The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Now things get interesting

Today's Tour stage was what a mountain stage should look like. Team strategy, small group tactics, and individual effort. Cadel Evans, default favorite as the only returning Paris podium member from 2007, came into the day only one second up, with a team (Silence-Lotto, formerly Davitamon-Lotto, formerly Predictor-Lotto; Lotto is one company, the other part of the name is the pharmaceutical d'anno of the other sponsor) that doesn't look very strong, and a reputation as a time trialist, rather than a climber (not to mention the victim of this blog's official policy). Just one second behind was Fränk Schleck who, with brother Andy and perennial Grand Tour threat Carlos Sastre*, form a solid core for CSC-Saxo Bank. Also within a minute were American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle), young Austrian Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), and onetime white jersey** Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank - still the best jerseys on the Tour).

So, with all that laid out before the first Alpine day (of three) of the Tour, who would do what? Evans can out-TT all the other contenders, but even a dominating performance in a 53 km TT like Stage 20 can't blow away the field the way a crushing mountain victory can - Evans can expect to gain a few minutes on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond, but he could lose 10 or 20 minutes on the slopes of Alpe D'Huez (where Schleck won a couple years ago). The course for today's stage consisted of a big climb early, a steep bump towards the end, then a long, but not too steep, climb to a mountaintop finish. An early breakaway quartet looked well-positioned to stay away, with legit riders like Egoi Martinez and Danny Pate (Garmin-Chipotle), but no one so high-placed as to demand chasing. But it's hard for a small group to stay ahead of the contenders that inevitably shred the peloton as they drive up the final climb. In the event, a couple of crashes helped the breakaway stay ahead - although Pate wouldn't have minded dropping back into the yellow jersey group with team leader Vande Velde.

Meanwhile, CSC started picking up the pace on that steep bump I mentioned, and Evans was already without a teammate when the ascent to Prato Nevoso began. With a group of about ten (a few riders were losing and regaining contact), all the contenders were in place for the 11 km climb. And here's where things got really exciting. As Joe Lindsay of the Boulder Report noted, this is what you see when none of the riders are doping - everyone was very close, with no one able to simply ride off (as disgraced Ricardo Ricco and his Saunier Duval teammates had done in the Pyrenees, making a mockery of the competition). CSC, with 3 riders, kept attacking, but the group held together until the final 3 km, when Sastre attacked and only Kohl, Valverde, and Menchov were able to follow. At the end, the Kohl group finished about 40 seconds ahead of the Evans group, with Fränk Schleck putting in a big pull to gain 9 seconds on Evans - enough for an 8 second lead in the overall. Kohl is one second ahead of Evans, but it's hard to imagine him staying close for another week.

Meanwhile, the leaderboard shows 6 riders within a minute of the overall lead, and 5 of them legit GC contenders. Tomorrow is a rest day, then Tuesday's Alpine stage is a valley finish, some 20 km past the final summit - unless a rider completely blows up on the climb, he should be able to close any outrageous gap. That leaves the legendary Alpe D'Huez for Wednesday. The final TT will be definitive, of course, but we should have a much better sense of who can pull it off after Huez.

* Although Sastre has finished third and fourth in the Tour and second (twice) and fourth in the Vuelta, he's best known to casual fans for crossing the finish line with a pacifier in his mouth - it's even part of his website's logo. He did it in honor of his newborn daughter when he won the 13th stage of the 2003 Tour.

** Best young rider - 2003



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