Tour de France Comment: The suspense is killing us

Monaco seems a long time ago now. And not just because 12 days have passed since the Tour’s Grand Départ.

A strange torpor has fallen on the 2009 Tour de France. The racing for stage wins has mostly been entertaining, and thanks to Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, there’s been plenty to talk about. But the general classification, save for a brief flurry here and there, has been more the nip and tuck of a Test match than the fireworks of a Twenty/20 game.

But this is exactly what the organisers wanted. It was clear from the innovative route unveiled by Tour boss Christian Prudhomme last year that the plan was for the race to go right down to the wire, to Mont Ventoux on the penultimate stage. Prudhomme built in three strategically tame Pyrenean stages, reduced the time trialling kilometres, and even took some of the bite out of the Alps, all so that as many riders as possible could still be in with a shout of victory going into the final week.

Perhaps Prudhomme saw the dramatic conclusion to last year’s race, when five riders started the climb to L’Alpe d’Huez within 75 seconds of the yellow jersey, after a tense battle through the Pyrenees and Alps, and liked what he saw enough to actually design the race around a repeat.

Now, with the race on the cusp of the Alps, Prudhomme has got what he wanted. The 2009 Tour is actually the closest in modern history.

We’ve looked back at all the Tours since 1984, and compared how far behind the rider in 10th place was after the first set of mountains had been completed. And 2009, by this measure, is the tightest.

Vincenzo Nibali is currently occupying 10th place overall, 1-54 behind Rinaldo Nocentini. There’s only been one other Tour in the last quarter century where the 10th-placed rider was within three minutes of yellow after the first mountain range, and that was last year’s, when Vladimir Efimkin left the Pyrenees 2-32 behind Cadel Evans. Otherwise, 10th place is typically already at least four minutes back. Often more.

The only exception can be found in the 1992 Tour, when the start in San Sebastian meant that the Pyrenees were even more neutered than this year’s. Although 10th place was 5-06 behind the yellow, that was thanks to a four-minute lead gained by Richard Virenque in a long break. The spread of the favourites, from second to 10th, was only 32 seconds. It would possibly have been a historically close Tour, except that Miguel Indurain proceeded to knock three minutes into everybody in the Luxembourg time trial.

The bad news is that by engineering a backloaded Tour this year, ASO have accidentally caused the general classification battle to be a little too negative. The sum total of intrigue includes a decent short time trial, a 40-second split in the peloton, the team time trial, and a couple of attacks by the favourites in the Pyrenees.

The good news is that tomorrow, with three dangerous cols en route, the battle for the yellow jersey should at least stir, even if nothing decisive happens. And then, the Alps.

The five closest Tours of the modern era, following the first mountain range

Year    Time of 10th place after first mountain range
2009    1-54
2008    2-32
2003    3-45
2005    4-16
2006    4-17
1996    5-03

The five biggest gaps to 10th place, following the first mountain range

Year    Time of 10th place after first mountain range
2001    21-48 (Thanks to long break by François Simon)
1993    21-32
1986    15-19
1984    14-37
1990    13-58
1995    13-43

Tour de France 2009 – the hub: Index to reports, photos, previews and more.

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Stage 12: Sorensen wins in Vittel as Cavendish goes for green

Stage 11: Cavendish takes fourth win to equal Hoban’s record

Stage 10: Cavendish spoils Bastille Day party to take third stage win

Stage nine: Third French win as contenders content with ceasefire

stage eight: Sanchez wins from break as Tour favourites cancel each other out

Stage seven: Feillu wins at Arcalis, Nocentini takes yellow, Contador leap-frogs Lance

Stage six: Millar’s brave bid denied on Barcelona hill as Hushovd triumphs

Stage five: Voeckler survives chase to win his first Tour stage

Stage four: Astana on top but Armstrong misses yellow by hundredths of a second

Live Tour de France stage four TTT coverage

Stage three: Cavendish wins second stage as Armstrong distances Contador

Stage two: Cavendish takes first sprint

Stage one: Cancellara wins opening time trial


Tour de France 2009 News Index>>

Cavendish reveals he is going for green

Tour comment: The suspense is killing us

Analysis: Why Cavendish is one of the modern greats

Radio ban over-turned for Friday’s Tour stage

Arvesen out of Tour with fractured collarbone

Tour analysis: Why the go slow did cycling no favours on Bastille Day

Cavendish’s odd stage 10 finish celebration explained

No radios today, but experiment could be a one-off

Tour audio: Mark Cavendish after stage 10

Contador brushes aside talk of Armstrong conflict

Cavendish odds-on favourite for Bastille Day victory

The Tour de France Comment: Monday, July 13

How the favourites are doing (first rest day)

Wiggins stays with leaders at Tour

Armstrong: ‘If Contador wins, I’ll be second’

Wiggins ‘on cloud nine’ at Tour de France

Armstrong says Contador attack wasn’t in the plan

Cavendish survives the first Tour mountain stage with ease

Wiggins, the Tour de France overall contender, has arrived


Garmin-Slipstream’s HQ before the Tour

David Zabriskie’s time trial bike

Mark Cavendish on the Tour’s team time trial

David Brailsford interview

Mark Cavendish on the Tour

Jonathan Vaughters on Bradley Wiggins’ chances


Stage 12 photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage 11 photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage 10 photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage nine photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage eight photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage seven photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage six photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage five photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage four TTT photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage three photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage two photo gallery by Graham Watson

Stage one photo gallery by Andy Jones

Stage one photo gallery by Graham Watson

Team presentation by Andy Jones

Team presentation by Graham Watson

Tour de France 2009 – the hub
Tour de France 2009: Who’s riding
Tour de France 2009: Team guide
About the Tour de France

Tour de France 2009: Who will win?
Tour de France 2009 on TV: Eurosport and ITV4 schedules
Big names missing from 2009 Tour de France
Tour de France anti-doping measures explained
Brits in the Tours: From Robinson to Cavendish
Cycling Weekly’s rider profiles


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