Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tour de France 2010: Rest Day Recap 2

Setting the Stage: Stages 1-8
Before the Tour, we were supposed to believe that the 2010 Tour de France would be a showdown between 7-time champion American Lance Armstrong of Team Radio Shack and 2-time champion Spaniard Alberto Cantador of Team Astana.  I'm not sure how many people really thought Armstrong still had the juice to go toe-to-toe with the world best stage racer, but then I suppose there weren't many people who thought he'd live through his bout with testicular/lung/brain cancer, or who thought he'd become a professional cyclist again, or a good cyclist again, or win the Tour de straight times.  The guy is good at confounding expectations. 

Early on in the 2010 Tour, it looked like Armstrong may have had the legs to compete among the leaders, but he didn't have the luck.  A series of badly timed crashes knocked him out of the running and by the first rest day, 8 stages in, the actual picture of what the final podium might look like was beginning to take shape.  Australia's Cadel Evans of BMC Racing was in the lead, 2009 runner-up Luxembourger Andy Schleck of SaxoBank was in his familar 2nd-place spot, and 2010 champion Cantador was nipping at both of their heals in third.  Most of the other expected contenders were all within a few minutes of the lead.

Week 2 Highlights
Stage 9: Evans moved into the over all lead after stage 8 simply by surviving that brutal day in the main pack of contenders and having the previous over all leader, Sylvain Chavanel, drop back early in the day.  He is an excellent time trial racer and had a lead of 1:01 over Cantador, so his goal was probably to simply shadow Cantador for the next 10 stages and not allow him to get away, rather than to attack him and gain time.  Whatever his stategy may have been, Evans' poor history while wearing the yellow jersey turned out to be a harbinger of things to come.

The stage covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 16,000 feet of climbing (the equivalent of riding over halfway up Mt. Everest) in the Alps, including the famous Col de la Colombiere and Col de la Madeleine.  The over all favorites ("general classification" or "GC") were not expected to attack much this early in the Tour, especially with a long descent at the end of the stage, unless one of them showed weakness and could be shed from the pack.  Three-quarters of the way through the stage, and halfway up the Madeleine, the GC men were sticking together and allowing a breakway group to hold a small lead.

But when SaxoBank and Astana took up the pace-making to support their stars, the peloton broke apart.  Astana's Alexander Vinokourov made the first bold attack away from the GC men before relenting to the hill and falling back into the pack, but the chase caused by Vino's attack was enough to unhitch Evans from the group and his dream of wearing Yellow in Paris was over.  It was later revealed that he was riding after breaking his elbow three days earlier in a Stage 7 crash, but injury or not, the Yellow jersey was Schleck's for the taking if he could hold his 41-second lead on Cantador.

After a flurry of attacks by the two titans that separated them from the rest of the field, but not from one another, they eased up and let the rest of the remaining GC men rejoin them.  The elite of the race would be splintered into multiple groups over the top of the Madeleine with a long descent into the finish to test their nerves.  Schleck and Cantador would eventually run down the breakaway group finishing only two seconds behind them, putting no less that 50 seconds between themselves and their closest GC competitors.  Schleck was now in first over all, Cantador second, and Spain's Sammie Sanchez, Russia's Denis Menchov, Belgium's Jurgen Van Den Brouck, and American Levi Leipheimer rounded out the top 6, all within 3:59 of the lead.  Frenchman Anthony Charteau took over the Polka Dot climber's jersey after surviving the day in the breakaway.  Evans dropped all the way to 18th, nearly 8 minutes off the pace.

Stage 10: Three things were certain on this Bastille Day stage that led the Tour over its last three Alpine climbs and down into the rolling hills in the middle of the country: the day would be won by someone from a breakway group, the GC men would not attack one another so the standings would likely remain unchanged, and a lot of French riders would get into the break to go for glory on the national holiday.  All three came to pass, but it wasn't a Frenchmen who took home the stage win, as the Portuguese Sergio Paulihno of Radio Shack stole the win at the line.  In fact, the top Frenchman was only 4th, 1:29 behind Paulihno.

Stage 11: Finally out of the Alps, the sprinters were expected to have their day again as long as the peloton would be able to run down the inevitible early breakway.  American sprinter Tyler Farrar or Garmin had had a tough Tour to that point, breaking his wrist nearly before he even started the month of racing, and his task of winning stages got even tougher after teammate Robbie Hunter retired from the race with a broken elbow. 

