Sunday, July 22, 2007

Nerd Alert: Tour de France

If you haven't been paying attention to the Tour de France this year, today's the day to tune in. Without a clear favorite in the race, the last few stages have been knock-down, drag-out affairs. Cumulatively, these stages have pared the field down to a half-dozen possible winners - a group which will likely be reduced to two or three by Stage 15, a 196-kilometer race that will include five killer climbs of Pyrenean mountains (see above). You can follow the live action (or read a good-as-live recap) via Velonews.

It's been utterly engrossing to see how the race has reached the point of finally - possibly - determining who will be on the podium in Paris on Sunday. In some ways, it's been the cycling equivalent of a 12-round heavyweight fight or maybe a 15-inning baseball game that started as a pitcher's duel and seems likely to end with exchanged homers. In Stage 11, late last week, the tour's strongest team, Astana, brutally knocked France's top racer, Christopher Moreau, out of contention by accelerating in unison while he was unawares, then using a strong wind to prevent his team from towing him back up. Moreau fell from sixth, within shouting distance of the lead of the race, to fourteenth and out of it. Astana's attack was revenge for Moreau's leading attacks in the Alps that had pushed Astana's team leader, Alexandre Vinokourov, out of the top echelon of the race.

After an uneventful Stage 12, the riders faced the first individual time trial of the tour in Stage 13 on Saturday. All of the top racers were expected to vie for the win, except for the man wearing the yellow jersey, Michael Rasmussen, who was expected to ride poorly, lose time and maybe the jersey, and get ready for the Pyrénées. Not only is Rasmussen known as a bad time-trial rider, but he had just been accused by a former teammate of using blood-doping products in the recent past and had been kicked off Denmark's world championships and Olympics cycling teams for having skipped drug tests. Instead, Rasmussen rode well, not ceding too much time (or the jersey) and letting the time-trail experts duke it out - and crash like cymbals at a junior-high band concert. Vinokourov rode best, sneaking back toward the top of the standings; other contenders, including American Levi Leipheimer, maintained their positions; and newcomers like Alberto Contador (a teammate of Leipheimer's on the American Discovery Channel team, for which Lance Armstrong used to ride) vaulted into contention. Fully ten riders were within 5:30 of Rasmussen - a big gap to reduce, but one which could be reduced with aggressive riding in the Pyrénées.

Thus Sunday's Stage 14, the first day in the Pyrénées, was critical. And it was Rasmussen who showed the field how to race. He rode the last climb, the Plateau de Beille, without the company of any teammates, yet still fended off Leipheimer - who was paced by both Contador and another Disco rider - and a half-dozen other excellent climbers. The attacks and counterattacks up the slope were great theatre and great competition, with various riders surging ahead then intentionally falling back, with the shrinking lead group swerving across the jam-packed roads as riders tried to shake each other, and with Rasmussen finally taking over. Into the last five kilometers of the grueling ride up to the plateau, only Contador could keep up, finally taking the stage win just ahead of Rasmussen and jumping into second place in the Tour, 2:23 down to the Dane.

And so the Tour's hardest stage on Monday will determine if Contador can ride as well on Monday, if Rasmussen has nothing left to give, or if another rider - like Leipheimer, who has seteadily climbed up the general classification to a present fourth place - can find legs good enough to attack Rasmussen and narrow or eliminate his lead.