Monday, 26 July 2010

Stage 20 25-7-10

My last blog is never very long. I usually promise that I will do a reflection of some sort and publish it later, but I seldom do. So this time I will not make the promise. Should you wish to check in about a week, you MIGHT find a more considered view of the Tour. I might even pick some people or teams like this. The set of questions from one of my cycling forums.

Best stage(s) – Stage 3 Had me on the edge of my seat for many minutes. Stage 17 was pretty good.

Most Surprising Team – Bbox, visible throughout even though without any really good riders.

Most Surprising Rider – Anthony Charteau, (who?) will no longer be a question. Hesjedal, for finishing so high. Navarro, riding for hours up hills making other riders suffer, his speed dropping many riders more famous than he.

Chapeaux – Fignon and Jalabert for being the best commentators ever. The French riders, for making the best of their resources to win stages, not races. France, for continuing to have the most gorgeous countryside on earth.

Maglia Merde – Don't think it is a good idea. But if I gave it it might be for the bad jokes and negative reference to 'mamy' (older ladies) as the opposite of the young macho fit lads on TV and therefore somehow sadder people than young lads. Totally disrespectful and examples of 'bad jokes'.

Best tactical decision – Get Cancellara to stop the race for the Schlecks. Get Schleck to follow Cancellara the next day. Riis triumphs again.

Best tactics – Astana for covering up Contador's bad days.

Worst tactics – Stopping Schleck from attacking more. Riis loses again.

Funniest moment – Hardly anything funny at all.

Giro or TDF? TDF, always the best spectacle, Giro the best cycling race as such.

But the truth of the matter is that by now, blogwise, I am tired and glad it is over. I peak at about the two week mark and it is hard work after that. The Tour has its motivating factors, so I usually continue. I will read al the mags I possibly can afterwards, and enjoy every minute. No doubt I will go back over the record of the race and see what happened in relation to what people say happened, there are always several races being reported on. Like the glorious final race of LA. Like the Chaingate story, which no doubt will run forever. Like the green jersey story. Like the crash of Frank. And then we get into transfer stories. There is much to learn. And much to follow.

So Cav won the sprint, almost on his own. He was dumped very nicely at the last corner, and then just accelerated. He failed to win the jersey, maybe by not trying when he saw he had lost back on stage 2 or was it four. He just gave up. There were two complete surprises, utterly unpredicted by anyone, with Pettachi and Charteau. The last was not even envisaged by his mother. This is unusual.

Like I said, it is short. I liked the Tour. I think it was far more interesting day to day than average. It had plenty of spectacle. And you know the thing I liked best … they caught no one using drugs, they never talked much about drugs and as far as we can tell at this moment, it might have been a clean Tour.

More in about a week. My excuse is that I had a couple of long family calls tonight, big changes ahead, and these took up most of my evening.

Good Tour, I enjoyed many many moments.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stage 19 24-7-10

Whew, that was a nice little twist at the end. They got me with that one. Suddenly Schleck might NOT lose the time trial. I kept waiting for him to fade and for Contador to win. It did happen, but it took long enough. Wondering wondering. There were some fine moments in the Tour and those waiting minutes were some of them. It was good to see that next year, no one will be able to say that The two 'heroes' are evenly matched in the mountains, but not in the TT. It looks to be a fine five or six years MORE with these two battling it out. Although Contador does say he had more than one bad day this year. Of course, there will be additional factors or riders in the race that we don't know about and some we do. I mean Menchov was not that far behind. And there is a generation of younger guys that still have plenty of room for improvement. Looking good. Maybe there will be more 'one person dominance', a la Lance and Miguel, but maybe not. That gives us enough uncertainty to keep us going for a few more years.

So Contador won yellow, unless something happens. Pettachi wins green, unless he finishes seventh in the sprint and Cav wins. Even here we still have some suspense, although of the long shot variety. I think Vino still might pull off a 2005 finish, just to say goodbye to active cycling. Otherwise he might have to ride all next year too.

It should be said that some rides today had more meaning that others. For example, Wiggins is one of the few 'later riders' who managed to crack the top ten. I am almost sure that when I woke up from my nap, near to 1530 or 1545, the top ten looked pretty much like it looked earlier when I took the nap. And it stayed the same, more or less, until the end. Menchov also did very well, very well indeed, given that no one with the wind against them did as well as usual. Menchov did better than Vino and Contador by close to two minutes. Put another way, Menchov beat Contador and Schleck by nearly two minutes, even thought they were riding at the same time. The wind made a huge difference. However, I would highlight of course Cancellara and Martin, who most likely would have won anyway. But guys like Menchov, Wiggins, Vino and Contador, not to mention Schleck should have been way higher and faster than the earlier starters, IF everything were equal. Any one of them could WIN a time trial, not finish, 9, 11, 33, 35, 40, 41 and 48. Just not right. But it does put Menchov and Wiggins in perspective. They did well in spite of the wind. NO idea what this will mean during the long time trial in next year's Tour.

Cancellara and Martin have now proven that on any given day, in any given time trial, they are likely to be head and shoulders above the rest, maybe. They did a terrific ride, both of them. And I like Fabian a lot as personality. He speaks five or so languages. He can make wee jokes in French and English at least. He never seems that perturbed. He is friendly and likes his teammates and other cyclists. Although few riders could have calmed the peloton at Spa, he could. He is the guy (under the orders of Riis) who won the Tour for Andy. He has a way of also not talking nonsense, or if he does, he laughs at himself. He seems honest. I would be so upset about professional cycling if he ever turns out to be a doper. I am delighted he won that stage. I just kick myself for not having him on the fantasy team instead of, for example, Frank Schleck. I might have won something. Bravo my hero Fabian. To the extent that I have heroes of course.

Are there any real puzzles in the stage results? Other than noting that those who rode later had a big three quarter headwind, and those earlier did not, not much. So the times that are disappointing are not THAT disappointing. So Fabian is no surprise, Martin either. I think two thirds of my cycling forum picked one or the other to win. A few picked Contador. The funny thing is that in our daily contest, all the players but one changed from Cancellara, because our betting system rewards those who are NOT the eighth to pick Cancellara, but the one person that picked Grabsch, which no one did.

Third through sixth places on the stage are not a surprise at all. Any of them could win a lesser time trail and are well known to be fast. Kiriyenka is not a big puzzle, as I suspect that we will see him often in the top ten in the next years. But we have not seen him a lot before, so hello Vasil! I guess I should know something more about Morenhout or Tjallingij as TTers, but I don't. I can't yet spell their names with looking. Must see if they have done well before, but I just don't know anything about them. Actually Morenhout is 36 and wins a race now and again, even the national road race championship ofHolland. Never have seen him this high in theTour. Tjallingij is 32 and has won a fe races, but nothing for three years. He is a vegetarian. Wiggins and Menchov for me are the best of the rest, they were late starters. I was most impressed. Geraint Thomas, 'the young Welshman on his first Tour' was riding well. Good for him. We now know he can do a good TT at the highest level and also sprint. What he can't do is climb in the high mountains. Yet. Could he be the British guy who wins the Tour? Jeremy Roy being the top French rider should be a little bit disquieting for some of the other French riders, who really should have done better than him. Still 12th is quite good for Roy, chapeau. Although Maxime Monfort is one of my favourite Belgians actually, but seeing Stuart O Grady, at his age, doing so well makes me feel warm all over. Other notes are that Muryev being the top placed Shack rider might annoy some people and even embarrass some. Shack did bugger all this TT, they just didn't care, the lot of them. I guess they had the team award in the bag. The last word is for our David (Millar). I hope he keeps riding, but this Tour he did not have a lot of good fortune. Still he was there, and even in the last TT, he managed a respectable 17th, although a guy like him should be in the top ten in every time trial. Such class. So good looking on the bike. They talk of Schleck's height being some kind of problem with him getting into a decent TT position. It certainly is true his position just catches the wind, it is terrible. But Millar is 4 cms taller and ten kilos heaver and he has a position to dream about. They both have to follow the same rules about the dimensions of the bike. Maybe Schleck has a hugely long chest, and short legs, but it does not look like that on the bike. He has long legs. Anyway, who knows why a second place guy in the Tour can't find a good position on the bike. He might have won if he had not lost over a minute on the prologue and TT. Anyway, it was a moderately interesting time trial.

Looking at the General Classification, what changed? Well actually, not much at all. I already mentioned Menchov beating Sanchez. Hesjedal went up one place, so did Lovkvist and DeWeert. Gadret went down to make room for them, and Sastre moved into the top twenty, while Moreno drifted out. So the time trial really didn't do much to the overall GC placings, with the exception of the move by Menchov onto the podium. It also means that Gadret will not be the first Frenchman. Nicolas Roche will be that, even though Gadret did not lend him his bike when Roche needed it in the mountains. Roche still wouldn't have made it into the top ten, but still, he did well. Roche has been tipped by many French people as being the best of the current young crop. He is 25 years old, the same as Schleck. No doubt if he continues to mature he might someday be in the top ten, but it seems hard to imagine him winning the Tour. That takes care of the top twenty.

So who is Kevin de Weert? He is 28, never ridden the Tour before, rides for Quick Step, 1.82 m and 70kg. He has essentially done not much, under 17 TT champ and under 19 TT champ in Belgium, in 2000, he won the Giro de Tuscany, and was fourth in the Etoile de Besseges in 2007. Otherwise, zip. Now the question arises, how did a guy like him beat (he finished 18th) Sastre, Armstrong, Wiggins, Casar, Evans, Cunego, Basso, Rogers … I know, he had no team responsibilities and blah blah. But that tiny story is what makes theTour interesting to me. I will never know the answer because I have no interest in a Belgian rider called de Weert. Maybe I should? But in fact, in the Tour 2010, he beat all those guys who one would suppose are in another league to him for any cycling historian.

