Friday 8 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 7 Debrief

"No...I didn't know that...oh shit...I'm gutted for him..." (Mark Cavendish, told Bradley Wiggins had abandoned)
So the flattest, least interesting stage of this year's race turned into a disaster. The dreams of Team Sky and every cycling fan in Britain lie in tatters: Bradley Wiggins has crashed out of the Tour de France. The 31-one-year old came to this year's event looking leaner and stronger than he has ever done before, having instantly become a favourite for the podium in Paris when he triumphed in the Critérium du Dauphiné and British National Championships earlier this year.

Bradley Wiggins' 2011 Tour de France is over.
 His popularity in the UK is as near to superstardom as any British cyclist has ever been - he's far short of the sort of exposure given to the likes of Eddy Merckx in Belgium and Bernard Hinault in France, but his successes are included in national TV news broadcasts. Now at an age where the careers of many cyclists begin to wind down, it will be uncertain whether or not he is ever able to regain the level of fitness he had this year.

The Team Sky leader was caught in a pile-up involving a large number of bikes around 40km from the finish line. At first, he looked to be hurt but then stood up, fooling many into thinking he was alright. However, he clutched his arm as though it was broken and his face contorted in agony when medics checked his collarbone, suggesting it too is broken. His jersey ripped and dirty, he was placed on a stretcher, taken to the waiting ambulance and was reportedly in hospital by the time fellow Briton and possible future team-mate Mark Cavendish crossed the sprint finish line in 5th place some 15km up the road. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas, who had waited with him, then had to force their way as far back to the front as they could, eventually crossing the line in 39th and 38th place respectively - meaning that Thomas now hands over the youth category white jersey to Robert Gesink of Rabobank.
Levi Leipheimer isn't having a good
Tour so far, but expect him to win a
stage sooner or later.

Tyler Farrer and Chris Horner were also in the crash and at first also appeared to be injured as they lay in the roadside ditch, but after a quick check-up and a chance to catch their breath they were able to continue. The accident split the peloton into two with the second including our wildcard favourite Levi Leipheimer. Coming so near to the finish line, they were not able to make up the gap and the overall standings look dramatically different tonight as a result.
"#tdf stage 7 predictions: Cav all over." (@GLetten, Twitter)
The 218km flat stage was once again characterised by an early breakaway when Mikael Delage, Gianni Meersman,Yannick Talarbardon and Pablo Urtasan split from their teams in the first few minutes, rapidly building up their advantage to over a minute. Talarbardon punctured but was able to catch up, by which time the lead was at the 6km mark and 3'40" ahead. Little more than five minutes later, they had added almost a minute and looked set to increase it futher still. By 13:14, group leader Meersman would have been awarded the maillot jaune had the race hae been stopped.

Another half an hour later and the peloton had reached 46km, putting them in the vicinity of Ruillé-sur-Loir and very close to the border of Loir-et-Cher. Garmin seem to be doing by far the greater portion of the work at the front of the peloton so far this year and that's exactly where they were by this point, yet they seem happy enough to be there. HTC-Highroad, the team that has dominated sprints for some years now, were right behind them though, and the combined effect of the two teams on the peloton's average speed may be the reason that the breakaway's advantage, which had been as high as 7'20", dropped below 7'.

By 14:30 it had become clear that even though there was still a long way to go, the peloton was not to be afforded the luxury of taking it easy and letting the lead group tire themselves out and return to the flock - they were obviously enjoying their time in the limelight and perhaps even having the legs to keep it up to the sprint at 192.5km and possibly even to the bitter end. Early days it may be and none of the lead group members have a dog's chance in hell (cats being Satan's favourite animals) of winning the Tour, but allowing imoudent scamps such as they to win a stage is simply not the done thing. Thus, they were going to have to be chased down and put back in their places; the naughty little monsters. The Garmin and HTC guys continued working together - they can operate almost as one superteam - to apply pressure and the lead's advantage began correspondingly to fall, soon dropping to 6'15".

Tom Boonen has one of the best senses of
humour in professional cycling, and the
Tour will be a poorer place without him.

Bad news arrived at 14:52 when Tom Boonen, the Belgian who was left bloodied and bruised after a nasty crash a couple of days ago, intercepted the QuickStep car and asked for a lift to the finish. His decision to abandon was announced a minute or two later. Ten minutes later, the peloton had whittled down the gap to under 6' as rain began to fall. Average speed had dropped in the third hour to 35.5kmph, slower than than the overall average of 37.5, but by this stage that by no means constituted a let-up and the gap was down to 5'25" as the race leaders reached the feeding station at 114km, a little over the halfway point.

