that would have you aspire to be one of the “General Classification” riders in the Tour de France.

If so, you will have dedicated your life – forgoing normality and that aspect in life we mortals call fun – to getting selected on a professional racing team. And then more than that, you will seek to have a number that ends with a 1 on your back, for that will mean you are the leader of the team – the man around whom all else in the team will dedicate themselves.

Mountain bikes? You most likely did your stint. You may even have ridden on the track – perhaps some time trailing over a very lazy 4,000m. But not for you is the embanked oval. Not for you is the life of following round a motorbike in “Keirin” races. Not for you the hulking diet of Ryan Bayley types, who can brag about eating KFC before races.

No you have chosen a different path – the path less travelled perhaps, and definitely the path less travelled well. You have included yourself in a select group of a select group. There are those in the Tour who will be happy to finish – happy that they have served their master. There will be those who will have lusted for stage wins, who want nothing more than to ride 190km coasting along, only to go insane over the final 500m.

But that is not you either. You are among that group that is so far beyond special, that elite only touches at your definition.

Elite? What is that? Surely all in the Tour are elite. You are not elite; you are nothing less than a god cycling the earth.

There are 22 teams in the Tour. And yes some of the leaders like Thor Hushovd and Mark Cavendish are there for the Green Jersey, but of the 22 teams, we are down to six of whom remain.

Six out of 198 riders. Three per cent. But let’s not just say that – for many, many riders who many, many others would think of as elite didn’t make it to the Tour. Three per cent? Six out of 198? Try six out of 6.932 billion!

The rest? Done, well, tried hard, but go win yourself a stage, don’t bother us with your Yellow Jersey talk. Don’t bother us with your talk of how you like climbing mountains.

Talk is cheaper on the Tour than in just about any other sporting event.

You got a good team? Great, but they aren’t all going to be able to haul you up the side of a mountain.

You haven’t got a great team? Tough, look around you – it’s you and the other six out of 198. Are you better than them?

Six out 198.

Last night if you were one of that insane sextet. Here is what you faced:


The last climb – 15 km of calf muscle screaming silliness. What did you say about it? Cadel Evans. You’re one of the six, give us your views:

"It was a long, but not a steep climb.”

Not steep? Let’s describe it officially shall we:

Plateau de Beille - 15.8 km climb to 7.9 % - Category H

Only a 7.9% gradient. Pffft. Maybe for the other 192 that means something, but for the supreme six? Is that all you’ve got, earth?

Andy Schleck – you want to be more than just one of six, what say you?

"The climb wasn't selective enough”

Not selective enough?

Stuart O’Grady, Schleck’s team mate, had flogged himself stupid at the front of the peloton giving Schleck a nice pace. They were together at the start of the final climb. O’Grady ended up finishing 22 min 57 second behind. Now sure his race was done, but imagine losing nearly 23 minutes over 15 km.

How impervious to mathematics and logic are these riders? Here’s the 16th Stage:


What do you say? Do you say, Please Mum why on earth did you not slap some sense into me 25 years ago when I said, I want to be a bike rider? Do you ask your Dad why didn’t he give you a golf club and send you out so that you may complain about having to play in the wind and rain? (Yes Bo Van Pelt would describe walking around 18 holes as “"Brutal"; Trevor Immelman said it was like going "18 holes with the heavyweight champion of the world." Yeah, truly.)

But no you don’t say that, and you won’t even get any commentators saying it either. Instead you get this:

As we’re heading towards the Alps, this stage is not flat, which is what you would expect, but it isn’t too hard either as it just rises steadily throughout.

You’re riding 151 km on a steady rise of nearly 1,200m, but hey – quit your crying, it “isn’t too hard”.

