Stage 7: Huesca to Alcañiz. Motorland Aragón, 164.2km
It was another hot day. Alberto Contador had sponges in the back of his jersey to keep cool and everyone is looking browner and browner with each day as their cyclist’s tans are coming along nicely. There was a four-man breakaway almost from the start of the stage – Javier Aramendia (Caja Rural), Frantisek Rabon (OPQS), Pablo Lechuga (Andalucia) and Bert-Jan Lindeman (Vacansoleil-DCM) – and they worked up to a maximum lead of five minutes before being reeled in inside 20km.
A crash in the middle of the peloton occurred at 9km, holding up a number of riders, but none of the main GC contenders. Sky rode on the front at a fierce pace as they took to the motor racing circuit for the sprint finish. However, they pushed it too hard too soon for Ben Swift, even splitting the peloton until the Argonauts made their move in the last kilometre and green jersey John Degenkolb powered to the line for a hat-trick of victories, taking the stage ahead of Elia Viviani (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Allan Davis (Orica-GreenEDGE).
VeloVoices rider of the day
It’s got to be the Argonaut of the moment, John Degenkolb. His team are riding brilliantly, keeping him out of trouble and letting others set the pace and use up their men on the run-in, before the Argonaut Express kicks it into gear and leads their man out.
The Vuelta’s never been a sprinter’s race and perhaps there was the thought that, because the big-name sprinters went elsewhere to race this August, the flat stages might not have the gusto of the Giro or the Tour. But Degenkolb has lit up these stages. It just goes to show: it’s always the riders who make the race.
Although none of the main GC contenders were involved in the crash near the end of the stage, Rigoberto Uran (Sky) punctured and dropped from fourth to 15th. A shame for him as, considering how well Sky have been riding, he could well have finished in the top five in Madrid, bettering his seventh-place finish at the Giro.
It didn’t help that the real attention of the media was several thousand miles away with the tearing down of Lance Armstrong, but the appearance of cyclists on a sparsely attended motor racing track is always a bit odd, and lent an eerie atmosphere to the closing kilometres. I’ve seen school sports days with bigger crowds and vacuums with more atmosphere. Just sayin’.
Not much to talk about, really. Yesterday we highlighted the possibility that Katusha might be happy to let a break go to engineer a handover of the red jersey, but Argos-Shimano‘s willingness to work on the front of the peloton ensured there would be no surprise winner today. The same thought applies again tomorrow, though. With no sprint teams wanting to force the pace ahead of a summit finish, we could well see a successful breakaway as the contenders worry more about each other than about a stage victory. Watch out for David Moncoutie and other King of the Mountains hopefuls to make a move tomorrow.
VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of as many stages as possible on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.
Unsurprisingly, the key topic of discussion – okay, the only topic of discussion – at VeloVoices Towers today has been a 40-something former cyclist and his not-quite-admission of guilt. Yes, we’ve frittered away our Friday by breaking into the VeloVoices drinks trolley early and talking about Lance Armstrong.
Unfortunately Jack is away on holiday this week, but Tim, Kitty and Sheree Skyped Panache in our Washington DC office – the Peloton Pentagon – to bring you a Friday Feature special of our thoughts and reflections on the day the cycling history books were rewritten. Want to know what we thought? Then read on …
The chess match is now all but played out as we finally arrive at the endgame. Last night Lance Armstrong announced that he would not contest the charges levelled against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). As a result, USADA have issued a lifetime ban and stripped him of all results dating back to 1998, including the seven Tours de France he won between 1999 and 2005. USADA’s announcement cited the following doping violations:
1. Use and/or attempted use of prohibited substances and/or methods including EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, corticosteroids and masking agents.
2. Possession of prohibited substances and/or methods including EPO, blood transfusions and related equipment (such as needles, blood bags, storage containers and other transfusion equipment and blood parameters measuring devices), testosterone, corticosteroids and masking agents.
3. Trafficking of EPO, testosterone, and corticosteroids.
4. Administration and/or attempted administration to others of EPO, testosterone, and cortisone.
5. Assisting, encouraging, aiding, abetting, covering up and other complicity involving one or more anti-doping rule violations and/or attempted anti-doping rule violations.
