According to L’Equipe, spectators wait an average of six hours to watch the peloton pass. At one end of the spectrum are those who watch it at home on television nipping out just before the riders zoom past their front garden. At the other end are those who, generally with their motorhomes, bag a spot on a key climb 3-4 days before the riders arrive. L’Equipe fails to take account of the time it takes to get in situ. This is where the bike trumps all other forms of transport. When key routes are closed to traffic, you can generally still ascend and descend by bike on the day of the stage. Watching the Tour on key stages makes for very long, but highly enjoyable, days hence the absence of any reports for the past few days.
The last three stages have been absorbing, fascinating and have made this year’s Tour truly memorable. Consequently, it seems inappropriate to lump them together when each is deserving of it’s own fulsome report. Nonetheless, that’s what I’m going to do. Sadly, we sacrified the space normally dedicated to my beloved’s camera in the backpack for more clothes. I’ve spent many holidays in the Alps and while it’s often been wet I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold as this summer. I wasn’t one of those idiots risking hypothermia to grab my 15 seconds of fame in a skimpy outfit. No, we were the mummified couple huddled together sharing a little body heat.
When Andy Schleck rode off on the slopes of the Col d’Izoard on Thursday’s stage from Pinerolo to the top of the Galibier with 60km still remaining, you could hear the collective holding of breath. Was this a suicide mission or Andy’s response to the incessant sniping of the Press? In a move reminiscent of days of yore in the Tour and, fittingly on the 100th birthday of the Tour’s first visit to the Galibier, Andy’s escape proved Merckxesque. But that wasn’t all, to the delight of the French public, a last gasp effort from Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler ensured he would spend yet another day in yellow. Evans responded and singlehandedly dragged everyone else up the Galibier. After their exertions of the previous two day’s, sadly Bertie and Sammy weren’t able to remain with the contenders and they both slipped back in the final kilometers and down on GC. Tour over for some and just igniting for others. Only the white jersey changed shoulders, passing from Sky’s Rigoberto Uran to Cofidis’s Rein Taaramae. The eighty-nine riders who finished outside of the day’s time limit were reinstated but, with the loss of 20 points, the margin between Mark Cavendish and Jose Joaquin Rojas, in the fight for the green jersey, was reduced to 15 points.
Another day another fight, you write Bertie off at your peril. If he was going to lose his Tour crown, he was going to go down fighting. Anything Andy could do, he could do too. On Friday’s stage, which finished atop the iconic Alpe’d'Huez, Alberto attacked 15km into the stage. Initially the others responded but Voeckler and Evans dropped back into the bunch before the summit of the first climb while Andy rode with Bertie, clearly hoping to put time into Evans who tried to organise the chasing group. Cadel had both the brothers for company when Contador soloed off on the Alpe and while they encouraged him to continue the pursuit he desisted. After all, who was the better time triallist? Who needed to put time into who? Exactly.
While Contador was leading the charge up the Alpe to what many assumed would be a Tour stage win, Sammy Sanchez, second on this stage in 2008 to Carlos Sastre, was in hot pursuit tailed by Pierre Rolland who’d been let off the leash by his leader, Thomas Voeckler. With 5km to go, Bertie was visibly fading. 3km later he was overtaken by Rolland who became the only French stage winner of the Tour, the first Frenchman to win here since Bernard Hinault in 1986 and he also took the white jersey of best young rider. Sammy was 2nd again, his 2nd 2nd place of the Tour but, as consolation, he landed the spotted jersey. Alberto was a gallant third and was adjudged the most aggressive rider which was to be his only podium appearance of this Tour. The maillot jaune slipped from the shoulders of Thomas Voeckler onto those of Andy Schleck. Cavendish remained in green, while both he and Rojas lost a further 20 points apiece for again finishing outside the time limit.
Most commentators felt that while the actions of the freres Schleck had been heroic, their time-trialling skills were much inferior to those of Cadel, who had the added advantage of having ridden the same course in the Dauphine. The stage was set and, while those going earlier in the order had to cope with damp conditions, the roads had dried by the time the top riders set off. HTC’s Tony Martin, heir apparent to Spartacus, set a blistering and ultimately winning pace. The body language of Cadel and Andy in the start gate was interesting to observe: the first focused and intent, the latter nervous. The brothers posted similar times to remain on the podium, a first for the Tour. Cadel Evans posted the second best time to leapfrog over Andy and take the treasured yellow jersey: the first winner from Down Under. The realisation of a long held dream and just reward for a very intelligently ridden Tour. Thomas Voeckler rode the time-trial of his life to remain in 4th place, the best finish for a Frenchman for a very long time. Pierre Rolland resisted the challenge of Rein Taaramae, a superior time triallist, to retain the white jersey. Bertie and Sammy both turned in very respectable times in the time trial to finish in 5th and 6th places respectively ahead of the Italian duo of Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego.
Okay, the Tour’s not yet over but today is largely a procession around the suburbs of Paris followed by a criterium around the capital. Etiquette dictates that the yellow jersey is not attacked on the final day. There still remains the question of the green jersey but I would be very surprised to see anyone other than Cavendish win today, his 5th win of the Tour and his 3rd consecutive win on the Champs Elysees. As an aside, I love the fact that all of BMC are wearing yellow Oakley’s today – nice touch.