Lance Armstrong – In Shades of Grey

Every once in a while comes an athlete who transcends the boundary of his/her discipline and becomes the identity of the sport (I would not say bigger than the sport). And in that athlete’s lifetime comes a performance which defines the greatness. Only, Lance Armstrong had seven of them. Not to mention a Hollywood-esque battle against all odds (read cancer).

Thus it was no surprise that Lance Armstrong became the biggest name in cycling next to the Tour de France (though a sizeable chunk consider his aura even larger). In the course of it all he inevitably made a few enemies, and a fair number of critics. But the way Armstrong polarized the sport and opinions was nothing like cycling (or maybe any sport) had ever seen.

One trait however, that even his staunchest critics agreed on, was that “Lance never said never.” Be it against chemo in the hospital, or on the slopes of the Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong was the epitome of clichés such as “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” So it was a huge shock when he volunteered to back down in his fight with the USADA (United States Anti Doping Agencyabout doping allegations against him.

On 24 August, he released a statement blaming the USADA for orchestrating a witch hunt, and leaving him with no reasonable chance of a fair fight. In his own words, “there comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say enough is enough,” and this according to him was enough. The statement instantly sent tremors through multiple organizations and groups. If the debate wasn’t hot enough already, this was like pouring an explosive incendiary substance into the fire.

Within minutes of his statement, opinions started pouring in – tilting decisively either way. That is the main reason I held myself back from writing this post for a couple of weeks. Now having read varying ranges of arguments, allegations, counter allegations, opinions, expert opinions, impassioned opinions; I’m going to add my own. First the facts:

(a)    Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tour de France titles between 1999 – 2005. He never once tested positive* (the asterisk is VERY important, and will be elaborated later).

(b)   Most top riders, who won anything of importance/made the podium during that era, have been either convicted or have confessed to have doped.

(c)    USADA, after a long court battle, have framed their case around “non analytical positives” (I’ll explain what this means) to implicate Mr Armstrong and others (chief among them being his team boss Johan Bruyneel and doctor Michele Ferrari, both of whom continue to fight charges).

(d)   Armstrong’s lawsuit against USADA was rejected by a federal judge (following which he decided to stop fighting the case).

Now for the two lines of arguments (I’ll only list the major points), starting with those in favour of the rider:

(a)    Lance had 500+ tests and NEVER once returned positive for any performance enhancing substance.

(b)   Even if he did dope, so did the entire peloton around him (as evident by the convictions), so that only gave him a fair chance to win. In other words, he had no other option, and it was the mutually accepted norm.

(c)    USADA’s case is based solely on “testimonies” by “tainted riders”, most of which have been acquired in return of favours (such as reduced bans). This according to many is an underhanded tactic.

Those against the rider:

(a)    He DID test positive (at least twice on record), but his political clout and cronies within the UCI covered it with fake backdated prescriptions. Also he almost always got advance notice of doping controls.

(b)   Riders indulging in EPO or blood doping rarely tested positive during the 90s and 2000s, simply because there were no tests then that could detect such materials (the joke was – if you fail a drug test in competition, you have failed an IQ test). Hence few were ever convicted of doping during their time (almost none due to a positive test), with most convictions coming much later, mostly in the form of confessions or testimonies.

(c)    USADA is using testimonies not only of the so-called “tainted riders”, but various other qualified people (team masseur, doctors etc) who were part of Armstrong’s team over the years. This is called a “non analytical positive” and is used when technology cannot prove doping; however there is substantial evidence against the athlete having committed the offence. In today’s age of clinical dopers who blatantly and continually lie against any wrong doing, this is a justifiable means (note Marion Jones was convicted of doping in this manner, who never confessed untill she was brought down by testimonies).

So obviously we have two very polarized groups here, who have their own way of looking at the facts. Anyone reading this would in all probabilities join either group (if he/she hasn’t already), so my opinion won’t matter much, however I shall try to simplify the confusion to as best as I can. Speaking personally, I believe Lance doped. I will talk on his legend status later, first let me justify my belief (without any of the above bravado):

(a)    The “non analytical positive” is a perfectly legal means of implicating an athlete, with the Marion Jones case being a proven example why it works.

(b)   Lance did have phenomenal clout among the UCI and other powers that be in his days (even now to an extent) and the claim that he had 500 tests is sheer exaggeration. He did have close to 250 tests, and twice he tested positive (Le Tour in 1999 and the Tour of Switzerland in 2001), but both times the test was overturned on technicalities.

(c)    In the EPO fuelled peloton of the 2000s, it would be a little naïve to imagine a clean rider being able to generate the kind of power required to compete at the top. Even the riders winning today are posting slower times compared to the early 2000s. I don’t think anybody would believe that M/s Wiggins and company are not as capable/talented as their predecessors; hence the times do indicate to some “unknown” factor during the Armstrong era.

Yes all the above might amount to circumstantial evidence, but the one clinching argument that swayed me is what I wrote above – Lance never says never. He has fought these allegations since 1999, and even in his final salvo he took USADA to court – and lost. So backing down when being faced with tangible evidence for the first time can be construed as a tacit admission of guilt (no matter what belligerent words he might use to cover it up). If Lance is indeed clean, he should continue fighting, and win, and sue the USADA. If he is wary of the testimonies, then there is something that he is uncomfortable to expose. And while he may never have tested positive, so didn’t Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Alejandro Valverde and many more who have all since been disgraced.

Anyways as I wrote above, most people have already made up their mind, so this discussion is irrelevant. What matters is the road ahead. Again here are the facts:

(a)    USADA have declared Armstrong’s unwillingness to fight as an admission of guilt. They have stripped the rider of all his victories including the seven Tour de France titles, and banned him from competing for life. WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) have expressed their support in upholding the ban.

(b)   Cycling’s governing body, UCI, are not pleased with USADA’s actions, as they claim the American agency has no jurisdiction to impose such a ban. UCI are studying the case and might appeal against USADA in CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport).

(c)    Tour de France’s organizers, ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation), just seem to be in wait and watch mode.

(d)   Johan Bruyneel and Michele Ferrari have not yet backed down from the case and seem to be keen to continue fighting the USADA.

The last point is probably the most important. Lance is retired from the sport, but these two continue to be in a powerful and influential position in cycling, and if found dirty, then it is important they are suitably banned to prevent causing any further damage. As to the ban on Lance, in all probabilities, UCI will take USADA to court (to save face and escape the embarrassing decision of whom to award “those” seven titles) and then it is upto CAS to give a final binding decision on the matter (which I sincerely hope comes soon and puts an end to it).

By deciding not to contest USADA in court, Armstrong has played a neat tactical maneuver. Had the case gone ahead and evidence been made public, there was a big chance his reputation would have been damaged beyond repair. Forever. But now with no case, the evidence stays buried, and the final judgment shall always hang in limbo. This uncertainty in a way absolves Lance from any legal conviction, and thus he may claim to be “innocent unless proven otherwise.”

Again as I wrote above, this smart-alec maneuver (of not contending the case) was the clincher for me to truly believe he had something to hide/be afraid of. By walking off the battle, his PR team may have scored a stalemate typical of astute lawyers, but its unbecoming of a sporting hero. By opting to lay his arms, Lance has cheated the fans out of the truth (whichever way it would have panned out).

USADA chief, Travis Tygart has indicated that he would make all efforts to make much of the evidence public while filing a report to WADA. However even he agrees, it might not have the reach and impact as it would have had being presented as evidence in a public trial. Hence it is all the more important that USADA fights Bruyneel and Ferrari, which would bring the evidence out into the open. One thing is clear, the villain here the UCI, who have long turned a blind eye to mass doping, and the real victim is the hapless fan (and other clean riders who have lost their careers).

As to LIVESTRONG, I believe that is a different aspect of Lance, one that is genuinely laudable, and which continues to be an inspiration. I myself have been guided by his example and determination and proudly wear the yellow wrist band (even now). Yes the charity’s yellow hue harks back to the tainted yellow jerseys, yes there might not have been any LIVESTRONG without the multiple Tour winning Lance, yes the seemingly unbelievable victories is what made millions look upto him; BUT (and a big one), after recent events I think it is time to separate the two. LIVESTRONG is and shall remain a beacon of hope, something Lance Armstrong can be proudly remembered for.

