The Death of the Grand Tour

The Death of the Grand Tour

by / / 105 posts

Suspense. It defines the thrill of watching a bike race. Johan Van Summeren, his deflated rear tire clanging over the last secteurs of cobblestones in Paris-Roubaix with Fabian Cancellara breathing down his back; Laurent Fignon snatching seconds from Greg LeMond on each mountaintop finish, as LeMond snatches those same seconds back in the time trials. From the spectators standpoint at least, suspense categorically defines good bike racing.

Bike racing is a monumentally difficult sport, with even the one-day races representing a magnificent display of endurance. Many one-day races are 200 or more kilometers over difficult terrain and in awful weather, where riders need to be fit, strong, and alert at all times during a competition that lasts upwards of six hours. Grand Tours distinguish themselves by aggregating the challenges from the one-day races into a three-week event; their sheer length cause riders to not only battle each other but themselves as fatigue creeps in, brought on by racing twenty days along windy coastal roads, over high mountains – in baking heat or torrential rain. Simply finishing a Grand Tour labels a rider as a “Giant of the Road”, the designation given to those few who were good enough and hard enough to endure this ultimate test of determination and stamina. Those who manage to win one will be defined by the accomplishment for the remainder of their career and, quite possibly, their lives. The V, brought to life and personified in each one of them.

Historically, one of the distinguishing factors of Grand Tour contenders has been their superiority over their rivals in one discipline or another, while typically being bested in another discipline. The Grimpeur who soars over the mountains shows weakness when they go contre la montre. The Rouleur who gains an advantage in the time trials struggles to limit their losses over the high passes. The route, the terrain, their weaknesses, and their ability to respond to the tactics of each stage characterizes the three-week struggle for domination. There is no other event on Earth like it.

The grimpeur versus the rouleur has been the Grand Tour’s great struggle, for what Merckx giveth in the Mountains, Merckx taketh away in the Time Trial. The emaciated body that the climber uses to float up the steepest gradients is little more than a waifish weather vane in the time trails where sheer strength and power are the keys to success. Conversely, the additional body mass required to generate time trial-winning power becomes an anchor when pointed uphill, allowing gravity and physics to do their cruel work.

Where in the past we’ve seen riders who could ride amongst the best in both the mountains as well as the time trials, these riders were never the dominant figure in either of both disciplines. Anquetil was strong in the time trials but struggled in the mountains – the same goes for Indurain. Hinault, LeMond, and Ullrich were strong in the time trails and, while good climbers, were always bested by others on the high passes. Fignon and Pantani could take time away from their rivals on the vicious slopes of the high mountains, but struggled to maintain their advantage in the time trials. It all came together to form a ferocious battle of riders pitting their strengths against their rivals’ weaknesses, and their rivals coming back to do the same another day when conditions were more in their favor.

Yet, in the last decade, we’ve seen an alarming shift in the qualities of some top Grand Tour contenders. With Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, we have seen a new class of rider who is the best climber in the world while also the best time trialist; while an awesome display of skill, it puts paid to the excitement of watching a Grand Tour unfold. Each of Armstrong’s wins came at the hands of devastating mountaintop wins coupled with domination in the Time Trials. Similarly, Contador’s 2009 record-setting VAM (Vertical Ascension in Meters) on the climb of Verbiér came alongside his defeat of World-Champion time trialist, Fabian Cancellara, his frail climber’s body managing to best the most powerful rider in the peloton.

Whatever lies at the root of this transformation, it seems these riders have found a way to abolish their weakness in these opposed disciplines, and can execute their race plans with surgical, three-week precision. With that precision comes the death of the Grand Tour; for it is the weakness of our heros that lends us the opportunity to revel in the thrill of their victories. Without that weakness, we have gained an impressive show of dominance, and lost the spectacle of suspense.

