Today’s Stage 19 of the Tour de France was expected to be a bit of a let down following the fireworks in the Alps earlier this week and the individual time trial yesterday. But if this year’s Tour has taught us anything, we should expect the unexpected.
The 178 km (110 miles) course ran from Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas, and featured rolling hills with some solid climbs, but nothing like the big slopes we saw a few days back. It was the chance for the sprinters to take center stage once again, as there were a couple of points on the course where they could earn Green Jersey points.
Heading into the day, Thor Hushovd had a firm grip on the Green Jersey, but his rivalry with Mark Cavendish, the fastest sprinter in the world, had been making headlines throughout the week following a controversial decision by judges to dock points from Cavendish, following a filed complaint by Hushovd. The loss of points caused Cav to fall back in the standings, and take shots at Thor in the press, while Thor responded by putting on a show two days ago, making a solo ride through the mountains to earn more points and widen the lead. It appeared as if the “God of Thunder” was ready to ride into Paris in Green. Clearly Cavendish has other ideas however.
Throughout the entire Tour, Team Columbia has worked together flawlessly to set up their man Cavendish to be in a position to take a stage win. Their strategies have worked so well, that before today, Cav had already earned four stage wins, and their efforts paid off once again today, as he took his fifth, giving him nine stage victories in his young career, the most ever by a British rider. Today, the team set up their attack with roughly 2km to go, running down a breakaway, and allowing Cavendish to sprint to the line just ahead of Husovd to earn the maximum number of points, and setting up an epic showdown on the Champs Elysees on Sunday to determine which one of these two stars will take the sprint championship this year.
As for the rest of the stage, it was a mostly by-the-numbers affair. The leaders of the General Classification stuck close to one another all day, and no one really attempted to make any kind of attack. There was a slight break late in the stage that allowed Lance Armstrong, currently sitting in third place, to pick up four seconds on the riders chasing him, but Alberto Contador maintained his 4 minute 11 second lead over Andy Schleck, who sits in second, a minute and ten seconds in front of Armstrong.
Right now, it appears that the only podium position that is up for grabs is third place. Lets face it, despite the fact that tomorrow’s stage ends on a grueling Beyond Category climb up Mont Ventoux, no one is going to crack Contador, and it seems very unlikely that Lance can do anything to catch Andy Schleck either. But, lurking just behind lance is Brad Wiggins, 14 seconds back, then comes Armstrong his teammate Andreas Kloden, another two behind, and Frank Schleck isn’t out of striking distance either, just 38 seconds behind, and with impressive climbing skills. All of this adds up to some interesting opportunities for tomorrows big stage, which is really the finale in terms of the GC.
As for the other jersey competitions, Franco Pellizotti still has a lock on the Polka Dot Jersey, and it’s unlikely he’ll let anyone earn too many points tomorrow, so he looks like this year’s King of the Mountains, and Andy Schleck seems to be in the driver’s seat as far as the White Jersey as the Tour’s best young rider.
Tomorrow promises to be yet another interesting stage. It is a 167 km (103 miles) ride from Montélimar to the summit of Mont Ventoux. The Peloton will warm up with a few rolling hills, with a couple of Category 3 and 4 climbs before setting up the big duel on the final climb of the day, a mount top finish up a 21.5 km (13.3 miles) Beyond Category climb. I expect the Schlecks to work in tandem once again, but not to challenge Contador so much as Armstrong. If the two brothers can stand on the podium together in Paris, they’ll have accomplished their goal.
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