As to his cycling legacy, a black or white decision by CAS (if it gets a chance) will go a long way in determining it for the future. But in all probability despite any verdict, it will continue to be as polarizing as ever. Yes every once in a while comes an athlete who transcends the boundary of his/her sport and becomes the identity of the sport.  This time however, we seem to have been offered a mirage, and the results of that are always heartbreaking.

ps: Apart from the links in the post, here are two of the best articles that describe the entire saga in an emotional and analytical manner

Anna Zimmerman pens a moving article on the saga from a hapless fan’s angle, titled – Armstrong applies for martyr status.

The brilliant The Science of Sport blog analyses The Armstrong Fallout, discussing thoughts and theories in detail.

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Tour de France 2012 – Stage 6

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Almost a day has passed since the carnage in stage 6 yesterday, but am still horrified and disgusted (of the officials) to write anything. Hence I’ll let the pictures and tweets do the talking for today. Stage results are available at the end of the post as usual (does not show the riders who lost bucket loads of time). But first the casualty list of yesterday’s crash (space doesn’t allow me to list all the horrible injuries, so mentioning only the major ones), which pales even the hair-raising stage 9 of 2011:

Wouter Poels – Vacansoleil DCM – ruptured spleen and kidney, broken ribs (surgery done yesterday evening)

Oscar Freire – Katusha - punctured lung and broken ribs

Maarten Wynants – Roabobank – punctured lung and broken ribs

Hubert Dupont – AG2R La Mondiale – fractured vertebrae and wrist

Ryder Hesjedal – Garmin Sharp Brracuda – hematoma on left hip (was running 9th overall)

Thomas Danielson – Garmin Sharp Brracuda – separated left shoulder & multiple injuries

Robert Hunter – Garmin Sharp Barracuda – stress fracture in vertebrae

Johan van Summeren – Garmin Sharp Barracuda – multiple injuries and abrasions

Imanol Erviti – Movistar – deep wound in right leg (needs surgery)

Ivan Gutierrez – Movistar – damaged knee

Davide Vigano – Lampre ISD – broken shoulder

Mikel Astarloza – Euskaltel Euskadi – right elbow dislocated

Txurruka – Euskaltel Euskadi – broken collarbone

Anthony Delaplace – Saur Sojasun – fractured wrist

Oh and by the way before the results, today is the first medium mountain stage of the Tour. Expect no fireworks from the big men, rather not from much of the peloton at all. Sigh!

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara

29h 22’ 36”

Maillot Vert

Peter Sagan

Bradley Wiggins

29h 22’ 43”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

Sylvain Chavanel

29h 22’ 43”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

Peter Sagan

4h 00’ 37”

Sky Procylcing

88h 08’ 22”

André Greipel

4h 00’ 37”

Radioshack-Nissan

88h 08’ 26”

Matthew Goss

4h 00’ 37”

BMC Racing Team

88h 08’ 28”

David Zabriskie

Dossard Rouge

Tour de France 2012 – Stage 5

Two days, two sprints, two crashes – one result. And that was André Greipel winning his second successive stage in this year’s Tour, making it his 15th victory of the season. While his team again managed to keep him out of trouble, they were not able to launch him as well as he would have liked, but the in form German still came from behind to pip Matt Goss in the final sprint.

Cavendish who managed to escape the crash today, finished a disappointing fifth. His team was given a mouthful by manager Dave Brailsford after Wednesday’s fiasco (also six Sky riders have crashed already since the Tour began on 30 June), and the result was starkly visible as they formed a lead out train for Cavendish (while also protecting Wiggins). The train worked partly as it saved him from the crash, but could not launch Cav with the venom of his HTC team of yesteryear.

The crash again came just inside the 3km mark, this time Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar going hard to ground. It’s the American’s fourth crash in six days and he must have lost serious bit of skin by now (see the pic at the bottom). Farrar seemed to blame an Argos Oil rider as he went fuming to their team bus after finishing the stage (10 min after the leader but with the same time). Also miffed was Peter Sagan, who went down in the pileup and saw his gap to Greipel and Goss narrowed in the points classification.

Coming late in the stage, inside the 3km, ensured everyone was awarded the winner’s timing on the day, and  therefore Cancellara continues in yellow for the 27th day in his career. It’s the most any rider has been in yellow without actually winning the Tour ever, and the Swiss while definitely happy with his achievement, was realistic in his post stage comments, “It’s always a pleasure to ride in the yellow jersey and, plus, to make history like I have today is pretty awesome,” he said, adding, “The thought of actually winning the Tour de France is not realistic. The Tour is not what I have in my list of goals to win. The Tour is a dream and a dream is not a goal. A goal like that is something other riders have – from Fränk Schleck to [Andreas] Klöden, to [Bradley] Wiggins and Cadel [Evans]. I just live something else, I have the yellow jersey for 26 days now and that’s good.”

The day began with two troubling stories. First being the death of Belgian Willems-Accent rider Rob Goris (30), who suffered a fatal heart attack in his hotel at Rouen late on Wednesday night. He was covering the Tour for Flemish television and knew many riders on the circuit personally. Few in the peloton expressed their condolences by wearing black armbands, while others expressed their grief on twitter:

Other news on the day related to the controversial battle between the USADA and 7 time Tour winner Lance Armstrong. Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf claimed yesterday that Armstrong’s ex-teammates George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie (all riding in the current Tour) have provided evidence against the retired Texan to the authorities. The report also claims all riders have received delayed 6 month bans and have not been considered for the Olympics.

None of the riders wanted to be pulled into the controversy, and Leipheimer told reporters, “I cannot comment, I’m here to ride my bike,” while Hincapie said, “I’ve always tried to do the right thing for my sport but I’ve got other things on my mind here.” The Dutch newspaper also named current Garmin-Sharp boss Jonathan Vaughters who is a staunch opposer of doping (though has admitted having made ‘mistakes’ in past), and has made his team around the principles of clean riding. He was not available for comment but responded strongly against the allegation on twitter, dismissing it to be untrue.

Once the race got going, not many were thinking of acrimonious politics, at least not Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ), Jan Ghyselinck (COF), Julien Simon (SAU) and Pablo Urtasun (EUS) who went on the attack inside the first kilometer. Behind them the peloton went short of one rider, as Marcel Kittel of Argos-Shimano quit around the 40km mark. He has been suffering with stomach problems since the prologue, though he said it was his left knee that forced the withdrawal.

Stage 5 took us amidst breathtaking landscapes and in near perfect weather, which the bruised peloton seemed to be enjoying thoroughly with a slow day on the road. Average speeds hovered around a glacial 40km/hr and even the commentators were getting fed up of this procession, describing the pace (or lack thereof) such that the riders “could buy an ice cream as they go”.

The intermediate sprint woke the group from its slumber, once again Cavendish pipping Goss and Renshaw to earn a few useful points. Despite this momentary burst, the main pack adopted a laissez faire policy about the breakaway ahead of them. They were confident that generally these stages go as a pre-defined sprint. The breakaway starts early, but tires and is reeled in within the final kilometers.

If that is so, someone forgot to in form the attackers. They approached the last 10km with a gap of 45 seconds, and maintained to around 20 seconds with 3km to go. This induced panic in the sprint teams as it seemed they had timed their burst a little too late.  And as the peloton was split was the crash behind him, Ghyslink attacked and broke free of the leaders as they passed under the flamme rouge.

Next 1000m witnessed the most enthralling finish of this year, as all the breakaway men had a chance for glory in the last kilometer. Ghyslink was first caught by Urtasun, who himself was pipped by Ladagnous inside the final 500m. But just when it seemed the Frenchman would pull off an unexpected and momentous victory, he was overtaken by the sprinters inside the final 300m. Watching it on TV, it came as a rude wake up call from a beautiful dream, and must have felt worse for the FDJ rider.

