By Chris Carmichael
After more than a week of stages better suited to the all-rounders and sprinters, the 2011 tour de France reached the big mountains today in Stage 12. This is the playground of the climbing specialists and the yellow jersey contenders; the place where they can separate themselves from the majority of the peloton and soar to victory atop the peaks of the Pyrenees. There are two ways the first mountain stage typically plays out: either a yellow jersey favorite delivers a huge attack and establishes himself as the rider to beat, or the main favorites generally mark each other and the whole thing seems rather anti-climactic. Today was mostly the latter, with a little bit of the former.
Stage 12 featured three major climbs: the Category 1 Hourquette d'Ancizan, followed by the ‘beyond category’ ascents of the Col du Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden. The first climb of the day is difficult, the second is a monster that rises to 2115 meters (6939 feet) above sea level, and directly after the cold descent from the tourmalet the peloton has to climb for 13 kilometers and gain 979 meters (3212 feet) in elevation on the up to the finish line at an elevation of 1715 meters (5626 feet) above sea level. By itself, the climb to Luz-Ardiden is very difficult, but what made this such a hard stage was the fact that the racers had two major climbs in their legs already when they lined up for the final ascent.
As usual there was a breakaway up the road for most of the day, and as the peloton reached the base of Luz-Ardiden the breakaway was splintering up ahead. Sammy Sanchez, champion of the Olympic Games in 2008, attacked from the peloton in an effort to win the stage and take back some of the time he lost due to crashes and delays earlier in the Tour. The favorites didn’t immediately respond because he started the day several minutes behind the yellow jersey, but they did have to pick up the tempo to make sure he didn’t gain too much time.
Leopard-Trek put their men on the front of the race to bring the pace up and reduce the size of the group containing the pre-race favorites. This is a tactic you’re going to see over and over again throughout the mountain stages; the point is to push the pace up to the point where only the best climbers – the mountain specialists and yellow jersey contenders – can stay in contact. Everyone else gets left behind, which often means team leaders are left with only one teammate – if any. Isolating a rival from his teammates makes him vulnerable; he doesn’t have anyone to give him a wheel or a bike if he gets into trouble and the team car is held up in traffic, nor does he have anyone to help him maintain a good pace if he experiences a few minutes of weakness and loses contact with the group.
With Leopard-Trek setting the pace at the front, including everyone’s favorite hardman Jens Voigt, the group containing the yellow jersey favorites (primarily, but not limited to Alberto Contador, Andy and Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans, and Ivan Basso) and – surprisingly – current yellow jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler got steadily smaller. As a team, you only send your riders to the front to set a pace like that if your leader is feeling good and has the legs to perform well, so everyone in the group naturally assumed the attacks would be forthcoming from Andy and Frank Schleck. The brothers, both of whom need to be treated as yellow jersey contenders until one moves into a support role for the other, launched a series of accelerations in a classic “1-2 punch” strategy. When you have two strong riders in a small group, one attacks and the other one follows wheels as your opponents chase down the attacker. As soon as the attacking rider is caught, your second rider launches an attack to force the chasers to continue working extremely hard. Riding a steady tempo on big climbs whittles the group down to an elite few, but to put those elite riders into difficulty you have to force them to accelerate over and over again.
To their credit, fellow yellow jersey contenders Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, and Alberto Contador responded immediately to the Schleck brothers’ initial series of attacks and the group came back together. However, at this point Basso made a very smart tactical decision. He put his one remaining teammate on the front of the group to lift the pace as high as he could. This served two purposes: it kept dropped riders from rejoining the group from behind, and it prevented anyone from getting a chance to recover.
Between three and two kilometers from the finish, Frank Schleck launched a full-fledged attack and quickly opened up a gap on the yellow jersey group. But while he quickly started closing the gap to the stage-leading duo of Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Sammy Sanchez, the gap over the yellow jersey group stabilized quickly. Frank was going to gain time over the small pack he’d attacked, but with only two kilometers left to the finish line his time gains would be measured in seconds instead of minutes.
The final kilometer of Stage 12 was the most telling of the entire race. The first stage in the mountains is the time when yellow jersey contenders have to put their cards on the table; there’s no place to hide. Several things stood out today:
- Alberto Contador is not the rider he was in the 2010 Tour de France. Whether it’s fatigue from winning the Tour of Italy in May, the stress and crashes he’s suffered thus far in this year’s Tour de France, or nagging knee pain, the three-time Tour winner and defending champion was uncharacteristically dropped by Evans, Basso, and the Schlecks on Luz-Ardiden. Since winning his first Tour de France, he has been the most dominant and feared climber in the peloton, but today he lost time on a climb. It’s would have been one thing for him to have just followed wheels today, but he was dropped. Perhaps it was just an off-day on the first stage in the mountains, but nevertheless today’s results will be a confidence booster to his rivals.
- Cadel Evans is the best he’s ever been. The 2009 World Champion has been criticized over the years for not riding aggressively in the Tour de France, for following wheels instead of attacking. You can only ride aggressively when you have the form and the confidence to follow through on your tactics, and this year Evans appears to have both. It’s important to note that it wasn’t Andy Schleck driving the pace in the final kilometer after seeing Contador in trouble (granted, his brother, Frank, was up the road); it was Evans. He’s been riding attentively and aggressively since the beginning of the Tour de France, and that shift in mentality might be just the thing that tips the advantage his way for overall victory in the Tour.
- Ivan Basso is back on top form. Basso had a relatively quiet lead-up to the Tour de France but consistently said he was feeling very good. In the first portion of the Tour he largely stayed out of the crashes, and on the first day in the mountains he not only stayed with the leaders, but put his teammates on the front to lift the pace even higher. He came into the Tour as a bit of a mystery; no one really knew if he would be great or mediocre. And although we’ve only had one day in the mountains, thus far it appears he has the form to challenge Evans, the Schlecks, and Contador.
- The Schleck brothers will be formidable. Last year, Frank Schleck crashed out of the race in the first week, depriving brother Andy with a key ally in the mountains. This year, both men are fit and ready for the climbs. Having the ability to launch the attack-counterattack strategy like they did today puts them in the driver’s seat tactically, and that might prove to be the key to eventually cracking the defenses of Contador, Evans, Basso, and Sanchez.
- Sammy Sanchez could be on the podium in Paris. Whether he’s there as the leader of the King of the Mountains competition or as one of the top three finishers overall, the Olympic Champion looks like he might be the best pure climber in the race. He has time to make up over the other contenders for yellow, but if he continues climbing as aggressively and as fast as he did today, he could be the man everyone is chasing through the mountains.
- Tom Danielson has great form. It took him a long time to make it to the Tour de France, but the 33-year-old has been a great climber for many years. With teammates Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vandevelde dropped on the climb to Luz-Ardiden, Danielson stuck with the yellow jersey group until the final two kilometers and established himself as the Garmin-Cervelo team’s leader for the overall classification (if he hadn’t already). He moved himself into the top 10 overall, and if he continues to ride the way he did today, he may even make progress toward the top 5 before Paris.
After 12 stages we’ve finally seen a real selection within the peloton of the 2011 Tour de France. In fact, I think the top 10 riders in the final overall standings in Paris will include the vast majority of the top 10 riders in the overall standings tonight. There will certainly be a shuffling of the order, and I think two or three riders will come up or fall out of the top 10, but for the most part Stage 12 successfully separated the wheat from the chaff.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.