Thursday, 14 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 12 Debrief

"I just wanted to get stuck in, I just gave it everything to try to stay away." (Geraint Thomas)
Is Frank going to beat Andy to
a Tour de France win?
When we suggested earlier today that Stage 12 was going to be an entirely different sort of race, we were more right than we could even have hoped to be. In fact, it was so different that it wasn't just different to the earlier stages, it was completely different to the stage we expected. We were most certainly not the only ones to expect Andy Schleck and the LeopardTrek boys to emerge out of the peloton and dominate the moment the parcours turned pointy - and to be fair, they did for a while and Schleck rode extremely well, putting the wind up quite a few. Thing is, they tried to dominate too early and after an admittedly very impressive show of strength fell back, unable to keep up with their own style.

Oh, and the Schleck who rode well wasn't Andy - it was Frank.

One rider really shone today, defying all expectations after what hasn't been a good start for his team and in the process of doing so revealed himself to be the next top dog on the roster. If you haven't seen the results yet, chances are it's not someone you'd have expected, so all we'll say right now is he won a very well deserved Combativity prize for his efforts.

One other rider, predicted likely to outclass the bunch, had an absolutely dismal day: that man was Alberto Contador, favourite (until recently) for the overall General Classification win. Who knows what's got into Bertie this year? Not that it matters - the one thing we all know is that a lot of people are going to be wondering if it's more a case of what hasn't got into him, now that he's anti-doping control's number one target. For the record, we'll be sticking with him and considering him innocent unless the day comes when he is proven beyond doubt guilty; but, well, makes you fink, dunnit?

Unfortunately Romain Feillu, who has spent so much of the last 11 days wowing the crowds as part of some spectacular breakaways, is no longer with the race after being forced to abandon overnight due to the tendinitis from which he's been suffering for some time. However, anyone who has experienced this ailment will concede he's done brilliantly well to have kept going for as long as he has, never mind lead the race so often as he has.
Romain Feillu abandoned overnight.
Monsieur Prudhomme waved his flag to signal the end of the rolling neutral zone and the race got underway at 11:19 and within two kilometres Ruben Moreno, Laurent Mangel, Blel Kadri, Jose Ivan Gutierrez, Jeremy Roy and Geraint Thomas were testing the pack to see if there was any chance of escaping the peloton. Having decided they fancied their chances, they went for it and had an advantage of 20" by the time another two klicks were up. This is the sort of breakaway that can get the peloton worried because Thomas, despite having never won a stage in the Tour, is an outside contender for General Classification success, especially now he doesn't have to support team leader Bradley Wiggins who crashed out back in Stage 7 and even more so when they need to conserve energy for upcoming mountains. With today's mountains including the mighty Col du Tourmalet, the main pack decided energy saving was the best option and the escapees were left to get on with it - after all, there was a high probability that those same mountains would defeat them.

Thomas: brilliant now, stupendous
next year.
By 11.5km as the leaders reached Saint-Clar-de-Rivière, they were 2'35" out in front and still going strong, managing to build it up to a full four minutes shortly after entering the department of Gers. The peloton were ambling along quite happily, content to take this flatter first section easy at 35kmph. Had the race have stopped at this point, the G-Man would have taken the yellow jersey - which makes him far and away the best male Welsh Tour rider in history (we've italicised "male" because Swansea-born Nicole Cooke won two Tours de France Féminin).

This breakaway was beginning to look a bit too much like a successful one, meaning that the peloton's worries became outright anxiety. With the escapees fast approaching Castéra-Vignoles 7' minutes ahead, yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler was heard informing his team's directeur-sportif Dominique Arnould that he didn't want the gap to get any greater than 8'. Yet by the time they'd passed Nizan-Gesse they'd added another half-minute and the same again at Boudrac, which would normally result in a chase. However, Arnould advised patience, stating that in his opinion a gap of as much as 10' wouldn't be an issue. Calmness prevailed and the peloton cruised into the feeding station at Lannemezan 8'30" after the escapees had been through.

Their advantage meant that the lead group were unchallenged by the big-hitters when they reached Sarrancolin and the intermediate sprint, but they didn't hand about on the way and added another 30". Laurent Mangel of Saur-Sojasun was the first through for 20 points. 2. Jeremy Roy (FDJ) 17pts; 3. Blel Kadri (ALM) 15pts; 4. Ruben Perez Moreno (EUS) 13pts; 5. Jose Ivan Gutirrez (MOV) 11pts; 6 Geraint Thomas (SKY) 10pts.

