THE TOUR COMES ALIVE

The Tour de France has rediscovered its sense of spirit and adventure this year, it seems.

One of the by-products of the Armstrong era was that the race became all about Lance, even on the days when he was not up to much.

At the beginning of his seven-year reign, the riders who brought the race to life were still valid players. By the end, they were relegated to mere stage hands, hulking the scenery about and ensuring the stage was perfect for the inevitable one-man show.

There was a change of attitude towards the riders who tried, but failed, to win stages. They were bestowed with a rather patronising ‘plucky losers’ tag, rather than celebrated as heroes in their own right.

Even the yellow jersey became a garment for hire. Armstrong decided who could have it and when, before recalling it.

This was no more clearly characterised than in 2001 when a break was allowed to gain half an hour on the rainy stage to Pontarlier. The French veteran Francois Simon enjoyed a spell in the yellow jersey but Armstrong was so relaxed about eventually getting his hands on it eventually that Simon’s finest moment was almost overshadowed.

The same happened in 2004, when the ‘right’ break was allowed to get clear on the road to Chartres. Thomas Voeckler kept the yellow jersey for 10 days, earning his place in the hearts of the French fans, but there was never a moment’s doubt about where the jersey was to end up.

Johan Bruyneel built a formidable team with US Postal Service and Discovery Channel. He has a similarly powerful squad at Astana and it is not to drag up anti Bruyneel and anti Armstrong feeling to say that it is a relief they are not at this Tour.

Alberto Contador’s win at the Giro d’Italia was as dreary as they come. Bruyneel’s motivation is winning, which is, of course, what it is all about. But his brand of tactics is the equivalent of the Italian football team. It’s catenaccio on wheels.

Just as the Italians seek a strong defence and a midfield comprising more defensive-minded players and hope to stifle and strangle their way to a penalty shoot-out win, so Bruyneel seeks to suffocate – usually with a searing pace no one can break free of – and capitalise.

For years, one attack won the Tour de France. Now, you could argue that Cadel Evans may win this Tour without making a single attack, but there is a subtle difference. He and his team are going to have to think his way to Paris.

If the Tour de France is a jigsaw puzzle, the joy is not in seeing what the eventual picture looks like, it is about spreading the pieces out on the table and watching slowly as they are slotted together.

The journey is the thing, not the eventual arrival at the destination.

And that is what has made the opening week of this Tour de France so fascinating. No one really knows what is going to happen. Speak to people on the race and there is no sense of inevitability. Anything could happen.

More importantly, the riders are racing. Every day. The stage to Super Besse was one of the most aggressive stages in recent memory. Caisse d’Epargne did their best to control it but the fact they did not, and perhaps could not, stamp their authority all over the peloton on a couple of second-category climbs bodes well for the remainder of the race.

Instead, there were attacks, mostly from riders on French teams who have been on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant criticism in recent years. This is not a nation that loves a loser, by the way, it is one that, for a variety of reasons, has not held a win-at-all-costs attitude over the past decade. There are no more oblique comments about the peloton operating at two speeds anymore because there is enough evidence in front of us to suggest that, finally, things are not like they once were.

And the riders who stick their faces in the wind and try to make something happen are the ones who deserve the credit. It is credit they have been denied in recent years, but the French media, in particular, seems to have rediscovered what the Tour de France is all about.

The break that succeeded on Sunday did so because they kept at it and the peloton dithered and then did not have the power to ride at 60 kilometres an hour for the final hour and a bit.

Nicolas Vogondy nearly, oh so nearly, made it in Chateauroux. He gave it absolutely everything and the fact he was overtaken by Mark Cavendish at the line does not make him a loser. He made the fastest sprinter in the world open up his sprint much earlier than he would have liked and made him work for his win.

Likewise at Super Besse, riders were trying things out in a way that has not seemed possible in recent history. There were attacks, and not attacks that lasted 90 seconds before the voracious beast that was the peloton swallowed them up again.

Riders had to think their way up the climb. It got tactical and it got interesting. Christian Vande Velde’s attack was a great moment to see. He was trying to get the yellow jersey and he went out looking for it. That, in turn, made the front group think. It was racing. Proper racing.

And that is the spirit of the Tour de France. Long may it continue.