It was supposed to be a relatively predictable, routine stage: breakway early, sprinters' teams reel them in, lots of wind, rolling hills, sprinters battle it out for the stage win.  And while that is just how it played out, there was plenty of drama.  Brit Mark Cavendish of HTC-Columbia won the stage thanks to the lead-out (think: lead-block by a fullback in football) of teammate Mark Renshaw, but it was Renshaw's brutal headbutting (technically legal) and then cutting-off of Tyler Farrar (not legal) right near the finish that made headlines.  The dangerous tactics got Renshaw booted from the Tour and left Cavendish without his best weapon in the sprints to come at the end of the Tour.  Italian Alexander Pettachi finished just enough places ahead of Thor Hushovd to take the Green sprinters'/points jersey away from the Norwegian. 

Stage 12: Though there were no major climbs in this stage (five Category 2 and 3 climbs though), it was not expected to be a good day for the sprinters, but rather than a breakway group might survive.  With the Pyrenees looming for the next day, the GC men were not expected to do much attacking either until perhaps the day's final climb, a very steep but short Cat 2. 

Vinokourov, always a threat to abandon team tactics and ride selfishly, was in an early break with a few other highly placed riders, so the GC men were never going to let them get away.  As the breakway fell apart and the GC men came chasing as a group, Vino was the only one to survive the break to within about 2 miles of the finish line, and then things got dicey.  Despite that his own teammate was alone in the lead, Cantador (also not one to worry too much about team tactics and etiquette) attacked and got away from his GC contenders.  He actually caught and passed his teammate in the final 1/2 mile, cutting just :10 out of Schleck's over all lead.

With so little time left in the stage to gain time on his true rivals, the bold attack of his own teammate by Contador seems to indicate that there may be a rift on Astana between their two best and most famous riders.  Sound familiar?  Was Cantador concerned about Schleck and feeling more desperate to erase his lead?  Did he simply prefer to ride the race from the front?

Farrar was unable to finish the stage as his broken wrist proved too painful after he'd impressively survived on it for over 10 stages. 

Stage 13: Vinokourov wouldn't have long to wait to get back the glory that his teammate stole from him in Stage 12.  The sprinters' teams helped bring back an early three-man break within the last 6 miles, but just as they did, another attack was launched by six riders, and Vinokourov was the only one of them with the legs to outlast the peloton.  Vino took the win, and Cavendish won the sprint by the peloton, with Pettachi and Hushovd finishing 3rd and 8th, flip-flopping the Green jersey back onto the Italian's back for Stage 14.  Cavendish's win moved him up into third in the Green jersey competition. 

Stage 14: The showdown between Schleck and Cantador was finally ready to begin in earnest.  Finally in the Pyrenees, the riders would spend the next four days climbing over massive mountain peaks and passes, and the two leaders were expected to shed their competitors quickly.  Stage 14 featured a summit finish on a Cat-1 climb, the highest categorized climb.  But it also featured an HC climb just before it, which is off the scale for measuring the length, height, and grade of climbs. 

To this point, Astana and SaxoBank (even without Frank Schleck) had done a fair job of protecting and supporting Cantador and Schleck, but they had also shown that they didn't really need much help anyway.  Astana's brutal pace-making over the second half of the stage had reeled in almost all the riders from an early breakway, and had also kept the GC men in check - unable to get enough pace up to try an attack.  Eventually the lead group was whittled down to a select group (Schleck, Cantador, Sanchez, Menchov, Van Den Brouck, Leipheimer, and Gessink - all of the top 7).  Schleck and Cantador again began attacking in the last 3 miles of the summit-finish.  Neither able to shake the other, they essentially stopped and let Sanchez and Menchov get away, seemingly content to simply finish together and not worry about what anyone else did.  The two escapees only gained 14 seconds on the leaders, and the leaderboard remained unchanged. 

Stage 15: With a very tough day of climbing in this stage, including a final climb up the HC Porte de Bales (6000 feet of climbing for 12 straight miles) and then a hair-raising descent into the finish, we expected some fireworks.  Boy did we get them!

The race did not begin in earnest until they reached the Porte de Bales, and then all hell broke loose.  France's Thomas Voekler had escaped a breakway group and was alone in front, with SaxoBank leading the peloton on the chase that would soon erase basically the whole breakaway.  But as Schleck lost his last pace-setting teammate with 15 miles remaining (approximately 3 more miles of the HC climb), and Cantador still had three with him, Schleck had no choice but to attack to separate Cantador from his mates.  Cantador was able to answer, as were the next three in the standings, but only them.  After about 1/2 mile, this attack relented and some of the other elites were able to rejoin the group, including Vinokourov and Leipheimer. 

But just as they did, Schleck attacked again and this time he seemed to have caught Catador by surprise.  Vino was able to stay with Schleck, but Cantador struggled to find another gear to follow the attack.  But before he was put into any real stress, Schleck's chain popped off his bike and he stopped dead to fix it.  In the meantime, Cantador and the rest of the GC men flew by him and away, going hard over the last two miles of the climb and into the finish, taking 39 seconds away from Schleck and stealing the Yellow jersey from him, despite a heroic solo fight through the broken GC contenders trying to stay with Cantador, Sanchez, and Menchov over the top.