Armstrong’s statement was typically forthright. He attacked USADA CEO Travis Tygart‘s “unconstitutional witch hunt” and his “outlandish and heinous claims”. He talked about his refusal “to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair” against an organisation which “at every turn … has played the role of a bully” – a comment which will have raised an eyebrow among those who have been on the receiving end of Armstrong’s strong-arm – and frequently litigious – actions in the past.
Nowhere in the statement is there anything approaching an admission of guilt, nor is there ever likely to be. We can only infer and speculate as to why this most combative and competitive of individuals has chosen to step away from the fight at this point. We do not know the facts. But we can certainly draw our own conclusions.
What happens next?
We have arrived at the endgame, but in reality it may be some time before we reach check-mate. USADA may pursue further sanctions against other riders and staff involved in the alleged conspiracy – bans have already been issued in a number of cases. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, had earlier challenged USADA’s jurisdiction, and may yet take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) is maintaining a watching brief.
ASO, the organisers of the Tour de France, have issued a holding statement saying they will take no action until the situation between USADA and the UCI has been resolved. They might choose to promote the runners-up in the seven Tours Armstrong won. That would be uncomfortable to say the least: Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso have both been convicted of doping. Alex Zulle admitted taking EPO while with Festina. Andreas Kloden and Joseba Beloki have both been the subject of (unproven) doping allegations in the past. Alternatively, ASO may choose to declare that those races had no winner – an embarrassing reminder for all time for the history books.
As for Armstrong, the story does not end here either. With his reputation severely damaged, he is likely to face multiple lawsuits from sponsors, business associates and individuals which will, at the very least, keep him busy for the foreseeable future, and could result in financial ruin.
All this, however, is idle speculation. Here’s how the VeloVoices reacted to the news today.
Armstrong’s statement is a masterpiece of obfuscation, but really this was just the full-stop at the end of a sentence which has been written over a period of years. The true believers will still believe. The armchair prosecutors will bemoan the lack of an admission of guilt. ‘Twas ever thus.
In that respect, nothing has changed. In many others, though, everything has: history will record Lance Armstrong as a no-time Tour de France winner. The all-American hero has been unmasked as the devil.
So while this is closure with neither conclusion or conviction – and I doubt the story will truly end here – it’s still a pivotal day. Some fans are sad, some are still mad and others are grave-dancing. A few will always believe, no matter what. Like many, I’m somewhere in between.
To me, he is still the greatest cyclist of his generation. He is also a cheat. I’m conflicted. Sue me. (Please don’t.)
It’s time to move on. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Lance was just the public tip of a large pharmacological iceberg, but let’s learn the lessons and march forward without constantly looking back. I hope ASO will declare ‘no winner’ for the 1999-2005 Tours as a reminder to future generations. I suspect that won’t happen, and Messrs Zulle, Ullrich, Beloki, Kloden and Basso will inherit those titles without turning a pedal. That might just be the greatest crime of all.
I’ve had a couple of hours to digest the news but am still feeling somewhat ambivalent. Lance has thrown in the towel to avoid a long, costly and damaging court case. But it doesn’t change my opinion of him, or of his achievements. He’ll always be a seven-time Tour de France winner. I do however believe that he – and many other prominent riders – cheated and were never caught. The really sad thing is that if no one had cheated the outcome of the races might not have been too dissimilar.
If he is stripped of his titles, unravelling the financial implications is going to be a complicated exercise. As an accountant, I await the financial fall-out with interest. Let’s not forget that a number of US companies profited from Lance’s wins. Will they get off scot-free? I am, of course, referring mainly to Nike, Oakley and Trek.
And what of the UCI’s role in all of this? Maybe the best outcome would be a thorough look at the roles and responsibilities of the various bodies – USADA, WADA and UCI – leading to greater clarity of their respective responsibilities plus better segregation of duties. You just know that this is going to continue to rumble on.
My biggest concern is this: will the evidence that the US Anti-Doping Agency has compiled ever come to light? Surely everyone who has been involved in this systematic doping should be held up to the light. If not, what good is this doing? If the doctors, the directeurs sportif, the personal trainers, other riders and everyone around them who are facilitating doping aren’t sanctioned just as harshly, this type of thing will go on and on and on and on.