The valiant Frenchman recapped his intense battle after the finish, “”It was possible. In the end, Ghyselinck has tried to anticipate as he knew he was slower than us in a sprint. After I told myself I would attack because it is better to lose trying to win, rather than just coming second. When the rider of Euskaltel attacked, I let him do his effort and I got back on track, but the peloton was right on us even thought we could see the finish line. This is the second time it happens to me when I’ve spent a day in the lead of a stage of the Tour. Of course I am disappointed. We had to play cat and mouse games with the peloton. It was no use to ride full-gas all day. But in the last 30 kilometers we gave it everything we had. It’s a shame… but I will try to get in another breakaway, and try again to get a victory.”

It wasn’t easy on the sprinters either as Matt Goss’ herculean effort from 400m to reel down Ladagnous cost him the victory. He did not have the legs for such a long sprint, and his vanquisher Greipel himself described it as “one of the hardest sprints I’ve ever done.” I hope he has something left in his tank for today, which is the last sprint stage in the opening part of the Tour.

Stage 6 signals a transition as the pack would move on to tackle mountains and time trials for the next week and so, and all sprinters would be keen not to let Greipel make a clean sweep of it. Cavendish must be fuming inside and it would be a brave man to bet against him today, though such hunger can only increase the possibility of yet another incident in the rush to the line. Top GC men can cool their heels for one last day, before the action really heats up starting Saturday. So here’s to another round of cheese talks, rolling farms, slow speeds and a hectic finish. Now if only we could have our first surprise winner today…

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara

24h 45’ 32”

Maillot Vert

Peter Sagan

Bradley Wiggins

24h 45’ 39”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

Sylvain Chavanel

24h 45’ 39”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

André Greipel

4h 41’ 30”

Sky Procylcing

74h 17’ 10”

Matthew Goss

4h 41’ 30”

Radioshack-Nissan

74h 17’ 14”

Juan Jose

4h 41’ 30”

BMC Racing Team

74h 17’ 16”

Matthieu Ladagnous

Dossard Rouge

ps: Four crashes in six days, but still going strong. Tyler Farrar #respect

Tour de France 2012 – Stage 4

Whatever limits us, we call fate,” wrote Ralph Emerson, words that were resounding loud in the Tour yesterday. A fateful crash inside the final 3 kilometers prevented Mark Cavendish’s chance to equal Armstrong’s record of 22 stage wins in the Tour, and in his expressions if not words, he seemed to blame lady luck. But as the quote above would remind him, it is not for great men to blame fate, even so when on numerous occasions it has been kind to him.

Yesterday, it was smiling on André Greipel, the German who had narrowly missed out on victory in stage 2. He was delivered to perfection by his team’s lead out men, and once in the clear with 250mtr to go, never had a problem holding off Alessandro Petacchi and Tom Veelers. Matt Goss was the expected challenger, but he could only finish fourth, ahead of Peter Sagan.

Despite the strong finish, much of the focus remained on the big pile up caused by Robbie Hunter, who seemed to have clipped a fellow rider’s wheel as the peloton was steaming in for a sprint finish. At 40mph there is no chance for anyone to take evasive action, and the entire lot behind him either succumbed to a fall, or were held up with nowhere to go. Worst to come out were Cavendish and his teammate Bernard Eisel.

Both men remounted and seemed to suffer only superficial injuries as a result of the tumble. Eisel needed stitches over his right eyebrow, while the world champion’s torn jersey hinted at quite a bit of painful road rash underneath. Their team’s directeur sportif, Sean Yates later said about Cav, “He’s covered in cuts, all over. On his back, on his legs, on his shoulder, on his hip, so yeah, he’s beaten up.”

All the top GC men too were held up in the crash, though fortunately none took a tumble and since the incident happened inside the 3km mark, all of them received the lead pack’s timing. It is the primary reason riders always try to stay at the head of the pack, as crashes generally happen towards the middle or rear of the peloton. For Greipel all the hard work of his Lotto-Belisol teammates was worth the trouble, firstly keeping him out of the chaos, and then guiding him in text-book fashion for an uplifting victory.

Even before the race started on Tuesday, the dark cloud of stage 3’s crashes hung over the competitors, as Maarten Tjallingii of Rabobank did not make it to the start line due to injuries sustained on the previous day. Yesterday’s breakaway came right at the start, this time three men, Yukiya Arashiro (EUC), David Moncoutie (COF) and Anthony Delaplace (SAU) surging to the lead. While the stage featured four climbs, Michael Morkov, who is comfortably ahead in the King of the mountains classification, chose to take a breather having attacked for three straight days previously.

First action of the day came at the intermediate sprint, which whipped up a frenzy among the sprinters in the peloton to accumulate points for the green jersey. With no incident, Cavendish beat Goss, Renshaw and Sagan to close the gap narrowly on the Solvak. Rolling ahead there was a minor crash when Australian Jonathan Cantwell catapulted into the grass margin, taking GC contender Vicenzo Nibali along with him. No panic for the Italian though, as he escaped without any injury and with the help of teammates caught up with the peloton a short while later.

There was hardly any event to talk of for most of the distance and on such days you really have to feel for the commentators as they try hard to keep the viewers entertained and engrossed in the proceedings. From castles en route to cheese to the fancy dress of road side fans, small talk of varying topics seems to be the solution, which if nothing is food for idle thought at best.

Dumb Tour fact for the hungry: Did you know Radioshack-Nissan rider Maxime Monfort has a cheese named after him in his native Belgium. Maybe its laced with extra carbs to sate those hungry muscles.

Entering the last 10kms, the peloton had more on their mind than cheese as the initial attacks started to emerge. Gilbert, Dumoulin, Bouet, Pineau and Grivko all tried their luck, but none could open up a gap more than 20 odd meters over the hungry pack of wolves (read sprinters) behind. That man Sylvain Chavanel has been obsessed to don yellow since the prologue this year (trailing a mere 7 seconds behind Cancellara), and yesterday too his gave his all. Sadly yet again he timed the attack a bit too early and did not have the legs to sustain the pace till the finish line.

Ultimately the crash partly decided the result, making the finish a three-way fight between Greipel, Petacchi and Goss. Though the man of this Tour, Peter Sagan too gave it a shot, he was always an outside chance, and eventually could not match the burst in pace of the specialist sprinters. His fifth place finish at least consolidated his place further in the points table.

After the stage Tour leader Fabian Cancellara had an explanation to the chaotic finish, “In my opinion there is not one team making a train like [Mario] Cipollini or Cav had in the past. That is probably the difference, there is no sprinter team with six or seven riders putting everything in line. With 3km to go there was a mass of riders and someone touched someone else. It’s not done on purpose, just everyone fighting to get the best spot.”

For sure such crashes are not intended and mere accidents, but affected riders always feel a tinge of being cheated by fate. Fortunately for Cavendish, he won’t have to wait long to test his ability (or fate) again, as today’s stage 5 is even more suited for his ilk. At 196.5km it is shorter than yesterday, and with no climbs en route, it should be one really fast day. Which also means we have to bear more talks of cheese and other such topics as the peloton ambles for 185 of those 196km. The last 10km is all that will matter and with egos bruised, prepare for an explosion extraordinairé.

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

     Fabian Cancellara

20h 04’ 02”

Maillot Vert

Peter Sagan

     Bradley Wiggins

20h 04’ 09”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

     Sylvain Chavanel

20h 04’ 09”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

André Greipel

5h 18’ 32”

Sky Procylcing

60h 12’ 40”

Alessandro Petacchi

5h 18’ 32”

Radioshack-Nissan

60h 12’ 44”

Tom Veelers

5h 18’ 32”

BMC Racing Team

60h 12’ 46”

Yukiya Arashiro

Dossard Rouge

ps: to bring a good cheer on bored faces (for the guys at least):

Tour de France 2012 – Stage 3

Not many were impressed in the manner with which Peter Sagan claimed his maiden Tour victory on stage 1 couple of days ago (yours truly being one among the critics), but there could be no criticism whatsoever about his win yesterday as he decimated everyone, finishing more than comfortably ahead of second placed Edvald Boasson Hagen. The Slovak in fact had enough time to perform a jig (in his words imitating the running style of Forest Gump), reminiscent of Usain Bolt’s shenanigans after destroying the field on a Chinese track in 2008.

