Today was “second verse, same as the first,” as I predicted yesterday. Only the backdrop was different; rather than vineyards and then a grand cathedral, the predominant background was sunflowers, followed by wheat fields, allowing the photographers to get their traditional picturesque shots. The pack, who again caught the break with about 5 km to go, was better organized today. And in that final km of sheer excitement the course seemed utterly flat, so when Mark Cavendish’s lead-out men peeled off at 200 m and he had an unobstructed run to the finish, nobody caught him. Hushovd, finishing in 5th place, picked up 22 Green Jersey points at the finish, while Cavendish got 35. Overall, Hushovd has 102 points, 14 ahead of yesterday’s winner, Petacchi. Cavendish is languishing in 9th place overall with 50 points. He’d be a little closer if he hadn’t sat up in yesterday’s sprint.
It’s interesting too to look at the back of the race. With 181 riders there are bound to be a few who trail off the back, even when the vast majority finish with the same time. A couple of tours ago a local sports anchor opined that every rider should get the clock time he finishes in relative to the victor. That particular bike racing novice did not consider the radical anarchy that would ensue if all 181 riders dashed all-out for the line to avoid losing seconds (title of Lance’s second book with Sally Jenkins: Every Second Counts). For this reason the convention of assigning the same time to all riders finishing in a bunch without gaps commenced very early in Tour de France history, within 2 or 3 years from the start. There’s enough mayhem as it is, without being silly about it.
Today had its groups off the back, as usual. The first 148 riders got the same time. Then there were a few individuals with discrete times, then a bunch about 2 1/2 minutes back, another about 3 1/2 back, and the last five individuals finished between 4 and 6 minutes back. Interestingly, four of the last five were with Astana, Contador’s Kazakhstan-based team. The other was a Kazakh riding for Radio Shack, Lance’s team. I am guessing these were all lower-level support riders who were saving their strength for the mountains Saturday and Sunday. Or maybe they were sick; Contador better hope that’s not it.
As of today, every remaining rider in the Tour is within 40 minutes of the leader in cumulative time. That will change in the mountains, when riders better suited to sprinting will lose huge chunks of time. Some sprinters develop “altitude sickness” and drop out in the mountains; I don’t think that Italy’s great Mario Cipollini ever completed a Tour. He got his many sprint stage wins during the first week and went home. Climbers, on the other hand (and every contender for overall victory has to be a very good climber), will rise to the top of the overall standing. Probably by Sunday night most of the riders in the top 20 will be serious candidates for overall victory. Surely nobody outside the top 20 will be a contender.
One of the grand old Tour traditions is that the last rider in cumulative time is called the lanterne rouge, like the red lantern that used to hang on the caboose of a train as a warning light. Of course it’s a mock honor in a sense. But it also has serious overtones, namely that even the very last rider in the Tour deserves a lot of credit just for hanging in there in such a tough race. As of today it’s Grega Bole of the Lampre-Farnese Vini team. Chapeau, Grega!
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.