Paul Andrews

Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

Tour 2009 Wrap: Control while we roll

In Bicycle Racing on July 26, 2009 at 12:59 am

The Tour de France 2009 could have been a bell-ringer. It had as much if not more raw talent than most tours, especially in recent years, and the big gun of Lance Armstrong to draw international attention back to cycling. It was a killer course, laid out to maximize drama and intrigue as well as treat an international TV audience to cycling at its best.

But on a day-to-day, stage-by-stage basis, there was a lot more promise of action than real fireworks. When you think about it, the Tour was decided by a single attack: Contador’s predictable run-up to Verbier, giving him a decided edge. The Schleck brothers’ inspiring attempt to wrest control on Colombiere was heroic, but no one was going to beat Contador this time around. Otherwise the Tour strategy was mostly “defend and stay out of trouble.” Astana “controlled” the peloton, and Contador “controlled” the Schleck brothers. On the rare occasion when Contador did attack, he got criticized for breaking team strategy of a 1-2-3 podium in Paris.

You had to love the Schlecks, whose motto was “we will try till we die.” And they delivered. Their guts brought them no glory and their pain no gain. But their efforts were the standouts of the Tour, and their slogan beat to hell the Contador/Astana strategy of “We will control while we roll.”

I wish I could get behind Contador as a great champion. He certainly deserves it, but something about the guy just doesn’t make you want to stand up and cheer. Maybe it’s just too easy for him, or maybe it isn’t but he just makes it look that way. In any case, the Schleck brothers’ attacks will be the enduring memory for me from 2009. Perhaps because they were underdogs and fought and fought while Alberto just seemed to cruise, they proved themselves champions as much as The Pistol.

In the media and general public’s mind, though, 2009 won’t be remembered as much for any of the racing as for Lance’s comeback. Taking third (assuming the results stick for now and stay stuck in the future, unsullied by drug scandal) and reversing his reputation with the French were both huge triumphs for the Austin powerhouse. I call out Lance a lot for grandstanding about his 7 yellow jerseys and whining about drug testing, but I respect his gutsiness when the cards are down. And you have to love that black helmet and his black socks! There’s something to be said for ridin’ ‘n stylin’!

For all his comeback heroics, Lance never once attacked in the Tour of 2009. On the course, Astana helped him more than the other way around. And in that single fact, I find hope for next year’s Tour.

More than any other factor, team dynamics enervated this year’s edition. Any team with two Tour winners, a two-time runner up and a four-time Top Tenner is going to dominate. The problem is that all those favorites on one team means few or no real individual attacks. The team is going to come first, preventing breakaways by standouts like Contador and Armstrong and Kloeden and Leipheimer. Ditto for the same-team Schlecks: Having to watch out for each other, the brothers never seemed to really cut loose individually. Earlier in the race it was Frank trying to spur Andy on; going up Ventoux it was Andy holding back in hopes brother Frank could breach the gap.

Without these allegiances, the Tour would have been a far different race. Next year, it should be. Lance already has announced a different team. Let’s hope Contador does not follow him onto Radio Shack (he’s saying he won’t). These two make far more exciting rivals than partners. Lance will try to cannibalize other teams as well to surround himself with the best. But as long as AC and the Schlecks and Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins and whoever else (Christian Vande Velde?) emerges as a potential star stay on different teams, we could have a barn-burner on our hands in 2010. Let’s hope so. A race as grand and glorious as the Tour deserves fiercer competition than we got this year.


This Day in Doping: Alberto Contador?

In Bicycle Racing, This Day In Doping on July 24, 2009 at 12:45 pm

VeloNews: Contador ducks doping questions. Who knows what to make of this? Contador has to be annoyed at second-guessing his performance. But he’s not a very engaging figure, either. I’m not saying he acts like he’s guilty, but somehow these guys always seem to have Barry Bonds syndrome. As much as you may admire their accomplishments, you can’t root for them because they seem a bit unreal.

That’s partly why I’m a big Andy Schleck fan. As good as he is, he also seems more human. You can tell he’s suffering out there, and it’s harder for him. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which you can’t help but admire.

