A beautiful day for a bike race! Blue skies and nice weather (a bit warm) greeted the cyclists at the start line in the city of Saint-Gaudens within sight of the mighty Pyrénées in the south of France. The 169-kilometer course had a shark’s tooth profile and with lots of categorized mountains, a bunched-up group of contenders needing to attack each other, the yellow, green, polka dot, white jerseys and the team classification all up for grabs, the circumstances could hardly have been better for a great stage. Six categorized climbs today, with the storied finish up the steep and long Plateau de Beille, all 1,780 meters of it, right along the Spanish border. This savage climb has proved to be a kingmaker in the past 4 times it’s been featured in the Tour, with the winner on this climb going on to win the Tour de France. Who were those winners you ask? Bet you’ll recognize the names, the last 3 were riding on Johan Bruyneel teams:
1998 Marco Pantani
2002 Lance Armstrong
2004 Lance Armstrong
2007 Alberto Contador
Will it prove to be the kingmaker once again? Well with the winner today being Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Belgium rider Jelle Vanendert, who is over 12 minutes back in 20th place, the odds are against it. I think the run’s been broken.
After yesterday’s stage, most of the top contenders had microphones thrust in their face, with interviewers querying them for their impressions of what this all-important stage would portend. There were a lot of cat-and-mouse assertions, but for the most part, everyone stated the importance of the stage, and their respect for the effort it would take to stay in contention. Cadel Evans said “There will be fireworks today, don’t worry.” Alberto Contador said, “The Schleck brothers have to attack,” and went on to say, “they wasted a good opportunity to drop a rider like Evans.” Frank Schleck said, “I don’t feel any pressure…[but] we have to take every opportunity…to attack.” He would later be paraphrased, “Don’t let anyone kid you, if you don’t have it here, you won’t have it to win the tour.” Andy Schleck said, “We’re looking forward to tomorrow, of course, but we don’t expect the Tour to be decided here.”
Just before the noon start time, Team RadioShack’s American star Levi Leipheimer discussed how the team was soldiering on, “It’s a challenge for us…[but] we like challenges. We’ll fight and we won’t give up.” Concerning the day’s stage, he said, “Today is really a hard day, maybe the hardest in the Tour this year. The stage will be brutal…and we’ll have to stay mentally tough.” When asked for his prediction on the win he thought for a moment, then said with a wry smile, “Frank Schleck.”
Early in the stage a big 24-man break formed with some good riders, but in a short while over the difficult climbs this lead pack blew apart, scattered, slightly reformed, and pedaled into the heavens gulping at times more water than air. With gruesome ascents and dramatic descents one guesses the locals probably don’t burden their vocabulary with the words ‘flat’ and ‘level.’ The break riders at one point had a lead of over 9 minutes but that fell apart as well as their notions of working together and then Leopard-Trek went to work at the front of the peloton.
Stuart O’Grady looked like superman, dragging the peloton along in his cape for nearly an hour, and in these mountains, everyone was happy to let him do it. Then Fabian Cancellara propelled them along on the false-flat leading to the final climb, in time-trial flight that only he’s capable of. Leopard-Trek seemed to be writing all the headlines. They had 2 men in the break – with Jens Voigt crashing twice – both on camera, O’Grady Pied-Pipering the peloton – on camera, and all of their riders in the front of the bunch, yes…on camera. Just before the Plateau de Beille, after some 150 kilometers of pedaling, they had 7 men still bunched at the front leading the way – on camera. You’d have thought for a while that no other team had actually showed up to contest the stage. That, of course, would prove not to be the case.
The real fireworks didn’t start until 10.5 kms from the top of the off-category Beille when Andy Schleck decided to test Contador and Evans. From that point on, any true fan of the sport was glued to the action. Andy’s first dig was a bit half-hearted, but Contador didn’t look like he could respond; he looked a bit in trouble. The small group of pure climbers left, regrouped and at 9.8 to the finish, Andy attacked again and Contador appeared to really struggle this time. The other billy goats left in the small pack included: Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez, Thomas Voeckler in yellow, Ivan Basso, Jelle Vanendert, Rigoberto Uran, Jean-Christophe Peraud, and Pierre Rolland. RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer and Haimar Zubeldia had drifted back at this point, with nothing to defend and little to gain burning up reserves on this mountain.
At 8.9 kms to go Andy attacked again, and then again with 7.1 kms to go, but each time it seemed he just wanted to test legs and didn’t have the confidence to really go for it. Everyone regrouped each time. At 6.8 kms to go, the winning dig was put in by Jelle Vanendert. Sitting in 30th place before the stage, 12’54” behind the leader, everyone decided to just let him go. Whether they knew it or not, they’d just conceded the stage.
At 3.9 kms to the line Samuel Sanchez attached, Andy charged after for a bit and the small bunch reformed again. At this point it looked like a boxing match of equally capable punchers taking turns beating the daylights out of each other. At 3.6 kms to go Sanchez attacked again, no one responded and we had our second place finisher on the stage. At 2.2 kms to the line Basso gave a bit of a dig with Peraud on his tail, and the surprise rider of the tour so far France’s Thomas Voeckler bridged up so quickly you’d have thought he was on fresh legs. Johan Bruyneel said the other day that the peloton had better keep an eye on this guy – hinting that everyone seems to be taking the yellow jersey a bit lightly.
Cadel Evans took his turn to attack at 1.8 kms to go, but it wasn’t long lived. Finally with the line almost in sight, Andy sprinted away from the bunch so decisively that one wonders why he didn’t attempt a sustained attack earlier, only gaining 2 seconds on his rivals when he might have gone to bed tonight having gained ten or twenty times that.
No meaningful turnover in the top 10 today. RadioShack’s Haimar Zubeldia held down 15th place, however, Levi Leipheimer dropped a bit to 25th, hopefully not due to injury but saving legs for later. In the jersey competitions, Cavendish is still wearing green, Vanendert took polka dot today, and Uran Uran is looking good in white.
So it’s doubtful the Plateau de Beille has turned out for the 5th time to be the foolproof predictor of the overall winner of this, the greatest show in cycling. Of course we’ll have to wait for at least 6 more stages – maybe 7 (if a challenger takes the unusual initiative to actually race in Paris on the final day), but in honesty, Vanendert would have to be allowed jet propulsion to surpass the names pedaling in front of him. However, with everyone bunched up so closely at the top of the leader board, and with no one really displaying dominance here, there’s still too many unanswered questions for reliable predictions just yet.
Is Contador struggling or sandbagging? Is Cadel saving his legs for the all important time trial? Is Basso going to surprise? Can the Schlecks hold a lead through the Alps and pull off the time trial of their lives and will Samuel Sanchez be content to let them all just walk away with the glory? And is the 24-year old Uran Uran (love that rock band name) for real? There’s just no telling who’s going to take that top step, toward the end of July, on what many of us feel is the most prestigious podium in sports. But one thing’s absolutely certain – they will have worked very hard to earn it this year.
By George Hurst, staff writer
Photo: Ugo Discovery