Tuesday, 31 July 2012

July Wrap

Tour de France 2012

Well, what can be said about the 2012 Tour de France that hasn't already been said before? Nothing really. The cycling blogs, forums, magazines, websites and social media pages go nuts during the TDF and everything that could possible be said, is said. Every assessment of Froom's great form, every opinion of Gilbert's slump, every assertion about Wiggo's boring, but dominating win, and hater has spread his hate about Cadel's failure to go back to back.

I enjoyed the Tour. Yes, it didn't have the excitement of the 2011 edition, with the yellow jersey still uncertain until the second last stage, but only the uninitiated will tell you it was a boring race. The true cycling fan takes pleasure in watching the Tour for the small details. The exhibition of the best-of-the-best in cycling technology, who makes the break and whether it succeeds, the contest for the most aggressive, the youngest rider and highly sought after 'Lanterne Rouge' - the last place.

I love it all, I find it all fascinating. Even if my favourite riders weren't in the mix, or the domination of Team Sky was a bit boring, there was still so much more to keep me tuning in every night and forcing my eyes to stay open, picture the video scene from A Clockwork Orange, that's how I felt - minus the visions of crazy violence, obviously! 

There was some really exciting racing that is for sure. Pinot's solo victory was simply awesome, Voeckler's passion and domination of the polka dot jersey was awe inspiring, the battle of the sprinters was awesome as expected, and it was great to see Griepel and Cav take three wins each. The 2012 edition will surely be marked for the breakthrough performance of Sagan, whose crazy victory salutes will be replayed on TV montages for years to come! And, last but not least, the domination of Sky and the comanding win by Wiggins. Say what you like, he was the strongest and the best man won. The course suited him to a tee and he took full advantage.... so well done to Britains first TDF winner.

The Olympics Road Race

Perhaps even more anticipated by cycling tradgics the world over than the Tour de France, was the Olympics Men's Road Race, held exactly one week after Cav's legendary 300 meter dash on the Champs Elysees. This was a hotly contested race, you could feel that every man wanted it. Cav was the overwhelming favourite and the other international teams were going to pull every move in the book to keep Team GB and Cav from taking home the gold. All this made for a pretty crazy sort of race. The distance, terrain and difficultly was something akin to the 2010 Geelong World Champs course, but with no race radios, the peloton was really sketchy.

The break was huge - with about 28 quality riders, and team GB left their surge way too late. The break succeeded and in the final k's, when the main contenders in the break were hesitating, bloody Vino saw an opportunity and went for it. I reckon a Vinokourov win was about the last thing that race organisers, the peloton, and cycling fans around the world wanted to see. He's a convicted drug cheat and there's something strange and dodgy in those beady little eyes. How he did it, we'll never know, and the rest of the field will be left wondering what could have been for years to come.

What was really weird to me was the lack of a challenge from the rest of the break???? They just let Vino, Kristoff and Uran take the medals, after 250km's of hard riding it seems they didn't even try to contest the win. IOt was brilliant to see one of my all-time hero's, Stuey O'Grady, be right there at the end, but it looked like he didn't even try to bridge the gab to Vino! Sixth was good - but c'mon, he could have got a medal! And I must admit, a little piece of me really did want to see Cav take gold. He is the fastest man in the world and I love the way he goes about it. It would of been awesome to see him bring home the bacon in front of a home crowd.  

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Publicity Caravan

You can dissect any part of the Tour de France and inevitably you’ll find it steeped in tradition. The French are a passionate people and they have respect for the way things have always been done. That is part of the reason we still see the phenomenon that is known as the Caravan, well, that and the fact that big money is involved!

The Caravan is the collective name for the horde of publicity floats, cars, trucks and of course, caravans, that roll along the race route each day, before the race comes through. According to the official TdF website, the Caravan begun in 1930 when the then race director, Henri Desgrange, became frustrated with the hold the various cycling brands had on the race. To break their domination he made the cyclists all use the same equipment, and race for national teams, as opposed to corporate sponsored ones. A great idea - but this left the corporates out in the cold, and no sporting event can survive without some sort of support from the fat cats. To get around this Desgrange came up yet another novel idea. Desgrange encouraged cars and bikes and other various types of vehicles covered in marketing messages to drive the route before the race, for a fee of course. And so, the publicity caravan was born.

