July 11, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 8

There were some interesting breaks today, with Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck making moves, but in the end there wasn’t much change in the yellow jersey race.  Rinaldo Nocentini gets another day in the maillot jaune.

It was interesting to hear the speculation about the rift within Astana based on Contador’s move yesterday.  It looks like he may have alienated some of his team and made himself the outsider.  Or, that might just be media speculation.  But Lance Armstrong certainly didn’t seem happy with Contador.

Evans and Schleck showed that though they may be a few minutes back of the Astana bunch, they’re going to be factors in the Tour this year.  I think Andy Schleck especially has been biding his time and will make some major moves in the Alps and on Mont Ventoux.

I think those four riders (Armstrong, Contador, Andy Schleck, and Cadel Evans) are the only ones with a real shot at winning overall, even though there are other riders with better times.  I’d like to see Christian Vandevelde make a run at it, but he’s probably still a couple years away.

Rider of the Day

It’s unusual to pick a sprinter as the rider of the day on a mountain stage, but Thor Hushovd certainly deserves the honor.  On a day where there weren’t any major changes in the overall classification, Hushovd took the lead in the green jersey classification by joining the breakaway over the first few climbs and put some distance between himself and Mark Cavendish. 

I may have been a bit premature in awarding the final green jersey to Cavendish.  Hushovd is certainly going to make a fight of it.

Reasons I Love the Tour #8 - The Basques

The who?  If you follow the Tour de France, you know that the Basques are one of the main reasons that the Pyrenean stages are so exciting.  The fans line the mountain roads and cheer for the Eusklatel-Euskadi team and the rest of the riders. 

The Alps are fun, but there’s something special about the Pyrenees, and the Basques certainly contribute to that.

July 10, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 7

The mountains!  We’re finally into the mountains!  The Tour climbed out of Barcelona today to pay a visit to its second principality: Andorra.

As expected, Astana paced the peloton for most of the day, but unexpectedly, they allowed a breakaway to put more than 12 minutes between them at the start of the stage.  The lead group of the peloton narrowed the gap, but allowed them to finish just far enough ahead to put relative unknown Rinaldo Nocentini in yellow.

Judging from the way his Wikipedia page looked prior to yesterday (the last edit was on April 23), no one had much to say about Nocentini.  Now he’ll have his 15 minutes of fame before handing over the maillot jaune to one of the overall contenders tomorrow.

Behind Nocentini and the rest of the breakaway, the big names of the Tour were battling for position.  Early in the big climb to the finish, previous leader Fabian Cancellara was unceremoniously dropped off the back of the peloton.  Several other contenders tried to break off the front of the pack, but none succeeded until Alberto Contador absolutely spanked the rest of the field and crossed the finish line 20 seconds ahead of the rest of the leaders. 

None of the big names lost too much ground, and it’s still anyone’s race, but Contador definitely made people take notice.  He’s only 6 seconds behind Nocentini, but also only 2 seconds ahead of Lance Armstrong.  The battle for the lead of Team Astana is far from over.

Rider of the Day

All due respect to Nocentini and shocking stage winner Brice Feillu, but this was Contador’s day.  He made his mark on this year’s Tour and showed that he won’t be content to stalk Armstrong until the old man falters.  He’s going to go out there and show that he’s a stronger climber than anyone else in the race.

Reasons I Love the Tour #7 - Surprise Yellow Jersey Holders

Every once in a while, someone comes out of nowhere to take the lead of the Tour de France.  Normally it happens before the mountains, if a breakaway gets far enough ahead to put one of its members into the overall lead, but this year it happened on the first mountain stage.  Nocentini has no illusions of winning the Tour de France, but for the rest of his career and the rest of his life, he’ll be known as a former yellow jersey holder.  Even if he accomplishes nothing else in his career, no one can take that yellow jersey from him (well, except for tomorrow, when Alberto Contador does).

