The first mountain showdown of the 2011 Tour narrowed the list of potential winners down to half a dozen riders.
Words by Lionel Birnie in Luz Ardiden
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Thursday July 14, 2011
A great Tour de France doesn’t give up its clues easily. It reveals them gradually, like a compelling murder mystery novel. The narrative has to meander intriguingly to its climax, not merely plot its way to the end in great clumsy steps. A hint here, a suggestion there, that’s how to keep the drama of sport’s greatest soap opera bubbling.
As far as the overall contenders are concerned, the opening 11 days of this year’s race has revealed very little, which heightened the sense of anticipation ahead of the opening stage in the Pyrenees.
Not since 2006 has the first serious rendezvous in the mountains been as late as the second Thursday. And that year there had at least been a long time trial in Rennes to instill some sort of pecking order.
This year’s battle for the general classification has been like watching a large pan of cold water sit on the stove. The flame has been lit but it wasn’t until today that we saw the first spit, bubble or ripple on the surface. Let’s hope that by Saturday, and the Plateau de Beille, we are on the way to a rolling boil.
Despite being offered opportunities to land the odd jab by an unconventional parcours, the favourites have been content to shadow box at Mûr de Bretagne and Super-Besse. The 12th stage from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden was the first big test and, while there was no dramatic unmasking, there were some interesting indications.
Samuel Sanchez, the Euskaltel rider who was fourth last year, used a team-mate and a moment of tactical cunning to ruffle some feathers and jump up the overall standings.
The Basque, who is renowned as a good descender, slipped away as they neared the bottom of the Col du Tourmalet. Ruben Perez, who had been in the day’s big break, which got clear after just four kilometres, had lost contact with the leaders and slowed so he could give Sanchez a tow for a couple of kilometres. It was a smart move and no doubt enabled Sanchez to save energy while still gaining time.
Jelle Vanendert, the Belgian with the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, was the only man alert to Sanchez’s move and was able to stay with him until around 250 metres to go. Then the Olympic champion accelerated and won his first Tour stage.
Sanchez gained 30 seconds over the majority of the favouites and moved up to eighth overall. He also pulled on the polka-dot jersey. ASO changed the points system to satisfy their desire to see a bona fide climber leading the king of the mountains competition and it looks like paying off.
Behind them, the favourites finally emerged from the shadows. At one stage it looked as if they might ride up Luz-Ardiden in a compact group but the final four kilometres produced some intense skirmishes.
So what did we learn?
We found out that Alberto Contador is suffering. His body language was familiar – the upright, out-of-the-saddle climbing style – but the grimace on his face was not. Perhaps it was the boos he heard from the crowd back in the Vendée, perhaps it was the bang on the knee he suffered the other day, or perhaps it’s something else, but he is not the same man who pulverised the opposition at the Giro d’Italia in May.
We learned that Cadel Evans really believes this is going to be his year. The great follower applied some serious pressure in the final couple of kilometres, putting his rivals on the back foot. If he can ride like that in the mountains and avoid a bad day, the Grenoble time trial looks to favour him more than most of the others. (He was sixth on the same course in the Dauphiné).
Ivan Basso is strong too. The Italian appeared to be over the training crash that threatened to ruin his Tour build-up and put his team-mate Sylvester Szmyd to work on Luz-Ardiden.
Of the Schlecks, Frank looked better, more confident and more willing to commit than Andy. But perhaps Andy is biding his time. Too often in the past the brothers have ridden with each other rather than alternating their efforts to weaken their rivals. Perhaps this year they have realised the old-fashioned one-two – even if landed on consecutive days rather than in consecutive kilometres – is their best chance of success.
And we found that, just like in 2004, the yellow jersey gives Thomas Voeckler the strength of two men. He was incredible all day, as were his team-mates, especially Pierre Rolland, who survived until the very end and did a vital last turn when it looked as if Voeckler had finally overcooked it.
The day’s break got away very early. Ruben Perez of Euskaltel, Geraint Thomas of Sky, Jerémy Roy of FDJ (of course), Jose Ivan Gutierrez of Movistar, Biel Kadri of Ag2r and Laurent Mangel of Saur-Sojasun were the men who set themselves up for a long day.
