Week one review

What a fabulous first week! Take a bow ASO. We’ve had confusion and controversy, thrills and spills, cobble calamity, tears and tantrums, rain, heatwaves, picturesque countryside, beautiful châteaux, fervent fans, the favourites are all still in contention and we’ve only just reached the first really lumpy bits.

As anticipated, Spartacus (Saxo Bank) won the 8.9km Prologue course around Rotterdam where, despite the rain, thousands of fans lined the course.  Sadly, both Mathias Frank (BMC) and Manuel Cardoso (Footon Servetto) fell heavily – Tour over for both of them.

Wind didn’t play a part in Stage 1, 223.5km from Rotterdam to Brussels, but the peloton was very skittish. In the run in, the last sharp right turn took out Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), among others, while two further crashes saw a large number of riders hitting the deck. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) avoided the carnage and was first across the line.  Adam Hansen (HTC-Columbia)  bowed out.

Stage 2’s 201km stage from Brussels to Spa mirrored an Ardennes Classic but rain and diesel-slicked roads saw riders falling like nine pins, particularly on the descent from the Stockeu. Injuries to Michel Delage (Omega Pharma Lotto) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) put an early end to their participation. Meanwhile, Fabulous Fabian, still in yellow, cooled the tempo in the leading bunch to allow the contenders (particularly one Andy Schleck) to get back onto the peloton which then rode together to the neutralised finish. Up front, Sylvain Chavanel, having helped team mate Jerome Pineau to seize the spotty jersey, had pedaled away from the rest of the breakaway bunch for the stage win, snatching yellow from Fab’s broad shoulders. These two have  rescued Quick Step’s dismal season and are now well poised to negotiate contract extensions.

It was anticipated that some of the favourites might come a cropper on the cobbled sections on Stage 3’s 213km from Wanze to Arenburg. It was a truly spectacular stage, hot and dusty, reminiscent of when Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix in 2007. The first crash of the day took out David Le Lay (Ag2R – La Mondiale) while falls yesterday for Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) left both nursing hairline fractures of the wrist: pretty painful on the pave. Nikki Terpstra (Milram) was a non starter with the flu.

Frank Schleck’s fall (collar bone broken in three places) precipitated splits in the peloton. The smart guys were on Fabian’s wheel and got a tow to the finish. The stage was won by Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team), fitting given that he’d forfeited sprint points the previous day at the behest of one Fabian Cancellara. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) worked with the guys from Sky to bridge up to the group behind Cancellara and minimise the time lost by Alberto Contador (Astana) and Bradley Wiggins Team Sky). Lance (Radioshack) had been in this second group but an untimely puncture saw him surrender time to a number of the other contenders. End result, Cancellara was back in yellow and the World Champion, Cadel Evans (BMC) was now up in third place, 1min and 1 second ahead of Alberto Contador.   

The contenders must have breathed a sigh of relief, the first obstacles had been conquered and they could keep their powder dry for the next few sprinter friendly days. Stage 4’s 153kms from Cambrai to champagne producing Reims, saw Alessandro Petacchi record his 2nd stage win of this Tour. Next up, 187.5km from Epernay to Montargis saw Mark Cavendish win  by a mile. Queue floods of tears as the monkey was now off his back. A bit like buses, stage win no 2 followed on the morrow, on the longest stage, 227.5km from Montargis to Gueugnon. Meanwhile an altercation with a musette saw Amets Txurruka (Euskatel-Euskadi) bid farewell to the peloton. A couple of small girl’s blouses traded blows and bike wheels. The judges awarded a points decision to Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) over Rui Costa (Caisse d’Epargne). Both were fined. 

Let’s just pause and put in context my own endeavours: 550km and 27hours in the saddle. Spartacus, still in yellow, has taken 93minutes longer to complete 1,215km. The conclusion: I’d have missed the cut-off on Stage 1 and joined the non-walking wounded!  Today the boys hit the Jura and a rejuvenated Chavanel, who I feel has usurped Michael Boogerd and Mikel Astarloza to become “The Teeth of the Tour”, recorded his second stage win and again seized yellow. This is going to cost Patrick Lefevre dear.

Cadel Evans has moved into second place  so we could see him in yellow as early as tomorrow. I’m sure it would suit Astana to have BMC working their butts off to defend the yellow jersey.

And the winning tickets are………………

Ten days later than previously promised, Christian Prudhomme has opined. The 22 teams for the 2010 Tour de France are as expected: the sixteen teams covered by the September 2008 agreement, the four new Pro-Tour Teams (Katusha, Sky, Garmin, Radioshack), and the two most promising Continental Pro-Tour teams (Cervelo and BMC). So there’s no room at the Tour for Saur-Sojasun, Vacansoleil or Skil Shimano although they are on the substitutes bench.

One can only imagine the long faces over at Vacansoleil HQ. The Tour starts in their home town, they’re guaranteed to animate any race, they sponsored Paris-Nice and they bought the brothers Feillu. They’ve also been shut out of the Giro and a number of other ASO races.

Pat McQuaid had been openly critical of  the length of time ASO was taking to make a decision. However, three months before the start of the Tour is not unreasonable, nor is taking two months to assess the strengths of the contenders’ teams. It’s not been an easy decision. Teams are bound to be disappointed and sponsors may well question the benefits of sponsorship if they don’t get the global exposure afforded by the Tour.

