Monday, July 13, 2009

Tour De France Rest Day Recap

Stages 1-3
As expected, Fabian Cancellara won the stage 1 individual time trial and his Saxo Bank squad worked to protect his overall lead for the first few stages, and stage 2 ended with a bunch sprint won by the world's best sprinter, Mark Cavendish. None of the major contenders had stuck their necks out and were content to wait to the high mountains before testing their opponents. Stage 3 saw a bit of a shake-up as the peloton got split in two on a windy day along the Mediterranean, with only Lance Armstrong finding a place in the front half of the split among the contenders. Armstrong vaulted from 10th to 2nd overall, with teammate and Tour favorite Alberto Cantador just 19 seconds back in third place. Cavendish won the sprint finish in stage 3 as well.

Stage 4 - Team Time Trial
While the yellow jersey is awarded to the individual with the fastest overall time, he cannot win it without the support of his team. This idea was never more evident than in stage 4 when Cadel Evans dropped to 2:59 behind the leaders and 35th place overall because his team was not strong enough to keep pace with the top teams. Evans' hopes for a Tour victory all-but vanished just four days in, and before they even got a glimpse of their first mountain. Other contenders, such as Denis Menchov (crashed - 72nd +3:52), defending champion Carlos Sastre (29th +2:44), and Andy Schleck (20th +1:44) lost huge chunks of time as Team Astana (pictured) rolled to top times at each time check, including the finish.
Garmin-Slipstream had the best race of the day, going out so fast that they dropped four of their nine teammates around 1/3 of the way through the course. With only five remaining riders in a race against the clock that doesn't stop until your fifth rider crosses the finish line, Garmin gained time on every other team in the field but Astana, vaulting Brits Bradley Wiggins and David Millar into 6th and 10th, and Americans David Zabriskie and Christian Vandevelde into 9th and 12th overall.
Astana mopped up on the field, placing riders in 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 11th in the overall standings and pulling Armstrong into a virtual tie with Cancellara for the overall lead (Cancellara held on by 22 hundredths-of-a-second after 10 hours, 38 minutes of racing).
Stages 5-6: No Change At The Top
With so many riders losing so much time in the team time trial, and with the Pyrenees looming in stage 7, this was the last chance for many riders to steal a few minutes from the leaders by getting into breakaways. The expression goes that the no one wins the Tour de France in the early stages, but they can lose it. So the big contenders were content to let the breakaways go and to only chase them down when the gaps got big enough to shake up the top of the leader board.
The field let Aussie David Millar go in stage 5 and after escaping a breakaway pack with about 15 miles remaining; he actually extended his lead on the field while riding solo. Millar started the day just 1:07 behind the yellow jersey, so eventually the peloton took notice of his attack and slowed reeled him in before finally catching him with only a little over .5 mile remaining. This was the first day that the Tour fought through rain and it played a huge role, with many crashes slowing the field down allowing Millar to escape in the first place.
Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (pictured) was able to do in stage 7 what Millar had been unable to do to stage 6. Voeckler got into a breakaway group early on and finally went solo. Voeckler started the day nearly 7 minutes behind Cancellara for the yellow jersey, so the chase was not as intense and he lived to win the stage, holding off the peloton by just :07.
Stage 7: Let The Games Begin
The press had been making news of the supposed rift among the members of Team Astana for months: who would the team support, Armstrong or Cantador? The riders themselves had been saying all the right things: it was Cantador's team to lose, Armstrong is a great champion, we are all professionals and there is no rift, etc. On the roads, the team seemed unified as well. Where was this rift? Armstrong had quietly moved ahead of Cantador three days earlier in a lucky break and there had been no change among the other leaders in four days, but this year's longest stage, stage 7, would take the Tour to its third highest peak ever, finishing at the top of Arcalis in Andorra - it would be a the perfect chance for the Astana battle to go up a notch, and for forgotten contenders to make some noise.
For the first time, Cancellara faltered, falling from the top spot as Team Astana ruthlessly pushed the pace for nearly the entire stage 7, taking the wind out of the sails of any possible attackers. When Schleck or Evans or Sastre moved to the front of the peloton, Armstrong, Cantador, Levi Leipheimer, and Andreas Kloden were quick to defend their team's dominant position. Finally Cantador was the one to make a successful attack, surging away from the pack in the stage's final mile. While it looked like Armstrong could have answered and kept with him, he instead stayed back and to force his rivals to go after his teammate's surprise move - he wouldn't do the work for them.
