Saturday, July 26, 2014

Martin blizes time-trial; Nibali honours yellow; Frenchman sweep remainder of podium

Stage 20: Bergerac to Périgueux, 54km individual time-trial.

The man expected to win, did win and, thanks to his position in the general classification, had completed the job long before the battle that would garner all the attention got under way: The fight for the final podium positions. Tony Martin could well have gone back to his hotel, had a shower, a bite to eat and returned to the podium such was the certainty of his ride that nobody to come after would beat it, but instead he was made to sit beside the finishing line, watching various riders come up to the line and fall well short of his mark.

As a result however he got to enjoy the exciting climax to this years tour podium. Coming in, Vincenzo Nibali held such a lead that nothing short of a disaster would have put his Tour into jeopardy, but rather than play it safe and coast around, Nibali still went out hard, determined to honour the yellow jersey. The effort put him into fourth for the stage and resulted in him taking yet further time from those around him in the overall standings.

Nibali will ride into Paris with a 7minute, 52 second lead over the nearest man, the biggest winning margin in the Tour since Jan Ullrich beat Richard Virenque in 1997 by 9 minutes, 9 seconds. Thinking back to that day who would have though it would be the last (and only) time the then 23 year old Jan Ullrich would win the Tour de France and also the last time a Frenchman would stand on the podium...until now.

At least one podium spot was all but guaranteed between second place Thibaut Pinot and third place Jean-Christophe Péraud with Spaniard Aljeandro Valverde the only one who could potentially strip one place away from them, but it became evident early that Valverde wasn't going to be doing that. Valverde was the slowest of the top six and it soon became a battle between Pinot and Péraud to sort out which order they would stand on the podium. Pinot came in with a 13 second lead over his fellow countryman, but Péraud stormed off the starting ramp and had overturned the entire defect plus a further 12 seconds by the first time check at 19 kilometres.

Indeed, Péraud was the fastest of the main contenders at the first check taking 5 seconds from Tejay Van Garderen and 6 seconds from Nibali, but a bike change slowed his progress and he himself began to lose ground on that pair as the course wore on. By the second check Péraud was now well behind Nibali and Van Garderen and 24 seconds up on Pinot who had matched Péraud for pace, shy a single second.

By the third check Péraud had studied himself and put 36 seconds into Pinot's time and it was clear the elder statesman of the pair at 37 years of age would not only live out his dream by finishing on the podium but would do so in second place. He hit the line with the seventh best time on the day, 45 seconds better than the young Pinot.

Péraud broke down crying after the finish and Pinot will be satisfied with a top three. The French waited 17 years for someone to do this and two have come along at once. It's the first time two Frenchmen have finished on the podium since Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault in 1984.

It also had the potential to be the first time three Frenchmen finished in the top five since Charly Mottet, Luc Leblanc and Fignon in the 1991, but Romain Bardet struggled almost as badly as Valverde and, like his teammate, was forced to make a bike change. Unlike Péraud however, Bardet's change cost him: Van Garderen, who required 2'07" coming into the stage, put 2'09" into the youngster and took fifth place by a mere 2 seconds. It was like a miniature version of Fignon vs. LeMond all over again...the Frenchman losing out right on the final stretch to the American, albeit for minor placings this time.

And so Tony Martin could finally move away from the waiting area and onto the podium and head back to his hotel for a long overdue lie down. His ride was on another level to the rest. He beat Tom Dumoulin by 1 minute, 39 seconds, Jan Barta by 1'47" and was two seconds shy of putting two minutes into the yellow jersey. Still, Nibali won't mind; he proved himself the strongest over the three weeks as a whole and further illustrated that against his rivals today. He will coast into Paris tomorrow to win the Tour de France.

Result:
1. Martin (OPQ) in 1h6'21"
2. Dumoulin (GIA) +1'39"
3. Barta (TNE) +1'47"
4. Nibali (AST) +1'58"
5. Konig (TNE) +2'02"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +2'08"
Others
7. Péraud (ALM) +2'27"
12. Pinot (FDJ) +3'12"
26. Bardet (ALM) +4'17"
28. Valverde (MOV) +4'28"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 86h37'52"
2. Péraud (ALM) +7'52"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +8'24"
4. Valverde (MOV) +9'55"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +11'44"
6. Bardet (ALM) +11'46"

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pinot v Péraud v Valverde in the time-trial

Forget Vinenzo Nibali. He's won the Tour now. Nothing shy of serious mechanical trouble or a crash is going to stop him and so with the points, king of the mountains, and team competitions all settled, attention turns to the rest of the podium; the battle for 2nd and 3rd, separated between three men by just 15 seconds and with a 54km time-trial set to decide it.

