Monday, July 11, 2005

Drama at the Tour

No updates to be had for today -- the riders at the Tour de France are enjoying the first of their two days of rest during the 21 stages of racing. And this day could come at no better time for most riders.

After keeping a blistering pace through the flatter early stages, most riders clearly showed signs of fatigue in both Stage 8 and Stage 9, both of which featured the first serious climbs of the Tour. During Stage 8 the previously unthinkable happened -- Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel Team, that which I have described as a "machine" in the early stages, fell apart. Armstrong was left to fend for himself at the head of the pack, chasing down riders from T-Mobile who clearly sought to profit from the situation. Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, and Alexander Vinokourov -- T-Mobile's trifecta -- took turns challenging Armstrong, a sure sign of what's to come later in the Tour. When the contenders -- the Armstrongs, Ullrichs, and Bassos -- hit the serious climbs, they usually do so surrounded by their teams, which are used to shield the team leader from the wind, chase down the break aways, and create the sort of opportunities the leader looks for to mount his own attack. When Armstrong's team failed to keep pace, they left him to both defend his position and reel in those trying to attack it -- both of which could put a strain on the energy Armstrong has so faithfully been trying to reserve for the serious climbing stages.

During Stage 9 the usually organized and consistent peloton started to splinter, dividing into smaller groups while the strongest climbers set a furious pace at the front of the pack. Armstrong lost the yellow jersey to Jen Voight from Team CSC, yet the standings have remained roughly the same relative to his time -- Ivan Basso and Ullrich are just over a minute back, Floyd Landis is hot on their heels, and T-Mobile, CSC, and Discovery still populate the upper rankings of the race. It is also around this time that riders start dropping out of the race, be it for injury or just utter exhaustion. Team CSC's David Zabriskie, who took first in the individual time trial but crashed in spectacular fashion towards the end of the team time trial, abandoned yesterday, citing the injury as the cause. Hell, had I fallen that hard that fast, I would have dropped way sooner.

As for my favorite, Ullrich, I can only say this -- I am both happy with his performance so far and looking forward to what he has yet to offer. He's comfortably rotating in the Top 15, riding intelligently while saving much-needed energy for the mountains to come. The story on him has been the lack of a story -- he hasn't done anything all too spectacular, preferring to remain anonymous and yet positioning himself as a serious contender ready to face the terrain where he tends to ride best. His strength and determination were proven yesterday, when a crash was serious enough to warrant x-rays (his trainers feared broken ribs) yet he managed to finish 29th. Just looking at the picture above you can see how powerful a rider he really is (his legs are huge, and in car-speak, he has been compared to a powerful Audi A8), and surrounded by the team he has, I am the sparks will fly between him and Armstrong soon enough.

As for what to expect, tomorrow's stage in the Alps is looking to be one of the most exciting of the race so far, the one that may well determine how strong Armstrong and his team really are and who the real challengers will be. Interestingly enough, riders and trainers from almost every other team spare no effort to praise Armstrong, knowing full well that he excels when challenged or faced with opponents convinced that he is, finally, beatable. I think the state of his team will determine how well he'll end up doing. I'm still rooting for Ullrich, though.


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