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Letters to Cyclingnews - July 11, 2003
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Sunday was a black day at le tour for American hopes; Armstrong, Hamilton, and Leipheimer all down in the stage 1 crash. Leipheimer out for sure, Hamilton to try and continue with a broken collarbone (think about it, riding three more weeks of le tour with a broken collarbone) and Armstrong with no major injuries only by pure luck. We all know these crashes are coming in the first stages because too many teams are trying to have their sprinters and their GC riders all at the front of the race. When are the UCI and race organizers going to address this problem?
It's unfair to the sponsors, the riders, and the 'tifosi' to have top riders taken out of the race before it even gets properly started because of some moron who is pushing and fighting for position to get 25th place or worse. At the very least the 1 kilometer rule needs to be extended so those only interested in the GC don't have to get mixed up in the sprint madness and risk their whole season just to keep from getting caught behind the inevitable crash. Something has got to be done!
Finish crashes #2
As a former domestic US professional bicycle racer and an avid fan, I'd like to ask the question: How many more riders have to be injured in crashes before race organizers are held responsible for the havoc they create by staging dangerous finishes? Who can forget the carnage in the Giro this year with the turns placed in the last few hundred meters of high speed stages. And now the Tour.
I'll admit a bit of nationalistic bias here, but now we have TWO potential contenders out of the tour in Levi and Tyler. The Yellow Jersey, Brad McGee (g'day mate!) came down, Lance came down, Gilberto came down. And why? The logic which was so blithely thrown about in the Giro was that the stages had to be interesting for the spectators. I for one would rather watch carnage in the movie theatre. Even if the movies are brutal, stupid and inhumane, at least you have the assurance that it is only acting.
Professional racing is not an act. The courage just to ride in a pack of nearly 200 racers at 40 MPH is enormous. I remember having more than one close call in my career, and know what it is like to hit the deck at full speed. The pure spectacle of the Grand Tours is more than enough to draw in millions of people. What is it about these organizers that make them think adding reckless endangerment is a benefit?
Following yesterday's team time trial, Lance Armstrong admitted that his form hadn't been up to his normal standards in the first few days of the Tour, stating that he had had some problems before the race start. And while he said that he was starting to feel stronger in the race against the clock, he did (to these eyes at least) seem less dominant within his team than in previous years.
Looking at Armstrong in this Tour, it also seems that his leg musculature is less developed than before. He's still turning the pedals quickly and fluidly, but to the eye at least, he doesn't exude the same power as before. Calf and thigh muscles which were oversized and bulging don't have that same menacing appearance in 2003. Whether or not this translates into decreased form in the mountains remains to be seen, but it is something which seems obvious every time I look at television images or photographs of the defending champion.
As a physiology graduate I must admit to being concerned as to his pre-Tour interviews with regard to losing weight. 'Weight is a funny thing', he said, in an interview in Procycling's July issue. 'I'm trying to skip lunches, but I'd like to be closer to my body weight of 2000 and 2001. That's about 74 kilos. So I'm going to bed hungry.'
Given that Armstrong was (presumably) training for five or six hours in his pre Tour build-up, this seems to be a dangerous tactic. Time will tell whether or not Lance this year is up to his usual standards. It would however be a real shame if he was to lose the race through an obsession with shedding kilos, through what sounds like an extreme diet. Back in the early season Armstrong told the media that his weight was better than at the same period in 2002, meaning then that he was ahead of schedule with regards to arriving at his ideal racing weight for July.
Why, then, do such strict measures have to be taken so close to the Tour, at a time when Armstrong's high intensity workouts would demand a lot of energy? Weight loss should be a gradual procedure. Going to bed hungry and skipping lunches seems to me to be something which can only be counter productive to an athlete at this period of the season. It is not as if he was like Jan Ullrich in 1998 - overweight, and desperately trying to shed the kilos in time for the Tour. This is a guy who never lets his weight creep up by more than a few kilos, who weighs his food and keeps his appetite in check in the off-season so that extreme measures do not have to be taken.
