Saturday, 9 July 2011

The Young Lads duke it out, Thor climbs calmly

Stage 8
9 July 2011

This is the first stage in what we call “medium mountains”. What have we learned about the Tour?

Still keeps me interested, usually something happening, weather, crashes, some good racing with the sprints and the hill finishes. Enough uncertainty that it is still not obvious who is going to fill out the top ten and win the jerseys. Plenty of Tour Tragedies, which I can only like if I distance myself from them. Boonen, Wiggins, Brajkovic, Horner, Kiriyenka, Christophe Kern, Remi Pauriol and others, no longer on the Tour. Strategic choices of the excellent or not so categories. Some new names coming to the fore. Feats of fortitude and desire.

It must be said that other than elimination of three top ten contenders, even podium contenders, it is still not clear what is going to happen on a hill when Schleck cannot follow Contador. Or when Evans might drop one of them. If you look a little at the very end today, they were doing dress rehearsals, but nothing happened. Substitute other names of attackers. We haven't a clue who is going to be strongest over the three weeks. But it must be said that in the Tour we NEVER know for sure after eight days, especially if there is not an ITT during the flattish bit before we get to the real mountains.

Thor has been a superb wearer of the yellow jersey. Basically this big sprinter (1.83m and 83 kilos, about as tall as me and 14 kilos heavier), can now climb some pretty hard shortish hills. By keeping up with the guys who are supposed to climb well, he has saved his jersey. For example, he rode mostly on his own today, his team trusted him to stay calmly within spitting distance of Evans. I am totally impressed with Hushovd. After the yellow stint, he has to revert to the World Champion Jersey. Good year, good Tour for Thor, no matter what happens next. Do you think he can keep up with the leading group of GC riders, all the way across the medium mountains to St. Flour? I have driven on a few of those roads, and while the cols are not mighty, they are heavy roads, and lots of BIG rolling hills. Big rolling hills forever.

We now know that there are at least three guys seriously interested in the green jersey. Cav, Rojas and Gilbert seem to be acting as if they care a lot. Others show signs of being keen, but can't quite get enough points to match those three, they don't make it a priority or they are not as good this year. Hushovd is still well in touch. But the others, including Farrar, do not seem to have the application to get the points at any cost. Today, for example, Gilbert worked a bit harder than necessary at the end, to get the points. He seems way serious. We already know Cav is serious. I knew about Rojas, who I thought was a kind of second rate sprinter. He was never mentioned as a possible green jersey, even an outsider, by La France Cyclist, for example. Maybe someone thought of him outside his family and Spain, but I missed it. Rojas is serious.

No more information on the spotted maillot, although I think it is nice that one of the Next Great American Tour hopes can wear it for a day or so. Seems a very nice young man. Anyway, keeping it until Paris is unlikely. Nice he can wear it at the age of 22. I thought he rode all day like very young, trusting, hard working rider of immense talent. A bit inexperienced maybe. I am looking forward to seeing what he does in the mountains. If he finishes in the top ten this year he is a certainty to win the Tour one day. He can time trial brilliantly.

Gesink is back in the young riders jersey, but it has to be said he could not keep up with the front group and lost time on nearly everyone. So I guess even if he has a bad day, Gesink still looks like the (young) man. Quite a few people in my forums think Gesink is overrated. Did he just “get dropped”? Is a minute or so a big deal?

We can see that Sky wants to keep visible, we saw Flecha and Xandia today, being quite serious. Thomas and EBH finished in the first group. I do hope they get through the loss of Bradley and make some cool moves.

So we don't know very much yet, nothing is clear. A lot of nice fit young men have worn the various jerseys and we are glad. So far it seems a pretty good Tour. I often get bored with the sprint stages, but this year I didn't. OK, admittedly I am really looking forward to the real mountains. But to keep me interested they have stages which have a bit of racing, and go through gorgeous countryside. I can still feel a little bit like I still have to make it through some stages which are not going to increase the uncertainty and not going to affect the result. Maybe something untoward will happen. But its not until next Thursday that they hit the Pyrenees. Still we can always hope for uncertainty.

Today's race was good in the end, the last few K that is. I only caught the last 50k, but it seemed a proper road race with loads of interest, for an hour or so. I liked to see Vino having a dig, felt like a proper Tour de France. I liked the young lads battling it out for the stage. Finally, part of a break stays away. Bravo Rui Costa. Another young (24) with a pretty good record so far. I wanted Tejay to win, since I didn't remember much about Rui Costa, except a vague connection with doping (he got off). In the end the Portuguese lad deserved to win. Tejay worked a bit too hard, but showed us that either of them could do this again. No team or rider really wanted to chase hard enough to catch them. Gilbert seems to be doing quite well. He is going for green without a doubt. Still can't figure Thor. He says he rides around Monaco with Gilbert, and Gilbert makes him work hard on the hills. He thanked Gilbert for the help. So I guess if you lived around Monaco you would have seen Thor and Gilbert out training in the hills, now and again. Thor is amazing. Look at the stage results and see where the next “sprinter” is, after Gilbert of course.