As for Lance himself, I’ve never had this hatred of him that half the world has, nor do I have blind faith in him like the other half of the world seems to have. He was the reason I started watching cycling but not the reason I continued to watch it – I found the whole sport fascinating, not just an individual rider. And looking back at footage of his wins – do I have to asterix them? – they’re not any less exciting for what we know now, at least not for me. It was the race on the day.
I want cycling to be clean but I’m worried that this chance to really clean house will just pass the sport by – again. Ding dong, the witch is dead – but the witch didn’t work alone.
In order for cycling to flourish it needs to be planted and nourished in healthy ground. Lance Armstrong polluted the soil of cycling with his cheating, lying, manipulating and bullying for too long. There is plenty of evidence/data and eyewitness testimony to show this.
I applaud Travis Tygart and USADA for being relentless in the pursuit of clean competition despite overwhelming political and financial pressure. After all, that is their job. The UCI would be wise to follow USADA’s recommendations for disciplining Armstrong. The fact the sport’s greatest fraud of all time happened under their watch should be a signal that the UCI needs drastic changes, especially in leadership.
One cannot deny that Lance is an inspirational hero to millions who are fighting cancer. I feel for these people. I do not revel in seeing their disappointment. That said, I rejoice for Frank and Betsy Andreu, Greg Lemond and many others who have been destroyed by Armstrong for telling the truth. These people ooze panache for sticking to their principles.
I cannot deny that I enjoyed watching Armstrong race. He is a supremely gifted endurance athlete and competitor. I believe he trained and worked very hard to achieve his results. But I also believe that he – like most of the cyclists of his era – used performance-enhancing drugs and blood doping too. He cheated. He should face the consequences.
I say the seven yellow jerseys should go to the lanterne rouge from each year – because those are the only riders who might have been riding clean at the time.
How do you feel about Lance Armstrong after today’s developments? Let us know in the comments below.
Sheree has just returned from five days in the roasting sun at the Vuelta. Here she brings us her impressions and reflections from behind both the scenes and the barricades at the race.
When the lady in the Vuelta accreditation office asked me how long I wanted the accreditation for, I can’t tell you how tempted I was to say for the entire race. Sanity prevailed and I admitted it was only for five days – but what a five days! My husband and I had a most enjoyable and privileged stay, thanks once again to the kind hospitality of Eurosport.
Most of the major contenders held press conferences on Friday, either in the press centre or at their team hotels. Many downplayed their own chances while talking up the opposition, including Alberto Contador, whose return to the Vuelta was eagerly anticipated after his win in 2008 and who promised the assembled press corps that Saxo Bank would not be controlling the race a la Sky.
Alberto Contador’s Vuelta press conference (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)
The team presentations may have been more perfunctory than the Tour’s but actually no one really wanted to hang around in the stifling evening heat in historic Pamplona. The VIP stampede for seats in the shade to watch the proceedings in the Plaza del Castillo rivalled that of the town’s historic Fiesta de los Sanfermines, the famous running of the bulls.
We were back the following evening to watch the team time trial, which produced more than a few twists and turns than the route through the cobbled old town of Pamplona. The teams started in the Plaza del Castillo and finished in the Plaza de Toros, site of the town’s bull-fighting ring. Everyone was squashed into the seats in the shade as, once again, the mercury soared. Fortunately there were plenty of cold refreshments on hand. No one opted to sit in the sunshine.
Fans packed into the bullring like proverbial sardines for the Vuelta team time trial (image courtesy of RDW)
Caja Rural in local dress confront the red carpet first (image courtesy of RDW)
The teams were bookended by the two Navarran squads Caja Rural and Movistar. The former wore a special all-white time trial suit with red accents to mimic the outfits worn in the Fiesta. Thankfully no blood was spilled and they sat briefly in the hot seat before being swiftly dethroned. Mishaps to team time trial specialists Garmin-Sharp and world champion Tony Martin’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step left Rabobank cooling down in ice vests in the hot seat until the final denouement by local boys Movistar, whose Basque time trial specialist Jonathan Castroviejo crossed the line first to take the leader’s jersey. Everyone was happy!
