I wrote earlier about the Tour de France – the greatest cycling race in the world. Here are some of the biggest names, and the stories I’ve heard about them.
Cadel Evans is far and away the biggest Australian star of the Tour (he leads the red-clad BMC team, which is an American team – there is no Australian team in the tour). As a General Classification rider, he is good at everything, and is considered one of the most likely contendors for first place overall. He is particularly good at climbing mountains – and has the short stature and frightening skinniness to go with it. As a rule, professional cyclists are pretty darn ugly. Cadel is no exception. His face could best be described as “distinctive”. The cleft in his chin is so deep I assume he keeps spare change in there. His greatest weakness is psychological – if things go bad, he doesn’t seem to bounce back. Right now, however, he is perfectly placed to win and he knows it. (In the GC list he’s currently placed third, but the current leader is not going to last through the Alps, and the current second-place man will fall back in stage 20. If he was already leading overall, etiquette would demand that his team sacrificed themselves with the heavier tasks within the pelaton, which would probably tire them out and cause them to fail later on). In all the carnage of crashes that have characterised this tour, Cadel and BMC are yet to be touched by bad luck (partly because of their strategy of riding at the front of the pelaton pack). He feels the weight of all Australia watching him (there are always many Australian flags along the route of the Tour as well), and is always fast to tearfully acknowledge the hard work of his team when he wins. His goal is to win overall, so any time spent in (usually) the king of the mountain jersey- a jersey that is rewarded along the way with a succession of soft toys. Cadel made the comment that he didn’t need the king of the mountains jersey, because he’d already had enough toys to give to all his nieces and nephews.
Frank and Andy Schleck of Luxemburg are two brothers, either of whom could win overall. As an only child, Cadel has said that he’s mystified by their connection. As someone with two siblings, I’m impressed by their mutual humility – they honestly don’t decide who is the team leader until the Tour is nearly over. At that point, whichever brother isn’t doing quite as well will bow out and sacrifice his strength for the other. Frank is the older brother, but Andy is usually slightly better at the Tour type of contest – in fact, he came second last year. Either one could lead a team in his own right, but because they work together they effectively play two against one. The GC leaders always keep an extremely close eye on one another (there’s usually less than a minute between first and second place), and ride close together. An “attack” happens when one man suddenly accelerates to get ahead of everyone else. The rest immediately respond by chasing them – not letting them get ahead. But with both Frank and Andy on board, team Leopard-Trek (black and white jerseys with a horizontal turquoise stripe across the chest) can launch so many attacks that all the others are exhausted and finally defeated. Andy is only 26, and is one of about three cyclists who still have a baby face. Frank looks similar, but definitely older.
Alberto Contador is everyone’s arch-enemy on the Tour, but especially for Andy Schleck. Last year, the two were literally neck and neck, fighting with all their being for a few seconds’ advantage – and Andy’s chain fell off. Mechanical incidents are always a part of the Tour, and there is an etiquette in place to counteract some of the bad luck (the entire pelaton will slow down if there is a delay behins them in the first three-quarters of the race.
Contador sped ahead – arguably costing Andy the overall win. Last year, Contador won by twenty-three seconds. Andy was furious; Contador said he hadn’t noticed the chain falling off; most riders acknowledge that since it’s a race, Contador did the right thing; the general public now jeers and boos when he passes by.
Alberto Contador’s 2010 win is also overshadowed by a positive drug test that is yet to be resolved. (The drug that was detected makes no sense, but it clearly shouldn’t have been in his system, so something is screwy.) He is Spanish, and leads team Saxobank (who wear a very pale blue jersey that looks white to me). I’m honestly not that impressed by his team. I think Contador is so good he often rides as if he doesn’t need a team at all – so this year, when he does need support, they’re just not as good as BMC or Leopard Trek. It’s been an apalling Tour for him. He lost over a minute and a half on the first day due to being behind a domino-style crash that blocked the road. He’s had several minor falls. At one stage, he spent time catching up to the main field all by himself – unthinkable in an ordinary team, when several men will stop even when their leader is too badly injured to lead them any more. The team ALWAYS looks after their leader, and rides with him – especially when he needs to catch up to the group. Contador has injured his knee, but commentators wonder if he’s shamming in order to put others off their guard.
Leaving aside the major GC contendors, there is one more man very much worth watching: Mark Cavendish. He is widely acknowledged as the world’s fastest man, and is riding a slightly different race to the rest of the pack: he aims to win as many Tour de France stages as possible, and set a new record. With 19 wins (!!) and youth on his side, he will do it. It irritates him that he’s never won the green jersey – but it looks like he’ll probably win that this year, too. His team is HTC – another white jersey.
As a person, I find him whiny and irritating – almost always complaining about the unfair behaviour of other teams when he wins a stage. He is extremely unpopular (and extremely talented), so I think there’s actually truth in what he says – the etiquette that guards everyone else frays where he is concerned. He loves his own team, however, and always seeks out every single member to thank them personally when he wins. They are, in my opinion, the best team in the Tour. Their precision is something to see.
Since I wrote the above, Stage 16 happened. It was AWESOME. Contador launched two mighty attacks, and managed for the first time to shake off the Schleck brothers. . . but not Cadel (or Sammy Sanchez for that matter). Then Cadel attacked again, and gained a few MORE seconds on Contador.
Cadel is now in second place overall after Thomas Voeckler, a French man who says himself he has a 0% chance of keeping his position through the Alps. . . but he’s lasted astonishingly well so far, and has two minutes’ advantage.
I predict Cadel will win, and Frank and Andy Schleck may well score second and third place.
If you want to savour the goodness (and you’re Australian), you should watch the last twenty kilometres of stage 19 (this Friday), the individual time trial on Saturday (when the overall race is won or lost), and the final semi-ceremonial stage on Sunday (when the sprint is won or lost).