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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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