Hopefully Lance will prove these fears unfounded, and go on to win his fifth Tour. At this stage, though, I must admit to being a little concerned. Has this obsession with body fat levels come at a cost of strength?
While I can sympathise with Mr. Miller about the fact he felt the should have won the prologue, the guy is a cry baby, needs to start to act professionally and take some personal responsibility. I do not care how he felt about his team management the press is not the place to debate those things and take out grudges. Riders who are better than Miller on their worst day - like Lance, or Stewy, or Cipo - show much more class, by not getting involved in these spats in the media. Miller cried like a baby at the Vuelta last year and we are seeing it again. I also have to ask has this guy really ever won that much? No! Sure he has won some TTs and some Grand Tour stage, but that sure does not warrant all the media this over-rated rider gets.
Also how stupid are he and his team mechanics? Did you see his set up? One cannot run a road bike set up with no front derailleur and then not use some sort of chain ring guard. The chain can easily bounce off, especially on a course with cobble stones. The chain "should" stay on under pedaling pressure, but is very susceptible to coming off when not pedaling and then starting to apply pressure again. Maybe a pre-ride on his stupid set-up would have shown him that. Any cyclo-cross racer would know that and would be able to show David how to set it up using a chain ring guard. All this to save some weight? Man it was a dead flat TT. How about taking some responsibly for making a dumb choice?
I sure hope Postal does note sign this cry baby. Who needs him?
Also, best of luck to Tyler and Levi. I cannot believe it. I hope they end up at the Vuelta shooting it out for the podium.
Millar's mechanical #2
So what's the truth about Millar's mechanical in the Tour prologue yesterday? Your report of the race has it from Millar's own mouth that his chain unshipped on the cobbles and slipped between the chainrings. Other reports on the web have it that he decided to go for a single chainring but, in the face of advice to the contrary, got the mechanics to remove his front derailleur. (Had the front derailleur been there, the chain wouldn't have unshipped so easily and, I would suggest, would have been easier to get back on the chainring if it had.) Maybe, in view of what you quote Millar as saying, he had retained the two chainrings but in the quest for weight saving asked that the derailleur mechanism be removed. Can anyone on the spot get this story straight? Just curious...
In the (non-Tour) news today, I noticed that USPS has expressed interested in signing a few more European cyclists at the end of the season (and during this year's Dauphine Libere, I had read that USPS has been talking with Iban Mayo about his possibly joining their squad too). This makes me worried for these riders' careers.
It is beyond doubt that Lance will retire eventually (and probably sooner than later), regardless of whether he wins the Tour this year, or even if he goes on to win six or more. However, when he does retire, Postal will have almost no American riders within its ranks, and it does not appear to have any ambition of finding a young American rider whom it can groom to succeed Lance. I sincerely believe this puts the team's post-Lance future in great jeopardy.
The US Postal Service runs independently from the US government, but is still part of it. And while Americans will support a team of European domestiques riding on "America's Team" for the "Euro-Ass-Kicker from Texas" (mostly because they don't follow cycling and think Lance is all there is to USPS, and so are unaware of his teammates' nationalities, and most importantly, their salaries), I do not believe that the same Rush Limbaugh-listening, George Bush-voting, Freedom fries-eating American public will tolerate even a Roberto Heras-led Postal team. All it will take is one increase in the price our postage stamps for the talk radio xenophobes here to create a scandal of "our taxes supporting foreigners at the expense of deserving ENGLISH SPEAKING, red-blooded American cyclists." This may sound outrageous (and it is), but it is not in any way farfetched.
What will happen to these riders in that event? They aren't likely to have high rankings in the Tours in which they ride in support of Lance, and are even less likely to be allowed stage wins in any of them (as Heras learned last year, and admitted recently in an interview with L'Équipe). They won't participate in very many other races throughout the year and of those few that they do, most will still be doing so in support roles for Lance (even if only tangentially, a la Hincapie each spring). It could be disastrous for a rider like Iban Mayo, who is just entering the best of his cycling years, to join Postal now.
