So, you're on your bike, you've ridden 100-plus miles so what do you get? You get to finish up a 10-percent incline over the last mile of Thursday's Stage 6. Better yet, you have 15 more stages and over two more weeks to go!
This is again what makes the Tour de France so special and one of the toughest feats in all of sports.
Thursday gave the riders their first uphill finish of the Tour. When you're riding in such a stage, you have to be patient. I don't think anyone is super-confident on the first uphill climb of the race -- you don't want to put yourself out there and not stick it. If Alejandro Valverde would have attacked with 5 kilometers to go and then been caught, it would have seriously hurt his morale. Instead, he and the other main contenders waited. You didn't see any of them make moves until the last 500 meters, a point where they knew they could take it all the way to the finish line.
At 300 meters, I was yelling at my television here (Nice, France), yelling for my CSC-Saxo Bank teammate Frank Schleck to go for it since fellow CSC rider Carlos Sastre was with him. Instead, he waited, and eventual stage winner Riccardo Ricco and Tour favorites Valverde and Cadel Evans attacked to the finish.
Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vande Velde did try to wage an early attack with 3.1 miles to go. I've never seen Christian look this fit. As he pulled away from the peloton along with Saunier Duval's Leonardo Piepoli, he was trying to set up teammate David Millar. But, at the end of the day, Millar didn't have enough gas to finish the job. Piepoli, meanwhile, carried out a similar plan with success, setting up Ricco for the win.
Still, I like the way the Garmin riders are working as a team. They are making their push for yellow in the first week. After that, they're won't be more any a wild-card opportunity. Their plan may have backfired on them today, but they should try going for another stage win. This "defeat" may get into their heads a bit, but at the same time, that's cycling. You have to pick yourself up off the mat. You were knocked down, not knocked out.
Speaking of teamwork
When you watch the end of a stage, especially in some of these climbing/mountain stages, you'll notice the work of teams up at the front of the peloton. For the second half of Stage 6, you saw Caisse d'Epargne's black, red and orange jerseys (there are those kits again!), including Valverde, in front of the pack. You usually have one team leader (in Caisse d'Epargne's case, that would be Valverde), and the rest of the eight riders protect the leader or set the pace for him. Thursday, you saw some Caisse d'Epargne riders dropping off one by one as the riders climbed closer to the finish, and then, Valverde attacked and finished second in the stage.
So, you might ask, was this the plan all along? This is where cycling gets a little funny.
On my team, CSC, we have a team meeting in a bus every day before stages. I joked earlier this year that we should just record the meeting one day and play it back three months later -- it is almost always the same plan every time! CSC's focus is always to have one rider go for the stage win or protect who's in yellow. (It's sometimes hard working for a leader because you don't receive as much personal recognition, but if the leader or your team manager comes up to you after a stage and shakes your hand or pats you on the back, that's the gratification you take from the day.)
Obviously, the best situation is when a team has one leader, and other riders around him have their strengths and weaknesses and you plan around them. Only thing is, with cycling being as unpredictable as it is, you have to be prepared to change plans on the fly. What if your strongest climber has a bad mountain stage? You can set rules and ideas of what you want to accomplish, but no one knows how you're going to feel until you're out there on the road.
That's the best thing about the earpieces we have now. You can change your plan in a second or two. In the past, we'd have to ride back to our team car, talk to the team manager, then ride back to the pack. Now, we can just talk to the team cars with our earpieces. It makes cycling much more controlled now. Reaction time is also cut down because teams can watch live on television, too. They can see what's up.
Of course, the tactics also lead to spying and espionage! There have been, ahem, instances where some have tapped into other teams' radios. It happened to CSC once. Once we figured out what was going on, we just started talking gibberish over the radio. There were a few times when our manager, Bjarne Riis, spoke Danish to some of our riders, who then communicated messages to us. You can also overhear other team managers on riders' radios.
Sometimes, they're loud. One time, I went to a team's car window and warned the guys inside that other riders in the peloton could hear them!
Sometimes, you have to joke about it. During a race, my teammates (Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt) and I were riding at the back of the peloton and started coming up with hand signals for moves. I started doing the third-base coach signs -- moving my hand from my nose to my chin to across my chest. It became our joke for about a month. But seriously folks -- we don't really have anything like that! But, if I ever ran a team, I might implement something like that. It would be kind of cool -- you want to get your point across, call a sign like a point guard in hoops!
My surprise on Thursday has to be Ricco. He's a specialist at those uphill finishes, but judging by the way he has been floating around and not showing much interest in the race so far, it was pretty impressive for him to take on Valverde and Evans and win the stage.
First up, Damiano Cunego losing time. On top of that, Stefan Schumacher losing the yellow jersey to Kim Kirchen after falling in the final yards. That is a real bummer. There is a rule for flat stages, where if a rider crashes in the last 3 kilometers of a stage, he is awarded the same time as the peloton (usually because there are sprint finishes in those flat stages, which increases the probability of a crash). There isn't such a rule for a climbing stage since there usually isn't that kind of sprint/pack finish in climbs. That's just not how you want to lose the yellow.
In Friday's Stage 7, there will definitely be a breakaway with a Category 2 climb about 40-50 kilometers from the finish. With Kirchen in yellow, Team Columbia will want to protect him. If there is a breakaway, Voigt will be feeling good. He's been kept under wraps, so I hope CSC will let the big dog eat Friday!
Stage 8 will be more controlled, but hopefully there will be some sprint finishes. Expect the sprinters to control this stage.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.