July 9, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 6

Well, that was to be expected.  A flat stage on a rainy day right before the start of the Pyrenees was bound to attract a breakaway that the peloton would only half-assedly try to catch.  In the end, the breakaway was caught on the slight uphill to the finish.

Barcelona looked beautiful, but the rain kind of dampened the scenery today.  The wet streets also claimed many riders, with crashes around the turns in the final few kilometers. 

The past week has all been prelude to tomorrow’s ride up to Andorra.  Look for Contador to try to make his mark on the race and put Lance Armstrong in his place.  Lance is likely to ride conservatively, content to ensure that he doesn’t concede too much time to any of the other big names.  I think you’ll see one of the main contenders win tomorrow, and one or two others will concede a lot of time.

Rider of the Day

David Millar - he rode on his own for much of the last 25K, and he nearly pulled off another successful breakaway.  While his breakaway partners gave up (even Amets Txrruka, which was surprising), Millar continued fighting through the streets of Barcelona, looking for a stage win.

Reasons I love the Tour #6 - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen

I’m not sure I ever would have been able to get into the Tour de France if these two weren’t covering it.  They make long stages where not a lot is happening still be really interesting.  Phil and Paul have a real knack for making cycling accessible for newbies, while still teaching things to people who have been watching the Tour for years. 

July 8, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 5

Another supposedly flat sprinters' stage and another unexpected result. Every flat stage, many of us watch and wonder why a few crazy riders get out there and work hard all day just to get caught by Brien's "beast", the peloton. But today's stage showed why they do it, as Thomas Voeckler and Mikhail Ignatiev edged the peloton at the line by the slimmest of margins. After leading all day in a breakaway of 6 riders, Voeckler had enough energy left to edge the peloton by 7 seconds. Ignatiev finished second in front of the sprinters, but it was so close that he received the same time as the entire peloton.

Can anyone out-sprint Mark Cavendish?

Today's results again force us to wonder about the strength (or the lack thereof) of this year's peloton. Two days ago in crosswinds, Columbia broke away en masse from the peloton and complained that no other teams have been pulling the sprinters' teams forward. In stage 5, the sprinters' teams were unable to reel the breakaway in for a sprint finish with a stage victory on the line. You could blame it on crosswinds and the splintering of the peloton at times, fatigue after the team time trial, or the weakness of the bottom half of the peloton. But the reality is that the teams of the major sprinters were rarely seen at the front and failed to do the job for their men most of the race. Astana and SaxoBank did the bulk of the work, and Cancellara was even seen pulling the peloton, a shockingly rare sight to see the yellow jersey leading the full pack over flat roads. Where are QuickStep, Cervelo Test Team, Milram, etc.? Anything truly is possible with this weak peloton. We'll have to watch each and every stage this year.

Rider of the Day
This has to go to Thomas Voeckler, winning the stage from the breakaway with a huge effort. It's always nice to see a Frenchman get a stage in his home country, mainly because few French riders or teams will figure in the rest of the race.

It's worth noting here that even though the sprint was not for the yellow jersey, Cavendish and Team Columbia again won it. His third place finish extended his lead with the green jersey and made Team Columbia 3 for 3 in sprints this year. Pretty impressive.

Reason to love the Tour #5: The Breakaway
Almost every stage, 5 or 10 riders spend all day out in front like rabbits for the peloton, hoping against hope that the peloton will screw up. Usually these are riders with no other chance at glory, workers frequently from lesser teams, nonames of the professional ranks. Each and every victory by one of these men is the highlight of their career. How often in sports does the last man on the roster even make it on the field or the slowest guy on the field get to score the winning point/goal/shot? If this happened during the Olympics, we would never hear the end of how heartwarming this longshot story is. (Granted, Voeckler is not that unheard of, but these comments are true for most breakaway members.)

IRL Street Series Race in Baltimore in 2011?

So I am far from the resident contributor to ECB with any wealth of auto racing expertise. Hell, beyond what I gleaned from playing Al Unser's Turbo Racing for the old NES System, I have almost no auto racing knowledge.

