Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Tour de France Hits The Mountains

Updated 2 p.m. edt Sunday

Addendum on the weekend in Massif Central: The general classification superstars did not attack on the climbs, so for them the lead was virtually unchanged. However, kudos to Thor Hushovd who defied the odds and climbed Super-Besse with the mountain goats to hang onto the yellow leader's jersey through today.

Alas for the world champion, the rouleur Thomas Voeckler prevailed on a day of horrific crashes to capture the yellow jersey today in a beautiful breakaway. It is always welcomed to see a Frenchman like Voeckler in yellow in the home race. Vive le France!

So the peloton gets a rest day tomorrow and a couple of rolling stages on Tuesday and Wednesday.

And finally, the massive Pyrenean ascents of Le Tourmalet et Luz-Ardiden call to the GC riders on Bastille Day!

Fireworks, s'il vous plait?

Vive le Tour de France!


Rarely visited by the peloton of Le Tour de France, the mountains of the French Massif Central are front and center today.

So why wait for Bastille day? Let the fireworks begin.

Dwarfed by the famous ascents that the Tour de France showcases each year in the Pyrenees and Alps, the Massif Central presents defending Tour Champion Alberto Contador with the potential to strike and cut into the dangerous lead the elite contenders in the General Classification now hold over the Spanish superstar. 

"I think the Massif Central could be important," Contador's Team Saxo manager Bjarne Riis spouted cryptically on the eve of the first of two days in those small mountains.  

"In themselves the stages are not too difficult, but they are likely to have a big effect in terms of fatigue," said Riis, who wore the leader's yellow jersey when the Tour visited these mountains in 1996. 

Although Contador was more focused, before the start of the race, on the three consecutive stages in the Pyrenees that begin on Bastille Day, he may have to alter his strategy and make a move during today's first mountaintop finish of the 2011 Le Grande Boucle.

Contador must regain some of the time lost on Stage One when he got behind a pile-up of riders who fell like dominoes and cost him a minute and 20 seconds. In the Stage Two team time trial his Saxo team finished eighth, losing him a few more seconds to top GC contenders Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Andreas Kloden. 

"Contador will try to gain time where he can. All the GC guys have been keeping their powder dry up till now, but tomorrow could be different," Rabobank team manager Erik Breukink predicted.

"That's where the race will start for some of the favorites," Breukink told Agence France Press. 

Today's Stage Eight starts in Aigurande and there are two Category 4 climbs and a Category 2 ascent at the Croix St Robert immediately before the final slog up the Category 3 Super-Besse mountaintop finish.

The final climb of the day stretches for 7.2 km, has an average gradient of 3.95%, with a maximum of grade of 8.4%. Super-Besse was the opening mountaintop finish in 2008, the last time the peloton crossed the Massif Central. Riccardo Ricco won the stage, but he was later stripped of the win when he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Others also may be desperate to light it up on this stage, as well.

Andy Schleck's inability to compete in the individual time trial with the likes of Contador, Evans or Kloden may be reason enough for him to attack on the modest climbs of the Massif Central.

Schleck will have to attack at some point if he is going to offset his ITT deficit, but his Leopard Trek team manager Brian Nygaard warned "some teams will be hesitant to expend energy"  this weekend, especially those with top contenders.

"If you burn too many matches in the Massif Central it could leave you struggling later in the race," Nygaard warned.

Even Evans, who won Stage Four and is showing outstanding form, could make a move to consolidate a lead among the top tier GC contenders. 

"Super-Besse is a climb that suits him well as does the next stage in St Flour. And obviously, if we're in a position to take the jersey we're not going to stop before the line not to get it," Evans's BMC team director John Lelangue told Reuters.

As for American hopes, Christian Vande Velde, the top U.S. GC rider at this point, needs to make up about two minutes on the top contenders, so also has to consider attacking today.

And what of Levi Leipheimer? The American racer on Team Radio Shack is about four minutes behind the other elite leaders after a series of crashes and mechanical problems. He has said he will work for his teammate Kloden, but if he has the legs this would be his last chance to regain some time. 

Team Radio Shack, which had four potential GC contenders at the start, has been decimated. One of the four leaders, Janez Brajkovic retired from the race on Stage Five, after a violent crash left him motionless on the deck to many scary minutes.

American Chris Horner, another designated leader on the Shack team, also dinged his head in a bloody crash yesterday and had to be taken away to the hospital in a stretcher. Somehow Horner managed to finish the race, but did not immediately recall those final 20 miles of riding after his nasty tumble.

Horner finished the stage in last place at 12 minutes 41 seconds behind  behind the day's winner Mark Cavendish.

"It remains unclear whether Team RadioShack's Chris Horner will be able to start in stage 8 of the Tour de France," a radio Shack team statement said. "That decision will be made on Saturday morning...  A concussion, a nose fracture and a calf hematoma were diagnosed."

In total, the Shack's Horner, Leipheimer, Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, and Spaniards Haimar Zubeldia and Markel Irizar all crashed yesterday. Only Kloden, who is 10 seconds behind in the overall classification, remained upright and is the only contender now among the four pre-race team leaders.

Tomorrow's Stage Nine is made for a strong-legged rouleur, like German elder statesman Jens Voigt, or perhaps a mountain goat climber, like Sammy Sanchez. There are eight climbs tomorrow: three Category 2s, three Catergory 3s and two Cat 4s. It is a rolling ride to the flat(ish) finish line.

As for the man who is defending Yellow for a sixth day, could the world champion and two-time TDF green jersey winner Thor Hushovd make a desperate break today or tomorrow? Might the God of Thunder try to do something that surprisingly keeps him in the yellow leaders jersey?

"(Today) is going to be too hard for me to stay in yellow, but I'm going to do my best to hang on to just to show respect for the jersey," Hushovd told Versus.

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