Overall, I was rather pleased with this Tour. I think it is one of the good ones. I do remember 1989 and 2003 still quite fondly. This year there were several bizarre and controversial events. Disqualifications, chains slipping, falls here and there, peloton waiting for two guys who were not even in yellow or high on the GC, lack of attacking, unbelievable French wins (three in a row in the mountains), battles that never really happened as such, cobbles (which was a great day of racing spectacle), the clarity with which we now KNOW that we have five or six years of watching Schleck and Contador trying to beat each other and whoever comes up in the next bunch. I say Romain Sicard and Fabian Taillefer. Remember that last name and that you heard me mention it first, although I did mention it last year too. Although we still don't know for sure about EBH, who I guess can't do big mountains. Or Peter Sagan, who has possibilities. Much less the 'almost men' like Lovkvist who might someday mature, maybe. Or what EBH might do if he does not have such a horrible year, although maybe he too won't be able to do high mountains. Most days there was something to keep us going, although without going into details, there were also a few too many days when nothing much happened. That is, if it were a one day race, we would have not thought much of it. But you can't have a one day classic every day for three weeks. They do have to rest a bit. I understand that, but as a spectator, I often get impatient. The Giro is better that way, in terms of cycling entertainment. But the Tour is the Tour and this was a good one. Or pretty good anyway. I do think what happened in the Pyrenees, for whatever reason and with whatever excuse, was a huge waste of good mountains. I mean, after about five kilometres of watching the two lads ride up the Tourmalet, most of us really wanted one or the other of them to attack and get rid of the other one, even if the other one came back and counter-attacked. 'Together' is a touch less exciting really. And when will we next finish on the Tourmalet? We deserved more. Mind you, the weather was a bit much too. They should have had better weather on the Tourmalet. The image of two guys riding side by side or yellow behind white, in the fog, is dramatic for the first five k, then it gets old. Imagine it, Schleck attacks, drops the yellow guy. Moments later, out of the fog, comes the yellow guy. Good, right? And again once or twice before one of them actually WON. They should have sprinted desperately, both of them. But one was giving a gift to the other, to repay for a dubious slight given the day before. I mean. Its a bloody race!

I am sorry Frank Schleck crashed out. But overall, more riders finished this Tour than any other in living memory, in fact, more riders finished this Tour than any other, full stop. I will not do percentage calculations for each year, but not many quit, were seriously injured, got wasted, disqualified or whatever. NOT ONE sprinter at the top of the table quit voluntarily, they all rode over the mountains. I shall look into this in slightly greater details maybe tomorrow. Lots of guys riding on antibiotics with bronchitis, but that is quite normal.

Some teams must have been a bit disappointed. I can't imagine how Sky or Milram, or Cofidis or Liquigas or Footon can say they had a good Tour. And frankly, Rabobank, even if they have a podium place and another top ten, really did not 'animate the race'. I mean it is nice to quietly win a podium place, but no one will remember where Menchov lost the time, where he gained the time. He just kept on keeping on. And rode a brilliant TT. But even Rabobank might be a little less than happy. From my point of view anyway, not from theirs.

Funny thing is that people have such disagreements on the Tour, in the sense of was it a vintage Tour or just average or even below average. Some do think it was below average, even boring. Not me. I figure it was above average, but not vintage.

Don't forget I mentioned Hesjedal in my preview. He did well. Very well. But he is not young.

And last but not least, Radio Shack is the 'best team' in the Tour. Lance will be proud.

Voila. Another day, and we shall know the final jersey, the green one, but it should be clear already. I do not wish Pettachi the bad luck to finish ninth, not at all. And I hope Cav wins, unless it is Vino trying to do 2005 again.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Stage 18 23-7-10

Today the Tour finished in Bordeaux, city with a very rich heritage in architecture, stemming from very rich people making loads of money from wine for hundreds of years. Apparently gorgeous and I intend to check it out in a week or so. In addition it is the second most prestigious sprinters' stage, after Paris of course. Although there was a break of four, there were too few riders for it to succeed under the onslaught of the sprinters' teams, riding for nearly the last victory. The result was predictable, the break were swallowed up and the sprinting trains were put in place. The man of the day was Mark Cavendish, to no great surprise. Julian Dean, the guy who bundled Renshaw out of the Tour, was second, and Pettachi third. Thor Hushovd finished in fourteenth place, and admitted in an interview that his Tour was over, there was no chance he would win the green jersey. He said what everyone knew already, that he was just not up to much in the sprints themselves. So whatever other points he got were just not enough. In fact, today was a good example. All the sprinters were ahead of Thor and the guys immediately behind were not sprinters. He was the last sprinter. Unless something awful happens, Allessandro Pettachi should win the green jersey in Paris. End of suspense. I think even if Cav wins, Pettachi has to finish worse than seventh. Not much chance of that. Unless something happens.

Perhaps I have been a bit hard on Anthony Charteau these last days. There are other ways to look at his totally unforeseen victory in the competition for 'the best climber'. First, it was unpredictable. I often go on about uncertainty being the key to a good race, and yet when something totally improbable happens, I don't get excited. In fact, I don't even like it much, it disturbs me. This is not consistent (although consistency is not a value that is supreme, in my view). Maybe I should be happier. Furthermore he is almost certainly not a doper. When you look at recent winners, Rasmussen, Pellizotti, Virenque, Jalabert, Kohl, all of them are either convicted dopers or almost certainly dopers who were not caught. So we got a clean one this time. Furthermore, unlike the case of those guys, this is the biggest event that has ever happened in Charteau's life. He is a little guy, a loyal team mate, and worker. Obviously he has a bit of will power and focus. He has nothing about him that is fancy, more a modest local personality. I should be a little bit happier that there is still room for a guy like him in a media circus event of global proportions. Maybe it will restart his career, even at his advanced age. That would be nice. On the other hand, I can't help but wish for a Tour where there is a serious competition between two excellent climbers, who race each other to the tops of hills and mountains. Like the green jersey competition.

Today it was Cameron Diaz (who I have never liked much) and Tom Cruise who were in town waffling on about the Tour and posing with Contador and Schleck.

For those of you who might think I ignore the team classification, here it is. Radio Shack have it in the bag.

1 Team Radioshack 264:36:07  
2 Caisse d'Epargne 0:08:30  
3 Rabobank 0:33:39  

Nothing changed on the GC. It seldom does on a sprint stage.

I am rather glad that Cav won without his usual leadout train. It may well be that disrupting the HTC train is one way to stop Cav from winning, but in fact he now appears to be able to win without the last leadout man. If you watch the video you see him searching for the right wheel to follow, eventually settling on Pettachi. Once he was on the wheel, he just picked a moment and left the others behind. Simple really. But it is slightly harder without a leadout man, and requires a reading of the race, good quick decisions, and a bit of luck. I think there is little doubt that if he tries to keep his personal life a little bit orderly, then there is no reason he won't be setting records for years to come. Keep in mind that if he keeps this up for ten years, he still won't be as old as Pettachi. Which reminds me to tip a chapeau to Alessandro, he has done really well this Tour and would clearly deserve the green jersey.

So all we have left is the time trial. Most observers are convinced there is no chance that Contador can blow the time trial and lose to Schleck. The only question is whether Schleck will lose 30 seconds or two minutes. I think happy endings and tidiness will be best served if Contador takes at least a minute out of Schleck. Anything less will not be impressive. Already Contador has not won a single stage, which is not utterly unknown, but a bit rare. Usually if this happens, there is talk of winning 'without panache'. Panache is crucial to French people. What they call panache does not always seem to be that, but who knows. There is some chance, but a very slim one that Alberto will win the time trial. But with guys like Cancellara, Martin, Wiggo, Kloden, Armstrong (?), Evans, Zabriskie and others, it is unlikely that Contador will win the stage. The weather promises to be cool and partly cloudy or a bit sunny. Perfect, no rain, no heat, nothing to trouble anyone.

There was a moment during the Tour commentary when Jalabert and Fignon were both asked to evaluate the Tour. Fignon was most critical, saying Schleck had a poor team, never really tried anything much except that last day, made no real improvisations, and that the Tour was a series of occasions lost. We never really saw a battle, and there were not very many examples of tactics. Basically Andy has to train a bit more, and get better at time trials, as well as learn a bit more about tactics and surprise. Fignon also said a good word for the French riders who won stages, and a bit for Charteau, but without much conviction. Jalabert was not so brutal, but did agree that there were many fewer attacks than there could have been. He also contended that the two should have sprinted for the end of the stage instead of it being a Contador gift. The two Laurents had always been clear that Alberto did nothing wrong and has nothing to be sorry for and no reason to give gifts.

In case you wondered, when cruising comfortably along on the flat, the peloton does about 60kph and when getting set up for the sprint they do 70kph on the flat. This is of course with most of the riders hiding in the wind shadow of the peloton and others rotating in front. No one can ride for many kilometres at that speed on their own. Further important information, in the last 25 k or more, the HTC team rode in front for 52 percent of the time, Lampre (Pettachi) for 40% and the rest was Milram. The first two got their rewards, but Ciolek has been a big disappointment in this Tour. He left Cav's team to be a star, but turned out not to be. I wonder if this will happen to Greipel.

The French word for riding like the wind is 'fulgurant', like lightning.

People say this has been a hard Tour, lots of heat, accidents everywhere, loads of climbing and so forth. But in fact, there have never been so many riders finishing the Tour as this year. More than any other year, by far. I say this shows that although the weather was hot, and there were climbs, there was not so much hard racing as usual.

Quotes from Cavendish. "I wasn’t sure if I was going to even start the stage. I’ve been sick the last four days with bronchitis – actually, there are a hell of a lot of guys in the peloton with the same thing so I’m not only one [ed note Pettachi too has bronchitis]. But I finally had the fever yesterday and I was dead last night and never thought I could start today. We decided, ‘Oh, okay I’ll go. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t…’ Even during the stage, I was speaking with Brad [Wiggins] and he said, ‘Are you sprinting today?’ And I told him, ‘Yeah.’"
"He then told me that I’m not normally as talkative as I was when I’m up for a sprint. But I told him that we didn’t really have the pressure on and if I don’t win, we know the reason… but it was so nice to see the guys working so incredibly hard. I was sitting in 10th wheel and the guys were pulling and pulling and pulling. The guys in the escape were strong and also very clever and, as we saw in the end, it was hard to bring back [Daniel] Oss – he did a brilliant ride at the finish – and we had to use Michael [Rogers] and Tony [Martin] to pull him back."

