I’ve been writing about them for the past week, since the Tour de France left the Pyrenees behind, and they are finally here. The Alps arrived in dramatic fashion for the Tour de France over the weekend, and as a result, we have a new leader. The weekend also brought an end to some of the drama around Team Astana, while controversy swirled around the competition for the Green Jersey.
Since leaving the Pyrenees behind, the race has mostly belonged to the sprinters, who chased points in the Green Jersey competition all week long. At one point, Mark Cavendish appeared to have that jersey all locked up after claiming his fourth stage win this year. His closest rival, Thor Hushovd, even seemed to concede that Cavendish would be in Green when the race reached Paris. But Cavendish made a bit of a miscalculation on Friday, a day with some challenging climbs, and Thor reclaimed the jersey heading into the Alps where sprint points are non-existent. The competition between the two heated up even more on Saturday, when Hushovd accused Cavendish of trying to press him into the barriers on a sprint finish. The judges agreed and docked Cav points, dropping him 18 points behind the “God of Thunder”, and all but assuring that it’ll be Thor in Green on the Champs-Elysees.
But the real competition is in the General Classification, where heading into Sunday, Rinaldo Nocentini had held on to the Yellow Jersey for more than a week. But he was expected to crack on the slopes of the Alps, and as predicted, he fell off the pace on the climb up Verbier, a Category 1 climb that hid the finish line at its summit. While on that mountain, the top riders all moved into position to attempt to make a move. Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador were escorted by teammate Andres Kloden, who is having a great tour himself. The Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, were in the leading group, as was Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins, who seems to be the most improved rider of the Tour this year. All of the contenders hung tough and appeared to be suffering to some degree, and as if sensing that, Contador went on the attack, easily leaving the other riders in his wake, including teammate Armstrong. At the end of the day, he blasted across the finish line, taking the stage win, and donning the Yellow Jersey for the first time since he won the Tour back in 2007.
Contador’s strong ride showed that he is the man to beat in the tough week ahead. He was clearly the strongest climber and overall rider, but the race is far from over, and with several tough mountain stages in the next few days, it’ll be interesting to see how the other contenders react following tomorrow’s rest day. Tomorrow, in particular, is going to be a rough day for the riders, with two HUGE climbs, the first beyond category and the second a Cat 1 that will have the legs screaming. Look for Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, and last year’s champion Carlos Sastre to make an attack on Contador. Sastre in particular had a great ride on Sunday and seems to be getting stronger as the Tour goes on.
As for Team Astana, who seemed to be having internal issues since the Tour began thanks to the presence of both Contador and Armstrong, who is currently in second place in the GC, 1 minute, 37 seconds behind the leader and 9 seconds ahead of the third place Wiggins. Following yesterday’s stage, Armstrong seemed to concede that Contador was the top rider on the team, and in the Tour itself, and that he wouldn’t be able to beat him going into Paris. So that should put an end to that controversy, and Alberto now has a focused, united team to take him home. They’ll have to work hard to hold off the challengers however, as no one else is conceding just yet.
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