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?

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