It was not until the 1960’s that teams were again allowed to be sponsored by companies, but by that time the publicity caravan had become a part of the Tour de France that was just as important as the iconic yellow jersey or the Col de Tormalet. Fans now lined the streets in their tens of thousands not just to see the race, but to see that spectacle that is the Caravan. Children eagerly await the goodies that are thrown from the floats, and adults get a kick from the colourful and imaginative floats that pass by.
The period between the 1930’s and 1960 was the heyday of the Caravan, this was the time before television, when companies used whatever means possible to promote their wares. This was the time when the Menier Chocolate Company threw out tons of chocolates to the eager crowds and the time when Cinzano, the aperitif company, hired acrobats to wow the crowd.

And of course there are many tales associated with the publicity caravan, some true, and some are extravagant embellishments of events that may or may not have happened; but all add to the romance of the Tour. For example, there is the tale of the French accordionist, Yvette Horner, who entertained the crowds as she sat atop her Peugeot van and played her typically French café-style music for many years in the 60’s, and who became such an icon that she was given the prestigious responsibility of awarding the yellow jersey at the conclusion of the days racing. And unfortunately there have even been a couple of deaths associated with the caravan, like that of Melvin Pompele, a seven year old boy who was struck by one of the vehicles in the caravan when he ran out onto the road. 

Nowadays, the publicity caravan is an integral part of the Tour. The caravan provides an essential revenue stream for the Société du Tour de France, and the spectacle makes the event a more attractive drawcard for tourists, which is beneficial for the French economy.
A survey revealed that 39% of people come to see the race primarily for the caravan, which typically provides about 45 minutes of entertainment. And why not? They get to see brightly painted floats, get loads of free stuff, see life-size cartoon characters from the latest Hollywood blockbusters and see some of the strangest contraptions on four wheels in the world, and as an added bonus, if they stick around afterward they get to see the worlds best cyclists doing battle in the worlds biggest bike race!

Monday, 16 July 2012

Rest Days

There are some pretty amazing statistics associated with the Tour de France. This year the competitors will cycle 3,479 kilometres over 21 days, during this time they will burn an average of 6000 calories per day and put an incredible strain on their bodies. Many will fall and get back up and keep on cycling, many will push through pain and muscle strains, and many will simply drop out due to sheer exhaustion. It’s a tough event, there’s no denying it, it’s an incredible human feat to just finish a Tour de France; this is why the race is so famous.

But the cyclists do get some respite over the three weeks. Two rest days are scheduled into the three-week race, this year the first comes after the stage 9 individual time-trial, and the second comes after the relatively short and flat 15th stage. After sticking to a strict racing routine for so many days, after so many hours in the saddle, and after living off protein bars, energy gels and carbohydrate loaded isotonic sports fluids for so long, what exactly are the cyclists meant to do on a rest day?    

If it were me, I know exactly what I would be doing. I’d place the ‘do not disturb’ sign on my hotel door, grab myself a bucket of KFC chicken, and then sleep the day away! Unfortunately, the TdF cyclists don't get to enjoy this level of self-indulgence, and eating whatever they please is definitely off the cards. Afterall, it was a rest day back in 2010 when Contador supposedly ate a steak, that came from a clenbuterol addicted cow, that led to his failed drug test.

The cyclists will continue their strict diet of carefully prepared foods that are assembled by team cooks, under strict instruction from team nutritionists and physicians. On a rest day, if anything, they will eat a little more than usual to re-stock their calorie ‘bank’. For example, a 180km stage will require ingestion of approximately 5500 calories, if a rider fails to take on enough food during the days riding (say, 4000), they may finish the race ok but their bodies will ‘remember’ the remaining 1500 calories that were not ingested. Continual under-eating will build up and the rider will eventually exhaust all their energy stores, effectively ending their Tour campaign.

