I would like to boast that in my stage 15 report I had mentioned today “should still be engrossing as the second rest day always plays tricks.” In fairness though I accept that not even for a moment was I referring to the kind of action we saw today on the slopes of Col de Manse. Pray why me, not one expert, pundit, hell not even the Schlecks and the maillot jaune had expected what transpired.
For all the big talks about the Pyrenean climbs, this little appetizer of a stage (as termed by many) sorted out the GC better – and proved to be far more thrilling. On this wretched day with rain uncannily following the Tour riders all the way till the finish (almost wanting to stay with the action), defending champion Alberto Contador left his first impression on the 98th edition of the Tour de France.
The move he started sent tremors across the peloton, triggering the first full-scale battle between the favourites on the Tour. At the end of it the Schleck brothers were the big losers of the day with Andy in particular, having lost 1min 8sec over Cadel Evans. Elder brother Frank did marginally better limiting his losses to 21sec, however surrendering his second place in the overall standings to the Australian.
Cadel Evans looks to be in the form of his life, and this time equally focussed as well. He responded to every challenge thrown by Contador better than all the other favourites, and later turned it around by counter-attacking the three-time defending champion on the slopes heading down to the famous town of Gap. If not for some help from compatriot Sammy Sanchez, the Saxo Bank rider would have lost much more than the three seconds he eventually did over the Aussie.
The three time winner let the cat among the pigeons almost surreptitiously, when anyone least expected. As the peloton rushed towards the finish, led by Evan’s BMC team, one got the feeling that all they wanted was to finish their misery on a tough stage - weather wise - as soon as possible. On a serious note though they wanted to keep their respective leaders at the front to avoid them losing time in the scenario of a crash.
But then out of nowhere sprang Contador, with a move so reminiscent of his trademark attacks, which were conspicuously missing on the earlier slopes. Despite the surprise element, all his immediate rivals scurried (with help from Fabian Cancellara) to catch up before the Spaniard could run away. All well then, Contador had had his little “Andy Schleck” moment, and the stage would finish in peace – or so we thought.
Alberto definitely had a plan in his mind, he knew all too well that the Schlecks are uncomfortable on rainy days and thus persisted with his attacks. The third one finally paid off. As he increased his pace yet again, all except Evans and Sanchez conceded defeat and Andy in particular seemed to hit the wall. Tour leader Thomas Voeckler also succumed to the pace and forgetting the leaders, tailed alongwith the Leopard Trek men.
Once the descent began it was not even a contest. Evans has been the mountain bike world champion and showed his skills in great measure distancing himself off both Spaniards. The Schlecks meanwhile were trying hard to keep with Voeckler, again Andy struggling in particular. The younger Schleck was finding it hard to stay even with Voeckler and eventually elder brother Frank had to move ahead to limit the damage, leaving Andy to be guided home by Maxime Monfort.
As the Leopard Trek leader (or is he?) locked up, overheated his brakes and shook his head in despair, I heard the commentators say, “Andy Schleck is literally stopping himself from winning the Tour de France.” In the glamour of the mountains & time trials and the maze of tactics, we often forget that the Tour is also won by good bike handling skills, but most importantly, by a rider ready to risk all. A rider who pushes himself beyond the real to rise to glory and awe in the shadow of the inspiring Arc de Triomphe.
While all this was happening there was a race on, which incidentally was won again by Thor Hushovd. This time the Norwegian pipped compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen in the sprint with team-mate Ryder Hesjedal coming in third. It was a perfect run in by the veteran, part of the breakaway yet again, who held the group and Boasson Hagen at bay as Hesjedal attacked on the last climb of the day.
Going over the summit, as it was clear that the Canadian would soon be caught by the rider from Team Sky, the Garmin rider’s roles reversed with Hesjedal now doing the support job. It was a tough ask for the younger Norwegian to go for the final sprint against two team-mates, one of who is the world champion. Victory today though could be attributed more to Hushovd’s experience rather than pure talent, as he timed his attack to perfection, taking Boasson Hagen by surprise.
Once Thor was off, the split second hesitation by Edvald killed any hopes for a tight finish and the Garmin-Cervélo man made it home by more than a bike length. He (and his team) have had an incredible Tour, this being his second stage victory after having rode several days in yellow. “I was sitting there to control him and I feel a little sorry for Edvald…he did not have an easy job in the end with two Garmin-Cervélo guys in the front…The first win [in Lourdes] was better than this one because I was able to win alone but today is another nice one,” said the stage winner.
It was a hard-earned victory with yesterday being one of the fastest stages this year. The first hour was covered at a speed of 51.4km/h, Hushovd eventually crossing the finish line in 3h 31min 38sec, good 20 minutes before the organisers had expected. The manic pace and Thor’s efforts are best encapsulated in Cadel Evans’ tweet, “Today was…..kinda tough…. 48.2km/h for ~2h: Thor is a ‘hardman’! #TdF.” Even with the results so far it is safe to say that the 2011 Tour is bringing success to Norway like it did to its home nation last year.
Then again all this sounds a mere postscript in the cosmic scheme of things happening at the top end of the GC table. I am not a big fan of Contador, but have to doff my hat to the Spaniard. Where others throw short punches, the defending champion launches a volley of sustained attacks. I don’t know if its talent or experience or a sixth-sense, but he just seems to know when to attack, and for how long to pull the pain-train for others to break.
Schlecks need not panic yet though. Frank still sits third overall with Andy only a place behind, both ahead of Contador. Yes these kind of time differences can be wiped off in a single hard climb, but the assurance of any time in hand is a big psychological benefit during attacks (after all Contador had a mere eight seconds gap over Andy this time last year). Yesterday’s reversal also cannot be counted as any weakness by the Leopard Trek riders, as only five days ago we saw Contador crack on the climb of Luz-Ardiden, only to bounce back today. The Luxembourgeois know their strength is climbing, and there is still a lot of that to come.
More immediate of their concerns would be that both brothers are behind Australian Cadel Evans, who on current evidence looks strongest of all. He answered every question raised by Alberto yesterday and got a bonus when he outpaced the instigator on the descent. Evans has a strong BMC team with him, is not shy of climbing, descends better than most and crucially is the best time trialler among the top men. If it does get close, then we all know who will gain those vital seconds on the penultimate stage.
Andy Schleck however criticized the organisers for their choice of route, labelling today’s final descent as “fatally dangerous.” Though many may consider that as a case of sour grapes for a rider who knows his limitations going down hill all too well, the descent of Côte de Pramartino indeed is the most challenging part of a day consisting of four categorised climbs.
On the face of it, there is nothing particularly tricky about the 179km that take us into foreign lands (Italy) and the peloton should be focussed on the two monster stages ahead. Yesterday’s events though, cast it in a different shade altogether. We know Contador is not going to sit quiet now and is bound to throw down the gauntlet once again, probably on the descent Andy has already cast a doubt over.
Hold your breaths then everyone – this is the Tour de France – and the final days are not for the faint hearted. We will see manic descents, brutal climbs and a blitzy time trial. Yesterday was shocking enough, more than anything else this year (except for the high crash rate ofcourse) and I think the most apt finish for this report is by bringing out Team Leopard Trek’s tweet yesterday, “Time lost. Hope remains. Three days in the Alps ahead. bit.ly/nA8zGR ” So till tomorrow then…
ps: till then feast yourselves over this gallery encapsulating all the action of stage 16 in pictures…