Tour de France 2011: 9 Going All In

So much for prognostication and judgment.  Last time I wrote about the 2011 Tour de France I said that by Thursday night the race might well be “Contador’s to lose.”  I also said that Andy Schleck hadn’t shown a “speck of form” for the entire Tour.  Well, on the judgment part I think I was right, until today.  As for the prognostication, I can always claim I was just a day early.  On Wednesday perhaps the race was Contador’s to lose.  In any case, he lost it today.  He’s sitting in 7th place tonight, 3 1/2 minutes behind Cadel Evans, who’s in 4th, and about 2:20 ahead of 9th-place Tom Danielson.  I’m sure Tom’s pleased to be where he is, but if you’d told him before the start of the race that he’d be 2:20 behind Contador after Stage 18, he’d have assumed he’d be in 2nd or 3rd place.  Often races like this are lost by contenders before they’re won, and that’s so today.

I praised Contador for attacking and going all-out on Tuesday’s stage.  He picked up so much time on Andy Schleck, who fell behind on a wet, slick descent to the finish, that I thought Andy Schleck’s chances for overall victory were dim indeed.  On that day Cadel Evans put in an all-out rush to the line, only to wind up gaining all of 3 seconds over the main rivals besides Schleck.  Yesterday it was sunny, and it was Contador and Sammy Sanchez putting on the “no guts, no glory” dash in to the finish after Contador had attacked on the last descent and gapped the contenders.  But the principle was the same: attack at any credible opportunity, squeeze all the advantage you can from the situation, and try to create some distances in the standings that you can continue to widen in coming days.  It made for very exciting racing.

Yesterday’s descent, though not on cold, rainy, slippery roads, was equally vertiginous.  The road through Alpine forests was steeply downhill, twisty, and without shoulders.  It could not have been wider that Beulah Road, west of Vienna, where it’s so steep and shady.  Several riders overcooked turns, including at least two who missed a left-hander and went through the mercifully open gates of a private parking area, where they had to do a U-turn to get back on the road.  The tight, dizzying conditions led to another round of whining by Andy Schleck, who contended that the descents in this year’s Tour are unnecessarily dangerous.  Yeah, Andy, they are dangerous for a fast but nervous racer who has not succeeded in honing his descending skills.  It’s called separating the sheep from the goats.

At the bottom of that descent Contador tried to pound home with Sanchez and retain the 20 or 30 seconds he had gained on the other contenders.  As it ended up, they came back to him just before the line and he gained nothing.  But one had to admire the competitive racing effort, the utilization of strategy, and the seizing on opportunity.

Today the world turned upside down for the Schlecks and for Contador on the third of four Alpine stages, and the most brutal, ending on the top of the Col du Galibier, at 2645m (8678 ft) the highest finish in the 108-year history of the Tour.  But the Galibier was the third HC (“Beyond Category”) climb of the 200.5 km stage.  Suffering was in the cards.  The action began on the second of those climbs, the Col d’Izoard (pronounced by English-speaking cyclists as “Is-So-Hard”).  Halfway up, after a bit of jockeying around, Andy Schleck took off from the leading group containing all the favorites.  Up ahead by several minutes was a breakaway of about ten riders, including two from Schleck’s Leopard-Trek team.

Somewhat surprisingly, the pack let him go.  They surely thought that Schleck could not sustain his attack for the entire 60 km remaining in the race, and he’d be reeled back in.  Schleck’s “very early” attack used to be par for the course in the Tour of 50 or 40 years ago, before the close-to-the-vest style took over.  But Schleck needed to gain more time than he could if he waited for the final ascent.  And so, as he said later, he decided to “go all in,” using a gambling metaphor.  And a gamble it was.  Could he work that hard for that long, especially in the thin high-altitude air?  Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were saying in their TV commentary that they’d seen nothing like this kind of attack for ages.  Apparently the official cycling world has been selectively lobotomized; it was 5 years and 1 day ago, Thursday, July 20, 2006, that Floyd Landis had a 127 km solo breakaway on a long stage that finished with a downhill into Morzine.  Of course that was the day that Landis tested as having 11 times the normal amount of testosterone in his body after the stage.

It was evident from the character of Schleck’s effort today that it was well-planned.  By the time he was in the valley between the Izoard and the Galibier he had a 3-minute lead on the chasers and was the virtual race leader.  The peloton, about 40 riders big, seemed confused and irresolute; they developed no chase plan.  Meanwhile Schleck was picking up the fragments of the break, from which Maxim Iglinsky had attacked–he was the single stage leader at that point.  Schleck caught both his teammates in turn, first Joost Posthuma, who provided pace and a wind break for a couple of km, and then Maxime Monfort, who gave him powerful pacemaking for a number of critical, heroic km riding along the false flat of the valley into a brisk headwind.  Three other riders were in their group but did little work.  yet the gap over the leader’s group grew to about 4:20 by the time Schleck hit the base of the Galibier.  By halfway up the Galibier he was alone at the head of the race.

On the final ascent the leader’s group, 30 at the base of the climb, clawed back time slowly.  Frank Sckleck shadowed Contador, Evans stayed near the front, and Thomas Voeckler hung in there with a single teammate.  Evans finally decided to take leadership of the chasers since nobody else was.  Voeckler, to his discredit, waved off several appeals for help.  Contador helped Evans for a short time, but then slipped off the pace so suddenly that he caused a traffic jam because his shadow, Frank Schleck, slowed too.  By that time the group numbered 10 or 11, and it soon was even smaller because Contador completely lost contact.

As Andy Schleck struggled up the last, 9% grade, kms of the Galibier he ceded his “virtual” yellow jersey back to Voeckler, who kept the real Yellow Jersey by a truly magnificent struggle to keep pace.  At the end he was so exhausted that he could not speak for several minutes.  Evans also limited his losses and now sits 1:12 off Voeckler’s pace, with Andy at 0:15 and Frank at 1:08.  Cunego and Basso are both 3:46 behind.  Contador lost almost two minutes in the las 5 or so km, and is 4:44 off Voeckler’s pace.

So for Andy it was a great ride, an impressive display of great form, and a move that opened up the race to at least four contenders and “shelled out” the defending champ, Contador.  Assuming all challengers remain relatively competitive, one or two might be eliminated from serious contention on l’Alpe d’Huez tomorrow.  The rest will duke it out for overall victory at the Individual Time Trial on Saturday.  Should be fun to watch!

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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