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Youth defeats experience in the Tour’s generation game

It would be too easy to say that Sunday’s stage to the Swiss ski resort of Verbier determined the outcome of this year’s Tour de France. However, as the second of only three summit finishes this year – and with a rest day immediately following – it was always going to be a key barometer as the final order among the race’s heads of state started to take shape.

After two weeks of cat-and-mouse in which we have only had the stage 1 individual time trial in Monaco to give us any real indication of form, at last we had a day on which the major contenders would have to show their hands. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

And so it was. Saxo Bank gave notice on the lower slopes of the mountain, setting a high tempo in support of the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank. But it wasn’t until Alberto Contador launched a brutal attack with 5.6km to go that the race finally blew wide open. In a matter of seconds, the Spaniard opened up a lead of a hundred metres and continued to ride away from the rest, with only Andy Schleck able to respond in any way.

Contador won easily, gaining 43 seconds on Andy Schleck and over a minute on everyone else, finally assuming the maillot jaune which AG2R’s Rinaldo Nocentini had been keeping warm for him for the past week. Overall, he leads Lance Armstrong by 97 seconds, with – and this is no typo – Britain’s Bradley Wiggins a further nine seconds behind in third place. Andreas Klöden trails Wiggins by 31 seconds, giving Astana three of the top four spots.

It had taken over two weeks, but Armstrong finally started to look every one of his 37 years in the closing kilometres. It was not so much that he was unable to follow Contador’s attack – it wasn’t as if anyone one else could, and it would have been poor form to chase down a teammate anyway – more that he was unable to respond as, one by one, the other top riders eased away from him, a sight we have not seen since, well, pretty much ever.

I’m not sure which was the more astonishing: the sight of Wiggins first riding comfortably alongside and then accelerating away from Armstrong, or the American’s frank and magnanimous admission afterwards that “he [Contador] showed he’s the best rider in the race, certainly the best climber. You know, when everybody is on the limit and then you can accelerate again, that’s how you win the Tour. Hats off to him.”

It was a gracious – if inevitable – concession by a man whose competitive rage has fuelled him to a record-breaking seven Tour de France victories. And there was a real sense of a passing of the torch from the old to the new, a feeling underlined by the order and ages of the top nine finishers on the stage:

1. Alberto Contador (26)
2. Andy Schleck (24)
3. Vincenzo Nibali (24)
4. Frank Schleck (29)
5. Bradley Wiggins (29)
6. Carlos Sastre (34)
7. Cadel Evans (32)
8. Andreas Klöden (34)
9. Lance Armstrong (37)

It’s certainly not all over yet, but it would take a brave man to bet against Contador staying in yellow all the way to Paris. And after his impressive efforts on Verbier – and with Thursday’s individual time trial, for which he will be one of the favourites to win – to follow, Wiggins is now looking like a strong bet for the podium. No British rider has ever finished in the top three in Paris; Robert Millar’s fourth place in 1984 remains our best result. Add that to Mark Cavendish’s four stage wins (so far), and it has been a truly memorable Tour for us Brits.

So now, after the tedium of the middle week, the final leg of the Tour is a doozy. Today’s stage from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice features two savage climbs, the Grand and Petit-Saint-Bernard. Thursday’s time trial round the lake at Annecy is preceded by five major climbs tomorrow (including the Col de la Colombiėre) and followed an easier-but-not-that-easy medium mountain stage. And then there is the small matter of the legendary Mont Ventoux to negotiate on Saturday.

Whoever wins – and my money is firmly on Contador – will certainly deserve it. It has taken a while for the pecking order to establish itself, but it is now firmly taking shape. And the advantage is firmly on the side of youth.

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

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