Here is the current General Classification between the three protagonists of Valverde looking for his first Tour de France podium in six attempts, and Péraud and Pinot looking to become the first Frenchmen since Richard Virenque in 1997 to finish in the top 3:

Pinot
Péraud +13"
Valverde +15"

So who is going to make the most of this time-trial and grab second, or at least third? It's extremely hard to say. None of the three are time-trial specialists, but all of them have shown an ability to do well against the clock when required. In particular Valverde and Péraud who have won their national time-trial champions, with Valverde doing just that this year.

It's difficult to say who will be feeling the best on the day, who the course will suit the best and who has come out of the mountains with the most in their legs. The Pyrenees would suggest Pinot is going the best and Valverde the worst but that rarely stacks up in an individual time-trial.

The only evidence we can really look at is their past head-to-head action, and even that is circumstantial at best. It turns out they've done three time-trials in the Tour de France against one another before; two in 2012, one in 2013. There was a second time-trial in 2013 but Pinot had abandoned by then and Péraud crashed out during the warm-up for it.

Here's how the three time-trials stacked up:

2012 TOUR, STAGE 9, 41.5KM
29. Péraud in 55'03"
34. Valverde +22"
59. Pinot +1'33"

2012 TOUR, STAGE 19, 53.5KM
41. Pinot in 1h09'44"
76. Péraud +1'07"
113. Valverde +3'05"

2013 TOUR, STAGE 11, 33KM
13. Valverde in 38'41"
19. Péraud +10"
55. Pinot +1'16"

Each one of them going the fastest in one of the three. But you have to factor in what was happening at that moment in the Tour. Was one of them a GC contender, was any of them saving energy for a potential stage win instead, were they all feeling at their best? It's unlikely they done any of those three time-trials with the same mentality that they'll do this one tomorrow.

Yet it does give an interesting look and it is clear that they're all pretty close...exactly what we want given how close they also are on GC in this Tour.

There is one other benchmark with which to draw it again. A race far from the prestige of the Tour and a time-trial in which none of them stood to win a podium place but which all three competed as recently as this season: The Tour of the Basque country. It sorted itself as follows:

2014 TOUR OF BASQUE COUNTRY, 25.9KM
5. Péraud in 39'08"
8. Valverde +27"
10. Pinot +50"

Once again, there wasn't much between them.

It really is up for grabs, though if I had to come down off the fence for just a moment I'd stick my neck out and say Péraud will do enough to grab second and Valverde might do enough to take the third overall place. Or maybe they'll all finish on the exact same time and we'll wonder what a scenario that might have been had Nibali not been there!

Ramunas Navardauskas pulls out a result for desperate Garmin

Stage 19: Maubourguet Pays du Val d'Adour to Bergerac, 208.5km. Flat.

Ramunas Navardauskas, the man with the best sounding name in cycling, has ended the Garmin-Sharp teams miserable Tour by picking up a stage victory just three days from Paris. Things went south for Garmin when their team-leader on whom they had pinned all their hopes to the point that veteran team-member David Miller was not selected, abandoned the tour injured on stage 12. Attention turned to stage wins and no doubt the wish that Miller was present, but it was the man who was selected in his place, a potential domestique to Talansky, that came through and grabbed the win.

It was a miserable day all round. It should have been a day for bright faces and tired but happy bodies with the mountains now behind them for good, but the rain came hard and relentless to serve them a reminder as to the conditions they faced earlier in the race.

The tricky conditions as a result put everyone on high alert, nobody wanting to make a mistake now so close to completing the event. At first glance it appeared a stage made for the sprinters but the conditions offered hope to change that and there was also the caveat of a small category four climb close to the finish with which to hurt the already exhausted big sprinters.

That's where the pressure went on and quickly Marcel Kittel, the favorite to win had things all stayed together, lost contact. Peter Sagan immediately came to mind, but no matter what he has tried to do in this tour he's always fallen a little short. Today that happened again...though this time it was a literal fall about 3km from the finish that ended his hopes and now leaves the Slovak looking to a guaranteed pure sprinters day in Paris to come away with that illustrious stage win of this Tour to go with his green jersey.

