Monday, July 23, 2012

23 July 2012: Donkeys

Occasionally it appears that this blog gets a run of hits from a particular Google search. In the past this has been "Plymouth beach" (eh?), "Wee Heavy And A Half Pint" and, over the last few days, "Tour De France donkey jerseys".

So, despite the excitement over a British winner of the Tour (and a British second place), along with seven (yes SEVEN) British stage wins by four different riders (and only three of those wins by Mark Cavendish), it appears that the interest here is less on my hard-nosed twenty-five-years-following-the-tour analysis and more about whether I have the best pictures of those donkeys. So before we get to a quick run-down of what happened and what will happen, here's your full 'donkeys in Tour De France jerseys' photoshoot (click on images to see them full size):

First up the donkeys are picked up by the helicopter camera with 17.7 km left on Friday's stage... Sagan in green, Wiggins in yellow and Voeckler in the Mister Tumble's Spotty Tour De France Jersey.

As the peloton flashes past, the donkeys sense the directional momentum and try to join in. Wiggins, naturally, takes the lead.

Then one of the donkeys (probably Voeckler) realises that they're on TV so they'd better pose for the camera.

And so finally we get the picture from Friday. Voeckler, by the way, clearly needs a haircut.

The final day of racing went as expected, of course - Wiggins unchallenged in yellow, Froome taking a comfortable second and Cavendish winning the Paris stage for the fourth year in a row (nobody has ever won it twice in a row before). And despite all the speculation during the tour about 'will Froome go to another team to try and win the race', the post-race headlines were along the lines of 'Sky boss Dave Brailsford says Mark Cavendish can leave'.

And so here we go with the same thing as last year, when I said I hoped Cav wouldn't go to Sky because, exactly as we've seen this month, Sky are interested primarily in the yellow jersey, and beyond that primarily in Wiggo. Froome is heir-apparent - and unless something weird happens I think he will probably stay with Sky, given the salaries, training facilities etc that are available. But he will be strongly, strongly courted by other teams who want (1) his cycling ability and (2) his inside knowledge on Sky's training regimes.

But for Cav, he has surely got to go somewhere else. Sky gave a little support on Friday and Sunday (and he won both), and even despite having almost no help during the tour and having to stretch that World Champion jersey to squeeze in all the bottles he had to carry for the rest of the team (is it just me, or is that a little demeaning for the World Champion?) he still won three stages, equal-most of anyone in the tour this year. With protection he would probably have won at least two more, with last year's HTC Leadout Express he'd have maybe won more (and not just because Matt Goss was in the train).

Cav joined Sky because it's Olympic year, let's be honest. Much easier to get full support from Team GB when you realise it's actually just Team Sky under a different name. But next year, he needs to get back to being in a team where he's the leader.

And here's the other thing: for all the attention Wiggins is getting (quite rightly too, it's pretty historic from a British perspective), Wiggins should go down in history as being remembered as one of the all-time great Olympic champions - six medals, three gold, and more to follow in the next few days. In Tour De France terms he's a Carlos Sastre or a Pedro Delgado - good rider, but only won it once (by the way, it's hard to think of that one-time-winner list without thinking of the druggy riders like Riis, Ullrich, Pantani, Landis et al). Even Steven Roche won the world champs and Tour De France in the same year, and I don't see that on Wiggo's radar right now, although maybe I'm wrong.

Wiggins, right now, is a one-time Tour winner. Next year the course probably won't be so suited to his strengths, he'll be 33, Contador and Schleck (A) will be back, Froome will be chomping at the bit (whether at Sky or elsewhere) - it'll be tougher to defend. If he does win next year, then we definitely have something more like a 'great' on our hands with Wiggo. But right now, in Tour terms, he's won it once.