What you need to look towards are two glorious selection sorting days in the Alps. Let’s start with Thursday and Stage 18:


Three Highest Classification climbs. Three chances to have a bit of a play of the game – can 6 become 5, or 4 or 3 or…

Here are the six:

Standing  Rider  Rider number bib  Team  Time  Gaps
1 VOECKLER Thomas  181 TEAM EUROPCAR  61h 04' 10"   
2 SCHLECK Frank  18 TEAM LEOPARD-TREK  61h 05' 59"  + 01' 49"
3 EVANS Cadel  141 BMC RACING TEAM  61h 06' 16"  + 02' 06"
4 SCHLECK Andy  11 TEAM LEOPARD-TREK  61h 06' 25"  + 02' 15"
5 BASSO Ivan  91 LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE  61h 07' 26"  + 03' 16"
6 SANCHEZ Samuel  21 EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI  61h 07' 54"  + 03' 44"
7 CONTADOR Alberto  1 SAXO BANK SUNGARD  61h 08' 10"  + 04' 00"

Ignore the first guy – Voekler. He did well to get through the Pyrenees retaining the Yellow Jersey (he did much the same in 2004 – but in the end in Paris he finished more than 35 minutes behind the winner, Armstrong, so he doesn’t count).

Frank Schleck doesn’t have the 1 at the end of his name, but he finished 6th and 5th in 2008 and 2009, so he’s a big show. So here’s who we have:

  1. Schleck, F
  2. Evans
  3. Schleck, A
  4. Basso
  5. Sanchez
  6. Contador.

These six can look anyone else in the eye and know they are better than them when it comes to the overall.

Others may climb better; others may time trial better; many more will sprint better.  But only these six can claim they have a chance at being able to look down on everyone. Everyone not only in the cycling world, but also we poor newts who when God was handing out muscles, stamina and intelligence, gave us neither the frame, nor lung capacity, nor insane drive.

At other times in the year there will be races – some important like the Giro in Italy, some magical in their brutality like the Paris–Roubaix – but this is the one time each year where the six get to look not so much into each other’s eyes, but each other’s souls. Getting left behind on a mountain stage in the Tour is not blinking in a starting contest, but more having your very life’s purpose crushed.

All those years without fun? Special diets? Life spent in Europe away from family and friends? Miles and miles of training done in heat, cold and wet? imageWell done, congratulations, valiant effort. But on this day it has been for nought. Maybe you should have tried golf?

Last night the Schlecks attacked up the hill. Evans and Basso reeled them in (Voekler doing his bit as well). Basso had a go – that too was covered. Evans tried once (covered).

Nothing was discovered, no one blinked. Each man’s reason for living remained intact.  

Stage 18 may sort some out. But three idiotic climbs over mountains may not wreak the havoc one would think – especially as this is the last climb:

Col du Galibier (2 645 m) - 22.8 km climb to 4.9 % - Category H

Long, but not particularly steep. (Heard that before?)

But if you look closer you see the last kilometre is a lovely 9 per cent gradient. Expect attacks as well with 4 km to go – where the black shows another 9 per cent incline.

You can lose a lot of time in 4 km. Time enough to know that the sextet is now a quintet or perhaps a quartet ready to do a cycling version of Pachelbel's Canon. And at such a point you will know that the Tour de France game of musical chairs has found you standing when the music stopped.

And then – because why on earth would you expect any less – the very next day you get out your bike and head again along the sides of mountains, and face this:


Forget the first climb – they’ll all go up that together. It’ll all be won and lost (as it always is won and lost when the Tour regularly arrives here) on the final climb up Alpe-D’Huez.

Here’s how the Official website describes it:

The stage everyone is afraid of

For us gloriously non-deluded types who can enjoy the Tour not from atop a bicycle, but atop a couch – potato chips, beer and remote at hand – this is a wonderful stage. Short so it won’t keep us up too late, and on Friday night, so we can put the week behind us and get ready for the weekend by enjoying the delights of watching men’s souls crack open in agony.

The last climb? Have a look:


It starts with 2 km of at least 10 per cent incline. But the real fun begins with about 5km to – when the road tilts to the sky and goes up at 11.5 per cent.

The only guarantee is that by the end of this stage we and all those in the tour will know.

All will have been revealed.

Sure there will be a time trial the next day – but the likelihood is that will be for looks and for minor placings.

