What could be more French than on Bastille Day for the Tour De France to wake up all kinds of political machinations thick in the air?
While tonight’s 10th stage is almost certain to end in a bunch sprint which will reignite the battle for the green jersey that is awarded to the rider heading up its aggregate sprint points category, yesterday’s rest day was hardly that. Politics was to the fore for the leading teams with their directeur sportifs (team bosses) continuing to oppose tonight’s “trial” ban on radio communications between team management and their riders.
When the sport’s governing body the International Cycling Union (UCI) earlier backed the introduction of selective trial bans on the use of radios to see if it could improve racing by adding a greater element of tactical uncertainty; the Tour embraced the experiment. It scheduled tonight’s stage and Friday’s 13th stage as radio free days. The big teams citing rider safety as their main objection which is essentially a furphy remain opposed, because by losing their instant ability to communicate race tactics or respond to threats, racing becomes more of a lottery.
But most of the teams are in favour of the trial because the lesser riders have a greater opportunity for spur of the moment individualism. The ability of their riders to be less effectively shut down or ganged up on by the big boys is reduced. Although the likes of Astana and Saxo Bank continue to protest and there was speculation leading riders might yet go on strike, this is now seen as most unlikely. But at the weekend the UCI race jury reiterated the prohibition stays.
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“The 10th stage will be raced without any communication device between the riders and their sports directors.”
It’s hardly likely to make much difference tonight to say Cadel Evans chances of trying to make some kind of inroads into his 3 minute 7 second deficit to the yellow jersey that sees Alberto Contador only six seconds in arrears with another two seconds to Lance Armstrong. But Friday’s hugely demanding 200km mountainous stage might be another matter if the radio ban holds good.
The other political intrigue occupying everyone’s attention is the dominating Astana team’s cold war (but getting warmer) between its two main combatants and Tour favourites, Contador and the man dangerously hovering behind his back in third place, seven time winner Armstrong. Despite all attempts by Astana management to paint its champion duo as happy campers free of personal enmity; try telling that to supporters of either camp. Any pretence that Armstrong would be happy to play second fiddle to Contador if the fractious Texan figures he has the guns to shoot down the Spaniard before they ride into Paris on Sunday, July 26, has now been revealed as the charade it always was.
Armstrong didn’t win seven Tours by being “Mr Nice Guy” or anything but a ruthless autocrat in his push to win. So why would he be content to hand Contador his second Tour win following his first in 2007, if Armstrong believes he can now beat him given half a chance? Team leader or no team leader despite Contador entering the race as that occupant, there’s now no way Armstrong is going to lie down for the Spaniard if he has any say in it. What no one yet knows including Armstrong is whether he’s good enough to beat Contador fair and square if team management were to observe a genuine “best man wins” ride off. But we won’t find out until at least the final week, and probably only then on the penultimate stage 20 and the ride to hell atop the infamous Mont Ventoux.
Another man who may yet upset both of them in the ultimate quest, Saxo Bank’s brilliant young mountain goat Andy Schleck who finished 12 th on the way to helping then team-mate Carlos Sastre to victory last year, reckons Armstrong is up to the task.
“Armstrong is very, very strong and he’s very lean,” the younger of the Schleck brothers, and the best young rider in last year’s Tour, said of the seven-time Tour champion. “He has the engine to win the Tour. A lot of riders focus more on Contador, but Armstrong has a good card to play. If one day he has the chance to take some time, he won’t miss it. And then he will be very hard to catch.”