After a couple of quieter days at the Tour de France, things heated up nicely today in the rolling hills between Bourg-de-Péage and Mende. The stage was 210.5 km (130.8 miles) in length and undulated over several Category 2 and 3 climbs. Those rolling hills meant that it would be a tough day for the sprinters to accelerate away from the pack, but it would give the climbers and well rounded riders a chance to duel.
Early in the day a breakaway filled with a number of big name cyclists tried to escape, looking for the glory of a stage win. Chief amongst them were Thor Hushovd, who lost the Green Jersey to Alessandro Petacchi yesterday, and Alexander Vinikourov, who was looking for the stage win for Team Astana. Hushovd would score some important sprint points that would accomplish his goal of being back in Green, but Vinikorov would have to concede the win to Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver when his own teammate decided today was a good day to attack the Yellow Jersey.
On the final climb of the day, a tough Cat. 2 after all the other ups and downs of the stage, Alberto Contador elected to attack Andy Schleck, who currently wears the Yellow Jersey, and ended up beating out teammate Vinikourov at the line. Vinikourov didn’t look very happy with conceding the placement to his mate, but Contador was able to gain 10 precious seconds back on Schleck, who responded in time to limit the damage, but can’t be feeling very confident about his slim 31 second lead at the moment, especially with the Pyrenees looming on Sunday.
Things are starting to heat up as we near the final week of the Tour, and it looks like we’re headed for a major showdown in the mountains between Schleck and Contador. Schleck is going to need to gain some time on his rival, as the second to last day brings an individual time trial, and Contador is an excellent time trailist. The bigger his cushion, the better Schleck’s chances of riding into Paris in Yellow.
As I already mentioned, Thor Hushovd regained the Green Jersey today, but this competition is far from over, and things are going to be very interesting when we reach the final sprints in Paris. Anthony Charteau picked up enough KoM points today to don the Polka Dot Jersey, taking it away form Jérôme Pineau, while Andy Schleck still remains in control of the White Jersey for best young rider, but it is on loan to Robert Gesink as long as Schleck remains in Yellow.
Tomorrow is another stage with rolling hills, although it’ll be far easier than today. Just 196 km (121.8 miles) from Rodez to Revel. Sunday will be the real killer day this weekend however, as the Pyrenees arrive at last with a 184.5 km (114.6 mile) ride from Revel to Ax 3 Domaines. That route will start with more rolling hills, but near the end the peloton is sure to be shredded by a long uncategorized climb up the Port de Pailhères, followed by a steep drop, then a Category 1 climb into Ax 3 Domaines. With legs already screaming from the two weeks of riding, this one is sure to be agonizing to watch. And don’t forget, looming in the distance, on Stage 17, is the massive and mighty Tourmalet. How much can these riders take?
Two departures of note from the Tour today. First, most of you probably already know that Mark Renshaw was dismissed for headbutting another rider on the way to the finish line yesterday. To me, it was an awful and flagrant foul, that was immediately followed up with him cutting off Tyler Farrar as he made the sprint to try to catch Mark Cavendish, Renshaw’s teammate and eventual stage winner. While the television commentators thought the punishment was too harsh, I think these back-to-back fouls definitely justify his dismissal.
And speaking of Farrar, he left the Tour today mid-ride due to injuries. He’s been nursing a sore wrist for days and has been in a few scrapes over the past few weeks, but seemed to be riding well yesterday. But the young American sprinter elected to go home. Hopefully it isn’t anything too serious, as we should see Tyler contending for the Green Jersey in the years ahead.
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