Sunday, 25 July 2010

The 2010 Tour de France: Rotterdam to Paris in 22 days of chaos, peril, and stunning sprints

23 days ago, 198 riders filled out in front of fans, officials, press and public to stand shoulder to shoulder with their team mates on the eve of the epic three week 3,642 km race. With 1 prologue, 9 flat stages, 6 high mountain stages with 3 summit finishes, 4 medium mountain stages and 1 Individual Time Trial, the race was set to visit 11 new stage towns and 7 sectors of cobbles making up 13,150km of the total as it travelled from its start in Rotterdam, through the towns and cities of Belgium and into France.

Controversy has always seemed to be part of the Tour in recent history as much the racing itself, and with Lance Armstrong fresh from more Landisgate scandle in the States, this Tour was sure to be no exception. Having said that, it was a Cervelo rider, Xavier Florencio who was the first to go courting a little controversy of his own. Having used a non regulation hemeroid cream he was ejected by his team for breaking internal regulations.

As the rain poured down on the streets of Rotterdam, the Tour's first casualties were Manuel Cardoso of Footon-Serrveto Frank Mathias of BMC. Suffering a broken thumb, various cuts and bruises and a tear in the right thigh, he was forced to abandon his Tour without starting stage 1. He joined Cardoso, the Prologue Lantern-Rouge who had sustained a head injury forcing his withdrawal despite his pleas to his director sportif to be allowed to continue.

Stage 1 saw a rogue dog bring down several riders and saw Adam Hansen of HTC-Columbia out of the Tour with a broken collarbone, the injury that would become a trend in the 2010 edition of the Tour. As a non starter on stage 2 where Mikael Delage suffered nasty cuts to his face and a broken cheekbone forcing him to abandon, Hansen and Delage appeared on the Tour website withdrawal list. The run into Spa for stage 2 saw as many as 70 riders hit the tarmac, with both Schlecks injured Cancellara negotiated a controversial neutralisation and go-slow to protest the stage route that saw many riders injured who would later abandon. Meanwhile, Christian Vande Velde sustained fractures that saw him fail to start stage 3.

Overnight, the fever that would sweep across the peloton started, causing Niki Terpstra to add his name to the list as a non starter for stage 3. While the peloton suffered the Hell of the North that the pave of the Paris-Roubaix presented them with, Frank Schleck hit the ground once more sustaining fractures to his ribs and collar bone. His injuries requiring surgery, it was clear from the length of time he lay motionless on the ground that his Tour was over. David Le Lay also sustained injuries to his collar bone forcing him to abandon along with him.

Amets Txurruka was the next rider to suffer a collar bone fracture. Hitting the deck on stage 4 as the race headed into Reims, he was forced to abandon without starting stage 5. Suffering since his fall on stage 2, Juan Jose Oroz called it a day, without starting stage 7. Meanwhile Stijn Vandenbergn earned the distinction of being the only rider for the 2010 edition to fail to come in within the time-limit.

Stage 8 and the Col de la Ramaz saw several riders crack under the pressure in the heatwave that the peloton had endured. With the Col de la Madeleine ahead of them, Fabio Felline, Simon Gerrans, Roger Kluge and Vladimir Karpets failed to start stage 9. Karpets and Gerrans had earlier sustained fractures to his arms. The youngest rider to start the race, Fabio Felline aged just 20 years old, was forced to pull out due to contusions suffered in previous stages. Despite starting the stage, Markus Eibegger was forced to abandon the stage shortly after the stage left the depart town.

Stage 10 saw history made with the first full disqualification for a reason other than failing a drugs test in as long as anyone could remember. Mark "bad boy" Renshaw faced the wrath of the Tour organisers for his actions in bringing Mark Cavendish to the line for his 13th Tour stage victory of his career to date. Head-butting Julian Dean and blocking Tyler Farrar, he was ejected from the Tour for his conduct. The decision deeply hurt Cavendish who was a close friend and room-mate of the Aussie lead-out man.

Charles Wegelius was the only British rider from the eight strong contingent to abandon, failing to start stage 11. Suffering a stomach bug, the rider admitted that he may now quit cycling all together. Having broken his elbow earlier in the race, Robbie Hunter was forced to abandon, joining Wegelius on the list of non starters for stage 11.

As the race headed into Bourg-lès-Valence for stage 11, the fatigue was too much for some riders, and Samule Dumoulin became the latest name added to the list, failing to start stage 12. Having failed to win a single stage and suffering with a fractured wrist since stage 2, Tyler Farrar was forced to abandon on stage 12 as the race headed in Mende.

Stage 13 saw the race head from Rodez to Ravel for a final plain stage before the Pyrenees. They say 13 is unlucky for some and for Rin Taaramae that was proven true as he was forced to abandon his Tour on the road to Ravel.

As Evans struggled to perform at his best, his team mate Mauro Santambrogio was forced to abandon the race on stage 15. The rider had been sick and pulled off the side of the road before the start of the Portet d'Aspet, calling an end to his Tour there and then. Stage 15 would become the most talked about stage, as Schleck dropped a chain as he started to attack, Contador taking full advantage and a lead of 39 seconds, a time that would come back to haunt the Luxembourg rider.

Following a crash on the descent of the Col d'Ares, Iban Mayoz suffered fractured ribs forcing him to abandon his Tour. Joined by Bram Tankink, the two riders were the only non starters for stage 16. Midway through stage 17, Slovenian Simon Spilak peeled off his race numbers withdrawing from the race as it headed up in the mists to the summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet.

Francesco Reda became the 28th rider to be added to the official list of withdrawals on stage 18 as the peloton headed into Bordeaux for one last sprint finish before Paris. The Italian rider was very dizzy and looked livid. The doctor unable to find the exact reason immediately, he was tranferred to the hospital for further examination.

