It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 2011 Tour de France you should expect the unexpected. Case in point was today’s 162.5km (101 mile) stage between Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux and Gap which was expected to be a great opportunity for a breakaway, but not have much of an impact on the GC itself. Those expectations were both right and wrong in so many ways, and with the rain, and sometimes snow, steadily falling throughout the day, the riders once again put on a show.
As predicted, there was indeed a major breakaway early on in the stage, with a large group of riders pulling away from the Peloton. Over the miles however, that group began to splinter, as the course steadily climbed throughout the morning. By the time they lead riders topped out on the Col de Manse, a Category 2 climb that gave way to a treacherous descent to the finish, only Norwegians Edvald Boasson Hagen and Thor Hushovd, along with Canada’s favorite son Ryder Hesjedal remained. Both Thor and Boasson Hagen had already won stages this year, and were sparring back and fourth down the stretch, with Hesjedal, a team mate of Thor’s on Team Garmin – Cervelo, aiding in the pursuit. In the end, the Garmin boys were too much for Edvald, who took second behind Hushovd, who is continuing to have a fantastic Tour.
While the breakaway boys were jousting at the finish line however, the real story was back in the Peloton, where Alberto Contador finally made his presence known. On a day that was not expected to be all that exciting for the top contenders, Contador went on the attack, and in the process made his rivals Frank and Andy Schleck look weak. Andy in particular appeared to have no answer to the Spaniards acceleration, and was soon dropped on a climb that should have been easy for him. In the end, he gave up precious seconds to his rival, opening the door for Contador to really challenge in the high Alps, which start tomorrow.
One rider who didn’t crack under the pressure however was Aussie Cadel Evans, who not only matched Contador move for move, but also pulled away from him down the stretch. Evans made up enough time to climb into second place, serving notice to the field that he isn’t going away this year. He looked extremely comfortable following Contador’s attack, and then putting in one of his own, and considering how great of an individual time trial rider he is, he seems to be the front runner at the moment.
For the most part, Thomas Voeckler let Contador and Evans duel it out ahead of him, seemingly unable or unwilling to follow. At the end of the day, he remained in the Yellow Jersey, although Evans closed the gap to 1:45 seconds. Frank Schleck dropped to third and Andy is in Fourth, but both looked out of their element today. Contador moved up just one place into sixth, and is now 3:42 off the lead. More importantly however, he has narrowed the gap with everyone except Cadel Evans.
There were a few sprint points to be had today, but for the most part they were given away to riders not in competition for the Green Jersey. Mark Cavendish holds on to that coveted title and rode very well today through some tough hills. He’ll find it much tougher over the next three days however, and will just hope to avoid elimination in the big mountains. Jelle Vandendert of Omega Pharma Lotto kept his Polka Dot Jersey, although that will surely be challenged in the next three days as well. The White Jersey was retained by Rigoberto Uran of Team Sky as well.
Tomorrow should be a great day for cycling fans, as the high mountains of the Alps are here at last. It is going to be a challenging 179km (111.2 mile) ride from Gap to Pinerolo that features multiple Category 2 and 3 climbs, as well as Cat 1. Most of the day will be spent going up, with a long, rapid descent following the slog up to Sestieres. After that, there is one Cat 2 before a very fast descent to the finish. It’ll be a good opportunity for a break once again, as the next two days will have mountain top finishers that will be dominated by the sports best climbers, and most likely the GC contenders.
The next three days should provide some amazingly compelling cycling. Contador has shown that not only is he strong and able, but that he is also willing to go on the attack to try to get himself onto the podium in Paris. The Schlecks looked like they were unable to pursue him today, which should be worrisome heading into the Alps. If their form doesn’t improve, they could find themselves off the podium altogether. Their new team, Leopard-Trek, had very high expectations going into this Tour. It is practically an all-star squad with the one-two combination of the Brothers Schleck as their ultimate weapon. But if they don’t have a better outing tomorrow, they could have some real problems on Thursday and Friday.
Perhaps it’s time they focused on Frank’s options instead of Andy’s.
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