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Thursday, July 10, 2008

le Tour de France 2008: Bring on the mountains

Yet another lead change in an exciting tour

Today's Stage 6 saw the first mountain stage of the race this year, although it was a soft introduction to the Pyrenees with "only" two Category 2 climbs. Regardless, it was potentially a day for GC favorites to attack and at least test one another's legs and fitness. There were indeed many attacks, but in the end the favorites were subdued and the attacks came from riders who could not threaten anyone in the top ten.

The day started with an escape of three Frenchmen. The highest placed rider among them was Sylvain Chavanel at 2:10 behind race leader Stefan Schumacher. As such, the Gerolsteiner-lead peloton gave the break a maximum of five minutes before slowly reigning them in. At the start of the Col de la Croix-Morand the lead was down to two minutes and the catch was imminent. With 18 km to go the attacks started, with some riders staying away for a few km's at at time, but none could get more than 20 seconds on the bunch.

Then, in the lead up to the final climb, Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne men all came to the front and dropped the hammer, setting a strong tempo up the Cat 2 climb. The climb itself was not particularly difficult, as it has two distinct sections. The initial 8-9 km averaged maybe 4-5%, and only over the last 1-2 km did it really get steep (>8%). The result of this is that most of the Caisse d'Epargne team were able to sit on the front and ride tempo while slowly riders were dropped off the back.

When Valverde's team came to front it seemed as if he was preparing to launch an attack himself to make up some of the 1:20 or so that he lost in the time trial to guys like Evans, Kirchen, Schumacher, and Menchov. However there was no real attack from the Spaniard, and instead we saw a series of minor attacks follow one another.

Eventually, a group of perhaps 20 riders hit the final 500m for the sprint, and it was Ricardo Ricco of Saunier Duval who jumped clear, with Valverde trying to follow him. Ricco was too strong, and moved a length or two clear of Valverde, who then sat up somewhat, allowing Cadel Evans, who had been marking Valverde, to finish just behind him and lose no time.

Confident move by wild-card Team Garmin-Chipotle

With five km to go, the first "real" attack from a GC contender, or at least from a rider within striking distance of yellow, came from Christian Vande Velde. Together with Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) the two fired off the front and kept alive a 20 s gap until just over one km to go. It was a solid move by Vande Velde, who was in sixth place and just 37 s away from yellow at the beginning of the stage, although it was not meant to be and he finished just behind the winners today. He lost some time on the (new) yellow jersey but moved into fourth place (44 s behind leader Kim Kirchen).

Admittedly there are still many mountains to be crested in this year's race, but this wild-card team finds itself in a very admirable position. They lead the team classification, but more importantly they have two riders in the top ten (David Millar sits just three seconds back in fifth) with no pressure to do anything yet. Neither Millar or Van de Velde are favorites, but should they be able to limit their losses through the mountains the might see themselves finish quite high in Paris as both can time trial very well.

Another new maillot jaune

So we saw yet another change in yellow, although the circumstances were unfortunate. Schumacher touched wheels just inside of one km to go, and hit the deck. He was uninjured, but lost time and the yellow jersey to Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia). There was confusion after the race over a rule that applies to flat stages, where accidents or incidents in the final kilometer are ignored and all riders are given the same time. That rule doesn't apply on mountain finishes, because otherwise riders would fake problems to limit time losses. Schumacher's team maintain that they clearly were not faking anything (true), and there was apparently deliberation over the application of the rule, with different verdicts being passed. Eventually it was ruled that the time loss would count, and Kirchen inherited yellow as a result (as well having Schumacher blame him for the crash).

The interesting thing is that now we have raced six stages and we have a rider who has the potential to take the jersey all the way to Paris, though he is an outside shot
. Team Columbia is a solid team with plenty of experience and talent and they will put up a serious defense of the race lead in the days to come, and we must not forget that the pressure is on the other riders to attack him and take they time they need to move into the lead.

However, Cadel Evans, the big favourite for the race, is lurking in second place, only 6 seconds back. He has seemed strong throughout the race, and we suspect that come the first big mountain stage, he'll have enough to make those six seconds and take yellow. Having already seen four different men wear yellow, we may well be one man away from its last wearer too.

Looking ahead: Stage 9

The next two stages should not see any major attacks and changes at the top, especially with the absence of time bonuses in this year's race. Stage 7 has a few categorized climbs, namely two Cat 2s, but a Cat 2 climb is just not long enough or steep enough to create real separation amongst the top contenders, even when it is a mountain top finish. Stage 8 is pretty mild with only some Cat 4 climbs, but Stage 9 will see two Cat 1 peaks: the legendary Col de Peyresourde after about 150 km, followed by the Col d'Aspin at 184 km. However it is a downhill dash to the finish, and as such it will be difficult for any escapee to stay away after cresting the final climb of the day. Rather, Stage 10 on Monday, 14 July (Bastille Day) is a mountain top finish on Hautacam. That is an "out-of-category" climb, which follows soon after the Col du Tormalet, and we are sure to see some drama on the mountain. Organize your sick day now for a stage not to be missed!


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Evans could actually win the Tour without winning a stage.
He's the sort of cyclist that could just hang in there in top five and grind everyone else into the dust.
He has extraordinary endurance in the long haul. And without the 'juice' merchants, he just might win it like this.
Do you know if anyone else has ever won without a stage victory?
Paul R

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous, and thanks for your comment about Cadell Evans.

As far as I can tell, Greg Lemond was the only winner to take yellow without winning a stage. He did this back in 1990. However there might be some more serious Tour fundis among our readers, and we invite them to correct us here if we are wrong!

Lance Armstrong also "won" only one stage in 2005. In that year, his team won the team time trial, but the only other stage he won was the final individual time trial.

I agree with you that Evans might be able to do it without a stage win, and the dynamics are shaping up to help this.

There are several riders who are far enough down the classification who the big teams will let go. In addition, although Evans is a good time trial rider, there are potentially other guys who might beat him in the final time trial this year.

The Alpes this week will be crucial as almost surely we will see at least one of the top five riders slip away with a bad day. We are also likely to see one or two guys in the top 15 have a couple of good races and move into the top five or ten places.

So a shake up is on the cards, especially with two mountain top finishes this week.

Thanks again for visiting!

Kind Regards,