I keep hoping the doping is behind us. All the signals are there, the international crackdown seems to continue apace. But when you have doping suspects like Lance and Bruyneel hanging around, especially on the same team, I suppose anything is possible. When Lance says he won’t race for anyone but Bruyneel, you are tempted to wonder what secrets the two of them share.

I respect Greg Lemond’s work in this arena and his constant bird-dogging of the issue. Greg it seems to me has worked out a legitimate, accurate approach involving VO2 max and other biological input for determining rider performance. But Greg isn’t a medical scientist any more than the rest of us and has a vested interest of course (although it seems largely personal).

In the TT in question, it should be noted it included a pretty stiff climb that would favor Alberto’s specialty. OTOH my understanding is that the late starters faced more headwind. As with any doping issue, there are always conspiratorial and non-conspiratorial sides to the race.

What we can say for sure is that the database is growing. News reports during this year’s Tour of “nothing was found” miss the point. Every time a search is conducted, or a sample taken, the database grows. Doping forensics must be a wild and fascinating science, but it also must constantly adapt to new methods of subterfuge. And that takes time: Riders are being penalized today for abuses that took place a year or more ago. What happened? The database, and more sophisticated analysis techniques, caught up with them.

For a recent case in point, Danilo Di Luca’s positive test from this past Giro d’Italia. Check the comments.

Here’s what a poster at BikePure had to say about Di Luca’s disconcerting betrayal:

Bike Pure works through positive measures. We believe that the sport has enough to cope with without us pointing the finger. But today speaking as singular, not part of Bike Pure, I blame the UCI – not The Killer. I think the UCI must accept that the system is not identifying the cheats, stop pouring money into it and concentrate on either displaying the actual results of all riders, leaving it open to scrutiny and free from criticism, or dump it as a poor method of weeding out the cheats and move to other methods, perhaps the much proposed, yet much ignored Vo2 max testing.

Data is one thing. Politics is another. Right now, most people who watch the doping scene feel politics dominates because of the huge money involved. As long as Lance or Alberto or whomever brings big dollars and attention to the sport, any doping allegations are going to be downplayed. And cycling officialdom will resist “outside interference” in the form of independent investigations, because officialdom sadly knows the truth, or suspects it, and understands that the truth can only damage the sport, especially in the pocketbook. One yearns for a journalistic investigation, but the publications with expertise in the sport also have close financial ties to it, undermining incentives to expose.

All the above said, we will not know if this is the first “clean Tour” in years till well after Sunday’s final stage (assuming no one is tossed out sooner). Let’s keep our fingers crossed. I’d rather see a clean Tour than the alternative, even if a Contador disqualification would give the win to my man Andy, who god help us had better be clean himself!

This Day in Doping: Crackdown reaches Russia

In Bicycling, This Day In Doping on July 21, 2009 at 5:54 am Russian cycling federation joins the international crackdown on doping. But sheesh, you hate to see a teenager and 22-year-olds already being banned. We were kind of counting on the youth being the hope of the future!

Tahoe unauthorized trail-building: The real story

In Bicycle advocacy, Mountain Biking, Trail Access on July 21, 2009 at 12:27 am

Lake Tahoe Forest Service officials are warning against unauthorized trail building, but they still don’t get it. They suspect “ongoing illegal trail-building has risen significantly with the increased popularity of mountain biking and newer, better equipment.”

While those are factors, the real reason trail building is increasing is because the Forest Service and other official bodies will not approve new trails. Any new trails. They don’t have budget, they don’t have builders, they don’t have a process. They do bone-headed things like spend $29,000 to “decommission” (block) rogue trails — money that should be going to building new trails.

So you get kids with time on their hands who see reality for what it is: They’re not going to be able to ride unless they build their own clandestine, off-radar trails.

(I don’t like to call any trails “illegal,” since legality is often applied subjectively and virtually never tested in court. It also is unclear what illegality applies to: The trail or the rider, or both. “Unauthorized” or “uncommissioned” seem more germane terms to me.)

