Sunday, July 24, 2022

Observations on the 2022 Tour de France


The 2022 Tour de France ended today, and what an exciting Tour it was … easily the best in years. And yet, I only got to do a blow-by-blow report of one stage, since all the exciting ones were on weekdays. Thus, I’m providing a second post concerning what to me were some of the most interesting surprises of this year’s race.

(Note that some of these observations require fairly deep knowledge of the sport, but others could possibly be appreciated by anyone.)

COVID-19 in the peloton

At one point in the coverage, commenting on the hoards of fans lining the Col du Tourmalet, announcer Anthony McCrossan casually made mention of the COVID-19 pandemic being over. The fans certainly seem to think so, but we’re still seeing masked riders, an altered podium ceremony protocol, and—above all else—lots of riders forced to abandon due to COVID. How many? Take a guess.

The answer is seventeen. That’s kind of a lot, when you consider how careful riders have traditionally been about germs, etc. (Tyler Hamilton talks a lot about this in his book The Secret Race.) COVID withdrawals likely had a significant impact on this year’s race, with last year’s winner Tadej Pogacar losing two domestiques—Stake Vegard Laengen and George Bennet—to the virus. Three teams—Cofidis with Guillaume Martin, Israel Premier-Tech with Chris Froome, and Movistar with Enric Mas—lost their team leaders to COVID.

Perhaps rumors of the coronavirus’s demise have been exaggerated…

Attacking just after a summit

The turning point in this year’s Tour came on Stage 11, when Jumbo Visma’s Primoz Roglic attacked just after the summit of the Col du Télégraphe, and caught race leader Tadej Pogacar’s UAE Team Emirates teammates napping. This led to the first time in the race that Pogacar was isolated for any considerable period of time, and set up the showdown on the valley floor just before the ascent of the Col du Galibier, where Roglic and his teammate Jonas Vengegaarde attacked Pogacar again and again. Responding to these attacks exhausted Pogacar, and on the final climb he lost lots of time to Vengegaarde.

Look at the photo above: three Jumbo-Visma riders are in perfect position, while Pogacar (in yellow) radios his team car, presumably to say, “Where the hell is everybody?” (He’s got  one teammate in sight, but too far back … the dude didn’t catch up for many minutes, by which time the damage was done.)

I coach a high school mountain biking team, and I advise them, before any race that features a big climb, to attack right over the top, where other riders instinctively sit up, feeling (if only subconsciously) that they have earned a little break. A couple of riders have reported good results from this tactic, though the fastest kids on the team don’t generally listen to my advice because I’m just some old guy who doesn’t shred much gnar’ on the descents. But now I can just tell them all the story of 2022 Tour de France Stage 11.

(Just kidding. High school mountain bike racers have no use for the Tour, road racing in general, or hearing such stories.)

The benefit of two team leaders

Team Jumbo-Visma came into this Tour with two potential leaders: Roglic and Vengegaard. Both have finished second overall in the Tour, and both were considered favorites this year. Naturally this arrangement has its critics, who look back at infamously problematic rivalries such as LeMond vs. Hinault in 1985, Contador vs. Armstrong in 2009, and Wiggins vs. Froome in 2012. Any time a team positions two riders as leaders, you get news articles about it (such as here regarding Froome and Geraint Thomas, and here regarding Roglic and Vingegaarde). Sometimes having two leaders works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

This year, it worked out really well. Fortuitously for Vengegaarde, heading into Stage 11 Roglic had crashed pretty hard and was a couple minutes behind him, so their pecking order was pretty well established—but Roglic was still very much a threat to Pogacar. This meant that when the two Jumbo-Visma riders took turns attacking the race leader, he had to respond every time.

This was a pretty unique opportunity for Jumbo Visma and it was brought about by having two GC contenders in their ranks. Sure, other GC hopefuls could also participate in such a one-two-punch scenario, but generally, not being teammates, they aren’t as invested in doing so (as evidenced by Thomas’s willingness to just follow Pogacar during all this mêlée). And if a team has only one leader, only he can attack and accomplish anything. For example, it’s not like Pogacar could have his domestique Brandon McNulty attack Vengegaard and get anywhere with it. Vengegaard would be like, “Hey, fine, send your guy up the road. See if I care.” And he’d let McNulty ride uselessly off into the sunset instead of responding to the attack.

Van Aert’s great class

Coming into Stage 15, Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert had already established himself as a major force in the race, having won two stages and worn the yellow jersey for four days. Stage 15 come down to a thrilling bunch sprint, with van Aert bumping elbows with Mads Pedersen before being narrowly beaten at the line by Jasper Philipsen.