The run-in to the finish and Navardauskas made his move, jumping off the front. He never gained a serious gap but his time-trialing ability was enough to throw the peloton into a panic and it didn't help them that many of the pure sprinters were no longer there. Leadout men had suddenly become the days stage contenders and the hesitation may have proven enough for Navardauskas to hold them off. One kilometre to go it remained touch and go but who wasn't willing him to hold on? And hold on he did...by seven good seconds.

Garmin, Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky all lost their main GC rider early in this Tour and all three eventually found themselves looking for stage wins to salvage something from it. Tinkoff came through in style in the mountains with three victories and today Garmin have got one for themselves. It's hard to see now, with just a time-trial and the sprint into Paris to come, where Sky are going to get that result.

Result:
1. Navardauskas (GRS) in 4h43'41"
2. Degenklob (GIA) +7"
3. Kristoff (KAT)
4. Renshaw (OPQ)
5. Bennati (TIN)
6. Petacchi (OPQ) all s.t.

Overall: No change.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nibali rams home the final nail for fourth stage victory

Stage 18: Pau to Hautacam, 145.5km. High Mountains.

Nibali attacks on the lower slopes of Hautacam
Sunday, July 14, 1974 was the last time someone won four road stages in the Tour de France and went on to win the Yellow jersey. Indeed, only sprinters have done it since. That years Tour visited England also and a Frenchman, Raymond Poulidor, finished second. The winner that year was Eddy Merckx...this year, it's Vincenzo Nibali and once more it could be a Frenchman finishing in second.

Merckx ended up with eight stage victories that year including two time-trials and while that won't happen with Nibali the fact his victory today achieved something last seen 40 years ago only highlights how brilliant he has been in this years Tour.

Merckx beat Poulidor by a dominant 8 minutes, 4 seconds in '74 and today Nibali's stunning ride to win solo a-top Hautacam by a minute and ten seconds from Thibaut Pinot means he now carries a staggering 7 minutes, 10 seconds lead over the young Frenchman into the final two flat stages and individual time-trial.

It's set to become the largest winning margin (assuming you overlook Lance Armstrong's 7 minutes, 17 second victory over Joseba Beloki in 2002), since Jan Ullrich beat Richard Virenque by 9 minutes, 9 seconds in 1997, also the last time a Frenchman finished on the podium.

Baring an absolute disaster, Nibali is set to win this Tour and completing the triple crown of winning the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, joining just five men (Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Alberto Contador) to have done it. It will be the 9th top 10 finish in a Grand Tour for Nibali and at 29 years of age you figure it won't be the last.

But the celebration for those kinds of records can wait until Sunday for today it was all about ramming home the final nail into the coffin of everyone else's hopes with an attack on the lower slopes of Hautacam and a solo time-trial to the top. When Chris Horner, the man who beat Nibali to last years Vuelta crown by a handful of seconds, made his bid for a stage victory, Nibali jumped onto his wheel and eventually away from the aging American.

He hunted down the loan man still in the lead of the stage, Mikel Nieve of Sky, the team who would once again be denied a stage victory in a tour to forget for the British team, and ploughed on alone. Rafal Majka was forced to react because not only was Nibali ramming home his dominance in these mountain stages with another stage win and cementing his Tour success, he was also bidding to become the first man since Merckx, again, this time in 1970, to win the King of the Mountains title and the Yellow jersey title in the same year. Majka only needed to finish sixth and so relented in his pursuit once it became clear he wasn't going to catch Nibali and settled for third on the day behind Pinot who not only finished second but moved into second overall.

It was a big day for the French as not only did Alejandro Valverde squander his second place overall but he slipped off the podium with a bad final day in the high mountains. These Pyranees have proved to be a ridge too far for the Spaniard, despite their close proximity to his homeland, and the plucky French have worked him over.

After years of watching the Spanish soar ahead of their own to success in this race, the French will feel satisfied tonight. They wait 17 years for a Frenchman to finish on the podium again and it looks as though two may come along at once. Peraud is the other, the 36 year old former mountain biker turned roadie in only 2010 has seized the moment and given his time-trial ability may not be done with his rise up the standings.

A mere 15 seconds separate Pinot in second and Valverde in fourth with Peraud in the middle two seconds ahead of Valverde and it'll all come down to this 54 kilometre time-trial to officially sort them out. Peraud will likely be the favorite to take time on the other two, but how much remains to be seen. It'll be a real battle between Pinot and Valverde to grab that podium position and that drive may allow them to limit any potential loses.

