Sa majesté le Galibier (which google translates to “His majesty the Galibier”) shouted today’s L’equipe. That pretty much narrates that yesterday’s stage was seen as nothing more than a little inconvenience to be tackled enroute to the monster stages 18 and 19. Wednesday’s route took us into Italy, the only other country part of Le Tour this year, till we return back to France today.
However try telling that to any Norwegian and he won’t care for what is in store. Not when they are celebrating their second consecutive stage victory, this time Edvald Boasson Hagen the winning rider. He came second to compatriot Hushovd only a day ago, and yesterday brought up his second win in this year’s Tour, taking Norway’s tally to four. An amazing feat considering Thor and Edvald are the only two riders from Norway. What kind of success ratio is that, you do the math.
“I wanted to win this stage because I came so close the day before,” said Edvald. “I wanted to get revenge. My team-mates did a good job early on to get me in the break and I felt quite strong all the way.” The Norwegian also brought much-needed joy to Team Sky, who despite the vagaries of their title sponsors are performing better than expected (considering how early they lost their leader Bradley Wiggins).
Stage 17 started from Briançon, which boasts of being the highest city in Europe, and half way across moved into Italy to finish in Pinerolo. Four categorised climbs – highest being a category one – lay spread across the 179km, finishing with a precarious descent labelled ”fatally dangerous” by Andy Schleck.
This was just a day after Contador had set the Tour on fire. He had attacked against common wisdom on stage 16, timing it to perfection and dropping both Schleck brothers in the process. The Luxembourg rider’s concern then seem slightly genuine, because called on to cover any attack today, he (and other riders) would have to take risks on the descent of Côte de Pramartino.
On the road, no one seemed to have faced any problems with the Italian authorities, all passports seemingly in order as the peloton rode over the border climbing up the category-one Sestrières. Ahead of them in the breakaway, Ruben Peréz launched the first attack of the day, racing over the highest peak on the stage in the lead. Too early to hope for a victory, the Spaniard continued nevertheless till Dmitriy Fofonov decided to chase him down.
Attacks continued unabated thereafter. First it was Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel who caught Peréz, but was then caught himself by Boasson Hagen, 2km from the last climb. The Norwegian continued ahead with the assurance of knowing the descent all too well. That credit goes to his mastermind performance director Dave Brailsford who had the Sky rider recce this route twice and look at it further on film, thereby arming him with the best data to consolidate his position.
Behind in the peloton Contador was back to his antics, attacking as surreptitiously as the day before. But this time all his rivals were better prepared, more attentive and neutralized the move immediately. There were no further “moments” till the main group scaled the summit, and then Contador set off again with Sanchez for company.
We did have a crash on the precarious slope as Jonathan Hivert - in his bid to catch up with Boasson Hagen – took a risk too many and misjudged a corner. He was very lucky to have a soft landing and continue with no injuries. Not one to take heed from this, he continued in the same maverick mode, being lucky for a second time as he missed his apex, this time an open parking lot coming to his rescue.
That same little run off zone (parking lot) again proved to be a saving grace very soon as the maillot jaune himself had to take refuge after misjudging the turn. But for the noble soul who thought of leaving the door wide open, we would have had two nasty crashes, one of which could have brought a tragic end to the fight of Thomas Voeckler.
One rider who did not put a wheel wrong was Edvald Boasson Hagen. He continued to the line unchallenged and finished a comfortable 40 seconds ahead of second placed Bauke Mollema of Netherlands. Edvald has impressed everyone this year and Jens Voigt had this to say of the Norwegian on his blog. “Now I have known how good Thor is for a long time, but I don’t even think Edvald knows how good he is yet. He doesn’t know if he wants to be a sprinter, a climber or a time trailer. And the thing is, he’s really good at all of them!”
Contador and Sanchez worked together for the entire descent and seemed to have put in a few seconds between themselves and the Evans + Schleck group. But despite their best efforts, they were caught right on the line with everyone being awarded the same time. Only loser on the day was Voeckler, whose mistakes on the descent eventually costing him 27 seconds.
“Mountain biking is not my specialty,” said Voeckler, but he continues to defiantly hold on to the maillot jaune. Today he has to survive a different beast altogether. As the Tour celebrates the centenary of its first visit to the Alps, the organisers have rewarded us with a gruelling stage consisting of three Hors Catégorie climbs.
It starts with a relatively peaceful 50km till the intermediate sprint, and then all hell breaks loose. First comes the searing Col Agnel peaking at 2744m. Then the slightly lower (2360m), yet equally brutal Col d’Izoard, with its famous Casse Déserte (a barren desert-like patch just before the summit). Finally we have the killer ascent of Col du Galibier, which at 2645m will go in the record books as the highest finish on the Tour – ever.
At the end of the 200km the first man over the line can claim to be the closest descendant of Clark Kent and probably the strongest claimant to the overall victor’s crown. There cannot be any chess moves on such brutal mountains because the amount of suffering these riders will go through won’t leave any room in their mind for “games”. It will be all out racing, hopefully the likes of what we saw at the Tourmalet last year.
This last phase of the Tour has seen incessant action, both among smaller teams and the big guns. Tomorrow is the day everyone had bookmarked in their Tour diary and what the riders dream of. I don’t think any breakaway will have it in them to go all the way to the finish, hence we should see a top rider win the stage, probably after a day of heroics. I can hardly wait. So till tomorrow then…
ps: Stage 17 was one of the most scenic yet, enjoy
Jersey holders: General Classification: Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 73h 23’ 49” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Cadel Evans – 73h 25’ 07” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Jelle Vanendert Frank Schleck – 73h 25’ 11” Maillot Blanc – Rigoberto Uran