Must get to bed. I am sorry the Tour is nearly over. Although I do like to watch them do the Champs Elysées One day, live.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Stage 17 22-7-10

So much of the Tour is over. Those of us wary of the spiritual hole in our lives created by the end of The Tour have to prepare for re-entry. More time on errands, see a few people you've ignored, catch up on work. But of course it is only over 'if nothing happens'. This is a phrase common to writing about sporting events like this. It really means if nothing out of the ordinary happens, with emphasis on bad things. In other words if there is no really bad thing that happens, like falling and breaking a leg, then Contador has won. If a young hitherto mediocre time triallist suddenly beats one of the best time triallists on earth, then maybe Contador won't win, and Schleck will. But I think there is not a cycling commentator on earth who would say the race is not over, in terms of the yellow jersey. No one would wish that Contador NOT win, on sporting grounds.

The polka dot jersey for the best climber is also done and dusted. There are no more hills. It goes to a rider who even those who follow French cycling might not quite remember the name of or simply have never heard of him. Seems a very nice fellow. Chapeau to him, as his careful attention to the rules, a certain fitness, a determination matched by no one else, led to him earning the jersey fair and square. The jersey has been won by French non-climbers several times in the past. But when I identify with the Tour and want it to be pure and honest and full of uncertainty and excitement, with heroes and villains, and those who suffer, I have to work hard to make room for the jersey being won by a 'nobody'. Now what WOULD be cool is if this 29 year old, almost at the end of the career, one win a year rider was transformed into someone who might win any race when it goes up. A real climber. That would be a happy ending. Until then we have a chapeau to Charteau. May we hear of him again.

The young jersey was never much in doubt. A guy who finishes second in the Tour two years in a row is unlikely to have any other young riders close to him. You can't use 'a strategy' to win this classification. It is the genuine indisputable award to someone who has the very best time, and therefore the very best placing of anyone 25 or younger. You can't follow rules to get the award, you have to beat guys like Gesink, Kreuziger, Rolland, Gautier, Koren (never noticed him either) and El Fares. Several of the competitor to Schleck as 'young riders' are French, and according to this Tour prize category, they will be the guys for the future. Actually one of the 'young' riders already have finished second twice now. Some years ago, a guy called Ullrich won the young rider's jersey for three years in a row. Anyway, details aside, Andy Schleck was the best young rider and almost the best rider regardless of age. Next year he won't be 'young', and we will begin to see what he makes of his career. Most people think he should learn a bit of time trial skill and conditioning. He does not seem deeply interested. The story of Andy Schleck will run and run. The last five best young riders have been Schleck twice, Contador, Cunego and Popovych. Not bad company. IN fact, Andy and Jan are the only one to have won the white jersey three times since it began in 1975.

The battle for the green jersey runs on. It seems as if ALL three of the contenders have made it through the mountains. So we get to observe whether Hushovd, Pettachi or Cavendish will wear the green AFTER the last stage. I think it is nearly impossible that Cav will don the green in Bordeaux. Something would have to happen. No idea whether Pettachi or Hushovd will be wearing it. My best guess, with only two stages to go and one of them not counting for green points, is that the green jersey will be resolved when the first ten riders pass the line on the Champs on Sunday. Don't forget what Vino did in when was it, 2005. Cav could win both sprints, taking his total to five this year, and still not win the jersey. I was wrong in my own prediction that the jersey would be won by an all rounder, someone who could win in the medium hills and pick up points on sprints. Like Boasson Hagen. Sadly he didn't do it, and the first few green jersey guys are sprinters, as usual. In any case, it is one race that is still being run.

The really big losers of the day were Leipheimer and Vinokourov. Of course Basso also had a very bad day, dropped right out of the top twenty entirely. Vino dropped from 9th to 16th and Leipheimer from 7th - 13th . You don't usually get such big failures so late. Well, maybe if the race is hard you do. I think we can conclude that the race has been quite hard, all things considered. And although one could be a little bit sad about the last stage (not a lot of racing in some ways), it was a very hard stage. Really hard. The fact that one or two guys can lose big time is not that rare really. I mean Vino having a hard day is really easy to understand. He got his stage win after two days of trying hard, and it knackered him.

All that having been said, the headline of the day was a question. Can Andy drop Alberto on any climb? The answer at this point in history is no. No, Andy cannot drop Alberto, and Alberto has never had to try really hard to drop Andy. So we don't know. Most likely conclusion is that unless one of them has a bad day, they are just about equal in the mountains. And it is a 100% opinion that Alberto can take at least a minute, maybe two out of Andy on a 40k time trial. I rather enjoyed the last climb. I liked the riders being dropped. I was a bit sorry that they didn't race more against each other. The best of the dropped ones, I mean. The headline story is the mano a mano (this expression seems to be preferred one of English speakers and French speakers. I don't know what the Italians call it. It was in the fog, so we didn't get any good landscape shots, just the two guys riding along with each other. A bit atmospheric I admit. Andy tried some variations of pace, but never really attacked. Contador followed him. Alberto made one sharp attack, and kept going, but within maybe 25 seconds, Andy was on his wheel. I don't think they did much of that for the last few k. And at the end, Alberto did not sprint for the win. They had a spontaneous on the bike arm clasp/hug, initiated by Andy. They did other congratulatory gestures. Including one exchange I saw several times in which there was not a 'feel' of conviviality and respect. So for the next five years or so, we might (if nothing happens) be treated to these two, and whatever others can be found, duke it out. I am not saying that Janez Brajkovic is the answer, but that there are young riders who will contest future TdFs, with these two as the top guys. They are the top guys. In July.

I was a bit sad about Sastre. True, he is on some of my teams. And everyone always has him on the list of favourites. True, he did well in the Giro in 2009, but the rest of the time, he has not really been a serious contender. Just isn't good enough. Still very good indeed. Most riders would not even try to do what he does. They KNOW they would fail. He still tries. That makes cycling more interesting, since you never know if he might succeed. Success makes makes a better story than failure, but they both work in the Tour. Lance, of whom we need not speak very much in the near future, tried to go out with blaze of glory. I wanted it to end with Lance nearly winning the stage, but suddenly a younger and better rider just passes him and wins the stage. But he just lost to more than one young guy. Lance is not good enough any more. He should quit. Everyone liked his blaze of glory attempt. It was cool. Sastre's attempt today did seem a bit of waste of energy.

I am hoping the time trial might be really good for my various teams. I am not doing all that well this year. I didn't pick Cancellara, and I did pick Frank Schleck. Furthermore my second sprinter was Farrar, who left the race without a big impact. Could have picked Pettachi (never would have) or Hushovd (almost did). I only had two sprinters, because I thought it was a race where GC guys would win stages at the tops of mountains. Turns out that they didn't, guys who could climb reasonably well won mountain stages, many of them French. I scored zilch. Nevertheless I didn't do badly. And if Tony Martin scores a bit in the TT by doing well, and Bradley Wiggins, then not having Cancellara might not be such a bad thing. Cancellara got loads of points for the yellow jersey, and finishing high up on two stages at the beginning. He really did ride well for Schleck on the cobbles. That was brilliant. I will tell you, if I remember, how I did on the Fantasy Cycling. Or maybe I will just ask those who care to email me. Who really cares? Well, I do. I try to win or place high on any league I enter. Although I also enter experimental teams, which will not win, but I am just curious how they do. Like my All French Team, how will they have done? Or the OLD Guys team of over 35s?

My wife said she can't believe it was as boring as every other stage (she said this with 23 k to go). She did get into the mano a mano as theatre, but she was right. For most of the stage nothing happened. It was again this 'one climax' style of course design. Last year it was Ventoux, which was a little boring. Imagine, Ventoux was a bit boring! And this Tourmalet was a bit boring. I think the multiple and complex climax Tour is better. Do you see? How can we leave a race to have ONE point where it is decided. Why not four or five, like the Giro?

Still, don't get me wrong, it was a good Tour. I am not complaining about THE TOUR. How could I ever do that? They should get a new script writer, one that favours four or five crucial points in a race where it could be won or lost. Not one big whopper. No doubt there will be acres of ink filled with speculations about that. But it was good race. And of course it is not over yet. Not by any means. There is still the 'something happens' and the time trial. Along the way we can eye up the green jersey competition. Should be a good weekend.

Oh yes, looks like Radio Shack will win the team prize. So officially, in adverts and such, Radio Shack will be the 'best team' in the Tour de France. That's the one where they take the top three finishers for each team on a given day, add their times and add that sum to the previous sum for that team. Its a bit complicated until you figure it out. It is an attempt to 'measure' what is 'best'. I think that most people would say that the Astana team or the Saxo Bank team are better than RadioShack. It is a bit like the best climber jersey. It is hard to quantify what is the best team or the best climber.

There was another one of these slightly silly episodes where 'the peloton' attempted to do the right thing when a rider crashed. It was the guy in third place. So do you wait or not? The answer seemed to be that Contador said slow down and wait, and everyone did. Except Carlos Sastre, who insisted on attacking. In this case, since his attack was totally futile, Sastre should maybe have taken a breather. I guess he thought he could ride really fast up the Tourmalet and take the stage. He was way off in his self assessment.

I think that is it. I had thought I might be describing a complex race, with victors and losers and drama and such. Actually it was a bit like that, but not really. Looking at the finishing times, it is clear there are two riders who are best and a lot of others who flow in about the same time on most days. Some have a good day. They vault up two or three places or even more. For example today GOOD rides were made by Horner, who moved into the top ten from outside the top twenty! Also Rodriguez, Hesjedal and Kreuziger moved up one or two places, made by the exit of Vino and Leipheimer, both of whom made space in the top ten by plunging out of it.

