Thursday, July 23, 2009

Stage 18: Time Trial in Annecy: Will Armstrong take back the podium?

Stage 18: Time Trial in Annecy: Will Armstrong take back the podium? And Saxo Bank's Mechanics Discuss the Schleck Bikes

Today’s time trial in Annecy will be decisive, but perhaps only for one day for riders like Lance Amstrong who could retake second or third position in the time trial.

If so, he is likely to lose it again two days from now on Le Mont Ventoux, the penultimate climb in this year’s Tour.

All eyes will be on him anyhow. For one, relations with his teammate Alberto Contador have never warmed, and since the younger rider took off during Stage 7 to Andorra, and again, on the mountain to Verbier, he has not won back any affection from Armstrong.

Yet Armstrong continues to play the team cards, partly because he has to. He hasn’t the training necessary to compete at the level of Contador, Andy and Frank Schleck, which was evident yesterday when the Schlecks attacked before the Col de Romme, the second to last climb before the finish at Le Grand Bornand.

Perhaps it was a humiliation, perhaps not. Armstrong told the French newspaper, L”Equipe, that would be coming back in 2010, and he plans on two more Tour de France’s.

We can expect the least from him, and perhaps two more will not be the final number. Afterall, we thought 2005 was his last after winning seven tours. As the French might say, ca suffit alors, or that’s enough already!
Pic: The Astana time trial bikes: Armstrong's is black and yellow, Contador's, team colors

All eyes will also be on the leaders, Contador and the two Schlecks, Andy who is in second place overall and his brother Frank who is in third position. The top five riders will go off last starting about 2:25 pm French time, and about 8:15 eastern mountain time in the U.S., a nice change for once for Armstrong who may have had a big disadvantage in not racing against the better completion times in the first time trial in Monaco because he started many places before the top riders.

This time he will be able to see every rider before him with the exception of the top three riders. In a face to face combat with Contador it is possible that Contador could better his time. But to beat any of the three riders, he will need to be faster by more than 2 minutes, perhaps not achieveable at this juncture.

On the other hand, Armstrong has always kept something in reserve and yesterday, despite the last minute effort he made to come over the last climb, the Col de Colombiere, and preserve his second place finish, he may have exhausted more effort than he wanted to.

The 26.5 km route around the lake of Annecy has a small climb of 3.7 km and a 6 percent grade. The shorter length of the time trial with the short climb three quarters the way through in Bluffy in some ways favors most of all Contador, but it is a toss up when it comes to the two Schlecks and Armstrong: he will pack a lot of strength on the most flat course.

The Saxo Bank Mechanics, and the bikes

Pic: Roger Theel, mechanic for Saxo Bank with a Saxo Bank rider before he goes for a practice spin this morning.

All of the riders made an early morning spin through the course, and depending on what time they are to go off, many will be eating lunch before they take their turn today. With the first rider Yauheni Hutarovich of Francais des Jeux going off at 11:10 am (French time), every one of the 158 riders behind him will go off every 2 seconds.

Pic: Saxo Bank truck and a time trial bike on the stand before the race today.

A little south east, the mechanics prepare the time trial bikes for the riders. At the Astana bus, the bikes are lined up against the wall: Armstrong’s bike is black and yellow, Contador’s is the regular team colors. Occasionally he uses the zebra striped bike but today he will not, said his mechanics.

At the Saxo Bank bus, mechanic Roger Theel works on some of the time trial bikes: Andy and Frank’s bikes are not here, because the riders are training now. But the bikes are all the same he said, Specialized S-Works that weigh about 7.6 kilograms. Today they are putting a Zipp Sub-9 disk wheel in the back, and a Zipp 1080 in the front. The chain ring is a 54/ 44.

All of team bikes are also locked up at night in the team trucks, and for extra security—so no one can either tamper with the bikes or perhaps even steal them, a car is parked in front and one in back to make opening the truck impossible, said Theel.

Two of the mechanics working on an Astana team time trial bike.

Theel, 35, started working on bikes soon after he stopped racing when he was 16 years old. From the small town of Nagdeburg closest to Berlin, he started working as a bike mechanic when he was 23 years old, and started working as a professional in 2001, with his first Tour de France in 2003. He won’t say how he made the leap from lowly bike mechanic to mechanic for one of the most accomplished teams in this year’s tour. But one thing is for sure. He has to be exact about his work.

Pic: The Team Saxo Bank time trial bikes mounted on the team car before the race.

Tires are pumped to 13 or 12, a European measure that equates more or less to 140 psi. Brakes and gears are thoroughly checked as well.

What does he think now that his team has two stars? “In this team it makes no big difference from day to day,” he said, displaying the same insouciance or lighthearted approach to the team’s sudden stardom that was expressed by Frank Schleck and his managers last night.

This morning Theel said the Saxo Bank riders trained one and a half hours on the course. Frank will be going off at 16:41 (2:41 pm) French time) and Andy at 16:44.

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