That said, who needs to have auto racing knowledge to be excited about this news? The IndyCar Racing League (IRL) is looking at downtown Baltimore for the site of a new street race in the Indy Series, joining St. Petersburg, FL, and Long Beach, CA, as the only American cities to host a street race! Presently IRL would like to add Baltimore to its 2011 schedule.

Could this stretch of Pratt Street along the Harbor soon be home to cars going over 150mph?

The proposed course, much love to The Baltimore Sun

Presently, public sentiment seems to be strongly in favor of Baltimore hosting this race. According to a poll presently appearing on the Sun's webpage, just shy of 85% of the 1250+ voters are in favor of Baltimore hosting the IRL race.

What are the downsides? Obviously many, many, many streets would have to be closed down for such a race. But the race would take place on the weekend and traffic would be minimal. Further, most people could take public transit into the event. Another downside is that the Harbor area would essentially be shut down aside from the event. But if you have thousands of people coming to the Harbor especially for this event, I don't think that the merchants are going to worry about other tourists being kept away. Safety and noise are also concerns of Baltimore's elected officials (some of whom may or may not steal gift cards to Best Buy designed to go to poor kids). Let me tell you this... after living in Baltimore for three years, I actually think that the prospect of debris flying from cars going upwards of 150 mph in an IRL race is safer than strolling the streets of Baltimore on an average weeknight. And noise... we're talking daytime. It'll be loud though, no doubt.

What are the upsides? Many. You get to feature downtown Baltimore and its very picturesque waterfront and harbor in a very positive way (for as much shit as I do give Baltimore, and I do give it shit, everybody knows that I have much love for Otterbein, Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, Locust Point, Little Italy, and the Harbor). More importantly, with Preakness and Maryland's horce racing industry facing an uncertain future, you are able to host an event which will bring in up to an estimated $100 million dollars in tourism revenue over the four days that the city would host the leadup to the race and the race itself.

Finally, the IRL would have the ability to spread some love for auto racing into what is presently the abyss between Dover/Richmond Speedways and New Hampshire Speedway. New York, Pennsylvania, and the DC area comprise a 200-mile long mass of humanity, and probably less than 2% of the millions whom live there could name an IRL driver other than Helio Castroneves (Dancing with the Stars) and Danica Patrick (media saturation). Street courses are the most fun type of racing to watch, as you can see cars tearing down the streets that are normally reserved for dense downtown traffic. It's dangerous, it's fun, and it's a lot more visually appealing than watching cars circle tracks.

My advice - keep your mouth shut, Baltimore, and don't blow this one.

July 7, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 4

I’m really glad the Tour organizers decided to bring back the team time trial.  I’m especially glad they planned it on such a difficult course.  Bicycle crashes are awesome.  People normally don’t get hurt too badly, but they look crazy.  Today’s stage offered plenty of crashes amongst the hard riding throughout the stage.

The time trial allowed some real separation between the main competitors for the yellow jersey, even pushing some out of the picture (at least for now).  So, my pre-tour pick of Denis Menchov isn’t looking too good.  Let’s not speak of that again.

Lance Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel seem unbeatable in the team time trial, winning the past four times the event has been contested.  I’m not sure if they train better for it, or if they just have a stronger team, but no other team seems able to compete with them in the team time trial.

Now that Lance is in within a second of yellow, we’ll start to get even more speculation about who the leader of Astana is.  It really won’t matter until Friday.

Now the Tour spends two flat days along the Mediterranean coast before climbing up to Andorra on Friday.  That’s when you’ll start to see who has a chance to win the yellow jersey.

Rider of the Day

Team Garmin (OK, it’s a team not a rider, but this was a day for the teams) rode a very impressive race, intentionally dropping some of their sprinters to finish with only 5 riders at the lead (the time for the whole team is the time of the 5th place rider).  They took a big risk in dropping riders early, but it really paid off as their strongest riders were able to keep up the pace throughout the course.  In the end, they were the only team that could compete with Astana.