12 Ruben Plaza Molina (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 0:13:01  
13 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Team Radioshack 0:14:24  
14 Andreas Klöden (Ger) Team Radioshack 0:14:44  
15 Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale 0:16:00  
16 Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana 0:17:57  
17 John Gadret (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale 0:17:59  
18 Thomas Löfkvist (Swe) SkyTeam 0:18:30  
19 Kevin De Weert (Bel) Quick Step 0:20:03  
20 Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:25:23

Plaza, Gadret, De Weert and Moreno are not guys I know well or would have ever predicted would be in the top 20. In any case, after the time trial they might not be in the top twenty. My own guess is that there could be some changes after the TT, but none of them terribly serious for the GC. Most of the better riders can do a respectable time trial and not lose that much time on the, for example, twelfth place rider. Guys like Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara might well do the best time trials, not to mention other time triallists who made it through the mountains in half decent shape. Wiggins? Kiriyenka? Evans? Kloden? Leipheimer? Armstrong? Brajkovic? These guys have no hope on the GC. They have no team duties to do after the TT, just ride slowly to Paris. Or they are guys who had a bit of bad luck and can now redeem themselves. Teammates (like Brajkovic) who had to ride slowly along with an ageing boss, and can now let loose. And of course, there is Andy, who might have been hiding his time trialling skills. Fabian can talk to him.

Off to bed. I have a busy day tomorrow. I hope to try and break out of the 'Tour is Everything' mentality and begin to adjust to real life. After all, tomorrow, it is going to a sprint and Cav will win and we have to see how Pettachi and Hushovd place. I am a bit sad that I am not going to see that sprint live, nor the time trial. But the idea of trying combine a visit with the family AND an obsession with the Tour was not possible. They would just not get it. And we would end up neither 'seeing' the Tour nor 'seeing' them. First year I have not actually seen the Tour in ages, but when illness strikes, illness strikes. Next year!

My parting thought for the day is 'Who is Kevin De Weert/”

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Stage 16 20-7-10

I was ready for this stage. I thought it would be a good one, and started watching quite early on. Not THAT early, as they had already got over the Peyresourde. One reason it was to be good was the actual route. Unlike most of the stages, I have actually been on those very roads. Riding my bike, with luggage. Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet (not Aubisque). I am sure there are tens of thousands of riders, all over the world who watch stages like this, and enjoy them more, because they have actually ridden the route. About four years ago, the Tour climbed a climb around here that I often ride. Furthermore, on this stage, while staying at the hotel in St. Marie de Campan, where the route to climb the Tourmalet begins, I met a cycling pal who might still be a pal until one of us dies. One of those lucky events. He might be reading this right now. Hey, John. Saw the hotel quite clearly this time. So, considerably more than roads I have not ridden, these roads are magic. So the stage was to be magic. A far as the roads go, it was magic. But as for the bike race ...

Things started really well. I was quite excited during the first 50k. Even called it a classic stage. Schleck was isolated from all his teammates on the Peyresourde, already. Astana, for example, had three guys and Contador. I thought, oh goodness, maybe Schleck will be weak today. He looked a bit stiff too, and Alberto looked very supple. So there looked to be an unequal situation going in the MJ department. I was really looking forward to seeing how this inequality would play out.

There was also a break, a really good one actually. Excellent riders, Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), Christopher Horner (RadioShack), Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas), Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Matthew Lloyd (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Kanstantsin Siutsou (HTC-Columbia), Steve Morabito (BMC), Carlos Barredo (QuickStep), Rui da Costa (Caisse d'Epargne), Jose Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Amael Moinard (Cofidis), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel), Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel) and Eros Capecchi (Footon-Servetto). I know every rider in the break, they are good, or good enough. Except Eros Cappechi whom I have never heard of. It seemed a serious break, with riders who wanted to win the stage. In fact, in the end, the break won again. How many times now? It is just not normal.

What was even more interesting were the TWO groups following, one containing the maillot jaune. That group was following the break for many kilometres, keeping them less than 25 seconds in front. In that rather large group were most of the favourites, as it should be. But behind this second group, the MJ group, but not by much, was another group containing some genuine contenders, who for some reason, had been dropped, presumably on Peyresourde. Guys like Gesink, Wiggins and Basso, others that slip my mind, were in that group behind. In other words there were three interesting groups, trying to both escape from each other and catch each other. Eventually the third group joined the second group to make up the MJ peloton, and the first escape group got eaten up. Very soon after, nine guys eventually got away after many k of racing. It was from the nine that the group of five which contested the final sprint was made. In other words, once again, the break stayed away for way over 150k.

I had all kinds of fantasy finishing scenarios involving the older guys, Sastre, Moreau and Armstrong, two of which were riding their last Tour. Moreau, for goodness sake, has decided he might win the mountains jersey!! So he will be on the attack tomorrow from the start. Basically Moreau has to win the stage and earn lots of points on loads of climbs, especially the last. I doubt he will do it. So we will in fact, after all that, end up with the maillot à pois on the shoulders of a virtually unknown French rider, not a climber, who wins one race a year if he is lucky. Somehow this hints to me that no serious climber cares two hoots about the jersey. It is without value. In any case, I did enjoy watching that process of 'choosing the right break', and letting it go. You may have noticed that in the final break there were two Caisse riders and two Shack riders. Still the team classification that they are fighting over. I understand that this has some advertising value in the USA. “Best team in the Tour”. The first three riders of both Caisse and Shack finished in the same time, four in the escape and two in the peloton. No time differences, so the standings remain the same.
1 Team Radioshack 235:24:46  
2 Caisse d'Epargne 0:04:27  

Nobody rode very hard during this stage, neither the break nor the peloton. It was a lot of climbing and I am sure any of us would have been happy to NOT ride fast. But they are bike racers and it does get a little bit annoying that they waste so many perfectly good mountains where they could race instead of pass through. After that first exciting bit where the breaks were formed, nothing much else happened. Loads of riders would be dropped on a climb and then loads of riders would get back on during the descent. Slowly fewer and fewer returned to the group, but there were still dozens on the last climb and the peloton that went through the finish was 50 strong. The competitors have neutralised themselves so much now that everyone on earth knows that Andy Schleck has to attack tomorrow. No surprise. Definitely. The other three on top of the GC all do time trials well, better than Schleck, so they think they can defend their position. So many days of good racing in lovely settings have been wasted by one thing or another. Today it was simple, no one attacked. Except the escapees. Schleck will lose the race, in fact, maybe even not make the podium if he does not attack. He has to take time out of Contador, he has to attack him somewhere, and gain two minutes before the ITT. Unless … Andy has learned to time trial without anyone noticing.

As a side note, Lance seemed to be trying to win the stage today, to go out in a blaze of glory. He came pretty close, was in all the versions of the break, including the one that succeeded. He kept the break going on more than one occasion by attacking, slimming it down a bit. In the sprint, he was clearly trying, but he is just too tired or is not a sprinter. He got beat easily by Pineau. I also found out that sometimes Lance has more greyish socks than black. Apparently the sock colour varies.

I was very impressed with Fignon's knowledge today. He seemed to now every curve of every col, and also a lot about public development policy toward the area. I loved his descriptions of the cols, including one the Tour has never taken that he thinks if totally excellent. Col de la Courade is one possibility and Col de Sarrat de Gaye is another for this mystery unknown but superb ride. I heard him name it only once, so I can't remember. So next time you are riding in the area, try those two cols which nobody ever tries. Fignon says it is gorgeous and gets overlooked because of the road straight up the Tourmalet. Just after St. Marie. He owns a hotel and training centre in the Pyrenees, so he has ridden or driven all these roads even more than any non-regional, ex-racing cyclist in France. Or keen cyclo tourist.

Schleck looked troubled today, mostly ill at ease. Looking about, wandering back to the car, like a kid who was told to stay behind Contador, but who really wanted to attack.

They ride 100kph through these little villages, the kinds with a road that goes through a kind of tunnel between buildings. With people all over the place. Really impressive. When there are accidents in the Tour, and there usually are, you can easily see why. Millions of spectators on the side of the road, drunk, sober, knowing about cycling or not, on a leash or not, able to judge speeds and distances of professional cyclist or not. It really is odd there are not more accidents, as far I can see. It is like the Tour is protected by something. For example, think of all the potential loose dogs on the route of the Tour. If there is only one that actually touches the peloton, its odd.

Right then, what else. Thor took back the green jersey by staying with the MJ peloton and nipping out to win the tenth place points in the sprint. Not big time, but the rules dictate what he gets. Same for the spotted jersey. Moreau seems seriously interested in taking it. So he has to attack tomorrow. Last points on offer. Charteau has to keep up with him. I have to say that this climbers' jersey race is one I have not warmed to throughout the Tour. I will watch tomorrow though. No other jersey changes, except the green.

Speaking of Thor, at one point on a climb he attacked. I looked desperately in my route maps to see why he was attacking, but the sprint points were two climbs away, so that made no sense. During an interview, he was asked about this 'escape' and he said that they peloton was gong a bit slow and he preferred to climb at his own rhythm, which was normally a bit faster. This is Hushovd. Big guy. That is how slow they were going today. Funny day.

Vive le velo.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Stage 15 19-7-10

More racing today than yesterday, but with big controversy. It seems like every day there is some great moral action to debate, some doubt as to who acted properly and cleanly. Good for the media stories, but sometimes overshadows the actual racing. In the end, Thomas Voeckler won the stage after attacking on the last climb from what was left of the escape. Bravo Thomas! Once again, the escape succeeded, as the first through sixth places, and seven of the top ten came from the escape. I wonder if there are so many stages where 'the escape' won in a normal Tour. Somehow my impression is that if one or two escapes succeed in a Tour that is more normal. Another abnormal thing is the number of stage wins for the French. They have won a third of the stages so far. Not bad at all. It appears that the new methods of training and the slightly cleaner peloton are making a difference. On the other hand, let's look down the GC to see how the French are doing overall, not just on one day efforts, followed by resting in the big groups behind. We find that the highest placed French rider is 19th. Still some work to do, but seems like a change in the air. I am totally pleased the Thomas won the stage.

