Monday, August 22, 2011

Variation #3: Andy Schleck

"What though the field be lost? / All is not lost; th'unconquerable will, / And study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield." -John Milton, Paradise Lost
Cadel Evans won the Tour de France; Andy Schleck lost it. He lost it in the Pyrenees, where he and his brother Fränk, teammates and among the best pure climbers of the current generation, sat back and raced defensively. He lost it on stage 16, when he couldn't stay with Contador's attack on a climb and then rode his brakes right into a huge time gap on the downhill. And, finally and decisively, he lost it in the individual time trial, where he lost an enormous 2:31 to Cadel Evans. And for all that, with a single brash, majestic ride he came within two kilometers of winning it all.

To understand Andy's ride, you have to go back two days, to his utter failure on the Col de Manse.1 Not that he couldn't hold Contador's wheel-- there's only a little shame in that. The Schlecks are best suited to longer climbs, and Contador's sheer acceleration on the steeps is his greatest weapon. Only Sammy Sanchez and Cadel Evans managed to hold on that day. But that gap expanded on the slick descent, where an early scare rattled Andy into outright caution. “Boof – 1:06 to Andy. I thought we’d take 20 seconds at the most,” said Contador afterwards. Most damning of all, though, were Any's own words: "I don’t think people want to see a race decided on the downhill. We don’t want to see riders crashes. A finish like that shouldn’t be allowed." Is there a worse sort of talent than a talented coward?
1: Really, you should go back to last year's Tour where he placed second by under a minute, but we have to have some boundaries here.
On stage 17, Contador attacked again, and again got some separation. He was caught up within the last kilometer, which was spectacularly dramatic. With Paris approaching, a resurgent Contador, and time slipping away in the mountains of all places, Andy was on his heels. Which brings us to stage 18.


It was a monster of a stage. After 40 flat kilometers to warm up, it went straight up the 9,000' Col Agnel, then the 7,740' Col d'Izoard, and from there to the finish atop the 8,678' Col du Galibier.2 A breakaway of 14 riders, including two from the Schlecks' Leopard-Trek squad, attacked at the base of the Col Agnel, but with no threats to any jersey among them, they were given free rein by the peloton. 37 miles from the finish, on the Col d'Izoard, Andy attacked. Contador was too tired to reel him back; if Cadel Evans countered with Fränk perched on his wheel, he would drain himself just to see a counter-attack that could break him. "This is a brave move, an iconic move!" Paul Sherwin cried. By the summit, Andy had a full two minutes on the field.


His descent was startlingly adrenal. He leaned hard, took aggressive lines, and left himself little margin for error. He caught up to his first teammate Joost Posthuma3 on the blank khaki crags of La Casse Deserte, tear-assing like a man with something to prove, and then he passed him. Posthuma just didn't have the juice to lead him out fast enough.4 Andy caught up Maxime Montfort, who set quick lines for Andy, who despite his stock market impersonation was still not a particularly talented descender, to follow, then put his head down and dragged Andy to the head of the breakaway. As they approached the base of the Galibier, Andy was working at the front of the break himself, ratcheting the pace beyond what the others could. He lead the yellow jersey group by over 4 minutes; on the road, he had the overall lead of the Tour by more than 2 minutes.
2: Every time I try to imagine actually riding over that route, something goes wrong. I just don't have any useful referents. I've ridden myself stupid. I ran until I puked one time. Neither one was even hard enough to extrapolate from, let alone compare.
3: This is a perfect name for a fictional character, like a morbid inversion of Oedipa Maas.
4: By this point, Andy had already fully redeemed himself. Everything further was just extra credit. And I'm not apologizing for that pun.
He attacked the breakaway and rode the winding road up the Galibier alone. As he approached the top, his smooth pedaling had grown ragged and an uncharacteristic grimace flashed over his face. An official UCI5 car pulled up behind him, and through the sun roof stood none other than Eddie Merckx, swinging his arms and roaring encouragement. The closest analogue here would be if, while LeBron was dropping 25 straight on the Pistons in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, Michael Jordan had pushed his way to courtside and started screaming and pumping his fists because GODDAMN RIGHT THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT. It gave a body goosebumps.6
5: Union Cycliste Internationale, the ruling body of professional cycling.
6: Which makes it all the more astounding that it is nowhere to be found on YouTube or Google image search. Really, the internet? I guess the good Dr. Pangloss was wrong.
Below, the other contenders were a disorganized mess. Rather than working together to catch Andy, they played chicken, waiting for someone else to take it on themselves up front, while Fränk bode his time in the pack. Finally, Cadel Evans and Contador started to push the group, cutting into Andy's lead. Contador, though, simply had no legs under him. He cracked, losing nearly four minutes and watching his hopes of winning blown to pieces. Evans put on his grownup pants, leading a sweltering chase all by himself. Two kilometers from the summit, Andy was still in the virtual lead, but he was hemorrhaging time. Four minutes became three. Three winnowed down towards two, towards Andy's gap in the standings. He crossed the finish, while Cadel rolled inexorably up, straining at his pedals and occasionally swearing at his companions, who could barely manage to keep up, let alone move to the front.

Fränk, who had spent the entire day chilling in Evans' slipstream, attacked at the top for an easy second place. Thomas Voeckler, who looked about ready to collapse and/or vomit blood, survived Evans' pace to the finish, keeping the Maillot Jaune by a mere 15 seconds. Cadel's strength put him a full head above the field, but he was now a minute behind Andy and fully on the defensive.

The trouble is, I don't think I've managed to do any sort of justice to that ride so far. The bare facts matter, but for those you can just read around some. What's missing is the thrill of it and the doubt. The slow unfurling of the last three hours of the ride: the distance and the mountain yet to go, the sheer energy Andy was expending, and the number and talent of the men chasing him on one hand; the tactical perfection of the move and the tremendous form Andy was showing on the other.7 Not to mention how well it fit into the overall narratives of the race: Voeckler hanging onto the maillot jaune by one final shred before losing it on the Alpe d'Huez; Andy setting himself up to win the yellow only to lose it the next day; Cadel being just a fucking horse. And how an hours-long move could have such tight margins as Andy started to fall apart approaching the finish: 2k fewer and he wins by a big enough margin to win the whole Tour; 2k further and he might not have won the stage. That kind of extended tension is incredibly rare, and almost never happens without some kind of tied-game stasis-- a basketball team coming back from 30 points down to win in double overtime, or a pitcher taking a perfect bid into the 13th, say8-- the closest analogy I can come up with is a one-day cricket match where the team batting second chases an immense score into the final over.


So no. Andy Schleck did not win the Tour de France. But he injected more drama, more intrigue, more humiliation and inspiration and redemption and bravery than the whole rest of the contenders combined. And just as no one reads "Paradise Lost" to wallow in the poetry of the Almighty, when I look back on this edition of the Tour, my first thought will not be for Cadel Evans. Satan is so much more compelling.

7: But then, Andy's always been one to smile, no matter the pain.
8: I don't mean to say either one is worse. Each has its own particular flavor of amazing.

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