Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

6.28.2006

The Race

The 2006 edition of the Tour de France covers roughly 3600 kilometers from July 1 to 23. It begins with a short time trial prologue then heads counter clockwise around the country. Rest days occur on the 10th and 17th, breaking the race roughly into three “weeks.” After the prologue, there are 9 flat stages, 5 mountain stages, 4 medium mountain stages, and 2 individual time trials. Although most of the focus lies with the overall leader, many cyclists consider it the pinnacle of their professional careers to simply win a stage of the race. The competition is tougher for this race than any other and by winning a day they know they have beaten the best in the world. The “big boys” of cycling (to quote Phil Liggett), however, don’t care if they never win an individual stage as long as they win the General Classification (GC).

The first week consists mainly of the flat stages, which generally go to the sprinters. These riders can’t climb or time trial like the GC contenders, but have the most pure speed at the end of a long day of riding. Their only goal is stage wins—and the green jersey, which goes to the rider who amasses the most sprint points by the end of the three weeks. There are plenty of other racers, though, who most likely can’t win a climb, a time trial, or a sprint. Their best hope is to break away from the peleton (main body of riders) well before the finish in the hopes of beating the sprinters to the line. It is extremely hard to stay away, though. The large peleton has many riders who can take turns leading while everyone else drafts, but in a small breakaway everyone has to do a lot of work. Thus they wear out quicker. And the teams with good sprinters specialize in getting to the front of the peleton, reeling back in breakaways and getting their man in prime position for the dash to the line. So most of the flat stages will consist of a breakaway group getting clear early in the day and the peleton chasing them down near the end. Usually there will be a catch before the end, but every once in a while a break stays clear. The best riders will be content to simply bide their time in the pack on these stages since it is so hard to open up any significant time on anyone.

The intermediate mountain stages often follow the exact same pattern as the flat stages. The main difference is that the breakaways are much more likely to succeed. And the peleton gets significantly smaller as some of the sprinters and weaker riders fall off the back in small groups. It is these days, especially, when an “unknown” has the best chance of pulling off a stage win.

It is in the mountains where the real action happens. Even a good rider can lose 1 minute per kilometer if he’s not on top form, and this is where the significant gaps open up. The sprinters will give their all just to finish 45 minutes off the pace (because if they finish too far back they are eliminated from the race). This year, a less mountainous race than many, has two days in the Pyrenees during the second “week” and three in the Alps during the third. Based on the last two years of the Tour and this year’s Giro, Ivan Basso is the strongest rider in the mountains. There may be pure climbers who could beat him on a single day, but he is the best at doing consistent efforts day after day. If he—or anyone else—is to win the Tour, it will likely happen in the mountains.

There is one other type of stage, though, the individual time trial. Instead of working with their teammates and everyone else in a big group, the riders start one at a time (1 or 2 minutes apart) and aren’t allowed to draft or work together. It is a pure, individual effort. This is Jan Ullrich’s specialty. He has won by a significant margin the two time trials he’s competed in this year and it’s always been his strength. He is still one of the best climbers, but not, recently, the equal of Basso. And Basso has improved his time trialing ability to the point that there are few who can beat him, but Ullrich is one of those who can. Thus we get our two favorites, and the race may be decided by who can limit the damage best in the other’s area of strength.

Of course, if either falters, there are riders like Landis, Leipheimer, Hincapie, Vinokourov, Valverde, and Evans who will be snapping at their heels. The race will go to the man who can best combine climbing and time trialing with the strength to consistently go all out day after day.

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