A calm before the big climbs

It’s a rest day in the Tour de France, which means the riders will go out and take a cool, relaxed two-hour ride through the foothills of the Alps before tackling the more than challenging Stage 9 tomorrow.

The reason behind the easy ride instead of a day of lounging at the pool, massage table or putting the feet up in the hotel room is basic – complete rest allows lactic acid to pool in the legs, making them stiffen up and become nothing more than rigid branches on a tree. Since Tuesday brings three climbs, including the start on the early inclines of Col du I’lseran before finishing with the infamous Col du Galibier during the 160 kilometer ride from Val-d’Isère to Briançon, today’s rest-day ride will be a little more focused and intense.

In other words there are no rest days in Tour de France.

Since Stage 9 will be the most difficult of the Tour, it’s fair to reason that it is more than quite possible that a winner or a small handful of contenders could emerge. And after a tough Stage 8 in which the riders attacked six categorized climbs, there are a select few who established themselves from the rest of the peloton.

One rider, of course, is Mickael Rasmussen, the Dane for Rabobank who rode away with the stage thanks to a long breakaway with about 50 miles to go. The other usual suspects are in the mix, too, like Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, France’s Christophe Moreau, and, of course, Alexandre Vinokourov.

But the most interesting rider in contention is the enigmatic Basque for Saunier Duval, Iban Mayo.

Yes, that Iban Mayo.

Followers of the sport might remember Mayo as the up-and-coming rider who finished sixth in the Tour de France as a 25-year old in 2003, and then seemed to be the latest of the “Next One” poised to knock off Lance Armstrong the way Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Joseba Beloki, Klöden, and everyone else could not. For one thing, Mayo had a perfect build for a cyclist at a waifish 5-foot-9 and 130 pounds with the ability to climb through the Alps and the Pyrenees like a mountain goat.

Secondly, Mayo was tough as hell. Aside from his expertise as a climber and a Basque rider for the Euskaltel-Euskadi team (think of them as the Green Bay Packers of cycling since it is a team owned by the Basque people), Mayo was in a horrific car accident in 1997 when he was 19 that left him in a wheelchair for month s with broken legs a smashed up arm. Doctors said that it would be difficult for the young cyclist to walk without a limp, let alone get back on the bike.

But telling a Basque to stay off a bike is like telling an American to stay away from the all-you-can-eat buffet, bad television, and to stop building out-of-control credit card debt. Sure, the idea works in theory, but real life is something different all together. Instead, Mayo developed a pedaling style that helped alleviate the wear-and-tear on his damaged legs and then he trained and then trained some more.

In 2000 he signed with Euskaltel-Euskadi and quickly became a young force in the sport.

It was Mayo who nearly became the catalyst for Armstrong’s demise in the ’03 Tour when the diminutive Basque pushed the seven-time champion to the edge during a climb of Col du Galibier as well as a victory on Alpe d’Huez.

In 2004 Mayo didn’t just rout the field – including Armstrong – in the Tour tune-up at the Dauphiné Libéré, but he demolished it. In the time trial up Mount Ventoux, Mayo battered Armstrong by two minutes and looked poised to dominate the Tour de France that year. Heading into the ’04 Tour, Mayo was a riddle that Armstrong was afraid he could not solve.

But then, poof!, he was gone.

Actually, Mayo crashed on a cobblestone road during the early going of the Tour, sustained injuries and abandoned the race at the 15th Stage before reaching his countrymen in the Pyrenees.

Along with the injuries came a bout with mononucleosis that cost him all of the 2005 season.

But Mayo returned to light racing in 2006 and won a stage of the Dauphiné Libéré as well as the overall titles at the Vuelta a Burgos and Subida a Urkiola. In 2007 he signed with team Caisse d’Epargne and won a stage in the prestigious Giro d’Italia and suddenly looks as if he is finally on the cusp in the Tour de France.

Could it finally be Mayo’s year?

Certainly Stage 9 is set up for Mayo to capture the Yellow Jersey. The small 2-minute, 29 second gap between Mayo and Rasmussen can easily be erased if the mighty Basque can conjure up that old battle with Armstrong from 2003 up Col du Galibier.

Stage 8 Final
1.) Mickael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 4:49:40
2.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:47
3.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 3:12
4.) Christophe Moreau, A2R, France, at 3:13
5.) Fränk Schleck, CSC, Luxembourg, at 3:13
6.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, at 3:13
7.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 3:13
8.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, at 3:31
9.) Denis Menchov, Rabobank, Russia, at 3:35
10.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, at 3:35
11.) Haimar Zubeldia, Euskaltel-Euskadi, Spain, at 3:59
12.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, USA, at 3:59
13.) Juan José Cobo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 3:59
14.) Manuel Beltran, Liquigas, Spain, at 4:13
15.) Oscar Pereiro, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 4:13
16.) Juan Manuel Garate, Quick Step, Spain, at 4:29
17.) David Arroyo, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 4:29
18.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 4:29
19.) Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 4:29
20.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, at 5:05

Overall
1.) Mickael Rasmussen, Rabobank, Denmark, in 15:37:42
2.) Linus Gerdemann, T-Mobile, Germany, at :43
3.) Iban Mayo, Saunier Duval, Spain, at 2:39
4.) Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 2:51
5.) Andrey Kashechkin, Astana, Kazakhstan, at 2:52
6.) Cadel Evans, Predictor-Lotto, Australia, at 2:53
7.) Christophe Moreau, AG2R, France, at 3:06
8.) Alberto Contador, Discovery Channel, Spain, at 3:10
9.) Fränk Schleck, CSC, Luxembourg, at 3:14
10.) Denis Menchov, Rabobank, Russia, at 3:19
11.) Carlos Sastre, CSC, Spain, at 3:35
12.) Andreas Klöden, Astana, Germany, at 3:46
13.) Levi Leipheimer, Discovery Channel, at 3:53
14.) Oscar Pereiro, Caisse d’Epargne, Spain, at 3:54

Alexandre Vinokourov is lurking in 22nd place, 5-minutes, 23 seconds off the pace.

***
The Phillies play late-night tonight in Los Angeles, but chances are I’m not going to make it to the middle innings. The old boy needs his rest and wants to get up in time to get a big cup of coffee so he can park himself in front of the TV to watch Stage 9.

Better yet, wouldn’t it be much better to actually be there to cover the race? I’m going to have to work on that. Hey, Comcast SportsNet and Versus are owned by the same company… perhaps the home office needs a writer to roll through France for three weeks to chronicle what goes down. Better yet, if homeboy Floyd gets back in to race in 2008, who better to get it all down than another dude from Lancaster?

I’m ready. Sign me up.

***
For those looking for some baseball to read about while waiting for the 10:05 p.m. start on the coast, check out Todd Zolecki’s report from Randy Wolf and Mike Lieberthal. It sounds like those boys don’t really miss Philadelphia all that much…

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