Unlike the finish on Sunday, Peter did not hitch a ride behind a fellow rider, instead bullied his way up the steep incline, leaving all the rest for dead. He surely has arrived on the Tour with a loud bang now and already comparisons are being made with the iconic Eddy Merckx. Looking at his performance till date – two stage victories and lead in the green jersey classification – he might live up to those expectations.

One knows he has made an impact when your main rivals start applauding you, and furthermore, compare you with contemporary genius. Team Sky’s chief, Dave Brailsford was so impressed with the 22-year-old rider, he said, “Its like watching Messi play football, you tip your hat and smile.”

But behind this victorious youngster, the peloton was in a state of disarray. Today’s stage was expected to throw the cat among the pigeons causing a few hairy moments, and it surpassed those expectations – not in an altogether pleasant way. By the end of the day we had our first painful withdrawals from this year’s race, Sky’s Kanstantsin Sivtsov (fractured tibia) and Movistar’s José-Joaquin Rojas (broken collar-bone).

In comparison Thomas Voeckler, Philippe Gilbert, Daniel Martin, Christian Vandevelde and Tom Danielson were luckier to have finished unscathed, though losing big chunks of time on the leaders. All this does raise a few questions against the organiser’s insistence on introducing an element of thrill and unpredictability by means of such stages. Yes we all like a few twists in the script, however at what cost? Some have even began to blame such routes on making the race a “lottery”, and forcing top riders to exercise more caution than they otherwise would have.

No such worries for Peter Sagan though, who seems to be in great terms with lady luck as he managed to escape a huge pile up within the final kilometer of the finish. It was initiated by the Spaniard Oscar Freire, who tried to squeeze through a gap that didn’t exist. The resultant chaos held up nearly 51 of the 63 riders in the lead group, thankfully there were no major injuries to come out of it. None of the riders lost any time either as the crash came within 3km of the finish, ensuring all riders were awarded the time of the finisher.

Yesterday was our first day in France, and if nothing else, this cheered up the Russian Denis Menchov quite a bit, who tweeted, “Happy to be in France. Beetroot much better quality than in Belgium. More pink. Now Katusha can have proper borscht in bidons!” At the 5km mark, five riders broke free of the peloton with the polka dot jersey wearer Michael Morkov again part of the breakaway for the third day running. He must have some serious energy in those legs to run at the head of the field every single day this year.

As the pace quickened , first big crash of the day came at around the 79km mark, when a Lampre rider went to ground, taking with him Astana’s Janez Brajkovic and Alexander Vinokourov. However no major damage was done, with only Brajkovic needing treatment on his elbow (while rolling alongside the medical car), and was paced back to the group by teammates Vino and Bozic.

Sadly the next crash wasn’t as harmless. This came after 140km had been done for the day and involved, among others, Sagan (LIQ), Farrar and Vande Velde (GRM), Urtasun (EUS) and Sivtsov (SKY). Everyone except Sivtsov got back on their bikes, licking their wounds drafting behind their respective team cars, but the Belarusian sustained nasty injuries, and despite trying to remount was forced to retire. This would be a minor set back to his team leader Bradley Wiggins as Sivtsov was a useful domestique for him.

Among all this panic, Movistar had moved to the head of the peloton, and were pushing the pace, much to the annoyance of Sky riders who confronted Jose Gutierrez asking him to slow the pace down. For people new to cycling, it is one of those few sports where rivals look after each other even in today’s cynical age. It’s an unwritten rule in the sport that no team takes advantage of a major crash, and the peloton eases its pace to allow the stricken riders a chance to catch up.

Nevertheless the Spanish team weren’t in the mood to slow down much, with the five men breakaway still tearing ahead of them. However as they say karma is a bitch, and just about 20km later, another big crash caused Movistar’s Joaquin Rojas to take a nasty fall. Unfortunately the Spaniard too had to abandon his fight for this year with a broken collar-bone. Simon Gerrans (OGE) was another rider affected by the fall, which eventually cost him a huge 10 minutes in arrears to the leaders.

Up ahead Morkov was once again in his own on the climbs, capturing a major chunk of the points to retain his lead in the King of the mountains classification. In addition his performance yesterday earned him the dossard rouge for the stage as well. Ultimately he could not respond to the frequent bursts in pace by Andriy Grivko and eased into the peloton with 8km to go (the Ukrainian himself was caught just a kilometer later).

With 5km remaining on the day, Chavanel yet again attempted for glory, breaking away solo and he continued to fight till being caught inside the last kilometer. He might have been good enough to claim the stage, had he not been so close to Tour leader Cancellara. Once he broke free, Cancellara’s team Radioshack went crazy at the head of the field to  close the Frenchman down at any cost.

Sagan though timed his acceleration to perfection, claiming the day’s honours ahead of compatriot Peter Velits, whose third place finish made a day to rejoice for the small European nation. Top men Wiggins, Evans and Nibali must have been pleased to finish unscathed, both physically and with respect to their overall timings. No changes then in any of the leader boards, meaning a thrilled Cancellara continues in yellow. He later tweeted, “Hard day will ending now.awesome job from @RSNT boys.nice result on the finish,sagan is just to strong. #yellowDay25.”

Fifth day of racing takes us today along the Normandy coastline for a considerable stretch, providing some breathtaking landscapes. It is one of the longest stages this year, covering a distance of 214.5km from Abbeville to Rouen. No major trouble expected en-route as yesterday, though cross winds coming from the coast can cause a few worries in the peloton at times. Overall its a routine sprint stage which means we get to see another face off between the likes of Cavendish, Greipel and Goss. The German would still be smarting from his loss on Monday and would be keen to get one over the Sky rider. Can anyone defeat the Manx missile??? That should be answered by the end of the day.

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

     Fabian Cancellara

14h 45’ 30”

Maillot Vert

Peter Sagan

     Bradley Wiggins

14h 45’ 37”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

     Sylvain Chavanel

14h 45’ 37”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

Peter Sagan

4h 42’ 58”

Sky Procylcing

44h 17’ 04”

Edvald Boasson Hagen

4h 42’ 59”

Radioshack-Nissan

44h 17’ 08”

Peter Velits

4h 42’ 59”

BMC Racing Team

44h 17’ 10”

Michael Morkov

Dossard Rouge

ps: An interesting tweet from Jens Voigt on yesterday’s stage.

Tour de France 2012 – Stage 2

They said he cannot do it without his regular lead-out train. They said he cannot do it as he had lost too much weight. They said he cannot do it as his focus is the Olympics and not the Tour. He said ‘Yes I can’, and he, Mark Cavendish aka the ‘Manx Missile’ answered emphatically with the 21st victory of his Tour career in yesterday’s stage 2.

Yes the rider himself wasn’t sure of his sprint chances without the perfect launching platform, but he decided to go for it solo nevertheless. In the end it was his indisputable physical talent and innate ability to judge a sprint to perfection that allowed him to pip hot favourite Andre Greipel by a slender margin. What inflamed the German further, is that Cavendish used his wheel to be guided into the sprint, making Greipel his unlikely domestique.

Cav then rubbed it in with a cheeky comment after the race, “As you can see, it was close. Normally I win by….ah, bike lengths, but today I had to lunge for the line. It wasn’t too easy,” adding further, “I had to do it by myself, but I came in to the race with no pressure so I could be plucky about it. With a team, I’d be expected to win a sprint like that. But when I’m a bonus rider, it’s different. It’s a great feeling.”

This victory leaves him one short of Armstrong’s record of 22 career stage wins. He should equal and even surpass that figure this year, rising to 4th in the list of highest Le Tour career stage wins (led by who other than the iconic Eddy Merckx). His solo effort would surely deflate other sprint teams, but would also make him more of an equal in his own Team Sky, which till now has been all about one man – Bradley Wiggins.