In 170th place, Adriano Malori was the 2010 edition Lantern Rouge. Aged just 22, this was his debute Tour. Riding for Lampre-Farnese Vini he is sure to return next year and place higher in the final standings. He joined 169 riders who made it to Paris through the Alps and over the Pyrenees; cobbles, crashes and all. Some riders achieved a lot, some simply survived. There will be many riders whose names may have been mentioned once, others whose names were not mentioned at all. But their blood, sweat and tears have become part of the rich embroidery that is the Tour, their collective experiences as part of the peloton forever part of history. That is what makes the Tour what it is. Pain and passion, guts and glory; for three weeks of July they endure everything the Tour throws at them. A travelling community, they make their way across France and any other country who will welcome them. The tifosi follow them up hills and over mountains, the journalists wax lyrical about their triumphs and tribulations. All in their honour. Once every year. Until the next. Vive le Tour.

Cavendish takes historic second consecutive win on the Champs-Élysées

24 days ago, 198 riders from 22 teams were presented to the public on the eve of the epic three week race that is known as the Tour de France. 23 days of racing and 170 riders later the race came on to the famous Champs-Élysées that has hosted the finale since 1975. British hope and Team HTC-Columbia leader, Mark Cavendish had spent the first of the three weeks haunted by the woes of a late-to-form season that saw him crash out and get beaten to finishes that should surely have been textbook sprints for the young Manxman. He recovered to take four stage victories during the Tour and came to the start in Longjumeau wanting to make it five and a second consecutive win on the hallowed ground that is the finish line in Paris. For a moment, it looked like the late breakaway would crush his dream. But the young man from the Isle of Man proved why he is called the "Manx Missile" powering away from everybody else to take the stage victory he had dreamt about since Rotterdam.

On a day when the champagne was flowing and congratulations over pouring, it seemed like the cameras would all be on Alberto Contador as he play-duelled with Andy Schleck, his second place rival for much of the Tour, whom he had beaten by a close margin of 39 seconds; the same deficit Schleck had suffered to lose in stage 15 where he suffered gear problems snuffing out his attack on the Spaniard. As it was the cameras were all on Lance Armstrong as he courted controversy once more, his team coming to the start in non-regulation jerseys. Hoping to ride in special Livestrong Team 28 jerseys to highlight the 28 million suffers of cancer world wide, the team were dishearted to find the UCI not so welcoming to the idea.

On a stage that is by all accounts a celebratory lap where riders swap jerseys and bikes while the winning rider and his team sip the amber nectar provided by the race organisers, the UCI felt it was a step to far to bend the rules with the jerseys. Despite the fact that the same stunt was carried out by US Postal in the Centenary Tour and Mario Cippolini was well known for wearing non-regulation skin suits with the punishment for doing so being a fine, the UCI threatened to disqualify the whole team if they did not change back into their regulation jerseys. Armstrong was the last to comply having argued with commissaires about their statement over race radio, stopping to pin his numbers on his jersey with help from the Quick Step team car. Having held up the race for 15 minutes, it could be argued that the UCI gave Livestrong far more publicicity than the stunt may have garnered had they not brought so much attention to the actions of the team.

After three weeks of everything the race organisers could possibly think to throw at the riders, from cobbles to monstrous mountains, the chaos, blood, sweat, tears, crashing and cracking, head-butting and fractured elbows, wrists, collar-bones and ribs, it all came down to one final fight for the line. If the Alpe d'Hertz is mecca for the grimpeurs then the Champs-Élysées is surely the equivalent for the pure sprinters. Having suffered the perilous Pyrenees, the survivors knew this would be their last bid for glory and what glory it would be to win on the famous Parisian avenue.

The line in sight, Hushovd and Petacchi knew this would be their only chance. Hushovd was facing leaving the Tour with a single victory; Petacchi the possibilty of a 6th place or worse finish losing him the Maillot Vert to Cavendish. As they powered towards the finish, as if from nowhere, the Manx missile fired to the line, finishing several bike lengths ahead of his closest rival Petacchi who held out for second place. The second place finishing was enough to secure his lead over the Manxman in the points competition, securing his jersey.

But for the 25 year old stage winner, the victory, his second in two years and his 15th Tour victory in his career to date, was enough. Winning "the biggest bike race in the world" on the most hallowed stage of the epic race was a dream come true and a fitting end to a Tour that saw him criticised, challenged and pushed to the max. Questions had been asked about his abilities following the loss of lead-out man Mark Renshaw. The "best in the business" his critics had questioned his abilty to win without the guaranteed position Renshaw would put him in, having brought him so well to the finish last year he was able to secure 2nd place for himself. Now, those critics have been answered. Lead-out man or no leadout man, Cavendish is a hard man to beat once he hits his stride.

It wouldn't be right to finish without a word on Alberto Contador. Aged just 27, he stepped up onto the top spot of the podium for the third time in his career, taking a third Tour victory in as many appearances. Winning each Grand Tour he has ridden in, he worked hard to overcome rivalry within his own team last year and from Saxo-Bank this year. Finishing just 39 seconds ahead of 2nd place finisher Andy Schleck in a Tour that he suffered at times during, he was over come with emotion yesterday. Winning this Tour has meant more to him than any other because of how hard he struggled at times. He already knows that the 2011 edition will be Schleck vs Contador round two. After the Vuelta, the 2011 edition route announced, the presure will be on for him to make it four out of four. But with Schleck thinking the same thing, the intensity is sure to rumble through next season from day one.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stage 20 Preview: The Final Countdown

Longjumeau, a first time stage host, couldn’t resist the call of the Tour. The Tour has a lot in common with Essonne: the 1903 inaugural edition started here and twelve of the towns in this county have been visited by the Tour since the post-war revival edition of 1947. Located less than 20 km away from Paris, two centuries ago it was the last staging post before the capital. Like a last transition between the town and country, Longjumeau is surrounded by fields and crops, making it a breath of fresh air only a few kilometres outside Paris.