It’s that simple. The solution is for agencies to get with the program and start opening up access. The first thing they can do is watch the film, “Freedom Riders,” which explores a cooperative approach between authorities and mountain bikers to expand trail access in Wyoming. Then they can work with IMBA and local MTB organizations to map out plans for additional access that involve the entire community. They’re doing this already in some places, notably Canada; let’s hope the ethic spreads quickly. For all their serendipity, rogue trails can be dangerous, poorly constructed and hard to get to in an emergency. There’s a better way, it just needs publicizing, funding and nurturing.

Daily Roundup: Riders down, including Peaty, Leadville 100 heats up, iPhone apps and more

In Bicycle advocacy, Bicycling, Daily Roundup, Mountain Biking, Rider Down, Trail Access, Videos on July 21, 2009 at 12:09 am

In the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, a car driver took out two cyclists in a classic dooring incident. I was just thinking the other day how lucky I am never to have gotten doored. Then I almost got doored twice in three days… (Thanks to

In Ottawa, a minivan took out 5 cyclists in a classic hit and run. They got the vehicle, they got the driver, let’s hope they get some justice. (Thanks to

It happens to the best of us, even the winningest World Cup rider ever. Peaty takes a dive.

PinkBike has the full rundown on the Mountain Bike Nationals at Sol Vista bike park in Colorado this past weekend.

I’ve consistently said that this year’s Leadville 100 is the Lance Armstrong race to watch for 2009 (him having no chance in the Giro and Tour). With all those mountain stages under his belt, Lance has to be considered the favorite. Turns out, though, that the Alps aren’t just for the skinny tire set. Dave Wiens, who kicked Lance’s sorry ass all the way back to Austin last year, is riding the TransAlp challenge, the toughest mountain bike stage race in the world. Go Dave! (Thanks to

WIRED: 5 iPhone apps to replace bike hardware. Tell me about it. I got the new 3GS and now have 2 cell phones, 3 voice recorders, 2 camcorders, 3 cameras, a GPS system and a bunch of notepads to get rid of. Any reasonable offer considered.

Add to the calendar: Kranked’s new movie, “Revolve,” gets a show on the big screen a week from Thursday, July 30, at the North Bend Theater, with proceeds going to a great cause: Mountain biking access! See ya there… is doing a Daily Roundup too!

Pivot Firebird reviewed by someone who paid for one

In Equipment reviews, Mountain Biking on July 20, 2009 at 1:13 pm

[Note: Pivot will be bringing its bike fleet to Bothell Ski & Bike on Saturday and St. Edwards Park on Sunday (July 26 and 27) for demo-ing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. I bought a 6.5-inch Firebird with the DW-Link in mid-June and have ridden it virtually daily. It confirmed what my Ibis Mojo told me the first time around: Dave Weagle’s DW-Link is the biggest advance in mountain bike suspension technology in years — arguably since the advent of the air shock.]

The Pivot Firebird really resets the landscape for long-travel trail bikes. For the first time you can go with a heavier bike, in the 32-lb. range, and benefit rather than suffer from the weight gain. To be clear, you may not benefit on an epic cross-country ride with steep climbs and smooth trails. You’ll still appreciate your lightweight, 5-inch bike for those rides.

But mountain biking is going through an evolution right now, where trail riding is increasingly a step-up from classic XC to aggressive skills tests. Every summer I head to British Columbia, where trails are etched into steep, rocky, rooty, obstacle-laden and structure-enhanced terrain with jumps, drops and hucks. B.C. is setting the international standard these days, which means its burly kind of riding is already trickling down the ranks to Cali, Colorado, Utah and other MTB haunts. When I spent a couple of months living in the Bay Area recently, I was amazed at the emergence of technical stuff on traditional trails, as well as an explosion in new trail building aimed at upping the X-factor. Many of these trails are off the radar, but the groms can’t wait for red tape and process. They want to ride now.