As hectic as the finish may have been, the day started at a more leisurely pace, with the first attack coming after 22km. It was Anthony Reux (FDJ), who despite his fall on Sunday, broke free of the peloton and managed to open a gap. He was pursued and later joined by Christophe Kern (EUC) and Michael Morkov (STB), the King of the mountains leader who was part of the breakaway in stage 1 as well.

Christophe was blessed with a boy on 28 Jun as the teams were preparing for the official presentation and maybe harboured thoughts to repeat Neil Stephens‘ feat, who in 1997, then recently a father won the stage to Colmar. Côte de la Citadelle de Namur was the only climb of the day, and as the trio peddled its cobblestone roads one could see Reux riding with his left hand off the handlebar all the way. Obviously the earlier day’s injury had not healed and could not suffer vibrations of the cobbled road. Proof yet again of the immense pains these riders take (literally) and their steely determination to be a part of the Tour.

Behind him Tony Martin was another such fighter who had fractured his wrist in a crash early on stage 1, but continued with a plastic cast of his injured hand. Apart from it he also had a big plaster on his left elbow and a massive square plaster covering some road rash further up his arm. “We will take it step by step, kilometer by kilometre,” said Martin. “The first objective is to try and arrive to the next time trial on next Monday. I know it won’t be easy, it will be painful, but I really want to try. The Tour de France is really important to me and I don’t want to give up without trying.”

As the stage progressed the escapees were being reeled in at a gradual pace, and their lead which once had risen to 8min was being chipped with every passing kilometer. With 31km to go for the day Reux decided to take the matter in his own hands (he was back to using both his hands by now), breaking away from Kern and Morkov, who had succumbed to fate and were cruising to be sucked in by the main pack.

Eventually with 14km remaining the Frenchman too was gobbled up by the peloton, which like a multi headed serpent was being steered by various teams. Reux’s efforts were not to be in vain as he was adjudged the ‘most combative rider’ of the day, earning him the Dossard Rouge, or a red bib which he gets to wear in today’s stage 3 (apart from a few thousand euros).

There were a few punctures in the final kilometers, however none of the leaders were troubled. Once in the 3km ‘safe zone’ all GC contenders backed off for the sprinters to fight it out in a typically intense finish. And typically it was the reigning world champion who was smiling at the end, with Greipel typically grimacing at yet another close defeat.

Behind them everyone finished safely, with no injuries nor setbacks of any sort. It meant that Cancellara held on to his yellow jersey ahead of Wiggins and Chavanel, though he transferred the points leader jersey to Peter Sagan. The Slovak was second till yesterday behind Cancellara, but was wearing it in any case as a rider cannot wear two jerseys at the same time (it would get really hot and look rather ridiculous too). Evans and Nibali maintained their deficits on the leaders to same as after the prologue, 17 and 18 seconds respectively.

Sadly there were more instances of fans trying to get too close to the action and almost tiptoeing into the riders’ path. This is risky on any day, but infinitely more so during the finish of a sprint stage when the peloton is steaming in at 70km/hr. A faint touch, or a panic evasive manoeuvre and it could end the race (at best or career at worst) of more than a handful of riders. None of the athletes are impressed by such fans, and couple of them did vent their feelings on twitter:

Thankfully nothing bad resulted of those misadventures yesterday, and hopefully won’t for rest of the Tour as well (can’t be sure though). Moving on to today’s stage 3 and it promises lots of action for sure. Even the Tour’s official website reviews the stage in an exciting fashion, “Six big climbs in 100 kilometres, four of which in the last 16 kilometres. This could mark the opening of hostilities in the Tour. There is no way the sprinters will be there at the finish, which will be decided at the same place as the French Championships won by Chavanel. I think the bunch will be smashed to smithereens.”

We finally enter France this year and the legs are fresh, nerves still touchy, ensuring speeds will be high as everyone tries to stay at the head of the field (and out of trouble) on narrow twisty back roads. Hence the lead-up to the climbs might do more damage (read crashes) than the modest climbs themselves. Also none can count on having too many teammates around himself for support in such narrow confines, and hence we might see riders battle it out themselves towards the end.

Don’t let it fool you though, it’s no leg breaker of a mountain stage. The GC contenders should still finish in a bunch and its again Sagan and Boasson Hagen who will be in with a shout at victory. Such stages also often prompt local French riders to form an early breakaway and ride the vociferous home support to a surprise victory (Chavanel’s national victory is a portent). Can Cancellara hold on to yellow though, am not so sure. Much will depend how his team carries him through the initial climbs, if he is left behind early, then we could see a new leader by end of the day. All in all it should be the most exciting day on the Tour thus far. Rubbing hands with glee!!!

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

     Fabian Cancellara

10h 02’ 31”

Maillot Vert

Peter Sagan

     Bradley Wiggins

10h 02’ 38”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

     Sylvain Chavanel

10h 02’ 38”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

Mark Cavendish

4h 56’ 59”

Sky Procylcing

30h 08’ 07”

André Greipel

4h 56’ 59”

Radioshack-Nissan

30h 08’ 11”

Matthew Goss

4h 56’ 59”

BMC Racing Team

30h 08’ 13”

Anthony Roux

Dossard Rouge

Tour de France 2012 – Stage 1

Honour – it is one of the heaviest six letter word, yet some may say is used almost nonchalantly in today’s day and age. However this word has long been associated with the Tour, almost since its inception 99 years ago. Yes there is honour in finishing – let alone winning – such a gruesome event, but right now am talking of the honour these riders feel for the race and its traditions.

When Henri Desgrange introduced the maillot jaune in 1919, the Tour leader was immediately conspicuous among the peloton and had to abide by a code of conduct to justify his exalted status. This has evolved over the century and today not only the rider, but his team follow certain unwritten rules to honour the jersey and justify wearing it (many in the past have refused to wear the hallowed jersey when they have considered themselves unsuitable for it).

Fabian Cancellara and his team maintained that sanctity yesterday as they guided the stage almost from start till finish in style. It was the Radioshck outfit which did most of the chasing at the head of the field, putting their body on the line to protect their team leader. Special mention must be made of that veteran fighter Jens Voigt (40), who has always been a figure of suffering & determination, dutifully putting in long turns with his nose in the wind to keep the breakaway in check.

But then some might say it is less out of tradition and more out of pragmatism that the teams do this. Riding at the head of the field ensures they can control the pace of the race, while also keeping their leader out of troublesome crashes (which generally occur in the middle of the pack). Certainly true, but even that line of argument would not hold weight considering the way Cancellara led the finish in the final kilometer.

He attacked with venom just under the red kite, when none had expected it, and continued to fight alone till the finish. It is generally not expected of the Tour leader to attack towards the end of a routine stage, when he is already assured of a safe finish to keep the lead at the end of the day. But what was even more surprising is that the Swiss attacked at the steepest part of the climb, which is his Achilles heel.

Only Peter Sagan and Boasson Hagen could respond to the big man’s challenge, with the Slovak playing a cheeky tactic of riding in the slipstream of the Radioshack rider till just before the line. Cancellara urged Sagan to share the work at the head, only to be disappointed; and to rub insult to injury, was pipped to victory in the last 150mtrs. But his actions were worthy of a deserving maillot jaune, and though have lost out on a stage victory, he gained further respect of the field, and millions watching.

Even the Tour’s official site had this to stay about the defending Olympic champion, “With his second place today, Fabian Cancellara has proven how versatile he is. He might not have been able to beat Peter Sagan in the stage but he’s still the leader of the Tour de France.” In fairness to the Slovak, he played a typical predator’s ploy, waiting in the slipstream and pouncing right at the death (and is said to have apologised after the race). In doing so he became the youngest rider to win a stage since Lance Armstrong in 1993 (his pre cancer days).

The day began at an awkward note when the peloton was forced to a halt in the neutral zone by people blocking the road for some kind of a protest. It wasn’t for long though, and when the race director dropped the white flag to start the day’s racing, six men immediately launched into a breakaway. Of the leaders, only Michael Mokrov was close to Cancellara (24” behind him), hence they elicited no response from the main field.

