In the end, todayâ€™s stage was perhaps a bit anti-climatic, as first Andy Schleck and then Alberto Contador proved unable to shake the other on the Tourmalet.Â Clearly, these two are the cream of this yearâ€™s Tour de France cropâ€”and considering how only 8 seconds separetes them, weâ€™re on the verge of one of the closest Tour finishes in recent memory.
Perhaps whatâ€™s most promising though, is the fact that the gap between these two champions has narrowed since last yearâ€™s race.Â Should Schleck prove able to improve his time trialing, itâ€™s easy to see him finishing on the top step in Paris sooner rather than laterâ€”after all, heâ€™s only 25.
As for Contador, todayâ€™s stage marked a new phase in his maturation.Â First, he used his yellow jersey clout to slow the peloton early in the stage, giving third-place rider Samuel Sanchez a chance to regain the field following a nasty fall.Â But the real â€œchampionâ€ gesture came later, when Contadorâ€”still without a stage victory in this yearâ€™s raceâ€”offered nothing more than ceremonial opposition to Andy Schleck in the sprint for todayâ€™s stage.Â There are no â€œgiftsâ€ in the Tour de France, but Contadorâ€™s gesture speaks volumes about how much heâ€™s learned in the course of this yearâ€™s race.Â For a rider who is only 27 himself, it was sign that heâ€™s truly entering his primeâ€”physically and emotionally.
This is a rivalry that should captivate us for years to come.
Hereâ€™s what else we noticed:
1. Katushaâ€™s Joaquin Rodriguez crossed the line in third-place today, springing from a select chase group to cement his place in the top-10 overall.Â While we might have expected more from Katusha as a team, we canâ€™t blame Rodriguezâ€”a stage win and a top-10 result in Paris is an outstanding performance.
2. Fourth-place on the day went to Ryder Hesjedal, a result that propelled him into eighth on GC.Â Unlike last yearâ€™s GC surprise from Garmin, Hesjedal has signed a contract extension through 2013, giving him more time to build on his success in an environment he knows and trusts.
3. Samuel Sanchez, Denis Menchov, and Jurgen Van den Broeck finished fifth, sixth, and ninth today, all within 16 seconds of one another.Â This trio currently occupies third through fifth on GC, with Menchov positioned to jump over Sanchez for the last spot on the final podium.Â Sanchez deserves credit simply for making it to the finish of todayâ€™s stage after a nasty fall left many of us thinking he would abandon.Â Hereâ€™s hoping he recovers in time to give Menchov a run for his money in Saturdayâ€™s time trial.Â As for Van den Broeck, another steady ride solidified his place in the top-5.Â His closest challenger is Robert Gesinkâ€”more than a minute behind.Â And we know how well he time trials.
4. Chris Horner was todayâ€™s biggest surprise, riding in with the main chase group to finish eighth on the dayâ€”he now sits tenth on GC.Â His performance sparks two questions: what happened to â€œWeâ€™re riding for Leviâ€ and why wasnâ€™t the team riding for Horner all along?Â Too bad Radio Shack wasnâ€™t invited to the Vuelta, as it would have been nice to see what they could have done had they the time to prepare for a grand tour without Lance.
5. One has to wonder what Carlos Sastre was thinking todayâ€”well, he was thinking he was going to bridge to the breakaway and go on to win the stage. Â But was his reasoning sound? Â Sastre should have waited until the bottomâ€”the very bottomâ€”of the Tourmalet to make his move.Â Maybe then he would have had the legs to get away and stay away.
6. On second thought he might have had a tough time doing that, as Schleckâ€™s Saxo Bank teammates harnessed their inner Daniel Navarroâ€™s at the base of the Tourmalet, breaking almost everyoneâ€™s legs on the first 5 kilometers of the Tourâ€™s final ascent.Â It was a stunning performance for a team that was beginning to look pretty ragged.Â While their efforts werenâ€™t enough to get Andy into yellow, Bjarneâ€™s boys can rest easy tonight knowing they did everything they could have done.
As for tomorrow, a bone-flat stage is on tapâ€”the traditional sprint finish in Bordeaux.Â With several men still in contention for the green jersey, we should have an exciting day of racing, with everything up for grabs between the two intermediate sprints and the final dash for the line.Â Can Thor do enough to retain his lead?Â And will Cavendish show the world he can win without Renshaw?
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