Le Tour is now into its last week and as the riders take their second rest day I will take the chance to recap on the happenings since the last rest day and to update my predictions.
Stage ten took us from Aurillac to Carmaux was a typical transition stage through the Massif Central up and down all day with a scattering of third and fourth category climbs to keep riders who fancied wearing le maillot à pois for a day interested. The stage should have been one for a breakaway, but in the end it came down to a bunch sprint. The big surprise of the day was not that Thomas Voeckler kept the yellow, but that Mark Cavendish was beaten in a bunch sprint.
Philippe Gilbert found himself in a win/win situation. He attacked on the short but brutal final climb.He knew that if he got a gap he had a reasonable chance of winning the stage and even if HTC brought him back it would seriously mess up Cavendish’s lead out train. HTC did bring him back, but the result was Cavendish being left to his own devices in the last 500m. Cavendish said he made a mistake and didn’t go hard enough when went for the line. Possibly that was the case, but André Greipel (who left HTC to get out of Cavendish’s shadow) managed to pass him to record his first ever Tour de France stage win.
Stage 11 was from Blaye-les-Mines to Lavaur, another transition stage taking Le Tour to the foothills of the Pyrenees. There was a bit of climbing, a Cat.3 climb about 30 km from the start and a Cat.4 about 30 km from the finish. The parcours was a bit up and down but the last 30 kilometres were down hill or flat. I was probably the last stage before Paris that had bunch sprint written all over it and Mark Cavendish had a rare defeat to avenge. Actually to give “Cav” his due he was generous in his praise for the way Griepel took the stage. That wasn’t going to stop him trying to win this one though.
There were no late attacks to-day and his team gave him a textbook lead out and Cavendish finished it off in his normal style. Thomas Voeckler hep the Yellow for another day.
Stage 12 took us from Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden and into le haute montange for the fist time. It was a bit of an anti-climax. Geraint Thomas and the inevitable and indomitable Jeremy Roy were the first two riders over the Col du Tourmalet. BY the foot of the Climb to Luz-Ardiden their escape was over. Samuel Sánchez and Jelle Vanendert got away from the group of the overall contenders and worked well to keep their gap. The Olympic Champion Sánchez manage to jump away in the last 500m to take the stage.
Further back down the mountain the group that Phil Ligget refers to as the “heads of state” – the GC contenders seemed content to try mini attacks which went nowhere and were easily covered. Frank Schleck eventually managed to get away, but only managed to put about 20 seconds into the rest of the group. Contador, who had not looked on the top of his game lost an extra 13 seconds. Thomas Voeckler who had done more than just hang on, kept le maillot jaune.
Stage 13 from Pau to Lourdes had the pundits talking inevitably about miracles. I suppose it was a minor miracle that one of the heaviest riders in the race, and sprinter to boot, (although he was always a lot more than just a sprinter) the World Champion Thor Hushovd won a stage that included the hors catégorie climb of the Col d’Aubisque. The summit was too far from the finish to make it worthwhile for the GC riders to waste energy trying to drop each-other. The stage looked like a stage for a breakaway specialist. Step up Jeremy Roy, who must have thought that he had finally cracked winning a stage, he had two-minute at the top of the Aubisque and about 40km downhill all the way to Lourdes. Disappointment, is probably far to mild a word to express what he felt when Hushovd came pst with 3km to go. He got the lead in the King of the Mountains competition as compensation, but I am certain he would have swapped it for the stage win.
Thor Hushovd thoroughly deserved the win. He rode a brilliant tactical race, covered his weakness in climbing, and played to strengths. He showed exactly why he is wearing the rainbow jersey this year. Thomas Voeckler kept yellow (obviously).
Stage 14 from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille was almost a carbon copy of Stage 12 to Luz-Ardiden. British rider in the early break, check. It was David Millar this time and not Geraint Thomas. Thomas Voeckler riding reasonably comfortably in the GC contenders group, check. Samuel Sánchez and Jelle Vanendert getting away from the GC group, check. Though this time it was Vanendert who took the stage. GC contenders making pretend attacks the giving up when some one tried to follow, check. A Schleck charging off in the last kilometre to gain a few seconds, check, though this time it was Andy and not Frank.
Stage 15 from Limoux to Montpellier was a flat transitional stage, taking the riders away from the Pyrenees towards the Alps. Obviously there was an early break, obviously HTC chased the break down and obviously “Cav”, despite some attempts by Sky, Garmin, Lampre and Liquigas to disrupt his lead out train, Mark Renshaw dropped him off at 200m to go. Obviously Mark Cavendish won the stage, taking his total stage victories to nineteen and setting a record of being the only rider to win four road (as opposed to prologue or time-trial) stages every year for four years. Even Eddy Merckx can’t match that.
He also extended his lead in the Points competition.
Rest day thoughts
The Green Jersey looks like it is Mark Cavendish’s to lose. Phillipe Gilbert could pick up points n the next two stages, but he is 70 points back, and won’t beat Cavendish on the Champs Elysees. His biggest danger elimination on time delays in the mountains, especially the stage that finishes at the top of the Col du Galibier.
The situation in the GC is not what I expected after the Pyrenees. I, along with the man himself, thought that Thomas Voekler’s time in yellow would finish at Luz-Ardiden. He has however ridden well and courageously and still has a lead of 1:49 over Frank Schleck and over two minutes to Cadel Evans, and Andy Schleck. Basso is just over 3 minutes back and Contador is 4 minutes off the pace.
I’m not sure if they are all at about the same level and can’t drop each other, or no one is yet willing to take the risk of losing the tour by making a major attack and blowing up, but what I do think is that if the racing in the Alps continues in the same vein as it did in the Pyrenees, the Thomas Voeckler on the top step of the podium next Sunday is a distinct possibility. If either of the Schlecks or Basso wants to win they need to have at least two minutes on Cadel Evans going into the time-trial. Contador would need to be at least level with him. Some one somewhere is going to have to attack and persist, the probably attack again if they want to win this race.
I am beginning to get the feeling that Andy and Frank Schleck don’t want to drop each other and when one attacks he seems to wait for the other, allowing everyone else back in. Liege-Bastoinge-Liege did show that they are not the sharpest knives in the block when it comes to tactics, though even a tactical genius of the calibre of Dimitri Konyshev could not have done anything against Philippe Gilbert that day.
Predictions? Cadel Evans for yellow in Paris, the other two steps I really don’t know. Contador is improving, but need to get four minutes, I think the Schlecks will find a way to lose the race between them. Basso and Samuel Sánchez are both looking good, but I don’t think quite good enough to win. And as I have already said don’t rule out Thomas Voeckler.