And then you have Cavendish, who on Sunday took his twenty-third stage win to move fourth in the overall record books, overtaking the only other sprinter in those books (Andre Darrigade) and a certain Lance Armstrong. He's now two stage wins behind Leducq and after that it's only Hinault and Merckx to beat. As discussed earlier, nobody has ever won the Champs Elysees stage even twice in a row, but Cav has now done it four times back-to-back. In Mark Cavendish, even if his career finished today, we're talking in terms of all-time records and the immortals of the sport. Wiggins isn't there yet in terms of road racing.

Defend the Tour successfully and maybe we then begin to talk in those terms.

Finally, as Andy points out, this tour really does appear to be pretty clean. As the net closes on Lance Armstrong and it becomes apparent that every tour winner from 1996 (Riis) to 2006 (Landis) was juiced, and with the 2007 and 2009 winner (Contador) currently serving a drugs ban, it may actually be that we're finally moving away from the drug-dominated arena. How can you know unless you are inside the team? Well, there are a few pointers:

1. The BBC stats show that Andy linked to talked to people who suggest the numbers output by this year's riders are much more consistent with lab-tested results given by riders - often at least 10% lower power/weight ratio outputs than ten years ago.
2. Also the stages - and certain mountain stages in particular - are slower. And this with all of Sky's increased technology and Wiggo's streamlined sideboards.
3. Haemoglobin levels are also now lower across the board, suggesting no more direct transfusions of the type Armstrong is accused of, nor EPO (David Millar's drug of choice in 2003). And this despite Sky's crazy Tenerife experiment where they tried all that altitude sleeping and sea-level training stuff.
4. Most importantly, Phil Liggett says it's cleaner now. I know that sounds weird (this from a man who talks about dancing on the pedals and having a suitcase of courage), but you get certain vibes off people and teams, and Liggett is one of those who is close enough, and experienced enough, to know the difference.
5. Similarly, David Millar has also openly stated that he believes Wiggins is clean, and that's pretty telling given that Millar co-created the Slipstream (now Garmin) team specifically to show that you can race at the top level without drugs. Millar's word counts for a lot I think.

Anyway, enough waffle, Olympic road race on Saturday and provided Cavendish hasn't totally fallen out with the Brailsford/Wiggins axis by then he may still be in with a shout of a medal. After that, it's open season. Now, which team might have two point four million dollars to buy out his contract?

Eh? Who said Saints?

Friday, July 20, 2012

20 July 2012: Wiggo

Despite the picture above, it is Bradley Wiggins and not a donkey who owns the yellow jersey following the end of the mountains in this years Tour.

Mark Cavendish won today's stage - coming from nowhere (with Wiggins' assistance) to overtake a breakaway right on the line. A comfortable warm up for Sunday in Paris and then the Olympics next weekend. He moves up to 22 all-time wins, now level as the best-ever sprinter and moving up the list of all riders. While Wiggins gets great attention (and rightly so) for his achievement, the fact is he's won the Tour once now, while Cav is busy breaking all-time records in the race.

Still, barring accidents (and we've seen a few of those) or some weird time trial result, Wiggo wins the Tour, the first ever overall winner for Britain. And of course if he fails, Chris Froome takes over. So either way, a Sky/British winner is prety much guaranteed from here.

Detractors will say it's like 2008, a weak race with the best racers not present. Standard response is 'well, you can only win the race in front of you' by the opposite-of-detractors. (What is the opposite of a detractor? A protractor?) The record books will say that in 2012 Bradley Wiggins won the tour, just like they say the 2008 version was won by Carlos Sastre.

Would he have beaten Contador, Schleck (A), Froome on any hypothetical different team, Cadel Evans without stomach bug? Hard to say. Wiggins and the Sky train were strong but had no real acceleration - you could just see the likes of Armstrong, Contador etc racing off up the mountains into the distance had they been in the race. (Possibly due to drug taking, of course).

But then you look at Miguel Indurain, who won five in a row and didn't do accelerations - he did good time-trials and just rode tempo up the mountains, dropping off rivals one by one and just ignoring the occasional mountain attacks that came. So while it's been a rather boring Tour (well done Team Sky - seriously, that's a real achievement), Wiggo has won the Tour using a recognized, established tactic.

