The overall picture of the 2011 Tour de France became a bit more clear during todayâ€™s Stage 12. But even after 211 kilometers and three major cols, weâ€™re still nowhere near having any idea who will emerge as the victor. Hereâ€™s what we noticed:
1. The day began with the usual suicide breakaway of Frenchman and Basques (it was Bastille Day, and this is the Pyrenees, after all). FDJ once again placed a rider in the early move, with Jeremy Roy once again getting the call. Unfortunately, Roy was unable to continue his teamâ€™s Intermediate Sprint domination; he finished second in Sarrancolin to Laurent MangelÂ ofÂ Saur-Sojasun.
2. Behind, HTC-HighRoad perfectly set-up Mark Cavendish to extend his lead. He won the sprint for seventh with Mark Renshaw coming in right behind him to deny an extra point to Movistarâ€™s Jose Rojas. Interestingly, Philippe Gilbert chose to sit this one out, apparently saving himself for what was still to come.
3. Once the first climb arrived, Astanaâ€™s Roman Kreuziger and Quick-Stepâ€™s Sylvain Chavanel left the peloton and quickly looked like a good bet to catch the break and perhaps challenge for the stage win. Unfortunately, their steady progress on the Hourquette dâ€™Ancizan fell a bit short by the top of the Tourmalet, and first Chava and then Kreuziger abandoned their chases. While Chavaâ€™s attempt was an encouraging sign following a disastrous first week, Kreuziger clearly looks gassed from a difficult Giro. A stage win is not outside the realm of possibility, but heâ€™ll have to plan his efforts better should he wish to make an escape stick.
4. But the real action on the Tourmalet came from Leopard Trek as the entire team saw fit to make the race as hard as possible. But why? Other than Robert Gesink, Tony Martin, and Anreas Kloden, Leopardâ€™s group effort did little to weaken the rest of the fieldâ€”even worse, it left Andy and Frank Schleck conspicuously isolated with several kilometers left to climb on the dayâ€™s final ascent to Luz Ardiden. With an already sizable gap over Alberto Contador and a Europcar team that was clearly up to the challenge of towing the field, why burn so many matches on the first â€œbigâ€ day? Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of their teammates, Andy and Frank soon found themselves surrounded by about 18 or so of the raceâ€™s most dangerous ridersâ€”and Europcar.
5. At this point, credit must be given to Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar teammatesâ€”especially Pierre Rollandâ€”who rode their butts off to keep their leader in yellow on Bastille Day. The teamâ€™s performance was so impressive, that I often found myself forgetting that they werenâ€™t really â€œexpectedâ€ to be there.
6. As for who was expected to be there, the 2011 Tourâ€™s heads of state were all present and accounted for, save for Gesink and Kloden. For Gesink, and hope of high finish has been lost, while Klodenâ€™s woes simply add to what has been a terrible Tour for Radio Shack (even Levi Leipheimer was eventually dropped on the climb to Luz Ardiden).
7. The dayâ€™s most surprising and impressive rides were put in by Omega Pharma-Lottoâ€™s Jelle Vanendert and FdJâ€™s Arnold Jeannesson. Vanendert has now confirmed the promise he showed as Gilbertâ€™s right-hand man during the Ardennes Classics. His ride today would surely have netted him a stage win had he not come up against the immensely-motivated Samuel Sanchez.
As for Jeannesson, the young Frenchman came home 12th and now sits in 13th-place overall. Heâ€™ll also be wearing the Tourâ€™s white jersey as Best Young Rider–one of 3 Frenchman in the top-5 of the competition.
8. As for Garmin-Cerveloâ€™s Tom Danielson, he looks to be the latest in Garminâ€™s long line of â€œout of nowhereâ€ top-10 finishers. Even better, unlike the Vande Veldes, Wiggos, and Hesjedals of past years, Danielson has already gone on record as saying he plans to attack–an tantalizing proposition given the fact that stage wins are are arguably more coveted than 8th-place finishes.
9. And what about Lampreâ€™s Damiano Cunego? For a man who came into the Tour hunting for stage wins, he looks to be a top-5 contender.
10. Liquigas’ Ivan Basso was also one of the dayâ€™s big winners along with BMCâ€™s Cadel Evans. Thanks to the efforts of their domestiques Sylvester Szmyd and Steve Morabito respectively, both Basso and Evans finished fourth and fifth respectively. Even better, their last-kilometer surge was enough to finally drop Saxo Banksâ€™ Alberto Contador.
11. As for Contador, while his Saxo Bank team rode a good race on his behalf (despite getting dropped early on the Tourmalet), the Spaniard never looked to be himself on a day when many expected fireworks. Riding at the back, leaving the pace-setting to others, getting gapped at the top of climb–these are not behaviors of man who has won 6 of the 7 grand tours heâ€™s entered. I think Saturdayâ€™s stage to Plateau de Beille will be the most important of Contadorâ€™s Tour. BY last day in the Pyrenees, if El Pistolero emerges having gained no time–or worse, lost some–then his overall hopes for this yearâ€™s Tour de France are lost.
12. And what about the Schlecks? Well, it appears as if those who were wondering whether Frank was the stronger brother this year might be right. With two hard attacks that quickly opened gaps to his chasers, Frank has established himself as the most explosive of the GC contenders. Even Andy seemed unable to keep up with his older brother–especially when the moment was perfect for the a counter-attack after Frank was caught after his first acceleration.
So the question remains: with Frank riding so well, and Andy looking more and more as if heâ€™s sleeping his way through the Tour (go watch the highlight of Andy getting tangled with another rider at the back of the peloton–contenders never ride at the back), who should Leopard back? And if they keep burning teammates as senselessly as they did today, will they have men to back them with?
13. And last but not least, could there have been any more perfect scenario for Euskaltelâ€™s Samuel Sanchez? A â€œhomeâ€ win on the first big day in the Pyrenees, the polka dot jersey, and a place once again inside the top-10–thatâ€™s a pretty good day at the office for the Olympic Champion. Were it not for a terrible TTT and some bad luck in the Tourâ€™s first week, we might have a different race on our hands. Then again, Sanchez is only about 2:20 down on Frank Schleck–maybe we already do.