My analysis of crashes, attacks and Contador suffering
A week might be a long time in politics but it's even longer at this year’s Tour de France, where the mix of elation and despair is being distributed in a seemingly merciless way.
It now seems an age ago when the HTC boys put Mark Cavendish in the right position to win again in Chateauroux after crashes wiping out the hopes of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner and Tom Boonen.
Team Sky were on a high after Edvald Boasson Hagen’s stage win. Wiggo didn't bounce when he crashed and the instant decision for everyone to wait meant that they lost Geraint Thomas's white jersey too.
It really was one of those damned if you do, damned if you don't calls. But it was a more understandable decision than those taken by RadioShack and Quick Step. They allowed Horner and Boonen ride to the finish in a concussed state before being whisked off to A&E. That was crazy.
RadioShack obviously didn't want to lose another leader after Brajkovic had crashed out. Fortunately the doctors must have persuaded them to see some sense and stopped the Tour of California winner taking the start the next day. Quick Step ought to have done the same, not only for his own good but for those around about him also. He could have crashed and brought other riders down as well.
The uphill finish at Super-Besse Sancy on stage eight provided three things of note: the early break succeeded for the first time when Rui Costa held off the return of the peloton, Thor Hushovd survived in yellow when he was fully expecting to lose it, and Alexandre Vinokourov tried and failed to upset everyone with a late attack so typical of the man.
You might not be a fan of Vino because of his past but you have to admit he knows how to race and his spectacular attack on the penultimate climb reminded everyone how strong a rider he can be.
I thought Alberto Contador looked decidedly under par on the final climb. The attacks he produced to try and gain back some of his GC deficit weren't strong enough to hurt his rivals and that's something the other favourites would have noticed and stored up for much gloating later in the Tour.
Suffering in the medium mountains
Next day to Issoire was one of those stages that race organiser ASO aptly call medium mountains. It means up and down hills all day, in and out of corners and lots of suffering on tarmac that manages to be sticky on the way up and slippy on the way down.
The stage turned out to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. The attack of the day contained the darling of the French public Thomas Voeckler, Luis Leon Sanchez, Sandy Casar, Juan Antonio Flecha, Nicki Terpstra and the irrepressible Johnny Hoogerland. Every one of them is a good strong rider so it was never going to be easy to keep the time gap under control. But all thoughts of that happening went out the window when there was another pile-up on a greasy descent that saw bodies everywhere. Important bodies too: Vino crashed out, Van Den Broeck, Frederik Willems and Zabriskie went out too, with numerous others lucky to get back on their bikes and in the bunch after a temporary truce was called.
By the time there had been a general regrouping in the peloton; it was obvious the break was going to stay away. Sadly that wasn't the end of the drama. Up front the squabbling for the stage win had started between the remaining five riders with Voeckler looking particularly committed, when the unthinkable happened.
Cars over take riders continuously in big races but instead of waiting till it was safe to do so the French television driver chose the wrong moment and it all went terribly wrong. Trying to pass with two wheels on the grass and faced with hitting a tree the driver made the wrong decision. Instead of braking and keeping out of the way of the riders, he swerved and hit Flecha, who went down hard taking with him Hoogerland who somersaulted and went straight into a barbwire fence. It looked horrific and neither Flecha nor Hoogerland would have known anything about it other than one minute they were racing in the Tour de France and the next, they were almost killed. It simply should not happen.
A brutal second weekend
It was a pretty brutal second weekend. The big crashes were still happening which indicated that everyone was still nervous and fighting to place their team leader in the first twenty. BMC looked good protecting Cadel Evans, as were Leopard-Trek with the Schleck brothers. But over at Saxo Bank things were starting to look frayed at the edges. It is surely a sign of things to come as fatigue begins to hurt everyone in the race.
After the first rest day on Monday, two transition stages caused what I'll call the HTC revival as the top sprinters returned to the fore. Greipel got the better of Mark Cavendish in Carmaux after the HTC boys were a bit exposed for the last few kilometres. Cavendish put things right the following day at Lavaur when he left all the other sprinters in no doubt who is the fastest, following another long day of graft on the front from his teammates at HTC. They make it look easy but there's some serious planning and preparation in those leadouts. It is all worth it, as Cav was over the moon to be back in his favorite green jersey.
A look at Luz Ardiden
And so to the first big mountain stage, the first big question and answer stage: day one of the Pyrenees with the Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden on the menu.
It was good to see Team Sky's Geraint Thomas make the day's escape and provide some indication of just how deep his talents runs. He has to be pleased with how his day went despite some ‘feet out’ moments on the descent of the first climb.
Thomas has been looking strong all Tour and second over the Tourmalet shows he isn't afraid to race on a day which most people would be fearful of. Jeremy Roy might have pocketed the Jacques Goddet prize at the top but it was Bastille Day so you kind of expect a French rider to be paying attention and stealing the glory.
On the final climb to Luz-Ardiden we saw the first real moves of this year’s Tour de France. Sammy Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert extracted themselves from the group at just the right time (i.e. before the hostilities really started) and rode very strongly to fight it out for the stage win.
Behind Europcar rode their legs off to keep Voeckler in yellow and he rightly gave Pierre Rolland a hug as they crossed the line. The yellow jersey looked comfortable for most of the stage but Contador's Saxo Bank teammates were often dangling on the back and of no use to their leader when the attacks started.
The Schleck brothers have received some stick in the past for getting their tactics wrong but this time they played the old one-two just right. Their attacks revealed who the real overall contenders are this year: Evans, Basso, Cunego and Contador were the only ones who could follow the Andy and Fränk accelerations. And interestingly, when Fränk put in the third attack, Contador didn't even try to go with him. That's not something the defending champion normally does and then he struggled all the way to the finish.
The time gaps weren’t that significant but Contador’s performance was. And will only spark further scrutiny, questions and attacks. This year’s Tour might not be remembered as one of the great editions of all time but we should at least see some great racing in the final week.
Trending and fending
Trending this week: Evans, Basso, Cunego, Fränk and Andy Schleck, Sammy Sanchez, Tommy Voeckler, Mark Cavendish and Philippe Gilbert.
Fending off the questions: Leipheimer, Tony Martin, Charteau, Nicolas Roche and Katusha for all the wrong reasons.
Bending or broken: Gesink, Gadret, Chavanel and Kreuziger.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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