Breakaways and Breakages

The first week of the tour is over for everyone, and for many their tour is over for good. There have been 18 withdrawals so far and there’s a high chance that number will rise come tomorrow morning with Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha sure to be feeling the effects of their run-in with French television’s finest on Sunday. There are other high-profile walking wounded as well who will be making the most of today’s rest-day before it all kicks off again tomorrow; pre-race favourite Alberto Contador has crashed twice on the same knee in the opening week giving the Spaniard some concerns, default Radioshack leader Andreas Kloeden hit the ground hard in the pile-up that brought an abrupt end to so many riders’ races on Sunday resulting in a troublesome back problem and Robert Gesink is doing his best to cope with a nasty case of road rash having been caught up in the incident that ended Janez Brajkovic’s hopes this year.

Contador wins the Giro d'Italia

Contador's season has gone downhill since winning the Giro in May. Photo: Petit Brun

Let’s go back to the start then and have a look at how the story of the first nine days has unfolded:

Stage 1

Man of the season so far Philippe Gilbert raced away from the pack up the Mont des Alouettes to secure his first stage win in Le Tour. Cadel Evans went after him but couldn’t bridge the gap and finished 3 seconds back with Thor Hushovd leading in the bunch a further 3 seconds behind. The real action on the stage came with 9km to go though as Alberto Contador got punished for riding in the back of the peloton and was held up by a crash and ended up losing over a minute to his main GC rivals.

Yellow – Gilbert, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Gilbert

Stage 2

The team time trial was eagerly anticipated by many as it gave teams a chance to shine and a realistic stab at getting one of their boys in yellow for the first week. Team Sky made no attempt to hide their desire for the win and with Geraint Thomas’ high stage 1 placing he would be in yellow if they could manage a 6 second winning margin over the field. It wasn’t to be though as Garmin-Cervelo stole the show with a consummate display of teamwork to put Thor Hushovd in yellow. Sky finished the day in third as BMC surprised everybody with a stunning ride to take second and keep their man Cadel Evans high up in the GC. Contador’s Saxo-Bank squad came in 28 seconds behind the winners resulting in more dropped seconds for the Spaniard.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM, Gilbert

Stage 3

The obligatory breakaway was reeled in and the stage was set for Cavendish and his HTC train to lead him to the line for the first of his numerous stage wins this year. Except it never seems that simple in the early stages of a Grand Tour for Cav and so it was again as he was forced wide in the final bend by the ‘kamikaze Romain Feillu‘. The fun and games didn’t end there though, both Cav and Hushovd were disqualified from the day’s intermediate sprint for an inconsequential brush of arms in the approach. Tyler Farrar took the stage win and made a ‘W’ sign with his fingers after crossing the line, dedicating his first Tour win to his great friend Wouter Weylandt who died after a crash in May’s Giro d’Italia.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Rojas, KoM – Gilbert

Stage 4

Cadel Evans made his intentions for the race clear as he sprinted up the Mur de Bretagne to pip Contador on the line. The vicious kick up to the finish line was expected to produce a nervous finish as Contador vied to claw some time back on his rivals, and it was El Pistolero who made the first attack but it wasn’t enough to shake off the attentions of his Aussie sparring partner and Evans won it by the depth of a wheel rim. The rest of the field rolled in a handful of seconds behind as no significant time was either lost or gained.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green –  Rojas, KoM – Evans

Stage 5

Cavendish got his first taste of victory as he showed he’s more than just a one train pony, fighting his way to his 16th career Tour de France stage win without the famed HTC train to help him finish it off. It was a nervy day in the peloton as plenty of riders got well acquainted with the tarmac, Janez Brajkovic came off worst as he was forced to abandon at the side of the road. Bradley Wiggins and Robert Gesink were caught up in the same crash but both were soon up and on their bikes again, Gesink was still feeling the after effects as the stage wore on though, dropping back to the medical car to get his elbow and wrist bandaged up. Contador hit the deck as well, taking a blow on the knee but grabbed a new bike from his mechanic and was off and riding with his team pacing him back into the pack. The strangest event of the day came as Danish champion Nicki Sorensen was thrown from his bike after his handlebars got caught up with a photographers motorbike as it tried to pass on the outside. Sorensen was dragged along for fifty yards before falling onto the roadside, narrowly missing a family picnic.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green –  Gilbert, KoM – Evans

Stage 6

Team Sky working well in the Dauphine Libere

Boasson Hagen and Wiggins brought their fine form from the Dauphine into le Tour. Photo: Petit Brun