One man who doesn't have to worry is Nibali though given the way he has rode this Tour from his victory on the rolling roads of England on stage 2, to his superb ride on the cobbles of stage 5, to his win in the medium mountains of the Vogues, to a solo win in the high Alps and another today in the high Pyrenees without putting a single foot wrong it has been one of the finest individual performances at the Tour in recent memory.

Part of me cannot help but think the loss of Froome and Contador has brought out this desire within him to show that he belongs where he is; that he has won this Tour de France regardless of whether they had been here or not. It's worth remembering that Nibali had a 2 minutes, 34 seconds lead on Contador the day he crashed out with all the mountains to come, and given the way he has continually attacked and never once looked in trouble, it's hard to see where he would have lost any of that time never mind some of it.

Nibali has shown himself to be a worthy champion the entire way around this three week race, aggressive yet classy; steeped in panache, and all he need do now is navigate his way safely into Paris in three days time to confirm it.

Result:
1. Nibali (AST) in 4h4'17"
2. Pinot (FDJ) +1'10"
3. Majka (TCS) +1'12"
4. Peraud (ALM) +1'15"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) s.t.
6. Bardet (ALM) +1'53"
Others:
10. Valverde (MOV) +1'59"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 80h45'45"
2. Pinot (FDJ) +7'10"
3. Peraud (ALM) +7'23"
4. Valverde (MOV) +7'25"
5. Bardet (ALM) +9'27"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +11'34"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Polka-Dot jersey wins in the high mountains

Stage 17: Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan Pla d'Adet 124.5km. High Mountains.

A Tour de France is always that little bit better when the Polka-Dot jersey wins a stage in the high mountains. I've memories of seeing Claudio Chiappucci and Richard Virenque doing it years ago and in recent years, Thomas Voeckler, so it was nice today to see Rafal Majka get clear of what was left over from the days early break to make it happen again. And how he needed his second stage win of this years Tour because for a while it looked as though Joaquim Rodriguez might take the jersey off his shoulders having took enough points to lead the competition on the road going onto the final climb.

The days break...or should I say, second break after the one that went before the climbing started was caught on the first climb thanks to a ferocious pace being set by the bunch right from the gun on a stage that only measured 124.5km in length but which had three category one and one Hors Category climb in which to crest.

It was virtually impossible to keep track of everything going on as they continued over each climb. Different riders would attack, some would then be caught, others would attack and the large group that once contained 22 riders including Pierre Rolland, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Frank Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema, Nicolas Roche, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafal Majka and Vasil Kiryienka, was soon scattered all across the Pyrenees.

It was the later, Kiryienka who made his bid for glory, like yesterday, attempting to be the man to salvage something from this nightmare Tour for Team Sky, but the attempt came to nothing when he was later picked up by a charging Rodriguez and Majka, desperate for King of the Mountains points. Attacks continued but all eyes were by now on the men behind as Bardet made an attempt to get rid of Pinot on the final descent of the day. He gained about 30 seconds on the yellow jersey group but was swept up onto the final climb to the Pla d'Adet.

It was on this climb that Rafal Majka made his move. One of the remnants of the days break, he had managed to reel in efforts by Nicolas Roche and Giovanni Visconti and was soon riding solo to the finish once again. With a second place on stage 13 and a win on stage 14 already in the bag, Majka was sealing the Polka-Dot jersey and handing Tinkoff-Saxo their third individual stage victory of the Tour and second in as many days after Michael Rogers had won yesterday. Majka was only a last minute call-up to the team to replace Roman Kreuziger, and had been reluctant to go having had a big Giro back in May. It was evident early he wasn't there to contend as he lost a lot of time on the early stages but it was that time loss that perhaps secured him the freedom to go up the road as often as he has in the high mountains.

Behind the yellow jersey group was shrinking, but the main five protagonists as it has now become...or four if you discard Nibali from them as the shoe in winner come Paris. Valverde, Pinot, Peraud and Bardet, each watching the other with half an eye on Nibali. And it was Nibali who struck first. Only Peraud could follow and the rest once again went into loss limiting mode. Their biggest worry was Peraud who in recent days has looked the strongest of the three Frenchmen to perhaps grab a podium place behind Nibali and Valverde.