Reasons I Love the Tour #4 - Time Trial Helmets

You don’t often see serious athletes looking so silly in pursuit of performance.  I understand the aero advantages of the “teardrop” helmets, but they look ridiculous.  I can’t help but laugh when I see riders wearing them.  It’s great for some comic relief.  Road Bike Action has a too-serious roundup of time trial helmets.

My Take on the Latest Confederate Flag Flap

So since my theme of the week seems to be Atlantic Coast Conference news, I'll take this topic on. The Atlantic Coast Conference has moved the 2011, 2012, and 2013 ACC Baseball Championships out of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because of South Carolina's refusal to take down a display of the confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. The tournament will be moved to various locations in North Carolina.

The article on Fox Sports is a fairly good read, giving much of the history of the dispute, the positions of the various parties, and the ACC's rationale for moving the baseball tournament.

Indulge me in a post where I will speak plainly about my feelings on this issue. I'm certain that many will disagree with my position, including possibly some of my co-contributors on ECB. That, my friends, is the beauty of the blog.

For our loyal six readers, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I am a member of The Tribe... the Chosen People, if you will (I'm Jewish for those of you who are really dense and don't get those references). I really don't consider myself an oppressed minority. There were no shortage of Jews in suburban DC where I grew up. Hell, now I'm a lawyer... I'm not exactly a minority in my profession. I've put up with my share of Jewish jokes in my life. And, in fact, most of them I find genuinely funny. I may have even told a few of them. I think on those occasions when I laugh when somebody tells me a Jewish joke, I know that they are doing it with no hatred in their heart, and no true ill will in telling the joke. Stereotypes exist, maybe they shouldn't, that's neither here nor there, but that doesn't mean that they're not fodder for some good chuckles every now and again.

Now, we reach the issue of the Confederate Flag. This is an issue that is entirely different to me. To some, the Confederate Flag is nothing more than a proud symbol of Southern identity. I understand that. However, there can be no disputing that to another segment of people, probably smaller, the Confederate flag represents something very different - hatred.

Let me digress and tell a very personal little story, which is rare for this blog. Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, I wasn't too far from a rural area of the county (yes, they did actually exist at one time and they exist to this date, even though they are fewer and more far in between now). On my way to the field where most of my Little League games were held, there was a huge house, set back across a large field. In front of that house, a large version of the Confederate Flag flew proudly in front. There was no American flag. It was also a fairly open secret that Klan meetings took place there. Not necessarily in full white hoods with cross burnings like Tennessee in 1925. But meetings, nonetheless. Every time I drove past there, as soon as I was old enough to understand the fairly open secret and who the Klan was and what they represented, I could feel a pit in my stomach when I passed there. It wasn't a worried feeling. It was more just a sad feeling that there were people in the world, people who lived just minutes from my house, people whose kids went to the same middle school as I did and who likely played in my same little league, who I knew hated me for nothing more than the religion that I happened to be born into. To this day, the Confederate Flag flies in front of that house. To this day, when I drive along that same road and I see that Flag on that property, I feel that same pit in my stomach. To this day, when I see a Confederate Flag bumper sticker, I can't help but feel that same pit in my stomach - I have no idea whether the Confederate Flag represents identity or hatred to that driver - but the fact that it may represent hatred is enough for all of us to feel sorrow. And please believe me... I think Brien, J-Red, and Russell can vouch for the fact that I'm about as far from joining the Anti-Defamation League as you will find.

Alone it's not much of a problem...

But for those of you who want us to lay off your Flag, because it's only about your Southern heritage, so long as these guys use your Flag for their own symbolism, it's a problem:

Like it or not, to those people to whom the Confederate Flag represents nothing more than pride in being from well south of the Mason-Dixon line, you need to understand that so long as there exists a minority of people who grasp onto the Confederate Flag as a symbol of bigotry and hatred, the Confederate Flag will continue to be spurned the same way it is by the ACC, the NCAA, and most other professional sports leagues. This was a move that I'm glad the ACC made.

