Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Unlucky Tour

I must say that the 2010 Tour De France has been one of the ones I have least enjoyed.  I might have found the characterless Miguel Indurain hammering out his tempo and winning year after year tedious; in 2008 I certainly found Cadel Evans incredibly irritating, but this year there were a lot of things that seemed to spoil the race.  The battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, of course, was a classic, but reflecting on Contador's stronger performance all round, it was clear given the time trial, and barring any bad luck, he was going to win.  Of course, if it had not been for the faulty decision in 2008 not to let him defend his 2007 win, then this would be his fourth consecutive win and it would be looking like he would be close to entering that select band of multiple winners, not least his fellow countryman.  Given his youth, he is still only 28, he has a reasonable chance of getting into that kind of category, especially in a sport in which men like Lance Armstrong and Christophe Moreau riding the race almost into their 40s.  Schleck has come a long way even in the past year and showed that he could no longer simply be dropped by Contador on a climb, but whether he can ever beat him in a time trial is a different issue.

Contador can be said to not been particularly lucky or unlucky, but this year being in such a position was itself an advantage.  The first few days had an intolerable level of crashes.  Of course, any leading cycle tour has crashes, but this year it seemed to exceed the acceptable level in terms of severity.  Andy Schleck was able to recover but the greatest loss to him was his brother Frank Schleck being taken out of the race due to injury at such an early stage.  If Schleck was going to beat Contador this year he needed an exceptional team.  Both Saxobank and Astana fielded good teams, Alexander Vinokurov was almost as challenging for Contador on the Astana team as Armstrong was in that role last year.  What would have made a real difference was if Frank Schleck had been there to lift his brother beyond Contador's pace.  It was only bad luck that meant he was not there. 

The other piece of bad luck was Andy Schleck's chain coming loose when he was launching a strong attack on Contador, something which will be discussed for years.  Contador genuinely seems to like Schleck and seems to have been unsettled by feeling he had snatched an unfair advantage.  I think at the end of the day he would have caught Schleck anyway and wiped out any small advantage in the time trial.  However, it is hard on Schleck to think that he could have retained the yellow jersey that little bit longer if he had not had a mechanical fault, but this year they do seem to be common.

Of course, the man to suffer most from bad luck was Lance Armstrong.  I know why he rode the race in 2009 and 2010, but it was a shame for him simply to fade after multiple mechanical faults and crashes.  I do not think he would have had a high finish, but to go out in his final tour this way seems to have been bad luck and it would have been nice to have seen him have a tour a little more like fellow last time rider, Moreau.  Others did not have bad luck, just bad form, notably Cadel Evans who seems to have had a personality transplant and is rather unsettlingly cheery these days.  However, looking back, his slide after a burst of glory has characterised many of his recent tours no matter his personality.  Bradley Wiggins, the great British hope who came 4th last year, similarly had no single bad thing to point to, just occasional lack of lucky breaks and unfortunately as time passed, a flagging of morale.  He now sees last year's position as a 'fluke'.  Perhaps Geraint Thomas, second in the race for so many days, though, it seems, quickly forgotten, will step into that position.  David Millar the rather erratic British rider, was also unlucky, like too many of the riders this year plagued by mishaps and ill health.

Mark Cavendish after a challenging year as a result of his rather fast temper and playful/offensive gesturing showed he still had the power and speed to win sprints.  However, it did become more apparent that his skill does not suit all finishes and the longer run-ins can be taken by Thor Hushovd and even Alessandro Petacchi even at the age of 36.  Perhaps 2010 should be seen as the year of the 'old' men in the Tour De France.  Cavendish in HTC Columbia, perhaps had the best team for doing what that team focuses on, i.e. winning sprints.  I think their success, however, was a little dangerous and whilst Mark Renshaw, Cavendish's lead-out man over the final metres was probably right in trying to keep his space, he was too vigorous with his head and clearly was blocking people trying to catch Cavendish.  Success often leads to a fear of even the chance of failure and a willingness to behave in a way which eliminates even that risk.  It was not bad luck, it was arrogance stemming from too great success.  Cavendish remains the fastest man in the last metres; Hushovd has proven himself to be what the green jersey competition is really about, i.e. consistency no matter what the environment.  Though these two things intersect at times, this year even more than last showed the difference between the two.

Looking ahead, I certainly will watch the career of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal with great interest.  In a more mundane year I think we would be talking much more about him.  At 30 it may be a little late for him to be seen as a newcomer, but I expect to see big things from him in the 2011 Tour De France, just as we have this year over as varied situations as the pave of northern France and the Pyrenean climbs of its South.

Perhaps people will accuse me of asking for too much.  A head-to-head battle for the yellow jersey, surely is excitement enough.  However, I think a lot of space around and behind Contador and Schleck was cleared not by their strength and ability but by too much bad luck on dangerous routes.  This year's organisers got their undecided race until the end but it came at the price of inadvertently eliminating too many other contenders.

No comments: