Tuesday 12 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 10 Preview

Today's stage, the second shortest if we discount the time trials and final stage in Paris, is called flat on the official Tour de France website. However, a quick look at the profile shows it's not actually very flat at all - in fact, it has four categorised climbs and a number of uncategorised hills thrown in for good measure. No individual climb reaches anywhere near 1000m, but this is still a stage which will severely test those riders who find the mountains difficult. All in all, it's a stage on which a strong breakaway could dominate, but also one which is likely to be won by a strong sprinter.

Kolobnev - doper
Depressing news came during Monday, a rest day - Katusha's Alexandr Kolobnev supplied a sample that tested positive for a banned diuretic known as Hydrochlorothiazide. This drug at first seems an odd one for a cyclist to want to take; it reduces the kidneys' ability to hold water, thus making the user urinate more, and by decreasing blood volume, lowers cardiac output and has a host of known side-effects eminently undesirable to a cyclist. However, it's banned by the UCI due to diuretics being used in cycling and other sports to hasten the passage of tell-tale signs of performance-enhancing drugs in urine, thus allowing a clean sample to be provided sooner than would otherwise be possible.

The 30-year-old Russian voluntarily suspended himself from competition pending the investigation and has been fired by Katusha - which has made a rule stating that any rider who presents a B sample which also proves to be positive will be sacked, so it would appear that such a sample has indeed be provided. He now has four days during which he can mount an appeal, but of that appeal fails and/or the sample again tests positive he will also be fined "five times his salary" according to team rules. At the time of writing, he claims to have no idea how the drug got into the samples provided.

This is depressing because, throughout the world, this is going to be the first Tour news to reach the ears of millions of non-cyclists, many of whom would have remained unaware that the race was even on, thus reinforcing their belief that "all cyclists are on drugs." Few, if any, outside cycling will view it for what it really is - proof that cycling is working hard to eliminate doping and that any professional who does resort to trying to get an unfair advantage over his colleagues will be caught and punished. Every cheat detected should be viewed as a step forward, proof that cycling is working hard to eliminate doping, but in the media it is used to further blacken the sport's reputation.

The start town is Aurillac and the 29,000 Aurillacois (as the locals are called) have had the honour of hosting the start or end of a Tour stage no less than seven times. Aurillac is famous for being the coldest town in France, but in reality it's just the only mountain town included in French National TV weather forecasts. It may, however, be one of the wettest: it's also famous for the manufacture of umbrellas and produces around 50% of all umbrellas sold in France.

That it has been inhabited since ancient times was made evident in 1977 when a Celtic-Roman temple was discovered in the town. By 885 CE is was the site of a Benedicitine monastery, later home to a monk named Gerbert who became Pope Sylvester II in 999 (when he would have been 54 years old - with average life expectancy being considerably shorter, they probably didn't have much choice among octogenarians like they do today). Overlooking the town is the Chateau Saint Etienne, a real castle built with the intention of resisting armed attacks rather than a gateau chateau built to impress rich friends from Paris and all the more imposing for it, begun by the father of Saint Gerald who established the monastery and thus dating (in parts) to about 1,126 years old. Part of the chateau houses a museum of vulcanology and exhibition of mineral deposits collected in the region which is unmissable if - like me - you're a bit of a geology geek and find that sort of thing interesting.

Things start off downhill but we'll only have seen 8km of racing before the parcours takes a kick upwards, rising a hundred metres or so over the next 5km. 8km is more than enough time for a breakaway to form and begin establishing a worthwhile lead, which we fully expect to be the case again during this stage: the intermediate sprint comes early today, starting at the 37.5km point, and it ought to be a fairly simple process for a gang of fast domestiques to build a gap and get the top points while the GC bosses stay in the peloton and and conserve their energy for the final sprint to the finish line. Having said that, if a lead group doesn't form or is caught on the big descent through Rouziers, Quézac and Saint-Etienne-de-Maurs, they're going to find themselves trying to wrestle points away from the Manx Missile. Good luck with that one, lads!

The intermediate sprint is located at the very bottom of the hill so expect some of the highest speeds seen in the race so far as they flash through; a pity, really, as it means we're unlikely to get any helicopter footage of the Église St Sulpice, an unusual medieval church. But, as we've said before, this is primarily a bike race rather than a helicopter tour of French chateaux, churches and villages - though they're all an important part of the greater whole, of course, as are things in fields made of hay bales and tractors - so this is as it should be.

Following another 7km, we come to Bagnac-sur-Cele where the peloton joins the  N122, a fast road passing through forested rolling country and which is almost straight but for some wiggles as it passes a large open-cast mine. The road is wide and well-surfaced, making this about as non-technical as the Tour de France gets and, if we're honest, about as boring too. Luckily for those of us who are watching rather than competing, this section includes the town of Figeac which has a number of interesting features that the helicopters can wander off and have a look at including an enormous reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, L'église Notre-Dame-du-Puy, a pair of mysterious stone obelisks which have never been dated (they look medieval and may have been waymarkers for pilgrims on their way to Saint Jacques de Compostela in Spain) and a nu,ber of medieval houses including one that belonged to the Knights Templar.

Just to the south of Figeac is the first Category 3 climb up to 350m on the D822 road as it crosses the Côte de Figeac. The road here is top quality, so the ascent should be a simple enough matter and the descent very fast indeed - 90kpmh+ is very likely as riders try to get ahead to the next climb, a Cat 4 to 326m at Côte de Loupiac. On the way, we enter the department of Aveyron- the ancient inhabitants of which had a special enthusiasm for dolmens, building over a thousand in the area. Villeneuve, less than 2km further on and the site of the feeding station, has a town hall which is the most stupendously French-looking building imaginable and some very fine medieval architecture including la Porte-Haute and la Tour-Porte Cardalhac - the former was used as a prison, the latter, as suggested by the name (la Tour-Porte = the tower-gate) was one of the entrances through the city walls when it was fortified.

La Tour-Haute and la Tour-Porte Cardalhac. What a lot of towers in this preview - if any Freudians would like to provide an explanation, please write your thoughts on a stamped, addressed envelope and throw it in the bin.
The route now takes the D922 south to Saint-Rémy and then to Villefranche-de-Rouergue, an attractive town of about 12,000 residents. The medieval heart of the town can be seen very clearly from the air (44°21'8.56"N  2° 2'13.60"E) as a terracotta-coloured, compact area surrounding the church. Note the straight streets and right-angled intersections - Villefranche-de-Rouergue was planned community, laid out according to the example set by Classical Rome when the local lord decided to move it from across the river to its present location - which are a contrast to the more modern parts of the town with streets winding this way and that.

5km further on and we reach the third and biggest climb of the day, which is 4.1km to 512m - translating to a gradient of 5.9% average. There's no let-up once the riders are at the top, though, because after a very short descent they're heading back upwards again; this time to Rieupeyroux at 751m above sea level, the highest point of this stage. There's some reasonably technical twisty bends on the way out of the town, but nothing that should cause any problems, then it's south via a tiny village named La Palousie to La Salvetat-Peyralès which stands among deep, forested valleys which are largely uninhabited.

At around this point, the parcours enters the department of Tarn and a few kilometres later arrives at the base of the day's last climb, Cat 4 Côte de Mirandol-Bourgnounac - the highest point is at Le Bes which is really a collection of large houses separated by fields rather than a village. They all have enormous gardens and, in quite a few cases, swimming pools; so it seems that this is a place for the rich. Next, we travel south through a relatively flat area characterised by large fields to Almayrac and through a forested valley with a small river flowing through it which then enters a lake created by a dam (44° 4'53.09"N 2° 9'0.98"E).

Statue of Jean Jaurès in Carmaux.
The moment we're south of the lake, the landscape becomes visibly more populated, suggesting we're nearing an urban centre - as proves to be the case after another 4.5km when we enter Carmaux, a large town with about 10,500 residents. The town grew rapidly during the late 19th Century due to be located on top of a large coal deposit, much like many towns in Northern England and, again like them, it's perhaps not the prettiest town in the world - though this wasn't helped by economic crises faced from the mid 1970s onwards, from which time the population has fallen by around 4,500 people.

Those years of prosperity left it with many grand buildings, however, along with some beautiful parks and an impressive collection of statues amng them two of Jean Jaurès, a socialist politician who defended Alfred Dreyfus during the "Dreyfus Affair" which, incidentally, led to the birth of the L'Auto newspaper which was originally a bit of a financial failure until it organised a bike race known as the Tour de France in 1903 to increase exposure.

Things are finally on the up again in Carmaux with an economic recovery of full swing - it's also acting as a stage town for the very first time, so expect the civic pride of the Carmausins to result in a festival atmosphere as the stage comes to an end.

Predictions: With a downhill sprint to the end, this could be just about anyone's - especially if a strong breakaway builds up a decebt gao and manages to keep it going. But Mark Cavendish has an ability to pump his legs faster than anyone else: that makes him lightning-quick in a sprint, but it also means that he can keep applying power when others just can't pedal enough to keep up with the RPM - and with one more day before the high mountains, he has limited chances to do what he does so well now. The final kilometres are technical with several tight bends to break up the pack - provided the HTC train can form (and they'll have practiced for this one) it seems likely we'll be in for another Missile launch, and not many finish lines can resist that.