July 6, 2009

Tour de France: Stage 3

I was writing this while watching Stage 3, and I had a whole post written about about how formulaic these flat stages can be, with an early breakaway caught close to the finish.  Oops.  This was about as exciting a flat stage as you’ll see.

The move by team Columbia was shocking.  I expected all the teams to take it easy leading in to the team time trial, particularly Columbia, who did a lot of work in stage 2. 

It’s great to see teams making aggressive moves early in the race trying to change the GC picture on a flat stage.  This year’s Tour is wide open, with Lance Armstrong in great position. 

The big question is how Astana reacts to Lance taking a 20 second lead on Contador.  Does Johan Bruyneel see this as a fluke, or more reason to make Lance the team leader? 

Cavendish won the sprint (again), and at this point he looks unbeatable when he’s in even decent position at the finish.  I’d love to see the odds on him to end the Tour in the green jersey.  They have to be asking 1/5.

Tomorrow brings the return of the team time trial for the first time since 2005.  It’s an interesting stage, particularly because it’s so different from every other stage.  We’re likely to see Astana dominate the field, with Saxo Bank and Columbia battling for second.  I doubt Astana will gain the :40 on Saxo Bank necessary for Armstrong to take yellow away from Fabian Cancellara.  I’ll be cheering for team Skil Shimano because I’m always happy when I recognize the sponsors of these foreign teams.

Rider of the Day

Lance Armstrong - The 37 year old former champ is back.  Don’t underestimate the effect Armstrong’s accomplishment will have on the race as a whole.  The battle for the lead of Astana was going to be decided (at least provisionally) early in the Tour.  Lance just staked his claim, and Contador is going to have to try to respond in the Pyrenees, or end up supporting Lance through the Alps.

Reasons I Love the Tour #3 - The Peloton

peloton The peloton is the hive mind of the Tour de France.  No single rider or team can decide whether to allow a breakaway to get away, or to immediately reel it back in.  Nor can any small group decide when to go after a break that has gotten away.  The peloton seems to arrive at these decisions as a whole.  And it’s fast.  On flat stages, the peloton can easily outpace any smaller group of riders.

The scene as a breakaway is getting caught, when there are a few riders trying to hold on just seconds ahead of the thundering herd is breathtaking. 

All of which makes it even more stunning when the peloton is beaten.  When a breakaway succeeds, or when the peloton breaks into pieces on a mountain stage, you feel as though you’ve seen something mighty be conquered.

July 5, 2009

ACC Football Realignment in 2015?

Could ACC football alignment be in the works? For those who don't know, divisions are presently aligned as follows:
ACC Atlantic:
Boston College
Florida State
NC State
Wake Forest
ACC Coastal:
Georgia Tech
North Carolina
Virginia Tech
Presently, every season, each team plays each of their five intra-division teams once, plays one inter-division "traditional rival" (e.g. Maryland/Virginia ... FSU/Miami), and then the remaining two conference games are random inter-division games (e.g. Maryland/Virginia Tech).
According to a very brief article appearing last month in The Orlando Sentinel, the head of the Florida State Seminoles booster club wrote to their athletic director urging him to lobby for realignment of the ACC Divisions in football. Now, to me, it seems that FSU has a lot more to worry about other than realignment. Like not forfeiting seasons' worth of victories. And the ACC made it be known that they can not realign until 2015 at the earliest, as football schedules are apparently set through that year.
Here's the proposal from Florida State (and how it is of imminent interest to us here at ECB): Maryland be swapped with Georgia Tech - Maryland would move to the ACC Coastal Division and Georgia Tech would move to the ACC Atlantic Division.

You can never go wrong with a picture of J-Red's favorite Duke football player - Dan Erdeljac. Not an easy picture to find.

