My original intention was to post my thoughts on the Tour daily, but life got in the way. So these are my thoughts on the first nine days
Stage three from Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon was the first of this years tour that offered an opportunity to the pure, as opposed to uphill sprinters. It followed a fairly predictable pattern, an early break by a few riders from French teams and/or Vaconsoliel, steadily reeled in by Garmin and HTC, with some help from other teams. I suppose that it was also fairly predictable, that being his first opportunity at a stage win, things didn’t go quite right for Mark Cavendish aka “The Fastest Man in the World”©. I’m not sure if Garmin successfully disrupted his lead-out train, or whether HTC just messed it up, but either way they failed to deliver him at the 200m to go sign the way they normally do. Garmin have clearly worked out who is going for what sprint and the Maillot Jaune Thor Hushvod, who no longer has the absolute top end speed of a flat-land sprinter, gave Tyler Farrar a perfect lead out to take his first ever individual stage win in the Tour de France.
About six weeks ago Tyler Farrar’s friend and training partner Wouter Weyland was killed in a horrific crash at the Giro d’Italia. Tyler dedicated the stage win to his memory.
“Cav” also ran into an almost inevitable conflict with the Race Referees. At the intermediate sprint, both he and Thor Hushvod were trying to get the same wheel, with the inevitable bit of pushing and shoving. Neither of the riders thought much about it, and it looked fairly innocuous to me, but the referees thought otherwise and disqualified them both from the sprint and fined them 200 SFr.
Stage 4 finished on the Mur de Bretange which is a beast of a hill in the middle of Brittany. It is about 2km long and ramps up at around 8 to 10%. So http://www.slipstreamsports.com/garmin-slipstream-pro-team/pro-men/thor-hushovd was widely tipped (including by himself) to lose the maillot jaune. It was a stage made for the type of rider who excels in the Ardennes classics. I other words Philippe Gilbert. It didn’t work out as expected though.
The peleton caught the inevitable breakaway a bit before the serious bit of the race. When it cane to the Mur a few riders had a dig including Gilbert and Contador but the guy who hung on to win by about a tyres width was Cadel Evans. Considering the length and the quality of his career I was slightly surprised to find that this was the first ever stage win in the Tour de France. Climbing out of his skin and into sixth place, in the same time as the winner was the MIghty Thor, holding on to his yellow jersey for another day.
Stage 5 took us from Carhaix to Cap Fréhel we were still in Brittany, narrow winding roads cross winds and lots of opportunities to crash. The stage was sort of sprinters stage, but the finish was again uphill, not as long and steep as yesterday, but steep enough to make it difficult for the flat-earth sprinters. Mark Cavendish decided to prove the organisers wrong. I’m not sure where he popped up from, but in the midst of a bunch of uphill sprinters like Phillipe Gilbert and Edvald Boassen-Hagen “Cav” popped up to take the stage.
Stage 6 took us from Dinan (in Brittany) – Lisieux (in Normandy). It was another uphill finish. Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar must be wondering exactly what they have done to upset the organisers of the Tour de France.
The stage was notable because it was the first stage won by a British team for 43 years, not as long as the wait to win Wimbledon or the World Cup, but up their with them. A slight pity then that the winner was a Norwegian riding for Team Sky. Edvald Boassen-Hagen was perfectly set up for the stage by Geraint Thomas and took the win well. Oh the other Norwegian on the tour took third on the stage and kept the maillot jaune for another day.
Stage 7 ran from Le Mans to Châteauroux . Chateauroux was the scene of Mark Cavendish’s first ever stage win in the Tour de France, so would anyone like to guess what happened. Correct, HTC with all nine riders on the front gave Cavendish the perfect lead out, dropping him off with about 200m to go and he finished the job. It was probably made slightly easier because a crash delayed Tyler Farrar, the only other sprinter in the same league as “Cav”, wasn’t around to contest the sprint.
Thor Hushvod finished 7th and kept the lead for yet another day
Other news from a British perspective was that Bradley Wiggins had to abandon, following a chute which left him with a broken collar-bone. This was a big disappointment as was in excellent form. I don’t think he would have won the race, but he would have challenged for a place on the final podium.
