Earlier today, the Tour de France returned to the high mountains, as the riders moved into the Alps at last, heralding the arrival of the biggest, and most important, stages of the race. Over the course of the next two days, there will be some epic showdowns to say the least, as the GC contenders do their best to shake Thomas Voeckler out of the Yellow Jersey and position themselves to take the crown.
But that is what lies ahead. Today’s course featured 179km (111.2 miles) of racing between Gap and Pinerolo that featured a number of climbs, the last of which was a Category 2 affair that led up to the the top of the Pramartino Slope, before making a harrowing descent to the finish line. That descent was fast and technical, leaving more than one rider to scramble for his life as his bike went careening off the road. Even Voeckler found himself in a bit of trouble as he scrambled to keep the pace, at one point the Frenchman slid off the road and onto a parking lot alongside the route. The narrow roads and thickly wooded countryside were scary to watch, and many of the cyclists seemed wary as they dropped.
In the end however, there was one rider that survived the break, and rode alone to the finish line. That was Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, who claimed his second stage win of the year, and made up for some of the disappointment from yesterday, when he was out sprinted by Thor Hushovd. It has been a great year for Norway in Le Tour, as they have just two riders in the race, but four stage wins between them. Hushovd also spent several days in Yellow in the early part of the race.
Coming in second place today was Bauke Mollema, 40 seconds behind Boasson Hagen and third went to a game Sandy Casar, another ten seconds back.
In the GC, it was an eventful day which featured more attacks from defending champ Alberto Contador, who knows that he has to make up ground on his main rivals if he hopes to reach the podium in Paris. Contador attacked on the final climb of the day, but unlike yesterday, Andy Schleck was able to answer and stick on his wheel. After they went over the top, Contador once again pulled away on the descent, working closely with fellow Spaniard Samuel Sanchez to try to make up ground. In the end however, it was all for nought, and the Schleck Brothers, along with Cadel Evans, caught the two Spanish riders before the line.
While Contador failed to gain any time on the other GC contenders, he did show that he is in fine form and ready to attack on the two stages ahead. Those stages are more to his personal style, allowing him to attack on the steep mountains ahead. Thursday and Friday’s stages are each mountaintop finishes, which is where the three-time winner thrives. The Schlecks and Evans will have to be prepared for those attacks if they hope to hold off Contador, and Sanchez, as the two men seem to have formed an alliance of sorts.
While Voeckler still clings to the Yellow Jersey, Evans has closed the gap some. He now sits 1:18 behind the leader, and 4 seconds in front of Frank Schleck in third. It seems unlikely that Voeckler can hold on to the Maillot Jaune after tomorrows massive climbs, but the popular Frenchman has surprised us at every turn in this race, and perhaps he’ll do it again tomorrow. We’ll just have to wait and see.
There wasn’t a whole lot for the sprinters to do today, although there were a few points to be picked up on an intermediate sprint. As a result, Mark Cavendish kept the Green Jersey once again. Likewise, the standings in the King of the Mountain competition remain largely unchanged, as Jelle Vanendert keeps the Polka Dot Jersey. Rigoberto Uran held on to the White Jersey as well as the Tour’s best placed rider under the age of 25.
As mentioned, tomorrow’s stage is going to be a true test of skill and stamina. The Peloton faces a grueling 200.5km (124.5 mile) ride from Galibier to Serre Chevalier that features three Beyond Category climbs, including a very long and tough climb to the finish. By the time the riders reach that final ascent, expect to see only the best climbers out in front, including Contador, the Schlecks, Sanchez, and Evans, who is a two time world champion in mountain biking and knows a thing or two about climbing. Contador will need to press the attack to gain time, and everyone else will need to be in top form in order to respond. To make matters worse, tomorrow’s finish will be at the highest altitude ever for the Tour, throwing a little thin air into the mix.
On Friday, the famed Alpe-d’Huez, perhaps the most storied climbing in Tour history, will await the contenders.
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