At my college, tucked among the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, we had a college song called “The Mountains.” (Only in Massachusetts would the Berkshires be called “mountains”; there was one mountain, Mount Greylock, and even that was much like a high hill.) I don’t recall the verses of our song, but the refrain was: “The mountains, the mountains, we greet them with a song, / Whose echoes rebounding the woodland heights along, / Shall mingle with anthems than winds and fountains sing, / ‘Til hills and valleys gaily, gaily ring.”
Cycling fans greeted this week’s Tour stages with a song too. This would be when the rubber hit the road, when the pretenders would be exposed, when the contenders would show what they had to offer. Never mind the flattish Tuesday and Wednesday stages. Never mind that the defending champion Alberto Contador strongly hinted he was not planning for much to happen until the Alps next week. After all, his rivals would have something to say about that. No, beginning Thursday we would see some fireworks. There would be some heart-pounding finishes; some hopefuls would find their hopes dashed. After all, there were to be two mountain-top finishes perfect for serious contenders to gap the weaker riders, sandwiching a ride over the formidable Col d’Aubisque, where attackers could break away and stay away. Instead, the Tour finds itself a single flat stage away from the second Rest Day with Frenchman Thomas Voeckler firmly holding the Yellow Jersey he won back on stage 9, no favorite for GC having won a stage (Samuel Sanchez’s victory Thursday being the closest), and serious doubts beginning to emerge whether any of the main contenders has what it takes to claim a decisive stage victory, much less a commanding GC lead.
Now I admit that Thor Hushovd’s strong victory at Lourdes yesterday at Lourdes (though all the headline writers worked in the cheesy “miracle” puns) after a fabulous descent from the Aubisque was great, and the flat stages yielded some mildly interesting sprints. The American rider Tom Danielson’s ride uphill today was pretty impressive too, though he ended up coming in about 1:45 behind the main contenders; he hung tough for quite a while and sits in 9th place overall. But to admire these details is to cherry-pick a couple of gems from generally uninspired racing that left me wondering “does anybody have the talent plus the fire in the belly to try to win this Tour?”
Recent Tours have generally lacked the overall no-holds-barred give and take of the days of the 1950s through 1970s. Then time gaps were bigger, and daily stages featured decisive breakaways over mountain stages by the top riders. Now the peloton controls almost all of every race. If, as on today’s stage to Plateau de Beille, there are any attacks at all, they will be made on the last climb, and especially within the last few kilometers of the finish line. Caution rules; don’t even think about riding hard enough to risk going into the red zone (where a rider’s energy spent exceeds his physical resources) or you could lose big time. Better just to stay even with your main rivals and let them take the risks.
Today it was evident that Andy Schleck (4th place overall), who leads Alberto Contador (7th place overall) by 1:45, tried several “feints,” or “test attacks,” to see if he could create a gap between himself and Contador. He couldn’t, not easily anyhow, so he waited until about 200 meters from the finish and then sprinted away, gaining all of 2 seconds over the other main contenders. But he was 46 seconds behind Jelle Vanendert, who won the stage. It was Vanendert, riding his first Tour initially as a support rider for a teammate who has since crashed out, who broke away with several km to go to create the gap. The favorites let him go, content to watch each other.
Nine years ago on the same mountain Lance Armstrong, already wearing Yellow and pairing with teammate Roberto Heras, attacked his prime rival Josebo Beloki to gain an additional full one minute advantage. Lance could almost be forgiven for relaxing by one of his swimming pools (he was recently identified as the biggest private user of water in water-conscious Austin), watching today’s stage, and starting to plan another comeback. Yeah, Lance, I didn’t see the same combination of resolve, passion, and ability out there today that I, and Beloki, did back then.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.