This year’s first crash came early, a mere 11km into the stage when Tony Martin and Robbie Hunter were caught in a fall. Both remounted and continued to finish, with Martin  requiring regular medical attention on his wrist and elbow. He visited a hospital at the end of the day, and according to the team will continue with a plastic cast, but there are doubts if he can risk his body and continue for long (especially with the Olympics just round the corner). The rider brushed away his injuries in his typical fashion, “If necessary I would have come to the finish as the last rider.”

There was a lighter incident at the 24km mark as the leading pack of six had to wait around 45sec for a level crossing. According to the rules, level crossings are considered part of the race and therefore the riders had to build up the gap once again the harder way. This year race organisers have introduced a new rule requiring the leaders of the team classifications to wear yellow helmets. This meant all Sky riders donned yellow lids, and this caused much debate among the riders, commentators and twitterati (with the general consensus being that the organisers had gone a little overboard with the yellow effect, and should revert to just the yellow bibs for the leading team).

For much of the stage, action was limited to the leading pack fighting for points in the “king of the mountains” classification (Mokrov coming out on top eventually) and the intermediate sprint points. Yohann Gene was the first man of the leading six over the green line, and behind him there was a stiff fight among the peloton, with Matt Goss beating hot favourite Mark Cavendish on the day. Both would be happy to collect some points, ahead of all major contenders for the maillot vert.

The breakaway were comfortably reeled in with around 40km to go, thanks majorly to Cancellara’s Radioshack team. There was a big pileup however as an enthusiastic (read stupid) spectator got too close trying to click photographs and clipped a rider. Among those who fell were Valverde, Monfort and Voeckler, thankfully with no injuries sustained. Certainly its is a bit idiotic to see such incidents every year, conversely it is one of the charms of the Tour that fans are able to get up-close to the action like no other sport. They should use this privilege with caution though, lest come a day when we have to watch the race from behind fences as in most motorsports.

The stage finale was a steep 2.5km climb and all top riders were present among the leading bunch; some gunning for a win, while most just ensuring they lost no time on each other. France’s Sylvain Chavanel was the first to attack with under 2km to go, but was pulled in immediately by Albasini. And as the pack was looking towards riders like Gilbert, Sagan and Boasson Hagen to attack, it was Cancellara who shocked one and all by surging ahead with a serious attack.

It was the sheer unpredictability of his move that stupefied everyone but Sagan and Boasson Hagen. The best that home favourite Philippe Gilbert could do was to finish fourth in the wake of the three attackers. Cancellara though was not pleased with Sagan’s poker tactics, and the (debatable) cheeky manner in which he brought up his victory. The Swiss champion tweeted after the day’s events:

Big losers on the day were Sky’s Chris Froome and Euskaltel’s Samuel Sánchez. Froome suffered a late puncture costing him 1’ 25” on the leaders, and while he is working for Wiggins, Sky would still prefer to have two riders in the GC leader board. Sánchez though suffered far worse, finishing a huge 4’ 05” behind Sagan, and his GC hopes are all but over for this year (barring a miracle).

World champion Mark Cavendish too could not sustain the pace on the steep climb and finished 2min in arrears to the leader. His eyes though would be on today’s stage which keeps us in Belgium and is as flat as they come. The solitary category 4 climb is quite early in the stage for it to have no effect on the end, and the finish is all downhill making it  a classic sprinter’s stage. Though I would not risk a prediction today (after Gilbert embarrassed me on stage 1), however it is safe to say that we will definitely get to feast our eyes on a mad dash to the finish. How mad, well that can be gauged by Matt Goss’ statement couple of days back, “Tour de France bunch sprints are always brutal. They could be even more brutal.” Bring it on then…

Jersey Holders

     

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara

5h 5’ 32”

Maillot Vert

Fabian Cancellara

Bradley Wiggins

5h 5’ 39”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Michael Morkov

Sylvain Chavanel

5h 5’ 39”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

Peter Sagan

4h 58’ 19”

Sky Procylcing

15h 17’ 10”

Fabian Cancellara

4h 58’ 19”

Radioshack-Nissan

15h 17’ 14”

Edvald Boasson Hagen

4h 58’ 19”

BMC Racing Team

15h 17’ 16”

Nicolas Edet

Dossard Rouge

ps: If you want an idea how tough is it to ride a stage in Le Tour, Cancellara’s body language at the end of yesterday’s stage is a good judge (and remember he is nicknamed ‘Spartacus’ for being one of the toughest men on the Tour):

Tour de France 2012 – Prologue

99th edition of Le Tour de France got underway yesterday at the city Liège with a super short, yet blistering prologue. At the end of the day the results were predictable, though not without couple of trademark twists. Yes, as expected Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara pipped tour hot favourite Bradley Wiggins to stage victory, but a few stage hopefuls suffered a taste of bad luck right at the start.

The verbal battle had begun even before the first rider was flagged off down the ramp at 1400 hrs local time. Asked to comment on Wiggins’ claim of exceptional data from his physiological tests, Cadel Evans retorted by saying, “We’ll see, we’ll see on the results sheet in Paris.” While that may well be the case on 22 July, however today’s time sheets show the defending champion 11 places below his chief rival.

Evans lost 10 seconds to the Brit rider from Sky, and while in the larger scheme of things it might be inconsequential, however the psychological impact cannot be denied. The Australian has Cancellara to thank though, cause had Wiggins finished in yellow right on the first day, it would have been a massive boost to his confidence.

There was a minor whiff of controversy as well, as few riders seemed to be unhappy with the TT clothing provided by race organisers. Wiggins’ team Sky indicating that the rider would rather prefer to don his team clothing than the official yellow jersey, were he to be in such position at any of the time trials. Cadel Evans too opted to ride the prologue in BMC colours and not the maillot jaune (though many defending champions have in the past refused to wear yellow on day one, till they have earned it on the road).

As the action began, the initial pace was set by Andriy Grivko (AST), the Ukrainian national champion covering the 6.4km course in 7min 28.47sec. Briton David Millar (GRM) came pretty close to beating the time, missing out by a mere 3 seconds, the effort all the more laudable considering he has been sick all week, and was not in his peak condition as he crossed the start line.

This year sees a record 12 entrants from Australia (no doubt buoyed by their country’s first victor last year), and they made their presence felt as Brett Lancaster (OGE) reduced the fastest time to 7’ 24” ambling at an average speed of 51.8km/hr. His reign at top of the leader board though would not stay for long as Wiggins’ Norwegian teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen finished just under a second of the Aussie.

But it was birthday boy Sylvain Chavanel (33) who really set a challenging time, coming in 4’ below Boasson Hagen, and led the day right till the very end. At the other end of the track a different record was being set, as George Hincapie (Armstrong’s ex-teammate) became the rider with the most number of starts in Le Tour, crossing the start line for the 17th time in his career. It was his compatriot Dave Zeriskie though, who brought some visual cheer to the fans, as he donned a “Captain America” skin suit, in-keeping with the fancy dress traditions of the event (though it’s the fans and not the riders who follow it generally).

We were by now reaching the business end of the day’s proceedings as Peter Sagan (LIQ) was the first among the day’s favourites to take to the course. It would not prove to be the Slovak’s day as he narrowly averted a crash while taking a tight left corner. He just about managed to stay on the bike, however the wobble cost him dearly as he finished in a disappointing time of 7’ 37”.

The other favourite, world time trial champion, Germany’s Tony Martin was on track till the first time marker to pip his teammate Chavanel’s time, however he too was spurned by lady luck and a puncture mid way forced him to change his bike. Despite the hiccup he finished in 7’ 36”, and would have been among the top finishers but for the mechanical problem.

All eyes now were on Wiggins, and while the rider was 6’ down on Chavanel’s time at the first marker, he put in a herculean effort to finish just under a second of the Frenchman, taking the tour lead for a short while. It was to be of no avail in the end as Cancellara, nicknamed Spartacus for his build and strength, set the short track on fire with an average speed of 53.2km/hr, finishing comfortably under the Briton’s time.