I’d be reluctant to take my 25-lb. Mojo on these routes. The Mojo is air only, has a 4-lb. carbon fork and 717 Mavic wheels. It’s set up for all-day mountain epics or simple low-country trail riding unencumbered by chutes ‘n ladders. I realize Brian Lopes rides a Mojo in downhill dual slalom events. But he’s got a coil shock, beefy wheels and other tweaks, and he doesn’t have to pay for his bike. Most of all, he’s Brian Lopes. And you know what? The rest of us are not.

So where you benefit with a step-up to the Firebird is in confidence. And confidence, these days, is a big factor in how fulfilled you feel riding a mountain bike. Maybe you can do small jumps but not doubles. Maybe you can do 3-foot drops but not 5-footers. Maybe tabletops intimidate you. To take that next step you need a bike that will do what you want it to do, will follow where you lead, and will bail you out when gravity gets the better of you.

And that’s where the Firebird enters in.

The love that dare not spoke its name

The love that dare not spoke its name

I’ve ridden 6-inch bikes since converting my Ventana Salt (El Saltamontes) to a 6-inch kit five years ago (we didn’t know about geometry so much back then). I had a Turner 6-Pack for a bit, then went to an Intense 6.6. All good bikes, all increasing my skillz. But this year I knew I wasn’t advancing with the trails, and needed something more.

I almost went for a Santa Cruz Nomad. But its suspension technology, the VPP, is the same as the Intense, and I was itching to try something different.

The Firebird caught my eye immediately for two reasons. First was the presence of Chris Cocalis, formerly the head guy at Titus. I bought a Titus ti HC hardtail from Roaring Mouse Cycles in San Francisco seven years ago (which also, no surprise, carries Pivot today) and it hasn’t missed a day from downtime. I still ride it almost every day for my around-town bike (modified only slightly for street use), and will take it on the trail where the ride warrants. It’s crashed many times and even got hit (nudged) by a car on my van’s rear rack one time. Didn’t even bend the chain stay. With the ti, of course, its finish looks brand new if you swab it up with a little steel wool.

Cocalis knows his stuff, takes pride in his work, builds bikes to last and stands behind his product. Since he founded Pivot I’ve been waiting for him to come out with something I wanted. When he hit the streets with the DW–Link, I sat up straight. The Mach 4 or 5 did not make sense because I already had the Ibis. The Firebird, though, made sense.

I should say something here about elevated expectations. Mountain Bike Action‘s RC (Richard Cunningham) doesn’t put his own name on many bike reviews, but he did it for the Firebird. His online posting was a 5-star gobsmacked rave. RC is usually pretty reserved in both praise and criticism, so his unabashed love letter to the Firebird was a marked departure. It did, however, goose the buzz meter on the Firebird.

By that time I knew I was going to Sea Otter this year, and that Pivot would have Firebirds available for test rides. Sure enough, they had a size Large available in the booth when I walked up. They set me up and told me to go play, I could take as much as two hours on the bike.

I headed for the test track and then the XC course to put the Firebird through its paces. And wow, was I shocked. The bike was just ordinary. It felt harsh, unbalanced and unresponsive. Going over the track jumps I was always too far forward or too far back. Climbing up the singletrack my front end wandered. I couldn’t figure this bike out!

At the Pivot tent we’d spent at least 5 minutes getting the suspension dialed for me…or at least I thought. Setting the rear shock (the Pivot comes with either RP23 or DHX 5) is crucial. You want 30 percent, or 3/4th of an inch, not significantly more even though you might be used to setting sag lower. Everything else seemed in order.

But out on the trail, the Firebird just wasn’t doing it for me. Hugely disappointed, I went back to the tent and thanked the guys, making mental plans to order a Nomad the next day.

As it turns out, luck was with me. My LBS, the Downhill Zone in Seattle, could not obtain a Nomad in the color I wanted. I was forced to wait. And it gave me time to think.

My test ride was so at odds with everything else I’d read and heard about the Firebird, and I trusted Cocalis’ judgment so much, that I figured I should give it a second chance. Because it was the beginning of the season, my worst-case scenario in getting a Firebird would be to use it for a few weeks, then sell it. I’ve done this before with high–end bikes. It’s like renting for a summer for a couple hundred dollars.

