Monday, 12 July 2010

Repos Review: The highs and lows of the Tour so far...

Starting with team presentations and press confrences in Rotterdam, on the 1st of July, this year's Tour got off to a bang. In the wake the of doping scandles that are an all too familiar discolouration in the background of the majestic swathe of rainbow colouring that made its way through the Rotterdam streets, all eyes were on the Tour once more. Following what is now being dubbed "Flandisgate" the Wall Street Journal was keen to make sure that the eyes of the public were not focused on the images of their heros that fluttered on flags high up above the streets of Rotterdam, but were on the men Flandis had accused, race officials and the men from WADA who had come to ensure that the Tour de France had finally become a clean race.

From the moment the Tour organisers unveiled the route for this year's race, it has been clear that this would be a phenomenal race. With the pave that is more familiar to the Spring Classics, a beast of an Alpine four stage visit, a touch of the Leige-Bastogne-Leige, an ascent of the Col de la Madeleine, not one, but two visits to the Tourmalet, including a time trial of the Tour favorite, the dice would really be thrown high into the air each day. This race was designed with one thing in mind: To challenge the GC and stop complacency. Controversial as it was challenging, some had questioned just where the line between challenging and dangerous lay. With no team event, it would be a race that would test the metal of every rider. Success would be based on individual effort.

Almost immediately the gauntlet went down. With the Time Trial of day one, careful checking of hour by hour weather reports lead to riders trying to choose the optimum time to avoid any predicted showers. For some it paid off, for others it didn't. Tony Martin seemed to be sure to take the first Maillot Jaune, and indeed those who polished off reports before the final riders were home had reported this as fact, but it wasnt to be as Cancellara took the Golden Fleece into the first stage.

British hope Mark Cavendish, coming into the Tour in a cloud of criticism over his style of ride, missed out on a much hoped for first (of many) stage victory, crashing on a critical bend before the finish. Two more crashes wreaked havoc for the sprinters, holding up the Maillot Jaune and the rest of the peloton, but Petacchi took the stage for what was to be the first of two wins in the first week. This, along with the lose of Adam Hansen who had crashed out earlier in the race, was to be the start of woes for the HTC-Columbia team who had so dominated the sprint stages of last year's Tour, despite Cavendish losing the Maillot Vert to rival, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo).

Stage two saw the peloton travel to the Belgium town of Spa. Along the way as many as 70 riders crashed on a slippery descent that upset many of the more experienced riders. With both Schleck brothers crashing hard onto the wet tarmac, the Saxo Bank rider and yellow jersey wearer, Fabian Cancellara didn't know whether to continue the chase down of the breakaway or slow up to allow those who had crashed to regroup. Unhappy with the stage route, the riders organised themselves into a protest go-slow that had been arranged as part of a truce with race officials. Cancellara himself sacrificed his yellow jersey in doing so, seeing the French rider of the Belgium based team Quick Step take the coverted jersey. The controversial decision to neutralise the sprint angered Hushovd who wanted to gain maximum points over Cavendish, whose form had come into question the previous day.

Hushovd's anger would be nothing compaired to the incandecent rage that Voigt expressed the following day, as Frank Schleck crashed out of the Tour all together on the pave dominated stage 3 that had been described as the Hell of the North. The terrain familiar to Cancellara who had earlier this year won the Paris-Roubaix and Geraint Thomas (SKY) who had won the junior version in 2004, it was thought that Cancellara would be victorious once more. However Hushovd stormed to a stage win he felt he was owed having lost out the day before by the decision not to reel the breakaway back in.

The woes of HTC-Columbia were set to continue into stage 4 as Cavendish failed once more to produce his winning sprint form when he needed it most. Sitting up short of the line knowing he was beat, his bike was thrown to the ground just passed the eyeline of the cameras, as journalists raced to grab a soundbite. They were met with silence but were later greeted by his helmet being thrown out of the door of his team bus. There was nothing his Directeur Sportif would have said that he wouldnt have already told himself and later that night a press release from the young Manxman spoke of the regret he felt at letting his team down. For HTC-Columbia and the Man from the Isle of Man, the dream of Green seemed to be turning into a nightmare.

