Let battle commence

One week in, and this year’s Tour de France has already packed in more variety and excitement than we have seen in the entire three weeks in some previous editions.

In recent years, the first week has been dominated by long, flat stages resulting in bunch sprints, which do not require the main overall contenders to show their hands. This year has been very different, with the prologue (which essentially reveals nothing) being replaced by the 15.5km Monaco individual time trial, which opened up some meaningful gaps between the key players.

Stages 2 and 3 were more traditional sprint stages, but fierce crosswinds during the latter produced a stunning tactical masterstroke, as Team Columbia HTC split the field and effectively rode a 30km team time trial to deliver Mark Cavendish to an easy win, while leapfrogging Lance Armstrong 19 seconds ahead of teammate and race favourite Alberto Contador.

Stage 4 saw the return of the team time trial proper after a brief absence. This year’s course, however, was much more technical than usual, featuring some tricky climbs, twists and turns which resulted in several crashes and many teams struggling to finish with the requisite five riders. Tantalisingly, once everyone had been bandaged up, Armstrong had missed out on taking over the yellow journey by 22 hundredths of a second.

And the last three days have been equally fascinating. Wednesday’s fifth stage produced a welcome French win for Thomas Voeckler, who had been part of a breakaway from the opening kilometre of the race, and who himself timed an attack off the front of the lead group to perfection to lead the peloton home by a handful of seconds. Voeckler provided me with my most enduring memory of the 2004 Tour, claiming the yellow jersey after a breakaway on (coincidence!) stage 5 and then defending it for ten days with heart-warming tenacity, repeatedly falling back from the leaders on the big climbs but somehow always clawing his way back. But this was his first ever Tour de France stage win, and there can rarely have been a more popular winner.

Yesterday’s finish in Barcelona was notable for several crashes on the run-in – mostly on slippery road markings – and the agonising sight of Britain’s David Millar, who had launched a late solo breakaway, being caught halfway up the final small but taxing climb to the Olympic Stadium.

And today finally took us into the high mountains of the Pyrenees – where the top riders have no choice but to show their hands – culminating in the hors categorie climb at Arcalis in Andorra.

Only now can we be begin to discern how the race is likely to shake out on the road to Paris. While Brice Feillu won the stage and Rinaldo Nocentini took over the yellow jersey from Fabian Cancellara, Contador launched a blistering late attack which key rivals such as Armstrong and Andy Schleck could not follow, opening up an eventual advantage of 21 seconds that now moves him ahead of Armstrong by a meagre two seconds.

So now we know: as widely suspected, Contador has the best climbing form among the leading contenders. However, his advantage was not significant enough to seriously discomfort most of the big players – and certainly not enough to suggest that, as fatigue and fluctuating form take their effect in the final week, the situation could not be easily reversed.

For sure, Contador has won the first major opening skirmish. But with less than two minutes still covering the top ten, the race remains delicately balanced.

Fantastic. Let battle commence.

%d bloggers like this: