Tuesday 19 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 16 Debrief - nice day for ducks, nasty day for Schlecks

Stage 16 began under a dark cloud even though it was unexpectedly warm and sunny at Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux this morning with the sad news that Patrick Guay, a 59-year-old subcontractor working for the Tour, had been found dead. Original reports suggesting that his body had been recovered from a river proved unfounded when the ASO issued a press release stating that he had been found next to his car. Mr. Guay was the uncle of Quick Step rider Jerome Pineau who wore black bands on his arms during the stage as a sign of mourning. Guay was himself a professional cyclist during the 1970s; coming 3rd in Stage 5 of the 1976 Tour de l'Avenir. This was his 27th time working at the race and, for what little it's worth, our sympathy is with his family and friends.

Good to see David Millar riding out at
the front today.
Despite the forecasts of atrocious weather and hazardous conditions throughout the entire parcours the early sections of the race turned out to be pleasant with a decent tailwind to keep the peloton ticking over nicely, making it impossible for a breakaway group to form until later on in the day. The racing began at 13:13 and a Vacansoleil rider mounted an attack immediately but was pulled back in almost immediately.

The peloton remained intact at the 15km point when a gang of four managed to build a brief gap, but with the mighty HTC-Highroad team in the driving seat it was cursed the moment it got going and they were also caught by 16km. Somebody from Sky tried his luck a short while later but had even less success. Another gang, this time numbering eight riders tried again after around 30 minutes of racing, achieving a lead of about 50m at one point, but with the peloton still cruising like fast yachts on the tailwind their fifteen minutes of fame was cut down to just two minutes.

An assortment of others tested the waters, but nothing happened until eventually a group including Juan Antonio Flecha, David Millar, Sylvain Chavenel and others got to work and finally got out in front. They were joined for short while by Confidis' Leonardo Duque who, without obvious cause, signaled for the medics' car - however, he was soon on his way (albeit no longer as part of the breakaway) so it appears whatever problem he was having turned out to be minor.

Lieuwe Westra and then Ryder Hesjedal and Jerome Roy began to counter-attack, encouraging a fifteen man counter-counter-attack to form. Eleven of them, including Johnny Hoogerland caught him and stayed in front of the peloton as the feeding station approached. By now, conditions had worsened and rain was falling, making it reportedly impossible for some riders to release their handlebars and grab the musettes. Rumours began to circulate that race officials were considering abandoning the final loop up and around the Col de Manse with its notoriously difficult descent, but these were rapidly quashed.

Edvald Boasson Hagen took
second place.
By now, as the 91km mark came round, the lead group contained 14 riders including the two Norwegians Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen riding with a gap of just 13", but numbers soon dropped to 10 as various chancers discovered they were unable to match the pace and effort of keeping ahead of a peloton which had recorded an average speed of 46.4kmph during the second hour of the race.

By now the weather was very wet indeed, reducing visibility and soaking the riders. Temperatures had also dropped sharply to 11 degrees C which, combined with the wet, is easily cold enough to leave riders uncomfortable, demoralised and in pain as muscles begin to seize up.
"shit weather,shit summer,shit morale, shit pain " (@andy_kloedi, Twitter)
Once again, various counter-attackers sought to reel them back into the pack, but none could do so and the gap had soon been increased to over two minutes, allowing them an easy passage through the intermediate sprint - which neither they nor the peloton bothered to contest. Quick Step's Dries Devenyns cruised through with nobody even bothered to contest it - as was the case when the peloton rumbled through - and took the 20 points shortly before Mikhail Ignatyev decided he'd had more than enough of that boring lot and decided to attack, getting himself out in front. 2. Jeremy Roy, 17pts; 3. Tony Martin 15pts; 4. Thor Hushovd 13pts; 5. Rider Hesjedal 11pts; 6. Andriy Grivko 10pts; 7. Marco Marcato 9pts; 8. Mikhail Ignatyev 8pts; 9. Alan Perez Lezaun 7pts; 10. Edvald Boasson Hagen 6pts; 11. Fabrice Jeandesboz 5pts; 12. Samuel Dumoulin 4pts; 13. Bauke Mollema 3pts; 14. Blel Kadri 2pts 15. Sebastien Minard 1pt.

Out on the frontline, Hushovd went to work on Ignatyev and after a fight managed to drag him partially back by the time they passed the 20km to go point before he returned to the group and Devenyns and Perez Lezaun took over pursuit duties, but he managed to increase his advantage to 22" and Andriy Grivko was dropped and began the journey back to the peloton. Hushovd was soon back on the case, this time accompanied by Hesjedal, and they got him down to just 8" on the slopes of the Col de Manse; eventually catching and dropping him with 16km to go.

Mikhail Ignatyev earned the Combativity award.
Then, back in the peloton, something that many people had given up all hope of seeing every again: a classic Contador attack. El Pistolero showed precisely why he should never be underestimated when he stood up on the pedals and surged ahead for all the world as though there was no gradient at all. Andy Schleck responded, closely followed by brother Frank, soon to be joined by Cadel Evans, Thomas Voeckler and - of all people - Fabian Cancellara who seems recently to have developed the ability to climb, a skill virtually unheard of among time trial specialists.

It appears that Saxobank have been studying Andy very carefully indeed, and they might just have worked out how to defeat him. Contador's team mate Danial Navarro attacked the chasing group, pressuring the two Luxembourgers to put in more effort and then, when Contador attacked again, the Schlecks cracked - neither was able to respond, leaving Cadel Evans to go after and catch him. This was a bigger surprise than the early fine weather and Contador's tactics combined and all of Europe rang with a clicking noise as hundreds of thousands of book-keepers grabbed their calculators and worked out new odds. It seems that the king is not dead after all, but the next-in-line isn't looking too perky.

