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.