Fortunately, the second wave of Firebirds was just coming over on the boat from Taiwan. When I put in the order, I was just a few days from getting the bike.

Adam weighs my Firebird outside the Zone: 7.62 lbs

Adam weighs my Firebird outside the Zone: 7.62 lbs

And here’s what happened. Adam at the DHZ set it up almost perfectly, nailing stem length, saddle position, bar width and on down the line. Adam knows me and my riding style and is a master at tailoring the ride to the rider. My riding weight with a pack is about Adam’s riding weight light, so he could dial the shock settings.

I took it out to Tiger Mountain, my favorite Seattle-area trail network, and thought in the parking lot that the shock, in my case the RP23, was a bit harsh. I fiddled with the air pressure, rebound and compression till the settings felt good. But Tiger starts out with a fairly steep fire road climb, and I was getting a bit too much depth on the travel ring. So I upped the air pressure just a hair…back to where Adam had it set in the first place!

Where the magic happens

Where the magic happens

At that point the DW-Link took over. For years the industry and media have talked about no-bob shock technology. For years we know what the truth has been. The DW-Link finally solves the bob prob (Weagle’s expression is “anti-squat”). Somehow on the Firebird it solves it even better than on the Mojo, although I’m not sure why that might be (the Firebird’s rear end may have more lateral stiffness).

Intriguingly, the harder you push the shock on a climb, the more the DW-Link kicks in. You can stand on the pedals and whale away without feeling any wallow or give. Particularly on a steep climb, with maybe a switchback or two thrown in, DW-Link saves the day. Your rear end just bites into the trail, even on loose stuff, and moves you forward as though you were riding asphalt. I know this sounds like reviewer hype, but trust me, I’ve been there. Even when you hit a rock or root going up, it doesn’t impede. The rear wheel rolls right over it almost unnoticeably. I’ve found it’s better to keep the rear wheel weighted, in fact — counter-intuitively so, where I’ve ridden before and always had to thrust my torso forward or stand or otherwise maneuver to get up over a rise or obstacle.

I admit to some trepidation at how well the Firebird climbed, because my experience is you get one or the other: A great climber or a great descender.

Once again, the Firebird blew away my expectations. Going downhill was like being a kid again, where your reflexes are firing and you’re totally sync’d with the bike and you think there’s nothing you cannot do. I did a couple of log rolls I’d always had trouble with so smoothly that I wished they were bigger and harder. I glided over a rooty boneyard like a bearing over glass. I banged down rocky creek channels and went airborne from ledges further than I’d ever done before. At the bottom I was sucking wind, not from wrestling with the bike but from pinning it to the max the entire way.

On the Firebird, 35 pounds (in my case; my setup could be lighter) just disappears beneath you. When you land, the suspension cushions you like you barely left the ground. In France they used to (and may still) have a car called the Citroen with air suspension. Landing with the Firebird is like shutting down the Citroen, where the air squooshes from the suspension, giving a float-down feel, like an elevator settling at the floor you want. Even on off-balance or fork-first landings there’s never a hint of fish-tailing or stutter-bumping. At least, there hasn’t been for me so far. I keep going bigger on the Firebird, though, without getting in over my head.

That first ride I had planned to go out for my usual two-hour spin. I wound up spending nearly five hours on the mountain. Each time I headed back to the van, I could not face putting my bike up. I had to do one more leg. Even at the end, I didn’t feel tired. I just ran out of daylight.

So I guess the moral of the tale is: The Firebird rules! Try to take a test ride, but remember, it may not be the best guide. Find a buddy with a Firebird you can try out; he’ll be able to help you get it dialed. Go to a Pivot Demo Day and talk it over with the bros.

I’m not going to say this is my one do-everything bike because I don’t believe in such a thing, or even want there to be such a thing (I like all my bikes).

OK…maybe I will say it. So far, I haven’t wanted to touch my Mojo again. Yeah, I guess I have to: If you want just one bike for all your riding, the Firebird is it. The ride does not lie.

