Friday, July 22, 2011

Tour 2011: Alpe d'Huez Lives Up To Its Legacy

Yesterday was a great day in the Tour de France. Today was even better.

There are certain stages that always deliver on the promise of high drama and theatrics in Le Tour, and Alpe d'Huez is right up there with the best of them. With its 21 iconic switchbacks, and nearly 15km (9.3 miles) of climbing, often at grades in excess of 10%, the mountain has dashed many riders hopes of winning the race. This year was no exception, delivering unprecedented suffering to the Peloton.

Today's stage was a short one, just 109.5km (68 miles), but all the climbing brought new levels of punishment to the riders. Early on, defending champ Alberto Contador made a breakaway in hopes of gaining a stage win and picking up enough time to get himself into contention for the the podium if not the the Yellow Jersey. He was shadowed by Andy Schleck for much of the way, and a game Thomas Voeckler, who wore the Maillot Jaune for the past nine days, tried to hang with the group as well. Cadel Evans found himself in trouble early when he experienced mechanical issues with his bike, throwing him off the pace, and eventually dropping him back to the Peloton. For a time, it looked as if his troubles in the Le Tour would strike once again this year.

Riding aggressively, Contador and Schleck built up a considerable lead on the road, going out to more than three minutes ahead. But as the stage wore on, Evans picked up the pace and started to reel them back in. By the time they reached the base of Alpe d'Huez, the GC contenders were all even once again although Voeckler, who had cracked on a previous climb, was a minute and a half back.

Once the final climb got underway, Contador went on the attack once again, dropping his rivals. Evans was content to shadow Andy Schleck, knowing that if he keeps him in sight, he can try to grab the win tomorrow in the individual time trial. At one point, Schleck tried to implore Evans to help him drive the pace, and if you could read Evans lips, you could tell exactly what he thought of that idea. In a nutshell, the letters "F" and "U" come to mind.

As the stage ground on, and the climb up Alpe d'Huez took it's toll, Contador began to run out of gas, and suffer mightily. That allowed fellow countryman Sammy Sanchez, and and French rider Pierre Rolland to catch him on the slopes. Rolland immediately went on the attack, leaving Contador in the dust, and crawling on to the stage win, giving France its first win of the year, and hope for a future Tour contender. Sanchez came in second, assuring him the Polka Dot Jersey for the King of the Mountains, and Contador limped home in third place, a beaten man.

A minute back, Evans and the Schleck brothers picked up the pace and went on the attack, but came in together, setting up a huge day tomorrow when the three of them will duel one another for the win, and to decide who rides into Paris on Sunday in Yellow.

So, when the dust settled at the end of this epic stage, it was Andy Schleck who donned the Yellow Jersey, while brother Frank moved up into third place, 53 seconds back. Cadel Evans is now in third 57 seconds off the pace. The Green Jersey still belongs to Mark Cavendish, who will have to fight off Jose Rohas on the Champs Élysées on Sunday if he hopes to go home as the top sprinter. The King of the Mountain, as mentioned, has been decided, with Spain's Samuel Sanchez taking the title as the best climber in this year's Tour. With his big win today, Perre Rolland of Team Europcar earns the White Jersey as the best rider under the age of 25, giving the entire country of France hope for the future.

Hats off to Thomas Voeckler for continuing to battle not only today, but for the past week. He fell well off the pace today, but continued to ride hard, and didn't give up the Maillot Jaune easily. He has shown what a tough rider he is and deserves a lot of respect.

Tomorrow will now be one fantastic day of riding around Grenoble. It is a 42.5km (26.4 mile) individual time trial that will have the riders going head to head against one another for final positioning. While world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara will most likely put in the best time of the day, all eyes will be on the Brothers Schleck and Australia Cadel Evans. Evans is by far the more accomplished time trialist, and it will take a miracle for Frank to hold him off, especially considering just four seconds separate the two riders. Andy isn't the best time trialist either, although he has improved in that discipline over the past few years. The question now is, whether or not his 57 second lead will be enough to hold off Evans. They'll leave the gate tomorrow as the last and second to last riders respectively, and it'll all be decided out on the road.

Whew! After the past two stages, I'm exhausted just watching the Tour. Such a fantastic way to end another great race. I'm going to miss it when it ends on Sunday.