During the Yellow jersey award ceremony after the stage, Cantador received a good amount of boos from the crowd for what some consider an unsportsmanlike attack.  Cantador was later quoted as saying he didn't know what had happened to Schleck so he attacked, but as Lance Armstrong said the next morning, Cantador was 50 feet behind him and had a direct view of Schleck.  He knew exactly what had happened.  There is debate about the etiquette in this situation.  Some say it is a race and it is not Cantador's fault that Schleck's chain fell off.  But others say that the protocol there is to continue on, but not surge, at least until race-radio announces that Schleck is back on the bike. 

By way of comparison, in Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour, Lance Armstrong made an strong attack up a final climb and escaped Jan Ulrich, Tyler Hamilton and the rest of his contenders.  As he rounded a corner, his handlebar hooked into a woman's purse and Armstrong went down.  Ulrich and Hamilton could be seen on camera going by Armstrong as he struggled to get up, and then they eased up their pass (Hamilton even putting an arm out to signify to the rest of the GC pack to ease up).  Armstrong recovered, caught and blew by them and went on to win the stage and clinch the Tour thanks to the huge time he gained on that climb. 

The precedent set time and time again is to not attack in such a situation, and Cantador attacked.  Just as his attack of then-teammate Armstrong in the 2009 Tour, and his attack of teammate Vinokourov earlier this year, Cantador continued to show questionable sportsmanship.  Last year he quieted his critics by winning by such a large margin that his move against Armstrong proved inconsequential, and now in the lead, we might expect the same to happen again.  If not for this quote from Schleck after the stage: "I can't tell you if it was fair or not, but I would not have raced like that.  My stomach is full of anger right now and I want to take my revenge."  You think the final climbs next week might be interesting?

Stage 16: To round out the second week of racing, the Tour visited some of its most brutal climbs, the Col d'Aspin and Col de Tourmalet, but those were only two of four brutal climbs (two Cat-1's and two HC's).  With nearly 100 miles still to ride (after going over the Col d'Aspin), the peloton had already been shattered with such big names as Armstrong, Vinokourov, Bradley Wiggins, Roman Kreuzinger, Ryder Hesjedal, Sandy Casar, and Carlos Sastre in an all-star breakway. 

As they started up the Tourmalet, Armstrong showed that this may have been the stage he had in mind when he said a week earlier that he wanted a stage win in the Pyrenees.  He attacked the lead group, splitting it up even further.  As they made their way up the HC Col d'Aubique, Armstrong's group was down to only five and they were attacking constantly; their lead over the main field had stretched to 8:15.  They were joined by Casar and American Chris Horner on the descent leading into the day's final climb with just under 30 miles remaining. 

After the breakway expanded to 9 riders with 25 miles to go, over the final climb and leading the field by nearly 10 minutes, Carlos Barredo attacked the breakway and eventually put over 40 seconds between himself and Armstrong's group.  But in the final miles, Horner and Armstrong helped carry the remaining breakway riders until they finally caught Barredo with just 1/3 mile remaining.  Armstrong's dream of one last stage win was dashed as he was out-sprinted at the line, but his brilliant attacking carried the entire breakaway the whole day and Armstrong proved himself once again to be a formidable champion. 

What's To Come?
Cantador leads Schleck by :08 in the Yellow jersey chase.  Sanchez is third (2:00) and Menchov 4th (2:13)

Stage 17: Once more to the Col de Tourmalet, this time from the other (harder) approach, and this time with a summit finish.  This may be Schleck's last time to show us that anger in his stomach and get any time on Contador.  Most believe Cantador will be able to make up as much as 2:00 in the final time trial if needed, so Schleck cannot afford to wait for a last minute attack, he'll have to break Cantador early and get away - which isn't something we've ever seen anyone do.

Stage 18: A day for the sprinters, Schleck can't expact to gain any time on Contador on this pancake-flat stage...unless Contador crashes and Schleck gives him the same treatment he received in Stage 15 (incidentally, I would bet that if that happened, Schleck would sit up and wait for Cantador). 

Stage 19: A 30 mile, completely flat time trial that will likely provide Cantador with another stage win unless Schleck channels his inner-Fabian Cancellara.  Or unless Cancellara wins it again, of course.

Stage 20: Typically more of a parade into and around Paris for the GC men than a race, this stage could end up actually meaning quite a bit.  Schleck may be close enough to contend with Cantador.  And Cavendish may be close enough to Hushovd and Pettachi to make it a three-man race for the Green jersey, not just two.

Yellow/Individual: Cantador by between 1:00 and 1:30
Green/Points: Hushovd
Polka Dot/Climber: Anthony Charteau
White/Youth: Schleck
Team: Radio Shack

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