The Tour is slowly working its way to an end. There was a little dispute between the two French commentators today. The guy who fills up the minutes with prattle and patriotic enthusiasm said that it was a great stage, and that feats of the French were once again heroic. Voeckler was having another day of glory (as in La Marseillaise). Laurent Jalabert, who was a champion cyclist and adds analysis and colour to the programme said that nothing much happened during the stage. This was about the time they finished climbing the third climb, and was essentially true. He was admonished by Thierry Adam, the continuity guy, who said he should not say that. I can understand that, they were, after all, trying to get as many people to watch as possible and make it interesting to Mr. Tout le Monde. Both were right of course. My wife even said, after we had spent several enjoyable hours in front of the telly, that nothing happened. She knows a bit about cycle racing. The top ten looks pretty much as it did, except the downward slide of Evans. It is almost utterly certain that Evans cannot win the Tour. In that sense, the collapse of Evans' challenge happened, but not much else.
There is a slightly different view, which takes each stage by itself. That is, we think of each stage as a classic race, where winning it or performing heroically gives a rider a place in history. Even if nothing changes in the overall (Grand Tour) race itself. In that sense, we would find this stage incredibly interesting and astounding. This view is OK, as it gives more importance to the exploits of each day. But it is a certainty, an absolute certainty, that when the escape went off, the big names, the leaders of teams, would NEVER have let it go if they were not interested in the overall GC, the overall victory. So the angle of “nothing happened” must be seen, as well as a lovely day of racing.
Having said that, the hero of the day was, once again, Thomas Voeckler, the darling of the French and many others too. Although strangely disliked by many keen cycling people. He not only won the huge mythic stage over the four totally famous cols of the “Circle of Death”, Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde, but did it in his usual way, hitch onto an early attack having lost so many minutes that no one cared. Voeckler then then crosses each of the cols first, gathering enough points to win the King of the Mountains jersey. In fact, the last two cols he crossed totally by himself, which is very heroic indeed. However you look at this day, you really cannot do much more. The escape had 38 riders in it, all of whom could be ignored by the GC riders, who rode together to the end of the stage, Nibali, Wiggo and Froome taking one minute or more on the top ten rivals (except Evans who lost 5 minutes). Voeckler's feat was actually very impressive as his ride gives him a four point lead on the former holder of the spotted jersey for the “best climber”. So tomorrow is the day when either Voeckler or Kissiakoff will win the jersey. Nice Day. Bravo, Thomas. That is the second stage he has won this year, both after the rest day. It does bother me slightly that if you asked everyone who knew anything who is the “best climber on the Tour”, I cannot imagine more than 1 of 20 would say Voeckler or Kessiakoff. Last year it was Sanchez, and I bet approaching 9 or 10 might have said he was the “best climber”. End of hobby horse.
For much of the day, Voeckler was accompanied by Brice Feillu, who won a mountain stage in the Tour in 2009. Since then he has done almost nothing whatever. But today, suddenly, after years of nothing, that he was going to do something big. However, he got dropped by Voeckler and finished fifth. He was on the edge of tears many minutes after the stage was over. He is someone who was supposed to be the new generation of French riders, but turned out not to be all that good. A small sad story. He has a brother, and they tried to stay on the same team, based on Brice's victory, but the edge wore off and they are on two teams. One of many small tragedies of any day on the Tour.
It should be said that the two top competitors for Wiggins (and Sky) had quite different fates today. Cadel Evans, who was everyone's joint favourite, along with Wiggins, got dropped on the third climb and never really recovered, or was it the Tourmalet. He dropped another five minutes on the GC guys, and is now in seventh place. Oddly enough, his faithful lieutenant, a young American called Tejay Van Garderen is now a few seconds ahead of him in sixth. The management decision today clearly was to let Tejay ride his own race, and leave everyone else to help Cadel. Tejay did fine, kept up with the yellow jersey peloton almost all the way. We will see him contending for the victory next year, or the year after for sure, as he can climb and time trial. If he were not obligated to help out Cadel, we have no idea what he might have done, but a job is a job. It is a rather good way to learn how to win a Tour is ride next to a potential or recent winner, help them out.