Cav wants points, Cav gets
points. Such is the Natural
Order of Things.
Back in the pack, a certain Manxman was seen to be nonchalently making his forward. Cavendish, as we all know, is probably the best sprinter in professional cycling but with the remainder of the Tour being for the most part mountain stages - which, to be honest, he's pretty dreadful at -  he'll be wanting to grab what he can in the intermediate sprints from now on. Which means he was the first of the peloton to get through, of course, because when Cav wants to win a sprint he almost invariably does. 8. Mark Renshaw (THR) 8pts; 9. Jose Joaquin Rojas (MOV) 7pts; 10. Matt Goss (THR) 6pts; 11. Francisco Ventoso (MOV) 5pts; 12. Borut Bozic (VCD) 4pts; 13. Philippe Gilbert (OLO) 3pts; 14. Mikael Delage (FDJ) 2pts; 15. Bernhard Eisel (THR) 1pt.

The peloton's speed as it tackled the sprint took a big chunk out of the lead group's advantage, reducing it to 5'50" as they became the first Tour de France riders to set out up the slopes of Hourquette d'Ancizan, making its debut in this year's race. It soon claimed its first victim when Katusha's 24-year-old Denis Galimzyanov found himself unable to match the pace, dropping off the back and laying the foundations for the grupetto that was sure to come just as QuickStep's Sylvain and Vacansoleil's Johnny Hoogerland - still swathed in bandages to protect his 33 stitches - attacked the peloton. Astana's Roman Kreuziger went after them a little later, but the only reaction the peloton made was spitting Cavendish, Bak, Eisel and a few others out the back into the grupetto.

The race leaders reached the top with Mangel taking the top allocation of ten points, in accordance with the new Cat 1 climb rules which state that the first rider takes 10 points, the second 8pts, third 6pts, fourth 4pts,  fifth 2pts and sixth 1pt. As was the case with the new intermediate sprint rules, it's not yet entirely clear why the rules had to be changed but even those of us who remained dismissive of the sprint changes will have to admit that it turns out the old UCI knew what they were about after all; so let's hold on for a moment before we accuse them of fixing something that ain't broke - because if something ain't broke, there's no harm in taking it apart and making it go faster.

Another disaster, in a Tour riddled with disasters, very nearly got the better of Thomas shortly after he crested the top of the mountain - rounding a switchback in front of a fan waving the Welsh flag, he suddenly veered off the road and through a gap between a car and a quad bike coming to a stop on the grassy verge, 20cm from a steep slope which while unlikely to be lethal could very easily have sent him the way of Wiggins. Early explanations suggested he'd seen the flag and lost concentration, but following the race the G-Man said that he thought there may have been something on the road surface. We suspect that, if someone were to have a close look, they might find a few spots of diesel - the several rather ropy-looking old campervans arranged about the bend being likely culprits. This theory is apparently strengthened by the fact that not only did Thomas nearly do the same thing again seconds later, suggesting either another patch or contaminated tyre/brake pad rubber, but another crash involving other riders happened in precisely the same place once the peloton showed up.

Now, LeopardTrek moved up to the front of the peloton. Andy Schleck, known as one of the nicest men in the sport, has earned himself an army of fans in the last couple of years and many believe that 2011 is going to be his year - this seemed likely to be the moment that he would begin winning. As they started on the long, hard climb up Tourmalet they looked almost impossibly good, pulling like a train - even Fabian Cancellara, though he was back in the autobus rather than with his team, looked reasonably comfortable considering he's Cancellara and this was Tourmalet. Europcar were unceremoniously outclassed as LeopardTrek took full control, dominating the front of the main group. Meanwhile, out at the front, Kreuziger finally managed to catch and drop Sylvain Chavanel.

Andy Schleck: arsing about, on
bad form or playing a very long
and intricate mind game?
Out at the front, something quite remarkable had happened: the pursuit specialist Geraint Thomas was leading the breakaway. What's more, he was looking perfectly comfortable while doing so, still pulling strongly and showing no signs of stopping. Kreuziger was dropping rider after rider - Gutierrez was the first go, then Mangel and before long the Welshman was out on his own as he passed through La Mongie, two thirds of the way to the top. Could be keep going?

Andy Schleck remained calm and collected as a team mechanic changed his front wheel. Andy is Andy, so laid-back it's a wonder his blonde hair doesn't get tangled in his rear derailleur, but I'm not convinced even Gandhi would have stayed so calm if forced to wait during such a career-defining moment. Is it possible that he didn't want to win the stage? If not, we can only guess at what the hell he's playing at but as we've said before he's a clever rider and we're not convinced that a little bit of his famous niceness isn't used to hide a very sharp and ruthless understanding of psychology. Only a fool would write him off just yet.

