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.