Posted by: mdegeorge | July 21, 2011

Stage 18 Diagnosis: Winners and Losers

It took the better part of two weeks, but the Tour de France has finally seen a move for the Yellow Jersey with Andy Schleck’s old school breakaway up the slopes of the Col du Galibier on Thursday’s Stage 18.

The 200 kilometer trek over three Hors Category climbs has proven just who has the legs for the mountains and who does not. As is befitting a stage of this magnitude, one winner is hardly enough to encapsulate the mayhem served up on the slopes. Here’s a few more than merely the younger Schleck to consider.

Thomas Voeckler, still in Yellow. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Winners

Andy Schleck: The Luxembourger made the risky move up the climb of the Col d’Izoard knowing just how long remained to the finish. But he blistered the field up and down the hills, including an excellent descent in the shadow of teammate Maxime Monfort, and finds himself just seconds out of Yellow. He faded in the final few kilometers, and it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank for a grueling stage up L’Alpe d’Huez Friday. But he must be considered the front-runner for Yellow.

Frank Schleck: With the main field unwilling to chase Andy’s early move, Frank was able to sit back in the Yellow Jersey group and do not an ounce of work and jump at the line to get enough time to jump over Cadel Evans in the overall. The dream of a 1-2 finish can be realized if their Leopard-Trek team, by far the most organized in the peloton, can unhitch Thomas Voeckler Friday. And if Andy falters, Frank is in strong enough position to take over on GC.

Team Leopard-Trek: Talk about executing team tactics to perfection. The decision to put Joost Posthuma and Monfort in the breakaway worked wonderfully. It meant Andy had Posthuma to help him for a section up the climb and Monfort to navigate him down the descent of the Col d’Izoard, important for how he faltered in the Pyrenees, and the early slopes of the Galibier. Stuart O’Grady did an excellent turn of pacemaking after Jens Voigt, and though Fabian Cancellara and Jakob Fuglsang fell of early, they should have something left for tomorrow. The long descent off a relatively benign pass of the Galibier early Friday means L-T could boast six or seven riders by the foot of L’Alpe d’Huez to power the Schlecks up the final climb.

Thomas Voeckler: I don’t know how he keeps doing it, but he’s in Yellow for a remarkable 10th straight day. He kept Evans’ wheel all day and pushed hard in the final two kilometers when he saw there was a chance of retaining Yellow. He’s been doing this all with essentially a one-man team once the pressure and the road ratchet up. I think the time has come to start nurturing dreams of a podium finish.

Cadel Evans: Voeckler should hug and the Schecks punch Evans for the gargantuan turn of work he did to single-handedly keep himself in the race, riding tempo up the entire Galibier by himself. With everyone pasted onto his wheel unable or unwilling to help, Evans maintained his chance at the podium despite falling to fourth. Thanks to his efforts, we’ve had what I believe to be the final sort out: Four riders sit within a minute and a half of the lead in the Tour, then fifth is Damiano Cunego almost four minutes back. Let’s hope Evans doesn’t pay to heavily for his effort on L’Alpe D’Huez, because it’s he that is best positioned to win this race thanks to his time trialing ability. It’s likely that Evans can make up a minute or more on both of the Schlecks and Voeckler if he gets it right.

Pierre Rolland: Omnipresent at Voeckler’s side in the mountains, Rolland entered the day around three minutes behind Rigoberto Uran and 33 seconds behind Rein Taaramae in the White Jersey competition. He surmounted both of those gaps and finds himself leading that competition tonight. Now, he’s got one more day to shepherd Vockeler through the mountains and hopefully onto the podium.

Jean-Christophe Peraud: It’s been a tough Tour for the French, who are likely to go without a stage win this year for the first time since 1999. But the youngster has quietly leapt out from a crowded AG2R team that includes Nicolas (not Stephen) Roche, John Gadret and Christophe Riblon to sit 10th overall.

Garmin-Cervelo: Despite the 1-2 finish by the Schlecks, the Garmin boys all but clinched a win in the team classification. Tom Danielson held onto his top-10 overall by finishing ninth, while Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde have found their legs late in this tour to finish 10th and 12th, respectively. Since the third L-T finisher was around 14 minutes back, the Garmin lead of seven minutes entering the day is sure to swell.

Race organizers: The lucked out big time by having the snow in the Alps abate long enough to allow the highest mountaintop finish in Tour history. It certainly lived up to the excitement.

Friday’s breakaway: With the most powerful team in the race having a stranglehold on the GC aspirations, expect Leopard-Trek to give the escapees plenty of leeway. They’ll only be worried about two riders: Evans and Voeckler. Anyone else would be free to ride, maybe even a Frenchman for a change.

Francesco Moser: I hope the former Giro d’Italia and World Road Race Champion sends a thank you note to commentator Paul Sherwen for basically crediting the Schleck’s tactics on the stage to a pre-race meeting from the two-time Tour stage winner and 23-time Giro stage winner. If he’s ever looking for a job, that should go on his résumé.

Losers

Alberto Contador: It’s always sad to see an injury limit as brilliant a rider as Contador, but for all the game-playing and misdirection offered by Contador and his camp in this race and for the last year, I won’t exactly be shedding a tear at El Pistolero’s free fall down the overall standings. He clearly didn’t have it today, which makes the premeditated bike change and the grand summit with Samuel Sanchez all the more grandiose and unnecessary. He’ll either ride off to the win on L’Alpe D’Huez Friday or retire from the race.

Bjarne Riis: So Bjarne, you know the Schleck’s tactics? Did you know they were going to execute them to perfection, having a teammate by Andy’s side almost every step of the way while your Swiss-cheese Saxo Bank squad would be AWOL save for a few short kilometers where Dani Navarro actually made an appearance?

The Italian “contenders”: I don’t know if Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego couldn’t or wouldn’t work to help Evans lessen the gap to Andy Schleck. But the two men sitting on the group throughout the day was pretty shameful.

Spanish cycling: I’m not really sure what Samuel Sanchez and Contador discussed for all that time at the back of the Yellow Jersey group. But the notion of a Spaniard on a different team having his team work for Contador doesn’t sit well with me. It’s borderline collusion and would give Contador an edge over, say the Schlecks, simply because Spain is a more cycling-rich and bigger country than Luxembourg. Glad to see it didn’t come to benefit anyone today. Besides, isn’t the Basque team of Euskatel-Euskadi largely supported by separatists trying to breakaway from mainland Spain?

BMC Racing: After a few good days early, this team has disappeared in the mountains. Brent Bookwalter did some work for Evans after he was swept up in the breakaway, but otherwise Evans was hopelessly isolated. He cannot survive Friday’s stage unless his team decides to do a little work.

The glaciers: Boy, as Sherwen points out, they are hurting thanks to global warming.

Stage 18 Diagnosis: Winners and Losers

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