Controversy was about what happened when Schleck attacked and threw his chain off. On my cycling forums it is a big polemic Nearly all the pros and commentators on French TV thought everyone behaved fine. It was a 'race incident' like a puncture, pulling a foot out of the pedal, breaking a chain or derailleur, or whatever. His chain jumped. Finest components on earth, ace mechanic cleaning and adjusting every night, and this happens. Certainly not Andy's fault, unless he had failed to changed up or down before the attack and did it under pressure (amateur's mistake, I do it all the time). Some people suggest he made a boo boo. My view is simple, Contador could not have looked down at Andy's bike, analysed all the components, made a decision to slow down, while he was accelerating past (swerving past Andy to avoid him) at full speed on a mountain climb. I watched and reckon he had maybe one second to see and evaluate as he swept past. No way he should have slowed or stopped. He is not a cyclo-tourist checking of someone has a puncture and needs help. Its a race! Later when he might have found out the problem, maybe, by earphone, it was a little late to stop and he was with guys who were in third and fourth position. It is not like he saw Andy stop, THEN attacked, he was already under way. If Andy had crashed, that is something and maybe waiting was in order, but you don't wait for a puncture (Evans lost the Vuelta with a puncture last year) or a mechanical incident. You don't.

Others think that Alberto definitely knew the problem as he rode by, definitely should have stopped or slowed, should have told the others with him to slow or stop, and demonstrated his lack of class by carrying on. He should have waited and started the race again. Maybe.

Have yet to read one person who is not happy with Voeckler's stage win. He has managed to please nearly everyone in the whole cycling world. Everyone likes him and his style of riding, although it is not pretty. He also has a decent palmares too. When he talks, and can he talk or what, he does not speak banalities or talk nonsense or beat his own drum. Not like others I have already named. He does take full credit for doing well even though he says he is not a great rider, and does not have great physical means. He is somewhat modest and a decent, while giving plenty of credit to his team and bosses. He come across really well. We love wee Thomas.

Contador looked good today, Andy looked a little stiff. My wife said Andy looked that way and Thierry Adam said that about Alberto. I agree with them both. When Andy attacks tomorrow or the next day, we shall see who is best.

My wife says that Andy turns around and looks behind way too much, so he gets tired and gets stiff. I added that he is probably looking for his brother. My wife also said that when the biggest event of the day, the most discussed problem, is someone's chain coming off …. what kind of race is that? My wife often has excellent points.

As for changes in the top twenty from yesterday. Today we had the same fine adjustments, no one going too much higher, no one too much lower. But I am not keeping track from two days ago with a curve for each rider. I am just trying to give you an idea BOTH that something changes every day, and that not much changes on most days, after the general form of the GC is sorted. Schleck and Contador changed places, but now there is eight seconds between. There are only two days left for Schleck to make his move. And unlike the attack today, the serious attack has to happen way earlier on a climb. He can't leave it so late. Sanchez and Menchov are now only two minutes from third place, they gained half a minute. If they keep doing that, if Schleck does not do the deed and take MORE time out of them, not less, they can both time trial better than Schleck and might even push him off the podium. Maybe. Gesink and Levi dropped a half minute, but are still in fifth and sixth. Instead of winning the stage as I had predicted, Rodriguez lost another minute. LL Sanchez dropped from ninth to 12th and Basso from tenth to 14th. Vino on the other and moved into the top ten at ninth, from 11th. Hesjedal, Kloden and Sastre moved up a couple of places, and Kreuziger one. The big losers of the day were Wiggins and Evans, who lost five and three places respectively and are no longer in the top twenty. No idea what is happening with Evans' injury. Wiggins is just drifting off the pace, and recognises he just did not have the form this year, and now knows he is not going to do well. On the other hand, I would expect he nurtures, perhaps foolishly, hopes in the final Time Trial, the day before the end of the Tour in Paris.

Jalabert was interviewed extensively on the main news programme in France. He said he examined the video carefully and thought Contador's behaviour was impeccable. He was not that happy about the yobbos who booed him at the awards ceremony, but what can you do with ignoramuses. I agree with Jalabert, although it is a shame the chain jumped.

None of the other jerseys changed hands, but Voeckler, due to his escape today over a few hills and because he got over the last one first, moved from nowhere to fourth in the mountains jersey. I am still waiting for the polka dot jersey to go on the back of someone who is a climber, but I might still be waiting on Thursday night when the battle will be over. There are real climbers massing behind the not so real climbers, waiting to take over the jersey. But they might not make it. Only two more days of climbing, and for most of the real climbers, the last climb is the only one that matters. For the mountain jersey 'competitors', the previous smaller climbs are the ones that matter since none of the first three riders in the competition can stay with the real climbers when the real climbers start to motor.

I noticed for the first time that Voeckler has some cool shoes, when you take into account all the sides, they are blue, white and red, to match his French champions jersey.

So we wait until tomorrow for more news on who might win the Tour, but don't expect a final verdict until Thursday evening. Although there still might be some doubt if Alberto has lost a couple of minutes of Schleck, which could always happen. If Schleck does not attack tomorrow or Thursday, the Tour is over. So there is unlikely to be any element of surprise. This is apparently Riis' idea of strategy.

No time for more tonight, but one or two of these stories will run and run. This Tour has many intriguing aspects, not least who places where on the GC.

I like the route tomorrow, I have ridden it, but stayed overnight along the way.

Vive le Velo.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Stage 14 18-7-10

First the good things. There were some mysterious goings on with the two top men on the last climb. I still don't get them fully, and I love uncertainty. A relatively obscure but competent French rider won the stage, Christophe Riblon, whom I never thought I would 'add to my dictionary' for spelling correction. He won by simply carrying on and carrying on. So four stages now for the French, not quite up to their very best, but a Tour which they can all be proud of. Especially the cheerleader on France 2, Thierry Adam. The scenery was all right, not the awesome valleys we will see shortly, but the kind of countryside you remember, and want to go back to on holiday. It really is a wonderful chain of mountains, with something for everyone. Armstrong lost even more time today and is not even trying. Although I am not sure that is a good thing, maybe he will treat us to a huge effort one of these days. He also was very well behaved and very mellow during the interview on France 2. Until Landis and LeMond got mentioned, but even then he just paraded his line and then they changed the question. There was a bit of a battle for third place, with Sanchez and Menchov shadowing each other and even making the odd attack. Look for Sanchez to gain some time on the descent tomorrow, and to do a better ITT later. But the race is not over yet, there are plenty of guys within a couple of minutes. We saw a fine display of Astana strength today, especially Vino, who did all he could, in spite of his exertions. There seemed to be fewer jerks with stupid costumes or fat bellies running alongside the riders. Maybe they are all hiding on the Tourmalet. Fignon, usually pretty hard to fool, said he had thought of all the scenarios he could for this stage, but failed to think of the one that happened. I think he thought there would be a bit more action. Maybe a minor battle between the two big guns. In any case, a stage which is a surprise for him must have some good sides. We continue to like the uncertainty that makes this a pretty good Tour. A BIG surprise would make a great one. And lest's not forget … the escape won! Always a little cause for celebration.

As for the bad things, well not much happened. The break got away and by the end of the stage there was one guy left, and he won. But in the end he won because the leaders messed about and just did not try very hard on the last climb. They were slightly scattered at the very end, but even so, they did not really try to catch Riblon or they would have. Another stage gifted to a French breakaway by a peloton not really on full gas. Good to see Sanchez and Menchov racing for third, but what about the others? Maybe it was a hard stage and they were all tired, even though they have been resting for two days at least. I don't really think that the two leaders of the GC should be slowing down so much on the last climb. It feels slightly disgraceful, a bit disrespectful and as if they don't know what to do next. On the other hand, by now Schleck seems to be rather confused. He still might win because he can climb better, but we have not seen this yet.

The jerseys stayed the same. The GC stayed the same. Wiggins lost time. Lance lost more and is not really making much of an effort. Hope they each do something to keep the Tour from being a total flop for themselves. Especially Wiggins. It would be nice to see him up there one day with the leaders, or failing that, a victory in the ITT would be good for morale. In any case, Wiggo is NOT the British guy who will win the Tour for the Sky team, that is clear. With Thomas showing that, at present, he cannot climb well, it is not crystal clear who that rider might be. Still, Sky have four years and about 60 million euros to spend on the quest. See below for the full story on who lost what.

Just a quick quote from another blog, in reference to what I said the other day about the team classification and the 'correct' composition of a break before it is permitted to leave by al lthe big teams. 'A break of 12 riders escaped early on in the stage, but its composition didn’t suit the RadioShack team and it was brought back. Five of its original members managed to reassert themselves though and escaped once more, with the RadioShack team on the front of the bunch. They were: Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), Amaël Moinard (Cofidis), Pavel Brutt (Katusha) and Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d’Epargne).

The RadioShack team was still unwilling to let Gutierrez go clear, as he threatened the American team’s lead in the team classification. The red and grey team kept the peloton no more than 20 seconds behind the group for some time so the Spaniard decided to drop back, leaving just the four riders ahead. A counterattack of five riders bridged across soon afterwards, made up of Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), Stephane Augé (Cofidis), Christophe Riblon (AG2R-La Mondiale), Pierre Rolland (Bbox Bouyges Telecom) and Jurgen Van de Walle (Quick Step); there were now nine up front.'

A quick analysis of the top twenty shows some changes, but not too significant. But it does show that a day makes a difference. Today, not THAT much difference, as there was not so much hard racing, but there will be BIG differences in days to come. In the actual top ten, hardly anyone changed. Levi went down one position and Gesink took his place in sixth. Kreuziger dropped to twelfth and Basso moved up one place to enter the top ten. Other than that, everything was exactly the same as yesterday. Some time changes, but nothing to spend time looking for. As for as the second ten, Rogers was the big loser, out of the top twenty totally, dropping nine places to 26th. Lovkvist, the Sky rider, moved up three places, as the 'big winner' of the day. And Wiggo dropping 2 places, Kloden dropping three and Evans dropping one place were the other losers of the day. When you think this was meant to be a hard stage, we can see that the shape of the top twenty remains pretty well formed by now. Although we can always hope there will be a big change and some totally unexpected racing in the near future. You might ask if I can explain all those changes, but even if I could, I would not. But at least you can see that not too much change goes on on the average stage.

That descent tomorrow should be very good indeed. No doubt Samu Sanchez will show us how it is done. Although I might go for Rodriguez. I doubt if either of the top guys will take a chance on any kind of seriously fast descent. At least we will get an idea who can descend fast and in a proper way.