// Nostalgia // Racing // Technology

  1. @Buck Rogers

    Yeah, I am not sure why they are going away from 2 long ITT as well as mountain stages. I'm no historian, and could be completely wrong, but I seem to remember there always being at least 2 decent ITT back in the 70"²s-90"²s. Also, I do not think that there are that many more mountain stages than in the 70"²s-to-2000. I would lobby for at least 2 50k+ ITT and 5 mountain stages. But then again, nobody asked me!

    ….maybe this is their way of giving Endy his 30 seconds back….?

  2. On the matter of Guinness
    1. Flaherty’s Pub on roundabout entering Dingle Village
    2. McSwiggan’s in Galway City
    3. Patrick’s Bar in Glenties in Donegal
    4. The Green Room, Magharee’s Headland, northern Dingle Peninsula
    5. Smuggler’s Creek in Rossnowlagh

    All in beautiful cycling countryside
    Have a pint of Guinness in any of these places, and you will know why we don’t drink it overseas (in fact, worth making a tour out of those 5 spots – 1 and 4 are only 30 miles apart, with the spectacular Connor’s Pass, bit like a small but equally misty Tourmalet climb, between them

  3. @Dr C
    The Green Room! Great little joint! Been off topic most of the day so I’ll finish with this: Ross Castle used to be in my family……..

    And, HA!! to the re: Le Velo. A buddy sent it to me. Same guy that did the ‘performance’ video. Local racer.

  4. @frank

    @Oli

    Indurain didn’t struggle that badly in the climbs – he was routinely second or third on almost all of the big mountain stages of the Tours he won, and it could be argued he could have claimed a few if he wasn’t such a gift-giver!

    Oh, it’s good to be sparring with you again, old friend. It’s like Vader and Oli-Wan meeting again on The Death Star.
    Indurain struggled like a bat trying to read War and Peace. He said so himself. Hanging with Cappuccino and Virenque was almost the death of him, by his own account. That’s not to be confused with successfully making it up with the front-runners by the sheer force of The V. In fact, he was quite a good climber, winning mountain stages when he was younger, so he could absolutely get over the hills.
    The point I was trying to make, perhaps poorly, was that his strength was the Time Trials where he was unmatched, while in comparison to the best climbers – not just the other GC contenders – he struggled. When it came to climbing he was in a different class than the true mountain goats.
    And, before you point it out, Anquetil, while a worse climber than Indurain, could also hold his own up the hills…the battle on Puy du Dome comes to mind.

    Well Lord Vader, I thought it was universally accepted that they all struggle? After all, in the words of Greg LeMond, “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” However, I do see your point.

    (I wasn’t going to mention Maitre Jacques…)

  5. @Pedale.Forchetta
    Benvenuto a NorCal, Pedale!

  6. @mcsqueak

    @scaler911
    I’d like to try Guinness over there some day – I’ve heard it’s good. I’m not such a big fan of the stuff we get over here. Though if I ever find myself in Ireland I’ll probably be too busy drinking the whiskey…

    SCOTLAND FOR THE WHISKEY Don’t make me angry.

  7. @Pedale.Forchetta
    In Santa Monica with no bike? That’s horrible. The Santa Monica Mountains are a jewel of a riding area. Glorious riding to be had there.

  8. @minion

    @mcsqueak

    @scaler911
    I’d like to try Guinness over there some day – I’ve heard it’s good. I’m not such a big fan of the stuff we get over here. Though if I ever find myself in Ireland I’ll probably be too busy drinking the whiskey…

    SCOTLAND FOR THE WHISKEY Don’t make me angry.

    Yes. But you gotta admit, 100 y/o Irish is better than anything from Kentucky.

  9. @frank

    @ChrisO

    Do you think it also has something to do with the fact that riders seem to specialise in the GTs, especially in the post-Armstrong era, even post-Indurain.
    The former contenders you mention were often also riding and winning the classics and other races. It wasn’t all about one Tour. Therefore they would have been less able to maintain their performance over three weeks.
    Whereas now the top GC contenders build their entire season and their entire team around a single race, or at most two. That must go some way to explaining better performance in a wider range of disciplines.
    Plus doping of course.

