Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Explaining the Tour

Today's the first big day in the mountains. However, with the finish over 40k from the top of the last climb, not too many hands will be revealed. It's a day where you can't win the tour, but you can lose it. There are a couple of guys off the front that are going to take the yellow jersey, which doesn't much matter to the real contenders. That usually sounds strange to the people I talk to, so today I'll break down the race and how it works.

GC - is the race for the general classification based on overall time. This is what Armstrong won, the yellow jersey, and is the main prize. A GC rider is protected by his team during the race and should only need to shine at two points when he can no longer be protected: in the high mountains and on individual time trials.

Points - is the green jersey, the sprinters prize. This goes to the most consistant rider, place wise, as opposed to time. Because most of the stages are flat-ish, the people who can sprint out of a group win this prize. Teams matter during this prize, a lot, as a strong leadout from your team can greatly aid a sprinter. Since the sprinters generally can't climb, you'll see them gather together to try and support each other over the mountains (called the autobus, or just bus) where they need to survive to the finish in under the time cut. This isn't always easy. The green jersey wearer often fails to get over the mountains in time to finish the race.

Mountains - is the polka dot jersey for the best climber. It's usually not for the best climber in the race, but the most aggressive climber. The very best climbers are usually in a tactical match for the GC, so any climber who either doesn't fancy their GC chance or plain can't time trial, will try and win this. To win the mountain jersey you have to be aggressive and ride away from the field early on long mountain stages to get all of the points on the early climbs. Each rated climb has a point value which increases as you go deeper into the race. In order to win this jersey, you need to gain most of the points on the early climbs, meaning the wearer of the spotted jersey has to spend many kilometers alone in front of the race, expending massive amounts of energy, and then hold on and stay in time contention the rest of the race. ouch.

Young rider - the white jersey is for the best placed young rider on GC. Most teams have a dedicated GC leader and don't really work for this prize. Therefore, there's rarely too much drama surrounding this but it's always an indication of who to watch out for in the future. Often times this winner comes from the lesser squads as the power teams have all of their riders committed to working for their leader.

So, today, all of the GC contenders are happy to sit and watch each other and let a breakaway go up the road. This calculated gamble has often led to surprises in the race. In 1990, Claudio Ciappucci and a small group gained 10 minutes and wasn't caught until the second to last day of the race. In '04, Thomas Voekeler did the same thing and held the jersey for nearly half of the race. This is what's playing out today. A two-man break is gaining nearly 1o minutes. Cryil Dressel is going to win the moutains and the yellow jersey but Juan Migel Mercado is more dangerous as a GC threat. Tomorrow, Dressel will probably attack again an try to get more mountain points but Mercado, a good stage racer, could sit with the leaders and try to gain the yellow. He may be able to get it and hold it for a while.

As the GC riders go, T-Mobile with a reduced squad, probably doesn't want the jersey because working for it is hard work on the team. So what we saw was posturing. Tomorrow, there will be no hiding so today all the riders are trying to look cool and gain some type of psychological advantage going into the first monsterous mountain stage. If you were watching, notice Landis riding with his jersey zipped all the way up while his teammates--and most of the field--were fully un-zipped and gasping. This is posturing. "You think this is hard? I'm barely breathing," kind of stuff.

When I said you can't win but can lose, I think Levi has lost it. He hasn't said what, but something is wrong. If you lose the leaders over today's climb, your GC chances are over. Same with Iban Mayo and yesterday's leader, Gonchar (btw, his name is G, not H as is being reported by most people because "they made a mistake on my passport").

Another interesting note, Eric Zabel made it to the front group. He's trying to win his seventh green jersey but, at 36, no longer has the legs to win the big sprints. But crafty riding can gain points where most sprinters dare not go. He and Daniel Bennati made the front group and got a few points. If they can continue this they could sneak up on the leaders. Chances are, this won't be enough to win the competition unless McEwen and Boonen don't get over the mountains but that's happened before. And it's always interesting to watch big sprinters try and hang with the waif-like climbers in the moutains.

So today we didn't learn much but the race got more interesting. Tomorrow, we'll know who's got a chance to win. To me, the best looking three are Landis, Kloden, Evans. All the Discovery four look decent too, so look for them to attack, along with Giberto Simoni, for sure. Now I'd better get on my bike.

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