Stage 16 analysis: Son of the Manse

Thor Hushovd won his second mountain stage of the Tour in Gap, while Cadel Evans gained time on all his rivals over the Col de Manse.

Words by Lionel Birnie

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Tuesday July 19, 2011

If Cadel Evans were to return to his old cautious ways for the next three days you could not blame him.

The Australian’s sense of adventure on the Col de Manse, and his daring on the descent, gained a few more seconds and now makes him a strong favourite for the win.

Criticised in the past for his unwillingness or inability to attack, winning the world title in 2009 appears to have changed his mental approach. He is never going to be a rider with the lightest of touches. His body language gives everyone plenty of warning when he’s going to put in an acceleration and he does not dance with the balletic grace of someone like Contador. Instead he stomps on the pedals, as if mashing grapes for next year’s bargain plonk.

After the finish of the 16th stage from Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Gap, Evans can afford to settle back and follow the others. If he can keep tabs on Contador in the coming days as effectively as he did on the Col de Manse, he appears to have done enough to win the Tour.

By contrast, Andy Schleck will have nightmares tonight. He was caught out in the most surprising way and, of all the favourites, looks the slowest to have come to terms with the idea that the Tour is about trying to beat more than just one man. Having gained such a vital and handsome advantage on the first day, the Schlecks appear to have fallen for the idea that all they have to do is follow Alberto Contador to Paris and the Tour de France will be theirs. Today, Andy Schleck could not even do that. He lost time on the second-category climb, and even more on the descent, when he approached each wet, greasy corner with all the assuredness of a twitchy racehorse that had shed its jockey.

The Col de Manse provided the stage for the most aggressive and exciting racing of the Tour so far, proving that you do not need precipitous gradients to sort out the favourites. In fact, roads like these often give us the most open racing, although there was one other crucial factor today – the sense that time is running out.

The steeper cols make everyone nervous. There is potentially more to lose than to gain by going on the attack. The red warning lights flash on much quicker when it’s steep and at high altitude. And no one wants to go into the red, gain a hundred metres and then leave themselves open to a counter-attack that could see them lose a minute or more.

Instead, the shallower road of the Col de Manse – and the knowledge that the descent (where Joseba Beloki came to grief in hot, dry conditions in 2003) – would be highly technical in the wet, teased Contador and Evans out of their shells.

The suspicion that the Spaniard is continuing to improve and will come good in the Alps was heightened by his performance but he faces a problem. He still needs to gain a couple of minutes on Evans.

Thomas Voeckler retained the yellow jersey despite faltering slightly on the climb. The Frenchman’s overall lead was trimmed by four seconds, although it is crucial to note that Evans, rather than Frank Schleck, is now closest to him.

And while all that drama was playing out among the favourites, the battle for the stage was equally intriguing.

A group of three from an earlier, larger escape fought out the finish. It was one for the Venn diagram enthusiasts to enjoy. There were Garmin riders. There were Norwegian riders. And in the middle, the triumphant Thor Hushovd, a Norwegian Garmin rider.

Hushovd is one of the men of this Tour. A team time trial victory, a week in yellow, and now two stage wins, neither of which you would have fancied him for before the start.

He had his Canadian team-mate Ryder Hesjedal and his compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen of Team Sky for company but there was little doubt who would win.

With the profile continuing to gain height throughout the day, there was no obvious springboard for a break to get clear and so it took the best part of 100 kilometres before the bunch let anything go.

Hesjedal instigated the move and was joined by Hushovd, Boasson Hagen, Alan Perez of Euskaltel, Andriy Grivko of Astana, Dries Devenyns of Quick Step, Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil, Mikhail Ignatiev of Katusha, Tony Martin of HTC and the ubiquitous Jerémy Roy of FDJ.

The peloton threw in the towel and the lead quickly went out to two minutes, then four and, by the time they reached the base of the day’s biggest climb, almost six. There was a three-man chase group stranded in between but they never looked like getting across.

Ignatiev attacked at the bottom of the Col de Manse, with 19 kilometres of the stage remaining. Hesjedal succeeded where Perez and Devenyns had failed and got up to the Russian before pressing on by himself.

Hushovd and Boasson Hagen, arguably the best two descenders in the lead group, joined Hesjedal and the three worked well together to ensure they were not caught.

Behind them, all hell broke loose among the favourites. There have been few occasions to warrant that phrase in this Tour.

Contador accelerated repeatedly. Voeckler closed down the first move but he paid a price for over-estimating his strength. Evans was more patient and took longer to get up to Contador’s wheel so when the Spaniard kicked again he was able to go again, whereas Voeckler’s legs suddenly locked up.

Andy Schleck was already in trouble and, knowing that the descent would be demanding for both him and his brother, it was not a good sign.

On the run-in to Gap, Evans gave it everything. He pinched three seconds from Contador, 21 from Voeckler and Frank Schleck, 54 from Basso and 1-09 from a sorry-looking Andy Schleck.

The next three days will be the strongest possible test of Leopard’s mantra – True Racing. At the moment, all they are doing is True Chasing. Evans and Contador have got them on the run.

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