Team Sky finally got their wish as Edvald Boasson Hagen was led out perfectly by Geraint Thomas to claim Sky’s first stage win at Le Tour. On a soaking wet day the finish was made for the strong men and the top 10 illustrated that with Hushovd, Gilbert, Matt Goss, and Ciolek all picking up good points in the Green Jersey competition. Contador was again made to work harder than planned as mechanical problems forced two bike changes with 30 km to go, he was safely back in the bunch by the end though and the GC remained unchaged.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 7

It was ecstasy to agony for Team Sky, and team leader Bradley Wiggins in particular as he fell in a big crash, breaking his collarbone and being forced to abandon what was looking like promising Tour for the Londoner. The crash forced Remi Pauriol to retire as well, and the days withdrawals were topped up to three when Belgian sprinter Tom Boonen stepped off the bike, unable to ride through the pain of a crash earlier in the week. British hopes were given a boost at the end of the stage as Cavendish’s HTC team executed their lead-out train to perfection, delivering Cav to the line ahead of Petacchi and Andre Greipel to win in the town of Chateauroux – the same street on which he grabbed his first Tour win back in 2008.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Rojas, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 8

The roads started to look decidedly lumpy as the riders entered the Massif-Central during the second weekend of the tour. The stage saw the first successful breakaway of this years tour as Portuguese rider Rui Alberto Costa won the stage for Movistar, a small sliver of light for the team that has seen their leader die in a tragic accident at home, and star climber Juan Mauricio Soler Hernandez placed into a coma after a crash in the Tour of Switzerland already this year. Philippe Gilbert again made a dart for the line as the pack closed in during the final few kilometres but it was not enough to deny Costa the victory. Evans attacked up the final category 3 climb to Super-Besse Sancy but couldn’t do enough to create a gap over the bunch and so Hushovd continued in yellow for another day.

Yellow – Hushovd, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Van Garderen

Stage 9

France had to wait until the 9th stage for their first success of the 2011 tour but it was Mr reliable, Thomas Voeckler who delivered the yellow jersey for the French public following another successful breakaway as the race continued over the hills of central France. Spaniard Luis-Leon Sanchez took the stage win but Voeckler took the glory as he rode into yellow by nearly two minutes. However the day was marred by two big crashes; one in the peloton during a descent on slippery roads – it claimed the Tour hopes of Alexander Vinokourov, David Zabriskie, Jurgen van den Broeck, Frederick Willems, Amets Txurruka, Pavel Brutt and Wouter Poels. Injuries included a broken wrist, leg, shoulder-blade and collar-bone. The most disturbing incident of the day came in the breakaway though when a French television car was trying to overtake the leading group, it swerved to avoid a tree and side-swiped Juan Antonio Flecha, who in turn bundled into Johnny Hoogerland who was sent flying into a barbed-wire fence. The car and its drivers have been thrown off the tour, too late for the two riders involved though as they went from the head of the race to free-wheeling in fifteen minutes behind the main bunch and nursing injuries that could see them abandon before the start tomorrow.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stars Of The Week

Philippe Gilbert – won a stage and has placed in the top 10 in 6 of the 9 stages so far, built up a considerable lead in the Green Jersey race as a result.

Thor Hushovd – took yellow after stage two and held onto it until the end of stage 9 through several gutsy efforts to preserve his 1 second lead over Cadel Evans despite some gruelling uphill finishes.

Geraint Thomas – placed highly all week, wore the young riders’ White Jersey for 5 days and led out two sprints  – one eventually for rival Cav and then more successfully for Boasson Hagen. Sacrificed his White Jersey to hang back in case team leader Wiggins needed pacing back into the pack before his abandonment.

Cavendish and Thomas line up during last year's Tour

Cavendish and Thomas have both been prominent faces in the 1st week's action. Photo: kei-ai

Mark Cavendish – won two stages, just an average tour for the ‘Manx Missile’ but a remarkable return for anyone else. His two stage wins took him to 17 in total, into joint 8th place for all-time stage victories and ahead of legendary French rider Jacques Anquetil.

Cadel Evans – always showing at the front end of the peloton, attacking in the final kilometres of stages to throw off his ‘wheel-sucker’ tag and displaying great intent to go one better than his previous best of 2nd in the Tour.