Up the hill, Samuel Sanchez had joined forces with Evans and Contador after stating that if it came down to it he would offer support to his countryman. Meanwhile, Hushovd and Boasson Hagen were trailing 10" behind Hesjedal out at the front and Martin and Ignatyev were 30" behind them. As the summit passed and the trio began the long and perilous descent, Boasson Hagen took the lead for a while. This section had been predicted to be lethal with a high risk of leaves and mud on sharp bends to add to the dangers of road surfaces already made hazardous by mud. Immediately over the top it looked to be dry, but this turned out to be a small patch that had somehow escaped the rain falling since early morning in the area and conditions turned dangerous very soon.

Evans couldn't catch Contador on the way up - though he remained close - but he got the better of him on the way back down, out-braving the Spaniard around the bends and keeping his speed just that little bit higher. This, however, was all mind games as the pair engaged in a bit of psychological combat, because far ahead the Norwegian/Canadian trio were within 3.5 km of the finish line. There was no doubt now that one of them would be winning the stage, but as of yet no way to tell which. Into the final kilometre, Hesjedal was in the lead with Boasson Hagen right behind him and Hushovd on his rear wheel, so it all came down to a final mini-sprint.

Thor Hushovd, now with Garmin-Cervelo, won his second
stage if the Tour.
Boasson Hagen, proving why he's one of the most respected youth category riders in cycling, was too fast for Hesjedal, beating him across the finish line by 2"; but he wasn't quite fast enough for Hushovd who just pipped him to the post for his second stage win of the Tour as several other riders were still picking their way down into Gap on the descent. Thankfully, only one crash took place - FDJ's Arnold Jeannesson lost his grip at almost the exact same place that Joseba Beloki did back in 2003, though today it certainly was caused by tarmac melting in the sun, this also being one of the exact spots that we predicted a crash was most likely to happen in the Stage 13 Preview, so bow down before us. Oh, and we also predicted Thor as a possible winner too, but we later decided Chavenel was a more likely candidate so we can't really claim success with that one.
"That was great. Good fun that stage. Few more stages like that and we will be in Paris in no time." (Ben Swift, @swiftybswift, Twitter)
The big question today is: what the hell happened to the Schlecks? Can today be seen as proof that Andy's disappointing performance thus far this year has not been down to poor timing, psychological games or plain old sand-bagging and that he's actually just on bad form this year? Ardent Schleckies that we are, we have to confess we're seriously beginning to wonder and no longer believe he can win this Tour. Sorry, Andy.

Frank Schleck revealed his
natural grace today.
We haven't forgotten that highly impressive turn of speed he found as he approached the top of Plateau de Beille and we still think that had he accelerated a little earlier he could have won that stage. Climbers famously suffer more in bad conditions due to their virtually non-existent body fat and both Schlecks will certainly have suffered today as a result. That means there's still just a tiny chance that they'll do well in the real Alps still to come. As Frank said: "Bjarne [Rijs] is behind this. He knows we don't like the bad weather and the descent. Congratulations to them, it's a nice one."

The only trouble is, it's predicted to be 6 degrees C at Sestrieres tomorrow, the Category 1 climb where Andy was expected to do well. Worse still, it snowed today on Galibier and the temperature there is unlikely to climb any higher than 4 degrees for the rest of the week. Like we said - sorry, Andy. Maybe next year.

That Andy is angry would indeed seem to be the case as he uncharacteristically laid into Tour organisers and made his thoughts on the latter part of the stage very clear soon after it was over, though being Andy he kept his language considerably more polite than almost anyone else would have done in his situation: "People don't want a race that is decided in a downhill. We don't want crashes or thoughtless risks," he told reporters. "We have families waiting for us at home. Do the public want a fair race or a race which ends in hospital?"

It has to be said that Andy probably has a point - last week we said we would not support any measure aimed at slowing cycling down, the ASO and UCI obviously have a duty not to endanger riders' health and lives. The descent from Col de Manse is infamous and widely considered one of the Tour's most dangerous and it's arguable that with the treacherous conditions already expected this morning the final loop should have been cancelled.

Anyway; no injuries in those conditions = everyone wins.
"Time lost. Hope remains. Three days in the Alps ahead." (@leopardtrek, Twitter)
"Cool we got a telephone in the room tonight! Think this room is more up to date that last 2 nights!"(a not-that-concerned-about-today @jakob_fuglsang of Team LeopardTrek, Twitter)
Stage 16 Results:

1. HUSHOVD Thor 3h 31' 38"  
2. HAGEN Edvald Boasson + 00' 00"
3. HESJEDAL Ryder + 00' 02"
4. MARTIN Tony + 00' 38"
5. IGNATYEV Mikhail + 00' 52"
6. PEREZ LEZAUN Alan + 01' 25"
7. ROY Jérémy + 01' 25"
8. MARCATO Marco + 01' 55"
9. DEVENYNS Dries + 01' 55"
10. GRIVKO Andriy + 01' 58"

Overall General Classification results following Stage 7:

1. VOECKLER Thomas 69h 00' 56"  
2. EVANS Cadel + 01' 45"
3. SCHLECK Frank + 01' 49"
4. SCHLECK Andy + 03' 03"
5. SANCHEZ Samuel + 03' 26"
6. CONTADOR Alberto + 03' 42"
7. BASSO Ivan + 03' 49"
8. CUNEGO Damiano + 04' 01"
9. DANIELSON Tom + 06' 04"
10. URAN Rigoberto + 07' 55"

Points: Mark Cavendish; Climber: Jelle Vanendert; Youth: Rigoberto Uran; Team: Garmin-Cervelo; Combativity: Mikhail Ignatyev.

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