For the last 35 years one of the most beautiful avenues in the world has hosted the Tour's grand finale. Walter Godefroot was the first to win on the Champs, since followed by all of cycling’s greatest sprinters, and some phenomenal hard-hitters. Indeed, only a hard-hitter like Bernard Hinault could prevent the final home stretch from being a sprint finish.

Last year Mark Cavendish became the first British rider to win on the famous avenue. This year he is looking to take a record breaking second consecutive win on the finale stage. With Petachhi and the Green Jersey 16 points ahead, the Italian will be looking to secure a top 6 placing to remain in the lead of the points competition. But with Garmin and Sky both looking to get in on the action, the Lampre train may find their leader left wanting as Cavendish takes the stage and the lead in the points to snatch the Jersey he originally came here for.

Schleck loses out on Tour victory by 39 seconds as Menchov volts into third place in the GC

The best young rider over the three weeks of racing that is the Tour de France knew it would come down to the Time Trial. With Contador on paper the better time trialler, Schleck knew he had a disadvantage. 8 seconds down on his rival, the Luxembourg rider knew he had to perform the best Time Trial of his life. Sitting, waiting, trying to find solace and solitude as he waited two painful minutes for the Spainiard to cross the line, he tried to avoid the media scrum that was lurking for the prized sound bite from the young man who had already achieved the accolade of the Tour's best young rider.

Riding his heart out for all his worth and with everything his body had to offer against the strong headwinds coming in from the coast, the younger brother of Frank Schleck, who himself had crashed out of the Tour as it made its way over the pave of the Paris-Roubaix, he knew he had a hard task ahead. But he had no idea just how painful a card fate would deal. As Contador crossed the line, the calculators came out. The maths worked out, Schleck had failed by 39 seconds; the same amount of time he had lost while sorting out his mechanical on stage 15 later dubbed "Chaingate".

Meanwhile the Silent Assassin, Dennis Menchov, rode supremely well to finish ahead of rival Samuel Sanchez for the third podium position when the race finishes in Paris tomorrow. Finishing in 11th place behind Cancellara, who took the top spot ahead of German Time Trial champion Tony Martin, the Rabo Bank rider took two full minutes out of his Spanish rival. Martin finished 2nd, bested only by Cancellara, with team mate Grabsch finishing 3rd in the Time Trial; a cool recovery for yesterday's Lantern Rouge.

Sky who had failed to dominate the Tour in the way they had hoped with Edvald Bosen Hagen denied by rival sprinter Cavendish at every opportunity and Bradley Wiggins failing to perform in the same way as in the 2009 edition, were able to gain some solace in Wiggins and Thomas both placing in the top 10 for the Time Trial stage.

As Contador stood on the podium to received his yellow jersey, knowing the battle for the Tour victory was over, emotion almost got the better of him. Battling down to the wire, the Spaniard had suffered in his bid for a third Tour victory. Not always on form and suffering a PR set back with the "Chaingate" controversy, this Tour had been no walk in the park for the 27 year old rider. Schleck may now be disheartened by the loss, but despite having no regrets for the 2010 edition, the young Luxembourg rider is sure to be hungry for victory in the 2011 Tour.

Tomorrow, while the battle for the Maillot Jaune may now be over allowing Contador to have his "lap of honour" stage, the race for the Maillot Vert will hot up for one final time as the sprinters head into Paris and the Champs-Elysées. With just 16 points separating Cavendish from the Jersey, he is sure to be after more than a record second victory on the famous Tour finishing stage. If Sky can work with HTC-Columbia to place as many men between Cavendish and his rival Petacchi's Lampre train, the young Manxman may find he can claw himself into the Jersey he so desires.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Stage 19 Preview: The Individual Time Trial to Glory

Tomorrows stage is the only time-trial stage of the 2010 edition. Winding its way through the streets of Bordeaux for fifteen kilometres, with avenues and buildings to shelter the riders, the route suddenly leaves the city and arrives in the open countryside, amidst the vineyards, as the route passes through the famous landmarks of the Haut Médoc wine-making region, such as Margaux, one château after another. The finish in Pauillac is magnificent. Famous for its lamb and its magnificent view over the River Gironde, Pauillac is the twelfth town in Gironde to welcome the Tour and the second in Médoc after Lacanau in 1976. On the face of it, this time trial will merely fine-tune the classifications; there is no way the seventeenth-placed rider will grab first place. The last time trial when the Yellow Jersey changed hands on the penultimate day was in 2006, when Landis, who jumped from 3rd at the time to first, triumphed.

If Schleck is serious about taking back the Yellow Jersey he will have to be fast. Contador on paper at least, is the faster of the pair. However they have both endured the trials and tortures that the last days of the Tour has thrown at them in the Pyrenees. Contador has the advantage, starting last in the day. Can he secure a third Tour win?

Cavendish becomes only the second Brit to win a stage in Bordeaux

Cavendish won his fourth stage victory in the 2010 edition to become the second Brit to win in Bordeaux, the second most visited town after Paris. Just 3 years ago the young Manxman was the stage 7 Lantern Rouge before retiring in stage 8. Now he has become Britain's best chance for success in the Tour de France. Fans disheartened by Bradley Wiggins performance following his fourth place finish in the 2009 Tour can find some solace that one man can still bring British success in road race cycling. With this stage, his 14th Tour stage win during his 3 year Tour career, he has already surpassed the achievements of his mentor and friend, Erik Zabel, who won 13 stages in his career.

Labelled the fastest man on two wheels, the sprint specialists know he is a hard man to beat. Today they felt that once more as he blasted to the line, clear away from rivals enough to look back two or three times marvelling at the distance between him and his closest rival, Julian Dean who finished in second place.