SPRINTERS FACE AN UPHILL BATTLE

Is the green jersey going to evade the sprinters for the first time since 1995?

Kim Kirchen’s consistency over the first week of the Tour has put him in the lead in the points competition. He currently holds a nine-point lead over Thor Hushovd and should score more points in Friday’s second stage in the Massif Central, where the big Norwegian won’t.

Another threat is Alejandro Valverde, who is lying fifth. Both Kirchen and Valverde are going to continue to score points in the Pyrenees and the Alps. Even though the points on offer are reduced and they won’t be targeting them specifically, the Luxembourger and the Spaniard could do well by default.

The sprinters have Saturday’s stage in Toulouse before their options are severely curtailed. It’s feasible there are only five more opportunities for Hushovd, Freire and Zabel to score heavily.

The last time a rider high up the general classification won the green jersey was in 1995. That year Laurent Jalabert, who finished fourth overall, did it. Jalabert was no slouch in the sprints, as he proved when winning the green jersey for the first time in 1992.

Before that, Sean Kelly was the last rider to combine an overall assault with a concerted effort in the points competition. In 1989 he was ninth overall and won his fourth green jersey, in 1985 he was fourth overall.

HOW THE POINTS COMPETITION STANDS AFTER SIX STAGES

Sprinters in italics

1. Kim Kirchen 97pts

2. Thor Hushovd 88pts

3. Oscar Freire 85pts

4. Erik Zabel 72pts


5. Alejandro Valverde 71pts

6. Robert Hunter 60pts

7. Cadel Evans 53pts

8. Mark Cavendish 51pts

9. Roman Feillu 49pts

10. Robbie McEwen 49pts

SPRINTING OPPORTUNITIES

Where can the sprinters hope to score?

Stage 7, Aurillac: Slim. There’s a third-category climb near the finish of a very hard day. Valverde and Kirchen could score

Stage 8, Toulouse: Flat, fast run-in to city centre sprint. Credit Agricole will desperately want to bring it together

Stage 9 and 10, Pyrenees: No points here for Hushovd and co. More chances for Valverde and Kirchen

Stage 11, Foix: Very little chance here with a first-category climb and a third-category climb in the last 60km

Stage 12, Narbonne: A break could go, but there should be a bunch sprint for the minor placings at the very worst

Stage 13, Nimes: Again favours the barroudeurs but there could be meaningful points on offer, even if the win disappears up the road

Stage 14, Digne-les-Bains: A fourth-category climb in the final 10km will scupper the sprinters

Stage 15, 16 and 17, Alps: Nothing for the sprinters but the general classification riders could rise to the top again

Stage 18, St Etienne: Again the second-category and fourth-category climbs in the last 35km should prove enough to dislodge the sprinters

Stage 19, Montlucon: Desperation may be sinking in here. Hushovd and co could be playing catch-up. The stage is also very hilly, and it’s so late in the race that not many teams will have the energy to chase breaks.

Stage 20, time trial: Nothing available here

Stage 21, Paris Almost certainly a sprint finish. Could the green jersey competition go down to the wire?

LINKS

Lionel’s Blog: Life at the Tour part one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage six: Ricco storms to win

Stage five: Cavendish takes first Tour win

Stage four: Schumacher wins TT and takes race lead

Stage three: Dumoulin wins stage from break

Stage two: Hushovd wins chaotic sprint

Stage one: Valverde wins

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: NEWS

Millar to go for yellow [stage six]

Team Columbia’s reaction to Cavendish’s win [stage five]

Cavendish talks about his Tour stage win

Tour comment: Why Evans should be happy [stage four]

Millar: Still aiming for Tour yellow jersey [stage 4]

Who is Romain Feillu?

Cavendish disappointed with stage two result

Millar too close to Tour yellow jersey

Stage 2 preview: A sprint finish for Cavendish?

Millar happy after gains precious seconds in Plumelec

Valverde delighted with opening Tour stage win

Comment: Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: PHOTOS

Stage six

Stage five

Stage four

Stage three

Stage two

Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

Tour de France 2008 homepage>>

News and features>>

All the riders (start list, list of abandons)>>

Tour 2008: Day by day summary

Route & stages>>

Teams and riders>>

About the Tour>>