    It’s a good point, but as @Souleur points out, there is a physics thing involved too. To be good – even very good – at both is normal, even required of a rider to be a GT contender. Evans is a great example of that; good in both disciplines, but not the best.
    What’s new in the equation is riders being the very best in both – Contador is the best climber AND the best TTer. It’s a step beyond being competitive in the discipline to beat the specialists in both areas.

    Agreed. With the exceedingly quick advancement in pharmacology, it’s no wonder if you have talent (no doubt clenbutador has a load of that), and good physicians, you can get around peeing in a bottle, and crush tiny Columbians in the mountains, and the brute strength of the likes of Cancellara. Pass me a Spanish steak please, rare (don’t wanna burn off the good stuff). See you at Masters nationals.

  10. @mcsqueak
    Once upon a time I lived outside of Seattle and I remain partial to Rainier for a cheap brew. It still doesn’t hold a candle to my all time favorite shitty beer – Miller High Life. Long live the girl in the moon.

  11. @rufio
    My current tipple of choice – Belgian strong-ale style, made using Ardennes yeast (and called “Ardennes”) and exceedingly tasty. Even if it wasn’t brewed right here in Wellington I’d still rate it.

  12. @G’phant
    Link now attached: http://www.tuatarabrewing.co.nz/ardennes.php

  13. @scaler911
    Protestant Whiskey

  14. @minion
    Love that show.

  15. Good Evening, mes amis.

    Just finished “We Were Young and Carefree.” Fignon suggested much longer ITT’s, like back in the day. I’m good with that. I want the TTT’s back, too. Oh, and he said to put three hellacious climbing days together in a row. Yes, please.

    Pedale, when in SF, go to Telegraph Hill and imagine racing your bike up that thing. Ouch.

    Cheap beer for me on July 4th? Lone Star. Accompanied by my body weight in BBQ brisket and beef ribs. Dessert? Warm peach cobbler with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. Life’s simple pleasures.

    Yes, my socks match, too. But sometimes my bidons don’t.

  16. @scaler911
    I’m annoyingly contradictory cos I like Bourbon. I don’t really consider it whiskey but do enjoy it quite a lot. And Irish whiskey is very drinkable and convivial, but this isn’t the place for imitation. Scottish whiskey can make you fall in love or take your head off, depending on where its from and how its made, which is what I love about it.

  17. And yes the Wire is awesome, SWMBO told me about a Icelandic politician who began an anti – politician political party and refused to negotiate with anyone unless they’d seen every episode of the wire.

  18. And with the more kms I put in myself, the greater my respect is for guys who are able to put in such hard efforts for three weeks in a row. I realize that for as much physical talent and determination it takes, there is an even deeper need for an incredible level of mental V to pull off a Grand Tour finish.

    They might have the physique of a bird, but they have the mental toughness of a prize fighter.

  19. There is a @Minion

    @scaler911I’m annoyingly contradictory cos I like Bourbon. I don’t really consider it whiskey but do enjoy it quite a lot. And Irish whiskey is very drinkable and convivial, but this isn’t the place for imitation. Scottish whiskey can make you fall in love or take your head off, depending on where its from and how its made, which is what I love about it.

    As an Irishman, I have to admit, the best whiskies are the Scottish malts, if you like that sort of stuff, though I once had a bottle of Glen Kella from the Isle of Man – unusual brew, now called Manx Spirit or something, very entertaining effect, and wholly unpalatable….. like all things from the Isle of Man I guess

  20. @Dr C

    There is a @Minion

    @scaler911I’m annoyingly contradictory cos I like Bourbon. I don’t really consider it whiskey but do enjoy it quite a lot. And Irish whiskey is very drinkable and convivial, but this isn’t the place for imitation. Scottish whiskey can make you fall in love or take your head off, depending on where its from and how its made, which is what I love about it.