A sprint finish had been no sure certainty for the stage which is often a decider in the Team Classification prize. Having worked hard from early on in the race, Team Radio Shack were once more looking to secure the top spot in the Team Classification standings. Working hard at the top section of the peloton, they carefully marked out their rivals, Caisse d'Epargne who are know to excel in the Team Classification standings. Up at the front of the peloton HTC-Columbia worked hard to control the chase down of a small breakaway that had escaped early on. With the leading group up ahead and cross winds along the route that ran parallel with the Bay of Biscay, there was a chance that the breakaway could survive if the sprint teams didn't work hard with one careful eye on the wind.

Lampre worked with HTC-Columbia as they chased the leading group into the final 20km, knowing that Petacchi would want to be right up there for the sprint finish. Shortly later Cervelo and Team Sky came to the fore to control the hunt. As the race came into the final 10km Oss (LIQ) tore away in a hope of time trialling his way to victory. Kept on a tight leash by the peloton as they ate up the remains of the original breakaway, HTC-Columbia switched on the gas driving the peloton up to a speed of nearly 80km an hour, keen to ensure that the stage would come down to a bunch sprint to the line.

Cavendish was cool and calculating as the peloton stormed under the flame rouge signalling the final km. Watching, waiting, he was biding his time for launch, looking for the line. Once he had it in his sights, he was gone, tearing away from his rivals, eating up the tarmac as he ripped away, looking over his shoulder marvelling at the distance he had covered as he crossed the line.

Finishing in 3rd place, Alessandro Petacchi who is currently under investigation for alleged doping offences in his home country, took enough points to put him back in the Maillot Vert which he had lost to Thor Hushovd in the Pyrenees. The Thunderous Norwegian who Cavendish had jumped from the wheel of to take the sprint finished in 14th place. With just 16 points and his Norwegian rival in between Cavendish and the Green Jersey that for now rests with Petacchi, the race for Green will go on to Paris, with not only the stage but the final points for the Maillot Vert being up for grabs at the finish line on Sunday.

Tomorrow the riders will endure a 52km Individual Time Trial from Bordeaux to Paulliac. Schleck has made his intention to continue his battle for yellow clear, but with Contador starting last, he will have the advantage of knowing exactly what he has to do to beat his Luxembourg rival. The last time trial when the Yellow Jersey changed hands on the penultimate day was in 2006, when Landis triumphed, leaping from 3rd to 1st place. Since then, the American has been disqualified due to a positive doping test. With Schleck and Contador fresh from the trials of the Pyrenees it could be a closely fought battle right to the very end. Can the Luxembourg rider move up from third last year to first this?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Stage 18 Preview: Team classification up for grabs

The struggle for the Maillot Jaune all but over, and the Maillot a Pois now resting firmly with Charteau, the Maillot Vert and the Team Classification award are still up for grabs. The 198km flat stage from Salies-de-Béarn to Bordeaux will almost certainly end in a sprint finish. The Team Classification is often critical to this stage so the teams in contention for this will be taking the stage seriously to secure this prize.

The race starts in Salies-de-Béarn, a thermal spa and city of salt that has been laboured for more than 3,500 years. The Tour has not visited since 1939: that year it was world title holder, Marcel Kint, who triumphed in this picturesque town with its quaint sloping roofs. The Black Eagle, as he was called, went on to win Paris-Roubaix and Gand-Wevelgem and was a triple winner of the Flèche Wallonne.

Since 1903 Bordeaux has featured on the Tour route 79 times making it the most visited city bar Paris. Popular with the sprint specialists, Van Looy, Darrigade, Godefroot, Maertens, Van Poppel and Zabel have triumphed at the Lescure Velodrome or on the banks of the river. Cavendish is sure to want to follow in the footsteps of Barry Hoban, the only British rider to have triumphed here. But with the Green Jersey on his back, the Thunderous Norweigan Thor Hushovd is sure to want to keep it well out of reach of the young Manxman taking a stage victory for himself.

Schleck vows to continue fighting for the Maillot Jaune as he tastes stage glory once more on the Tourmalet

Andy Schleck beat rival Alberto Contador to a stage victory on the Col du Tourmalet on stage 17 of the 2010 edition of the Tour de France. With just 8 seconds separating the two rivals in the race for the Maillot Jaune, Schleck had previously stated that the Tour victor would be decided on the summit of the Tourmalet. Tasting the success of a stage win as he crossed the line ahead of the current yellow jersey and former two time winner of the Tour de France, Schleck reassessed his previous assertion, stating that now he would continue to hunt for the Golden Fleece into Paris where the three week long race ends on Sunday.

Climbing the mist-covered mountain, a backdrop well known to the mythological setting, the riders worked hard to overcome personal struggles in the damp conditions. Earlier in the day, Samuel Sanchez (EUS) fell hard appearing to lose conciousness for a minute and for a moment appearing to be out of the Tour, but it wasnt long before he was back on his bike being paced back into the race by his team mates. the Up ahead, not wanting to suffer any further controversy, Contador held back his group from chasing down a 7 man breakaway. Carlos Sastre, a former Tour winner in the absence of Contador's team in 2008, refused to wait however, making a courageous yet controversial bid to chase down the leading group alone. Asked about the move after the stage, Sastre hit out at a Tour that has been turning cycling into a sport for spoilt brats. Angered that no one wanted to wait for him either in the Giro or here on the Tour, he made it clear that people were welcome to their opinions but that he had learnt things about himself by doing so and that was good enough for him.

Up ahead on the Tourmalet overnight rain had given way to a mystical backdrop of mist that covered the mountain summit like the wild mists of an English moore. Like a scene from Bronte's Wuthering Heights, the mists engulfed the riders as visibility was reduced to a few meters. Meanwhile down on the Col de Solour the scenes were rather more reminiscent of a chapter from James Herriot's "It shouldn't happen to a vet". Sheep had wandered onto the road causing riders to dodge them as they made their way up and over the final cat 1 ascent before they headed up to the summit finish on the Tourmalet.