Do take a look tomorrow. I got in touch with an old pal today, who just bought a barn north of St. Girons. The Tour goes right past the road to their hamlet tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Stage 13 17-7-10

Another, and perhaps the last, transition stage. From now on, nothing is easy, although the stage into Bordeaux might be a bit easier for most teams, and certainly the very last stage is the easiest of all. But from now on, there will be many minutes lost and won by nearly everyone. The GC should change a good deal, with at least three or four people entering and leaving the top ten. Today, however, nothing much happened, except that the green jersey changed hands again (Pettachi today), and Vinokourov won the stage that some thought he should have won yesterday. He attacked on the last hill, only a few kilometres from the end, raced away from everyone, including the peloton. No one could catch him today. The sprint for the green jersey points was won by Cavendish, without his last lead-out man. Cav did not, however, win his fourth stage, as his team and the others were not strong enough or well enough organised to catch Vino. No changes in the top ten on GC, the spotted mountain jersey or the white jersey for best young rider. Yellow jersey still on Schleck's shoulders.

This green jersey race is still wide open. It is hard to see how Cavendish can win it, assuming that he wins both sprint stages that are left, and assuming that one or the other of Hushovd and Pettachi fish very close behind him, there is no way he can actually gain enough on the two of them. If they both ride badly and finish seventh or eighth on both stages, then by winning Cavendish can take the jersey. But I think he lost it many stages ago, the day he just gave up before the end. We shall see. By the way, it is important to note that Cav won the mass sprint for second place, WITHOUT his leadout man. So those who thought he was useless without Renshaw must have to re-think a little.

1 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 187  pts
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team 185  
3 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team HTC - Columbia 162  

I took a long nap today, getting ready for tomorrow and the following days, when I will have to be on the alert, at my post, for much longer. I want to see those mountains, even if the racing is slow for the first few climbs. I want to see the various climbs and mountains unfold in front of me. And I also want to see who takes the climbers' jersey from the fakes that currently have it. Having climbed the Tourmalet from one side, I shall be very interested in that stage. I should say stages, as they climb the Tourmalet from both sides, and one stage ends at the top.

The escape was a good one, Not really enough riders to succeed, but the three that were in it were quality riders. Flecha, Chavanel and Fedrigo could probably have done a bit better, but they knew from the outset it was futile, or at least after 50k. It was clear that the sprinters' teams wanted to have another go at points for the green jersey, and so they all co-operated to limit the gap. Then at the end, they just swept (nearly all of them) up. The fact that Vino got away from them all on the last small hill was actually hard to believe. But he is a very strong rider, full of the winning mentality. I still remember his victory on the Champs Elysées when he just put it in high gear and rode like a maniac for the last kilometre and no one could catch him. He can do that. We do hope he is not doping as before, but he is known for this kind of riding. No one is deeply surprised, only impressed that he could pull it off. It should be mentioned that when Vino attacked, Contador moved to the front and slowed down the pursuit, perhaps just enough seconds to give the stage to Vino. Check out the video. Good teamwork.

A word on the team competition, which I have completely ignored. The competition for the 'best team' is decided for one day, as well as for the whole Tour. The calculation for the day is made by adding up the time of the first three riders on every team. Or it was a few years ago, I have not checked if the rules have changed. Then each day's total is added to the overall total. The team with the least time for its best three riders each day, added up over the Tour, wins the prize. The other day, for example, when Moreau sprinted for the mountains points that did not exist, there was a Radio Shack guy who followed him. I forget who it was, but I wondered why. The guy had nothing to do with the mountains jersey, none of the Shack riders do. Then I realised. No Caisse d'Epargne rider was to be let go without a Shack rider right behind him. The reason is that the two teams were first and second in the 'best team' competition. One rider who finishes way ahead of the others can be enough to change the standings. Today they are as follows.

1 Team Radioshack 189:31:13  
2 Caisse d'Epargne 0:00:21  
3 Rabobank 0:16:13  
4 Astana 0:18:17  

So if ever there is a mystery as to why a Shack rider follows a movement by a Caisse rider or vice versa, they are trying to make sure the minuscule difference does not change. The explanation is a bit hard to follow, but just remember they add up the times of the best three on each day. So you want to have three riders doing pretty well, rather than one rider winning the stage and the next two down in 20th place or lower, many minutes back. This prize is pretty incidental, but for Shack and Caisse, who have no chance at all in the GC, they at least can win this consolation prize. So watch for the two teams with red and black kit battling it out. It is almost certain that the Shack riders will do better than the Caisse riders in the last time trial.

Bring on the mountains. In fact, tomorrow, the second last climb is the hardest one, and immediately after it, with no respite, they start up the final climb. It is totally unlikely that no one will attack, and that no one will lose minutes on this stage. I am virtually certain that not only will one or both of 'the big two' attack on the climbs, but some of the top ten will also attack. Should be loads of fun to watch.

If you have never heard Alberto speak English, which I have not, he does Spanish in response to French on my stations, check out

See you at the TV tomorrow. Maybe 20k before the Pailheres climb.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Stage 11 16-7-10

A transition stage with a well-beloved, steep, short climb at the end, with a last k or so on an airport runway (always have found that odd). I got up a bit later, trying to throw off this cold, and missed not much. The escape was divided into two bits, and the peloton was slowly clawing back time on them both. Although the real chase had not begun. Fignon said the winner would NOT come from the escape, but the peloton. He was right. The right guy won the stage, although in my heart, I was sorry that there was not a way that Vino could have had the victory. Still, he will have other chances for glory, even in this Tour. It is a shame though. Rodriguez, excellent ride.

As for the 'psychological blow' of Contador's attack on Schleck, I figure it was no big deal. On the other hand, it came later in the race than Andy's late attack o Alberto earlier. The big stages start soon, so maybe it has a bit more weight that Andy's attack. Like a goal just before half time. I still think we have no idea if Andy can take a couple of minutes out of Alberto in the mountains. He has three stages to do it. It should be an excellent sporting spectacle in one of the finest arenas you could even have, the Pyrenees. Still, today Alberto did a nice little attack, and dropped Schleck, or at least Andy was forced to think about whether to bother. In any case, it has to be Andy who attacks later in the Tour. But that has always been the case. It was a bit of a surprise that Alberto attacked today. Small psychological blow. Still massive uncertainties.

I see that Thor got back his jersey. I am pleased for him. On the other hand, when the green jersey is awarded or earned and awarded by small points in sprints in between THE sprint, I find it a little bit less classy. Rules is rules. Same thing goes for the mountains jersey. It is being fought over by non-climbers trying to get a piece of glory by reading the rules and taking advantage of them in minute detail, rather than the just reward for the actual best climber. That is, the guy who actually climbs best. I am pretty sure that one or the other of the GC guys might take the polk dot jersey in the end. I hope so. And the white jersey is on the shoulders of Gesink, which is nice, but really it is with Schleck. Schleck as two now. Maybe he will do really well and end up woth hyoung, polka dot, green and yellow all at the same time. It is possible.

The commentators on French TV were forced, by some kind of pressure, to apologise for mocking Moreau yesterday when he sprinted for mountain points that were not there. Apparently Moreau might have been misinformed by headquarters. Or something. Still, Fignon apparently apologised. My wife heard that, I didn't. Apparently Moreau's feelings were hurt. I still have not heard him talking about it. Time for Christophe to quit the game. When he makes a basic mistake and others say it is a basic mistake, and he has his feelings hurt because people said he made a basic mistake … time to stop. He blew it.

Fignon has also aligned himself with the side that says that Renshaw's acts, while spectacular and visible, were really not that dangerous. Renshaw should not have been excluded. L'Equipe on the other hand had several articles sharing the view that the punishment was right, the crime was a big deal. This will run for some time. Unless Cav wins both remaining flat stages. That would be cool. I am now FOR him until the end of the Tour.

I thought today would be three races in one, which is a quite amusing type of stage. In it, the four at the front would have fought it out for the stage win. Then peloton catching or not catching the other fourteen or whatever, as they struggled up the hill, would have been another. Then the final sprint for victory. We sort of had that, in the sense that it was not crystal clear that Rodriguez and Contador ('the peloton') would have caught Vino, although they did. If Vino had won then the break would have 'succeeded'. I did want it to work out that Vino would win, but you can see easily why Contador had to pass him. If only Vino had been twenty more seconds up the road, maybe ten. Right stage victor too. If I were Contador I would NEVER have beaten Rodriguez no matter what. Not sure he could, but still, he did the right thing. Anyway there was enough racing in the last few minutes, although not during most of the stage. Tomorrow even more chance a successful breakaway as none of the big guns or their teams want to work hard before the Pyrenees on Sunday.

Did you noticed we passed yet another Col de la Pierre Plantee? Google the name sometime. I wonder how many there are in France. Less than Pont du Diable, but quite a few. More than Col de l'Homme Mort.

Today they had some lovely easy descents, dry roads, new surfaces, not many tight curves … they got up to more than 100kph. I think that is really fast. I never go more than 65kph.

Sad to see Farrar out of it. No idea why yet.

Maybe this is going to be shorter than I thought. It was a good finish, but Contador just rode away from everyone except Rodriguez, although not by that much. What is there to say? Another stage a bit like that tomorrow, except not climb at the end, so an escape? I am in the middle of a good book as well, so there is no need to write when I have nothing to say. Mind you I surely would have liked to have that downpour they had at Mende, just after the finish. It was still 32 degrees and totally dry when I started writing this, after the post Tour shows. They now show the history segment done by Jean Paul Olivier right at the end of the after Tour show. All a bit more interesting that Velo Club was.