The day will be spent adjusting game plans and going over future tactics. Physically, the team directors will allow their riders some moments of reprieve on a rest day, they will get to catch up on a little sleep and they will spend time with team masseuses and medics, easing strained muscles and treating their various war-wounds. However, there is no real time for true lengthy rest during a TdF, and yes, you guessed it, a ride is a must. The teams will gather for a two-three hour formation ride, keeping an easy pace, but one that would still leave any weekend warrior for dead. To stay off the bike would be to send the wrong message to the body.

Though, there are some exceptions to the rule. Many will remember the horrific crash during stage 9 of the 2011 TdF involving Johnny Hoogerland, Juan Antonio Flecha and a sideswiping French television car that left Hoogerland with deep cuts to his legs, requiring 33 stitches. Luckily for Flecha and Hoogerland, the following day was a rest day, which would have been spent tending to their various cuts and bruises – there would have been no cycling for them that day.  

And, as there always is with with all facets of the TdF, there are tactics and politics that come into play on the rest days. With the intense eyes of the French press and the worlds media watching, the cyclists will make sure that they go for a decent ride on the rest days, even if they are hurting, as a show of strength. They want to show their competition that their legs are fresh - even if the truth of the matter is quite the opposite.
A rest day on the 1930 Tour de France
 Also, there’s the matter of the media obligations for the jersey wearers. On a rest day it is expected that the current holders of the various jerseys will spend much of the day talking to sports journalists from all over the world. They are singled out as the Tour’s current leaders, and with that comes some responsibility - of course those responsibilities can be shirked, but cycling is a sport of tradition and to do so would be counter to the long-standing customs, and therefore, unsportsmanlike. The French press, in particular, can be ruthless when it comes to matters of tradition, and many a cyclist has been burned on the pages of L’Equipe, for acts even less trivial than ditching an interview.

These responsibilities are an unwelcome distraction from the tasks at hand on a rest day, ie. recovery, planning and rehabilitation. Therefore, it is not uncommon for cyclists to delay their attempts at taking control of the GC till after a rest day. Last year it was widely reported that Cadel was more than happy to have Voeckler retain the maillot jaune for this exact reason.    

But all of this is inconsequential, what really matters here is that we get a night off, and a well-earned chance to catch up on some sleep!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The Director Sportif

In honour of the Tour de France, I thought I'd publish some posts explaining some of the finer details of the Tour, this piece explains the integral role of the Director Sportif. 

Picture this hypothetical, Wiggins is leading the Tour de France by 35 seconds, followed closely behind by Nibali. It is stage 12, a medium mountain stage and the main players are at the head of the peloton. With about 40km’s to go, Wiggins gets a puncture and drops back to replace the wheel. The replacement takes some time and although he has two helpers to get him back in the mix, it takes a while to get back to the head of the peloton and he expels a lot of energy in doing so. Nibali sees this and goes on the attack on the Cote d’Ardoix, quickly opening up a sizable gap on the peloton. What does Wiggins do? Who makes the decision? The answer – the Director Sportif.

Sometimes also called the Sporting Manager, the Director Sportif (DS), is in charge of the team. They are the ones that will make all of the decisions surrounding the team, right from training techniques to tactical decisions on the road.

Much like a football coach on game day, all twenty-two DSs will sit down with their team prior to each stage and discuss the aim of the day. They will encourage and push their riders and they are usually master tactictions, using their intelligence and guile to out-manoeuvre their rivals. Many of the current DSs are former pro cyclists themselves, familiar with the mind games, the strategies and the inner workings of the peloton.

photo by roblisameehan
During the race the DSs will ride in the team car with the driver (who is usually another team official), and a team mechanic will be in the back. From the passenger seat of the team car the DSs use whatever means or technology is available to them to improve the positioning of their riders. They are in constant communication with their team, informing them of upcoming hazards, time gaps, terrain differences and mechanical issues. Perhaps most importantly, through the radio, they are able to make calculated decisions in crucial situations, like the scenario described above.

