Saturday 16 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 14 Debrief

"That was beautiful - I enjoyed every moment." (Frank Schleck)
Well, well, well - you spend a bit of time thinking about your stage predictions and then what happens? Someone nobody would ever have expected appears from the more anonymous depths of the tour bus and wins what could be the hardest climb of the Tour!

It was, of course, the Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille stage and everyone following the event knew we were going to see something special today. The thing is, we all thought that something special was going to come from either Alberto Contador, some Schleck or another, Cadel Evans, Thomas Voeckler or - as an absolute rank outsider wildcard probably no chance in hell contender - Geraint Thomas. What actually happened surprised everyone.

An early breakaway - at one point consisting of 24 riders, which makes it more a satellite peloton than a lead group - defied expectations by holding on to their lead for much longer than was thought possible.

It's been confirmed that the mountain upon which noted
hardcase Jens Voigt crashed is being treated in hospital
for a fractured collarbone.
One thing that did happen as predicted was that Contador's knee suddenly seemed a lot better and Andy Schleck was suddenly on good form again once it became apparent that the troublesome joint had been subject to a miracle. The two rivals sparred their way to the top with Alberto matching every move the Luxembourger made until eventually - as a lot of us thought might happen - Andy got the better of him. It was also noted that Andy learned a valuable lesson in Stage 12, that being his team's limits. He drove them too hard too early on Thursday, a stage he probably could have won with no effect on his performance today, but ended up without support before the hill really got going. Today, LeopardTrek were out of the limelight until the ascent of the Plateau loomed ahead and then moved up to the front of the peloton and took full control. When the right time came, the brothers were ideally placed to make their attack; and they did. Lots of times.

Jens Voigt did an admirable job of piling on the pressure, first as part of the breakaway and later as a single act and ensured the pack was tiring when Andy had plenty more left, despite two crashes in close succession - one bringing him perilously close to plunging down a steep slope. But, being Jens, he picked himself up, checked the tarmac hadn't been too badly cracked and got on with it; only giving way in the last part of the stage when he'd gone well and truly above and beyond the call of duty.

In the end, when everything came down to the simple question of who could be the first to ride up the mountain the fastest, it soon became apparent that there was no simple answer. All the riders with a chance of victory got involved in a highly complex psychology game, a sort of mixture of cat-and-mouse, poker and go as they tried to toy with other riders, show no emotion (Andy's the undisputed grand master at that one) and second, third and fourth guess their opponents. What's more, it turned out that they're all almost perfectly matched, too.

This was all quite entertaining, but the novelty would wear off very soon if every single race ended up as a battle of the wits - cycle racing was always supposed to be primarily about who can ride a bike the fastest without falling off to much, after all. The mind games played in all races and especially the Tour are an interesting little aside, but many fans are longing for the days when what you got at a race was a good old-fashioned duel like the ones that Coppi and Bartali and Hinault and Zoetemelk used to have, a sawdust-on-the-floor bare-knuckles fight involving riders who had no time for psychic warfare but were quick to lock horns, bear grudges and extract revenge.

This is what we want: fighting!
Then, while the top brass were still studying one another for signs of weakness and learning what they could about who was on form and who was not, someone nobody expected decided he was feeling pretty good. So, he thought he may as well have a pop at winning the stage. That man was Jelle Vanendert, a useful enough climber to no doubt be highly valued in Omega-Pharma but by no means a candidate for victory today - or so we thought. Jelle just got down to business and kept going. Euskaltel-Euskadi's Sammy Sanchez saw him and decided he'd had more than enough of the frontline cleverness, so he followed.

And - would you believe it - it turned out that riding a bike faster than anyone else can still win a race: Vanendert crossed the line with such an advantage he was able to take his hands off the bars, sit bolt upright and cruise across with a massive grin on his face. Sanchez wasn't far behind and crossed 21" later. We'll have to wait and see if everyone understood the lesson, but it seems that at least one person did - just as they reached the top of the climb, Andy Schleck abandoned race-winning theory and resorted to brute strength - and it worked for him too! He literally shot out of the group and surged ahead of them, soon building an enormous gap and crossed the line in third place. Other than Evans, who eventually gave chase, nobody could respond - most notably, Contador who took sixth place a good few bike lengths later.

Tomorrow, we're back down in the flatlands again and the climbers will take a back seat - but then it's mountains again for Stages 16, 17, 18 and 19. With a bit of luck, we'll see some riders trying out the Vanendert Method - and that means the racing is going to be a lot more fun from the spectators' point of view.

How did Vanendert win? Easy - he rode
his bike faster than anyone else rode
Last word: It seems to us that Andy Schleck's main problem, other than obsessing about Contador, isn't lack of form or that famous niceness which his father says stops him having the killer instinct that is needed to win - he proved with that stupendous burst of speed that got him into third that he has all the form he needs and the way he deliberately winds up Contador shows he's not as nice as he pretends. It's his timing: every time an apparently-faultless plan goes to pot, as it does so often with him, it's because he timed something wrong - attacking too early, attacking too late, driving his team to hard at too early a point or being at Point A when he should have been at Point B 30 seconds ago.

It's often said - because it's true - that every time the Plateau de Beille has been used in the Tour, the winner of the that stage also won the overall General Classification. That's just chance, it's not a guarantee - and there's still al long way and a lot of climbing before we get to Paris. If Andy, more than anyone else, experiments with trusting his instincts instead of what the spreadsheets suggest, this Tour might still be his - the top contenders may be well-matched, but it looked at the end of the stage that he might just have a very slight edge.

Stage 14 results:

1. VANENDERT Jelle 5h 13' 25"  
2. SANCHEZ Samuel + 00' 21"
3. SCHLECK Andy + 00' 46"
4. EVANS Cadel + 00' 48"
5. URAN Rigoberto 
6. CONTADOR Alberto
7. VOECKLER Thomas
8. SCHLECK Frank
9. PERAUD Jean-Christophe
10. ROLLAND Pierre (4-10 all same time)

Overall General Classification following Stage 14:

1. VOECKLER Thomas 61h 04' 10"  
2. SCHLECK Frank + 01' 49"
3. EVANS Cadel + 02' 06"
4. SCHLECK Andy + 02' 15"
5. BASSO Ivan + 03' 16"
6. SANCHEZ Samuel + 03' 44"
7. CONTADOR Alberto + 04' 00"
8. CUNEGO Damiano + 04' 01"
9. DANIELSON Tom + 05' 46"
10. DE WEERT Kevin + 06' 18"

Points: Mark Cavendish; Climber: Jelle Vanendert; Youth: Rigoberto Uran; Team: LeopardTrek; Combative: Sandy Casar.

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