Tour 2012: The Real Battle Begins

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Despite the fact that the 2012 Tour de France is well over a week old now, the real race didn’t actually begin until this past weekend. That’s when the riders arrived in the mountains for the first time and we truly separated the wheat from the chaff at last.

On Saturday the riders face a tough uphill finish that shredded the peloton and left on the true contenders to fight it out at the front of the race. The stage victory went to Team Sky’s Chris Froome, but most importantly his teammate Bradley Wiggins finally took the Maillot Jaune off the back of Fabian Cancellara after a spirited duel with Cadel Evans on the stage’s Category 1 final climb. At the end of the Wiggins held a 10 second lead over Evans, while other possible contenders, such as Nibali Vincenzo of Liquigas-Cannondale and Denis Menchov of Katusha lurked behind.

Sunday’s stage was another medium mountain stage that was designed for the climbers. It featured seven categorized climbs, but unlike the previous day it had a downhill finish. That meant that the overall GC standings didn’t change much at all, although a young French rider by the name of Thibaut Pinot survived a late breakaway to claim the win and give the host country something to cheer about.

That set the stage for today’s big individual time trial which ran for 38km (23.61 miles) from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon. This was the day that would determine who would control the race heading into the Alps later this week and it would give us a clear indication of who had the best form going into the rest day tomorrow.

The stage provided plenty of excitement to say the least. About midway through the day Cancellara through down a scorching time that was a minute and a half faster than anyone else at that point and it seemed like he was a lock to win the day. But Froome and Wiggins had other things in mind, and both bested Spartacus at his own game to claim the top two spots in the TT. For Wiggins it was his first ever Tour stage win and it had the added benefit of increasing his ten second lead over Evans, who put in a game performance as well, but just couldn’t keep pace with his British rival. At the end of the day, Wiggins not only remained in Yellow but extended his lead to 1:53. With his great ride, Froome is now in third place, 2:07 back, while Nibali (2:23) and Menchov (3:02) round out the top five.

The other jerseys have been contested the past few days as well with Peter Sagan hanging on to the Green Jersey as the top sprinter and Fredrik Kessiankoff of Team Astana wearing the Polka Dots as the current King of the Mountain. American Tejay Van Garderen of BMC managed to reclaim the White Jersey today as the best young rider in the Tour. He had dropped it on Saturday in the first mountain stage, but rode a great time trial today to earn it back.

As mentioned above, tomorrow is the first rest day of the 2012 Tour and it comes at a good time. The past few days in particular have been very tough on the riders, many of whom are hoping to recover from some first-week crashes as well. Sprinter Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Sharp for example was involved in four crashes in the first six days, leaving him beaten and battered thus far and out of contention of any of the sprints. If he can get healthy, I’m sure he’d still like to try to win a stage or two this year.

Wednesday’s Stage 10 will be the first foray into the high mountains as the course enters the Alps at last. The route will run 194km (120.5 miles) from Macon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine three big climbs, including an uncategorized slog up the Grand Colombier Pass right in the final third of the ride. The stage also features a downhill finish and has some very technical descents to test the riders bike handling skills.

As we gear up for the mountains the question is, is the race already over? Wiggins is riding incredibly well and is a good climber himself. Evans maybe a bit better in that area, but he’ll have to get aggressive if he’s going to eat into that 1:53″ lead. There is still plenty of time of course and lots of mountain stages to come, including two hill-top finishes, but the Australian certainly has his work cut out for him if he hopes to repeat his win from last year.

One thing is for certain, it’ll definitely be fun to watch. I can’t wait for Wednesday to get here!

Kraig Becker

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