Anyway, presumably the knighthood follows shortly, and of course there's the Olympics in a few days, where Wiggins, Froome and Millar will work for Cavendish, who for a change won't be asked to carry bottles for everyone else. Still find it very hard to believe Cav is happy with this whole situation.

Next years Tour? Wiggins, Frooms and Cav all on different teams. Unless Wiggins sees the light and realises this, 2012, was HIS year (like 2011 was Cav's year), and he won't have another Tour like it. In which case he works for Froome, and we get another British winner next year.

Depending on Contador, Schleck (A) and the rest, of course, who should all be back...

Friday, July 13, 2012

13 July 2012: Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep

I know, you'd all rather see a video of Hannah doing something cute rather than read my waffling views on a minority sport.

She was much more vocal before I got the camera out, of course, but it's still pretty funny.

Original video here.

13 July 2012: Continuing

So David Millar won stage 12 of the Tour, being part of a long all-day breakaway and pulling away at the end to win the stage. The fourth Tour stage win of his career, but also the fourth different British stage winner this year. And what with Wiggins still in yellow, Froome in second (and according to many commentators the stronger rider of the two), Evans seeming to struggle and Vicenzo Nibali seemingly offering the only real opposition, who's to say it won't get even better for the UK?

The Froome situation is the most interesting. Yesterday he seemed to struggle a little at times, then bounce back, but when Nibali accelerated it was up to Froome to bring Wiggins back up to the wheel of Nibali. He did so, and immediately Wiggins was on the wheel of Nibali, Froome accelerated himself and went off on his own. Then... he pushed his earpiece into his ear, slowed down and went back. Why? Because Wiggins had not been able to hold on to Nibali, so Froome had to go back and help again.

As discussed a couple of days ago, it looks as if team orders are the same as the Vuelta last year, which cost Froome victory in the race. Harsh, but that's what teams are about. Wonder what will happen in the Pyrenees...

Also Millar's victory points interestingly towards the Olympics, which remains Mark Cavendish's aim, although he'll have his eye on a couple of flatter stages left in the Tour, including Paris of course. Why interesting? Because the four different British stage winners this year (Cavendish, Wiggins, Froome and Millar) are the core of the five-man Olympic team - add new British champion Ian Stannard (I know we could do better - Geraint Thomas or a fit Ben Swift would be a better fit, I'd suggest) and that's the team that will try to get Cavendish to the line first in London next month.

And it's also the same core of the team that won Cav the world championship last year, Millar captaining the team on the road and Wiggins draggings the peloton through the last kilometer.

Final thing - of course Millar is only in the Olympics because the British Olympic Association had to change their rules on drug cheats. Millar took EPO back in 2003 (and possibly before) and was banned for two years, quite rightly. Since then, however, he's been one of the most vociferous opponents of drug use in sport and spends a lot of time working with young people to warn of the dangers of it. So - not saying the banning decisions are right and wrong, but Millar (unlike certain other people) has been open about what went on in those days (and probably still does to a much smaller extent now), and is trying to do something about it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 July 2012: Louisiana

So we moved again, only four and a half years after the previous move, which isn't bad going really.

This time (now with two little girls in tow, whether they like it or not) we've moved to a town called Monroe in Louisiana. Partly because my current job allows me to work from anywhere in the US, partly because it just felt like it was time but mainly because Gloria's dad and step-mum live here. Having grandparents handy, especially when there are two young children, is a very big plus, so 'Pop Pop' and 'Lu Lu' are helping out with occasional Hannah- and Amelia-sitting whenever the opportunity arises. Currently house-hunting down here, so if you have any good tips on houses in the Swartz area of town, please let us know.

Elsewhere in the world there was the astonishing predictability of the Euro 2012 football (England lost in the quarter-finals on penalties? Whoever would have thought of such a scenario?), Argyle failing to sign anyone decent, Saints not really making any early headway in the transfer market (J-Rod aside) and Greece still somehow having the Euro as their currency.

