Voeckler Comes of Age

Voeckler on the podium in the French National Champion's Jersey

Former French champion Voeckler is getting used to standing on the podium. Photo: Petit Brun

I mentioned in my preview to the Tour de France that the French had been searching for a real GC contender since Laurent Jalabert won the Vuelta a Espana back in 1995. Well it seems they had simply been looking in the wrong place for the last seven years since a 25yr old Thomas Voeckler surprised everyone by hanging on to the Maillot jaune for ten days in the 2004 Tour before relinquishing it to eventual winner Lance Armstrong.

Voeckler (or Voikla if your name’s Phil Liggett) has climbed with the best in the world to get through three gruelling Pyrenean mountain stages, not to mention safely negotiating three tricky flat stages to keep hold of the yellow jersey he took from Thor Hushovd going into the first rest day last week. Most ‘experts’ were predicting that ‘little Tommy’ would surrender the jersey on the first high mountain stage but that wasn’t to be and he further confounded those so called experts by holding on to the jersey with aggressive riding, not just sucking wheels to drag him up the mountains whilst limiting his losses.

Stage 10

Cav loses! Yes the Manx missile is human, former teammate Andre Greipel beat the diminutive HTC rider into second by the slimmest of margins. It took what Cavendish admitted to be a ‘perfect sprint’ to beat him, Cav was not happy at losing having been set up so perfectly once again by his reliable team but conceded that Greipel was the better man on the day. Greipel’s teammate and Cavendish’s main rival for the green jersey, Philippe Gilbert, knowing that he can’t beat Cavendish in a bunch sprint, attacked off the front of the peloton in the closing kilometres. It was a suicide mission though and the peloton swallowed him up leaving the Belgian to come in 15th and lose a large chunk of points to Cavendish.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green –  Gilbert, KoM – Hoogerland

Stage 11

Revenge didn’t take long to be served up by Cavendish and his bunch of merry men, the pouring rain ensured it was definitely served cold as well. The stage into Carmaux was drenched by a torrential downpour but the gun-barrel straight approach to the finish line left Cav’s rivals surfing his bow-wave as he rode away from the field to bag his 18th Tour de France victory and 3rd of this year’s edition. Greipel was a distant 2nd and Gilbert a lowly 66th, so 45 points for the win added to the 4 he’d taken from the Belgian in the intermediate sprint gave Cavendish the green jersey in le Tour for the 1st time since 2009. On the podium he kissed the jersey and was still grinning when he walked off the podium to speak to ITV’s Ned Boulting, telling the reporter ‘Green suits me doesn’t it?’.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Hoogerland

Andre Greipel being interviewed.

Greipel has been receiving more of the limelight since his move away from HTC. Photo: kei-ai

Stage 12

The first high mountains of the Tour were tackled here and there were two brutes to contend with, after dealing with the 1st category Hourquette d’Ancizan the riders were faced with the Col du Tourmalet and then a race to the summit at Luz Ardiden. Without Wiggins it was feared that British interest would fade as the roads turned upwards but Geraint Thomas had other ideas as he got himself into the day’s breakaway and summited the Tourmalet in second place before being swallowed up and spat out by the GC contenders on the day’s final climb. Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez took the stage win ahead of Belgian new boy Jelle Vanendert, Frank Schleck looked the stronger of the brothers as he rode away from a group containing his brother, Evans and Basso in the final kilometres. The story of the day though was defending champion Alberto Contador being dropped by the lead group and losing further time to his rivals. The yellow jersey rolled in shortly after and maintained his time gap over second place with a defiant display of climbing that few had predicted.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 13

A slightly easier stage the next day; only three categorised climbs, although one of them was the giant Col d’Aubisque, and a flat finish meant that the big boys were less likely to come out and play and a breakaway had a good chance at success. The breakaway was a large one, ten riders got clear after the first climb including world champion Thor Hushovd and the two Frenchmen Jeremy Roy and David Moncoutie. Roy attacked with 50km to go and built up an advantage over the splintered chasing pack but Hushovd wasn’t going to let the Frenchman away that easily. The Norwegian descended the Col d’Aubisque like a madman, hitting a top speed of 112kph, he eventually caught up with Moncoutie but the Cofidis rider was reluctant to help him chase down Roy and deprive the French public of a stage win. It was left for Hushovd to do all the chasing and he eventually caught Roy with just 2km remaining and rode straight by him to claim his most famous Tour stage win yet.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Roy