Emotions ran high again the following day, as Cavendish was vindicated in a massive victory that saw him cross the line ahead of his rival sprinters, and break down in tears on the podium. This was the Cav that the riders respected, a man who thanked his team mates individually and hugged fellow British rider, Bradley Wiggins, his former Madison partner in the comfort of the velodrome. A man for whom it was clear how much clean sporting success meant to him; a refreshing sight in a sport dogged by drug scandles as much as it is noted for success stories.

On Stage 6 Cavendish made it 2 out of 2 with a more composed victory that was back to business as usuall. With the monkey well and truely off of their back, HTC-Columbia could settle into surviving the Alpine stages that were to come, safe in the knowledge that while the Maillot Vert may not necessarily be obtainable, they wouldn't be further questioned on Cav's form.

Stage 7 saw the peloton head into the Alps, as young Brit, Geraint Thomas who had earlier found himself in the Maillot Blanc of the Young Riders, was now just 20 seconds behind the Maillot Jaune of Cancellara, who had regained his overal lead from Chavanel in the precending days. The surprise lead to confusion in the Team Sky camp, who were unsure as to whether it would be possible to see Thomas in yellow by the end of the day. A brave ride from the young rider of the Sky team for whom this is their debut Tour saw him for a while the virtual yellow jersey on the road as Cancellara slipped from the back of the peloton. He could not maintain the pace set down by the race leaders though, and once more it would be the Frenchman Chavanel who would rip the jersey from the back of the Suisse National Champion as he stormed to victory at the finish in Station des Rousses.

Stage 7, while challenging, would be but a foretaste of what was to come in stage 8 however, as Astana drove the nail into rival team Radio Shack, whose team captain and seven times Tour winner, Armstrong was beset by problems. With 2 crashes and one hold up, the rider was forced to give up his attempt to take an 8th victory in his final Tour. Bonking on the final climb, he rolled home 8 minutes down on stage winner Andy Schleck.

All this would mean that the reprieve of a repos in Morzine-Avoriaz would be a welcome break for riders who had suffered in more ways than one. With scans, massages, physio and ultrasounds waiting to soothe the riders who had crashed, banged and bonked their way into the Alps, there would be some riders who would find that this repos would be longer than they thought, being forced to end their Tour here. One such rider was Simon Gerrans who announced on Twitter that a scan had confirmed his arm was broken and his journey to Paris would end in the Alpine resort that was a familiar friend to the Tour, having hosted stages 17 times and being visited a total of 24 times as part of Le Grande Boucle.

Along with the soothing balme of care that the team soigneurs will give, strategies will be formed today by the Directeur Sportifs who carefully lay out their plans like Generals plan their battles. Tomorrow the Tour will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the French annexing Saxony with a stage that will peak with an ascent of the Col de la Madeleine. Visited 22 times since 1969, and last climbed in 2005 many of the tofosi will spend today making their way up to the summit, their tins of whitewash in their hands, ready to paint the names of their favorite riders, and camp out waiting for a glimpse of the action, the passion and the pain that will be witnessed on the side of the glorious mountain. With a daring descent to the finish, the battle will be intense, the dice that have been thrown so many times over the last few days, up in the air again once more. A true gamble by the race organisers, this Tour is already shaping up to be a grand shake up of the GC rivals. Nothing is certain, not even the Green Jersey, in a war that is being played out against the backdrop of the familiar peaks and Monts of the Alps.

Between now and the final repos in Pau, in the Northern area of the Pyraneese, the peloton will carve their way out of the Alps, with the sprinters that have survived as part of the grupetto, and head into the the heart of the Pyranees. While it may seem on paper that the Green Jersey is all but lost to Cavendish, this is the Tour de France and anything can happen. The big Norwegian Thor Hushvod has shown in the past that he can climb, but with him so eager to defend his jersey, will he have pushed himself too hard in these last few days? A now on form Cavendish may well find that his relaxed attitude at the back of the peloton will have left him in good stead to take the intermediate points that he may well now need to take the Maillot Vert.

Meanwhile in the GC, World Champion and now current Maillot Jaune Evans, may find his team is not strong enough to defend the jersey against defending Champion Alberto Contodor, who's Astana team may well be able to further twist the knife over the next few days, securing the jersey, if the young Spaniard can now take it, before the race heads into his familiar territory of the Pyranees. With the Tourmalet looming, all eyes will now surely be on him as the waiting game starts. The psychological battle will now be hotting up as each rider looks to the other to see who is truely the strongest. If this is what the race organisers had in mind when they unvailed their route last year, then the gamble may now be starting to pay off.

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