Today’s stage was the final opportunity in the Pyrenees for the top contenders to establish a pecking order before the final march in to Alps. It was an exciting stage marked by an early break – the largest breakaway of this year’s Tour de France, which was instigated by Chavanel and quickly grew to a total of 24 riders. With riders like Jens Voigt present in the break, teams with GC aspirations found themselves in an enviable position, able to use these riders as they approached the steeps of Plateau de Beille. Notably missing from this break were any members of defending champion Alberto Contador’s Saxo Bank squad.
As most of the current top-10 were up to something interesting today, we’ll deviate slightly from our usual format and cover their day, and how their race prospects are looking. Here’s what we saw:
1) Thomas Voeckler
Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler should have lost the Yellow Jersey on stage 12, and he should have lost it today. He’s an older and wiser rider than he was 7 years ago during his first run in yellow, and was able to pick and choose who to chase down on the slopes of Plateau de Beille. Clearly a big AND pleasant surprise to fans of cycling, French ones in particular. Watching him ride, you can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t a surprise to him – he looked confident and controlled. Pierre Rolland proved a capable team mate, and someone we’re likely to see as a general contender years to come. Voeckler should be able to hold on to the jersey for another couple of days, until we hit the Alps.
2) Frank Schleck (+1’49”)
The older of Leopard-Trek’s pair of Schleck’s looked much more comfortable in the mountains on Stage 12, but took a relative back seat during today’s ascent of the Plateau de Beille. With the probability that Voeckler will lose the Maillot Jaune in the Alps, Frank is the natural favourite to inherit the race lead, but will he be able to carry it to Paris? He will need to have a safety cushion of time going into the final time trial in Grenoble, on a 42.5 km course suits the stronger riders over the pure TT-specialists. We at Pavé think that Frank would need to have about a 2 minute lead over Cadel Evans to be comfortable going into the time trial, based on the 2009 TdF where Evans placed 1’14” behind Alberto Contador in the Annecy TT, and Frank Schleck stopped the clock 2’34”, 1’20” behind the Australian.
3 – Cadel Evans (+2’06”)
BMC’s Cadel Evans never seemed even mildly in distress during today’s stage, putting in a couple of digs in an attempt to create some sort of selection. His attacks, like those of the rest of the GC contenders, was ultimately fruitless. It’s clear Evan’s is in brilliant form, matching the accelerations of both of the Schleck brothers with ease. He’s well placed headed in to the Alps, just 17 seconds behind Frank – Evans can afford to let the Schleck’s dictate the pace in the Alps with such a small gap, knowing he could close it in a time trial. It does remain to be seen how Evan’s form is headed in to the third week of racing, given his hard work during the first two. Could he be too fatigued to keep up?
4 – Andy Schleck (+2’15”)
Andy Schleck is the only of the pre-race favorites who managed to gain any time on the day, coming in two seconds ahead of the other favorites with a last ditch attack at the top of the Plateau de Beille. Like his brother, he put in a couple of unsuccessful attacks that he’ll need to start converting in to successful ones if he wants to gain enough time to hold off other contenders in the stage 20 time trial. Who’s stronger, Andy or Fränk, still remains something of a mystery. Cog says Andy, Jeremy says Frank. We both agree its making for good race drama.
5 – Ivan Basso (+3’16”)
Liquigas’ Basso is able to stick with the other contenders when the gradient ramps up and the pressure is turned on, but one thing We noticed about the Italian rider was his insistence of keeping a steady pace in the final climb to Plateau de Beille, which suggests that he may not be as strong as the other riders. That said, his experience allows him the confidence to ride at a constant speed as the melee unfolds around him. Today, that worked for him Is Basso planning to ride into his legs and meet them in the Alps? If this is his plan, then he could catch the other contenders by surprise if they have dug too deep in the Pyrenees.
6 – Sammy Sanchez (+3’44”)
Euskaltel’s Sanchez wasn’t necessarily entering the Tour as a GC favorite. A highly capable climber saddled with a team whose reputation is more for crashing than fighting for top overall positions, Sanchez flew below the radar for most pundits. He did manage to gain 25 seconds over Andy Schleck, and 27 seconds over the other favorites by attacking on the false flat that came just before the steepest section of Plateau de Beille. With more climbs coming in a couple of days, we expect him to try to ride his way up the leaderboard.
7 – Alberto Contador (+4’00”)
In Cog’s words, Contador stuck to the Schlecks like a limpet – holding on for dear life, never letting them get too far without shutting down their breaks. He managed to do so, but if he wants to stand on the top step in Paris, he’ll need to start making up for his early time losses. At times, Contador seemed to be rocking his shoulders a little, and lacked the sharp acceleration he’s shown in previous editions of the Tour. Some have suggested he’s deliberately holding himself back, biding his time to attack in the Alps. Seems unlikely to us, as Contador has often felt compelled to demonstrate his prowess even when tactically questionable. Only 7 stages left Alberto! Better do something soon…
8 – Damiano Cunego (+4’01”)
Lampre’s Damiano Cunego lost a small amount of time on today’s stage, as he struggled with the pace near the top of the final climb. He was distanced a few kilometers from the finish and ended up crossing the line 1’ 21” back on the winner. After yesterday’s stage the Italian was sitting in 6th place overall, 3’22” down on Voeckler – will he be able to gain time in the Alps? With the way he was struggling today, it looks to be a long shot, but bigger surprises have happened.
9 – Tom Danielson (+5’46”)
Garmin – Cervélo’s main GC hope managed to climb a rung further up on the ladder towards the Maillot Jaune in today’s stage. While he did well today, the way he yo-yo’d off the back of the leading group as they climbed Plateau de Beille suggests he may not be as strong as the others. As long as Danielson keeps his nose clean and does not lose any time in the Alps, his top-10 place should be quite secure. Barring any catastrophes of his own, he may even be able to improve his position.
10 – De Weert (+6’18”)
A surprising name to see in the top-10 placings of the Tour de France, with Quick-Step’s Kevin de Weert’s best result this year being 10th in the Four Days of Dunkirk. The Belgian rider has slowly clawed his way up from 58th at the start of the Tour, smashing into the top-20 by stage 7. This could potentially be a big surprise for Belgian cycling, but is his performance here a flash in the pan? The Alps will surely show us how he can perform against the best.
So that’s a brief summary of how the top-10 looks after today’s tough stage going into tomorrow’s Limoux to Montpelier stage. It’s a flat one that’s sure to please the sprinters, including Philippe Gilbert, who suffered a massive time loss today. Look for drama in the green jersey competition. The possibilities of cross-winds may create a more dramatic stage than would be expected given the parcours, and should make for an exciting stage.
Finally, a hearty “chapeau!” to Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert, who notched a career making win today, and put himself in to the Polka Dot Jersey of the King of the Mountains competition.
Did you notice anything interesting in today’s stage we failed to note? Share your comments below!