Both cynicism and enthusiasm run deep in the cycling world every July, particularly in recent years as even the most ardent fans of the sport have had to accept the sad reality that most of our heroes have been doping, early and often, for a long, long time. Things are looking up though, and the opening week of this year’s tour has offered not only nail-biting tension and drama from a sporting level, but a number of indications that cycling is definitely the cleanest it has been in decades.
With an alarming number of abandons due to injury in the first week, (including Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner, Tom Boonen, Chistophe Kern, Alexander Vinokurov, and Dave Zabriskie), and an even greater number of potential or outside favorites losing time, this year’s race is surprisingly wide-open, even more so than we have come to expect in the post-Armstrong (or mostly post-Armstrong) era.
The efforts on the part of ASO to spice up this year’s race by eliminating the traditional prologue TT, complicating the points competition, and limiting the number of purely flat sprinter’s stages have had the effect of creating racing that is unpredictable, high-stakes, and surprisingly human. While Robbie McEwen may bemoan the lack of “pure” sprinter stages, nobody can argue with the drama of Cavendish’s stage 5 win, sans leadout, having surfed his way through the fracas to jump from 5th wheel in the last 150 meters and win like a true champion. That is what field sprints look like in American pro-am criteriums: the effort on the part of teams to control the race is there, but there is too much chaos, and heroic, last-ditch efforts can and do work. This is so much better than the sterile, controlled prescription of the leadouts Cavendish has been accustomed to receiving in years past. And you know what? It made him more likeable. But then so did his graciousness about losing fair and square to Greipel on stage 10.
And speaking of likeable, how about Thor Hushovd, the reigning world champion and yellow jersey of the tour for a week, leading out teammate Tyler Farrar for the win on stage 3! This is bike racing as it was meant to be. Likewise Cadel Evans winning with a kaboom of an uphill acceleration atop the Mur De Bretagne on stage 4, leaving his detractors speechless; even more so in his press conferences throughout the week where he gave the lie to his previous reputation as aloof, cranky, and defensive. This year’s Evans is stronger, more relaxed, more focused, rested, confident, and un-injured. How do you say “ruh-roh” in Spanish?
The glaring but easily overlooked difference in this year’s tour is how different the race is from the perspective of doping. Riders like Evans and Gilbert, widely believed to be clean, and outspoken about their views on dopers, are winning; Garmin-Cervelo, who can more or less prove that they are the cleanest team in the peloton, having beaten the UCI to the punch with their internal no-needles policy, has won two stages and defended the yellow jersey for a week; and finally little Thomas Voeckler and his underdog ragtag French Europcar team have managed to make a respectable showing and then—more than respectably—claim the yellow jersey for the second time in Voeckler’s career.
No, we can’t know with 100% certainty who is clean and who is not, but the fact is that with teams like Garmin and HTC-Highroad doing ascension rate calculations as compared to a rider’s vo2 max as part of their hiring process, it is becoming more and more possible to catch dopers based on their performances alone, whether or not they ever fail a drug test. And the French have been cleaner (for the most part) than the rest of the peloton, and grumpy about it, for a decade…so things are looking up.
Some of my favorite performances from the first week and a half of Le Tour:
- Danny Pate /Dave Zabriskie (tie.) These two have spent more time on the front of the peloton in the first week of the race than anyone else. Hours and hours, miles and miles of grinding out tempo and stepping it up late in the race to reel in breaks and set up their sprinters. It is a special kind of rider who can do this work, day after day.
- BMC. Evans’s supporting cast has been widely under-rated, and even criticized for working too much at some points in the first week, but the fact is that they are racing like a well-drilled unit with a single-minded purpose, and a strong leader. This may just be Cadel’s year.
- Thor Hushovd. The fact that a rider with his characteristics has been able to hang in on the climbs, lead out Farrar to his first-ever stage win in the Tour, and not be too proud to fetch bottles from the car when needed—all while keeping himself up there in the points competition with a slew of top-5 and top-10 finishes—well, the mighty Thor is making a strong case for being voted most interesting and well-rounded rider this side of Phillipe Gilbert.
- Phillipe Effin’ Gilbert. I mean, come on! His win on stage 1 to take yellow was beautiful; his 2nd place (to Cavendish!) in the chaos of the stage 5 field sprint was impressive; his attack with 15k to go on stage 10, wearing the green jersey, initially accompanied by Voeckler in yellow, and then carrying on alone, was simply beautiful.
- Gilbert again, but not alone: The site of the green and yellow jerseys of the Tour De France rolling a late stage breakaway toward likely defeat, but possible glory, was not only edge-of-the-seat sports fun, it was also bike racing of a completely different sort to what we have become accustomed in the past decade. As the racing cleans up, true champions like Gilbert, Hushovd and Evans can shine (sue me for my optimism), and the outcome of each and every stage remains uncertain. Vive Le Tour!
- Vacansoleil: all heart.
- Tyler Farrar: he finally did it!
- Cavendish: Love him or hate him, he’s a force of nature.
It wouldn’t be July without the Tour. More to come next week as the race moves through the Pyrenees.