Tonight’s brute of a 223km stage of La Grande Boucle (The Big Loop) offers any rider outside the Astana team with pretensions to winning the race their first realistic moment of truth since the Trans France Express powered by Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong took control of the race on just the fourth day.
While we still have nine more stages including tonight’s 13th — a torturous big dipper — enough is now known to pinpoint what a disastrous decision it’s been to reinstate the team time trial that essentially left some of the big-name General Classification (GC) contenders looking like they’d all just lost their winning ticket to Paris. It certainly appeared to ruin Australia’s big hope Cadel Evans who now finds that after being runner-up for the past two years, his chances of a podium finish in Paris on Sunday July 26 are probably only marginally better than Stern Hu being a dinner guest of Kevin Rudd any time soon!
The return of the team time trial after four years proved a gift for the all-powerful Astana collective (currently filling four of the top six in pursuit of the maillot jaune). Such is its awesome spread of talent that it was like Geelong and St Kilda merged for season 2009 to take on the rest of the AFL. It didn’t only have too many big guns just four days into the race, but continues to be a team apart from everyone else. Or at least that’s how it’s been until now. The fact that so many of the big names found themselves staring down the barrel of minutes lost with the race barely into stride has made the racing outside the bunch sprints very tame because the route has offered little chance for counter attack.
The time trial overly distorted Astana’s dominance. It saw Michael Rogers fall from 8th to 16th and 1 minute 32 seconds back, while Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck fell to 20th and 1:41 down. Likewise, defending champion Carlos Sastre seemingly out of it in 29th and 2:44 in arrears. As for Evans who lost 2.35 that day to put him 3 minutes off the pace, he now needs a small miracle to have any chance of getting back into winning calculations.
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For all the talk pre-race of a great route this year, it wasn’t only the team time trial’s reintroduction that was misjudged.
Take the most anticipated climbing day in the Pyrenees with the Col d’Aspin and the fabled Col du Tourmalet. It was expected to provide all manner of defining fireworks to shake up the running order of the GC but instead stage 9 was a damp squib because the organisers in their wisdom left a tame 70km transition from the summit of the Tourmalet that, while it ended in a winning breakaway for Rinaldo Nocentini of AG2R, who’s held the yellow jersey ever since (even if only borrowed until tonight), made no difference to the rest.
Now we await to see how Astana’s second-placed Contador and Armstrong in third (6 and 8 seconds behind respectively) will respond not only to the threat posed to each other over the next 10 days in the battle for yellow, but more significantly if anyone else has their measure over a testing series of mid-range climbs.
It’s why before tired legs hit the finish after 200km in Colmar tonight, we can surely expect Evans, Sastre and the Schleck brothers among others to be prepared to collectively try to stir up an Astana hornets nest. With a flat Saturday that could be another Mark Cavendish sprint procession, the first Alpine state from Sunday, followed by a rest day on Monday, the Tour then gets really, really brutal. Two more mountain stages are on offer before the individual time trial and then on again for the climbers in stage 19 next Friday. Then we all wait for Saturday and cardiac arrest for any sprinters still clinging to their pedals determined to have their final moment of glory in Paris.
But sandwiched between stage 19 and 21 is the organiser’s wet dream day of eleventh hour GC carnage with the penultimate 167km pilgrimage that ends in the final inhumane ascent of the dreaded Mount Ventoux.
If Evans can’t win the Tour, next Thursday’s 40.5mn individual time trial might yet offer him an opportunity to take some time from most of his GC rivals, but if he gets no reward before then from any mountain attacks, 3 minutes plus is just too much to claw back. And he won’t be able to rely on Mount Ventoux as his salvation.
As things stand, if I was looking for anyone to upset the Astana Armada it would be Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck. It’s notable that unlike last year when the likes of Stuart O’Grady and the rest of the same high calibre support crew were riding prominently at the head of the peloton in support of eventual winner Carlos Sastre, these same riders have been noticeably conserving their energy until now. That’s putting to one side the breakaway stage win last night by Nicki Sorensen for Saxo Bank. But you just know that starting from tonight surely Saxo Bank for one is ready to serve it up to Astana, or at least not lie down in the face of any challenge.
If there has been one revelation above all others in the GC jockeying up to now, aside from the Armstrong comeback looking so remarkably solid, it’s former Great Britain Olympic track gold medallist Bradley Wiggins. Not only can he sprint but his overall endurance in the mountain is amazing everyone thus far. Still the biggest examination awaits him in the Alps. But on the evidence so far, not only does England boast the fastest man on two wheels without a motor, but now has a GC contender sitting in fifth just 46 seconds behind Nocentini.
While the SBS coverage remains brilliant, its live link man Mike Tomalaris says some strange things at times. Take his reading of the outcome of the radio ban enforced during Stage 10 on Tuesday, which has now seen the second ban scheduled for tonight being scrapped. The recalcitrant teams staged a noticeable go slow in protest at the radio ban, but Tomalaris was having none of it as he told viewers: “Although rumours of a go-slow didn’t eventuate, the race was run at a snail’s pace”!