His performance prompted David Millar to tweet, “Holy shit, @f_cancellara is amazing.” That he certainly is, becoming the second rider in Tour history to win the yellow jersey on the opening day five times (2004, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012), equalling Bernard Hinault’s record. Conincidentally, he started it all right here in Liège back in 2004. “It’s phenomenal to win eight years later. So much happened since 2004,” said Cancellara, who plans to defend his Olympic time trial title in London next month.

Behind him the last rider, defending champion Cadel Evans finished a (relatively) disappointing 17 seconds behind, but crucially still within striking distance of his main rival Bradley Wiggins. The BMC rider said, “It’s 6.4 km out of 3,500, so in that regard it’s a small comparison. The real racing starts tomorrow.” Another GC contender Vicenzo Nibali (LIQ) from Italy finished just a second below Evans, keeping the battle very much alive.

Fabian though is not expected to stay in yellow for long, and may lose it today on stage 1 if the favourites do live upto their expectations. We move on through the Belgian countryside to Searing, covering a distance of 198km. Though listed as a flat stage, however its bumpy enough to unsettle traditional sprinters such as Mark Cavendish. Additionally it has a slight sting in the end with a short 2.5km climb, that after four category 4 climbs earlier in the route.

Today’s route then should then favour someone like Philippe Gilbert or even Cadel Evans. The Belgian champion won on stage 1 last year, and would be keen to repeat the performance in his native country this year. He has enough competition and two riders to watch out for would be Boasson Hagen and Peter Sagan, who have it in them to win the stage today. The top men would not be too fussed, especially considering most riders are nervous in the early days and prefer to ride it safe. It’s almost a cliché that the Tour cannot be won on day one, but it certainly can be lost (one only has to look back to Contador’s crash on the first day last year, though in fairness it is not what lost him the Tour).

Looking forward to a great day’s racing then, my money is on local boy Gilbert to ride the passionate home support to glory. And considering he is just 13” down the leader, he might finish fast enough to pull yellow at the end of the day. Let the racing begin…

Jersey Holders

 

General Classification

Maillot Jaune

Fabian Cancellara

Fabian Cancellara

7’ 13”

Maillot Vert

Fabian Cancellara

Bradley Wiggins

7’ 20”

Maillot à Pois Rouges

Not Applicable Yet

Sylvain Chavanel

7’ 20”

Maillot Blanc

Tejay Van Garderen

Stage Result

 

Team GC

Fabian Cancellara

7’ 13”

Sky Procylcing

22’ 13”

Bradley Wiggins

7’ 20”

Radioshack-Nissan

22’ 17”

Sylvain Chavanel

7’ 20”

BMC Racing Team

22’ 19”

ps: I missed it in my preview, but here is the official teaser for this year’s Tour

Tour de France 2012 – Preview

An Olympic year often spells doom for regular annual sporting events. Ask any athlete (except from a few team sports like football etc) what is his/her highest target, and almost everyone would name an Olympic medal on top of their list. Hence it is to the immense credit of Le Tour that despite being agonisingly close to the Olympic road race (scheduled less than a week after the Tour finishes) all major entrants are raring to go.

Yes the Olympics still mean the world to riders such as Wiggins, Cavendish and Evans, yet the lure of a Tour victory still makes them risk injury and exhaustion. This especially when the incredible demands of a grand tour are hardly ideal preparation for any Olympic event. But for athletes like Wiggins, a dream of Tour & Olympic double is irresistible; and if achieved, would catapult him into the pantheon of greats instantly.

Yet this Tour has already had a few setbacks, most notably with the absence of two past winners, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. The Spaniard is always a favourite, despite a tepid performance last year and is serving a controversial ban for testing positive for clenbuterol. He also had his 2010 victory rescinded due to the positive test, though not all are convinced.

His loss was Schleck Jr’s gain as he was promoted as victor of the 2010 event (though the rider staunchly refuses to consider it as his achievement and pines to win one the traditional way) after he had finished second following an epic battle on the road. The Luxembourgeois faced the same fate last year as he fought Cadel  Evans tooth and nail, only to end up second best. If he was planning to be third time lucky, sadly a spinal injury in the Critérium du Dauphiné put paid to those hopes.

Hence the favourites field is effectively whittled down to two names, defending champion Cadel Evans from Australia, riding for Team BMC; and Bradley Wiggins from Britain, riding for the ambitious Team Sky. Wiggins was among the top runners last year as well, till a painful crash early in the Tour forced him to withdraw. This year however, he is the bookmakers choice and with a strong year behind him has good reason to be confident.

The Sky rider is in the midst of enjoying the season of his life, winning three of the five stage races he has started, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Dauphiné Libéré, taking a stage in the other, the Tour of Algarve. This added to a podium place in the Vuelta a España and the silver medal at the world time trial championship is warning enough for his Australian rival. His team are on a high as well, as evident from this teaser released at the team’s official YouTube channel:

Evans on the contrary has had a relatively tepid preparation going into the Tour, especially compared to his preparations last year. Unlike multiple victories in 2010, Evans has only managed to win the Criterium International in March and grabbed a stage in the Dauphine, eventually finishing third overall behind Wiggins (and compatriot Michael Rogers).

The BMC rider acknowledges his rival’s form and relishes the challenge. However this year’s route is very different compared to what he rode to victory last year. In his own words, “The Tour won’t be won or lost in the mountains, it will only sort out the contenders. But the Tour will certainly be won or lost in the time trials.” To begin with this year the Tour runs clockwise – Alps first, Pyrenees second – which traditionally always tends to be less suited to a pure climber. Furthermore there is no immense summit finish with never more than two days climbing in a row. These factors coupled with the longest time trials since 2008, clearly justify the defending champion’s assessment of the route.

Funny then, that the two of the best climbers in the world are missing a Tour (not out of choice though) which would not have favoured them in any case. Conversely in Wiggins and Evans we have two of the best time triallers in the field taking eachother head on (remember Evans took his victory last year in the final individual time trial). Here too the odds are in favour of the Olympic medallist leading Sky, however no one can discount the Aussie’s grit.

Apart from them, Wiggins’ teammate Mark Cavendish aka ‘The Manx Missile‘ would be keen to repeat his green jersey winning performance of last year, though can he can achieve that without his dependable “HTC Highroad train” is what would interest Tour regulars. Among other riders hoping to capture a podium finish, Ryder Hesjedal would be one to watch out for. He was noted for his impressive performance last year and has only improved by claiming top honours at the Giro d’Italia in May this year, becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour. He is leading team Garmin-Sharp in this edition of the Tour.

As for the complete route, this year the riders navigate a total of 20 stages, covering a massive 3,497 kms. Longest day in the saddle is expected to be Friday the 13th, the race organisers venerating Devil’s day by slotting a 226 km medium mountain stage. However it would be the five mountain stages and two-time trials that will separate the elite from the pack.

But the Tour is nothing if not for the uncertainties that emerge in the three weeks. Time and again a wild card rider ruffles the feathers of the big teams, and one only needs to look back to last year when Thomas Voeckler of Europcar hung on to the maillot jaune far longer than most hoped. Then there are the crashes, which while not welcome or enjoyed by anyone, are an integral part of road cycling. Only hope is that the dreadful events of stage 9 last year are not repeated, and no crash leads to a major injury.

The Tour begins tomorrow in Belgium, in the heart of Liège with a 6.4 km prologue. This was the same course where ‘that man Spartacus’ aka Fabian Cancellara burst to prominence in 2004, and he would definitely be the man to watch out for. Bradley Wiggins too can pump the pedals hard and would be keen to start the Tour in the best manner possible, donning yellow right on the first day.

