Jul 17, 2005

tdf - stage 15

Clearly another hot day in the Pyrenees. Also, another stage, another early break. This one was particularly interesting. Hincapie was one of the riders. Just looking at the names, Sevilla and Boogerd strike me as the best hopefuls for this breakaway behind Hincapie. 14 escapees in total. I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on here. Was Armstrong telling Hincapie go and try and win a stage (he's done things like this before) or go and get ahead of the peloton so if the whole thing crumbles on a fast T-Mobile lead, I’ll have someone to count on up ahead.
Turns out it was the latter. Armstrong wanted someone to be up ahead to help him if all hell broke loose. It was a smart strategy after he was left alone twice now. This year has been a very different Tour from recent Tours. But not that different from Tours before the Lance era. Lance is the one that created this recipe of having his team lead him up these huge hills and then attacking the very last part on his own. Before Lance, most hills were peppered with a few elite climbers banging heads; mano y mano.

A note about Hincapie. He has been with Lance for all 6 Tour wins and this last attempt. They knew each other as teenagers. Where someone like Kloden or Vino would attempt to win glory at the expense of their leader, Ullrich, Lance would never have to worry about Hincapie doing such a thing. They have a relationship based on absolute trust. He understands his role as a domestique; sacrifice everything for Lance. It’s a thankless role unless you closely follow the sport. But in his own right Hincapie is an amazing rider. He started as a strong sprinter. But over time he’s molded his work out regimen to make him an extremely competent all arounder. Early on he helped Lance on the flat stages. As his climbing improved he helped Lance on the bottom of the hill and then finally at the top of the hill. If you are going to put someone ahead in the stage to help you, it’s tough to beat Hinky.

The 14 leaders get way out ahead. The best positioned is Pereiro who is 24 minutes behind Lance. The peloton is more than happy to let them go. At 89 km into the stage the lead group is 17 minutes up on the peloton. At this point they pass the memorial for Fabio Casartelli; a very talented rider who died on this stage (more on Fabio here). Interestingly a young George Hincapie missed the Motorola Tour team in the 90s after a decision was made to go with Fabio for the last spot.

Meanwhile back at peloton headquarters, Disco was setting the pace. But others were helping like CSC. And even though the peloton wasn’t going as fast as the breakaway group, the peloton was still getting shredded because of the heat and difficulty of yesterday’s climb. Strong riders started dropping off the back – Beloki, Kloden, Totschnig. Remember yesterday I said Totschnig would do poorly. To beat Armstrong you must expend everything. Totschnig had nothing left today and he ultimately finished 30 minutes off Armstrong's pace. Very few attacks off the front of the peloton were attempted at this pace.

Back to the leaders group, the original group is getting whittled down. Hincapie spends some time up front but isn't 'required' to because technically he's waiting to help Armstrong behind him. Their lead on the peloton is slowly coming down. But their lead is still massive. And at this point, we learn later that Team Discovery gave the go ahead for Hincapie to give up his domestique duties and ride this race to win. I wonder what Hincapie thought at this point. I must admit I had my suspicions he might flounder. Mainly because when your brain has spent the last 7 years focused on doing one thing (and a selfless thing at that), can it on the fly switch to doing something very different.

The peloton is slowly but surely crumbling. But Armstrong has a nice contingent of Disco boys with him about 50 km out from the finish. The peloton is about 17 riders. At this point I don't know if it really makes sense to call it the peloton anymore. The grupetto behind has more riders. And this goes on for a while. A slow merciless Bataan Death March up these hills. As is expected, only the top riders can take this much punishment. But it's a little worse (or better depending on your perspective) than yesterday. Vino, Rasmussen, Mancebo, etc. are falling off more quickly than yesterday.

The lead group is whittled to three - Pereiro, Hincapie and Boogerd. At this point I realize Hincapie has a chance now. He's easily as good as these two riders. It's clear the peloton cannot make up the time differential. Too little race to do that.

Basso attacks. In fact he attacks on this stage constantly. He seems to be trying to prove a point before Armstrong goes retires. That he can best Lance. Not today my friend. Armstrong goes after Basso but Ullrich is unable to. He will settle back to his own pace and let these two go as he has smartly done before. Basso and Armstrong work together - very equal riders on these hills as they were last year.

Up ahead it's down to Pereiro and Hincapie. Hincapie smartly has not been leading much. He marks Pereiro's wheel and begins his sprint 300 meters or so from the finish. Pereiro doesn't have it in him. Hincapie takes it easily. He is beside himself. He simply cannot believe it.

Armstrong and Basso follow up the rear a few minutes back. But Armstrong has again done damage to most of his rivals except Basso. But he doesn't need to worry about Basso. Basso is not a good time trialer and he will lose further time to Armstrong there. In fact bar an injury or a crash, Armstrong cannot be beat now. No one has enough talent to mark that much time. There is no way for these guys to beat Armstrong.

This quote from the Daily Peloton captures the strength of Armstrong perfectly:
Lance Armstrong has chosen to make his final Tour de France into his uber-performance. He’s proven that he’s unbeatable. His team has failed several times this year. When that happens it’s like watching him being attacked by a salivating pack of wolves, except that the only one who doesn’t flinch is Lance. He seems capable of evaluating everybody’s stakes and motivation instantly.

