After yesterday’s debacle on the Col de Manse, one has to imagine that Andy Schleck was happy to see sunny skies when he awoke this morning for Stage 17 of the Tour de France. After all, the younger Schleck was one of the peloton’s most outspoken critics of the descent from the day’s final climb, the Category 2 Cote de Pramartino, so the sunny, dry conditions were certainly a welcome sight. That said, with five categorized climbs on the day including the Cat. 1 climb to Sestriere, the first of three Alpine days was nothing to look forward to.
Here’s what we noticed:
1. Like yesterday, the day’s big break was slow to form as the peloton proved finicky in who it would and would not allow to be represented. It took a bit less than two fast hours of racing before 14 men were given the leash they needed to escape. Looking strong were Rabobank and Vacansoleil, with two riders each, as well as Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, Quick-Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, and FDJ’s Sandy Casar. With such a large group, it was clear that not everybody would put in his fair share.
2. True to form, Casar won the race’s intermediate sprint for FDJ, with Mark Cavendish breaking away from the field to claim the day’s final point.
3. Having missed the day;s big move, Ag2r’s Nicholas Roche, Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland, and Quick-Step’s Kevin DeWeert escaped to try and join the 14 men ahead. That said, with such a sizeable gap to overcome, it’s more likely that both men were hoping to sneak their way to higher places on GC–much like Roche did last year when he attacked a sleeping peloton on the descent into Gap. At one time, De Weert was in 5th-overall on the road. One has to question the wisdom of such a move on the eve of two huge Alpine stages.
4. Everything stayed fairly reasonable over Sestriere. Euskaltel’s Ruben Perez put more than a minute into the breakaway, but that gap closed fast on the Cote de Pramartino. Sylvain Chavanel put in a great attack when Perez was reeled in, but it was Boasson Hagen who countered once he and Chavanel were reeled in, striking out alone for what would be a convincing stage win.
5. Overall, the 2011 Tour has seen an impressive performance for Norway: two riders, four stage wins, and a week in yellow.
6. Behind the day’s escape, on the ascent of the Cote de Pramartino, all eyes were on the GC contenders where everyone knew someone–likely Contador–would try and put the Schleck’s into difficulty. As expected, Contador was the first to attack, but as the climb proved not hard enough to create serious separation, he did the dance of the 2011 Tour, sitting up and looking around when his attacks didn’t have the effect he had hoped. Andy Schleck and Rein Taaramae did much of the same, failing to force serious gaps, but stretching out the yellow jersey group for the descent.
7. As we’ve seen over the past few days, a climber’s Tour can easily become a descender’s Tour if the riders in contention trust their skills going up a much as down. We saw this today as several men went to the limit to try and gain time (Saur-Sojasun’s Jonathan Hivert–desperate for a stage win–rode off the road three times, for example). Over the top, Contador and Sanchez pushed the pace, while, Andy Schleck pushed a dropped Hivert out of the way so that he could descend at the front before being overtaken. Even Samuel Sanchez–a rider known to be one of the peloton’s most fearless descenders, nearly endo’ed in his attempt to slow for a corner. And perhaps most importantly, helicopter camera caught Thomas Voeckler overcooking a turn and winding up in the same driveway that provided a refuge to Hivert minutes earlier.
8. At the base of the descent, Sanchez and Contador fell into time trial mode with a relatively big gap over a group containing Evans and the Schlecks. Their alliance was a smart move–they both need to gain time and for now stand to gain more together than separately. We saw the beginning of this new “armada” yesterday, and will likely see more of it tomorrow–especially as Sanchez sits only 2 point behind Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert in the race for the polka dot jersey.
9. But in the end, after an incredible ride that was completely missed by the cameras, Evans, “Frandy”, and some others caught the two Spaniards inside the final kilometer, rendering their efforts moot, and sparing Andy and Frank from yet another night of worrying.
10. The day was not without its losers however, as Voeckler, Basso, and Tommy Danielson all lost some time. Their places in the top-10 remain intact, but in a race that looks to go down to the wire, every second counts.
11. Even though we didn’t see it, we suspect Evans had a lot to do with Frandy staying in contention on the descent and closing the gap to Contador and Sanchez on the flatter, open roads. His confidence must be growing each day–if he can avoid a bad day in the high Alps, it could his Tour to lose.
12. Or is it? Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar team rode another impressive race, keeping their man out of trouble. Voeckler was also quick to respond to the various accelerations on the Pramartino, and had it not been for that one bad corner, would surely have been with the rest at the finish. Things are a bit more straightforward from here on out–it’s getting harder and harder to overlook the Frenchman.
13. So what’s to come? With two days featuring five HC ascents (and a Cat. 1 for good measure) and two summit finishes, there will be no place to hide for any man hoping to win the 2011 Tour de France. Tomorrow, the race will likely come down to Voeckler vs. Evans vs. Frandy vs. Contachez. Friday, there can be no alliances as Contador and Sanchez will have to ride for themselves and Leopard Trek must choose one Schleck over the other (we’d choose Frank if we were them, although Andy might be peaking). And don’t rule out Basso or the quiet, but lurking Damiano Cunego. Basso’s much more suited to the longer, gradual climbs in the Alps and Cunego’s done nothing but follow wheels.
All in all, with only four days left to race, it’s beginning to seem as if the battle to win 2011 Tour de France is just getting started.