Rinaldo Nocentini spoils the Astana script as Contador goes "against the plan" to attack
The first day in the mountains in the Tour de France is usually a spectacular showdown in which the claimants for the overall title lay down their credentials for yellow. 2009 will probably not go down as such a day...
Stage 7 of the 2009 Tour will be remembered for the following reasons:
- It was the day that Brice Feillu recorded a famous victory for France after a long break-away.
- It will go down as the day that Alberto Contador ALMOST grabbed the race lead after he attacked with about 1.5km to go, but that he fell short by 6 seconds.
- It will be remembered as the day that he lost out NOT to Lance Armstrong, but to Rinaldo Nocentini, one of those riders in the breakaway that produced the stage winner, but who found 6 seconds more than he needed to wear the yellow jersey tomorrow.
- It MAY be remembered as the day that Contador snubbed his nose at his own team in order to lay down his marker as the leader of the team and the best rider in the field. That may be ultimately be the event with lasting significance.
A conservative approach, a race under control
In truth, most of the final climb of the 10.6km, 7.1% Arcalis was pretty mundane. A break-away out front was well-clear, starting the climb over 6 minutes ahead in what is the usual sub-plot in the Tour. But all attention was reserved for the main peloton, and the hyped up battle on the slopes which would see Fabian Cancellara fight to hold off a pack of Astana riders, while other riders like Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre fought to regain lost time.
In the end, none of these things happened. Cancellara was dropped from the huge group with about 6km to go, and in the end, lost over 8 minutes in the GC.
Meanwhile, the Astana team rode to the front, set the tempo on the climb (as was expected), and not a single rider came passed: not a single attack would be launched until 2km to go.
Was the pace at the front strong?
You would be forgiven for thinking that the absence of attacks was perhaps the result of the Astana team setting such a vicious pace on the early slopes that no other riders could attack. This is certainly what Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett were saying as they gushed about the "superhuman" effort on the front.
However, consider the following observations:
At the bottom of the climb, the gap to the breakaway was 5:56, and it only came down by 45 seconds over the next 7 km. That is not suggestive of a high pace from behind, and it suggests that in fact, the pace of the main peloton was very, very ordinary today. Reports are already being written about how Astana "kept the competition in check" - not true. The competition just didn't do anything until much, much later, and even then, it was hardly ferocious.
Consider also that the last time the Tour went over Arcalis, Jan Ullrich won the stage, and his time over the final 10km was recorded as 22:55, while Marco Pantani and Richard Virenque rode it in 23:36. Today, Alberto Contador rode the same 10km climb in 25:22, a full 2:27 slower than Ullrich. The rest of the peloton was almost 3 minutes slower.
When Contador did attack with about 1.5km to ride, he was able to cut the gap to the lead breakaway rider (Feillu) by almost 1 minute in the final 1km, when the peloton had only cut the lead by 1 minute in the 7 km before that.
Finally, consider with 3km to go, the elite peloton was over 40 riders large! For 40 riders to survive on an HC climb leading to the first mountain-top finish of the Tour de France is a sure sign that the pressure was in fact turned right down at the front. Therefore, Astana were in control of the race, but they were simply rolling it out to the finish, because that's all they have to do to move their top riders onto the Tour podium.
And this is the 'problem' with the Tour as it currently is unfolding. With the likes of Evans having already lost major time in the team time-trial, the uncertainty of the Tour is disappearing every day, and so the impetus for attack, as we have seen in the last two years, is gone with less than a week gone in the race. The "script" seems to have been approved by all, and so the suspect of previous races is in danger of evaporating, unless something dramatic happens.
A cautious approach with big stages remaining
It doesn't help that the riders are all playing it cautiously, because they still have the prospect of two more Pyrenean days, plus three days in the Alps and the climb up to Mont Ventoux on the second last day. The perhaps unintended consequence of this year's Tour route and the desired excitement of the Mont Ventoux stage is that the attacking instincts of riders has been dampened somewhat.
Finally it springs to life
Finally, with about 2.5km to go, it was Cadel Evans who brought the Tour to life. He attacked, and the race was finally on. Contador responded immediately (with astonishing speed, it must be said), and so did Armstrong, and just about everyone else. By this time, the slopes were not as steep as in the early part of the climb, so bringing back attacks was not quite as difficult as it usually is on these climbs.
Commendable as Evans' move was, it also didn't do much damage. The elite group, which was 40, was cut to about 20. When 20 riders can follow an attack launched by one of the pre-race favourites, it again puts into perspective the ferocity of the racing, though it must be acknowledged that the pace before Evans attacked was so low that most of the men would have had a pretty good reserve at that time.
Another small attack by Jurgen van den Broeck was eventually the catalyst for what was the decisive move of the day in terms of the overall race. Alberto Contador responded to the 'carrot' in front of him and shot clear with about 1.5 km to go. His was the move nobody could follow and within seconds, he had opened up a lead. His ability to accelerate on climbs is exceptional, and from then on, it was a matter of seeing whether the elite peloton would be able to hold him, or whether the lead would continue to grow.
It grew, and behind, a smaller (but still relatively large, considering the context of the day's racing) group gave chase. They would eventually lose 21 seconds to Contador, who himself fell just 6 seconds short of overhauling Rinaldo Nocentini for yellow.
Contador's statement of intent
For Contador, it was at least a statement of leadership of his own team, and he has now jumped into second, so that if, as I now fully expect, Astana keep the race under their thumb tomorrow, it will be Contador in yellow by tomorrow night. Lance Armstrong, for his part, was able to respond to Evan's move today, and was then able to stay with the group that finished 21 seconds back.
Whether or not Armstrong had it in him to follow Contador's move or not, we will never know. He didn't need to, because all he had to do was follow those who grouped together to chase Contador. Then again, 10 others did this too, so whether Armstrong is in race contention shape is still not possible to tell. Telling who among these 11 is in the best condition is impossible, because the relatively gentle slopes at the top of the Arcalis (it is less than 6% at the top) make it difficult to know who is really in great shape. Only when the attacks come on the very steep slopes will we know for sure. The same goes for all those who finished in the bunch, and this includes Evans, the Schleck brothers, Leipheimer, Sastre, Vandevelde, and even Brad Wiggins who rode out of his socks to finish in the top group.
The Contador-Armstrong question: Going against the plan
Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole day, and indeed the whole race is the ongoing debate around whether Contador is receiving the support of his team, which it seems more and more is under Lance Armstrong's thumb. In an interview after the stage, Armstrong said that the Contador attack "wasn't really to the plan, but I didn't expect him to go by the plan, so [it was] no surprise". He goes on to say that his "obligation is to the team. You've got to stay on the wheels", which is his playing the dutiful soldier, even though it really is starting to look like Contador is more a rival than a team-mate in this year's Tour.
Contador's actions betray the situation - a lack of faith in support
I wrote yesterday that I felt the most likely scenario would be that Contador would be instructed NOT to attack but that he could follow moves. According to Armstrong himself, Team Director Johan Bruyneel informed the team to "chill out a bit, slow down" in order to preserve the team a little. So clearly the plan was to ride that tempo, not worry too much about breaking the race open and potentially putting Astana into positions 1 through 4 (not bargaining on the efforts of Nocentini, of course).
So now, the big question is: Why did Contador feel the need to go against the plan? Remember, Contador is not an impulsive, inferior rider, who lacks nous and experience as many have suggested so far - Contador is a sixth-year professional, one of only five men to have won the Vuelta, Giro and Tour, and has been at the very top of world cycling for the last three years. Yes, he is still learning, but he is not a brainless, raw talent that has not shown the ability to withstand pressure and race smartly in stage races before.
Therefore, it's wrong to portray him as reckless, impulsive and lacking logic in his riding, as many media outlets are now doing, and as Lance Armstrong has strategically portrayed him for the last few months. It is right to ask very seriously, why would a rider with that much class do something that goes against team orders? And the answer, I do believe, is that Contador has lost confidence in the team and the support he'll receive from it.
He therefore feels (rightly or wrongly) that he must assert himself on his own team, let alone the race. I would speculate that the attack today betrayed his difficult situation - obeying orders meant sitting in and letting Astana ride Lance Armstrong into eventual yellow, because Nocentini was only ever going to be a single day leader: the domestique in yellow, while Contador, the supposed team leader, is riding second wheel. In response, he felt the need to take matters into his own hands - I would do the same, and I hope he does it again and again with success in the coming days. Lance Armstrong's comments, including the little "addendum" that he "didn't expect him to go by the plan" are telling indicators that Astana's team dinners must be tense affairs.
Next up is another day in the Pyrenees, featuring two Category 1 climbs and one Category 2 climb. None are at the finish, with the final climb (the Col d'Agnes) coming 44km from the finish. It's an ideal stage for a breakaway win from a good climber who is too far from the lead to be a threat, and doesn't seem likely to be a huge GC stage. Given how almost nothing happened today, on an HC climb leading to the finish line, I would be very surprised if anything happens tomorrow. Astana to control the race, the main contendors to tuck in and form an elite group (which will probably be 30 to 40 large again), reaching the finish line with no dramas.
Then again, perhaps it will come to boil.
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