Saturday, July 23, 2005

Good days and bad days

Sometimes you have your good days and some times you have your bad days. Depending on who you were, today's stage of the Tour de France was either one or the other. Today was the individual time trial, where instead of race against the other riders, you race against the clock. If you were Austinite Lance Armstrong, it was a good day. If you were Danish rider Mikael Rasmussen of the Rabobank team, it was a very bad day.

Let me start off by explaining a bit about the Tour. The Tour is almost a series of races within a race. There are 21 different stages this year and each day the riders line up to see who will ride faster than the others. On any given day any rider can win or finish last in the pack. However the Tour is really a combination of all the races and Tour winners are the riders who have the best time across all 21 stages. The fastest rider up to that point wears a yellow jersey to signify he is the leader. In the first week or two of the tour there could be a different person wearing yellow every day or two. This year Lance pretty much wore the yellow after the first week -- no one else could really come close to his overall time. However, Lance had not won an individual stage. He had the fast combined time from all the stages, but other folks would win the individual stages and he was fine with that as he knew they were not a threat.

The individual stages are mainly races against each other, with all the riders starting together. However, usually at least a few of the stages that are time trials -- riders against the clock. Each rider starts out on his own, with the next rider starting 2 minutes later (there is actually 3 minutes between start times for the top 20 riders). The rider that has the worst overall time thus far starts first, while the person with the best time (Lance) starts last. The person who gets to the finish line with the fast time wins the stage.

Today that person was Lance. He rode 33.4 miles in 1:11:46, meaning he averaged a speed of 28.2 miles per hour, up hills and around some tricky curves. This was his first stage win this Tour, and basically the last stage of the Tour. Tomorrow's final stage, the ride into Paris, is primarily ceremonial and no one will try to attack. While winning the Tour has nothing to do with winning stages, still you want the person that wins the Tour to have one at least one individual stage. The last time the Tour winner did not win a single stage was the other great American cyclist, Greg LeMond, in 1990.

So this was the good. Now for the bad -- Mikael Rasmussen. Rasmussen had never been thought to be a serious contender yet somehow he had become one. He was in yellow early on and won at least one stage. For quite a while he was second behind Lance and only earlier this week did he slip to third. Rasmussen was going to have a tough time trial today because Jan Ullrich, Lance's biggest rival for the past seven tours was in fourth place. Last year Ullrich finished fourth and wasn't about to let that happen again this year. Ullrich got off to a rocky start in the Tour, having a somewhat serious crash the day before the tour started and then again early on in the Tour. And unlike the Discovery team, where every rider works and focuses on Lance so that he can win, Ullrich's T-Mobile team doesn't have that cohesion and there were actually two other leaders in addition to Ullrich. If every member of T-Mobile had put his effort behind Ullrich then Lance might not have won 7 tours.

Ullrich, who is a powerful rider and does well in time trials, rode well today. Rasmussen, did not. Basically he looked like he cracked under pressure. He crashed early on in the race, landing on his right thigh. He got back up, and started on again. A little while later he decided something was wrong with his bike. He switched it, then switched it again and then again -- a total of four times. Reports said he thought the breaks were touching but the team mechanic found nothing wrong. After he changed his bike, Ivan Basso, the second place rider who started 3 minutes after Rasmussen, passed Rasmussen. Later Lance, who started 6 minutes after Rasmussen, passed him. Doug and I were watching the race and really started feeling bad for Rasmussen and started thinking it couldn't get worse, but it did. He crashed again, tumbling head first over the handlebars on an decent. It hurt just seeing it. Finally he crossed the finish line, but in doing so he dropped from 3rd to 7th place overall.

Tomorrow is the final stage of the Tour -- the ride into Paris -- and Lance Armstrong will retire after winning the most toughest athletic event in the world seven times. I doubt there will be another rider in my lifetime who can do this.

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