Alberto Contador soars into yellow in Verbier: Report and analysis
Alberto Contador rode himself into the yellow jersey by dominating the mountain-top finish in Verbier today. An attack by the Spaniard with 5.5 km to go saw him open up a gap on the Tour's elite, and then continue to build it. The damages by the finish line were 43 seconds to Andy Schleck (the only rider to respond to the initial acceleration), 1:03 to Vincenzo Nibali, 1:06 to a group containing Frank Schleck, Brad Wiggins and Carlos Sastre, 1:26 to Cadel Evans, and 1:35 to Lance Armstrong.
The result leaves the overall standings of the Tour as follows:
1. Alberto Contador
2. Lance Armstrong @ 1:37
3. Bradley Wiggins @ 1:46
4. Andreas Kloden @ 2:17
5. Andy Schleck @2:26
6. Rinaldo Nocentini @ 2:30
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 2:51
8. Tony Martin @ 3:07
9. Christophe Le Mevel @ 3:09
10. Frank Schleck @ 3:25
A level above the Pyrenees: How it unfolded
The Tour's first mountain-top finish in Arcalis just over a week ago failed to produce the fireworks. The same can't be said of this one. At the bottom, Saxo Bank charged into the lead and the tempo was pretty close to maximal from the outset. The peloton was systematically shredded under Saxo-Bank's pressure, and with about 6.5km to go (within 2km of the start of the climb), the peloton had been cut to about 13 riders. Compare this to the 40 who made it 7km up Arcalis and you realise that today, the Tour shifted into top gear.
At 6km to go, Frank Schleck was first to attack, and his move cut the elite down to only 5 - Schleck, Contador, Armstrong, Wiggins and Andy Schleck. Noticably absent were Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and Kloden, though all would gradually return to the chase group. By the time they did return, however, Contador was long gone - a fierce attack with 5.5km to ride saw him open a gap of 17 seconds on Andy Schleck and 30 seconds on the group of Armstrong within one kilometer. It was an extra-ordinary acceleration, and I wish had the data to analyse it some more detail - unfortunately, I've been unable to find a kilometer-by-kilometer breakdown of the climb to Verbier - if one knew the gradient of each kilometer, and the time, it would be possible to do some interesting analyses, so if you have this, please let me know!
Contador continued to build his lead, and by the time he hit the summit it had been increased to 43 seconds over Schleck, but perhaps more importantly, over a minute to those with aspirations in the time-trial. Contador seems peerless on the climbs, and the Tour now seems his to lose, barring a dramatic change in form or an accident.
For his part, Armstrong didn't drop back onto the wheel of the chasing riders, he rode at the front, along with Kloden. Perhaps they were simply riding tempo and allowing Contador away, but it seems odd to me that they would not just sit in the group and find a wheel (that of Evans, perhaps) to follow, given the supposed "obligation" to the team. That is the usual approach, to the best of my knowledge of what happens when a team-mate is out ahead.
Attacks come from behind
In any event, it was noticeable how the fast pace was neutralising the attacks from behind. A group of eight had reformed with 3.5km to go, but no attacks came until about 3km from the finish. Then it was Brad Wiggins, perhaps the revelation of the Tour in the mountains who attacked and stretched the group. The next attack came from Frank Schleck, in an attempt to see whether he could join brother Andy to combine forces to catch Contador. He couldn't, but his move did cause the split in the group that would eventually see them come over the line in pairs or alone.
Each attack put Armstrong more and more into difficulty, though many will have expected this, given his age. What will be interesting (apart from the race situation, of course) is to see how he manages himself through the next few days - as described below, he should face attacks in this final week.
Climbing rate of Contador - a record climb
As I mentioned, I don't have a detailed breakdown of the climb - the gradient each kilometer, for example. So doing a detailed analysis must wait until hopefully someone can provide that (any takers? Alex...?)! But until then, some basic analysis reveals how fast this climb was:
The climb to Verbier is 8.7km long, at an reported gradient of 7.5% (according to the official Tour website. CyclingNews has it as 7.1%). The climbing times of some of the top riders were:
1. Alberto Contador - 20:36 for the climb at an average speed of 25.34 km/h
2. Andy Schleck - 21:19 (24.49 km/h)
3. Carlos Sastre - 21:42 (24.06 km/h)
4. Lance Armstrong - 22:11 (23.53 km/h)
One of the measures of climbing ability is Vertical climbing rate, which is the distance STRAIGHT UP, expressed as a rate in meters per hour.