Of course this is just an appetizer and things being in earnest only on sunday with the first proper stage, but such short runs have a thrill of their own. It might not even be a warm up ride for these athletes, nevertheless they will put their body on the line to gain fractions. In the end all that matter is that Le Tour is back!!! With the Euros finishing on sunday and the Olympics still a few days away, nothing could have filled the gap better. Looking forward to 21 days of scintillating scenery, breathtaking visuals and – most importantly – captivating racing action. Bring it on!!!

ps: in case any of you are interested in updating on last year’s events in detail, I did a stage by stage coverage at the link below:

2011 Tour de France – from my perspsective

Or you can watch this brilliantly put together video montage of last year’s Tour

Not The Future, But Getting There…

Palo Alto, to some it paints a picture of sunny beaches and Californian life. Others though, associate it as home to the who’s who of the technology industry. Its illustrious occupants already included Stanford University and Xerox’s iconic Palo Alto Research Center, and soon attracted other giants such as HP, while today it serves as an incubator to many more from Facebook to Google, who all are based in or around Palo Alto. Some go so far as to say, you haven’t made it big in the tech industry till you don’t have a facility here.

So it’s with some cynicism that people looked at a car manufacturer setting shop in these environs. One, many geeks look at the automobile industry as an archaic behemoth of a bygone era, and two, “Whatever was wrong with Detroit, the mecca of American automobile manufacturing?” But then the product CEO Elon Musk is manufacturing is nothing like the stuff rolling out of Detroit. For starters it does not work on gasoline/diesel, heck it does not even have an engine! And to make Palo Alto proud, software is at the heart of making this baby turn its wheels. Presenting everyone – drum roll – Tesla.

I know, most of you reading this might be saying, “Was all this buildup for this strangely named, yet mundane looking sports car?” Yes the car does have an unglamorous and super nerdy name (Tesla is the unit of magnetic flux density), and does not fit into any grand sci-fi vision with hidden wings or bayonets, but it’s about as far from today’s vehicles as the internal combustion was to steam engines. To use the Palo Alto analogy again, its driven by exactly the same sources that drives the millions of servers – electricity.

“Well another electric car, hmph! I’ve had enough of the Toyota Prius, and that’s hardly worked wonders.” Ok so first the Prius is a hybrid, meaning it still needs to burn fuel to drive and to charge its batteries, which only ‘aid’ the engine to enhance its fuel efficiency. Tesla however, make cars with no engines, and which can be charged from your home power socket. Their first product the Tesla Roadster smashed many records for (practical) electric cars, having a top speed of 201 km/h (0-100 in 3.7 seconds) and boasting a range of 400 km on a single charge (at lower speeds of course). Those are figures to do any vehicle proud, but better still, these are not some crazy test figures, the car is a finished product you can go and buy, if you have around $120,00 to spare.

At that price though it remains a rich man’s toy, and that’s not enough to cause any radical change in the industry. Musk understands this and hence is working on his epochal product, the Tesla Model S. This will be the company’s offering to average Joe, seating between 5 to 7, and which, after subsidies ($7500 by the federal govt in US and a further $2500 by the state of California) should be priced around $50,000. That fits it perfectly in the range of mass luxury sedans (5 series or E class) and should appeal to a larger populace.

The company is parallelly also working on a SUV option, though Musk agrees that the Model S is his make or break product. This has to succeed for Tesla to survive and prepare for the future. The hurdles are many. Setting up a car manufacturing unit is infinitely more complex than an internet startup and the costs involved are astronomical. Then there is the lack of a supplier base and high dependence on third-party products to complete the design. Biggest challenge though, is the lack of a worthy power source – batteries.

Right from laptop to mobile phones, manufacturers of various products bemoan the constraints of current battery technology and single it out as a major limiter to their product’s performance. Now for a product that has batteries at its heart and its single defining feature, that’s a big problem. Current batteries are heavy, store insufficient charge (which means more are required and hence more weight) and need to be replaced periodically (less charge means more charging cycles and earlier replacements).

Thankfully some smart innovation at Tesla has squeezed enough out of the lithium-ion stacks to make them car viable. Jeffery Straubel, Tesla’s CTO, believes battery manufacturers are upgrading fast will eventually catch up, especially if the sales number justify the product. “Between the time we did Roadster and Model S, the batteries have improved by about 40%,” he says. “That’s a pretty big number. That’s about four years.Engines don’t drop in size by half in a few years. It doesn’t happen. It’s almost like the properties of steel are changing year by year.”

Even if the car is a success and does set the niche rolling, personally I don’t think its THE (permanent) solution. Those words you read of Electric Vehicles (EVs) being the ‘holy grail’ are more propaganda than fact. Firstly, the claim that these are ‘zero emission’ vehicles is marketing lingo at best and a blatant lie at worst. EVs do cause emissions, just that it’s shifted from the tailpipes to the chimneys of the power producing plants elsewhere. So while it might look ‘clean’ with the conspicuous lack of a tailpipe, it’s not a self-sustaining vehicle.

Supporters of the technology claim that its easier to implement and control fuel saving technologies at huge power plants than each vehicle, and that those plants work at far higher efficiencies than the most economical of the internal combustion engines in our cars. Further the energy supplied to your homes (and being fed into Teslas) can be hedged into renewable sources like wind, solar, tidal etc., and thus add to the green credentials of the car.

All the above is true and an electric car will always be greener compared to its fuel driven brethren (including the hybrids), but all I want to bring out is that these cars are not the final solution to the automobile industry’s (and in fact the world’s) fuel crisis. Nor will they protect the consumer long from rising fuel bills, as eventually electricity meters will start charging more and more, with the ever-increasing number of electric devices introduced in the world at an astonishing pace.

But electric cars can do a lot of good. If these vehicles gain a modicum of popularity they immediately loosen the burdens on the oil wells (maybe even bring oil prices down to justifiable rates) and the benefit of hedging electricity production methods are mentioned above. More importantly though, the car can provide a huge impetus to investments in battery technology and research on renewables. Once people start driving on electricity, companies will be forced to invest in the associated technologies and that can only help the planet.

However the most significant benefit of the Tesla would be the time it buys for scientists to come out with the ‘car of the future’. Currently all fingers point to ‘fuel cells’ which use hydrogen as fuel (the most abundantly available element on earth) and mix it with oxygen (sucked in from the air), producing electricity and (clean drinkable) water. Note that here too the driving force is (battery-powered) electricity, only the production now is confined within the vehicle and is truly 100% emission free (well clean water is an emission which am sure we all can live with).

So as consumers buy electric vehicles (not only cars mind you), fuel dependence reduces, associated technologies boost, and therefore researchers working on fuel cells and administrators working on hydrogen production and distribution all get a breather to work under less pressure. All of this while the ecological footprint of the automobile industry reduces with every passing day. So Tesla (or the EV) while not being the life saviour many hail it as, can certainly be a life changer – for the good.

And for this very reason I do hope and pray the courageous venture does fructify. Tesla will need support from many quarters, politicians being the first. No electric vehicle currently can match the mass-produced fuel versions on price. Internal combustion industry has had a 100 year head start to refine their processes and a billion strong market for economy of scale. Therefore government subsidies will have to support the product in its infancy.

Also there has to be some commitment from the traditional manufacturers. They have to see these cars not as the enemy, but as the next evolution in their history. Few manufacturers (Daimler and Toyota in particular) have joined hands with Tesla and provided support in various forms, but large-scale involvement remains a dream. Then is the contribution required of Palo Alto’s finest – software. Thankfully here, good progress seems to be made and with the globe’s current fascination of all things IT, software should be one of the strong points of the Model S.

“Here’s to creating the greatest car company of the 21st century, and to moving us off fucking oil as fast as possible,” said an enthusiastic Musk to his employees as he celebrated moving to the glorious environs of California in 2010. Probably 102 years ago Henry Ford would have launched the Model T with equal alacrity; and the car did go on to immortalise him in the automobile pantheon. Elon Musk will be hoping that if his similarly named model can be fractionally as successful, he could be revered far more. Not only as the man who gave the world a path breaking product, but as the one who gave the planet a new lease of life.

ps: for a in-depth info about Elon Musk’s vision of the company and his worries, the article below is an excellent read (one that heavily influenced me to write this).

Why Tesla Motors Is Betting On The Model S