It was an interesting day of riding in the Tour de France following a busy and active weekend that saw the arrival of the Pyrenees at last, although the big fireworks have yet to appear, and it seems that the winner could be decided by (mis)fortunes this year as much as anything else, although there is still plenty of riding to be done.
Saturday’s stage was another rolling affair, with plenty of ups and downs, but no major climbs, but a challenging ride none-the-less. That day belonged to a very emotional Alexandre Vinokorov, who rode like he had a lot to prove, which of course is very true. Sunday was a different animal, with the first major climbs of the Pyrenees testing the riders. GC contenders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador sparred on the slopes, with neither gaining an advantage, while Christophe Riblon rode to the stage win after leading the way for nearly 160 km (99 miles).
Today, we had several Category 2 climbs lining the route, but it was the huge beyond category climb, and subsequent drop, at the end of the stage that would put the pressure on the peloton. The route ran from Pamiers to Bagnères-de-Luchon, covering 187.5 km (116.5 miles) in the process. The big winner of the day was Thomas Voeckler who rode alone to the finish line, well ahead of the field, but while he was celebrating his victory, the real drama was taking place behind him in the battle for the Yellow Jersey.
On the final big climb of the day, the Port de Balès, Contador and Schleck were once again dueling for the lead in the race, with neither giving an inch and neither seeming to hold an advantage over the other. But misfortune struck Schleck, who blew his chain while shifting, causing him to have to stop to make a mechanical adjustment. Taking the opportunity to pounce, Contador took off up the slope, knowing that he had a big opportunity to gain back the 30 seconds he trailed his rival.
Schleck made the adjustment quickly, but the damage was done, and he spent the remainder of the race trying to track down Contador, but to no avail. In the end, the Spanish rider took back the 30 seconds and then some, and donned the Yellow Jersey today, fully 8 seconds ahead of Schleck.
The crowd was none too pleased with the outcome, and Contador was booed a bit while on the podium. There is already some debate going on as to whether or not he should have stopped and waited for Schleck to catch up, as there is often a gentleman’s agreement between rivals that they don’t want to win the Tour because of a mechanical issue. We’ve seen that happen on more than one occasion. Whether or not that even occurred to Contador is up for speculation, as he has shown little regard for cycling convention in the past.
So, for now at least, Contador is in Yellow, and honestly I think it will be really difficult to take it off his back. There are several big days of climbing ahead, including the Tourmalet on Thursday, but Contador is a great climber, and Schleck is going to have to really go hard to drop him now. Especially considering how much better of a time trialist Contador is. In my opinion, Schleck needed all of that 30 seconds that he lost, and then some, to hold off Alberto anyway. My prediction is that while we may see an epic battle yet, the 2010 Tour de France is, for all intents and purposes, over. I’d love to see Schleck prove me wrong, but that’s the feeling I have today.
The other jersey’s shake down like this. Alessandro Petacchi now wears the Green Jersey and is racing well. He’ll be competing for sprint points when ever possible the next few days. Anthony Charteau leads in the King of the Mountain competition and is wearing the Polka Dot Jersey, although the competition will be fierce through Thursday. Finally, Andy Schleck as taken back his White Jersey, as the best young rider in the race. While he was in Yellow, the Robert Gesink spent time in White.
Tomorrow we have another massive day that will crush the peloton for sure. Stage 16 is nearly 200 km (124 miles) in length, running from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Pau. The route features two Category 1 climbs, both near the start, followed by two beyond category climbs, that give way to a break neck descent and two opportunities for the sprinters to pick-up points. The stage will be brutal early on but offers a fast finish that will favor the descenders. It should be a good one!
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