    Manx Spirit or something, very entertaining effect, and wholly unpalatable….. like all things from the Isle of Man I guess

    Ha! Awesome, I bet Cavendish was weaned on the stuff!

  21. @Minion
    indeed, strange stuff – I felt invincible on it, swore inappropriately, was admittedly a bit weepy, at times crying like a baby, and admittedly a bit unnecessarily bad tempered, and my friends told me it just made me act like a twat – wouldn’t recommend it, apparently makes you grow a third leg, which is not much use for cycling

  22. @mcsqueak
    Fair point, I’ve some decent brews in NY, but these weren’t commercial Yankee shit, but micro breweries whose remit was quality and taste. However you’ve forgotten that most of the Yankees breweries were created by German emigres during the l9th century. Anhauser-Busch, Schlitz, Pabst etc.

    Anyhoo, Yankee ‘beer’ is piss. Compare Bud to the real Czech stuff. It’s a no brainer. My favourite Czech beer is Kozel Cerny; it looks like Guinness but taste like proper lager but the Czech do not export it. I wonder why?

    BTW @scaler911 is right about Guinness from Dublin, it’s rich and creamy and very moreish when imbibed with Jameson, Bushmills or Johnny Walker (Red or Black).

  23. @G’phant
    Isn’t a tuatara a really ugly spiky lizard…

  24. @mcsqueak
    BTW @scaler911 is right about Guinness from Dublin, it’s rich and creamy and very moreish when imbibed with Jameson, Bushmills or Johnny Walker (Red or Black).

    Jesus man, in case anyone might misinterpret this, you don’t put the shot IN the Guinness, as per that heretic activity the Southern English types do with blackcurrant cordial (Merckx preserve us from that behaviour!!)

    Only exception is a shot of sambuca in a pint, when time trialling on a stag night – the notorious “Belfast Car Bomb” – leaves much wreckage – and only if the Guinness in that unseemly establishment is shite

  25. Okay, gloves are finally off….

    “On stage 15 to Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees, while he was wearing the yellow jersey, Schleck attacked Alberto Contador on the Port du Balès climb. But as he was opening up a gap, his chain jammed, and the Spaniard took advantage to attack and went on to gain 39 seconds – exactly the amount of time that separated the two riders on the final podium in Paris.

    “I wouldn’t have done that (attack),” Schleck said in an exclusive interview published in French newspaper L’Equipe on Thursday. “He said he didn’t see it. But he looked like this [turning his head and looking over his shoulder – ed.] and then he attacked.”

    “A great champion doesn’t do a thing like that. When Ullrich crashed into a ravine, Armstrong waited. When Armstrong crashed on the way to Luz-Ardiden (on stage 12 of the 2003 Tour), the other riders agreed to wait for him. That’s what makes a champion. I was really very disappointed by his attitude that day.”

    “On the day after it, he came to say he was sorry. I told him in English: ‘I forgive but I don’t forget’. I think he understood.”

    BRING IT ON!!

  26. Brilliant quote from Brian Holm of HTC re Cavendish:

    “It’s probably nice to be Olympic champion. Like winning Gent-Wevelgem or something.”

    Don’t know where that should go but I had to share it ;-)

  27. @ChrisO

    Brilliant quote from Brian Holm of HTC re Cavendish:
    “It’s probably nice to be Olympic champion. Like winning Gent-Wevelgem or something.”
    Don’t know where that should go but I had to share it ;-)

    Awesome! – that pretty much confirms the move to Sky then…

  28. @Dr C

    @mcsqueak
    BTW @scaler911 is right about Guinness from Dublin, it’s rich and creamy and very moreish when imbibed with Jameson, Bushmills or Johnny Walker (Red or Black).

