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Tour 2009: Wind Sprints!

July 8th, 2009 Comments off

Despite the fact that today was another mostly flat stage that favored the sprinters at the Tour de France, it was still exciting none the less. Usually these stages consist of the main contenders sticking close to one another to make sure no one gets any advantages, while the sprinters jockey for position then blast for the finish line at the end. But the unusually high winds have played havoc with the Peloton this week, creating strange breaks and, as we saw on Monday, unique opportunities.

The winds were crazy once again in today's 196.5km (122 mile) stage that ran from Le Cap d'Agde to Perpignan. When the winds were at their backs, the riders were flying along at more than 60km/hr (37 mph), and when they were hit by crosswinds, it pulled the Peloton apart. But none of the top riders were going to get caught out of place today, and the pack that included Fabian Canellara, Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, and the rest of the Astana team, stuck close to one another, and the end result was no change in the General Classification and Cancellara keeping the Yellow Jersey for another day.

At the end of today's stage, at about the 180km mark, six riders made a break away in an attempt to gain the stage win and sprint points. With about 5km to go, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler attacked the other five riders, and left them behind, holding on for the solo stage win, as the main group surged back to over take the others. For Voeckler, despite having worn the Yellow Jersey for 10 days in 2004, it was his first ever stage win in the Tour and it came in front of thousands of his countrymen who were cheering him on to victory.

So the GC remains the same for now, and is unlikely to change tomorrow either, when the riders will face a 181.5km (113 mile) ride from Girona to Barcelona. The stage has five categorized climbs, but nothing more daunting than a Cat 4, and it will likely finish with the sprinters once again dashing for the line. Friday will be the day that it gets very interesting, when the riders face their first real test in the mountains, when they ride out of Spain and into the Pyrenees.
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Tour 2009: Team Time Trial Returns!

July 7th, 2009 Comments off


Stage 4 of the Tour de France is in the books, and what an exciting day it was out on the course. Stage 4 was a team time trial, which hasn't been held in the Tour for three years, and it put all the riders out on the course riding as a unit for a change and not as individuals.

When the day started, all eyes were on Lance Armstrong and Team Astana. Yesterday, seven-time Tour winner Armstrong showed his experience and savvy recognizing a break opportunity in the nasty crosswinds that plagued the course, and sticking with the lead riders, he made up valuable time on other race contenders, most of whom failed to see the break coming. As a result, Lance moved up to third place overall in the General Classification, and had the chance to end the day today in Yellow, thanks to powerhouse Astana being the favorite in team time trial.

To claim the Yellow Jersey, Astana would need to make up 40 seconds on Team Saxo Bank, whose Fabian Cancellara has held on to the lead since a blistering individual time trial back in the Prologue on Saturday. Astana was the last team out o the road today, and they did indeed attack and attack hard, winning the time trial in impressive fashion and almost making up that 40 seconds. But at the end of the day, Cancellara stayed in Yellow by the smallest of margins, just a fraction of a second in front of Lance. In fact, it is so close, that the leaderboard currently has Cancellara in first with Lance listed as "0 seconds" back.

Pre-race favorite Alberto Contador, who is a teammate of Armstrong on Astana is now in third, just 19 seconds behind. Fourth and fifth places also belong to Astana, with Andres Kloden and Levi Leipheimer in fourth and fifth respectively. Those standings are a clear indicator of who has the strongest team in this year's Tour.

My guess is that Cancellara, barring any unforeseen accidents, will remain in Yellow now until Friday, the first mountain stage. The Saxo Bank rider is an amazing time trialist and quite fast on the open road, but he is no climber, and will likely fade in tye Pyrenees. Will Lance be there to claim the Jersey? We'll have to wait and see. And what about Contador? How does he feel about his teammate stealing the spotlight? Hopefully team dynamic stays in place, but there are some big egos around the Astana training table each night.
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Tour 2009: Three Stages Done, Lance Lurking!

July 6th, 2009 Comments off

So, that little annual bike race got underway in France over the weekend (okay, technically it was in Monaco), and it is already off to a fun and exciting start. The Tour's field is deep and strong this year, and there are a number of top contenders, but lets face it, the cycling world is abuzz in no small part thanks to the return of Lance Armstrong to the event.

Stage 1 took place on Saturday, and it was an individual time trial through the streets of Monaco. The stage began with a long climb to the top of a hill followed by a fast drop back down to the finish line on the other side. At the end of the day, it was time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara who scorched the field and claimed the Yellow Jersey, but Alberto Contador, a team mate of Lance Armstrong on Team Astana, looked impressive in second place. Other contenders, such as Levi Leipheimer, also of Astana, and Cadel Evans, who finished second the last two years, were not far off the pace, and right where they were expected to be. Lance himself had a solid ride, and finished the day in 10th.

Yesterday brought us Stage 2, which was a day for the sprinters across 187km (116 miles) or rolling countryside in southern France. The riders set off from Monaco and ended the day in Brignoles, with little to no change in the main leaderboard. But the day did belong to Mark Cavendish, the very talented sprinter from the U.K. who has earned himself the monkior of "The Missile". Cavendish blasted his way to the finish line claiming his first stage victory of the 2009 Tour.

Stage 3 was run this morning, and was expected to be much like yesterday. A 196.5km (122 miles) jaunt from Marseille to La Grande-Motte, which despite the heat, would still favor the sprinters. The route was mostly flat, with a few hills to earn a couple of King of the Mountain points for the climbers, but otherwise it was all about speed. The surprise of the day came late in the ride however, when a group of riders that included Armstrong, made a breakaway, leaving the Peloton behind. The split was aided by some serious crosswinds that gave a brief advantage to the escapees, and in the end, that's all they needed, as the breakaway finished 40 seconds up on the Peloton, led once again by Cavendish who already has two stage wins, halfway to matching the four he picked up last year.

