CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '08
Rest Day #1, July 15th, In Pau
Low Expectations, Awesome Racing
The editorial staff at CyclingRevealed has over 100 years of ‘Tour watching' between them. We have seen the Tour ‘in the flesh', watched endless hours of TV coverage and, long before the internet, read every newspaper and magazine report that we could find. In short, we are rabid fans not only of the Tour, but all things pro cycling.
Coming into this Tour we were saddened to realize that our expectations for Tour 08 were extremely low. Now at the end of the first week of racing we believe that a great vintage Tour is in the making!
Something Completely Different
When Lance Armstrong retired, everyone looked forward to something totally different in 2006. They got it! Floyd Landis, a former Armstrong ‘bully boy' claimed the victory much to the glee of all America, who reveled in the fact that there was life after ‘big Tex '. Barely had the cheers from the final podium ceremony died down when the world learnt that Landis had failed a drug test. His victory was put on ice while the legal battles raged.
Better luck in 2007? Actually it got even worse. Several riders including Vinokourov and his teammate Kaschekin failed drug tests and were thrown out of the Tour. Their team, Astana, then withdrew from the Tour in disgrace. But an even bigger scandal was on the horizon. With just two days to go Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen was resplendent in Yellow. He won the stage atop the Col d'Aubisque on Stage 16 from Alberto Contador and looked to have the race sewn up. Rasmussen had barely wiped the sweat and grime from his face when his team announced that they had both withdrawn him from the Tour and fired him from the team! Apparently he had missed (or avoided) pre-Tour drug tests and lied to his team management concerning his whereabouts in the weeks leading up to the Tour.
And So to 2008
By coincidence (or design!) one week before the 2008 Tour start, the CAS rejected Landis's final appeal to rescue his 2006 Tour and reputation. The same week Rasmussen was handed down a two year suspension for “avoiding” out of race drug tests and lying through his teeth with ‘reasons' why he missed the tests.
With two controversial Tour years behind us it is no wonder that Tour fans approached this year with some trepidation. The fact that the ASO (race organizers) are in an open feud with the UCI and are running the Tour outside of UCI regulations, only adds considerably to everyone's concerns.
Last year's worthy Tour Champion, Alberto Contador, is unable to defend his championship because the ASO denied his Astana team a start place this year as retribution for the havoc that they caused last year.
From Low Expectations to Awesome Racing
With all due respect, the big favorites for this year's race failed to illicit excitement. Valverde, Evans, Kirchen, Cunego, Menchov and many others were frequently named as potential winners. All good guys, solid racers, but to a man they lack panache, charisma or proven ability to race at the very highest (TdF) level for three consecutive weeks.
We should have known better! All year we have been commenting on the quality of racing at just about every major race this year. The lads in the Tour have taken this excellent level of racing and pushed it up quite a few notches.
Every stage has produced quality racing worthy of the Tour's heritage. With such a long list of ‘favorites' everything is up for grabs. And, as so many believe, with “clean” drug free riders the whole field is now on a level playing field. As a result new names are feeding the headlines. Breaks get away and stay away. Almost unknown names populate the top end of the GC classification.
Again we should thank the UCI for its dogged approach to purging drugs from the peloton. We should also be grateful to those teams implementing their own rigid screening programs. The sport is becoming believable again and with new major sponsors like Columbia clothing and Garmin GPS systems it is clear that the credibility and value of cycling is once more in favor with big corporate sponsors.
We started this Tour with Alejandro Valverde telling us that he was going to win Stage 1 to set the stage for his eventual overall win three weeks hence. He did win the stage and next day looked majestic in his Yellow Jersey. However in Stage 4's time trial in Cholet he came in a miserable 23rd over a minute behind his main adversary Evans. But worse was to come on the feared stage 10 route to Hautacam where he lost a whole bucket of time and now lies nearly 5 minutes back on GC. So much for a contender that was at the top of most lists before the Tour.
Each day the quality of racing has been top class. Stage 3 saw four riders escape after 2kms and they were still together at km 208 where Samuel Dumoulin won the sprint from Tour rookie Will Frischkorn. France was in raptures over Dumoulin's success and American fans were ecstatic over Frischkorn. Romain Feillu, who was also in the break, relieved Valverde of his Yellow Jersey to create a second reason for immense French celebration.
The great surprise of Stage 3 was that four (relatively modest) riders were able to survive the combined onslaught of a Tour peloton. We have become accustomed to seeing brave escapes routinely, and almost clinically, erased just before the finish line. For those looking for signs of the eradication of drugs just look to the next day where all four riders of the Stage 3 break finished at the tail end of the time trial result sheet. Exhausted to a man as most normal human beings would be.
The somewhat precocious Mark Cavendish had been boasting earlier this year that he was the best road sprinter in the world. Crusty Tour followers were confident that the “snotty nosed little kid” would not rise to the level of the Tour. With two terrific stage wins in his pocket, Cavendish looks to be the ‘real thing'. A somewhat nasty surprise for the current band of elite sprinters.
Category 1 to HC
The road from Brittany to the Pyrenees has seen truly outstanding racing. New and sometimes surprising names have emerged. Breaks have succeeded, bunch sprints have been hectic and the Yellow Jersey has been on five sets of shoulders in just ten stages. Today there is not an expert out there who can confidently predict the final podium. There are still a lot of riders who have big (and realistic) dreams of claiming a really big Tour de France prize. This leads to one thing. We have a great race ahead of us.
If stages were rated like mountain climbs then it is our opinion that Stages 1 through 9 were Cat 1. Stage 10 (Pau - Hautacam) was clearly HC. Yesterday the “real Tour” started with fast, aggressive racing that paid homage to the magnificent climbs up the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam.
For very many years now we have become accustomed seeing “the heads of state” being carefully shepherded onto the great climbs of the Tour where they would then excert their authority and dominance. For about the last decade we have been saddened to see climbs like the Tourmalet, Galibier and Izoard fall to the controlled powers of mighty teams. These climbs are at the very soul of the Tour and can recall incredible battles that have become Tour legend.
In this Tour there is no great “Patron”. Also, and unspoken by most, the riders in this Tour are displaying human frailties. Robotic riders riding at unbelievable levels day after day have disappeared.
The CSC onslaught driven by Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voight as the Tour headed up the mighty Tourmalet, perhaps tells us all we need know. One after another famous and well respected riders slowly slipped from the back of the group being driven by CSC. When Damiano Cunego and Alejandro Valverde joined the long list of victims it became clear that perhaps just about everyone in the Tour is riding “clean”.
To our great joy the 2008 Tour peloton paid homage to the Tourmalet and rode a race that was worthy of the Tour. On the Hautacam two gifted climbers evoked memories of Gaul and Bahamontes. Bring on the Alps!
Day by Day
As the Tour enters its second week we seem to be heading for a great race that will long be remembered. It is by no means clear who will stand on the podium in Paris. Perfect! Right now just one second separates race leader Cadel Evans from Fränk Schleck. However we have been here before only to be dashed by some other new drug scandal. The sad case of Manuel Beltran the other day warns us that there are still those willing to take the risk.
For now we should relish each great day of racing and hope that those riders and teams that come out on top are not at some later date found to have cheated the system. The signs are good and for now we can look forward to some spectacular days in the Alps and the roads in between. Allez!!
Stay tuned to CyclingRevealed.com for our continuing daily “impressions”.
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