Thursday 7 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 6 Debrief

If it's not smashes it's grotty weather so far this year - and it was so grotty today with near-constant rain that it's a wonder there weren't more crashes in the slippery conditions. In fact, Levi Leipheimer was the only accident we saw, his tyres losing grip on of those hideously slippery white lines and causing him to go into a slide which, once he hit tarmac, looked a lot nastier than it was. He looked a little achy as he got back onboard, but it's nothing the masseurs won't be able to sort out. Contador had another rough day - he had problems twice and needed to change bikes each time. It's really turning out to be a bit of a bad Tour for Bertie, but at least he didn't crash twice like he did yesterday. He made a brave attempt to attack near the end but couldn't do what was required.

Race commentators wondered if Lady Luck has deserted Contador this year, but as @craiglewis85 pointed out on Twitter, he's still pulling in 4 million euros a year. 
The stage, it must be said, didn't really turn out as expected. The general opinion was that the riders would form themselves into echelons and pretty much stick that way to combat the strong crosswinds that so often blow in from the North Atlantic and English Channel, but when it got down to it the wind was coming from the south west and moving at no more than around 20kmph. In other words, a pretty useful tailwind that helped them to tack along like landyachts at some respectable average speeds and played a part in powering the breakaway which - as we predicted - formed early on and then - the opposite of what we predicted - kept on building and building its advantage over Category 3 Côte de Saint-Michel de Montjoie, right where we reckoned they'be caught and shoved back where they belong. In actual fact, the five participants - Lieuwe Westra, Leonardo Duque, Johnny Hoogerland, Adriano Malori and Anthony Roux kept plugging away and got their advantage up to a little over 11 minutes at one point, far and away the most successful breakaway of the 2011 Tour so far. Hoogerland was first over, collecting the two points, with Roux just behind.

The peloton worked it on the downward slope, reducing the gap considerably which had us - and a good few other Twitterers - predicting that the breakaway would be caught before the intermediate sprint. After all, with Cavendish bolstered up by his stage win yesterday, anyone would have thought he'd fancy twenty juicy points, right? And we all, even those who were doubting his form this year, know that he's still got the ability to do it. Yet that also was not to be and the leaders took the best on offer, leaving Cav to go through in sixth place (leading the bunch, needless to say) for another 10 points. The breakaway kept going.

"190 cyclists stop for a 'natural break'. Quality daytime tv." (@dennisgbuckley, Twitter)

The weather did start to look up for a while shortly after the sprint and the pace picked up correspondingly: cycling in heavy rain - especially with the best part of two hundred either cyclists spraying water and filth all over you - is no fun at all and can even make the professionals plod along, heads down and trying to forget where they are until it's all over and the gap closed accordingly. However, the lead group was still ahead at the second climb and this time Roux and Hoogerland swapped places, Roux cresting it first.

Expect some quality stuff in the write-ups of today's stage - it may not have the natural grandeur of the Alps and Pyrenees, but this part of France has some of the nation's most beautiful features.
Jose Joaquin Rojas and Thor Hushovd developed mechanical problems in close succession, possibly caused by the wet weather which can rapidly wash lubricant from the chain and coat moving parts in a nasty mixture of filth and grit which causes no end of problems. The team cars were with them within an instant to sort things about and neither lost significant time.

The final climb, another Category 3, was soon within sight. The wind had picked up by now, splitting the peloton. The faster of the two groups succeeded in chasing down Duque, Roux and Hoogerland, but Malori and Westra were still out there and showed no signs of slowing - with 33km to go, they were still over two minutes ahead. The last climb really took its toll with a number of riders dropping back from the peloton, forming a trailing group ten riders strong 2'40" behind the bunch. Malori and Westra's lead dropped to 1'10" and it finally became clear that, despite earlier promise, they were not going to be able to drag it out all the way Then, incredibly, Malori attacked! Where he found the necessary reserve of energy is likely a mystery even unto him, but it was enough to start increasing the gap. Westra, realising that he was in the presence of either a superman or a madman, decided that now was the time to throw in the towel and he dropped back to join the pack.

"There's nothing quite like the exquisite misery of a 200+km bike race in the cold, driving rain. Sleep will come easy tonight." (@placemoregear, Twitter)

Even he couldn't keep going forever, though, and by the 12km it looked like he had just seconds left - but, somehow, he was still going with 6km to go despite the wet and technical roads requiring speed to be cut back. Back in the pack, Omega-Pharma Lotto had taken on lead duty. HTC didn't seem too bothered, even though by this time they're usually dominating the frontline and preparing to send Cavendish into battle. The last 3km included a climb of 88m, which made the final sprint difficult and exhausting, a battle for the strongest riders - in other words, very much the sort of place where yellow jersey Thor Hushovd might do well and it looked as though he would do as he muscled his way through. But other riders had plans - suddenly, Geraint Thomas appeared among the the contenders. The Welshman is a brilliant rider, but would he have the strength to defeat the God of Thunder?

Edvald Boasson Hagen took Team Sky's first stage win after a cunning plan
formulated with Geraint Thomas came to fruition.
Well, possibly not. It doesn't matter, because brains triumphs over brawn - just as the line approached Geraint cut the power and from within the slipstream emerged team mate Edvald Boasson Hagen for an explosive sprint across the line, thus scoring Team Sky's first stage win of the Tour. Now - can they win any more? With Thomas, Wiggins and Swift onboard, there's every chance they can.

Almost unbelievably, Malori was
Lanterne Rouge in 2010.
Stage 6 Results

1. HAGEN Edvald Boasson 5h 13' 37"  
2. GOSS Matthew Harley
4. FEILLU Romain
5. ROJAS Jose Joaquin
6. VICHOT Arthur
7. GILBERT Philippe
8. CIOLEK Gerald
9. MARCATO Marco
10. JEANNESSON Arnold (all received same time)

Overall General Classification:

1. HUSHOVD Thor              22h 50' 34"  
2. EVANS Cadel         + 00' 01"
3. SCHLECK Frank         + 00' 04"
4. MILLAR David         + 00' 08"
5. KLÖDEN Andréas           + 00' 10"
6. WIGGINS Bradley         + 00' 10"
7. THOMAS Geraint         + 00' 12"
8. HAGEN Edvald Boasson  + 00' 12"
9. FUGLSANG Jakob         + 00' 12"
10. SCHLECK Andy         + 00' 12"

Green jersey: Philippe Gilbert; Polka dot jersey: Johnny Hoogerland; Youth: Geraint Thomas; Team: Garmin-Cervelo; Combativity: tbc - but we can probably assume it's going to be Adriano Malori with a high degree of certainty,.

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