Armstrong surrendered 21 seconds to his teammate, dropping to third behind new leader Rinaldo Nocentini (who had survived in a breakaway to take the overall lead by 6 seconds, pictured) and Cantador (who now led Armstrong by 2 seconds). Cantador had broken many unwritten rules of conduct by attacking his own teammates who had been doing the pace-setting. According to teammate Leipheimer, the surprise move was Cantador's own idea, and not part of the team strategy. Armstrong, always the professional, had supported his surging teammate on the road by fighting off attackers for him, and afterwards would not bite at probing questions about the team's mindset.
Stage 8-9: Here Come The Contenders
After Cantador's sudden bolt into the lead of Astana, the team insisted that there were no problems in the clubhouse, so to speak. Armstrong said, "Even if there were some hurt feelings, we're gonna do out job. We're all professionals." After a team meeting before stage 8, Astana manager Johan Bruyneel said that he had addressed Cantador's move and that there was some tension but that they'd do their jobs. Reading between the lines, it wasn't clear who the team supported (Cantador who seemed to have the better legs, or Armstrong who seemed to be in the right), but it was clear that there was officially a problem with the team.
With Astana suddenly in apparent turmoil, it seemed that the remaining two day in the Pyrenees would be filled with attacks from contenders, even if it was earlier in the Tour than most had probably planned to make any moves. Evans made an early move in stage 8 to get into a breakaway along with a few other big names (Zabriskie, Vladimir Efimkin, Thor Hushovd, George Hincapie, Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Egoi Martinez), but Astana refused to let them go until Evans dropped out of the pack. He did, and off they went. Schleck attacked on the final climb of the day but was quickly answered by Armstrong and Astana.
Eventually, a select group of 11 riders (Armstrong, Cantador, Schleck, Frank Schleck, Evans, Kloden, Wiggins, Vandevelde, Sastre, Leipheimer, and Menchov) climbed away from the peloton and caught the breakaway. Having established their strength, the leaders allowed the yellow jersey and peloton to catch back up and finished together after a long descent.
Stage 9 shaped up nearly identically, with a long descent late, allowing the field to reassemble after separating out in the early climbs. Armstrong led Astana in running down dangerous early moves as they neared the climb up Col du Tourmalet (the 4th highest peak in Tour history) which is a 10.6 mile Highest Category climb up to 6939 ft. AG2R set the pace in protecting the yellow jersey of their man, Nocentini, and there were no major moves from any of the main contenders as they all finished with the same time once again.
Stage 10: A Hush Falls Over The Crowd
The Tour de France has decided to not allow teams to use radio communication between team cars and riders in stages 10 and 13, a decision that hasn't been well received among all the teams and riders. Supposedly Bruyneel has a petition signed by at least 14 of the 20 teams asking for the radios to be allowed or they will boycott the stages. Garmin's manager Matt White says that having no radio is not that big an issue in reality because their use is relatively new anyway. Garmin was one of the teams that did not sign the petition.
Assuming the stage goes off as planned, and assuming there is any attacking whatsoever, look for veteran riders who may have raced in the days before radios to take advantage of younger men. It is a flat stage and should not cause any shake-up of the contenders, but the radio-situation could be quite a wild-card. It is also Bastille Day so a betting man would be wise to put money on a Frenchman (Voeckler in particular) to make a breakaway for the stage win.
Stages 10-15 are all relatively flat stages and there is not likely to be much change in the leader board, nor much news from the Astana camp until at least when they hit the Alps in stage 16.
1. NOCENTINI Rinaldo (Italy), AG2R-La Mondiale, 34h 24' 21"
2. CONTADOR Alberto (Spain), Astana, + 00' 06"
3. ARMSTRONG Lance (USA), Astana, + 00' 08"
4. LEIPHEIMER Levi (USA), Astana, + 00' 39"
5. WIGGINS Bradley (UK), Garmin-Slipstream, + 00' 46"
6. KLÖDEN Andréas (Germany), Astana, + 00' 54"
7. MARTIN Tony (Germany), Team Columbia - HTC, + 01' 00"
8. VANDEVELDE Christian (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, + 01' 24"
9. SCHLECK Andy (Luxembourg), Saxo Bank, + 01' 49"
10. NIBALI Vincenzo (Italy), Liquigas, + 01' 54"
Other Notables
13. SCHLECK Frank (Luxembourg), Saxo Bank, + 02' 25"
16. SASTRE Carlos (Spain), Cervelo, + 02' 52"
18. EVANS Cadel (Australia), Silence-Lotto, + 03' 07"
27. MENCHOV Denis (Russia), Rabobank, + 05' 02"
28. HINCAPIE George (USA), Team Columbia - HTC, + 05' 25"
69. ZABRISKIE David (USA), Garmin-Slipstream, + 29' 50"

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