There are two cute, cuddly creatures which thrive at altitude in the Pyrenees. One of them is the Schleck, the other is the Marmot. There's also a fierce predator that savagely hunts down its prey up there - it's called a Contador. Some people think Contador isn't as dangerous as he once was, but the Saxobank riders know better and sent out Jesus Hernandez to up the tempo in an effort to increase the pressure. Was El Pistolero about to come out with all guns firing?

Further up the mountain, Thomas had finally dropped behind Roy who took the 20 points for being the first to conquer the mountain. The Welshman had failed, but was awarded the Combativity award for his efforts - which ought to keep him happy for the time being, especially since by this time next year he'll be a race-hardened 26-year-old. We will never know if Britain had a Tour winner in Wiggins this year, but it looks very much as though the next one is already primed and in the chamber. By the time they reached the last climb, another Hors-Categorie ordeal provided this time by Luz-Ardiden, they were still over 3' ahead of the pack.

Prior to the start, Euskaltel-Euskadi's Sammy Sanchez had left no doubts that he wanted the stage. He may have been born in Asturias, far to the west of the Basque country, but he's long been an adopted son of the tiny mountain nation and the Haute-Pyrenees are his training ground so it was no surprise when he broke out of the peloton and surged ahead for a 13" lead - but with 13km of hard slog still to go, had be moved too soon? But he's wiser than that - reaching a group including his team-mate Ruben Moreno some 20" ahead, he rode with them, thus placing himself in an ideal position for future attacks. Back down the road, it had become obvious that Frank and Andy had driven their team too hard: their LeopardTrek comrades had given all they could and fallen back, leaving the brothers riding alone.

Sanchez had now joined forces with Omega-Pharma's Jelle Vanendert, himself a highly-respected climber, and the two were united in hot pursuit of Thomas and Roy who were fighting to keep a lead of around a minute on them with 10km to go. They soon caught them, and Roy gave up the fight. It wasn't long for Thomas, either, and the pair fell back to the chase group lead by yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler. With 5km to go, they were over a minute ahead and the strain was showing, but the honourary Basque wasn't running on empty yet. Standing up, he pushed himself even harder and attacked Vanendert.

In the peloton, more proof that Andy has a dark side: he was playing his favourite game, Trying To Rile Up Contador. We've all seen him at it - he did it all the way through the Pyrenees and the Alps last year, waiting until his old rival is starting to suffer and then riding up behind him with a big friendly grin on his face. Now he'd stomped on the pedals for a bit of a jump forward, forcing Contador to do the same. But poor Bertie's outnumbered this year because Frank is in the best form of his life, so he had to respond again when the older brother did it too before shooting off to attack the race leaders and leaving the pair of them behind. Others  gave chase, but he crossed the line just behind Sanchez and Vanendert alone, taking a very impressive third place.

Sammy Sanchez
One thing is as clear as the alpine lakes that the peloton will be passing in a few days' time in this stage: Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador are obsessed with one another. Every second of every race is spent examining one another, probing the other rider's form for cracks and testing strengths. It is enormously entertaining to watch, but Andy's ever going to win this damn race he needs to move on: last year, Contador was the only thing that stood in Andy's way - but now, Contador's reign may be over; he just no longer has what he used to have, actually losing time in this stage where he was once unbeatable.

What Andy needs to do now is forget his old enemy. It's time to concentrate on the mountains, time to turn his attention to winning stages.

Stage 12 Results:

1. SANCHEZ Samuel 6h 01' 15"  
2. VANENDERT Jelle + 00' 07"
3. SCHLECK Frank + 00' 10"
4. BASSO Ivan + 00' 30"
5. EVANS Cadel + 00' 30"
6. SCHLECK Andy + 00' 30"
7. CUNEGO Damiano 161 + 00' 35"
8. CONTADOR Alberto + 00' 43"
9. VOECKLER Thomas + 00' 50"
10. ROLLAND Pierre + 00' 50"

Overall General Classification results following Stage 12:

1. VOECKLER Thomas 51h 54' 44"  
2. SCHLECK Frank + 01' 49"
3. EVANS Cadel + 02' 06"
4. SCHLECK Andy + 02' 17"
5. BASSO Ivan + 03' 16"
6. CUNEGO Damiano + 03' 22"
7. CONTADOR Alberto + 04' 00"
8. SANCHEZ Samuel + 04' 11"
9. DANIELSON Tom + 04' 35"
10. ROCHE Nicolas + 04' 57"

Points: Marl Cavendish (260); Mountains: Sammy Sanchez (40); Youth: Arnold Jeanesson (52h00'34"); Team: LeopardTrek (155h09'18"); Combativity: Geraint Thomas.

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