Vino (Alexandre Vinokourov) almost won both of these stages. He probably would not have contested today’s if he’d won yesterday, and he seemed pretty disappointed about that. So today he was at it again, doing an opportunistic late attack. As I’ve asserted, Vino races for Vino, all Vino, all the time. And he was so determined to have that stage win that he persisted until it happened.
The last couple of days have transitioned the Tour out of the mountains. The favorites are largely waiting for the big mountains of the Pyrenees, which they’ll face tomorrow in an extreme form, a mountaintop finish at Ax-3-Domaines. Yesterday’s stage had some lesser categorized climbs, but the backbreaker was the 3km stretch right before the end that’s at least 10% grade all the way. (That’s like Hunter Station Road, only ten times as long; ouch!) Then there’s a 1 km downhill false flat to the finish on the tarmac of the ski resort airport just above the town of Mende. Approaching the foot of the climb the road narrows drastically, forcing the mass of peloton riders to slow down and queue up. All the contenders want to be near the front, either to attack or to cover their rivals’ attacks. This creates a kind of nervous mayhem, because if you aren’t rolling pretty well into the start of the climb, you’re going to burn up a lot of energy just getting into a climbing rhythm.
Yesterday there was a lead group of four riders, including Vino, ahead of the peloton. On the Mende climb he attacked, got a huge gap, and held it all the way to the airport. Trouble is that at the front of the peloton (40 seconds behind the break) various riders tried to attack, and when Joaquin Rodriguez took off Contador went with him. Andy Schleck didn’t or couldn’t follow, and Contador saw a chance to take back some time on him. Contador’s pursuit of Rodriguez carried them both past Vino just before the finish, leaving Rodriguez with the win, Contador 10 precious seconds on his main rival, and Vino holding the bag. Vino is supposed to be riding in support of Contador, his team captain, and the ethos of the situation is that Contador’s ten seconds are more important than Vino’s stage win, but the self-obsessed Kazakh did not see it that way.
It’s amusing to watch a race up a steep climb like the one at Mende. They all look like they’re in slow motion. If they talked the way they rode they’d all have very low, slurry voices. it’s also kind of reassuring to know that 10% is a hard grade for anybody. I’m going to remember that tomorrow morning when I’ll probably be out there on Hunter Station. Of course a Tour rider’s “slow” is faster than my “fast.”
Today there was also a break early on: three good riders, who were reeled in well before the finale. Then a couple of attacks with less than 10 km to go freed Vino from the bunch, and nobody was interested in chasing him. The sprinters had to fight for what was left, with the best of them getting the second-place points. So that’s another variation of how a flat stage can go. Interestingly, on a couple of small bumps along the way Armstrong was tailed off the back, and lost 4 minutes to the main peloton containing the race leaders. My only question is whether he’s saving strength for the mountains tomorrow or is just plain knackered.
Twenty-four hours from now we’ll know, and we’ll also have confirmation of whether Schleck really can outduel Contador in the high mountains. It is very possible that he cannot, and we’ll already have a strong clue that Contador will be the tour winner.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.