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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tour de France: Raining crashes as we build to the Pyrenees

Tour de France: Crashes reign in France, as we build to the Pyrenees

So the Tour has a new leader - Thomas Voeckler, who got himself into a break on Stage 9 to claim yellow off Hushovd's shoulders.  It wasn't the way many expected it to go - the 'script' was that Hushovd would relinquish his lead on Saturday's Stage 8 on a relatively tough finish up to Super Besse.  His likely successors in yellow were Evans and the Schleck brothers, who were seconds behind.  However, the big Norweigian held firm in the lead peloton.

Until Stage 9.  Now it will likely be Voeckler, who with the aid of a tactical decision by Garmin to shut down the chase, overhauled a 1:29 deficit to take over the race's overall lead.  And with a lead now at 1:49 over Luis Leon Sanchez (Stage 9 winner), and around 2:30 to all the pre-race favourites, he seems likely to wear yellow onto the slopes of the Pyrenees, which happens Thursday (which is Bastille day - extra motivation for the Frenchman!), and in particular, the finishing climb of Luz Ardiden.

However, the big story is yet again crashes.  Yesterday our post focused on head injuries, and carried the dramatic video of Chris Horner finishing with concussion after Friday's stage.  He didn't start yesterday, and today we lost another handful of big names - gone today are Alexander Vinokourov and Jurgen Van den Broeck - both team-leaders, who join Horner and Wiggins on the sidelines.  The casualty list does not end there - Garate, Pouls, Brit, Zabriskie - all abandoned during Stage 9 alone.  Contador crashed (twice), Millar was involved in a heavy fall, and all in all, it's been a race of attrition, and some of those withdrawals have been for very serious crashes.

The TV car joins in the act - Flecha and Hoogerland taken out

Perhaps the big talking point of Stage 9 (apart from Voeckler's yellow and Sanchez's win) was a unbelievable incident where two riders in a five-man break were taken out by a France TV car.  The car attempted to pass the five riders to their left, then suddenly encountered a tree on the left edge of the road and swerved back across, hitting Juan Antonio Flecha.  He went down hard and Johnny Hoogerland launched off into a field on the right of the road.

It was a horrific looking crash, particularly for Hoogerland, who looked like he could be impaled upside down on a pole, or caught up in barbed wire fencing off the road.

Below are two videos that show the incident - I found one on YouTube, and I can't guarantee that it will remain there for too long, but they both show the crash.  It's quite unbelievable. (again if you can't play the video as part of an email, click here and you'll be directed to the site where they do work)

Flecha Crash - Tour de France stage 9 by cyclingvids

A longer clip off YouTube, including a slow-motion repeat (may or may not work, no promises...)

The Tour de France is difficult enough without high speed collisions with tarmac and metal.  In fact, they are part of this race, though I don't remember as many serious incidents as there seem to have been this year (but my memory might be to blame for that).  The first week of the Tour, as the saying goes, is not where you win the Tour, but you can certainly lose it, and I would imagine that most of the big GC favourites will actually be looking forward to getting into the mountains.  Hard as they may be, the intensity and frenetic nature of the race may drop slightly.

For their efforts, and quite literally, blood, Flecha and Hoogerland were honoured with the award for most aggressive riders on today's stage - it's more of a courage award, and to be sure, to get up and ride after that is extra-ordinary - it highlights the unbelievable toughness of the Tour de France.

Hoogerland will also wear the King of the Mountains jersey, assuming he can recover from his injuries and take his place in the peloton come Tuesday morning's start.  Let's hope so, and let's hope that Flecha is equally able to recover.  It leaves a bad taste when race favourites are eliminated by crashes, and it's deflating when the dynamics and rhythm of the race are altered by these "random" events.  I too look forward to the mountains!

The Stage 8 Super Besse climb - not as intense as it was predicted to be

Just some very quick analysis - the climb up to Super Besse was billed as the first showdown between the GC contenders, particularly in the aftermath of Contador's time losses in Stage 1.  And Contador did attack, yes, but the overall intensity of the climb was not as high as many perhaps thought, and that would negated any attacks.  Little damage was done to the top 20 in the Tour, and that's highlighted by looking at the SRM power data for Chris Anke Sorensen.

As you'll recall from our video post, Sorensen is always a good indicator of the intensity at the front of the peloton in the climbs, because he was Andy Schleck's last man in 2010.  Jump to 2011, and he's doing the job for Alberto Contador.  So he was right there at the front of the group during the climb, and so his data paint a picture of the 'mood' of the race in the final six kilometers.

So, 6.4W/kg for the first 6 minutes, made of up a 445W, 6.9W/kg effort for the first 2:30 and then 385 W (6 W/kg) for the next 3:30.  Note that both green arrows in the graph above are in the wrong place - they should be 100 or more watts lower - the SRM guys do great analysis, and this is just a minor error.  The power output the report seems correct though, it's just their annotated arrows and text that are placed too high.

The road then dropped down for a short while, and then on the next upward pull, Sorensen attacked.  That attack is interesting, it was made up of an initial 30-second burst at 701 W (10.9 W/kg) and then 30 seconds at 444 W (6.9 W/kg again).  Overall, that minute averaged 572 W, but once followed, Sorensen rode comfortably to the finish line.

But the first few kilometers are most interesting.  The power output we saw from Sorensen there, in the range of 6.4 W/kg for six minutes, are really just a teaser of what you can expect come Thursday.  There, in the high mountains, on the Category 1 and HC climbs, the riders will have to sustain power outputs in the range of 6.4 W/kg for twenty minutes in order to be competitive.  And 6 W/kg for 45 minutes on the longer climbs.

So all in all, the Super Besse climb was not really all that intense.  It is thus unsurprising that no attacks were successful - the base pace was just not hard enough to have anyone in difficulty in the early part of the climb.  Also, I believe there was a headwind on the climb, which makes attacking doubly difficult.

Questions unanswered ahead of the rest day, and then into the Pyrenees

It was another intriguing stage, mostly because Contador did try to attack (though this data suggest that his attacks were not particularly potent and came off a mild starting intensity), and was pretty easily tracked by Evans and the Schleck brothers.   As a result, we are no closer to knowing whether Contador has recovered from the Giro or not.  Will he have the form in the Pyrenees, and even if yes, can he hold that form into the final week and the very tough Alps?  And has Andy Schleck timed it to perfection?  He has not shown anything like the form of Contador this year, but perhaps the first ten days of the Tour have seen him slowly ride towards his best.  And Cadel Evans?  Looks exceptionally sharp and strong, but the near hour-long climbs starting on Thursday are a new, different kind of test.

And at this stage, we are none the wiser.  It's going to be an interesting few days.  And it starts with a rest day tomorrow!


Last thought - imagine this was...

And last thought - here is a picture of Hoogerland immediately after the crash that you can see in the videos above.  I got this on Twitter (via Jason Gay of WSJ - @jasonWSJ), but can you imagine if Payton Manning crashed into a barbed-wire fence and returned to a game, you'd hear about it for the rest of your life.  Fill in the name from a sport of your choice, but it's true - cycling has a different standard of what is considered "normal" and what is celebrated.  The kind of courage shown to come back from this accident is rare.  Let's hope Hoogerland and Flecha are ready to ride, unaffected, by Tuesday!