“Prepared to wound, but afraid to strike” – perfect metaphor for the mind games played by the top GC contenders on the climb of Plateau de Beille. Well in fairness, Andy Schleck did try four times to break free of the clique, however none of his attempts carried the venom to drop anyone. And when young Jelle Vanendert burst ahead with just under 7km to go, and comfortably claim his maiden stage, it was evident the best were not trying their best.
“On the last climb I saw that Andy was watching Contador a little bit and Contador was watching Frank. I thought that Contador could just answer the attacks of the Schlecks; Evans and Basso are also there for the general classification and it was only me who was not going for the classification so I thought that I could go and try to get an advantage,” said the Belgian later.
Until Saturday, all four past winners here had went on to claim the Tour in Paris. Vanendert surely does not have the capability to maintain that tradition (not since Laurent Fignon in 1983 has anyone won the Tour on his début), but no one can blame him for taking advantage of the mind-games and earn himself a stage victory he had narrowly missed on the summit of Luz-Ardiden. Incidentally he beat Sammy Sanchez to the line, reversing the result of two days ago.
Much was expected of this stage with the clichés like ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’ being used galore. It did begin to shape out well with Leopard Trek yet again trying to break most teams with their vicious pace at the head of the peloton. Their exertions had the desired effect and by the time the last rider of the Luxembourg team had sacrificed himself, the leading pack was down to just twelve men – the Schlecks, Voeckler, Contador, Evans, Jelle Vanendert, Ivan Basso, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Rigoerto Uran, Damiano Cunego and Pierre Rolland.
Soon Andy attacked, and again, and again, and again, but every time to his frustration either Voeckler or Contador jumped up to his wheel almost immediately. By the end both Schleck brothers were quite unhappy with Cadel Evans for his lack of effort in trying to break the defending champion and the maillot jaune, and themselves made no efforts to cover either Vanendert or Sanchez when they broke free.
Andy did vent his frustration right before the end as he sprinted ahead to finish seconds ahead of everyone, gaining more a moral victory than any significant time advantage. As he pumped ahead in the last kilometer, it seemed too little, too late – a scant gain of two seconds should not matter in the final time sheet in Paris, but it can’t hurt his chances and we all know stranger things have happened on the Tour (LeMond pipping Fignon by a mere eight seconds in 1989 comes to mind).
Evans later justified the lack of attacks by him, “It’s under control. Everyone says that no one attacks and so on… but they also need to consider the wind and the closeness of the racing. The Schleck brothers were there and they’ve got the yellow jersey to gain and then they look at me to pull for them. I joke with them, ‘I’m not here to tow you to Paris.’”
But one has to doff his hat to Thomas Voeckler, who fought like a man possessed to keep in touch with the scorching pace being set by these top riders. He was to be the night-watchman (to borrow the phrase from cricket) of the yellow jersey, but not for a moment looked in trouble yesterday (and stands not-out at stumps). Infact to be fair it was mostly him that replied to Schleck Jr’s attacks and rode close to the head of the élite pack all the time.
“I would lie if I said that I expected to keep the jersey but I was more optimistic than I was two days before the Luz Ardiden stage. On the last climb today, I was really surprise [sic] that I was with all the favorites at the end and it was very hard for me but I understand that it was the same for them. I tried to give my all and it was okay,” said the Frenchman who is winning more friends in his home nation than ever before.
There was a bit of humour on the stage as Jens voigt – then part of the chasing pack – failed to take a corner and bounced off the ledge into shrubs. It was a soft fall and the rider was able to continue almost immediately, only to lose his rear wheel almost moments later. Worse than the earlier tumble (though nothing serious) the German seemed completely disgusted, though had no one to blame for it.
He had to forget the chase and fell back to his team for guiding the Schlecks up the final climb of the day. Up in the front was a lone Frenchman again, Sandy Casar, and with the passive infighting between the GC men, it seemed for a brief moment that he might provide the home crowd their first victory in this year’s tour (something team-mate Jeremy Roy so painfully missed out on yesterday).
Sadly history repeated itself and all his bravery came to no avail once Vanendert sprung late on the stage to claim final honours. Another young rider, Colombian Rigoberto Uran of team Sky managed to finish with the Evans group and took over the lead in the white jersey classification, bringing some joy to the British team who have only had bad news in the past week, both on and off the road.
The biggest winner on the day has to be Thomas Voeckler, who – like in 2004 – against all odds has managed to frustrate and surprise everyone by hanging on to yellow. He will stay in the overall lead till atleast stage 17 when the Tour hits the Alps for good. But if he can keep his form and the GC battle continues to be as passive as it is (hope not), he might be within fighting distance even in the individual time trial (not his specialty, but then neither was climbing).
Today’s stage 15 has a completely different profile where his – and the peloton’s – main rival will be the searing heat and crosswinds. Its pretty flat except for a solo catergory-four climb and more of a transition stage as the Tour heads on to the Alps from the Pyrenees. GC contenders will once again ride in the shadow of their teams, only aiming to reach the finish and look forward to a rest day on Monday. This is also the penultimate opportunity for the sprinters to earn some glory, so be prepared for another Cavendish-Greipel-Farrar photo finish. So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 61h 04’ 10” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Frank Schleck – 61h 05’ 59” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Jelle Vanendert Cadel Evans – 61h 06’ 16” Maillot Blanc – Rigoberto Uran
ps: No it’s not a pic out of LOTR or any horror flick, it’s Laurens Ten Dam who hit an obstacle and flew over his hand-bars yesterday. No major damage was reported, but this is how he looked as he continued to finish comfortably!!!