If you’re not there at the end of the Alpe-D Huez; if you’re not still looking at others in the eye; if you’re not still answering attacks and doing some yourself, then you, my friend, are no longer in the Tour.

Yes you will keep riding. Yes you will still have the number 1 on your back. Yes you will still get to Pairs. But you might as well be sitting on the couch next to us.

You didn’t come here to finish second, and you sure as hell didn’t come here to have your mouth open so wide gaping and groping for oxygen as you hit the 11.5 per cent gradient that some evil god was able to reach his hand inside and tear out your heart.

No other sport has this foreshadowing. Yes in a long distance running event packs will emerge and only the winners will come from the front. But in a marathon you don’t look at a point in the race and say – up till here everyone will be in it; after here only the best will remain. Mostly the pace will be constant and those who can keep up do, those who can’t, won’t.

In the Tour at the bottom of the Alpe-D Huez there will be a majority of the pack. Within 100m it will be a minority. Within a kilometre it will be a selection.

And the thinning will continue all the way up the climb.

Who will remain at the top? For Contador he not only has to be at the top – but also has to do it more than 2 minutes better than the rest – which is why I think only if Contador wins this stage may the time trial still be relevant to the final outcome.

Evans looked strong last night – but will he hold on when the real inclines take over. The Schlecks will work in tandem – it didn’t crack anyone last night, will it next Friday? Basso and Sanchez are less likely, but don’t tell them that – you don’t get to be one of the six by admitting self doubt. 

The Tour – as it always does – comes down to a few moments – moments when the great is sorted out from the very good. Moments where viewers will hold their breath then scream for their champion; knowing the next 10 minutes will matter more than the rest of the entire tour. With a week to go we can foresee where they will happen; at this point we know to whom they will happen; but we have no idea of what the result will be.

Sport at its best.

As it is every year.


Mark said...

11.5% just doesn't seem like much of a gradient. I know it's a lot

paddybts said...

Utterly shameless Greg. You're clearly angling for an SBS freebie to Paris to cover the tour next year. :-)
Magnificent piece of writing that does the tour and the riders justice. Bravo!

David said...

Greg, these guys analyse the Tour in a way that might interest you:

fozzy said...

As someone who lurks and reads your blog far more than I comment, I'm over in France watching the race.Yesterday we rode up the Col de Tourmalet. After riding these mountains you realise how insane these guys are! I was happy to make it up at 5.5km/h - these guys do it at what 25km/h. What got me up was a comment from one of our tour group from the night before, "if you make it up, you're one of the few people who can say they've made it up", but simply making it to the top is not the same as racing over it on the way to another mountain!!

Michael said...

This is EXCELLENT sports writing! A pleasure to read.

Jimbo said...

And isn't it glorious? Best competition on Earth.

Greg Jericho said...

Cheers fozzy, thanks for the comment.

Enjoy your tour. I cannot conceive of attempting the Col de Tormalet. You have my respect!

Anonymous said...

I was at the TdF today - racing from Limoux to Montpellier. Unexpectedly, two of the teams were staying at my hotel. These guys are amazing athletes and they have a huge entourage of mechanics, physios and 'Director Spotifs'. And yet, there is almost an innocence to it all. There were lists all over the hotel of which team member was in which room. They ate breakfast with us and were unassuming around the halls. On the road, there are no checks of bags or attempts to contol bystanders. It's a fantastic sport!

Mark H said...

Good post, Greg.
David - I liked the site you linked to - the science behind the sport is fascinating.
It partly answered a question in the back of my mind about Thomas Voeckler. His previous TdF finishes:
2003 - 119th
2004 - 18th
2005 - 124th
2006 - 89th
2007 - 66th
2008 - 97th
2009 - 67th
2010 - 76th
Except for the result in 2004, which was helped significantly by the time gain on the breakaway in which he won the yellow jersey, as well as the gutsy riding in retaining it over the Pyrenees, that isn't exactly the record of the 'elite of the elite'.
The level of apparent improvement he seems to be showing as a 32 year old, matching it with the best up some hard climbs - and losing no time to the elites he has actually looked pretty comfortable - seems far beyond the ability he has shown in the past. In the back of my mind I was questioning whether there might be some doping going on. As the site David provided the link to explains, there are clear indicators in both the slower times and lower wattages being recorded, as well as results from doping control, to indicate that it could just be the case that a good rider is now competing on a much more level playing field. If so, it is great to see.