Stage 14

Voeckler had got this far in the yellow jersey but this really was the day he was expected to give it up to a real contender. A punishing day in the saddle saw the field climb over five mountain passes before facing the 15km long drag up to Plateau de Beille for a summit finish expected to provide some fireworks in the battle for yellow. The fireworks never really came though, the day’s breakaway was overtaken on the final climb and the main contenders seemed happy to mark each other as Sammy Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert rode away from them to the finish line again. It was Vanendert who emerged victorious this time but Sanchez pulled further time back on the rest of the field after his nightmare first week. The attacks in the yellow jersey group were all coming from Schleck the younger today with the odd spurt from Basso and Voeckler to test the legs of those surrounding them but no-one seemed to have the legs to put the hammer down and ride away from the group. The attacks were covered by Evans and eventually Contador but it was clear to see that Contador was simply trying to survive the Pyrenees in the hope that his ailments will have eased and he can attack hard in the Alps.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 15

The final flat stage before Paris offered the sprinters one last shot at glory before facing up to the high Alps next week. It also presented the last real chance for Cavendish to build up a buffer of points over Gilbert and Rojas to take into the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees. Never one to miss an opportunity that’s exactly what Cav did, finishing ahead of both his rivals in the intermediate sprint and beating Farrar by a wheel on the finish line with Rojas back in 5th and Gilbert nowhere to be seen. The win boosted Cavendish’s advantage to 37 and 71 points over the Spaniard and Belgian respectively. Gilbert had once again attacked with 3km to go but with men from Sky, Garmin and HTC all working on the front of the peloton the attack was doomed and Mark Renshaw once again gave the perfect lead-out for Cavendish to do his thing and claim his 19th win in the Tour de France in 4 years.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stars of the Week

Hushovd in the Rainbow Jersey

Thor Hushovd is racing like a true champion in the Rainbow Jersey. Photo: richardmasoner

Thomas Voeckler – Held on to the yellow jersey against all odds, repeating his heroics of 2004 on the Plateau de Beille to finish the week with the same lead as he started it with. It’s not only the French who are now considering him to be a real contender, he leads both Schlecks and Evans by around two minutes, Basso by three and Contador by four. No his time-trialling isn’t brilliant but should he survive the Alps and still be in yellow then the chasing group aren’t necessarily the best time-triallers in the field either and the yellow jersey on a Frenchman’s back can make him do strange things.

Mark Cavendish – Won another two stages and should he make it over the Alps has more than a good chance of reaching Paris with his beloved green jersey on his back. A Brit has never won the points jersey in the Tour before so should he do it next weekend he would cement his place as a true great of British sport.

Thor Hushovd – Did the rainbow jersey of the world champion proud with a stunning stage victory, the former sprinter and two-time green jersey winner seems to have transformed himself into somewhat of a climber as he won in the Pyrenees.

Jeremy Roy – Present in most of the breakaways of the week, held the polka dot jersey for a day and was within touching distance of a stage win only for that big Norwegian to steal it at the last-minute.

Jelle Vanendert & Samuel Sanchez – When all around them seemed content with marking each others accelerations these two threw down the gauntlet and rode away from the pack to occupy the top two positions on both of the summit finishes in the Pyrenees.

Philippe Gilbert – May not have replicated the heroics of his early season and first week of the Tour but his aggressive riding style is entertaining to watch and it’s been a long time since a green jersey contender has flirted with the top 50 overall (he’s currently 28th).

Coming Up

The big boys can’t hide for much longer and if they want to take the yellow jersey off Voeckler’s shoulders then they’ll have to start riding like they mean business. Two more summit finishes are in store for the riders in the Alps as they climb above 2000m for the first time this year. The Galibier and Alpe d’Huez will give the opportunity for plenty of attacking riding and for those that have less confidence in their time-trialling ability will be the launch pad for their attack on the yellow jersey.

Cavendish seemingly just has to make it through the Alps (not an easy task by any means) to win Green, Gilbert will have to attack on both stages 16 and 17 if he is to stand any chance of clawing back those lost points and overtaking Cav before Paris.

The KoM competition seems to be between Sanchez and Vanendert now and they are only separated by two points. Both will fancy their chances of taking the prize but maybe Vanendert is the slight favourite as he is further back in the GC standings so will be let go more readily by the field than Sanchez.

Finally it was nice to see a week pass with fewer major crashes and less abandonments, and Kolobnev’s positive test is still the only one so far so that bodes well for the future reputation of the race.

One last thing, the Tour always provides some of the most photogenic sporting action of the year and this gallery illustrates just that: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2011/07/2011_tour_de_france_part_1.html

Photos: Voeckler – Petit Brun, Greipel – Kei-ai, Hushovd – richardmasoner

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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