Right after the finish, cameramen milled around looking for the requisite heartwarming footage of riders in tears, hugging their teammates, managers, significant others, etc. They certainly got the desired response with Philpsen, but van Aert didn’t have much reaction at all. Instead, he tended to his little daughter, trying to wash her hands off with a water bottle. Sure, a minute earlier he’d been almost crashing into another rider at 40 mph, but now his fatherly duties took precedence over having some big melodramatic “moment” after all the action. Despite being one of the most prominent riders in the biggest bike race in the world, he evidently hasn’t forgotten that he’s just a guy. A dad.

Simmons: albertnet reader?

In my coverage of Stage 14, I made good natured fun of Quinn Simmons’ beard, declaring that it makes him look a bit like the kind of scary looking spokesman for the Howard Johnson motel chain:

In the same post I also pointed out that it’s a bit irresponsible for pro cyclists to wear beards, given that they make COVID masks less effective and it would suck to get COVID have to drop out of the Tour. Well, lo and behold, Simmons showed up for Stage 16 without his beard! Look how fresh-faced he looks now, especially juxtaposed with Simon Geschke, who a mere two days earlier had practically been his doppelgänger:

What could explain this? Well, it’s possible Simmons read this blog. It wouldn’t be the first time; I actually once got an email from a Tour rider who’d read that day’s blow-by-blow report. (I also got a comment below the post itself, which said, “Dana, I want to have your love child.” The Tour rider’s message was a bit more understated.)

Obviously there are other potential reasons for Simmons to shave off his beard, but I don’t have time to chase that story down. Let’s just go with the theory that he’s an albertnet fan who took my advice to heart.

McNulty’s amazing pull

In Stage 17, when Pogacar was starting to run out of opportunities to take back the lead from Vengegaard, he put his teammate Brandon McNulty on the front toward the end of the penultimate climb, the Col de Val Louron-Azet. McNulty’s pace was so high, he dropped everyone in the race except Pogacar and Vengegaarde, and the trio broke the previous record for that climb set many years before by Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, and Richard Virenque. Then McNulty set tempo for the entire final climb, the Peyragoudes, at a pace so blistering that his leader was able to take more than two minutes more out of Geraint Thomas, who was third on GC, by the end of the stage.

Unfortunately for Pogacar, he couldn’t shake Vengegaarde, and though he outsprinted him for the stage win, he didn’t take any real time (just a few seconds for the time bonus). This was really an opportunity lost.

Nobody can deny that McNulty was amazingly strong and did a great job setting tempo … but actually, from a tactical perspective, it was a complete bust. The pace was so high, Pogacar ultimately never found a good time to attack, which was perfect for Vengegaard. Let’s put ourselves in the Dane’s shoes for a moment: what would be the perfect situation? It’d be to have one of his Jumbo-Visma teammates, like Sepp Kuss (the other American super-domestique) setting a high enough tempo to keep Pogacar from attacking. And that’s almost exactly what Vengegaard got … it’s just that the domestique happened to be wearing a UAE Team Emirates jersey. Post-race, maybe Vengegaard should have been hugging McNulty.

Riders’ gearing for mountain stages

During the Hautacam stage, the announcers chatted about gearing. McCrossan, the non-cyclist of the commentating duo, asked Roche, a former pro, “What sort of chainrings would they have on today?” (This kind of Q&A comprises about 80% of their entire commentary.) Roche replied, “Most likely some riders would have a 36, some others would have a 39 or a 38, depends on your pedaling stroke. Today, with the advantage of having up to a 32 on the rear cassette, you can manage keeping your 39 if you want.” McCrossan then asked, “Is it easier to attack on a 39 or a 36, or does it not really matter, in terms of getting the gear, the momentum going?”

