Saturday, 23 July 2011

France wins, Contador loses

Stage 19
22 July 2011

I admit I missed the first fifteen minutes, but to my mind this was a superb stage. As good as anyone could want. I was on the edge of my seat for what must have been three hours. I admit that I had trouble finding a break to pee, although the bit in the valley before the Alpe was a little bit less riveting, but way more interesting than I thought. Climbing and descending are the best. I doubt if I would want there to be a third stage like this without a bit of a rest. In fact, the suspenseful bit of the Tour is pretty much over. I have never got wildly excited about a Time Trial, even if this one will decide the winner, although the podium should be sorted now. Two Schlecks and Evans. Absolutely fabulous start and a totally superb ending. Creation or consecration of heroes at every level. Great racing. One of the best Tours I have ever seen.

I guess most of you know what happened. Contador animated the entire day with his attacks, which in some sense were ultimately unsuccessful. That does not mean they were not brilliant racing. He is obviously not that well. No idea if it is the crashes, the very hard Giro, the tension of waiting for the drugs axe to fall or something else. Maybe all of it. Can you imagine what might have happened if he had been in good shape and without worries. I am sorry about that, but getting to the Tour is good shape is part of the game. He is clearly a magnificent champion, a great racer, even he ends up busted for not watching what he eats. Or shoots up.

The jerseys changed. And it is likely even now, they might not be resting on the final winners' shoulders. What more can we want for suspense? Usually all the jerseys are long decided and the final day is for third or seventh place. Andy Schleck, with his superb ride yesterday, set up the inevitable. He beat Voeckler to the top of the Alpe by many more than 15 seconds and got the yellow jersey at last. The Schlecks were outridden on the Alpe by Contador, but his 34 second lead at the end of the day was not enough to make a big difference. Good for the spectators though. Evans stuck with Andy all the way, and finished in the same time as them, which means that tomorrow he has to gain 4 seconds on Frank to finish second and 57 on Andy to win the Tour. Both of those are possible. Andy is a better time triallist than people think, so he too, if he rides out of skin, could win the Tour. Either of them deserve to win. They have both exhibited huge abilities and big hunger during the Tour.

Cavendish finished with the grupetto nine seconds over the time limit, but all the latecomers were allowed to remain in the race. There was only Leukemans who was way behind, he was eliminated. So Cav will win the jersey, unless he makes big mistakes in the intermediate sprint on Sunday and in the finish on the Champs. Otherwise that jersey should be in safe hands. I am glad for the lad, although I have to say, you find many people who just do not like him. They think he is a great sprinter, but has a deeply flawed character, overly laddish behaviour and a big mouth. I can see their point, but I don't dislike him. He should win one green jersey in his career.

The stage winner, at last, was a young French guy. Pierre Rolland, the faithful companion of Voeckler, was released today (by Voeckler) so he could ride his own stage. Winning a race up Alpe d'Huez is a lifetime experience, you can get free drinks on that til you die. Pierre was so happy he radiated joy, mixed with a bit of pain. He did keep up with and out-sprint Samuel Sanchez and Contador for the victory, so he was very deserving. Such a nice lad on TV. For two years at least, he has been a “promising rider”, and now he has no doubt become “a winner”. He also managed to ride well enough to take the white jersey of the best young rider off the shoulders of Rein Taaramae. I can't say whether he is good enough to keep it after the ITT, but I am sure he will do his best. He needs to finish less than 1.33 behind Taaramae and he will be the victor, assuming nothing serious happens on the ride to Paris. I should think that the entire Europcar team will be riding with him and protecting him. What a day for the lad. He was asked if he knew who the last French rider to win at the Alpe was, and he said no. When told it was Hinault, he was a little taken aback. Then a few minutes later they shook hands. Those young guys did well. In the top twenty there are still four of them.

Voeckler will still be the bet French rider on GC, which no else cares about except the French. This first French rider is often mentioned in the cycling press.

At last the spotted jersey has found its proper home. Since there are no more mountains, the final winner, assuming he makes it to Paris is Samuel Sanchez. He won it rather easily, simply by trying to do well in the Tour, and finishing with a first, and two seconds on the mountaintop finishes. That, to me, is the way it should be won. He is totally worthy and deserves it utterly. He had to beat A. Schleck to the finish to win, so he did. Andy was riding with his brother anyway, having done enough to win the yellow jersey by a long margin. He clearly preferred to ride with his brother than win the spotted jersey. Still, once again, over and over, no one ever cares about that jersey. It just comes by accident.

What I particularly liked about the stage was the uncertainty of the finish, who would get dropped, who would win what jersey. In addition, there were several races going on throughout the day, which I always enjoy. The one we never saw and never will see, is the way the gruppetto of 80 riders or more finds its speed, gathers the lads together, times the last ascent, so they all make it through. In a world of individualist behaviour, its is refreshing to see the lads gang together and co-operate so that none of them get eliminated, even though several of them could no doubt go faster and make sure that the slowest get dropped. They don't do that in the autobus. No idea why Leukemans got dropped so badly. But also we had Contador's first attack and what it brought, and his second attack up the Alpe. Both of those were quite separate in some racing sense, and fascinating to watch unfold. Then there were the minor races for this or that jersey, slowly working their way out during the fight for the stage. And although I have hardly mentioned it much there has been the battle for 'best team', now pretty much won by Garmin, although even that is not totally certain. Really complicated and hard to predict, my favourite kind of racing.

I still don't like the Alps, but they were gorgeous from the helicopter. It is a total bonus to be able to see all that natural and human made stuff flowing past during each stage. Takes one's breath away.

I even enjoyed watching Thomas lose the jersey. I don't know if he would have kept it had he not tried to follow Contador and just knackered himself completely. Had he stayed with the peloton of leaders, he would still have arrived at the foot of the Alpe with everyone, and would have been way fresher. I would say he made a mistake and paid for it. Still, he radiated pleasure and astounded all of the French for days. Without his riding “the French”, and perhaps all of us, would have had a lesser Tour.

So tomorrow we have the time trial, and Sunday the parade to Paris, before we race around the Champs and have the final sprint finish. I am keen to see how the TT goes of course, whether Cadel wins the whole Tour. The nice thing is that tomorrow I can take a nap for sure. I am usually happy to watch 30-40 riders do the TT. I shall try to see Fabian and Tony Martin and a few others, but really I can't be patient enough to watch all of the riders do the same route, one after the other. Live it is much better, you pick a corner or a downhill or whatever, you have a picnic and you can see how each rider does it, and gauge their relative speed, keep track of who is coming next, whether they are late or not. But it is feeling like the Tour is nearly over. Best one in ages. I am glad I was able to spend the time on it.