I do not say any of this because I desire an all-American, or an American-led Postal team. I don't even like Postal - I loved Mapei, and currently am pretty smitten with Fassa (best looking jerseys in cycling!) and FDJeux (there must be something in the water in Australia!). It's just something that has been on my mind. Any comments you or your readers have will be greatly appreciated.
Thank you for reading, and as always, thanks so much for the great website.
Going into the 1996 Tour de France, it seemed inconceivable that any rider would seriously challenge Miguel Indurain in his quest for an unparalleled sixth straight Tour title. As we know today, things turned out differently. In 2003, all facts speak for Lance Armstrong... and there is another striking similarity between Miguel in 1996 and Lance in 2003. Both finished in seventh place in the prologue. A coincidence? A statistical tidbit? A sign for things to come? Let's see how the Tour 2003 develops...
Why not have two team leaders? Riis is no fool. Of course Hamilton does deserve to have 100 percent team support for his GC aspirations - and in due course we will see if he warrants it. However, having two leaders relieves some of the pressure off Hamilton's shoulders and perhaps will give Sastre the motivation to out perform his joint team leader. That is not to suggest they will battle stage by stage for team seniority. It will be fairly evident from the first mountain stage which of the two is going to have a more realistic top 10 GC finish. Furthermore, what do you think Heras is? If Armstrong has a fall, or looses time, do you think USPS will pack up their bags and go home? Of course, not. Think about it.
I can't believe some people think that Lance will not have as much support this year from his team. US Postal is the strongest it has ever been. Along with having the usual Heras and Chechu, they also picked up Beltran at the beginning of the year. These guys are some of the best climbers in the world, and their all there just to support Lance in the mountains. Heck, Lance might have to tell his domestiques to slow down!
Here's what I think about the other contenders:
Simoni: One of the best climbers in the world, and actually found good time trialing form in the Giro. But he has little support, and still can't be compared to Armstrong, or Ulrich when it comes to the TT. Also, he's already competed in the Giro, so I don't think he'll be on form for July. Maybe a stage or two, but three weeks; I think not.
Garzelli: Yeah, right. Simoni beat him in TTs and dropped him on the climbs.
Mayo: Very strong, has not proven himself in grand tours.
Ullrich: He is definitely the sleeper. He's been playing down his ability and condition, but I think he is going to be strong, as usual, in the TT, and will hang on in the mountains.
Aitor Gonzalez: There's no way he can hang on during all the climbs. He'll loose big time on the harder HC, and won't be able to make all of it in the TTs. Maybe in a couple years, but not 2003.
Sanitago Botero: I think he definitely has the talent, but has not been following the right plan. To beat Lance, someone is going to have to out-work Lance, which is almost impossible. Botero didn't really even do any racing until May. I just don't think his form will be there, or at least until it's too late.
Tyler Hamilton: This is a very challenging critique. He obviously can win major races. He can climb, and TT. But he just did too well during the spring. I think he has already peaked, and I don't think he will have the same form as of a month ago. [Obviously this letter was written and sent before Hamilton's disastrous stage 1 crash - Ed]
Beloki: As usual, he will be very strong, and has the strongest team in the peloton. I just don't think he will ever be at the same level as Lance in the Tour. I think he will be the most likely rider to push Lance of anyone.
Finally, I think Lance's biggest challenge will be the actual Tour route. It is still very difficult, but not as difficult as previous years. Time gaps will be less, but the outcome will be the same!
Tour contenders #2
I agree with Mr Smith that this year's Tour should be closely contested. I think Ullrich, Gonzalez and Botero are potentially Lance's biggest threats. None of them, however, prepares for the tour so completely as does Armstrong. The guy is scary! This is why, barring disaster, I see number five for Lance this year. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see especially Gonzalez or Botero do something spectacular (I'm a big Kelme fan), but they just don't seem to have the form they need to take it to Lance.
The excitement in this year's Tour - watching Iban Mayo light it up in the mountains! Now there's a rider for the future!