Stage 8 from Aigurande to Super-Besse Sancy was supposed to be the stage when the favourites showed their hand for the first time, and it was definitely the stage that would finally see Thor Hushvod relieved of the Maillot Jaune. The Moyen Montagne of the Massif Centrale was supposed to be too much for him, the first Category 2 climb of the tour and then the climb up to Super Besse should surely see him out the back.
Yet again this didn’t happen. The favourites were understandably a bit reluctant to blow their brains out for gains that would be insignificant when the real mountains arrive in the middle of the week. and Hushvod well supported by his team, finished comfortably with the leaders yet again.
A crash strewn Stage 9 from Issoire to Saint-Flour was the day that Garmin-Cérvelo and The Mighty Thor ran out of luck. A massive pile up on the descent from the Puy Mary saw Alexandre Vinokourov, Jurgen Van den Broeck, his team-mate Fredrik Willems and Garmin-Cervélo’s Dave Zabriskie all forced to abandon. Later on to wards the end of the stage a piece of what at best could be described as thoughtless driving by a French television car took out two of the riders, Juan-Antonio Flecha and Johnny Hoogerland, in the winning break. Flecha seemed to get away comparatively minor with cuts and bruises, but Hoogerland was pitched into a barbed wire fence.
Garmin’s original tactics had been to put David Millar into the break which everyone knew would include Thomas Voekler. This would have had two effects. First it would have put the onus on the other teams to chase and secondly as Millar was only 8 seconds off the lead himself, it would have discouraged Voekler as Millar would have inherited the Yellow Jersey if the break had made it to the finish. Unfortunately Millar had a minor fall and was still being patched up behind the peleton when Luis Leon Sánchez (who won the stage), Voeckler, Sandy Casar, Hoogerland, and Flecha took off.
The crash on the Puy Mary caused the peleton to declare a temporary truce to allow the riders caucht behind the crash to get back on, and by the time the truce was declared over the break’s lead had gone out from a manageable three minutes to round about ten. In addition Thor’s man for pulling back the breaks, Dave Zabriskie, was in an ambulance with a broken wrist. So after a full week on Thor’s shoulders the Maillot Jaune passed to Thomas Voeckler. The last time he held the jersey was in 2004 he kept it for ten days. His dogged determination to keep it turned him into the most popular rider in France. I doubt he will hold it for that long this time, but he should keep hold of it until The Pyrenees.
The first nine days have already shaped the Tour quite a bit. Two riders(Bradley Wiggins and Jurgen Van den Broeck) who had legitimate aspirations of standing on the podium in Paris are out. Alexandre Vinokourov a rider who does shake things up with his attacks is also out. Other contenders such as Andreas Kloeden, and Alberto Contador have been involved in crashes, Contador more than once. The problem with this is that even though the damage is limited to a bit of road rash, every time you come off it takes a little more out of you. The Schlecks and Cadel Evans have both escaped so far.
In my opinion the two main stories so far have been Thor Hushvod’s defence of the Maillot Jaune and Phillipe Gilbert’s attempts to win the Green Jersey and stages. The Green Jersey competition looks like a three-way fight between him, Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas. Cavendish is the best sprinter, Gilbert can pick up points on more hilly stages, but probably not in the high mountains, Rojas can do a bit of both, but isn’t as good as Gilbert in the hills and isn’t as fast as Cav in the sprints. Thor Hushvod shouldn’t be ruled out either. If you asked me to place a bet my money would be on Cavendish, but I would want decent odds.
As regards the General Classification, from what I have seen so far, my judgement is that Contador is not at 100%, Andy Shleck hasn’t tried anything so far but has covered any moves without apparently breaking sweat. Cadel Evans looks close to his best form, has been aggressive, without wasting too much energy, and generally looks up for it.
My men for the podium in Paris (barring accidents or illness) are those three, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if someone like Nicholas Roche or Tom Danielson sneaks onto the bottom step.