By Chris Carmichael
As soon as the Tour de France route is announced, riders and teams start plotting and planning. They examine the balance of the challenges – mountains vs. time trials vs. long windy stages, etc. – and that information sometimes influences the composition of their Tour squad. The yellow jersey contenders, sprinters, and opportunists also stake out stages or particular climbs that suit their skills or talents and start planning their tactics. But then the race starts and there are crashes in the first week, endless rain in the second week, and now the potential that one of the biggest stages in the race could be modified because there might be snow on the summit of the Col du Galibier later this week. Plans sometimes go out the window and you have to adapt and take advantage of every opportunity you see – or create.
Alberto Contador didn’t expect to crash four times and lose nearly two minutes to his yellow jersey rivals over the first two weeks of the Tour. In the Grand Tours he’s won – and he’s won six between the Tour de France, Tour of Italy, and Tour of Spain – he’s laid the foundations of his victories with vicious accelerations in the mountains. But through the Pyrenees last week, he was good but not great. He lost a few seconds on the first summit finish, and even though by the third day in the Pyrenees no one could drop him on the way up to Plateau de Beille, he wasn’t able to drop them either. Today, Contador finally showed a flash of brilliance with a well-timed and very hard attack on the short Category 2 climb of the Col de Manse. Naturally, all the other contenders – and the yellow jersey leader Thomas Voeckler – reacted immediately and he was reeled in.
But the damage was done, and the second time Contador attacked only Cadel Evans and Sammy Sanchez could follow him. Realizing the value of the opportunity, Evans and Contador worked together to open as large a gap as possible over their rivals as they raced for the summit. Behind, Andy and Frank Schleck faltered and slipped to the back of the contenders’ group, losing time with every turn of the pedals. With them, Voeckler, Ivan Basso, Damiano Cunego, and Tom Danielson also lost time to the Contador/Evans/Sanchez trio.
With 11 kilometers of descending and flat roads between the summit of the Manse and the finish line in Gap, the pressure was on to maintain time gained on the ascent all the way to the finish. The weather worked in their favor, especially for Evans who is known for being an aggressive and skilled descender. Despite wet and slippery conditions, Evans raced downhill and even opened up a gap on Contador and Sanchez, which forced the Spanish duo to chase hard over the final five kilometers. Behind them, Andy Schleck was visibly uncomfortable on the descent and lost contact with the group that contained his brother, Frank. By the time they reached the finish line, Contador and Sanchez lost just 3 seconds to Evans, but Frank Schleck and Thomas Voeckler lost 21 seconds to Evans, and Tom Danielson lost 39 seconds. More critically, Ivan Basso lost 54 seconds to Evans and the biggest surprise was that Andy Schleck crossed the finish line 1:06 after the Australian. Andy Schleck started the day with a 1:45 lead over Contador, and ended the day with only 39 seconds of that advantage left.
The Col de Manse wasn’t anticipated to shake up the race for the yellow jersey. It was expected to be a launchpad for a stage-winning attack (which I’ll get to later), and perhaps the yellow jersey contenders would test each other a bit, but the finale today wasn’t a major mountain pass. It wasn’t the Galibier or l’Alpe d’Huez. It was a relatively short climb that’s best known for being the location of Joseba Beloki’s dramatic crash in the 2003 Tour de France, when he lost control on the hot, melting tarmac and broke his hip, and Lance Armstrong rode through a field to avoid crashing himself. That day it was Alexander Vinokourov who had attacked on the ascent and bombed down the descent to win the stage. And again today, aggressive riding on both this particular climb and descent completely changed the face of the Tour de France.
The crucial thing to remember about bike racing is that it’s not the course that determines how hard a race will be. The peloton could cruise slowly up the biggest climb in the Alps and the race wouldn’t be that difficult. Or they can take a relatively short and moderately-difficult course like Stage 16 and race so aggressively that one of the top yellow jersey contenders loses a major chunk of time. It wasn’t just the final climb that set up today’s result. The peloton raced the first two hours of the day at more than 30mph – and it was all gradually uphill! The competition to be in the breakaway today was so fierce that it took nearly 100 kilometers for a breakaway group to finally succeed. Then there was the rain and the cold; the conditions were generally miserable for most of the day and that can make it more difficult to keep up with eating and drinking enough, and as the race gets into higher elevations, the rain and air temperatures are getting colder. Today’s rain wasn’t like the warm rain that soaked the riders in the Massif Central last week; this was the cold, stinging rain of the mountains and it can become difficult to for riders to keep their core temperatures up – despite their workload. Plus, today was the day after the rest day, and it’s not unusual for at least one yellow jersey contender to falter the day after that short break. Any one of these factors could explain the Schlecks’ surprising collapse today, but it was more likely a combination of a few. As an example (not specific to the Schlecks, because I don’t know the source of their problems today), it can be hard to keep the bottles coming from the car when the peloton is attacking for 100 kilometers, and then you might get soaked before being able to get a rain jacket on and get cold, then skip taking some food because you’re focused on staying safe on wet roads. It all adds up, and when the attacks come and you call on your aerobic engine for more power you find that the tank is suddenly – and surprisingly – empty.
Far ahead of the yellow jersey battle, Thor Hushovd, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Ryder Hesjedal attacked (Hesjedal first, then joined by Hushovd and Boasson Hagen) the breakaway group and came together on the descent to head into the final few flat kilometers before the finish line. Though he’d already won a sprint stage of the Tour de France, Boasson Hagen was at a serious tactical disadvantage because he was with two Garmin-Cervelo teammates, one of whom is a good time trial rider (Hesjedal) and the other a great sprinter (Hushovd). Head-to-head, Hesjedal is no match for Boasson Hagen in a sprint, but a Hushovd-Boasson Hagen matchup is a fair game. So Hesjedal rode on the front of the trio and kept the pace high to discourage Boasson Hagen from launching an attack. Since he wasn’t concerned about contesting the sprint himself, Hesjedal could play the role of leadout man and let the two sprinters behind him battle out the final surge for the line.
And Ryder played his role to perfection. In the final kilometer he rode close to the barriers on the right side of the road to ensure that Boasson Hagen couldn’t pass him on the right. Hushovd was in third wheel behind Boasson Hagen, and knowing which direction his Norwegian countryman would have to sprint would make it easier to stay in his slipstream if Boasson Hagen launched his sprint first. As the finish approached, it was Hushovd who jumped first, and although all three men had been looking at each other every few seconds, he waited until Boasson Hagen was looking forward in order to gain just 1-2 pedal strokes before the Team Sky rider could react. As the World Champion crossed the finish line to win his second stage of the 2011 Tour de France (and ironically, his second mountain stage), he made it look easy. But there was nothing easy about Stage 16. From the breakaway battle that lasted 100 kilometers to the cold rain and the final climb, it was probably one of the hardest stages thus far in the 2011 Tour de France. The next three stages are supposed to be the truly epic Alpine stages, and if the contenders and opportunists keep racing like they did today, the time gaps across the top 10 riders could be massive before we even get to Saturday’s individual time trial.
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.