A Tour For The Ages

After three weeks of punishing pedalling the torture is finally over and the 167 finishers can rest easy in their beds, safe in the knowledge that they don’t have to get up and ride another 180 km over the toughest roads in France in the morning. This Tour will go down as one of the most fiercely contested in recent history, the yellow jersey was settled in the penultimate stage’s time trial, the green jersey on the Champs-Elysees and the polkadot jersey went down to the final climb up l’Alpe d’Huez. It was a year of firsts as well, Australia got its first Tour Champion with Cadel Evans, Britain got its first green jersey winner with Mark Cavendish and a true climber and GC contender won the KoM jersey, Olympic road race Champion Samuel Sanchez, for the first time since Richard Virenque in 2006 (I’m not counting Michael Rasmussen’s ‘titles’ in 2005 and ’06).

Yellow jersey

The yellow jersey or 'maillot jaune' in the Tour de France is the biggest prize in cycling. Photo: Stewart Dawson

Before I look at the star’s of this year’s race let’s have a quick recap of how the last week’s racing unfolded:

Stage 16

Thor Hushovd got his second win of the race and tenth in total, outwitting fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen to win the final sprint into Gap.  The real action came behind though as Evans, Contador and Sanchez stole time from the Schleck brothers with some aggressive riding on the descent from the Col de Manse which left Andy complaining of dangerous race routes.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 17

A second consecutive stage for Norway and a second for Boasson Hagen and Team Sky. The race ventured on to foreign soil for the only time this year as the peloton crossed into Italy, Boasson Hagen attacked from the breakaway on the ascent of the final climb and distanced Jonathan Hivert and Bauke Mollema with a combination of aggressive descending and mistakes from those in pursuit. Contador and Sanchez attacked again on the final descent but didn’t have enough in their legs to stay away as they were caught in the final 500m by the group containing all the race favourites.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

Stage 18

The climbing got serious today, three hors category climbs, all over 2350m and the highest summit finish ever in le Tour on top of the Col du Galibier. Fresh from the criticism he faced over his comments made earlier in the week, Andy Schleck attacked on the Col d’Izoard and no-one could go with him as he rode up the road to find support in the form of two teammates from the day’s early breakaway. They couldn’t help him for long though as he powered past them and up the Galibier to win the famous stage with one of the gutsiest rides in modern Tour history. Meanwhile behind Evans effectively rode solo up the Izoard and Galibier as Contador struggled to stay in touch with his group and Frank Schleck understandably hitched a ride on Cadel’s back wheel. Andy’s lead over the Evans and yellow jersey group was up around the four-minute mark at the foot of the Galibier but the tireless work from Evans and a final burst from Voeckler saw the heroic Frenchman reduce his deficit on the line to 2 mins 21 secs, meaning he kept the yellow jersey by just 15 secs.

Yellow – Voeckler, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Vanendert

View from the Col du Galibier

The Cold du Galibier gave the Tour its highest ever summit finish. Photo: Guido Bellomo

Stage 19

Not content with one trip up the Galibier, the Tour organisers scheduled another gruelling stage as the riders hauled themselves over the Col du Telegraphe before tackling the Galibier once again and finishing atop the iconic Alpe d’Huez. Contador, out of the GC reckoning after ‘hitting the wall’ on the previous day’s final climb, attacked on the first climb of the day and was followed by Andy. Evans, Sanchez and Voeckler couldn’t, or didn’t, follow the attack and the two attackers rode to the head of the race, leading the field over the Telegraphe and the Galibier. They could never establish a significant gap over the chasing pack though and the whole field was back together at the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez. Yellow jersey holder Thomas Voeckler knew he didn’t have it in him to follow the attacks that would come so his right-hand man Pierre Rolland was set free to steal some glory for himself as he attacked on the Alpe along with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. Contador countered the attack and compatriot Samuel Sanchez followed, last year’s champion caught and passed Rolland and Hesjedal and looked like the Contador of old as he set a tempo that no-one else could live with. Sammy Sanchez wasn’t done though and he worked with Rolland to claw his way back to Contador only for Rolland to spring another attack and ride away from both of them to the finish line. Sanchez crossed the line in second to seal the KoM jersey ahead of Andy Schleck, who in turn took the lead in the race as Thomas Voeckler finally surrendered the maillot jaune.