You can almost see Armstrong thinking, “What does rider A really want and how can that help me further my goals? What does rider B want and how can that help me further my goals?” Etc.
He can plunge a dagger in you with his athletic ability, but it's his mental game that creates true fear in the other riders. I'm sure there are times when a team is executing their plan perfectly but are wondering, "are we slipping the noose around our own neck?"

On a personal note I couldn't be happier how this stage turned out. I've admired Hincapie for staying with Armstrong for so long and devoting himself to providing the support he's needed for 6 (7?) Tour wins. He's a better rider than many of the other teams' number one rider. It'll be interesting to see if he can be the lead rider on one of the teams next year.

Stage 16
After a rest day we're onto stage 16. While clearly a tough stage with the HC climb, the fireworks for the GC are largely over. Enjoy these stages for what they provide - some excellent competition from riders who usually don't get the spotlight shined on them as well as opportunities for green and polka dot jersey hopefuls to create some theatrics.


Chupathingy said...

Hey Chooky,
Dave and I were having a discussion yesterday and we were hoping you could shed some light on it.

As you mentioned with Lance using Rider A or B to help him, why doesn't it work in the reverse? That is, why is doesn't it help T-Mobile or CSC if Team Discovery Channel (it's hard to say that and not think of Martin Prince) sets the pace? Aren't TDC's riders doing all the work?

C. Fuzzbang said...

As you suggest it can work in reverse. What makes Lance's position slightly more amenable to doing this is the fact that he is the GC leader. If he can find anyone to help him come in before any of the other rivals he gains on some riders and maintains his lead on the ones that help him. I'll give you an example.

After Stage 13, Lance is #1 in the GC and Basso is #4 behind Rasmussen and Moreau. Basso probably realizes he doesn't have a great chance of displacing Lance because he's not that great at individual time trials. He might be thinking, "#2 is the best I can hope for." To get there he must displace Rasmussen and Moreau. Lance can say to Basso on the climb, "Look let's not fight one another. Let's work together and put significant time on those two. You'll move up to #2" and Lance will further distance two other competitors and maintain his time advantage on Basso. Basso wins and Lance wins.

Now play it in reverse. Basso and Ullrich decide to work together in a similar manner. Lance can now go to Rasmussen, Moreau, Botero, Leipheimer, Mancebo, etc. and say during the stage, "Look Basso and Ullrich are working together to take a stab at my #1 spot. You know that is unlikely either will do this. However, it is likely they could get #2 and #3 spots on the podium in Paris. That means they are either going to displace you from your current spot as they climb up the rankings or they will put further time increases on you meaning you have less of a chance of making the #2 or #3 spots at the end. Will you help me? If you do you might improve your standings."

Does that help?

C. Fuzzbang said...

I should also point out while other riders can be more strategically smart about building allies and enemies in the Tour, many just don't. Ullrich, Vino, and Klodi (on the same team no less) have all been on the podium in Paris. But those three never seem to work together. It's irrational at times. If they just worked at helping Ullrich or if they just tried to destroy Armstrong together, they might accomplish something.

Chupathingy said...

I understand what you are saying about how Lance can use other teams or racers to his advantage. I'm not sure why other teams don't take advantage of the fact that
Team Discovery has to take the lead and defend Lance.

So it sounds like it's simply a matter of the other teams not having a cohesive strategy. That is, just as you pointed out in your stage 2 blog, being in second is actually advantage at times because the team in front has to set the pace, pull back attacks, etc. It's just that the teams in second don't have the wherewithal to do anything with that position.

Am I getting this right?

C. Fuzzbang said...

You're getting part of it right. At times it's better to not have the yellow jersey. Your team can get tired defending that. And certainly it seems many teams don't adequately take advantage of their particular situation like T-Mobile does.

But it's also other factors due to the fact that some teams and riders want other things like stage wins or the white/polka dot/green jersey or the yellow jersey when they aren't the designated lead. Others could play off these 'motivators' but no one seems to understand these motivators as well nor do they have such a strong ability to turn them to their advantage.

And it's finally a function of the fact that people expect Lance to win. This makes riders think that if they can't be number one then I should shoot for #2. Instantly the current #2 is an 'enemy'. Lance can help that aspiring #2 gain that spot if he will help Lance. This is typically Basso and Ullrich. Both may want to help Lance in certain situations.

Chupathingy said...

Thanks. I guess it's that last part (people expect Lance to win) that I have the most trouble with. I mean, how do these guys live with that? As a professional athlete, how can the thought, "Well, that guy is too good" or "Well, that guy is going to win, so I might as well shoot for second" enter into your head? I think ultimately, I didn't want to believe that that was what was happening ... that Ullrich and Basso had conceded first and were playing for second, you know?

Talk to you after the time trials.

C. Fuzzbang said...

I doubt they go in with that thought but after Basso attacks again and again and can't shake Armstrong he has to realize it's hopeless. And after Ullrich has his teammates and Armstrong all alone and he can't make an dent in Armstrong's lead, he has to wonder how he ever could put time into Lance.

Time trials should be fun. But the green jersey could still be interesting. Watch McEwen. He'll make some of these stages fun.