As the race headed into the final climb of the hors categorie the attacks from Schleck and Contador came thick and fast. Clawing their way up the illustrious mountain each responding to the others taunting attacks, each rider was unable to unhinge the other in a battle to beat the other to the line. Schleck hungry for the 8 seconds he had to make up to regain the leaders jersey and Contador thirsting for a third Tour win, the riders knew that this was it; the Tour would be won here. The Luxembourg rider looked into the eyes of Contador in a haunting challenge much like Armstrong's "look" and it was clear that Schleck would match each attack the Spaniard launched never letting his wheel go long enough for Contador to lose him.

The summit finish in sight as they rounded the corner, their final truce was called and Schleck took the stage win inches ahead of his rival. Shortly behind them Rodriguez and Hesjedal came out of the clouds to take 3rd and 4th place ahead of GC rivals Menchov and Sanchez who were further back on the spectacular slope. The sprinters having survived the climb in their grupetto finished together within the time limit, Robbie McEwan finishing with his traditional final climb wheelie. The only rider to withdraw from the stage was Lampre's Simon Spilak.

Tomorrow the race heads into Bourdeaux for the first time since 2003. Having hosted the Tour 79 times, it is the Tours most visited town after Paris. The sprinters will be looking to dominate the finish as the race for the Maillot Vert hots up once more. With the only other sprint coming when the race finishes in Paris on Sunday, the sprint specialist teams will be looking to secure the jersey once and for all. With the time trial on Saturday the GC contenders will be looking to stay out of trouble as the likes of Hushovd and Cavendish fight their way to the line.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Stage 17 Preview: Schleck's last chance for revenge

After a second and final rest day in Pau, the latest a second rest day has come since its introduction in 1999, the riders will once more ascend to the spectacular summit of the Col du Tourmalet. With Schleck having lost his prized jersey to rival Contador, he will be looking to make as much time over his rival before the Time Trial on Saturday.

Starting in Pau, a 62 time stage town, the peloton will travel 174km climbing the Col de Marie-Blanque and the Col de Solour before heading up to the Col du Tourmalet. Perched at an altitude of 2115 meters, the Col has been climbed 73 times in Tour history, making it the most climbed peak in the Tour.

A final battle to sort the hierarchy of the GC will be fought and the winner will surely take the Maillot Jaune from here all the way to the podium in Paris on Sunday. With the dice being thrown up one final time, they really could land anywhere. But if Schleck wants to regain the jersey he lost on stage 15 he will have to execute a calculated coup de grace with all the cunning of the Tour winner he wishes to be.

Repos Review: From Cracking climbs to broken dreams the race goes into its final days

From a rest day in Morzine-Avoriaz, the peloton emerged dazed and delirious as they headed into the second week of the race. Under the pressure of the Maillot Jaune, Evans cracked on the Col de la Madeleine, losing his jersey to the young Luxembourg rider Andy Schleck. A crack in his elbow translated into a crack in his form and the Aussie broke down in the post-stage media melee.

Bastille Day saw a National Holiday for the French, but the peloton it seemed were taking the day off too. Taking a somewhat leisurely pace they cruised through the day in a relaxed manner allowing a Portuguese rider to take a stage for the first time in 21 years. Paulino took the stage ahead of Kiryienka the last man to survive a breakaway that had been allowed to roll on ahead for much of the day.

Out of the mountains of the Alps, the sprinters returned to dominate the racing and once more HTC-Columbia made headlines. This time however it wasnt Cavendish himself, but his lead-out man and roommate, Mark Renshaw who had caused uproar. Likened to a gladiator in an arena he was lamblasted for head-butting Garmin -Transitions counterpart Julian Dean and later blocking sprinter Tyler Farrar. His actions saw him thrown off the Tour with no right to appeal. The news clearly upsetting Cavendish, he vowed to carry on and the torment and implications that he would be impacted by the loss of the abdicating Aussie were sure to make him all the more hungry for victory.

Stage 12 went to Spainish rider Rodriguez as he tried to put time into the top of the GC as Schleck and Contador played a clever game of poker. Tyler Farrar called it quits during the stage having ridden since stage 2 with a fractured wrist. A wry twist in the new Columbia-Garmin war, Cavendish was lessened one rival as he clawed his way back into contention for the Green Jersey.

Stage 13 saw Cavendish prove those who had written him off wrong as he took a 14th Tour victory ahead of his closest rivals. A last chance saloon before the Pyrenees, Bernie Eissel blasted the Manxman to the line in a sweet victory that saw him move to within grabbing distance of the Maillot Vert.

The peloton headed into the Pyrenees for the final mountain stages that would celebrate 100 years of Tour visits to the region. As Schleck and Contador played a chess match worthy of Grand Masters, Menchov and Sanchez slipped under the radar. Reaching a stalemate, Frenchman Riblon took the first of three French victories in the mountains of the Pyrenees.

Disaster struck the race leader, Schleck, on stage 15 as a mechanical caused a delay that saw him lose his Golden Fleece by a mere 8 seconds. In a controversial move that has since been labelled "Chaingate", his Spanish rival, Contador attacked ripping the jersey from his back. Opinion was divided in the cycling world, but the fans made their position clear on the matter, booing Contador as he stood on the podium.

Stage 16 saw Schleck refuse to take up his position at the front of the pack with the other jersey wearers, now back in the Maillot Blanc, but by the end of the stage he had repaired his relationship with his rival and asked fans not to continue booing. Brother Frank commented how Andy would now be more dangerous as they went into the second and final repos before a second ascent of the Tourmalet that will end in a summit finish on stage 17.

Stage 16 also saw Armstrong attack in a bid for one last horrah before the Tour Elder retires for a second and final time on Sunday. His attack came to nought however, as he lost out to Fedrigo in what was in the end a sprint finish.