However, those teams who were disappointed this year need to be patient. There is no agreement in place as to who is guaranteed a spot next year. There are a number of sponsors withdrawing from the sport (Milram, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne) and some considering withdrawing (Bbox Bouygues Telecom). Teams, like last year, may be relegated from or promoted to the Pro-Tour ranks. And, assuredly,  there will be new sponsors. This changing landscape is what makes the sport so interesting for the fans but a wee bit nerve-racking for the riders.

Postscript: Prudhomme today defended his decision in L’Equipe. However, he might as well have said that it was a no-brainer.  The two Continental Pro Tour teams selected have a former Tour Winner (Sastre) and a former green jersey wearer (Hushovd) and the current World Champion, who’s twice been second (Evans). These outweigh any French riders on Dutch teams or, indeed, French riders on French teams.

20 March: T-day

 

Christian Prudhomme has said that he will advise on the 22 teams to be invited to the Tour de France on 20 March, so that’s 35 days left for the rest to impress. The sixteen with an invite are those remaining teams which were Pro-tour back in September 2008: namely, AG2R-La Mondiale, FDJ, BBox Bouygues Telecom, Cofidis, Omega-Pharma Lotto, Quick Step, Rabobank, Liquigas-Doimo, Lampre-NGC, Astana, Saxo Bank, HTC-Columbia, Caisse d’Epargne, Euskaltel Euskadi, Milram and Footon-Servetto.

Parcours 2010

ASO, in making their selection, will be mindful of the rising popularity of cycling in countries such as USA, UK, Australia and Russia with their potential for increased TV revenues. However, they also need teams who are grateful for their inclusion and understand that it is their role to animate the race by sending riders up the road most days. A slot that in previous years has been filled by Barloworld, Agritubel and Skil Shimano. Given that there are a number of teams who will be looking for new sponsors (Milram, Saxo Bank, Caisse d’Epargne, Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and hence riders looking for new teams, this may be less of a concern for ASO this year.

Of the remaining 6 slots, I think it’s safe to assume that 4 will go to the Pro-Tour teams of Katusha, Sky, Radioshack and Garmin Transitions. This leaves two berths for Cervelo, BMC, Vacansoleil, Skil Shimano and Saur-Sojasun. Prudhomme was quoted as saying he’d like to see 25 teams but that would probably mean reducing the team size to 8, a move which is unlikely to be popular with those already clutching an invite.

Since Cervelo have a former Tour winner (Sastre), last year’s green jersey (Hushovd) and generous sponsors, you would have to reckon on them getting a slot. BMC, managed by well-connected to ASO John Lelangue,  includes the holder of the rainbow jersey and a man who’s finished 2nd twice (Evans) may well get the nod over the other three teams. However, Vacansoleil have done their case no harm by winning the Tour of Qatar (an ASO event) with Wouter Mol.

Postscript: Apologies from Mr Prudhomme who’s still not made up hs mind which of the 12 teams in waiting will get the final 6 Tour invites. Is he trying to prolong the agony in the manner of all reality TV shows? Or is he hoping for a bigger cheque in the post? Just pick the names out of a hat and put everyone out of their misery.

Relegation woes

A week or so ago Pat McQuaid, UCI Head Honcho, talked about the bar being raised for acquisition/retention/renewal of a Pro-Tour licence. It now appears that this bar is results based with financial, ethical and political considerations. The two bottom ranked squads, Bbox and Cofidis, are being denied renewal of their licence based on their lowly UCI ranking (see table below). The lowest ranked Pro-Tour team Fuji Servetto is apparantly re-inventing itself as Footon Servetto, leaving the two formerly mentioned teams in the relegation zone, although, critically, their place is assured in next year’s Grand Tours. Unsurprisingly, their top riders are already talking about jumping ship while team managers are putting on brave faces and sponsors are standing firm.

Lampre’s licence has been (provisionally) renewed for the next 4 years and Milram’s (the only German Pro-Tour team) for next season. Astana’s is under review in the light of the financial issues earlier in the season.

On the other hand, Pro-Continental teams Cervelo, Diquigiovanni and Acqua & Sapone, on account of their league spots, will gain automatic entry into Pro-Tour events. This rather begs the question of why should one bother paying the additional costs inherent in a Pro-Tour licence.

Add in new teams Sky (licence confirmed) and The Shack (licence pending) and one is back to 20 top teams with automatic entry into Pro-Tour events, though not all those organised by ASO, Unipublic or RCS. This could leave slim pickings for Pro-Continental teams such as Vacansoleil, Skil Shimano and BMC who have all strengthened their squads in the hope and expectation of clearing the bar.

UCI Rankings

1 ASTANA 1100
2 CAISSE D’EPARGNE 1048
3 TEAM COLUMBIA – HTC 957
4 TEAM SAXO BANK 941
5 LIQUIGAS 923
6 CERVELO TEST TEAM 804
7 QUICK STEP 760
8 SILENCE-LOTTO 717
9 RABOBANK 667
10 TEAM KATUSHA 637
11 GARMIN – SLIPSTREAM 612
12 EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI 551
13 LAMPRE – N.G.C 465
14 SERRAMENTI PVC DIQUIGIOVANNI-ANDRONI GIOCATTOLI 379
15 FRANÇAISE DES JEUX 238
16 AG2R LA MONDIALE 206
17 ACQUA & SAPONE – CAFFE MOKAMBO 189
18 TEAM MILRAM 182
19 BBOX BOUYGUES TELECOM 170
20 COFIDIS, LE CREDIT EN LIGNE 166