Bring on the mountains.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Stage 11 14-7-10

Transition stage today. That means that nothing much happens, and that most of the peloton take it easy while they get ready for some hard work ahead. Often on these stages, depending on the mood and the terrain, a breakaway can get going, and maybe even stay away. Not the case today. Although they climbed up a wee hill about a third of the way into the stage, the rest was more or less downhill and the sprinters' teams were not going to let this one go. The sprinters have only two more chances after this, Bordeaux and Paris, so the teams were not interested in wasting this opportunity. They more or less toyed with the escape, keeping them one or two minutes ahead, the work at the front being shared by several teams, Garmin, HTC, Cervelo, Lampre and anyone else who had a sprinter ready to win. Nice easy stage. Much of it along a valley I know a bit, the Drome, where a friend has an organic farm. Reminds me, I have not chatted with him for yonks. Must do it. Soon. I looked for the curve in the river where his family live, but failed to find it.

In the end, it was a sprint, a mass sprint, won by Cavendish, but full of controversy. There is always a bit of elbowing, pushing, leaning, moving across lines of sprinting (sprints are meant to be on straight lines), 'closing the door' (cutting people off), lead-out men slowing down who 'accidentally block other sprinters, and it is always up to the commissars to decide if the rules have been broken. I don't even know where they are written down, but they certainly don't cover all the cases. A bit like fouls in football or rugby, a lot is left to the judges or referees. Sprinters are relegated to last place for infractions, and in rare cases they are kicked off the Tour. Usually they are kicked off when they do something illegal, but also blatant, naughty and showing a bad image to the public. So in 1997, Tom Steels was booted off for throwing a water bottle at another sprinter. But complete banishment is rare. Today it happened. It was, in fact, the main news of the day, although Pettachi donned the green jersey for finishing second, and Tyler Farrar finished third. Thor Hushovd continued his bad form and finished well behind. His inability to finish in the top three or four has probably made his chances for the green jersey much worse than they seemed to be several stages ago. I really thought he would do better this year, but he has just not been up to the job. On the other hand, no one dreamed Pettachi would win it, although he has yet to pass through the Pyrenees. Mind you, I am surprised he even lasted through the Alps, so who can tell.

So what happened in the sprint? To see for yourself, you can check it out, stop the clip study it. It started when Julian Dean, the last lead-out man for Tyler Farrar reached the level of Mark Renshaw, the last lead-out man for Mark Cavendish. Dean stuck out his elbow and moved over a bit, trying to force Renshaw into the boards on the left side, and away from Cavendish who was following his wheel. He was trying to break up the HTC train, a strategy that worked this Tour on more than one occasion. This happens all the time in sprinting, and the response is to lean back and not let yourself be moved. All this at 75 kph. The difference here is that as well as leaning back, Renshaw tapped, or whacked, his helmet against Dean, twice. Then very quickly, he did it once more. This had the desired effect and Dean stopped pushing him. Soon after, Cavendish saw an opening and thought, I am out of here. He won by sprinting way further than usual, 375 metres instead of 200. Renshaw then drifted away, in doing so he slightly blocked Farrar, who had picked the wrong side of Cavendish to go around. All of this is totally normal and would not have been sanctioned in any way, EXCEPT the head-butting was a little bit obvious, tasteless, and probably deemed to be 'bringing the sport into disrepute'. It WAS a little gross actually. The commissars, reviewing the film, decided not just to relegate Renshaw to last place, the normal 'yellow card' punishment. They gave him red, and kicked him right out of the Tour. There will be many debates about this. My view is that it was a harsh punishment, and relegation to last place,with a big fine, would have been enough. No punishment was given to Dean, nor to Cavendish. Voila, that is the story. You can review it yourself. The effect of this will be that HTC will have to review their usual plans for a lead out train, probably giving the last man job to Bernard Eisel. But overall it will mean that Cavendish will be slightly handicapped, and might not win another stage. He, on the other hand, will be trying to prove he can win in any case. Story to run for a few days, maybe longer.

Interview with Renshaw
Interview with Cavendish
Interview with Farrar (mentioning the second irregularity, but not the one Renshaw was punished for)
Cavendish being told (he is a bit stunned, but kept his mouth shut)
Interview with Aldag, Cav's manager

Otherwise, there were changes, but not terribly important. Pettachi got the green jersey, mainly due his consistently excellent sprinting this year, but also due to the failure of Hushovd to finish in the top three, even if he cannot win a given sprint. Hushovd has really been quite ineffective during this Tour, in the actual sprints, being beaten by second rate sprinters often enough. I have to add that the previously unknown Sebastian Turgot did NOT fish sixth as he has four times in a row, but finished respectably nevertheless. France has found a new sprint hope! Pineau added a point to his trivial total of points for the spotted jersey. I still find it embarrassing that he has the jersey, and that the next two riders, both French, also are not real climbers. It would be different if someone like Le Mevel or Gadret were wearing it, as they actually can climb. I am desperately hoping that someone will take the jersey away before Paris. The funny thing is that I have never heard in the interviews any modesty on the part of Pineau ('I am just lucky' and 'keeping it warm' for someone else) nor any sense on the part of French commentators that the whole thing is without honour and a joke. It should be noted that there are, even in the next few mountainous stages, sprint points available that might be fought for by Pettachi and Hushovd. Looks like Cav is not so interested. Andy keeps both the yellow and the white jerseys. It was a transition stage, we could expect no big changes. The GC remains the same.

Green jersey standings.

1 Alessandro Petacchi (Ita) Lampre-Farnese Vini 161  pts
2 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Cervelo Test Team 157  
3 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Team Katusha 138  
4 Mark Cavendish (GBr) Team HTC - Columbia 132  

There was another issue today. I have not got to the bottom of it, but it involves one or more teams not going to sign in before starting the race. Normally, each rider walks up to a big podium in full view of all the punters, and is introduced by Daniel Mangeas, the 'voice of the Tour'. He recites their honours and tells a bit about them as they sign a big register. Everybody claps and cheers and maybe catches one or two of them for an autograph or a photo. Part of the 'tradition of the Tour'. If they don't sign in, they are fined. Its like taking attendance at school. Today someone stayed in their bus, hung loose, relaxed, avoided the crowds and did not make themselves visible to the punters. This annoyed the French commentators for sure, and clearly the ASO organisers as well. Some felt this was part of the star mentality, hiding behind smoked glass and refusing to follow protocol. I don't really care much, but it was apparently some kind of big deal.

So tomorrow one of my favourite areas of France (I guess I have more than one), as they head into Lozere, and the finish outside Mende. It is a three k pretty steep climb, and some riders are going to lose many seconds. I doubt that the big guns will ride up in a group. Certainly other riders will attack for the stage victory, so at least the last few minutes should be full of action and the previous hour full of gorgeous scenery.

Vive le velo.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Stage 10 14-7-10

I am not absolutely sure about this, since I missed parts of many stages in the last ten days. But I reckon the scenery today was absolutely stunning. Alps are nice enough, but they are too big, too developed, too rocky and generally both too inhuman and too human. This area seems a lovely mix. Just enough awesomeness to keep your mouth open, and plenty of settlements of a less developed sort that help you be friendly to the area and sympathetic to its history. One of my favourite areas of France for sure. Good thing too, as the race was a little bit slow today. So slow they got into Gap about forty five minutes late, having slowly cruised all day long. The break that got away also cruised all day. So for the most part, nothing happened to disturb any of the standings and any of the jerseys. True, there was a bit of race for points in the green jersey competition, but nothing that makes a big difference. Although come the end, maybe these points will be a big deal. True, Nicolas Roche managed to do a pre planned attack to gain a few places in the standings. He is now 13th instead of 17th and only 6.23 back instead of 7.44. Good to see guys like him racing to gain a few places, as it must mean he still cares about being in the top ten and might do some attacking in the next days. Radio Shack got their first victory in their Tour history (this year is their first), with Serge Paulinho, the Portuguese who came our attention when he got a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic road race. I especially liked the descent into Gap, which is pretty scary. It was there, and they have memorialised the location, that Beloki had his career ending crash (he kept riding, but did nothing after that crash) and Lance did his equally famous cross country run. Must go to that area on a bike holiday, while I can still climb the hilly bits.

Got lucky today and was able to watch the very first 45 minutes of the race, that exceptional time when the peloton was going like blazes, and various rides are shooting off the front trying to establish the 'break of the day'. Many times they try, and although sometimes the first try works, most likely it takes some time until the right combination is allowed to go off. The decision making process of the peloton, which teams are willing to ride to bring back a break, which riders are the ones allowed to get away, and that whole process is fascinating. Eventually a break gets away because riders do not stop trying to do the job. After all, like today, a stage victory could be at stake. And a stage victory in the Tour makes a career, not matter how it is achieved. The successful break usually consists of riders way down on the GC, who are not harmful to anyone, who do not threaten any team. If you ever get a chance, do watch those first few kilometres. It does not matter much in the General Classification, of course, but it is rather important part of the race. If you keep watching long enough you get to see a 'royal escape'. Like a royal flush, this is rare. It consists of guys who ARE important in the GC, who have somehow escaped the peloton and also escaped some of their competitors in the GC. Now THAT kind of escape gets really interesting, almost exciting. It can change the face of the race. In some small way, the Contador/Schleck escape on the Madeleine was like that.

Small gift for some of us, Laurent Fignon is gong to be commentating nearly every day until the end. His voice is much better. And although neither my wife nor I are fond of his sense of humour, he is the sole commentator who is telling it straight. He is not trying to advertise the event and convince us that there is racing when there is not.

A friend of mine rang up and thought I had suggested that someone else might win, other than Alberto or Andy. Of course, 'if something happens' one or both can be out of the race in one day. And certainly if somehow one of the other dozen riders below them succeeds in making a huge escape, things can change. But it is very unlikely that the entire might of Astana and SaxoBank would let anyone escape. And it is highly unlikely that one of them won't win the Tour. Just so you know I agree with nearly everyone else on that question. But like everyone else, I have no idea which one it will be. Contador merely has to stick with Andy all the way to win. The reason is that the 52k time trial the second last day of the Tour is pretty much certain to be where Alberto can gain up to two minutes on Andy. Whoever is wearing the yellow jersey will have motivation, but so will the one who COULD wear it after the TT. Either way they will both be racing like crazy men. But if Andy actually beats Alberto in the TT, it will be one of the greatest surprises in the history of the Tour. In fact, if he loses less than two minutes Andy will be doing very well indeed. So Andy has to attack in the Pyrenees. Alberto has to stick with him, or better yet, attack himself. No one knows who will do what and when. Lovely. Uncertainty.