With a summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet and Schleck wounded by his rival, stage 17 is sure to be phenomenal as the blue touch paper is lit once and for all with the Time Trial on Saturday sure to simply secure the jersey as a formality. Bar major accident or fiasco, the race is now surely only down to two men.

Meanwhile the Maillot Vert is far from certain with Cavendish breathing heavily down the necks of Petacchi and Hushovd who have ping ponged the jersey for much of the Tour. With two final sprint opportunities available and each rider as hungry as the other for the Jersey, it is sure to be battled out to the final bloody end.

Stage 17 sees the riders climb a final 198km in an action packed stage that will see all the GC names have their dig as the ultimate battle commences.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Celebrating 100 years of the Pyrenees

The Spanish call it Pirineos; the Catalans know it as Pirineus. The Occitan, the Pirenèus and the Aragonese, Perinés. For the Basque, there are two names Pirinioak and Auñamendiak. But for the peloton, the region is known as the Pyrenees. For 100 years, the Tour has carved their path through the perilous region, ascending montrous mountains and collosal Cols, all in a bid for fame, glory and the famous Maillot Jaune. From Pau to Luchon, into Bordeux from the Alps and to them, they are as famous as their Eastern counterpart, a natural border and a natural challenge.

The Maillot a Pois is won and lost here as much as the Maillot Jaune, while the grimpeurs have their day, the sprinters trudge, huddled in their gruppetto, counting their days and the kilometers to their next sprint, hoping they can survive that long. Paris is the mecca for the sprinters, Alpd'Herz the Alpine path to the Gods, but it is the Tourmalet that reigns supreme here, calling out to all who dare to ascend her, their cries of "on, on" lost in the winds of time immortal as her summit drifts in the dellirous minds of those on her slopes.

Seperating the Iberian Peninsula from continental Europe, they extend for about 430km from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean. The main crest forms a massive barrier between France and Spain, the tiny country of Andorra nestled between. Catalonia and Navarre have historically extended on both sides of this mountain range, blurring into France as much as it does Spain. Named after the goddess Pyrene, legend has it that the mountains grew up mourning and immortalising her at the behest of Herculeus, whose actions caused her demise in the region.

Older than the Alps, their sediments were first deposited in costal basins during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. When the Bay of Biscay fanned out in the Lower Cretaceous period, Spain was pushed against France in a vise like grip, uplifting the crust and forming the range. Consisting largly of granite and gneissose rocks in the East, and limestone in the West, the massive and unworn character appears so due to its resistance to erosion and weak glacial development. Thus much of the range is timeless, appearing much today as it was in 1910 when the Tour first came to this much loved and celebrated region.

This years route includes 11 mountains, with not one but two ascents of the tremendous Tourmalet. The first of these was Port de Pailhères, a relatively new inclusion in Tour history, it was first graced by the gloriously colourful peloton in 2003 in a stage from Toulouse to Ax 3 Domaines. With a summit at an altitude of 2,001 metres, the mountain falls into the area ofAriège in the French Pyrenees. Ax 3 Domaines located in the Spa resort of Ax les Thermes, is an up and coming ski resort that has hosted the Tour three times. This well loved region is sure to feature more in the future.

Col de Portet d'Aspet is located in the central Pyrenees, a climb that has been included 28 times since 1947. This climb is no stranger to the Tour or its tragedies. In 1973 Raymond Poulidor almost lost his life on the perilous descent when he plunged from the road into a ravine. Taking a serious blow to the head, he managed to crawl out with the help of then race director, Jacques Goddet. Later in 1995, during the fifthteenth stage of the Tour, Fabio Casartelli and a few other riders crashed on the same descent that nearly cost Poulidor his life.

Casartelli was the worst off; suffering heavy facial and head fractures he lost consciousness. His injuries proved fatal as he suffered a respiratory arrest in the helicopter that was transferringhim to hospital and despite resuscitation he was pronounced dead on arrival. At the crash site, the Société du Tour de France and the Motorola team placed a memorial stone in dedication to Fabio Casartelli.

The Port de Balès was first featured in the 2007 Tour and returned again this year in the route to Bagnères-de-Luchon. The Port de Balès was for a long time ignored by the modern world, served only by one narrow track from the north until the beginning of the 1980s. Tarmac was laid at this time but by the 1990s it had deteriorated to almost nothing. In 2006, the road was resurfaced, mostly at the behest of the Société du Tour de France to provide a new challenge to its riders.

First appearing in 1910, and starting from Bagnères de Luchon, the Col de Peyresourde is 15.27 km long. Over this distance, the climb is 939 m. (an average of 6.1%) with the steepest sections at 9.8%. In its inaugral inclusion, Octave Lapize triumphed; a French road and track Olympic champion, he would go on to win his second Tour that year. His brief cycling career was cut short by the First World War. Shot down near Flirey, Meurthe-et-Moselle on July 14, 1917 and severely injured, he died in a hospital in Toul. He is most noted for shouting "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, desassassins!"at Tour officials as he crossed the summit of the Tourmalet; a quote echoed earlier in this years Tour by Jens Voigt after his team mate Frank Schleck crashed on the pave in the Hell of the North stage 3. Since 1910 the Col has been visited a further 40 times.

The Col d'Aspin has been included in the Tour 66 times, mostly because it comes in a middle link of a fearsome chain of climbs including the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de Peyresourde. Again this Col featured in the 1910 edition. Most recently it was climbed in 2008 and appears in the 2010 edition as part of the centenary celebration. In 1950 it was the site of an altercation that saw the Italian team including Gino Bartali and Fiorenzo Magni withdraw from the race.

The Col du Tourmalet is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour. First included in the 1910 edition, it was here that Lapize triumphed. Since 1947, it has been climbed a further 47 times, most recently in 2009. Monuments to Goddet and Lapize have been erected here, starring down on all those who climb to the summit of this hors categorie Col.

