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.