Posted by: mdegeorge | July 15, 2011

Sorting the winners and losers of the Tour’s first big sort out

The Tour de France raises so many questions. It’s not just queries like, “Why do you wake up at 6 a.m. to watch a bunch of skinny Europeans punish themselves up and down France’s countryside?”

Among the most popular is a simple, why? Why do riders chose to make a career out of pushing the pain barriers for little chance of claiming victory at the sport’s biggest level. After all, there are only 21 stages and a few other assorted prizes to be won by this field of over 200 riders.

Cadel Evans. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Well rest easy weary members of the peloton, because on a stage as grueling and complex as Stage 12 to the top of Luz Ardiden, there deserves to be more than one winner. After all, this was the first massive shuffling of the deck in the race and what many believe to be the official start of proceedings.

Here is my list of all the winners Thursday, and a few losers – still less than the race spawned.

Winners:

Frank Schleck: Early form in the mountains is a very good thing. The plan the last few years in the big mountain passes has always been for Frank to attack, soften up the legs of the big contenders and either stay away for stage wins in the peloton doesn’t deem him a threat or chase him down for Andy to attack later. With the form the older Schleck has though, that strategy could soon be rethought or lead to a different Schleck on the podium then we’re used to.

Ivan Basso: The Italian has flown under the GC contender radar so far. But he proved Thursday he thinks he has the legs for a podium finish. It was his Liquigas-Cannondale teammate Sylwester Szmyd who did the final turn of damage on Luz-Ardiden that caused the final sort-out.

Samuel Sanchez: Obvious, since he picked up the stage win and the King of the Mountains jersey.

Thomas Voeckler: Again, fairly easy to pick. The Frenchman did a tremendous job, riding with the strength of almost two men with that jersey on his shoulders. His team shepherded him beautifully through the hills, with Pierre Rolland at his side, to retain a Yellow Jersey he predicted he would lose Thursday.

BMC Racing: The red-and-black jerseys have been omnipresent at the sharp end of the peloton throughout the Tour’s first week to deliver Cadel Evans safely to the foot of the mountains. The Australian rewarded their efforts by comfortably fending off attacks while looking like his best days in the mountains are yet to come.

French cycling: The dream of a French winner on Bastille Day didn’t come to fruition. But Voeckler again donned Yellow, Jeremy Roy somehow summoned the courage to attack for the umpteenth day in a row and the presence of Rolland alongside Voeckler is certainly encouraging. While the title of the next great French cycling hope has often been bandied about, it may have come to rest on the shoulders of Arnold Jeannesson, the FDJ rider who was the surprise inclusion in the select group of climbers who will wear white as leader of the best young rider competition tonight.

Tom Danielson: He’s waited until his early 30s to ride his first Tour, and he’s certainly making the most of it. While he didn’t make it into the final group, he got most of the way up Luz Ardiden with the big boys and did enough to crack the top 10 on GC. He’s also the highest-placed American and has assumed the lead on Garmin-Cervelo after the cracks that have appeared in Christian Vande Velde.

The sprinters: Hey, any day in the Pyrenees that the sprinters don’t get eliminated is a good day. Plus l’autobus managed to get back into contact with the main group before they started on the second climb of the day, the Tourmalet.

Omega-Pharma Lotto: It’s been a good-news, bad-news Tour for the Belgian team. Philippe Gilbert has a stage win and spent time in the Green Jersey. Andre Greipel has a stage win. Jurgen van den Broeck’s injury, though, wrote off their chances in the mountains. But they may have found a new hope in the mountains Thursday in Jelle Vanendert, who was able to stay with Sanchez almost to the line in nearly ekeing out a stage win.

Losers:

Alberto Contador: El Pistolero looked anything but comfortable. He was able to mark the moves ahead of him, but he lacked the characteristic gun-slinging confidence we’re accustomed to see from him as he does his patented dance on the pedals out of the saddle. Never in Stage 12 did you have the palpable feeling that he was going to launch right past everyone with ease as he so often has. That, combined with a weakening team whose only throw of the dice was an attack by Jesus Hernandez that cooked the Spaniard’s legs and popped him off the back, would make me somewhat worried if I was a Contador fan.

Team RadioShack: They’re now 4-for-4 … in leaders lost. The final leader bit the dust Thursday as Andreas Kloden fell early on the descent of La Hourquette d’Ancizan and had enough on the slopes of Luz Ardiden. On the bright side, at least Levi Leipheimer acquitted himself well up the climbs, just a minute off the pace set by the leaders, though he’s got a lot of work to do to come back from earlier losses. He’s actually 34 seconds behind Haimar Zubeldia, who quietly finished just about two minutes back today.

Rabobank: Round and round the leadership wheel goes, where it stops, nobody know. Robert Gesink showed he hasn’t got the legs to lead the team and was popped on the slopes of the Tourmalet. Luis Leon Sanchez, the Stage 9 winner who entered Thursday second on GC, had a nightmare day. It leaves a cluster of riders in the high-30s – Laurens Ten Dam in 35th, Sanchez 37th, Gesink 39th and Carlos Barredo 40th. Say hi to the breakaways the next few days boys.

Andy Schleck: His team leadership is somewhat in doubt thanks to his brother’s form. If Frank gets the edge in the Pyrenees and proves he can hold it, Andy absolutely will not attack his brother. It may flip the script per usual where Frank goes for the GC win and Andy tries to tackle the stages. Interesting to see how this develops.

HTC-Highroad: They entered trying to prove they were more than a team of sprinters, and with Tony Martin poised to tackle the big mountains passes and Peter Velits quietly creeping up the overall, that was a possibility. But both exploded on the climbs today. Velits hung on finish 14th in GC, six minutes in arrears of Voeckler. But a flu-suffering Martin’s GC aspirations are likely over, all the way down in 26th place overall.

Geraint Thomas: It’s unfortunate that the Welsh Team Sky rider had so many tribulations on the descent down La Hourquette d’Ancizan. As strong as his legs were late up the Tourmalet, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see the full extent of his climbing ability after his nerves were so frayed.

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