The Col d'Aubisque is a mountain pass in the Pyrenees 30km south of Tarbes and Pau in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. The Col d'Aubisque appeared in the Tour de France in 1910, crossed by François Lafourcade. It has appeared frequently since then, most recently in 2007. It was included at the insistence of Alphone Steinès, a colleague of Henri Desgrange at the Tour de France. Steinès visited the man responsible for local roads, who said: "Take the riders up the Aubisque? You're completely crazy in Paris." Steinès agreed that the Tour would pay 5,000 francs to clear the pass. Desgrange knocked the price down to 2,000.

The Col de Marie-Blanque is a mountian pass in the western Pyrenees. First appearing in the 1978 edition of the Tour, it has been climbed 13 times and most recently in 2007. A 9.3 km climb to 7.6 % the climb starts at Bielle and has sections of 11% gradient.

The Col du Soulor has been climbed 19 times, most recently in 1982. A categorie 1 climb of 11.9 km it has a gradient of 7.8 %.

100 years after Lapize cried out his charge: “You’re assassins, all of you! You can’t ask such things of mere mortals. I’ve had enough" as he crossed the line on foot and in distress, riders are still ascending the climbs to immortality. Like the names of the heros in the fabled story of the origins of the Pyrenees, the names of those who have died and those who have triumphed remain forever etched in the minds of those who love the Tour. Passion and pain, guts and glory; these timeless mountains have seen it all, heard it all, their stories immortalised for posterity.

The 2010 edition of the Tour sees the riders carve out routes into the same awesome climbs that the 1910 edition is remembered for. This year the Tourmalet will feature twice, but despite Voigt's earlier assertion at the current race organisers, there will be no charge at them of “You’re assassins, all of you!... I’ve had enough." Instead the famous Col will be climbed with gusto by riders and tifosi in equal measure. Indeed before the riders have arrived at the foot of the climb, the tifosi, almost as famous as the riders themselves, will be camped out waiting to shout "On, On!" to any rider whose fear of failure starts to eat away at their will to survive. While the crowds await their heroic sprinters in Paris, the grimpeurs will be welcomed home at the summit of the Tourmalet. Long after the stage winner has recieved his kisses, the tifosi will cheer home the gruppetto, before making their way back down the Col, ready to tell their children, and their children's children, "The Col du Tourmelet. 2010. I was there. This is what I saw". The names of the riders will live on long after their careers have diminished, their immortality sealed like that of Gods for their ascents into the awesome Pyrenees.

Fedrigo spoils Armstrongs last horrah as he snatches victory in Pau

The big breakaway spirit continued today as BBT rider Pierrick Fedrigo took a stage victory ahead of his rivals in the nine man breakaway that included Tour stallwarts Lance Armstrong (Radio Shack) and Christophe Moreau (Caisse d'Epargne). Finishing 6 minutes and 45 seconds ahead of the peloton, he raced hard after a lone attack from Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) came to nought as he was caught at the 128km. In the end it came to a sprint finish despite the absence of the now familar sprint specialists.

Armstrong himself had launched a "last horrah" of sorts hoping to deal a coup de grace on the stage that saw the riders climb Tour favourites the Col de Peyresourde, Col de Aubisque, Col de Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet. Attacking at the point where Eddie Mercx made the same solo bid for stage glory in 1969, Armstrong had hoped to take the victory as a last chance to feel the euphoria of a stage win on the Tour. In five days he will ride along the streets of Paris for one final time in this his final Tour. With this heroic attempt leaving him wanting in the sunset of his Tour career, journalists will now be penning his epitaph with a wry sense of irony for a man left behind in the GC while all around the doping allegations swarm.

Despite his aggresive start, by the time he hit the final 15km, the Texan rider was visibly tired. Making one last charge like the soldiers of the light brigade in Tennyson's epic poem, the riders plunged into their own metaphorical jaws of death, the riders going after Barrredo as he made his final dig. Their destiny unknown but sure to immortalise any rider, they hunted him down ending the stage in one final sprint. In the end, Armstrong just didnt have the legs as he had ridden "on the rivet" for much of the afternoon.

Finishing just behind team mate Chris Horner in 6th position, he was finally outraced and perhaps out witted by the Frenchman Fedrigo; the third Frenchman to be victorious in the Pyrenees. Climbing well, Thor Hushovd (CTT) finished ahead of Maillot Vert and closest rival Petacchi (LAM) who, it had been anounced during the stage, was being investigated by Italian authorities for alleged doping. The points earned were enough to see the Thunderous Norweigan take the jersey.

Meanwhile it was a relaxed day for Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador who had repaired their relationship during the day following yesterday's "Chaingate" controversy. Contador had earlier apologised to his Luxembourg rival who sat just 8 seconds behind the Spaniard. In 1989 LeMond lost out to rival Finon who won the Tour by 8 seconds. Today Finon was awarded a special Combatative award for his efforts and achievements during his Tour career. During interviews, Schleck asked fans not to boo his rival as he accepted the Maillot Jaune on the podium. Fans had expressed yesterday their disapproval at the manner in which Contador had arrived in yellow.

Tomorrow the peloton will enjoy a much needed rest day in Pau. On Thursday the riders will once more ascend the Tourmalet for a stage that ends at the summit of the magnificent Col.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Stage 16 Preview: A tribute to Mercx

Known as the Queen of the Pyrenees, the stage starts in Bagnères-de-Luchon. Many future Tour winners have triumphed here including: Octave Lapize, Firmin Lambot, Ottavio Bottecchia, Nicolas Frantz, Antonin Magne, Sylvère Maes, Jean Robic, Hugo Koblet, Federico Bahamontes, Eddy Merckx and Luis Ocana. For the last 25 years this spa resort has often hosted stage starts. Since 1986 the town has been visited 6 times, 5 of which when the town played host. The seventh Luchon-Pau stage since the War, the town hosts the Tour for the centenary celebration of the regions relationship with Le Tour. This “classic” has been conquered by some truly magnificent Tour champions: Jean Robic, Federico Bahamontes and Bernard Hinault.