Now, at this point I fully expected Roche to kind of hold back a giggle or a snort, and—reminding himself that stuff like gearing just isn’t obvious to the non-cyclist—would politely explain that it cannot make any difference. All that matters is the combination of front and rear teeth, which produces the “gear inches” figure—that is, how far the bike will go with one revolution of the pedals. (You can geek out on the details here.) I had thought all serious cyclists completely understood this, but to my surprise, Roche replied, “Well, when it's really steep like 12, 13 percent than a 36 is useful. On a gradient of 7 or 8 percent I think it would be easier with a 39.” Huh? How would a 39 be “easier” for attacking?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Pogacar was in a 39x23 at this moment (i.e., the footage I grabbed a shot of above), and he wanted to shift into a higher gear to attack. He might go for, say, the 17-tooth cog, meaning a 62-inch gear [27*39/17]. Well, if he happened to have a 36-tooth inner chainring, he could just go for the 16-tooth cog instead, which would produce an almost identical 61-inch gear. (The rider wouldn’t make this decision based on any concept of numbers, of course; it’d be instinctive.) There is absolutely no difference in how the bicycle would behave given one of these gearing scenarios or the other. There is no “momentum” involved in turning one size chainring or another. If there could be any benefit to a 36 vs. a 39, it’d be that with a 36, you could run a smaller largest cog (i.e., you wouldn’t need the 32-tooth Roche had mentioned earlier), so you could have a tighter gear ratio and thus a better selection of cogs to choose from (i.e., smaller number-of-teeth gaps between them) to dial in the perfect gear. So if anything the 36 would be better on a shallower gradient: the opposite of what Roche asserted.

This is perhaps a flaw in the two-guys-talking style of race announcing: Roche may think he only has to bullshit McCrossan, who’ll believe anything, but of course the home viewer may well know better. I guess the bigger lesson, though, is that I shouldn’t mistake retired pro racers for bike geeks. And given what passes for information on my blog, I can’t exactly get on Roche’s case for totally winging it and making shit up.

Why do riders stash their sunglasses?

Twice during this Tour, McCrossan asked Roche why some riders take their sunglasses off and stash them in their helmet vents. (Perhaps McCrossan forgot he’d asked the first time, or liked the dialogue well enough to repeat it, or wasn’t satisfied with Roche’s original answer … who knows.) Both times, Roche said it was because it was so hot out, the riders just wanted better air flow over their faces.

This may be partly true, but I just don’t think it’s a complete answer. For one thing, cycling sunglasses haven’t always been so stupidly oversized as to suffocate your face. Meanwhile, it seldom gets very hot where I ride, but I stash my shades all the time. It’s not to let my face breathe; it’s because sweat drips down onto the lenses to the point that I can’t see very well. So I’ll take off my sunglasses either because this has already happened, or because I’m on a long climb and I want to prevent it from happening. Obviously Roche is a far better cyclist than I’ve ever been or will be, but sweat is sweat. If you disagree I’d love to hear about it.

Vengegaard waiting on the descent

During Stage 18, Pogacar attacked over the top of the penultimate climb (and yes, I’d like to reiterate my earlier point about how smart this is), and tried to drop Vengegaarde on the descent. They dropped the rest of the group and then, as the duo hammered along, balls-to-the-wall, Vengegaard slid on some gravel and almost stacked.

Not thirty seconds later, Pogacar suddenly changed his line in a curve (perhaps seeing some gravel himself), and had to hammer the brakes. As Vingegaarde passed him, Pogacar went off the side of the road, lost traction, and crashed.

Pogacar wasn’t seriously hurt and got right back on his bike, and had no trouble catching Vingegaard because the race leader waited for him, coasting and looking over his shoulder. As Pogacar caught up, he even gave Vingo a little handshake of gratitude.

The commentators made a big deal about this, talking about what a great show of sportsmanship this was. Roche commented that Vengegaarde would have been within his rights to push on ahead, because after all Pogacar had crashed while trying to outpace him on the descent, taking on the extra risk voluntarily. Presumably, Roche said, if the tables were turned Pogacar wouldn’t have waited for Vengegaarde.

While Roche has a point—crashes are part of the sport, after all—I don’t see anything all that magnanimous in Vengegaarde’s gesture. It was a long way to the end of the stage, and he wouldn’t have picked up that much time over the descent. Meanwhile, as the defending race leader, with a sizeable time advantage over Pogacar, it was in his best interest to make the descent as safe as possible—and surely Pogacar wouldn’t try to drop Vengegaarde again after he’d waited up; that would be a total dick move. Moreover, Vingegaard had teammates behind him, who would surely be of benefit to him if they could catch back on; it had never been Vingegaard’s idea to leave them behind to begin with. Tactically, to wait for Pogacar would benefit Vengegaarde in every way. And on top of that, he would get to look like the nice guy. To me, his decision to wait was a complete no-brainer. The only slight misstep Vengegaarde made was to point out, in the post-race interview, that he’d waited. That was needless. We get it, dude. We all saw it. The announcers crowed about it. You’re a great guy.

What about doping?

You might be surprised I didn’t get into the whole doping issue with this post. To be honest, I just don’t see that there’s anything new or surprising on that topic to report on. About all I can say is that, if doping appears to still be rampant, at least no single team is so good at it as to bring back dull-as-fuck Tours like we suffered through during the Froome years. I’m grateful for that.

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