Their lead was enough to make Thomas the maillot jaune virtuel well before the first climb, La Hourquette d’Ancizan. On the climb a trio of riders tried to counter-attack. The French champion Sylvain Chavanel and Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, 52 minutes down and enduring a torrid Tour so far, were joined by Johnny Hoogerland. That’s right, the same Johnny Hoogerland who is now surely a cult hero the world over having been propelled into a barb wire fence and cut to ribbons after being sent flying by a car on Sunday.
On the way down the Hourquette d’Ancizan, Thomas wobbled on the first right-hand corner and ran off the road, landing in a heap on the grass. A few moments later he overshot a left-hand corner when his rear wheel locked up. You wondered about his handling skills until the main group tackled the first corner.
There was clearly something wrong with the surface because a Euskaltel rider fell, causing a crash and sending Voeckler’s yellow jersey off the road. The rider most seriously hurt by the fall was Andreas Klöden of Radioshack – the fourth of their team leaders to suffer a costly crash. We wonder if Johan Bruyneel believes in karma?
It took Thomas and Gutierrez, who was also delayed, a while to catch up with the leading four again, while behind them Chavanel and Kreuziger had dropped Hoogerland but were making a meal of closing the gap.
As the lower slopes of the Tourmalet began to bite, the lead was still seven minutes. The increased gradient tempted the Leopards to come out of the long grass. At one point they had their entire team on the front, setting a strong pace. This, presumably, was the definition of True Racing. Joost Posthuma gave way to Fabian Cancellara who gave way to Stuart O’Grady.
HTC’s general classification hopes were dealt a blow when Peter Velits had to change his bike. Tejay Van Garderen waited for him but they never made it back. Velits lost four minutes.
Leopard were doing some damage. Robert Gesink’s nightmare continued. He was dropped and waved on a Rabobank team-mate who was prepared to pace him. At the finish, Gesink had lost 17 minutes and all hope of the white jersey, let alone the yellow.
The tactics employed by Leopard were not particularly imaginative and, as it turned out, they weren’t particularly appropriate either. They simply didn’t have the manpower. They may have put some riders in difficulty – Luis Leon Sanchez, a winner in the Massif Central and second overall, for example – but they also dropped their own men. Surprisingly, Jakob Fuglsang was dropped and by the top of the Tourmalet, Maxime Montfort was slipping off the back too, although no one could doubt Jens Voigt’s show of strength.
The leaders had about three minutes in hand when they reached the top. Thomas had dropped his breakaway companions and was looking very good for a while, until Roy came back to him and snuck ahead to take the Souvenir Jacques Goddet at the summit.
A chase group went clear on the Tourmalet too. Laurens Ten Dam of Rabobank and Yuriy Trofimov of Katusha began to pick up those who’d been dropped by the leaders.
Philippe Gilbert’s descent of the Tourmalet was remarkable and he caught Riblon and Trofimov before the bottom.
But it was move by Sanchez – missed by the television cameras – that defined the final climb.
Sanchez linked up with Perez, and then he and Vanendert sliced through the others. First Trofimov and Ten Dam, then Roy and finally Thomas, who had done more than enough to earn the Prix de la Combativité prize for the day. Thomas and Roy’s three-minute lead melted very quickly, particularly when Szmyd, the Liquigas rider, upped the pace.
Suddenly Leopard were left short-handed. Andy Schleck, who had punctured near the top of the Tourmalet and managed to ride into the back of an Ag2r rider as he rejoined the main group, was not looking as sparkly as his brother.
As the group began to thin down, you expected Voeckler to run into trouble at some point but it didn’t happen. The Frenchman had been looked after brilliantly by his team-mates and still had Pierre Rolland at his service.
There were some teasing moves. Andy Schleck moved with four kilometres to go. Contador marked it. Then Frank Schleck made the first of a number of bids to shake the group off.
Finally with three kilometres left, Schleck attacked hard and got a much better gap than before.
No one reacted but, crucially, no one panicked either, until Basso and then Evans increased the pace. Incredibly, Voeckler also responded, looking every bit as good as the rest until, suddenly, he ran out of gas, paying the price as they rounded the next hairpin, which was tight and steep.
The Frenchman hauled himself over the line and kept 1-49 of his lead over Frank Schleck.
But critically, Contador lost 13 seconds to Basso, Evans and Andy Schleck, 33 to Frank. And while that didn’t spoil the ending, it did appear to rule out one of the main protagonists.
The process of elimination begun so violently by the crashes of the first week was continued, in a more subtle way. The list of potential winners has narrowed down to the final five or six riders.