In the above hypothetical, the DS of Wiggins’ Team Sky, Sean Yates, an accomplished cyclist in his own right, would be on the radio to his men, instructing them on whether to chase down Nibali, or concede the time and make it up in a later stage.

Interestingly, a similar situation actually happened in last year’s Tour on stage 18, the 198.4 km grueling race from Pinerolo to Galibier - Serre Chevalier. Andy Schleck attacked early in the stage leaving the other contenders (primarily Evans) surprised and confused by how to counter this move. In hindsight it was a brilliant strategy. Schleck knew that the GC's would stick to his wheel like glue on the final climb - the only way to get a significant time gap was to roll the dice and go early. His gamble paid off and he took more than 2 minutes off Cadel. What was equally amazing about this stage was Cadels response. He looked at the others to help claw back the time Andy had taken (which was over 4 minutes at its peak), the other big names chose to be ticket collectors and suck his wheel. Cadel steeled his resolve and dragged the peloton along himself - bridging the gap by half and it was here that he ultimately saved his Tour. In this situation, Team BMC’s DS, John Lelangue, would have been in his teams ear directing them on exactly how to counter Schleck’s bold move.

Cadel Evans and John Lelangue

Another point to note is that teams will often have some designated ‘deputies’ on the road. The DS ultimately has control, but some teams with experienced racers on their books will designate these individuals as ‘Road Captains’. Guys like Stuart O’Grady and George Hincapie are given this type of responsibility as they command a lot of respect in the peloton and have a wealth of knowledge. George and Stuey may never win a Tour, but their instructions on the road will be worth their weight in gold for their teams GC contenders.

These ‘Road Captains’ will often have a strong bond with their respective GC champions, it is quite obvious that Hincapie and Cadel get along very well. Similarly, the DS’s also from strong bonds with their champion riders often partnering up for many years, creating a consistent winning combination. Like the legendary pair of Cyrille Guimard and Bernard Hinault, and Johan Bruyneel’s partnership with Lance Armstrong (all controvery aside!). Who know’s, If Cadel brings home the yellow again in 2012, the combination of Lelangue and Evans may be another for the pages of history! 

The Big Show

The Tour de France 2012 Edition. 

Well, it's winter here in Melbourne. It's cold, and wet, the days are short and getting up in the morning and biking to work is getting harder and harder. BUT - with July comes the Tour de France, so it's not all bad. Every year the Tour gets bigger and bigger and this year is no exception. The race for the yellow jersey is wide open, despite what the mainstream media says - it's not just between Cadel and Wiggins, there are quite a few who could take yellow. The course is well planned, with a good mix of sprint, medium and big mountain stages and time-trials. The only thing that is missing is the team time-trial. I love the TTT! Lets hope it comes back in 2013! So lets look at favourites for the green and yellow jerseys.

Yellow: The big favourite is the great saviour of British road racing, Bradley Wiggins. Wiggo has a bit too much hype surrounding him if you ask me. My money is still on Cadel to back up his 2011 win. He's experienced, he knows how to win, he's timed his peak form perfectly and his team is 100% dedicated. It'll take a lot to beat Cadel. Other possibilities are Hesjerdal, Menchov, Gesink, Rojers, Sanchez, Schleck (Frank) and Van Den Broeck. It really is wide open. My pick, apart from Cadel, is Vincenzo Nibali. He's a class act, and he'll be right there in the 3rd week, mark my words. And, if you want to lay a bet down, they're offerring some pretty good odds for Nibali too! 

Green: The battle for the Green jersey is going to be action packed this year. The last few years have been a bit stale. Last year it was the Cav show, he had it in the bag from week one. This year we have the biggest selection of world-class sprinters we've seen for many years. Some of the names include Cavendish, Petacchi, Goss, Greipel, Van Hummell, Renshaw, Farrar and Freire. We are going to see some of the best spinting we've seen in a long time - certainly the best this season, as the Tour is the first race we've seen a field like this come together. And don't forget the new wonderkid on the block, Peter Sagan, at 22 he's as green the lush grass of Normandy, and with his power it might just be green that he heads home with.