Yellow – A. Schleck, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 20

Heading into the decisive 42.5 km time trial Andy Schleck had a lead of 53 secs over brother Frank and 57 secs over Cadel Evans. They were the only 3 with real ambitions of wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs-Elysees, the big question was whether 57 secs was a big enough buffer for notoriously shaky time-triallist Andy. The question was answered emphatically by Cadel Evans on the route around Grenoble with the outcome being a resounding no. The stage itself was won by German Tony Martin but the ride of the day came from Evans as he rode the time trial of his life to come in just seven seconds behind the HTC rider and 2’32” ahead of Andy. The Aussie was finally wearing the yellow jersey on the day it really mattered, on the final roll into Paris and on to the Champs-Elysees. The Schleck brothers occupy the remaining steps on the podium with Andy ahead of big brother Frank, Contador put in a champions ride to finish the stage in third and haul himself back up to fifth overall, leaving new French hero Voeckler to keep hold of his fourth place.

Yellow – Evans, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stage 21

The roll into Paris now regularly sees celebratory sipping of Champagne by the team of the yellow jersey and this year was no different as Cadel Evans and the rest of his BMC team toasted a job well done  as the peloton ambled its way through the Paris suburbs. The real action started once they reached the capital and it finished as it has done for the past two years, HTC caught the breakaway in the final lap and set up a procession win for Cavendish, only this year it had the added bonus of a green jersey for the fastest man on two wheels at the end of it.

Yellow – Evans, Green – Cavendish, KoM – Sanchez

Stars Of The Tour

Cadel Evans in the Dauphine

Cadel Evans had prior knowledge of the TT course having ridden it in the Dauphine Libere in June. Photo: Petit Brun

Cadel Evans – The oldest post-war Tour winner at 34 years and the 2009 World Champion becomes the first Southern hemisphere rider, not just Aussie, to win the yellow jersey. The nearly man finally emerged victorious in the world’s biggest bike race after plenty of attacking riding in the first week, consolidation in the second week, and mountains of solo work in the Alps as those around him refused to help him drag attacks back. It was then all finished off with a stunning time-trial to take the yellow jersey when it really mattered.

Mark Cavendish – Only the second Brit to ever win a jersey at Le Tour, the first since Robert Millar won the climber’s polkadot jersey in 1984 and the first Brit to win the coveted green jersey for sprinters. A change in tactics to target the intermediate sprints paid off and another five stage wins capped a near faultless tour for the Manx missile.

Samuel Sanchez – Olympic road race champion and last year’s 4th placed rider was Mr. Consistency in the mountains and his second place on the final climb up l’Alpe d’Huez clinched the polkadot jersey for the Spaniard. A change in the points allocation for this competition meant the jersey went to a true climber who finished high up the GC instead of an opportunist who simply racked up the points over the early climbs of the day.

Pierre Rolland – France may have stumbled upon their next star of road cycling as Thomas Voeckler’s chief helper in the mountains turned in a virtuoso performance in the final mountain stage of the race to win on l’Alpe d’Huez. He followed it up with a solid time trial to hold off Estonian Rein Taaramae and win the young rider’s white jersey competition.

Thomas Voeckler – The new hero of French cycling, surpassing his deeds of 2004 to hold on to the yellow jersey for another ten days through the Pyrenees and the Alps, finally giving it up on the final climb of the race.

Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen – Two stages apiece for the Norwegian duo and a 1-2 in stage 16 as world champion Hushovd got the better of his heir apparent. Their achievements were widely celebrated as a large contingent of Norwegian fans lined the streets of every stage to cheer on their heroes.

Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha – Victims of the Tour’s most bizarre incident as a television car crashed into Flecha who inadvertently bundled Hoogerland off the road and into a barbed-wire fence. Both riders got up and finished the stage, had the next day off on the first rest day and then emerged battered and bruised to ride to the finish in Paris.

So it’s all over for another year, it’s hard to imagine how next year could match the tension, competitiveness and excitement that this year’s edition has brought us but it will give it a go anyway. 2012 will hopefully see a fully fit Contador and a motivated Wiggins back to battle it out with the Schleck brothers and reigning champion Evans, and who knows there might even be another French contender for the GC in the shape of an older and wiser Pierre Rolland.

Photos: Yellow jersey – Stewart Dawson, Galibier – Guido Bellomo, Evans – Petit Brun

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