Posted by: mdegeorge | July 19, 2011

Going into the Alps with a surprising bang

Tuesday’s Stage 16 of the Tour de France was the epitome of the single fact on which the race if built: Nothing is predictable.

Not the mindset of the racers, the ambitions of the peloton, the fragility of certain member or the odds of the strong – or the weak – remaining that way.

Thor Hushovd, shocking the Tour yet again in Stage 16. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

It was a topsy-turvy race that settled nothing, a perfect Alpine appetizer for the tumult that will be the next.

Few expected there to be attacks on the first day in the Alps with brutally punishing days ahead. Few expected Alberto Contador to have repeated runs up the mountain to lay the foundations of making up his gulf in time to the leaders. Few expected that with a long, tricky descent down the Col de Manse that any significant time gaps could be obtained.

But in keeping with the theme of the last two weeks of racing, little went according to the consensus plan.

The start to Tuesday’s stage was in many ways insane. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, the first 50 kilometers were done without a group being able to form thanks to a torrid pace set by desperate teams trying to attain stage glory on what may the last realistic opportunity. So much for a sleepy ride for teams attempting to extend the rest day a couple more hours. Garmin’s Ryder Hesjedal rode all-out like it was the last hour of a spring classics race for a good 40 kilometers, and that was just to stay off the front end of the peloton. It was early aggression the likes of which you rarely see, yo-yoing groups of varying sizes up to 30 riders until a suitable breakaway of 10, with a few riders straggling behind in the gap, got out just as the peloton his the feeding zone.

Once the peloton got to the Col de Manse, just as the peloton appeared to be settling into a somewhat comfortable cadence, Contador launched his first attack. With the race profile, the attack seemed more like a psychological broadside to his rivals, a reminder of, “hey, I am still in this thing.” It looked like it would be little more, as Fabian Cancellara hung on and dug deep to pace the Schlecks back into it. But Contador and compatriot Samuel Sanchez attacked again and again until the only rider in the main group that could match the accelerations was Cadel Evans, producing the day’s great sort out.

Evans didn’t know much about the attacks, but once he had marked them, he seemed to tack onto Contador’s wheel content to let the Spaniard cement his own GC credentials.

While the lead group of three sorted themselves out – Thor Hushovd went with team over country in following Hesjedal and overtaking fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen for his second (SECOND!?!?!) mountain stage victory of this Tour – Evans used the curving descent to carve open a brief gap on Contador. A great solo effort that cobbled together his mountain biking and time trialing strengths earned him another three seconds on Contador and Sanchez on the line, though only some late work by the latter spared that from reading more in the order of 15 seconds.

The echelons on the mountain were clear and, in cases like Andy Schleck, exacerbated on the descent. In the first group behind the leading General Classification troika came Yellow Jersey Thomas Voeckler, Damiano Cunego, Frank Schleck, Peter Velits, King of the Mountains Jelle Vanendert, White Jersey wearer Rigoberto Uran as well as near competitors Rein Taaramae and Arnold Jeannesson, while Green Jersey contenders Philippe Gilbert and J.J. Rojas joined on the descent to contest the sprint. Tom Danielson came down the mountain 18 seconds behind that group; a further 15 seconds back were Ivan Basso, Geraint Thomas and Christian Vande Velde.

Finally, at 1:09 behind Evans came the group led by And Schleck with lieutenant Maxime Monfort, Contador’s helper Dani Navarro and RadioShack leader-by-default Haimar Zubelda 5 minutes, 32 seconds after the leader.

There was little that went according to the pundits’ script today. No one believed attacks would come as thick and heavy as they did. Voeckler keeps everyone in a suspended state of disbelief as he continues to ride in the Maillot Jaune. There was little chance entering the day that team leadership on Leopard-Trek would shift suddenly for the first time in three Tours between the Schlecks, but Andy’s cracking in the mountains and tentative descending made it so. Even Mark Cavendish was only 6 minutes in arrears of the leaders, and he didn’t even need a motor escort – allegedly – to do it.

It begs the question of what the Alps has in store next. The answer, I’m happy to report, is that nobody really knows.

Going into the Alps with a surprising bang

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