Today’s stage was almost a wild card in this year’s tour. We knew the final climb to the aerodrome is brutal and steep enough to provide spectacular television pictures, but not long enough for any time gaps that could have a real impact on the overall standings. However it was the perfect place to score a psychological point or two, and that was exactly what Alberto Contador achieved by finishing 10 seconds ahead of his immediate rival Andy Schleck.
Schleck’s loss today might not matter in the larger scheme of things, but Contador has fired across his bows and everyone be warned, not least team Saxo Bank. The maillot jaune though did not seem too flustered in his post race comments, and indicated that the 10 seconds lost do not worry him at all. He claimed that the final ascent was already on his “black list” and a minor shortfall here was factored in his overall plan. Schleck finished off by saying “There’s no real lesson from today’s stage. I could not have done anything differently.”
There is certainly a healthy level of respect between Contador and Schleck as displayed by their banter during the initial kilometers on the stage. Contador for one, certainly seems far happier talking about Schleck than about a certain Lance Armstrong.
First drama for the day came just before the top of the first climb when Jermoe Pineau and Geraint Thomas were caught up in a crash. Fortunately there was no lasting damage, and both riders were able to remount their bikes and join the peloton. On the second climb a successful breakaway was formed by 18 riders who they stayed ahead despite the best efforts of Saxo Bank team who lead the chase. This lead group included some big hitters, chief among whom were Alexander Vinokourov, Ryder Hesjedal and Anthony Charteau.
Thor Hushovd was part of the front-running riders and was aiming for the two sprint intermediates, to collect the few points on offer today in the sprint classification. Pining for the jersey he had lost to Petacchi only a day before, and determined to win it back immediately, he was the first rider to cross the second sprint point. Collecting the resultant six points and securing the jersey seemed job done for the day for him as he fell back to join the peloton and amble towards the finish in anonymity.
The lead pack had been reduced to 12 by the time they were caught by the peloton in Mende (6km from the finish). Scary was how the final climb appeared even on the television screen and I could feel the agony of the riders (yeah, in the comfy environs of my apartment). Among the early casualties of the ascent was Lance Armstrong, who was wearing yellow the last time the Tour came this way, back in 2005. Most of the riders were out of the saddle permanently for the climb, and all I can say is – what a way to end the day.
At 5km to go, a pack of four riders consisting of Vinokourov, Kloden, Hesjedal and Kiriyenka was out at the front. But the peloton was already baring its fangs and riders with stage victory aspirations were making their way to the head of the field. John Gadret was the first to attempt an attack and managed to stick up a lead for a short while.
But the real meaningful attack of the day came from Contador himself, as he took Schleck by surprise and opened up a 50mtr gap. On a climb of this steepness it is impossible to regain ground once a rival has pulled a few metres ahead, so Schleck needed to answer, at once. Sensibly, the Luxembourg rider did not panic and produced a measured response, enough to limit the gap to 15 seconds.
With the Spaniard clear of his main rival, and not much hope of gaining a significant advantage, all seemed to be settled for the day. But he was prompted into action by an impressive surge in pace from Joaquim Rodriguez and the Spanish duo battled to the finish line, with the Katusha rider edging past the two time winner in a one sided sprint. Andy Schleck followed in a group 10 seconds behind, certainly content in keeping the loss to a bare minimum.
Tomorrow’s stage of just under 200km goes through undulating roads consisting of five minor climbs.It is a day for the pack to recover from today’s efforts and would bring the sprinters back in action. The stage also gives an opportunity to riders without a win yet, to aim for glory and could provide an answer to the much asked question about the strength of team HTC and the ability of Mark Cavendish to score a stage victory in absence of the disqualified Mark Renshaw.
Back in the present, today proved to be a tough tough day in the saddle for everyone. The final result might not be crucial with regards to seconds won or lost, but one suspects the hard work on this stage may come back to haunt one or two riders in the coming days. For Contador though, it may not be the physical damage caused (if any) to Andy Schleck, but the psychological edge he gained over his rival that would count.