And that is assuming Valverde retains his second place. The Spaniard lost contact to Bardet and Pinot at one point though did come back strong in the final kilometre to pass them both and gain five seconds. But five seconds gained to them was 49 seconds lost to Peraud who finished on the wheel of the yellow jersey.

There was no change to the positioning of the top five overall, but Peraud pulled within 8 seconds of Pinot for that final podium placing and is now just 42 seconds from Valverde.

Valverde will have to do something on tomorrow's final mountain stage to Hautacam because Peraud is a strong time-trialist and could gain serious time. The Spaniard will have to attack tomorrow and hope that those behind him in the GC have a bad day. It'll make for an intriguing race and it should set up that time-trial nicely. Baring absolute disaster however Nibali is secure in first, though all those behind him have had their troubles through the mountains and he has not, yet!

The man of the day however was Majka. He timed his moves perfectly and he didn't panic when Rodriguez seemed to be taking control of the King of the Mountains contest out on the road; he took the big points where it mattered, he crossed the line in the high mountains with the mountains jersey on his back, and he only has one more big day to survive in order to win a jersey from a race he didn't think he'd even be riding a month ago.

Result:
1. Majka (TCS) in 3h35'23"
2. Visconti (MOV) +29"
3. Nibali (AST) +46"
4. Peraud (ALM) s.t.
5. De Marchi (CAN) +49"
6. Rolland (EUC) +52"
Others:
10. Valverde (MOV) +1'35"
11. Pinot (FDJ) +1'40"
12. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
13. Van Garderen (BMC) s.t.

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 76h41'28"
2. Valverde (MOV) +5'26"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +6'
4. Peraud (ALM) +6'08"
5. Bardet (ALM) +7'34"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +10'19"

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rogers gets his win at last

Stage 16: Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, 237.5km. High Mountains.

It was the 15 July, 2007, stage 8 of the Tour de France on the road from Le-Grand-Bornand to Tignes and crossing the Cormet de Roselend among others. Michael Rogers was in the break, was bidding to become the first Australian to win the Tour de France and was looking for the first, of what would surely become many, stage wins in his career. He was 27 years of age; he was in the form of his life.

As anyone who followed the sport back then or has read about its history will have known, Rogers didn't win the Tour that year...he didn't win a stage that year, and hasn't won a stage any year. Any year that is, until this year...yesterday.

On that fateful day for the Australian seven years ago he crashed on the descent of the Roseland and had to abandon the Tour. When he crashed he was the virtual leader on the road, leading by more than the 4 minutes, 3 seconds he trailed his team-mate, Linus Gerdemann by in Yellow by and certainly more than the two and one second defects he trailed Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans by respectively. All the other contenders had come into the stage behind him on time.

Michael Rasmussen went on to win that stage by almost three and a half minutes over the other contenders and it put him into yellow. Rasmussen held the jersey until four days to go when, despite looking certain to win the Tour, his team took him out of the race for "violating internal rules" and suspicions of drug use. Time would confirm all this but it essentially handed the tour to a young Alberto Contador while Rogers watched on television.

But in spite of his bad fortune and lost attempt, many felt he'd be back again in the future and nobody could have foreseen him having to wait until now to win a stage.

But by the start of 2014 had you asked most people they'd have felt his chance to win a stage had long since past. The positive test for Clenbuterol at the very tail end of last season had looked to have ruled him out for at least this year and at 33 years of age, his career was on the ropes. But Rogers overcame. He was able to prove that the Clenbuterol was the result of tainted meat he had eaten in China and the case against him was dropped and his suspension lifted. His first race back was the Giro d'Italia and he wasted no time and being thankful for what he suddenly had again: The opportunity to race. He won two stages including the Queen stage up the mighty Zoncolan.

It seemed like a fine cap to a fine career, one from which he also overcame the 2007 crash and then the long setback from Glandular Fever, to transition into becoming one of the most reliable super domestiques in the pro-peloton. He became the road captain of Team Sky during the 2012 Tour de France and helped Bradley Wiggins to becoming the first British winner of the Tour; something he had hoped to do as an Australian in that 2007 Tour only for the honour to go the way of Cadel Evans in 2010.