Basque Jonathan Castroviejo is the Vuelta’s first leader, next to Miguel Indurain (image courtesy of Monike Prell)
Sunday’s second stage finished in another historic Navarran town, Viana, the last stop before the Camino de Santiago (pilgrim’s route) descends into the oven of La Rioja. There’s a surprising grave marker in front of Viana’s beautiful Inglesia de Santa Maria – that of the Machiavellian Cesare Borgia, who was placed under the protection of the King of Navarra. The race passed through town twice but it was clearly going to be one for the sprinters and Argonaut John Degenkolb didn’t disappoint. He looks rather fetching in that red scarf, doesn’t he?
John Degenkolb, lapping up the applause, lobs his bouquet into the crowd (image courtesy of Monika Prell)
For the first time this year, the Vuelta has introduced VIP villages du départ and arrivée aping those of the Tour de France, where there’s shelter from the sun, seating, toilets, refreshments, television screens and a sprinkling of former riders and very attractive leggy hostesses in short shorts. [Why didn’t you tell me this before?!? – Ed] I noted Abraham Olano, Pedro Delgado, MiguelIndurain and Oscar Pereiro but no doubt there were others. These villages are set up alongside the sign-on and adjacent to the finish line, providing welcome havens of hospitality for not only us but also the guests of the many sponsors and the press corps.
Everything at the Vuelta is slightly lower-key than the Tour, a point which is probably appreciated by the largely local fans who have greater access to the riders and by the riders themselves who have much less pressure and hassle. There’s also a caravan but it only numbers a dozen or so floats and is much more modest than that of the Tour, but it does feature a number of common sponsors which prompted the thought of whether ASO sold the two – the Tour and the Vuelta – as a package. However, the logistics and organisation of the Vuelta are no less impressive than the Tour, just on a smaller scale. Sadly one of the common sponsors isn’t Haribo, so no Gummy Bears, although my husband did collect an impressive assortment of caps, keyrings, books and scarves.
Alejandro Valverde wins stage three by a whisker (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)
Having departed from a well-known wine producer in Rioja [other alcoholic beverages are available – Ed], Monday’s stage three finished atop a hill with which my husband and I are quite familiar and where Samu Sanchez triumphed in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. We were grateful that our passes enabled us to scale Arrate by car but were impressed by the sheer number of fans who’d ridden or walked up to cheer on their Euskaltel team and who were enjoying leisurely roadside picnics in the shade. The stage had the required fireworks among the leading contenders, a Spanish victor (Alejandro Valverde) but sadly not a Basque one.
Tuesday’s stage four started just south of Bilbao in a suburb housing Bilbao’s Exhibition Centre before heading south once more to La Rioja via Burgos and Alava. As always at the start and finish there are plenty of kids, many clad in kit from local teams. Here’s Juan Mari chatting to a group of young cycling fans and, maybe, future Vuelta winners.
The future of Spanish cycling (image courtesy of RDW)
Colombian climbing star and 2012 revelation Nairo Quintano (image courtesy of RDW)
The immaculately coiffed Maxime Bouet (image courtesy of RDW)
Everyone wants Valverde’s autograph (image courtesy of RDW)
Bertie at the start in Barakaldo (image courtesy of RDW)
The stage was won from a breakaway and handed Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) his first professional win.
A very happy Simon Clarke gets ready to shower everyone with Cava (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)
More excitement in the form of echelons, falls, accusations, counter-accusations, confrontations at team buses, plenty of comment on social media and even more discussion. Should Sky have waited for the leader Alejandro Valverde when he fell? Opinion was divided. One of the leading Spanish newspapers canvassed eight ex-riders for their opinion. Only Pereiro, a former teammate of Valverde’s, felt that the peloton should have slowed to allow Valverde to get back on. Valverde’s loss was Joaquim Rodriguez‘s gain. He took the red leader’s shirt by a second over Sky’s Chris Froome.
Purito launches his bouquet into the crowd (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)
One of my VeloVoices’ colleagues Panache commented early on that the Vuelta looked unbalanced as it was being held almost wholly in the north. On reflection, I suspect that this merely reflects which areas can or cannot afford to stage the race in the current economic climate. The north is the industrial and agricultural heartland of Spain, plus they’re making a concerted effort to increase tourism in this area. I can attest to the sandiness of their beaches, the diversity of the landscape and the cultural heritage which will unfold on our screens as the race progresses. Oh, why didn’t I say I wanted accreditation for the whole race?