Michael in Sydney said...

Greg A great post. You should get a guest spot on CyclilngTips.


robert merkel said...

Beautifully written, Greg.

Perhaps I can add some perspective to the riders' comments you quoted about the climbs being "not that hard", or "not selective enough".

I'm a weekend warrior; a C-grade club racer. Once you reach a certain level of fitness, terrain starts to become less relevant to the effort level required to ride a bike. I can toddle up a 4% slope barely raising a sweat, if I go slowly enough, and I can go up 9-10% slopes at considerably less than maximum effort. (And, again, I emphasise that I'm a very mediocre club racer, this isn't an attempt to brag).

For the pros, this is even more the case; absent time pressure, they can ride up the Alpe D'Huez without significantly exerting themselves. Only the very steepest climbs of the Giro or Vuelta (La Angliru, the Mortirolo or the Zoncolan) are steep enough to force professional cyclists to exert themselves merely to complete the climb.

As such, the defining factor on the "hardness" of a particular race or climb depends almost entirely on the pace at which they ride it.

That's why, to a professional cyclist, the huge climbs of the Tour are "not steep".

Furthermore, at the speeds the top pros ride, they get significant advantages from drafting even on a 10% slope. That's why the climbs aren't "selective" among reasonably closely matched riders, as it seems the top half-dozen in the Tour this year are.

Maybe, when the Schlecks and (possibly) Contador turn the wick up in the Alps, they'll be able to drop at least one of Evans, Basso, Sanchez, and Voeckler. Maybe not. Let's hope they try - and if they drop somebody, it's not Evans.

Greg Jericho said...

David - that's a great site.

Robert - yes, but still...!

autocrat said...

It's a great sport to watch, and they're truly amazing athletes. However, I suspect that professional cycling is one of a handful of sports (weightlifting comes to mind as another) that is a truly level playing field when it comes to performance enhancing substances.

Erryn said...

I want to marry this blog. Awesome post!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen the point in watching others play sport of any kind. Grog, get on your own bike!

Pete's Perspective said...

Too bad you can't tell which one's are the drug cheats. The wat they climb those mountains defies belief.

Andrew said...

The sorting hat has done its work and the little kid from Katherine can look everyone else in the eye. In the end the mountains weren't selective enough and it took 42kms at Grenoble, but there is no question now who 'the man' is. Contador showed his class over the last few stages, Voekler pushed himself beyond even he believed he could go and both Schlecks gave themselves a chance, but they couldn't shake Cadel. From the first powerful strokes down the starting ramp it was obvious today was the day he was going to break them all. Superb, controlled riding for 19 days to place himself in the box seat followed by an utterly merciless final act. Well done Cadel.

Toby said...

You only needed to look at the faces of Cadel and Andy on the start ramp of the ITT to know who would coming home with the yellow jersey.
Cadel sat with a 1000 mile stare, fully focused on what he was about to do, Andy looked extremely worried if not scared.

Corri said...

Hi Greg, AWESOME post. What do you have to say about Mia Freedmans non-plussed and down right negative response to Cadel's win? She has some good points in the article, but her Today appearance video is what I have the most beef with:

As a scientist I totally get where she is coming from...but I feel she TOTALLY picked the wrong battle here and as a result her whole cause got rubbished which is sad.

I've since spent the last 24hours debating with my scientist friends that the TDF is not on par with any other sporting event..its a cut above and hence Cadel more than deserved the front page spread! They just don't get it! So thanks to your post, which will help my cause! The things that you talk about is why anyone who knows enough about cycling is just hooked on it by complete awe for life.

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