Today brings a much deserved respite from the road for the riders in this year’s Tour de France. The 2011 race has been plagued with crashes, leaving many of the cyclists bruised and battered, while the Pyrenees sapped their strength over the weekend. While the past few days in the mountains were good sparring sessions between the GC contenders, we’ve now come out of the first big mountain stages with more questions than answers.
The two weekend stages didn’t bring any changes to the chase for the Yellow Jersey. French rider Thomas Voeckler still leads the pack, a minute and 49 seconds ahead of Frank Schleck. Cadel Evans holds down the third position with Andy Schleck picking up a few seconds on Saturday, and staying in fourth place. Defending champ Alberto Contador held his spot in 7th place, and looked much more comfortable on Saturday and Sunday, although he hasn’t gained any ground on his rivals.
Conventional wisdom says that Voeckler can’t survive in the Alps and that he’ll drop the Maillot Jaune once those tough stages begin on Wednesday of this week. But the Frenchman has been more than game to challenge the top contenders, who are finding it far harder to get him out of the Yellow Jersey than it would have been to simply prevent him from getting it in the first place. We’ve been hearing predictions of his demise for the past few days, and yet he keeps riding very well, and is hanging with some of the best climbers in cycling, even though the experts say he shouldn’t be. There is a possibility that he’ll continue to do so in the Alps, and could be in Yellow heading into the penultimate stage on Saturday, which is an individual time trial.
The Alps are a different kind of climb however, with higher altitudes and more challenge grades, so it is my belief that he’ll drop the Jersey by Friday, when the true contenders will joust on Alp d’Huez. That isn’t a given however, and one of the fun things about this year’s Tour is that there is still a lot of uncertainty heading into the final week. In the past few years, the top two or three riders were clearly in command, it was just a matter of how they were going to finish. This year, it seems to be an open race between at least four or five riders.
The sprinters will now take a backseat, and just try to hang on until Paris, as there are few sprint points to be had until the final day. Mark Cavendish still holds that coveted jersey, with Jose Rojas and Philippe Gilbert both holding out hope to pick up important points on the Champs-Élysées. The Polk Dot Jersey is on the shoulders of Jelle Vandendert a rider from Belgium who performed well in the Pyrenees. With a lot of climbing yet to come however, this competition is far from decided. Rigoberto Uran of Sky is now in the White Jersey as the Tour’s best young rider.
The week ahead is going to be an exciting one, with lots of mountains to conquer. The true GC contenders have to push the attack on Voeckler to drop him from the field and allow them to start the in-fighting amongst themselves. I think they’ll try to do that as early as Wednesday, but it could take until Friday to finally shake him off. In the meantime, someone needs to get more aggressive if they want to take the lead in this race, and Alberto Contador really has to make a bold move if he has designs on winning it again. I personally don’t believe he has it in him to make that move this year however.
Tomorrow brings us the 16th stage of this year’s race. It is a 162.5km (101 mile) ride from Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateauz to Gap, through a medium mountain region. The route will be a steady climb throughout most of the day, with a single Category 2 climb near the end, before a fast descent to the finish. The GC won’t change at all on this stage, but it will be open for someone to lead a breakaway to glory.
On Wednesday, things get very interesting and exciting again, as we return to the big mountains of the Alps.
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