I still enjoy the huge displays that various rural folks make by the side of the road. There was a great one today with vast posters of cycling greats, the giants of the road. I thought how moving they were, until the end. Then somehow they put up naughty seaside post card type nudes or partially bared bums of women. Tacky, I thought. But genuinely expressive of the rural mentality I guess. Clearly no one in that town thought it was tacky at all.

We got a long analysis of the Katusha team's origins from Fignon,who apparently knows something about it. He said the guy who runs Itera, the huge Russian gas company, used to be a superb track rider and still rides a lot. He was keen, and put together the consortium of sponsors with the help of Putin, who named the team. It is a huge programme of cycling development as well as the team. They advertise that on their bus. As far as I am concerned a team named after a missile, or rather a slightly sophisticated artillery shell (Google it) is a tacky name. Even if they pretend it is 'just a girl's name' in Russia (which it is).

Christophe Moreau is third in the mountains competition. Not THAT far behind. So when the peloton got to the top of the second category climb at the end of the stage, he sprinted out of the group to get the points. The last climb of the day is double points, so he was especially keen. Sadly, there were already six guys who were in the break and a second category climb only awards points to the first six riders. So Moreau, riding his thirteenth Tour (or whatever), in his last year, to crown his career, sprinted for double zero points. He did not even know the rules. The entire peloton was probably snickering behind his back and he must be terribly embarrassed today. Fignon was quite harsh on him calling him unprofessional and a bad example to kids. Moreau is a prat, and I enjoyed watching him make a fool of himself. I didn't hear his explanation, but I would love to listen.

As for the finish, I watched the replay and noticed something. It was well known that Vasil was faster than Sergio. The Belorussian should have been the first man from his country to win a stage in the Tour. Kiriyenko was in front, and kept turning his head to see where his rival was, as one does. The thing I noticed was that Paulinho waited until Kiriyenko turned his head to the front (so he couldn't see him) and at that exact moment, Sergio attacked. So Paulinho had a couple of pedal strokes, and nearly two bike lengths before Vasil saw him and could react. Such superb timing, the only way he could have won. Nice one for the Portuguese. Although honestly I fancied Kiriyenko since he and I share a name.

The next couple of stages might be for breakaways, although the sprinter's teams might like to change that. Especially tomorrow the sprinters might get a chance, as the race limbs one hill and then goes downhill the rest of the day. While I don't know most of the route, I can say that the bit at the end, down the valley which has Die in it, is rather lovely.

Good night.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Stage 9 13-7-10

Good stage! I was moaning a bit about the lack of attacking early on, boring my wife silly. It is true it was a pretty mild beginning. Absolutely wonderful mountains, but not a lot of racing. In fact a break got away, and the winner of the stage came from this break. Another French win, this time Sandy Casar from Marc Madiot's FDJ team. The French cannot be upset about stage wins this year, even though they seem to be a bit short of GC contenders. But on the last climb, as is most often the case in the Modern Tour, there was finally a brutal acceleration. It looked like with or without serious discussion, the Astana and Saxobank teams had decided to ride hard and see whom they could drop. Fignon called this very early in the race, with his usual astute eye for what is happening. We had, once again, that sad but very appealing sight of riders dropping off the back, some of them with their Tour in tatters. Certainly dreams of podium finishes shattered. It was a good stage.

It would fair to say that nearly everyone lost time on the lead duo, Schleck and Contador. They had a bit of a mano a mano, with Schleck attacking at least three times, but Contador following each attack. It became clear that Andy could not drop Alberto, and so they made a deal to ride together and distance all their competitors. Samuel Sanchez kept coming back after each attack, but finally he too was distanced. Being a fearsome descender Sanchez almost got back on the descent, only ten seconds behind, but when they reached the short flat section at the end of the stage, it was never going to be easy for one guy to catch two. So while Sanchez lost fifty seconds, nevertheless he distanced several of his competitors and is now sitting on the podium. There is a long way to go. A long long way. Having said that, it look like the two strongest riders are Schleck and Contador. If neither of them drops the other before the long time trial in many days, it is clear that Contador will win the Tour. But that is maybe a big if. Watching them and their teams duel should be a bit of fun over the next few days.

The biggest loser of the day, the tragic figure of the last climb, was Cadel Evans. He lost 8 minutes, and the yellow jersey. He also lost any hope of getting on the podium this year. There could be any number of reasons for this, but the crash that injured his left elbow, and probably caused him serious pain and probably made it hard for him to pull on the bars might be the only explanation we really need. In any case, he was not alone today in losing time, just the most dramatic. Bradley Wiggins, along with Carlos Sastre and Michael Rogers, lost five minutes. One has to be cautious, about making a big deal out of this, as they are all within two minutes of the top ten, so the Tour is nowhere near over for them. Unless they are just not good enough, which, given that they lost time on other days, might be true. Basso and Kreuziger are now just outside the top ten at about five minutes from Schleck. Basso had a slightly better day, towing Lance up the hill for old times' sake, Kreuziger a worse one. I am quit sure that these two will have something to say in the Pyrenees. Both are good climbers and can work together well. Kreuziger can also do a mean TT. The lime green lads will be back. The two Rabobank riders are currently the very best duo of all. Although they lost two minutes, they managed to climb to fourth and fifth place. Menchov is a surprise, no one knew how fit he was. But without much shouting, he is up there with the best challengers. As for Gesink, he rode very well today and seems be fulfilling his promise. What each of these duos manage to concoct for a strategy might be very interesting indeed. Certainly if the challengers do not attack the top two, then the Tour is over, or rather it is between Andy and Alberto. We hope that riding cautiously for third, fifth or seventh place does not appeal too much to the teams like Liquigas and Rabobank, but that remains to be seen. Dutch supporters were apparently really annoyed at Leipheimer for not doing his share of the work n the Madeleine. Levi is a pretty well known wheel sucker. Nevertheless he kept up and solidified his place in the to ten. He got not help from Lance however, who is meant to be his teammate.

So the spoils go to those who attacked. And behind, the others grouped together and tried to stay in contact. I am a bit sad that Samuel Sanchez just missed, by ten seconds, getting back in touch with the two leaders of the Tour. His descending is beautiful. Schleck looked really wobbly, and everyone commented on it. He descends with his hand on the brake hoods, like I do. Very cautious. Having said that, Christophe Moreau, who was in the group of three with Contador reckons he is a good descender and he was having trouble keeping up with Schleck and noticed nothing bad about his descending. So I am not sure what to believe. Probably NOT Moreau, one of the world's great bullshitters and egotists.

One thing is clear. This Tour is far from over. I am assuming that neither Andy nor Alberto have a bad day, but they could. In addition, there are nine riders within five minutes of Schleck, four minutes from Contador and two minutes from third place. Given that today the gaps were two, three, four or even five minutes between groups, everyone one of those riders can hope to finish on the podium. Furthermore, four minutes total cover the second ten riders, so any of them could easily think they might finish in the top ten. While top ten does not seem glamourous compared to the podium, there ARE only three places on the podium and there are nearly two hundred riders who began the Tour. Top ten in the Tour is totally respectable and also very useful in contract negotiations. Let's remember that there are 22 teams, so half of them are guaranteed to NOT have a top ten rider. My point is not that Schleck and Contador have shown that they are very vulnerable. They have not. They have shown they are better than the other riders, so far. But in terms of racing, of attacks, of bold moves, there is plenty to race for, in addition to the duel at the top. Of the next four stages, two are relatively easy, but two are NOT. Then we get the three days of extreme climbing in the Pyrenees, followed by the time trial from Bordeaux (with one sprint stage in between). In other words, the really hard stuff is yet to come. And it has been pretty hard so far.

A couple of further observations. Brajkovic and Szmyd, two of the finest support climbers in the Liquigas and Astana teams, finished eight minutes down, riding with Cadel. I didn't see either of them in the front, and they can climb very well. So maybe they had a bad day, maybe they were taking it easy to do something tomorrow or in the near future.

Just a word or two on the jersey for the best climber, the polka dot jersey. Let me start with a quote from another blog. 'So the polka dot jersey isn't really the meilleur grimpeur. It's a the best climber of a specific group of guys with the ambition and permission to focus on the minor climbs of the Tour, with no regard to their fitness for other tasks. It's a guy who isn't a yellow jersey contender, and who isn't on a team with a yellow jersey contender who might need his help. It's a small, self-selecting goup of guys who can surely climb like the dickens, and whose pursuit of the King of the Mountains classification is a fun sideshow. They get to be King for a few days, and only wishing that the competition were something more prevents fans like me from getting behind this more enthusiastically.' This quote reminded me, as did the recent change of jersey from one French non-climber to another French non-climber. Certainly Pineau and Charteau can climb. But really this jersey is a very bad joke. If there were a one day race which had climbing in it, or if a stage ended at the top of a mountain, neither of these guys would be in the top twenty. No possibility. In fact, today, it was sad to see the polk dot jersey wearer just stop trying once the last climb began. Pineau had been let loose along with a number of other riders who were not threat to anyone about anything. He has accumulated points on climbs no one contested. In fact, hardly anyone has cared about this jersey in recent times. You can't blame these guys, the rules are the rules and for the last almost twenty years, beginning with Virenque, adequate climbers have been reading the rules and winning the competition. Recently they doubled the points on the last climb of a stage so that maybe the real climbers might get some points. And in the end maybe they will. Maybe the best climbers, who would certainly include Schleck and Contador, much less S. Sanchez, Rodriguez, Martinez (not much this year), Cunego, Gesink, Kreuziger, Basso, VdB and so forth, will end up ranking higher than Pineau and Charteau. But as I say, you can't blame them, only blame the rules and people who read them carefully. It bothers me, as the jersey for the best climber should be on the shoulders of … well … more or less the best climber.

Overall a very good stage, at least the last climb. I like how we are still learning about the Tour, nothing is yet obvious. This is the mark of a very good race. Uncertainty.

If you have read this far, you might like to know that since I started the blog, this is my sixtieth post.