Cancellara will remain in Yellow for now, 33 seconds up on Tony Martin of Team Columbia, and 40 in front of Lance Armstrong who now finds himself in third place, and looking at possibly putting on the Yellow Jersey himself following tomorrows 39km (24 mile) team time trial through Montpellier. If that were to happen, it certainly would be an amazing sight to see. It's very early in the race however, and I'm sure he'd probably relinquish it at some point before heading into the mountains, but still it would be a great testament to his skills as a rider, even after a three year layoff and at the age of 37, to be back in Yellow.

High drama and expectations for tomorrow for sure! The team time trial makes it's first return since 2005, and it should be fun to watch.
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Two Articles on Lance on the Eve of the Tour

July 3rd, 2009 Comments off

The Tour de France gets underway tomorrow with an individual time trial through Monaco that will serve as the prologue to the race. Sunday, the riders will head out onto the road for the first real leg of the race, a mostly flat stage 187km (116 miles) that will favor the sprinters. In preparation for the start of the big race, I have a pair of articles on Lance Armstrong that give us an inside look at the seven time Tour winner's comebacks, one after he defeated cancer and another taking place now.

The first interview is from Outside and it looks back to a time when Lance was just another rider in the Peloton. The young American upstart had beaten cancer, but had not yet proven himself on the world's stage, and while he was an inspiration for his efforts just to get back on the bike, cycling fans had no idea what kind of rider he really was. The article goes through each phase of the first Tour that Lance won, giving insights into what he was thinking at the time, and his approach the various stages. When he emerged on the Champs Elysees in the Yellow Jersey, it was an amazing triumph on many levels, but it was just the start of things to come.

Men's Journal brings us the second interview, which focuses more on Lance's most recent comeback at the age of 37. The article gives us a glimpse at his training and preparation, as well as the the reasons he's riding once again. The author also notes his love for Twitter and how his "tweets" have helped him to lose his "robot" reputation and show Lance in a different light.

Both are excellent stories and should put you in the mood for the start of the Tour tomorrow. It's going to be a wide open race in my opinion, with some great riders pressing for the Yellow Jersey. Can the 37 year old with a three year layoff hang with the young guns over the next three weeks? We're about to find out.
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Q&A: Bob Roll

July 2nd, 2009 Comments off

Image001 This summer, after the doping scandals and Lance Armstrong's three-year hiatus, cycling—and Tour De France—is back. And the man dishing out the color commentary is Versus’ Bob Roll. A former Tour rider who is now in his ninth year as a broadcaster, Roll, 48, called all seven of Armstrong's Tour wins—always referring to the race as the Tour Day France. He’s known in the cycling community as Bobke, has a flair for wild gesticulations while talking, and spouts one-liners with Don Rickles–like aplomb: “Kilometers are passing like kidney stones,” “Lance Armstrong is the eye of the hurricane and he's headed straight for the Jan Ullrich trailer park.” In other words, the most interesting person to watch at this year’s Tour may be the man in the broadcast booth.  —Will Palmer

When you're at the Tour, you're not exactly known for speaking perfect French. Do you have any animosity toward the French?
Oh, that's just kind of a runaway thing. When we were racing over there, we said "Tour day France" because that's just the way we talked amongst ourselves. And then ten years went by and I hadn't changed my pronunciation of the event, so when I started doing television I found that people didn't like it that much. But me, personally, I love France. I love covering the Tour, I love the country of France.

Some of the suspended riders are back at the Tour this year. Do you think the talk about drugs might start to go away?
It's been tough on the sport of cycling. But now, it's funny, other sports have been found to be much more abusive in their use of illegal substances, and they're much more lackadaisical in the actual prosecution, in the face of pretty compelling evidence. So as far as whether or not drug scandals will continue to haunt cycling? It'll probably always be a part of not just cycling but all sports. With the controversy with Alex Rodriguez, cycling was instantaneously pushed to the back burner. And they haven't even scratched the surface in a sport like football. In a sport like tennis, or golf, or Formula One racing... they all have really powerful players' unions that don't allow the intrusive nature of the anti-doping efforts that are absolutely essential to guarantee that people are watching an authentic spectacle. Cycling is the cleanest professional sport in the world. If you look at the riders involved in doping scandals at the Tour de France last year, every single rider who was involved in drugs was caught. So you have 189 starters, and five were caught; I think that's pretty indicative of the pro peloton—I think that's probably the percentage of riders who are willing to risk all of the controls that are in place to try to do a little bit better. So I hope people will start to realize that, and then the sport can really be seen as an authentic, gritty, dynamic, athletic competition that people can be passionate about without any qualms about it being authentic.

How did you come to have those crazy hand gestures?
From living in Italy as a racer; that's how people talk and I just adopted it. That was the last moment of aural development that my brain was capable of, in my twenties, and it just happened to be that the last formative years of my life were spent in Italy. The brain has a capacity for development throughout its trajectory, but that's when behavior patterns can still actually change. ... People said that I was doing that, but I didn't know what they were talking about. I can't disagree, because it's pretty consistent, but I have to say that it's totally subconscious. And I work with Phil [Liggett] and Paul [Sherwen], who are British, and they don't use their hands—I think it's just a British characteristic that you speak with your mouth, and you use your hands to work. The Italians throw everything in the mix.

Like Phil and Paul, you've started to be known for your figures of speech, or Rollisms. Do you have a favorite one?
My current favorite is "Work hard, rest easy." Look for that in a TV show near you.

Bob Roll will be announcing the Tour de France, July 4–26, for Versus. Follow their coverage online.

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