    Jesus man, in case anyone might misinterpret this, you don’t put the shot IN the Guinness, as per that heretic activity the Southern English types do with blackcurrant cordial (Merckx preserve us from that behaviour!!)
    Only exception is a shot of sambuca in a pint, when time trialling on a stag night – the notorious “Belfast Car Bomb” – leaves much wreckage – and only if the Guinness in that unseemly establishment is shite

    As a southern english type I would take umbridge with that, it’ Guinness, Cider and Blackcurrant and that should only be drunk in the sort of establishment where your shoes stick to the floor.

    Adding coffee based liqueurs is also acceptable if the pint in question is sub-standard.

  29. @minion

    @scaler911
    Protestant Whiskey

    That’s so weird! Me and my son just watched that exact episode tonight…

  30. Having a grandfather and uncle retire from Pabst it makes me proud to see that it has become the shite beer of choice for dirtbag cyclists/climbers/cavers/paddles and just plain poseurs.

  31. @Chris

    As a southern english type I would take umbridge with that, it’ Guinness, Cider and Blackcurrant and that should only be drunk in the sort of establishment where your shoes stick to the floor.

    I rest my case!! ;o)

  32. @scaler911
    If Minion is in Ireland he should be drinking Whiskey. If he’s in Scotland, he should be drinking Whisky. One letter difference, but what a difference it makes . . . .

  33. @Pedale.Forchetta

    @sgt@frank and @allBe in US it’s great for many reasons, one no less important among the others is to be ‘closer’ to a lot of Velominati! I’mNow heading to San Francisco, I’ll be there for the 4th of july…Ps sorry for being completely off topic!

    You’re off topic?!?! What the hell is the topic here anyways!!! :)

  34. @scaler911

    @minion

    @mcsqueak

    @scaler911I’d like to try Guinness over there some day – I’ve heard it’s good. I’m not such a big fan of the stuff we get over here. Though if I ever find myself in Ireland I’ll probably be too busy drinking the whiskey…

    SCOTLAND FOR THE WHISKEY Don’t make me angry.

    Yes. But you gotta admit, 100 y/o Irish is better than anything from Kentucky.

    I’ve got some 23 y/o Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon that is the smoothest and best tasting alcohol I have EVER had. Now, I admit, I have never had 100 y/o stuff but I bet the Pappy would at least be able to hold a candle to it.

  35. @Dr C

    ….maybe this is their way of giving Andy his 30 seconds back….?

    LOL! Love it!

  36. @Buck Rogers
    You’re off topic?!?! What the hell is the topic here anyways!!! :)

    These things called “bi-cycles” or something, I think.

  37. @Pedale.Forchetta
    If you keep going North (the drive from San Francisco to Seattle via the Pacific Coast Highway rivals any scenic route in the world) and find yourselves in Seattle, you know how to reach me.

  38. @Jeff in PetroMetro

    Just finished “We Were Young and Carefree.” Fignon suggested much longer ITT’s, like back in the day. I’m good with that. I want the TTT’s back, too. Oh, and he said to put three hellacious climbing days together in a row. Yes, please.

    Fignon was the man. Love that book – one of the best I’ve read.

    @Dr C

    @Minion
    indeed, strange stuff – I felt invincible on it, swore inappropriately, was admittedly a bit weepy, at times crying like a baby, and admittedly a bit unnecessarily bad tempered, and my friends told me it just made me act like a twat – wouldn’t recommend it, apparently makes you grow a third leg, which is not much use for cycling

    So, you’re saying you drank liquid Cavendish?

  39. Jeeze… I missed quite a few posts up there regarding whiskey, scotch, etc.

    I would hardly consider myself a connoisseur because at this stage in my life, I frankly (or should I say frönkly, harHAR!) don’t have the cash to blow on tons of liquor, especially when it comes to the spendy stuff, which whisky/whiskey/scotch/etc. can get into rather quickly.

    I will say Jameson was my whiskey of choice for some time, but I grew tired of the sweetness of it after receiving three bottles between my birthday and Christmas last year, both of which fall within weeks of each other.

