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Up a mountain without a pedal

It wasn’t officially Grand Slam Sunday as such, but if you are a lover of high drama in sport, then yesterday was as good as they come, with thrilling finishes in three major events.

At a soggy Nurburgring, we saw a Formula 1 first, with Lewis Hamilton finishing off the podium – and, indeed, out of the points – for the first time in his career. In a race of thrills, aquaplaning spills and driver errors – rain always guarantees entertainment in F1 – we also witnessed that rarest of rare things: a genuine on-the-road pass for the lead, with Fernando Alonso forcing his way past Felipe Massa five laps from the chequered flag with an … ahem … robust, wheel-banging move, one strongly reminiscent of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. (Showing my age there!) More importantly, Alonso has closed Hamilton’s championship lead to just two points, and with Ferrari showing superior pace (in dry conditions, at least) over the past few weeks, it’s game on again.

Later, in the final round of The Open at Carnoustie, we witnessed the kind of sedate, crank-up-the-tension drama which only golf and a finely-balanced Ashes Test match can truly provide. Sergio Garcia squandered a four-shot lead, falling two behind Argentina’s Andres Romero, who then promptly dropped three shots on the final two holes to fall out of contention. Padraig Harrington teed off on the 18th one up on Garcia, only to find water twice, leaving the Spaniard needing “only” a par – on one of the hardest holes in golf – to win. A wayward second shot landed Garcia in a green-side bunker, and his subsequent delicate chip left him an eight-footer to win the championship, which he missed by a inch.

And so we moved into a four-hole playoff. Harrington immediately gained a two-shot lead, which he maintained into the final hole, where a combination of his own caution and a stunning second shot from the rough by Garcia left the result still hanging delicately in the balance. Ultimately, Garcia narrowly missed his monster birdie putt, and Harrington held his nerve to sink an awkward four-footer for his first Major title.

But for sheer spectacle and shattering physical effort, the best finish of the day took place in the Pyrenees.

Tour de France, stage 14: Mazamet to Plateau de Beille

The first full day in the Pyrenees could only really be described as a day from hell. With tired legs sapped even further by the previous day’s lactic acid-inducing individual time trial, Sunday’s 197km stage was always going to be a peloton-shattering ordeal. Featuring two hors catégorie (HC) mountains – HC essentially meaning (I’m paraphrasing here) “absolute bastard that defies categorisation” – with the second climb culminating in the finish at the Pyrenean resort of Plateau de Beille, the stage was always going to play a major role in terms of sorting out the contenders from the pretenders.

And so it proved to be.

As it turned out, we got our first little dramatic hors d’oeuvre on the first HC climb of the Port de Pailhères, as the early Tour favourite – and winner of the previous day’s time trial – Alexandre Vinokourov blew up completely. Vino, who had gritted his teeth through the pain of a first week crash which required around 60 stitches, had finally run out of gas, waving to the camera in acknowledgement that his already slim chances were finally ended. He would finish half an hour down on the leaders.

But it is in the final 45 minutes as the other main players ascend torturously towards Plateau de Beille that the big stories unfold, one after the other almost too quickly to comprehend. As the gradient kicks up from the lower slopes and the attacks start, those with too-heavy legs are quickly exposed – Mayo, Schleck, Valverde, Kloden – one by one they drop away, unable to summon the necessary bursts of acceleration to stay in touch. And then the young Spaniard Alberto Contador launches one final attack about 6km from the finish, and it is one which we may look back on as the decisive moment of this year’s Tour. Yellow jersey Michael Rasmussen follows, but Soler, Sastre and, most tellingly, second-placed Cadel Evans are unable to respond. It is only about 15 minutes’ racing time from the finish, but such is the nature of these big mountain-top finishes that once a rider has cracked, he can go backward as rapidly as if an elastic cord has been cut. And 15 minutes of effort by Contador and Rasmussen – despite some tactical jockeying for position at the finish, where Contador eventually claims the stage win – is enough to distance Evans by two full minutes.

In one critical, excruciatingly painful moment, Evans has not only lost second place overall (to Contador) but has gone from being one minute off the race lead (an eminently recoverable gap given his time-trialling ability) to being three minutes distant, an equation which now swings back in Rasmussen’s favour.

The race is, of course, still far from won. Rasmussen must safely negotiate two further days in the mountains, plus the second time trial. Not to mention the blackening cloud of a doping scandal (not again, sigh) caused by an alleged four missed drug tests which has been building over his head all weekend.

Nonetheless yesterday’s stage remains a shining example of what makes a mountain-top finish at the Tour such compelling viewing. Great athletes stretched right up to their (considerable) physical limits, stripped of the security blanket of their team-mate minders, and reduced to a simple head-to-head comparison of who is the strongest and most determined. It is simply astonishing to watch, and it puts our pampered Premiership footballers to shame when you consider that the vast majority of professional cyclists earn less in a year (some as little as £20,000) than the likes of Michael Ballack or Andriy Shevchenko do in a week.

Respect.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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