Pau loves the Tour and the Tour loves Pau. The city of Henri IV has gracefully hosted 62 stages of the race, surpassed only by Paris and Bordeaux. The list of prize winners in Pau is a magnificient Who’s Who of the Tour. From Alfredo Binda in 1930, to Robic, Coppi, Bahamontes, Gimondi, Hinault, Kelly, Delgado, Chiappucci and Pereiro: all have triumphed here. Only heavyweights can hope to win in the Béarn capital, even if sprinters sometimes find a way through to the front.

Commentators and journalists have criticised tomorrow's stage for its long descent into Pau. While the ascent will be challenging, the descent is long enough for any wounded warriors to hunt down their rival marksmen and regroup for more bloodless battling in the psychological warfare that will be played out as they carve their way across the perilous Pyrenees into Pau.

The riders will first be challenged by the Peyresourde, whose summit hits at around 11km from the start, before tackling Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque; the route is a relentless slog with each mountain seemingly blending into the next. With the Aubisque pass 60 kilometres from the finishing line, but followed by 30 kilometres of descent before getting to grips with the valley bottom, any breakaway is sure to be caught. The route is the same as that taken in 1969 when Eddy Merckx was victorious in Mourenx after a 180-kilometre breakaway, and this stage has been designed as a tribute to the beloved Belgium rider.

Furious Schleck blasts Bertie as his reign comes to an end

Andy Schleck, leader of the Young Riders competition, lost the Maillot Jaune to rival Alberto Contador in a move that has proved to be somewhat controversial today. For many within the peloton it is bad form and unsporting to take advantage of the misfortune of the Maillot Jaune at a critical time, but as Schleck dropped a chain in the critical moments of an attack on his rival, Contador accelarated onwards leaving Schleck fumbling in the dust behind him. Twitter immediatedly felt the ricocheting aftermath as fans and journalists, other riders and team support staff commented on the action on the road.

What some saw as evidence of poor bike handling ended up costing Schleck his reign in yellow and a bitter return to the Maillot Blanc that Geskink had been keeping warm for the young Luxembourg rider. Arriving at the finish in Luchon 39 seconds down on his rival, he slipped into second place in the overal competition, trailing Contador by a meer 8 seconds. As Contador stood on the podium celebrating his win, the fans made it clear how they felt with reports of booing coming from the audience. Meanwhile on twitter Contador was further lambasted for a lack of remorse at the challege that had seen him take the yellow in bitter circumstances.

The rival pair had been seen chatting amicably on many occassions during the Tour, and indeed rumors have circulated that Contador may soon announce a move to join the Schleck brothers possibly in a new team that will emerge like a phoneix from the flames of the crumbling Saxo-Bank team. Speculation followed interviews with the former yellow jersey where he stated that he had "anger in my stomache" vowing to get his revenge, and soon, that this amicable relationship may now lie in ruins.

Meanwhile Thomas Voeckler (BBT) stormed to victory way ahead of nearest rivals Menchov and Sanchez, a lone survivor from an earlier 10 man breakaway. Echoing yesterday's scenes where Riblon was a sole survivor of a breakaway, the Frenchman was almost in disbelief as he crossed the line, looking back several times expecting to be caught or at the very least challenged in his bid for stage glory.

Robbie McEwan guided the sprinters home at 28 minutes 49 seconds off stage victor Voeckler as the peloton fractured into four main groups on the final climb. Britain's Bradley Wiggins came home in 48th place 9 and a half minutes down on the stage winner, having suffered a series of set backs during the Tour. Interviewed before the stage, he was uninhibited in his response in his charactaristicly colourful language. Disapointed by his current placing, he believes in should be put into the wider context of his career and abilty rather than held as a comparison to his placing last year.

Tomorrow's stage will be interesting as Schleck seeks revenge for his stolen yellow jersey as the race heads into Pau via Tour favourite the collosal Col du Tormalet for the first of two ascents. The stage finish is 60km from the famous climb so any attacks on the ascent will need to be cool and calculated, measuredly executed if they are to really throw down the gauntlet, otherwise the victims may regroup on the descent better equipped to twist the final knife in on the run into Pau for the finish. A breakaway is sure to be caught and with 8 seconds to make up Schleck is sure to be hungry.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Stage 15 Preview: Where Schleck must take a risk....

The 187.5km route starts in Pamiers, a virgin stage town in the sub-prefecture of Ariège; a familiar friend to the Tour, nine of Ariège’s towns have been visited in the Tour’s history. But while Ax-les-Thermes and Saint-Girons, located nearer to the Ariège mountain summits, are regulars on the Tour, the city of composer Gabriel Fauré has never before been visited.

Enthusiasts will be more familiar with Bagnères-de-Luchon where the stage ends; the Tour first visited Luchon 100 years ago. Octave Lapize was the first victor here, going on the be a Tour winner. The race returned a further 50 times over the century to the spa resort nicknamed the Queen of the Pyrenees in 1834 by Vincent de Chausenque in his book Les Pyrénées ou voyages pédestres (the Pyrenees on foot).

The focus of this stage is not the climbing, despite the Hors-Categorie climb of Port de Balès; here the focus is on the descent. From the final climb to Bagnères-de-Luchon, the bends are extremely delicate. With the foot of the Peyresourde slopes only 3km from the finish, there will be no way of clawing back what has been lost. This will be the second time the Port de Balès has been climbed. The first time was in 2007. The tarmac laid here has been especially done so with the Tour and its Spanish equivalent, the Vuelta, in mind. The magnificent climb will be hard, the road not very wide. Once the riders reach the summit, gaps can form on the descent as riders like Samuel Sánchez can pull away with their descending skills on the technical slope. It is quite probable that riders will be left by the wayside.