    I have family from Wales, and there is some Welsh whiskey being produced and exported, but the liquor stores here in Oregon (all government regulated) have it priced pretty high, so I haven’t tried it yet.

    Japanese whiskey, at least the few that I’ve tried, have also been quite good. Basically the same as your general “irish” style whiskeys as far as I could tell, but I imagine some of the more obscure/expensive Japanese whiskeys would be quite good, since the Japanese have their own legacy of brewing yummy alcoholic beverages.

  40. @mcsqueak
    Jamesons is great, goes in the hipflask for keeping warm at outdoor sporting events. Not that I’m an alcoholic or anything, I just drink a lot to the detriment of other areas of my life (kidding!)

  41. @frank
    Ahah! That’s would be really great!

  42. @Pedale.Forchetta
    @sgt

    Just been in Vegas and then LA (Beverly Hills with a side trip to Santa Monica) – and I feel compelled to comment that American beers are veeeeeery ordinary. Although drinking Bud/Coors Lights out of aluminium bottles in 110F Vegas heat sitting in a casino pool is pretty nice.

    Additionally, American cheese and butter should be considered a national disgrace – but their customer service ethic is second to none (along with the proliferation of surgically enhanced breasts).

  43. @Marcus – don’t forget In’n’Out Burger. Thank Merckx that LA is pretty hilly as between them and the taco vans I would have ended the year I spent there fatter than an off season Kaiser at a beer’n’wurst convention.

    Conty has fangled again – he’s having a nightmare so far, much more pressure and I think he might come apart like a cheap watch…

    Schleckles has done very well to stay out of trouble.

  44. @Marcus
    I reckon your experience of “veeeeeery ordinary” American beer has everything to do with your choice of US destinations.

  45. @Marcus

    @Pedale.Forchetta @sgt
    Just been in Vegas and then LA (Beverly Hills with a side trip to Santa Monica) – and I feel compelled to comment that American beers are veeeeeery ordinary. Although drinking Bud/Coors Lights out of aluminium bottles in 110F Vegas heat sitting in a casino pool is pretty nice.
    Additionally, American cheese and butter should be considered a national disgrace – but their customer service ethic is second to none (along with the proliferation of surgically enhanced breasts).

    Yep. That just about sums up the American experience. Except you left out buffalo wings. And NFL football.

  46. @Jeff in PetroMetro
    And Nascar… Although our euro-brethren are just as nutty about F1 and Moto GP, and the Aussies seem to like this:

    http://youtu.be/xZjCT1VaEZQ

  47. @Marcus

    @Pedale.Forchetta @sgt
    Just been in Vegas and then LA (Beverly Hills with a side trip to Santa Monica) – and I feel compelled to comment that American beers are veeeeeery ordinary. Although drinking Bud/Coors Lights out of aluminium bottles in 110F Vegas heat sitting in a casino pool is pretty nice.
    Additionally, American cheese and butter should be considered a national disgrace – but their customer service ethic is second to none (along with the proliferation of surgically enhanced breasts).

    It’s not just the IT sector that can be fairly called Silicon Valley! Gotta love Southern California!!!

    As for the beer though, you simply didn’t choose well… Stone, The Lost Abbey, Dogish Head, Allagash, Avery, Ballast Point… there are some really stellar breweries in America and I’d reckon The Lost Abbey can go toe to toe with anyone worldwide. The 2009 Angels Share and the 2008 Lost Abbey ‘Allaverdogportrush’ Isabelle Proximus are two of the best beers I’ve ever tried. Tomme Arthur knows what he’s doin…

  48. @Leroy

    It’s not just the IT sector that can be fairly called Silicone Valley! Gotta love Southern California!!!

    Fixed your post, mate.

  49. @Nate

    @Marcus
    Indeed with the destination problem. Go north, young man, and buy beer.

  50. @sgt

    Woooohoooo! Yeah!!!!!!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_isgXzxIa24

    “I wake up every mornin’ and I piss excellence.” Hell Yeah.

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