One thing I like to do when I am not in a hurry to cook my dinner (unless I get lucky), finish this off and get to bed in time to read a bit, is to look at the stage results in detail, and notice all the small gaps or big gaps. Then I guess why they exist and what they mean. I noticed that EBH lost eleven seconds on the first group. Sometimes when there is a climb and there is a group strung out for twenty or thirty metres, they all get the same time. But then the commissars decide there is a gap between the last rider in one group and the first rider in “a new group”, also strung out for a few metres (before the “third” group). There is supposed to be a gap of one bike length before a ”new group” begins, but often you can't figure out exactly what criteria they use for the 'end' of one group. So if you look down the stage results, you see tiny handful of seconds separating a number of riders. I think, unless I study the video carefully, this small time difference is simply a slightly larger gap between two riders, one that the authorities see as a BIG ENOUGH gap, rather than a small one. In that same way I guess Leipheimer lost 29 seconds. But LL Sanchez and Gesink losing 1.23 meant they were not as strong or determined as the guys in front of them. Meaning? NO idea, but the questions arises as to whether Gesink is in good shape. I noticed Tejay and Cyril Gautier passed the line a couple minutes after the winner, which is normal for a break that gets caught. They might have been chatting or might become lifetime friends because they road 150k together in theTour. And of course Contador was followed everywhere, even over the line, by both of the Schlecks.

Contador seemed to be accelerating a bit mainly to see who would follow, not really to win the stage. Then he stopped. I guess just warming up for …. next THURSDAY. They won't hit the high mountains until the 14th of July. Maybe we will have a French guy who escapes for a mighty victory and slightly behind we have a hot battle. But that really is DAYS away. The hope I have is that either Contador or others attack a lot, even if we have to wait until Thursday. Still, never give up hope that something exceptional and interesting will happen in the medium mountains to come, the hilly bits.

Jalabert and B. Hinault agreed that it was not obvious why BMC were working so hard, for so long, at the front. They both thought it was unwise. Its a long Tour, why use up your energy to do what? Win a stage? Grab yellow for a few days? Waste of energy, the two French cycling personalities said. This story should run for a day or two as a sub-story. I thought they were riding for the stage or for the jersey, both of which were possible. But the Badger and Jalabert ask a good question. If you want to win the jersey, you have to wear it in Paris. Wearing before the high mountains just means your team has to ride in front a lot more. The experts said they should have made Contador get his team out and work. They did not say how exactly, but BMC should definitely NOT ride in front for long distances.

Tomorrow I go out to a picnic in the late morning-early afternoon, which does not give me a lot of time to read the paper and compose thoughts. So maybe tomorrow's blog will be a little thin. I do hope to get home early enough to have a quick nap and then watch the countryside for a couple of hours. Should be absolutely gorgeous, even if the race is just a break of 4 French and 3 other riders, kept at four minutes for a long time. I guess if any stage had the possibility of a break succeeding it could be this one. Why would any big GC guy want to work hard tomorrow, we have not even reached the mountains. So a big break tomorrow with lesser mortals from seven teams, including some of the biggest teams.

I talked about the fat, detailed Race Book, although I called it the Road Book, that everyone who is anyone gets. You can get a glimpse of the Road Book or Race Book on one of Thomas' videos. On the first page, you can see the short route they mark out for non-Tour route followers. The video is entitled “G and Eddy – TDF”.

Why do they not force the Team Directors to drive with a normal telephonist, call centre type microphone and headphone. One ear. They drive for ages hanging onto their totally archaic hand held microphone, which means they drive a lot with one hand. Narrow roads, team cars passing and stopping, spectators, bikes in front and behind, etc. Bad idea to do it one handed. Can't figure that out. There exist speaker phones, and so forth.

They said it was 14 degrees and it was raining on the top of the highest climb. Hope they get good weather tomorrow, up and down all day.

In fact, it is so likely to be a break that gets away that I won't even bother to predict. No idea. Jeremy Roy maybe (that is a joke). It is lovely to see the peloton floating through that countryside. I doubt if the big fellows want to race yet. I notice the that each forum buddy has picked a different rider for tomorrow. No one knows.

Our picnic is at a nice lake near here, called Lake Salagou. We have never been to this exact spot, although our pals say it is quite good. Water should be warm enough. When we went to the sea, it really was not comfy to swim, quite bracing. If I were 100% Northern English, I would have gone in.

Back tomorrow at the same time, touch wood.