Pivot Firebird notes:

Floating front derailleur. It really works. Front shifting snaps back and forth like an internal hub, there’s no chain lag, cable pause or brrrttt. I have tried every trick to throw the chain on a front shift. Does not happen. You also don’t get that little kak that most long-travel bikes give you when the suspension suddenly decompresses.

How big can it go? With proper transition and flow, the bike will handle most situations. But it’s not a big jump or huck bike, so use common sense. From a personal standpoint, I haven’t yet over-stretched the bike’s capacity. It’s the other way around, the bike keeps stretching me.

Go coil? I’ve used coil in all my bikes at this travel, but so far see no need with the Firebird (I haven’t touched the rear shock since that first ride). The RP23 is right on; word is that the DHX gives you more tuning options, but is trickier to dial for that reason. Pivot ships with DHX 5.0 air shocks (or RP23). If you go to coil, Pivot is devising an aluminum upper link (to replace the carbon) for better clearance.

Setup, weight: I’m at 34.5 lbs. with a coil fork (Lyrik U-turn), UST Mavic 823 rear rim (Mavic 521 front), Hadleys & Nevegal 2.35s, Chris King 1.5 headset, Thomson stem & post, Louise brakes, XT cranks, otherwise SRAM shifters and drivetrain. I could get the bike down to 32 pounds easy and am aiming at that. If lightness changes the handling, though, I’m going back to the heavier build!

Colors: Ano Black and “Root Beer” brown, which NOTE looks a lot better in person than photos.

Price: $2200 for frameset. High end of spectrum, but worth it.

Firebird Web page

Chris Cocalis gives the full Monty on the Firebird (video)

Cocalis discusses the DW-Link (video)

Tiger Mountain update: Trails in primo condition

In Mountain Biking, Tiger Mountain on July 20, 2009 at 1:58 am
Trifecta: Sunshine, Tiger and Trails

Trifecta: Sunshine, Tiger and Trails

You won’t see Tiger’s trails like this for a long time. They’re in primo condition, better than they will be two weeks from now. How can I say that so assuredly? Because if it rains, they’ll be wet. If it doesn’t rain, they’ll be on their way to getting pitted out from constant use.

There’s a trickle of water in three places, the usual creeklets, on Preston Railroad Grade. Apart from that, everything is bone dry. We’ve had a marvelous run of weather that has put the trails into a tacky rippable state you have to go back three or four years to duplicate.

The irony of course is that this time of year, most mountain bikers head for the high country. Whistler, NorthShore, interior B.C., Leavenworth, Winthrop and other points eastward. So Tiger gets its least seasonal use during the heart of the season.

Still, it remains my favorite ride in Seattle environs. Weekday evenings you can’t beat it, with the light staying longer this time of year. That’s why a number of us are working toward the day we can achieve wider access to Tiger trails.

Jill Kintner once again fastest grrrl on mountain

In Bicycle Racing, Mountain Biking on July 20, 2009 at 12:39 am

Seattle native Jill Kintner, continuing a remarkable comeback year after knee surgery following her Olympic BMX medal last season, won the national 4-cross title late Saturday at the Mountain Bike Nationals in Sol Vista, Colo.

Kintner bested arch-rival Melissa Buhl for the title, with Kathy Pruitt placing third. Congrats once again to Jill, who with her victory at the US Open is on a tremendous roll this season. More from BF Bryn on Jill’s blog.

Daily Roundup: Blog “rest day,” Ragbrai off ‘n rolling, Morland is EVIL

In Bicycle Racing, Daily Roundup, Mountain Biking on July 20, 2009 at 12:10 am

The Tour de France is enjoying a rest day, but bloggers never sleep. Bloggers never sleep because, as mainstream media constantly remind us, we work in our pajamas. Until someone comes up with a new form of sleepwear, bloggers can consequently have no rest.

Neither will Andy Schleck, my man in this year’s Tour and the one guy willing to try to hunt down The Pistol. Schleck’s great new slogan: “Try till we die.” Keep that figurative, Andy, but go, bro, go!

