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.