Tour 2012: Pyrenees Have Little Impact On Standings

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Following yesterday’s rest day, the riders in the 2012 Tour de France returned to the road today knowing that it would be a difficult stage. But thanks to a doping scandal, GC leader Bradley Wiggins had one less challenger to his Yellow Jersey to worry about.

The big news yesterday was that Frank Schleck of Team Radioshack-Nissan tested positive for Xipamide, a banned diuretic that can sometimes be used as a masking agent for other performance enhancing drugs. The positive test has forced the rider from Luxembourg to pull out of the race, although he is obviously denying any use of the substance. Schleck, who finished third in the Tour last year, has already called for a test of his “B” sample and says that if it comes up positive as well, he’ll file a formal complaint on the grounds that he was poisoned. The contention would be that someone slipped the Xipamide into a water bottle or some other food in order to implicate the rider. This wouldn’t be unheard of, as in the past cyclists would actually take water bottles from fans along side the road, although that practice has obviously been stopped due to fear of someone slipping something into the drink.

The testing on the B sample should be very telling and we’ll have to wait to see how the results turn out. But I’ve heard from other sources that testing positive for Xipamide is seen as a bit of an amateur mistake and that anyone who is truly doping would probably not be using the substance. That said, it is banned by the World Anti-Doping Code and any amount of it in the system should be seen as suspect in the same way that Alberto Contador’s positive test for very small amounts of clenbuterol in the 2010 race.

It has been a relatively quiet year for failed tests and doping allegations and that is a good thing. I believe the sport is getting tougher on the use of performance enhancing drugs, but there will still be a few who will try to use them no matter the circumstances. We’ll just have to wait to see how this one plays out.

As for today’s stage, it was indeed a punishing ride in the Pyrenees. The route took the peloton from Pau to Bagnéres-de-Luchon along a very mountainous route that included two Beyond Category and two Category 1 climbs. One of those was the dreaded Tourmalet, which is always a monster for the riders, but because it fell in the middle of the route it had less impact that in the past. All told, the entire stage was 197km (122.4 miles) in length that ended on a fast downhill descent to the finish line.

Those kinds of finishes always seem to take the drama out of the race as the big contenders have a difficult time attacking or escaping. Such was the case today, although we did see last year’s champion, Cadel Evans, lose ground to the leaders, falling from 4th to 7th overall, some 8:06″ off the pace. The top of the leader board remained the same however with Wiggins staying in Yellow, his teammate Chris Froome in second and Vincenzo Nibali in third. For his part, Nibali did attempt to gain ground on the men in front of him, but they were both strong enough to keep pace on the final climb.

The day belonged to the French once again as the scrappy Thomas Voeckler took another stage win. Voeckler was part of an early break away that included the likes of Chris Anker Sorensen, Alexander Vinokurov, Jens Voight and Daniel Martin. But by the slopes of the final climb of the day, Voeckler was riding alone and held on to the solo stage victory. His amazing efforts in the mountains also earned him the Polka Dot Jersey of the top climber, putting him just 4 points ahead of Fredrik Kessiakoff heading into the final mountain stage tomorrow. We’ll have to wait to see if Voeckler has any strength left in his legs to earn more climbing points on another tough stage.

Today was definitely not a day for the sprinters, but Peter Sagan still managed to pick up some points early on to help build a massive cushion between him and André Greipel in the battle for the Green Jersey. Sagan, riding in his first Tour, now has a 102 point lead over Greipel and seems a lock to arrive in Paris with the Green Jersey. Similarly, Tejay Van Garderen looked very strong once again today and actually picked up time on his closest rival for the White Jersey which goes to the best rider under the age of 25. It would take a major change in the standings for Van Garderen to not go home with that honor this year as well.

As mentioned, tomorrow is another big mountain stage this time covering 144km (89.47 miles) between Bagnéres-de-Luchon and Peyragudes. The peloton will face another set of tough climbs, including a Cat. 2, two Cat. 1’s and a Beyond Category. Unlike today however, we’ll have a mountain top finish that could potentially give someone a chance to attack the Yellow Jersey. Wiggins looked very strong today however, even out pacing Froome at times. It’s going to take a herculean effort to wrest the Maillot Jaune from his shoulder.

Looking ahead, Friday will be another mostly flat stage for the sprinters to enjoy and Saturday will bring the final individual time trial. As usual, Sunday will be the ceremonial ride into Paris for the Yellow Jersey, although the sprinters will still battle for points on the Champs Elysee.

Kraig Becker