Is it really impossible to win Tour de France six or seven times?
The fact that four men have won five Tours de France, and none have won six, does seem to imply that there is some sort of natural limit, but Mr O'Dell from Georgia brings up Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk who finished second six times and won once. And Hinault finished first on five occasions, and second twice. They could just as easily have won seven tours each - even when they didn't win they still beat everyone in the peloton but one.
What if Merckx hadn't ridden so many races, but saved himself a bit more?
And what if Miguel Indurain had had Reynolds-Banesto ride for him in 1990?
I remember seeing an old man with a big, broken nose on television some years ago. You couldn't hear very much of what he was saying, because the speaker was doing a voice-over in English at the same time, and he was speaking Italian in an incredibly raspy, gravelly voice. And my Italian is pretty bad.
But I did catch the part about "the war" and "it kept me from winning the Tour de France ten times!"
That was Gino Bartali, of course, the winner at 24 in 1938 and at 34 in 1948.
Not to say that Bartali would have actually won all those tours. But what if...?
Anders P. Jensen
Tour victory limits #2
In 1994 Indurain understood that the circumstances no longer made it possible to win two of the big tours in the same year and he concentrated on the TdF from then on. Armstrong also believes that to be the case.
However, before the early 1990's, racers could hope for the Giro and Tour in the same year and that is a major factor in why Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault did not win more than five times.
Among them, Anquetil is the one who could have won the most Tours. If the TdF had been his only goal every year (and with a bit more dedication in his training in 1958), Gaul, Bahamontès and Nencini would never have won the Tour in 58-59-60.
However, eight straight wins by Anquetil would have bad for the TdF and unfortunate for Gaul and Bahamontès.
So I would say that it is not the rigor of the event that prevented past five-times winners from winning more often.
However, nowadays the competition is fiercer and winning more than five TdFs is becoming more and more unlikely.
Tour victory limits #3
I think that five wins might be a practical limit but not an absolute one. That's because some of the five-timers have had accidents cut out one or more of their most productive years. For instance:
* Merckx was hurt in a motor-pacing accident that kept him out of the 1973 tour. (He never received physical therapy and yet came back to win in 1974.) In 1975 he was hindered by illness but also the crazy guy who punched him on a climb. So Merckx lost at least one year and possibly two non-physical mishaps. I also think he cheated himself out of a longer career by basically racing 12 months year after year.
* Hinault lost one, two or even three years to bad knees and crashes. I don't recall if the knees were due to crashes or over-use. If it was the latter, you can speculate that he had six or seven wins in him.
* Don't forget LeMond's mishaps. The hunting accident took away two years when he was at his peak. Add to that the politics that artificially held him back in 1985 and it's reasonable to speculate that he had up to seven wins in him.
On the other hand:
* Indurain didn't lose any years to injuries or illness. He was developed very slowly by the Spanish program and that probably put him in the best position of anyone to win year-after-year. But once he went over the top, he wasn't competitive to win.
So I think you can argue that every human being, no matter how physically superior he might be, will encounter enough bad luck to impose a five-time limit. However, it seems that a champion who is lucky should be physically capable of six or seven wins.
For the best way to watch the Tour, go by motorcycle.
If you plan your routes well on the back roads, you can view from 2 or even 3 different places on a single stage (a copy of the day's L'Équipe for route details and a good map of the area are essentials). It's much easier to negotiate the traffic and the marshalls and police will usually let you on to the route after the roads close, as a bike isn't such an obstruction and can get off the road in most places. Also, especially if you have a camera and look official, you will often be allowed to move soon after the Tour has passed and long before the other vehicles can go. A word of warning - give space to your fellow spectators on cycles on the mountain stages - they can descend much faster than a 1300cc, two-up with full luggage.
Sandi Cummings, the one on the back with the cameras
Watching the Tour #2
What does anyone think of taking a touring bike with tent on the train out of Toulouse to St. Gaudens after the stage 13 start and riding to the Peyresourde for stage 14 and next day to the Tourmalet? Feasible? Impossible?
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