Tour 2011: Rain Falls as the Pyrenees Loom

art stage 10 7

Every year their are a few rain soaked days on the Tour de France, and 2011 is no exception. Today was one of those days, with a steady rain, and sometimes a downpour, falling on the riders throughout the day. It didn’t seem to detract from their spirits however, as the sprinters faced off one more time before taking a backseat as we head into the mountains tomorrow.

Todays stage was 167.5km (104 miles) in length between Blaye-les-Mines and Lavaur. While it did provide some hills, there were no major climbs to challenge the Peloton today, resulting in another day for the sprinters to stretch their legs. The result was a mad dash to the finish line, with some of the fastest riders in the world going head-to-head, with HTC-Highroad rider Mark Cavendish claiming the stage victory, the 18th of his career. Just behind him was yesterday’s winner, André Greipel, followed by American Tyler Farrar. The win by Cavendish put him in the Green Jersey, which he wrested of the back of Philippe Gilbert.

There were no changes in the General Classification today, with Thomas Voeckler remaining in Yellow for another day. That’s likely to change tomorrow when the riders hit the first big mountain stage however. With no climbing points up for grabs today, Johnny Hoogerland kept the Polka Dot Jersey. He’ll have a chance to show off his abilities tomorrow as well. The White Jersey for the Tour’s best young rider stayed with Robert Gesink of Rabobank as well.

As I’ve alluded to multiple times this week, tomorrow is the day that we’ve all been waiting for. The 12th Stage of the Le Tour is 211km (131 miles) that runs from Cugnaux to the top of the Luz-Ardiden. The route will begin with a shallow climb that leads up to an intermediate sprint point, before heading up into the Pyrenees themselves. The first real test of the day will come on Category 1 climb, but that is quickly followed by two Beyond Category climbs, including one that leads to the finish line.

This is the stage where the pretenders will fall away, and the real Tour contenders will take their place at the top of the GC. Not only will Voeckler fall off the pace, second place rider Luis-Leon Sanchez will likely fade away as well. Sanchez had improved his climbing abilities in recent years, but still struggles on the big mountains. That means that riders like Cadel Evans and Frank and Andy Schleck, will have an opportunity to wear the Maillot Jaune in the days ahead. We’ll also have the opportunity to see if Alberto Contador can make a move to get himself back into contention.

Tomorrow we’ll learn a lot about the riders and some questions will be answered at last. For instance, does Andy Schleck have the form that carried him to two second place finishes over the past few years? Will is brother carry the flag for the Leopard-Trek team heading into the second half of the race? Can Cadel Evans avoid a meltdown in the mountains? Does Contador have the legs, and heart, to battle back into this one? Is there anyone else who can emerge from the Peloton to provide a surprise challenge?

The Pyrenees are here at last, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Kraig Becker