For the climb to the Verbier, the vertical climb is 652.5 m (8.7km x 7.5%). Therefore, Contador's climbing rate is an extra-ordinary 1,900 m per hour. I say "extra-ordinary" because this is the fastest climb in the history of the Tour de France, in terms of vertical climb rate. I have data, courtesy one of our readers (thank you Alexander) that tracks all the climbs in the last twenty years, and I can tell you that the previous record for vertical ascension rate was Bjarne Riis at 1843m on Hautacam in 1996 (and we all know what powered Riis to that summit).
I am going to post on these figures during the next week (don't worry, you don't have to blindly take my word for it!) - I don't want to overload the race report with too many numbers. But the Contador climb today was incredible.
It was a short climb, taking just over 20 minutes, and of course that allows a higher intensity than the 37 minutes on Alpe d'Huez or the 49 minutes on the Tourmalet. So a higher VAM is partly expected. I would point out that there have been other 8 to 9km finishing climbs in the Tour, and many climbs this length, but none have ever come close to a rate of 1900m/hour. Race tactics no doubt played a part as well - the Tour has been dormant for about 8 days leading into this, and suddenly it exploded into 20 minutes of action. Then there is the wind, which is reported to have been a following wind. A lot of factors may have gone into today's record, but I guess it's only natural to wonder...? To those who are no doubt wondering whether that means anything in the big picture of doping control, you are not alone...
By way of comparison, Andy Schleck's climbing rate was 1,837m/hour, and Armstrong's was 1,764m/hour. Looking even more broadly, last week up Arcalis, Contador climbed at a vertical ascension rate of 1,687m/hour, and when the Tour dawdled its way over the Col du Tourmalet on Sunday, the rate was 1401 m/hour. The Tour really did step up a notch or two in Switzerland today.
Stage implications: Team leadership, podium implications and days' disappointments
The stage was always going to lay the foundations for what everyone expected would be a very brutal last week in the Tour. To a certain extent, that happened. At the very least, the debate around team leadership of Astana was laid to rest today - Contador is clearly the number 1 man, Kloden and Armstrong seemingly close for number 2. In fact, I'd give number 2 to Kloden going into week 3. For all the inevitable talk of "team obligations", Lance Armstrong would not have had the firepower to match Contador or the Schlecks in the mountains.
He may yet have enough for a podium finish in the time-trial on Thursday - lot depends on whether Astana instruct Kloden to ride the TT conservatively. If Kloden races hard, he becomes the number 2 for Astana, in my opinion - he did a great deal of work pulling today and seems to have better form now. Time will tell...
What will be interesting for the rest of the Alps and the climb to Mont Ventoux is that attention will shift to the question of whether Armstrong can respond to what should be some telling attacks from those currently ranked 4th to 8th in the general classification. Among those who will have eyes for the podium (if not for Contador, who seems imperious just at the moment) are both Schlecks, Evans, Sastre and maybe even Wiggins. All will recognize the need to attack, given the time-trial to come.
Whether they will have the strength to do this is another question - today did not exacly fill me with hope that anyone can match Contador. More worryingly for the race as a spectacle, even attacks from the group were not damaging. I have my reservations over whether anyone will be aggressive enough to attack on the next two Alpine days - Contador's aggression threw today wide open, I'm not sure it will happen again. So, with all the hype around a super-competitive final week, it might be that the riders neutralize one another all the way to Thursday's time-trial. Contador, for his part, may try to steal a few more seconds in the final kilometers, but need not attack like he did today. And with no mountain finish until Mont Ventoux, even that is unlikely.
So, looking ahead, it's a rest day tomorrow, then two more days in the Alps. Wednesday in particular is a monster stage, the so-called "queen stage", but that stage may be neutralised by the race situation and the fact that we still have a time-trial and a Mont Ventoux finish to come. The onus now lies on the likes of Schleck, Schleck, Evans and Sastre to attack - will they have the ammunition? Only time will tell...
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Ross & Jonathan