Monday, July 14, 2008
From here on out, time is not on some riders' sides
By Bobby Julich Special to ESPN.com
That's all that separates Frank Schleck from the yellow jersey after Monday's Stage 10 of the Tour de France. I know what he is feeling -- I've been second, out of yellow, many times when, as much as I tried, I wasn't able to close the gap. Trying to gain that one second against leader Cadel Evans will be the hardest second he will ever have to get.
My Team CSC-Saxo Bank teammate will be hurting Monday night, and I can imagine it would be hard for him to shake Christian Vande Velde's hand after that stage. This might be a thing only a fellow biker would notice, and I wouldn't mention it if Schleck were in yellow Monday night, but there was no reason for Vande Velde to pull ahead in the last 500 meters of the stage. It wasn't his responsibility to do that. He should have sat back in their small group of riders and let Evans work for the yellow. Instead, he pulled ahead, Evans and the rest of the group (which included Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre and Riccardo Ricco) matched him and Evans gained valuable seconds.
After Monday's Stage 10, Team CSC-Saxo-Bank's Frank Schleck now sits second overall, just one second behind leader Cadel Evans.
We always bring up how teams help each other in the Tour. It's a common tactic/unwritten law in the sport. Will this move by Vande Velde hurt him and his Garmin-Chipotle team down the road? And what about Evans and Silence-Lotto? You have to live and work with the other riders in the peloton, not only for this one race, but for other races in years to come. Relations are fragile and can change at any moment, but riders don't forget that quickly.
Evans could get into some trouble on this point. He's come into the Tour so confident, he's sometimes talked as if he's already won the race, but Monday was just his first day in yellow. That can get around the peloton, and a rider needs all the friends he can get at this point of the race. Will that be more difficult for him now? He has to talk to his teammates and tell them it's gut-check time and they have to take their game up a notch. His teammates need to come back and support him.
During the second and final ascent of Monday's Stage 10 -- a climb up to the summit at Hautacam -- Evans was isolated and without a fellow Silence-Lotto rider in sight. The team needs to support him, especially once the race turns to the Alps. Other contenders will challenge Evans in these key stages, and he showed Monday he wasn't strong enough to beat the other contenders on his own. I wish Evans the best, but I don't think it would be a bad thing for him to lose a second or two, give up the yellow for a few days and take some of the pressure off his shoulders heading into the final week.
It was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, to see Vande Velde finish so strongly Monday. I don't think anyone, even himself, thought he could be in that elite group of riders on the first real mountain day of the Tour. I am sure the critics said the same thing about other American riders like myself, Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong when we were in that situation for the first time. But Vande Velde proved to himself and the rest of the world that he's ready. He's never looked as fit and as confident as he does right now. Sunday, I thought he'd be a top-10 finisher; Monday, I think he could finish in the top 5. He proved he can survive in the mountains; combine that with the fact that he's one of the best time trialists in contention, and Vande Velde is sitting in a good spot at third overall. Even if he loses a little time over the next stages, whether it be 15 or 20 seconds or even one minute, Vande Velde will be able to make up for those hiccups in the final time trial. Evans better be careful if Vande Velde is close to him heading into that time trial.
Vande Velde was a bit of a prodigy when he came into the sport. He was under a lot of pressure early in his career with U.S. Postal and battled many injuries, including chronic back issues. He worked his way back with Liberty Seguros in 2004 and spent three years with us at CSC before signing with Garmin-Chipotle earlier this year. I watched him get healthy and grow with CSC, and now he's just in a zone. He's been in great form since the Tour of California earlier this year, and he's pedaling differently, with a rhythm that is more fluid and powerful. That comes with being happy and confident. With the wave of emotion he's riding, I wouldn't want to be up against him right now.
As for the rest of my CSC crew, the picture is not completely clear yet. If Schleck had won the yellow jersey Monday, Sastre and the rest of the team would be working for him. Sastre did nothing but mark Evans on Monday. I am not at the race, so I don't know exactly what those guys are feeling right now, but it can't be the most comfortable situation for Schleck and Sastre -- who does the team ride for?
I was hoping Sastre would try something on his own to show the team he is strong. But he didn't show me much Monday. However, Sastre is easygoing. His motto always is, "No stress." But, damn, sometimes you need stress and to show emotion. Schleck is more like me in the sense that he knows what he needs from his teammates. Sometimes Sastre doesn't ask for much, and teammates can get impatient under those circumstances. Sometimes in order to win, you have to stress, point to the fence and call your shot. Go for it. Sastre is conservative. Maybe he has to realize that Schleck is the rider who has to be looked after. But, CSC has two options, at least; that's good compared to other teams out there.
Who the hell is Juan Jose Cobo?! Where was he all season?! Um, wow. Seeing him climb up the final kilometers with his fellow Saunier Duval teammate (and eventual Stage 10 winner) Leonardo Piepoli was the surprise of the day for me. Duval is creeping up. It will be interesting to see where the team stands later this week and into the third week of the Tour.
There were riders who, going into the race, we thought would be contenders, like Tour de Swisse winner Roman Kreuziger and Lampre's Damiano Cunego. Both struggled big time in Stage 10. But my No. 1 disappointment of the day was Alejandro Valverde. After seeing how dominant he and his Caisse d'Epargne team were earlier in the race they are one rung below what they had been over the first nine days of the race.
It's always dangerous to say any of these guys are out of the general classification race (Valverde is 14th overall and Cunego 16th after Stage 10); the climb was high, and the altitude might have affected them differently than other riders. But it's going to be much more difficult for them to recover mentally than physically. After the morale hit Monday, they'll carry that depression over to Tuesday's rest day. We've learned you can never say it's over; they are quality riders, proven fighters and winners on paper. Being further down the leaderboard could take some of the pressure off and make them wild-card factors.
I still can't take anything away from my teammate Jens Voigt, who did some major damage on the climb Monday to break up the peloton and wear down riders like Cunego and Valverde.
We have our first rest day of the Tour, but it isn't really a "rest." Riders don't sleep all day, although they sure would want to at this point. They will try to stay on the same schedule and get at least a 2-to-3-hour ride in to stay in race rhythm. It isn't easy; you want to just stay in bed. But if you take the entire day off, it's hard to get your mental and physical motors running again in the next stage. It's amazing how your body can read the slightest change.
And if you're at the top of the general classification, you have even less rest because you have to do many interviews with the media. On top of that, riders try to fit in time for their friends, family and themselves. Sometimes, alone time can be just as important. Before you know it, it's time for your daily massage and dinner, and then you're off to bed. Either way, most riders will stick to their routines.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.