Weather: After days of rain, things are starting to look up - we're not too far from the Mediterranean now, and the sun has come out. That'll drive up temperatures too, with 26 degrees C forecast for Aurillac later on. However, at the time of writing, it's apparently hailing heavily at the start line and spectators are trying to find shelter. Quézac looks set to be OK, though there's a 15% chance of light showers, as does Aveyrac and Villefranche-de-Rouergue. Things may change for the worse in Mirandol-Bourgnounac, meanwhile, where rain is predicted for this afternoon. Very light rain is also forecast for Carmaux later on in the day. The wind will come from the south-east, thus creating crosswinds, but at 10kmph shouldn't cause any problems.

DEVIL WATCH: As ever on flat stages, predicting likely Devil appearances is difficult - he tends to prefer a steep ascent where he can run along at the side of the peloton and offer his unique encouragement. About the most likely spots today would seem to be the Cat 3 climb Côte de Villefranche-de-Rouergue or, perhaps, further uphill on the approach to Rieupeyroux. Don't forget that if you see pitchforks painted on the road surface, the Devil is haunting the roadside verges somewhere nearby.


  1. If cycling is working hard to get rid of cheats, why is it these cheats are allowed back in within 2 years? If not for his crash & exit, we might have had the yellow jersey being worn by Vinokourov. Cycling will not be seen as serious about doping when many in the field *are* dopers.

  2. Thank you for leaving an interesting and thought-provoking comment, which I'm hoping will generate a discussion if others care to join in. :-)

    Two years seems reasonable to me. A cyclist's career centres on ages 26-30; before this age he or she will not yet be "race-hardened" and cannot produce the sheer effort needed over several days in order to win stage races. After this age, he or she will again experience difficulty in maintaining such effort and it starts to take a lot longer to recover which, when they're riding 200km day after day, means little chance of winning. Therefore, a two year ban is a very serious business for a professional cyclist and could easily destroy half of the most productive part of his or her career.

    Secondly, it's arguable whether or not "many" in the field are dopers. Of course, there are some - there have been drug cheats in cycling since the 19th Century. However, cycling organisations including the UCI have poured enormous resources and vast amounts of money into their efforts to stamp it out, and a smaller percentage of cyclists are shown to be cheats than are professionals in other sports. Also, the punishments are frequently stricter (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_performance-enhancing_drugs_in_sport#Use_of_Performance-enhancing_drugs_in_Association_Football). But because cycling is a minority sport in much of the world, the only thing many people ever hear about it is when someone is caught out. Everyone knows about Kolobnev this morning, but he is just one rider out of 198 who started the race - so, rather than many, 0.5% of the riders in this year's Tour have provided positive samples since the race began ten days ago.

    Though often seen as yet more proof that "they're all at it," every positive test and suspension can also be viewed as another battle won in the war against doping in cycling.

  3. Many of the older, big names in the field come from an era when doping was rife in cycling. Yet these names are, today, yellow-jersey contenders:

    Vinokourov: Banned for 2 years, accepted straight back into his old team. Indeed, that team had another rider banned for doping after Vinokourov, and were implicated in the Operation Puerto scandal, but managed to get off.

    Contador: Banned a few years ago, implicated somewhat in Puerto amid reports that he refused DNA tests that would have given definitive answer on his innocence or guilt. Definitely had clenbutoral in his system last year, case still unresolved.

    Hincapie: Has never been caught, but has allegedly recently admitted to doping in front of a grand jury.

    Franck Schleck: Not initially implicated in the 2006 Puerto scandal, but a few years later was forced to admit he'd paid Fuentes quite a bit of money. Not found guilty of doping though.

    Klöden: Some strong allegations against him of transfusion doping, along with team mate - unresolved.

    David Millar: EPO user. Banned for 2 years.

    Basso: Implicated in Puerto, claims he never doped but doesn't deny his dealings with Fuente were about doping (the "I was thinking of it, but didn't" defence).

    etc, etc. That's just scanning over the top 20 odd of stage wins in this years tour. As Bradley Wiggins wrote in 2007 "The people who are still doping are mainly the older generation and the riders who hang around with them. The sooner they are gone the better."

    But how will these people ever be gotten rid of if, on the rare occasion they're caught red-handed enough to actually be sanctioned, that they're then welcomed back to the sport in a year or 2? How can cycling expect any one to take it seriously when several of the biggest names and contenders are proven dopers, and many more have strong stinks around them?

    Also, arguments that things are somewhat acceptable elsewhere or in another era are quite unconvincing. ;)

  4. I wish I could edit, I mean "top 20 odd of stage *finishers*" - not winners. ;)

  5. I know - bloody annoying, that.