From there his services were acquired by what is now the Tinkoff-Saxo team, to do for Alberto Contador what he did for Wiggins. Last year they fell short to Chris Froome, but hopes were high coming into 2014 until Contador crashed out on stage 10. It was Rogers was one of the first back to help his team leader, pacing him to try regain contact with the peloton only for Contador to pat the captain on the back and tell him he could no longer go on, but thank you for the service.

Rogers was now in the hunt for a stage win. Two Giro stages and why not a Tour stage to complete the dramatic turnaround of what looked for so long like a lost 2014 season. Today's stage was ideal for him...he got in the early break and the peloton let it go. It gained well over ten minutes at one point and it soon became clear the winner was coming from it. Still, Michal Kwiatkowski was there, two Sky riders were in on the act trying to save their tour, and there was Thomas Voeckler, two times winner into Luchon in the past and the bookies favorite once the break had established.

By the time they summited the HC ranked Port de Balès and began their descent to the finish the large group had reduced to just three: Rogers, Voeckler and José Serpa. Vasili Kiryienka and Cyril Gautier joined them on the way down, but Rogers had the bit between his teeth. When Europcars' Gautier attacked on the way down, his team-mate Voeckler couldn't chase and the window opened for Rogers. He jumped across and then beyond Gautier and was suddenly alone as he entered the town and went under the 3km banner. The four behind regrouped and attempted to chase but it was too late.

Rogers had time to sit up and milk the moment and to no doubt think about 2007, about the hopes he had then, about how long it had been since, and about finally winning a stage of the Tour, something he later confirmed he had dreamed about all his life. He took a bow as he crossed the line and punched the air once more. Michael Rogers had won a stage of Le Tour and looks as good now as he ever has since that crash on the Roseland seven years before.

---

One other point of note: Tour de France cyclists tend to be pretty hard: Yes there is what they go through every day just to finish a stage, but beyond that there is the injuries that some try to ride with just to get through. Take Alberto Contador, riding on for 25km after breaking his tibia, or Geraint Thomas last year, riding the majority of the 3 weeks on a broken pelvis. Now Reto Hollestein has thrown his 'hard hat' in the ring: He crashed yesterday and punctured a lung but with the medical car nowhere to be seen he remounted and finished the stage through the mountains...with a PUNCTURED LUNG!

Chapeau to that man.

Result:
1. Rogers (TIN) in 6h 07'10"
2. Voeckler (EUC) +9"
3. Kiryienka (SKY) s.t.
4. Serpa (LAM) s.t.
5. Gautier (EUC) s.t.
6. Van Avarmaet (BMC) +13"
Others:
7. Kwiatkowski (OPQ) +36"
17. Pinot (FDJ) +8'32"
18. Valverde (MOV) s.t.
19. Peraud (ALM) s.t.
20. Nibali (AST) s.t.
30. Bardet (ALM) +10'22"
37. Van Garderen (BMC) +12'08"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 73h 05'19"
2. Valverde (MOV) +4'37"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +5'06"
4. Peraud (ALM) +6'08"
5. Bardet (FDJ) +6'40"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +9'25"

Monday, July 21, 2014

Three Frenchmen in the top six...all targeting the podium; it's a great sign for cycling

With a week left in this Tour de France there are three Frenchmen in the top six; it is something we haven't seen for years and it raises serious prospects of at least one of them, if not more, making the final podium in Paris. Unfortunately for them there is also Vincenzo Nibali, who at this moment is in complete control of the yellow jersey and baring a disaster of Froome, Contador, or on the road, of Porte proportions, it looks as though only two of the three spots are up for grabs.

It's three Frenchmen against one American against one Spaniard and ignoring Nibali, here is the top five on GC fighting for second and third.

2. Valverde (Spain)
3. Bardet (France) +13"
---
4. Pinot (France) +29"
5. Van Garderen (USA) +1'12"
6. Péraud (France) +1'31"

And for what it is worth, another Frenchman, Pierre Rolland is in tenth, 6'11" behind Valverde. It was Rolland whom a few years ago might have been seen as the future hope of French cycling to break what has become a long podium drought, but who has since been overtaken by these three Frenchman in the pecking order...at this tour, at least.

The last time a Frenchman finished in the top three of the Tour de France was Richard Virenque in 1997. Before that was Virenque again in 1996, Laurent Fignon in 1989, Jean-François Bernard in 1987, Bernard Hinault in 1986 and Hinault once more in 1985 when he won it for a fifth time.

Seventeen years. And all of them in the pre-Festina affair era.