But the big news (for me anyway, in my half-awake zombie seven-week-old-baby state) concerns the Tour De France, about which I've been meaning to write for several weeks now and haven't had the time. As predicted last year, Mark Cavendish's move to Team Sky hasn't exactly been a raging success for him: he's won one stage and been a little unlucky in crashes and punctures to thus miss out on a couple of others, but overall it's kind of sad to see the world champion and clearly the fastest man in the race be given little or no support by his team.

Theoretically he has Bernie Eisal and Edval Boassen Hagen watching out for him, but last week in one of the few sprints Cavendish did contest, Boassen Hagen led him out to the front of the pack with one kilometre still to go, which is a suicidal technique for leading out a sprinter... Cavendish realised this and dropped back on his own, but then didn't have the legs for the final push.

And while it may be unlucky to be involved in so many crashes, the thing is that if he had a team and some actual protection around him, he'd be a lot safer. He wears the rainbow jersey of the world champion, he has won more stages than anyone else in the last four Tours and as such he's a marked man. For Sky to offer little-to-no protection or help must make him think, at least a little, 'why am I here and not at Rabobank with Mark Renshaw?'. Still, the main target for Cav seems to be the Olympics... let's just hope Team GB (roughly equals Team Sky here) can figure out how to do a leadout for him.

Of course the reason Sky aren't doing much for Cav is that they're busy protecting Bradley Wiggins, currently the leader of the race by a pretty massive margin (almost two minutes, yes that is massive in this sport). Last year's winner Cadel Evans is in second, and creeping up in third is one Chris Froome, another Brit (although he's actually from Kenya and has British parents). In fact if Froome hadn't been delayed in one of the first-week crashes he'd be comfortably in second place right now. Wow, you might think, possible one-two for Britain in the Tour De France.

Maybe. But the problem is this: Wiggins isn't quite as good in the really high mountains as Cadel Evans and Chris Froome. At least, he's not shown that kind of form in the past, including this very excellent season that he's had. And so, here's the scenario: Evans attacks (or at least sets very good pace) on the high mountains that are coming up imminently (tomorrow, Thursday and also Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday next week), Wiggins and Froome stay with him but eventually Wiggins cracks and starts to drop back a bit. So what do Team Sky do with Chris Froome? Do they send him back to help Wiggins or do they tell him to keep going, because he can probably not only stay up with but actually beat Evans, probably both in the mountains and in the one remaining time trial? Received wisdom says he should go back to help Wiggins... but what will they do?

THAT, to me, is probably the key question remaining on the Tour (assuming Wiggins does crack on the mountains at some stage, which I think he very well might). The problem is that Sky have been in exactly this position before - in the Tour of Spain last year, Froome would quite comfortably have won the race (a Brit winning a Grand Tour! Amazing!) but the team ordered him back to help the ailing Wiggins in the highest mountains. As a result, Froome finished second in the Vuelta and Wiggins third.

Commentating legend Phil Liggett already stated a couple of days ago that Sky clearly made a mistake with those team orders. And given their aim of a British tour winner by 2014, will they do the same again?

I'm not sure, and I don't know that Sean Yates, Dave Brailsford and the rest of the decision-makers know yet either - but I will say this right now: I think, even at this stage of the game, that Froome is the better, stronger rider of the two and is much the more likely to beat Evans.

Evans meantime is looking to divide and conquer, and hope that Sky send Froome backwards when crunch time comes.

Oh, and we found Weetabix here at a local supermarket. And Rich Tea biscuits. Just to put things in perspective, ya know.

Postscript: one amazing thing already in the Tour for the Brits is that there have already been three different British stage winners this year - Cav, Froome and Evans have all won a stage. Considering years (sometimes decades) go by without a single British victory, it's already been the most memorable TDF Britain has ever had.