So how does this Terp fan feel about it? Well, about the only bad part of this is that I'd be sad to see Clemson off our calendar every year, I'd actually be all in favor of this move. The Terps will soon be playing West Virginia every season once again. Thus, if the Terps were in the Coastal Division, every season we would play all our border war games (Virginia, Virginia Tech, WVU). We'd draw UNC every year who is a traditional rival from the very beginnings of the ACC and who arouses much more of a sense of rivalry from Terp fans than Wake Forest. Our new "traditional rival" who we would play every year would likely become Georgia Tech, which isn't that great. We'd play Miami every year in football which I feel like before not too long is going to be a huge test again, and which gives the alumni the opportunity every two years to hit South Florida for a road game. And, of course, we'd get Duke on the schedule every year... easier than a 1-AA game.

Here's what it boils down to - I'd prefer to play Miami every year over FSU. I'd certainly prefer to play Virginia Tech every year over Boston College. I'd prefer to play UNC every year over NC State. I'd prefer Duke every year over Wake Forest because of the easy win aspect. Georgia Tech over Clemson every year is the drawback.

So we're still only about six years off. But hey, Seminoles, you want an ally in this? I think most Terp fans would be on board.

Rethinking Andy Roddick

Even though I always wanted him to win, I’ve often been harsh on Andy Roddick in the past, accusing him of not trying hard enough, and that he was more concerned with being a celebrity than a top-level tennis player.  I was wrong.

roddick Roddick proved that today, with a hard-fought loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final.  Andy stretched the match as far as possible, when Federer broke his serve for the first time all match at 15-14 in the marathon fifth set.

federer Early in the match, I thought Roddick might prove me right, when he blew a 6-2 lead in the second set tiebreaker to throw away a chance to go up 2 sets to none.  He kept his energy level up, though, even after he lost another tiebreaker in the third set.  I’ve never seen him cover so much ground on the court and run after so many borderline balls.  He left it all on the court, and at the end of the day, there’s no shame in losing a match like that to the greatest player ever.

Andy Roddick may never be the next great American tennis player, but today he proved to me that he has the heart of a champion.  I’ll be cheering for him in the US Open.

Tour de France: Stage 2

contador armstrong Well, now we’re into the real stages of the Tour.  It’s still early, so the GC contenders are holding back and just making sure they don’t lose any time.  There weren’t any changes in the yellow jersey competition, as today was a day for the sprinters. 

We saw the standard flat-stage breakaway, it never got farther than 5:00 ahead, and the peloton easily reeled it in, leaving a group sprint finish.

Mark Cavendish showed again that he’s the fastest sprinter in the world, winning easily over American Tyler Farrar.  Hopefully this year he’ll make it all the way to Paris, rather than wussing out early.

The biggest surprise of the finish wasn’t that Cavendish won, but that other green jersey hopefuls like Tom Boonen and Thor Hushovd were nowhere to be seen at the finish (although Boonen was apparently sick).

As for Astana, we didn’t see any changes for them, and we likely won’t until the mountains, unless Kloden or Leipheimer make it into a big breakaway and throw a wrench into everything.

The flat stages are great, but I can’t wait until we finally make it into the mountains. 

Rider of the Day

cavendishObviously, Mark Cavendish.  The question wasn’t whether or not he’d win a stage this year, but how many he would win.  Today, he made a lot of people start speculating about how high that number could go.  He got a perfect lead-out and breezed to the finish. 

Cavendish seems to have a knack for finding the finish line first, like Robbie McEwen a few years ago.

Reasons I Love the #2 - Sprint Finishes

sprint finish When I first started watching the Tour de France, I wasn’t a big fan of the sprint finishes.  As I learned more about the tactics that go into leading a rider out for a finish, I began to like them more.  It’s always exciting when there are only a few seconds left in the stage and you have no idea who is going to win. 

I love watching someone begin a sprint to early, only to be caught before the finish line.  In these early stages, hopefully we’ll see a lot more great sprint finishes.