So the first week is over and done with, facing the riders this week are two flat stages followed by three gruelling days in the Pyrenees, another flat stage and then the second rest day next Monday. The next week should see Contador on the attack if he wants to defend his crown, Cavendish could grab another stage or two and the Green Jersey competition should hot up if Gilbert can keep his stunning form going.

Finally, I unfortunately can’t go without mentioning the 1st positive drugs test of the Tour. Russian rider Alexandr Kolobnev from the Katusha Team has the dubious honour of the 1st positive test of the 2011 tour.

Photos: Contador and Wiggins – Petit Brun, Cavendish and Thomas – kei-ai

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The Long Road To Paris

Have you ever ridden a bike for 180 km in a single day? Ever woken up the next day and, with your legs screaming in agony thought ‘that was fun, let’s do it again’? Ever done this for three weeks straight over some of the toughest mountain passes in Europe? Didn’t think so, but this is the challenge facing the world’s elite road cyclists in the coming weeks.

Champs Elysees empty for Le Tour

The Champs Elysees shuts down every Summer for the climax of Le Tour. Photo: sacratomato_hr

Yes it’s Tour de France time, the biggest bike race in the world is commonly referred to as simply ‘The Tour’. There are numerous other stage races called a tour of somewhere; Tour de Suisse, Tour of Britain, Tour Down Under, Tour of California to name just a few, but there is only one Tour. It captures the attention of the world like no other cycling event, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana may pose equally daunting physical challenges over their three-week durations but the intensity and desire to succeed of every rider taking part makes the Tour something special. For team sponsors it’s time to reap the rewards of the investment they make to fund their team all season long. The riders themselves are aware of this and have been known to launch solo attacks and get into breakaways purely to get their team sponsor some more airtime, such is the focus of attention on this race. It is easy to spot a first-time stage winner in a major race as, providing time permits, an experienced pro will do up their jersey after a long day in the saddle several hundred metres before the finish line just to make sure the sponsors logo is fully visible as they cross the line, arms aloft with a thousand camera lenses trained on them. Those first-time winners are often naive and so caught up in the momentous, life-changing occasion that they can forget their professional duties and cross the line with their jersey half unzipped and all the photographers capture is the rider’s sweat soaked vest clinging to their emaciated rib-cage.

It is a mark of how much the Tour means to every rider that just finishing the grueling ordeal is enough for many. Getting to the finish line on the Champs-Elysees is the personal goal for all but the chosen few at the start of the race. Some will target a stage win, some will have their eyes on taking home a jersey come Paris but most are there to work for their team leader, set a pace, fetch water and protect them from the inevitable bumps and scrapes of racing in such a large peloton. There will be the odd breakaway that will be successful though, and a formerly unheralded domestique can write their name into the record books. Mark Cavendish, the 15-time Tour stage winner, repeatedly states that he would be happy with one stage win every year as a single stage win in the Tour can make a cyclist’s career. Magnus Backstedt, the Swedish giant of a man tells a story of how, having just signed a single year contract with Chris Boardman’s Credit Agricole team he won the 19th stage of the 1998 Tour. That evening he was sitting down with the team’s sporting director who ripped up Backstedt’s current contract and handed him a new two-year deal with an improved salary – that is what the Tour means to teams and riders alike.

This year’s edition, the 98th running of the event, gets started on Saturday on France’s Atlantic coast in the Vendee region, so clear skies and energy sapping sun are almost guaranteed to wave the riders off as they embark on their 3000+ km anti-clockwise journey around the roads of France. The anti-clockwise nature sees the riders tackle the Pyrenees first and with two of the three high mountain stages ending with summit finishes they will give an early opportunity for the general classification (GC) contenders to separate themselves from the rest of the peloton. The Alps then follow in the final week and with the Col du Galibier being climbed twice in 24hrs to mark 100 yrs since it was first climbed in the Tour, it really is a climber’s route this year. Summit finishes on the top of the Galibier and the iconic Alpe-d’Huez will no doubt be fought out by race favourites Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, but can anyone get near the top two from the past two Tours?

Mark Renshaw suffers early in last years Tour.

For many the attraction to the Tour de France is watching others suffer, Mark Renshaw knows all about suffering on a bike. Photo: GeS

My guess would be no, the battle for the final podium spot has been one of the most intriguing stories of the last two Tours though with Lance Armstrong edging out Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins in his breakout Tour of 2009 and Russian Denis Menchov managed to stay on his bike for long enough in 2010 to beat Sammy Sanchez on to the podium. Sanchez will be targeting the podium again along with a host of others, and with only 65.5 km of time-trialling to deal with this year and 23 of those being the team time-trial, it’s not unlikely that you’ll see a bunch of pure climbers fighting it out for that third step in Paris. That unfortunately would seem to eliminate Wiggins, who whilst appearing to be in spectacular form as his win in the Dauphine last month suggests, will always rely on his time-trialling prowess to build an advantage over the ‘mountain goats’ and then limit his losses when the roads start to point skywards.

