In the last flat 167.5-km sprinter’s stage before the Tour de France climbs into the Pyrénées tomorrow, the cyclists raced mostly southwest from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur, France on a chilly wet day that saw some welcomed caution on slick roads. No serious crashes, no one hurt, just good racing. After only a few minutes on the rainy course, catching the spray off the wheels in front, the riders started looking like 4-year olds after playing in a mud puddle, dirt speckled faces, mud stripes up jersey backs, wet gray socks, dirty shins. Then the pavement dried, the jackets and arm warmers came off and, but for the overcast skies, it was a different day. Then the dark clouds got darker, car headlights came on, and it started raining again, hard, Mother Nature deciding to make things difficult at the finish.
A 6-man break away formed after 10 kms consisting of Cofidis’ Tristan Valentin (FRA), Astana’s Andriy Grivko (UKR), Rabobank’s Lars Boom (NED), Euskaltel’s Rubén Pérez (ESP), FDJ’s Mickael Delage (FRA), and Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent (FRA). They got some 4:25 on the peloton as they worked very well together throughout the course rolling the dice that today would be their day. While some experts predicted that a breakaway might pull off a win on this course, most rightly called it for the sprinters knowing they’d run out of further options in this race to win a stage and would not likely let one so well designed for their prowess to slip away. With only 2 categorized climbs, the cat 3 Côte de Tonnac and the cat 4 Côte de Paylaurens (346 meters and 322 meters respectively), you might just as well call this “sprinter-flat” as strong as these riders are.
HTC-Highroad didn’t get much help from the other teams in the peloton as they worked most of the day at the front hunting down the break riders to keep their gap manageable. With so many teams diminished via injury or wanting to rest before the mountains, and with little at stake in the stage unless you harbored sprinter’s ambitions, the other squads were happy to let HTC expend energy, and expend it they did, often with 8 men pulling at the front. Finally Omega Pharma-Lotto, Garmin-Cervélo, and Sky put a rider or two at the front in a nod to their intent to contest the stage even though they’re all smarting from injury abandonments, particularly Omega who are down 3 riders just like RadioShack’s decimated squad.
The peloton started amping the pace with 12 km to go, hitting speeds of 75-80 kmh trying to catch the break, stringing out the bunch and splitting it with many riders spent and unable to kept the group’s speed. The peloton was starting to get close with 4 kms to go when Lars Boom flew ahead trying to solo for a win. But there was no way he could match the speed of the chasing pack – particularly on a straight course. He got overtaken at 2.2kms to go and the sprint was on.
Thankfully given the slippery road and driving rain, the finish was not technical, with no tight turns that could have wreaked havoc. HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish, the most successful sprinter of his day took the world’s best to school, winning the stage (his 18th in 4 Tour appearances) and getting revenge on Omega’s André Greipel who came in second after yesterday’s victory with Garmin’s Tyler Farrar coming in third. Cavendish took now wears the Green Jersey for his efforts taking it from Omega’s Philippe Gilbert.
Team RadioShack stayed safe today, and there was no shake up on the leader board with our guys holding their placements. Andreas Klöden’s back injury appears to be getting better every day, but tomorrow will be a real test. Same for all the bruises and cuts covering Levi Leipheimer’s body and the rest of the team.
Some say the real Tour de France starts tomorrow. The sprint stages are over and it’s pretty much all mountains from here on out. The overall favorites will now come out to play their hands and will test their form relative to each other’s. BMC’s Cadel Evans, Leopard-Trek’s Schleck brothers, RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer, Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador and even Liquigas-Cannondale’s Ivan Basso (whose been pretty quiet up till now), to name a few, will be digging hard to see if they can hurt each other in an area where they all excel.
Team Manager Johan Bruyneel stated that he doesn’t expect a recovering Klöden to contest for the stage, but simply ride hard, finish well, and stay in contention on the GC. Probably excellent advice knowing that there’s 5 more monster mountain stages still to come – no sense burning all your reserves on just one. But watch for the others to try some serious attacks on the day’s final climb. Should be interesting.
The stage finish, featuring the steep off-category Luz-Ardiden climb, has become quite renown after the 2003 Tour, when a fan’s musette bag clipped Lance Armstrong’s handlebar sending him instantly crashing to the pavement. If you remember, Lance picked himself up, willed a broken bike to function properly and won that stage from a perplexed Jan Ullrich. On Johan’s website, he jokingly exhorts any fans showing up tomorrow, to please, “…leave your musette bags at home!”
By George Hurst, staff writer