A small descent at Montrichard upped the ante a bit, generating speeds of 60kmph as they entered the town,  but accounted for Sky's Rigoberto Uran who crashed on a sharp bend. Andrey Zeits of Astana went down with him, but both men were back on their bikes and catching up within a minute. Meanwhile, the breakaway riders had settled into an efficient routine and were sharing duties at the front, enabling them to maintain the gap at 4'30" for a while. Another crash at the back of the peloton took down Europcar's Thomas Voeckler and several others, but again nobody was injured and all were soon once again on their way.
"Well, the easiest day on paper turned into this. Cycling is far from predictable." (@craiglewis85, Twitter)
The average speed for the fourth hour had dropped right down to 33.1kmph, causing race organisers to predict that the peloton would not arrive in Châteauroux until 18:00, half an hour after the expected time. It did the escapees no favours though, and their lead fell below 3'. Shortly afterwards, another crash took down Tony Gallopin, Yaroslav Popovych, Haimar Zubeldia and Roman Kreuziger, fortunately once again without serious injury. The first three had made it back to the peloton within a minute or two, but Kreuziger's mechanics took their time getting him a replacement bike, leaving his stranded for over a minute so he had to work hard to make up the difference, eventually taking his place among the rest some minutes later. Gallopin required further on-the-go attention from the team car but was able to continue without problems.

Mikael Delage deserved the 20 sprint
points after leading a breakaway from
the first kilometre.

The peloton was beginning to apply the gas now, raising their speed to around 47kmph as they headed for the intermediate sprint. This was when the big crash happened, causing enough confusion for it to be unclear who was affected. It soon became apparent that many riders were down, including Wiggins. Sixty riders were in front and continued, while the rest regrouped 20" further back. It took a while for precisely who was in which group to be confirmed - not least of all because of the concern for Wiggins which dominated race radio - but before too long it was known to include many of the favourites including Thomas, Boasson Hagen, Hoogerland and Levi Leipheimer. The chaos left the breakaway free to sail through the sprint with FDJ's Delage and Meersman taking the top 20 and 17 point prizes, Talabardon 15 and Urtasun 13. Cavendish was not far behind them, rocketing through for 11 and then Rojas for 10.

As the sprint was left behind, there were just 20km left - an unusual situation, as sprints usually fall towards the middle of a stage. Precisely why organisers positioned it so late today is not known, but the most obvious reason is that it was done purely for the hell of it, to see if the sprint specialists were capable of moving from a sprint directly into a fast ride and then speeding up again for a final sprint over the finish line. If that was indeed the reason, we liked it - and if it isn't, we liked it anyway. With 10km to go, the lead group's advantage had been chopped right back to 1'40" and with HTC arranging themselves about the front of the peloton, lying in wait just behind Omega-Pharma Lotto and ready to start their customary and deadly final moves, the escapees' time was almost at an end.

With the last 1.5km being almost perfectly straight HTC formed the train with usual pinpoint precision, an aerodynamic hive of minds and bodies working in perfect unison. There was now only one way that this could go, and so it proved to be - no other team can even begin to compete with the HTC train when it works like it did today. As the finish line came closer, the inevitable: the train split to leave the way ahead clear for the Missile who leapt forward, easily passing all others for his 17th Tour de France stage win. The British may have lost its greatest ever overall General Classification hope, but they can still rightfully claim that the fastest rider in professional cycling is theirs. Wiggins may well have another few years left in him yet - look at Leipheimer and Hincapie, or Jeannie Longo - but even if today is the beginning of the end of his career it most certainly won't be the end for Sky: Thomas, Swift and the rest are all superb riders in their own right, but if the rumours are true and Cavendish joins them they'll be unstoppable.
"If they were in the Giro, after those crashes they would ask the head of "Zom". But they're in the Tour, doesn't matter if all is dangerous!" (@evicennati, Twitter)
Overall Stage Results:

1. CAVENDISH Mark HTC - HIGHROAD 5h 38' 53"  
5. BONNET William FDJ
10. HINAULT Sébastien AG2R LA MONDIALE (all same time)

Overall General Classification after Stage 7

1. HUSHOVD Thor GARMIN - CERVELO28h 29' 27"  
2. EVANS Cadel BMC                                 28h 29' 28" + 00' 01"
3. SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK 28h 29' 31" + 00' 04"
4. MILLAR DavidGARMIN - CERVELO 28h 29' 35" + 00' 08"
5. KLÖDEN Andréas RADIOSHACK 28h 29' 37" + 00' 10"
6. FUGLSANG Jakob LEOPARD-TREK 28h 29' 39" + 00' 12"
7. SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK 28h 29' 39" + 00' 12"
8. MARTIN Tony HTC - HIGHROAD 28h 29' 40" + 00' 13"
9. VELITS Peter HTC - HIGHROAD         28h 29' 40" + 00' 13"
10. GESINK Robert RABOBANK         28h 29' 47" + 00' 20"

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