The other contender left, usually considered a bit of an outsider, is Vicenzo Nibali. He managed one serious attack about five k from the top of the last climb. It was indeed a powerful attack. At the end of the attack, there were only three of them left, and they rode to the finish together. Sadly for Vicenzo, the other two were Christopher Froome and Wiggo. He simply could not drop the two Sky riders. In fact, neither of the Sky riders seemed to be in the slightest difficulty. Nibali accelerated, got a hundred metres maybe, and the Sky riders just rode back up and said hello. Maybe took the Sky guys 500 metres or so. No problem. Wiggins never even had to get off his saddle. I am sure Nibali might give it one more go tomorrow, maybe from a bit further out. The finish is at altitude. However, I think everyone pretty much thinks that there is no one in the peloton, and more importantly no team in the peloton, that can beat the Sky team and the two best Sky riders. Simple as that. Unless something happens.
If it weren't for the remnants of the escape (ESCAPE wins again) that would have been an almost perfect example of a “royal escape”. That's when the top GC riders, ride away from everyone else. But it was an imperfect example because this royal escape finished 11th through 13th. Still and all it was kind of dramatic in a low key way, quite mythic pictures will come from that little sub-escape.
There was a long article in l'Equipe today about Sky, giving all the personnel, the various vehicles, the mattresses and pillows for each rider. One thing is clear, some of these “continental” teams have no idea how the “Anglo Saxon” mind/culture (that's what the French call the Brits, and other nations) can get down to details. The list of vehicles was quite impressive. One bus, one camping car, 2 race cars, back-up race car, one workshop truck, one large truck, three small vans, 3 VIP cars. Incredible, as usual, what money can buy. It is pretty well known that they have the biggest budget of all teams, maybe matched by the Russian national team, called Katusha. The French or Spanish or Italians don't really have a team like Katusha or Sky. Kazakhstan does. The USA doesn't, yet. I think they might have a budget of 20 million quid. 15 at least, no one really knows. The budget of my French town of seven thousand is 21 million. Nothing like a big football team of course, but there is some money in top level bike racing. The Sky team have a cook who inspects the premises of every hotel they use. If it is not clean enough, they find alternatives. It is not unusual to get some kind of gastro, if you eat carelessly, or clean your hands carelessly, in France. Especially in strange hotels every night. Maybe everywhere, but certainly in France. Some teams (like Europcar), take along a dining/cooking van, where the riders eat. Think about it. In addition we learned that Bradley is on a NO residue diet. No fibre. Pretty interesting for some people. Like me, who knows those diets well. You can win the Tour on a no residue diet. There you go, stuff you didn't know.
Did you know that if there are only two yellow jersey holders this year, as looks to be the case, it would be the first time since 1999 that only two riders wore yellow. I know from memory that the most is 8 different yellow jersey wearers, and on at least three occasions, a rider has worn the yellow jersey for the entire race. Nope, don't remember who, and might not have time to look it up. I tried after all, but after fifteen minutes, I quit. You can look up who wore the yellow jersey through an entire Tour, if you are keen.
I do like the apres-Tour show on French TV. Today they interviewed a complete Tour nutter and keen cyclist who runs a hotel. He has displayed Tour related bike stuff everywhere in this hotel's public rooms. Jerseys, photos, bikes and anything that has to do with the Tour are everywhere. He has a bike of Fignon's, for example. A gift. Then ... he took the TV cameras to a room which no one is allowed into. In fact, he carries the key around with him 24/7. In the room were piles of jerseys and water bottles, and other stuff we didn't even see with the camera angle. In fact, he showed us one water bottle that was given to him by Virenque, whom he obviously thinks is a great rider. He shook it and said that the water left in the bottle, was from when he was given it. Honest. That is what he said. The camera really did not show the entire store room, so I have no idea what is in the rest of it. It was just a reminder that there are other people whose Tour fanaticism is worse than mine, as it lasts all year. Mine only lasts the duration of the Tour. OK, a bit of reading and checking out before and after, but basically during. This guy is at it all year round, and very publicly.
One pleasing detail of today was watching Vinokourov and Voigt in front of the race attacking, trying to win the stage. Both old guys, riding their last Tour. Voigt is an honest worker, of the highest caliber, winner of stages and races. Terrific rider. Vino is a bit of a rascal, an ex-doper, a politically savvy Kazhakistani. I still like him for his attacking style. I still remember him shooting out of the peloton on the Champs Elysée, and surprising everyone to win the stage. Normally only sprinters win that stage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI4QfcW7qnY (start about 11 minutes in if you are in a hurry). So Vino and Voigt finished fourth and sixth, 3 and 4 minutes back. But it was glorious to see them giving it a go.
Off to bed. Fortunately, I can begin to watch a bit later tomorrow. It was nearly five hours today!