One thing can be put to rest, though: Incessant babble about Lance’s chances for another Tour title. Finally, after today’s respectable but flagging finish in the first real test of the 2009 Tour, we will no longer have to hear about how strong Lance is looking and what an amazing comeback he has accomplished and blah blah. Yes, his reappearance has been great for cycling, for his foundation, and for his Texas-sized ego. It will pay dividends in years to come for American participation in the sport. But hype from Bicycling magazine, The New York Times and just about every paid common tater that Lance could get an 8th was pipe-dreaming from the get-go. Only we, as Lance’s unofficial hype degreaser, were willing to call it from the start: No Giro, no Tour, no kidding.

Now we can turn our collective attention to the Leadville 100, where Lance has vowed to avenge his butt-kicking at the hands of perennial winner Dave Wiens, a humble, charming guy who is everything in character Lance is not. With Armstrong as fit as could be expected from a season of racing, it should be a fantastic showdown.

Biking Bis: Ragbrai, the venerable ride across Iowa, has launched again.

Tyler Morland, who launches from just about anything, has signed with Seattle’s Evil Bikes, adding to its stable of world-class talent.

Seattle’s Jan Heine’s bike books get reviewed by Michael Upchurch in The Seattle Times: “While Heine and Pradères are clearly aiming these volumes at ardent bicycling enthusiasts, amateur riders should find them informative, too. They may even be prompted to go down to the basement — as I just did — to see what kind of bicycle they have … and whether, perhaps, they should give it to the pope.”

Today’s Tour stage: Making sense of the senseless

In Bicycle Racing on July 18, 2009 at 11:24 am

How does that saying go? A friend of my friend is my friend unless my friend is Lance Armstrong?

As much as I beat up on Lance for grandstanding and truth-avoidance, I can’t point the finger at him for cheating Hincapie out of the yellow jersey today. If anything, it was Lance’s “friends” — Team Astana — who dictated keeping Hincapie within shouting range during the stage. I think Astana, or at least Lance and Bruyneel, really wanted George to take the yellow — by a few seconds. Not by a few minutes. And there lay the rub.

When the Hincapie group threatened to expand its margin over the peloton too far, their breakaway forced Astana’s hand. George may not be the best climber in the Tour, but he’s a good one. In this Tour, uncertainty rules. The prospect of giving a rider of Hincapie’s capability a multi-minute lead with the Alps looming was just too much for Astana and race favorite Alberto Contador.

Lance would have been happy for Hincapie to take yellow by a narrow margin. But the question was: How do you keep it “manageable?”

So Lance and Astana decided to goose the pace and stabilize the Hincapie group’s margin. For what Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen estimated at about an hour, Team Astana moved the peloton along with their machine-like power and efficiency.

That may have been all well and good for Hincapie, as long as the margin was enough to give him yellow. Unfortunately, it opened the door to a wild card, which in this case turned out to be Garmin-Slipstream.

Garmin is a strong team. I’m not sure why it would want to deprive Hincapie of yellow. Perhaps it had no reason at all. Perhaps it just wanted to put pressure on Astana after the latter’s long pull in hopes of pooping out the team a bit before tomorrow’s supposedly killer mountain stage (I say supposedly because so far in this Tour, that prospect has turned to mush time after time with a listless peloton).

Whatever the reason, Astana’s calculated pull turned out to be miscalculated by a matter of seconds. Hincapie, who could only watch helplessly as the pack closed in on the finish line, was so visibly distraught, vacillating between tears and anger, that you had to feel for the guy in the post-stage interview.

Lance on the other hand hummed and hawed his way through the post-stage questioning. The best excuse he could come up with was “blame Garmin.” That charge doesn’t stick, because Garmin could not have managed to close the gap if Astana had not done its earlier monster pull of the pack.

At least it was an interesting day in this so far undistinguished Tour. Maybe it will get even more interesting tomorrow. If Hincapie can use his emotions for a bit of afterburner on the final climb, he could be in yellow at the end of the day. If so, he’ll prove he really deserved the maillot jaune after all.