The leaders of the Tour de France proved today that it’s never too late to show that you actually want to win the race. The first pre-Alpine stage after the Second Rest Day bumped slowly uphill across the northern hills of Provence, beginning at 99m above sea level, rising as high as 1268m, and finishing at 744m in the town of Gap, a great place name for a low-altitude takeoff point at the gateway to the high Alps. The route featured a steep and technical descent over the final 12 meters from the Col de Manse into town, using the twisting, narrow roads that the Tour rode in the hot summer of 2003 when the tarmac was melting and Josebo Beloki crashed horribly in front of Lance Armstrong when his glue-on tubular tire slipped off the rim. That’s when Armstrong put his cyclo-cross skills to use, riding downhill across a farm field and carrying his bike over a deep ditch and back onto the road, thereby averting certain disaster.
This year, today, it looked as though the leaders would once again just watch each other as a formidable breakaway group with Thor Hushovd, Ryder Hesjedal, and Edvald Boassen Hagen opened a huge gap before the only rated climb of the day, the Col de Manse, shortly before the finish. Those strong men did stay away, with the wily Hushovd taking a sprint from his countryman Boassen Hagen. But a few km before the top of the Col, Alberto Contador showed that he could indeed sustain an attack, and was inclined to want to use his skills to win a bike race. After a few accelerations he found himself tailed only by Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez. The three of them put a huge distance between themselves and the rest of the chasing peloton containing the likes of game Thomas Voeckler, the Schleck brothers, and Tom Danielson, now the most proficient American in the race.
Since they got over the top first, they picked up more time on the way into Gap. And behind them the chase group split, with Voeckler and Frank Schleck in the leading half, and a bedraggled and disconsolate Andy Schleck in the second half. Among the three race leaders seeking to gain time on the others, Evans put in an attack over the last couple of level kms to the finish, though he ended up putting only three seconds into Contador and Sanchez. The point is, though, he tried, laying his skills on the line and creating for a few minutes the hope of a 20 or 30 second gap. All three of these guys rode like men possessed, though coming in over 4 minutes after the breakway leaders.
And more importantly, Evans, Contador, and Sanchez picked up 18 seconds on the first chase group with most of the other favorites, about 50 seconds on Basso, and a minute and five seconds on Andy Schleck. True, Contador is still behind Voeckler by 3:42, Evans by just under 2 minutes, and Andy Schleck by 39 seconds. But Andy is now behind his own brother, who intended to ride in a supporting role, by over a minute. If Contador is going to face serious competition in the high Alps it just might be from Evans, who (unlike Andy Schleck) really can time-trial. By Thursday night, we might see clearly that the Tour is really Contador’s to lose. Schleck hasn’t shown a speck of form in the whole race, and only Evans seems capable of spoiling Contador’s tactics.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.