It's widely accepted that post that 1998 scandal, French cycling clamped down on rampant doping within its teams' structures. The law tightened and the idea became a big no-no among young riders. Of course, there could always have been some taking the risk, but the French moved to the forefront of anti-doping in a way the Spaniards, Italians, Americans and others did not and in doing so they moved to the rear of cycling's big hitters on the result sheets.

French cycling fans changed from hoping to see a French winner of their Grand Tour to hoping to simply see a stage winner. The hero's of the likes of Hinault and Fignon were gone and it was plucky stage riders who showed enormous heart and fighting spirit that became the new hero's of their nation. The likes of Thomas Voeckler.

But the nation has still longed for the day someone would come along and compete again to win the Tour. Note the reaction in France when Voeckler stole all those minutes from a breakaway on stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France and almost clung on for the victory, losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck and then Cadel Evans with just three stages to go. His fighting spirit as he rode in the mountains like he ought not to have, won over the hearts of many, but many knew that it was a fleeting attempt, that Voeckler would never get such a chance again.

Rolland finished 11th that year (later upgraded to 10th when Contador had his result stripped) and won on Alpe d'Huez -- the same day Voeckler lost the jersey -- and with it came the weight of a nation to push on. He was 24 years of age at the time but since then has only bettered his final overall placing once in 2012 when he finished 8th.

A year later while all eyes were on Rolland, a young 22 year old Thibaut Pinot won a mountain stage to Porrentruy and finished 10th in the GC; second to Tejay Van Garderen in the white jersey competition. Pinot v Van Garderen looked like a prelude to a new rivalry one day for yellow...a flashback to LeMond v Fignon, and which today makes up two of the five going for second and third.

Seeing French cycling on the up again with names like Pinot coming through followed by Bardet, expected to be followed by Warren Barguil -- who some think is the most talented of the lot and who won a stage in last years Vuelta aged 21 -- is a good sign for cycling. That staunch anti-doping approach by French law and French cycling seen a nation left behind as other nationalities continued to win in a post-Festina affair cycling world.

Now however with the tide in attitudes in the pro-peloton changing, with those cycling clean overtaking the numbers of those cycling dirty and a young wave of talent coming in, French cycling is once again able to compete where maybe it always should have had things been fair. The likes of Bardet and Pinot born a generation later than someone like Christophe Bassons should count themselves fortunate.

And there's one other in that trio going for the podium that highlights this culture change that has allowed French cycling to thrive again, best: Jean-Christophe Péraud. Unlike Pinot and Bardet, Péraud is an old man of the peloton...37 years of age. A mountain biker who only turned to the road full-time in the 2010 season aged 33, the Frenchman should be slowing down with age but is only getting better.

He was 9th in his first Tour in 2011, fell back to 44th in 2012, but was again sitting 9th in 2013 when a crash on the final time-trial forced him to abandon. He was 3rd in Paris-Nice last year and this year placed 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico, 3rd in the Tour of the Basque Country, 2nd in the Tour Méditerranéen, and 1st in the Critérium International.

Péraud would never have arrived into road cycling in any previous era at that age and been competitive at the front end of races. He certainly would not have landed into a tour ten year ago, even aged 27 and found himself competing for a podium place -- as he is in this years Tour -- against the likes of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich as we now know how they where. The question though isn't therefore whether he's getting better, but rather whether everyone else is that little bit more normal? Has a race that would have been impossible for him to win in his prime riding clean -- which as a staunch anti-doper, he is -- suddenly within reach into his mid-30s?

It may be the best sign of the lot that cycling is improving itself for the good. Some will always cheat but in tackling the issue properly, cycling has opened the door to the French once again and Péraud exemplifies that opportunity, and we're all the better for it. There are some who believe he could have won the Tour in his pomp had he been racing against a clean field but perhaps for that reason he never made the switch until much later.

That said, it isn't the swing towards a cleaner sport that has exclusively opened the door to the French again; talent plays a large roll too. French cycling appears to have hit a golden generation and lets hope it works out for them. Péraud may be showing what is possible now, even at his age, but the likes of Pinot, Bardet, Barguil, even Rolland, have the best opportunity to seize it.

This Sunday, all being well, one of Pinot, Bardet or Péraud, or perhaps two of them, will stand on the podium in Paris and the shadow of Virenque will be wiped away at last. A line drawn and a real opportunity for the French and all of us to look forward with serious optimism.