Where else to look for action this year:

Team Time-Trial – many a team will be eyeing up the 23 km second stage as a chance to get themselves some glory, and a good shot at the yellow jersey to boot. Team Sky have made no secret of their desire to attack every stage this year and will see it as an ideal opportunity for their first yellow jersey in their sophomore year. They’ll face stiff competition though from HTC-High Road, Garmin-Cervelo, the Schleck’s newly formed Leopard-Trek outfit and the Contador-led Saxo Bank. The Schleck’s and Contador will be less worried about being in yellow during the first week as they’ll see it as more of a burden on the team than anything, but they won’t want the likes of Wiggins or HTC’s Tony Martin gaining too much of an advantage too early.

Green Jersey – Last year’s winner Alessandro Petacchi is present again, as are controversial Belgian Tom Boonen, 2005 and 2009 winner Thor Hushovd and Manxman Mark Cavendish. The four of them will all slug it out for the points jersey. Adjustments have been made to the intermediate sprints this year with only one per stage, but with more points on offer Cavendish has already said he will have to divert from his previously unsuccessful game-plan of focussing solely on stage victories to win green. Cavendish has had another slow start to the season but two stage victories in May’s Giro gave him a boost and plenty of training miles were got into the legs during the Tour de Suisse so he should be able to pick up more than his prerequisite one victory again this year. There aren’t many flat sprints this year though so it does seem tailor-made for a big man such as Hushovd to emerge victorious again, but with four sprinters of such pedigree in the field it won’t be a walk in the park for any of them.

Individual Time Trial – It’s hard to look past the usual suspects of Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador, Tony Martin and David Millar for the penultimate stage. Millar and Wiggins have both got the better of four-time World time trial champion Cancellara this year but the man they call Spartacus always seems to perform on the big occasion so shouldn’t be written off.

King of the Mountains (KoM) – With two of the last three winners having had their title stripped due to doping irregularities it seems rather difficult to predict a winner this year, and for how long they will manage to keep hold of their title. Anthony Charteau was wearing the polka dot jersey in Paris last year after fighting all the way with compatriot Jerome Pineau, but it seems unlikely he’ll be able to repeat the trick for a second successive year. Gone are the days it seems of a KoM winner placing high in the GC as well, the tactics nowadays seem to be to breakaway early on in a stage, hoover up the points on the early climbs and then let the big boys pass you by on the final slope. With this in mind I wouldn’t like to put too much money on anyone this year but the French seem to have been targeting this jersey somewhat in the past couple of years as they try to bring back some pride to French cycling in the lack of a real GC contender.

Philippe Gilbert – Swept up in the Spring classics and with a tough first week not looking tailor-made for the usual sprint-fest then the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider could well be in with a chance of a stage to add to his three other Grand Tour victories in Italy and Spain.

My predictions:

Yellow Jersey – Contador to take it by around a minute from Schleck the younger, only to have this year’s and last year’s victories taken away from him when the Court of Arbitration for Sport hear the appeal for his drugs ban in August.

Mark Cavendish in Green

Mark Cavendish is fond of the colour green but has yet to make it to Paris with anything other than green sunglasses. Photo: RoxanneMK

Green Jersey – Yes I said it wasn’t built for Cavendish this year but I’m still going to go for him anyway, he’s acknowledged that he’ll have to change his approach this year and seems more determined than ever finally grab the green jersey to match his green sunglasses.

KoM Jersey – Not much more than a guess for this one but I’ll go for a Spaniard and David Arroyo in particular, not sure why just had to pick someone.

3rd Spot – With Andy Schleck pencilled in for second I’ll go for the returning Vinokourov to steal third, he finished 16th in support of Contador last year so with the full backing of his Kazakh team behind him he’ll be going all out this year.

Aside from all the inevitable talk around Contador’s ongoing doping saga I also think this will be a very clean Tour, and hopefully accident free given the couple of horrible incidents cycling has had to bear recently. Whatever happens though it is sure to be three weeks of pure theatre, set against the stunning backdrop of France’s imposing mountains and numerous châteaux.