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Vinokourov wins, Cavendish shows his climbing legs as Hushovd fades

Stage 13: Rodez > Revel (196 km)

If Robert the Bruce had a Kazakh cousin, chances are he was also a relative of Alexandre Vinokourov. Undeterred by his failure to secure a solo breakaway win yesterday by a mere four seconds, he launched himself again on today’s final climb and finally succeeded in achieving a stage victory which, judging by his floods of tears afterwards, clearly meant the world to him. Meanwhile, Mark Cavendish won the bunch sprint behind him to take second place as the green jersey picture starts to resolve.

The calm before the storm as the peloton progresses through stage 13 (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Today’s stage from Rodez to Revel was a tale of two angry men. One, the disgraced Kazakh star forced to play second fiddle on the Kazakh-funded team which had previously been built around him. The other, the fastest sprinter of his generation, but one who feels, with some justification, that the entire world is intent on denying him the green jersey.

Vino: the crazy Kazakh

The three-man break du jour, featuring former yellow jersey Sylvain Chavanel, had been caught with 10 km left, just as the race reached the category-three climb of the Côte de Saint-Ferréol, with HTC-Columbia working hard to keep the peloton together in an attempt to engineer a bunch sprint. But first Alessandro Ballan launched a damaging attack which, for a couple of kilometres, looked like it might just succeed. And then Vinokourov launched off the back of a secondary attack by Luis León Sánchez to overhaul Ballan and leap clear, quickly establishing a lead of close to 20 seconds.  His face a picture of total commitment and agony, he crossed the summit and powered down towards the finish.

Stage 13 winner Alexandre Vinokourov

With Columbia spent having done the bulk of the work in the chase, and with the other sprinters’ teams apparently lacking the energy and the organization to close the gap, Vino stayed clear to win by 13 seconds. He broke down in tears after the finish as he was hugged by Alberto Contador.

The result should now work significantly to Contador’s advantage. With the volatile Kazakh – whose commitment and loyalty to Contador have come under scrutiny more than once during this Tour – having now tasted glory and a measure of redemption, he has now firmly pledged himself 100% to supporting the Spaniard in his battle with Andy Schleck:

To win a stage is like a dream. I was disappointed after not winning on Friday. Now I will help Alberto to win the Tour with Astana.

This was a win reminiscent of the Vinokourov of old (the one before his two-year ban for blood doping), the unpredictable maverick who could launch a swashbuckling, daredevil attack one minute and then blow up spectacularly the next. Whatever you think of a man who has never repented his sins of the past – personally, I remain ambivalent, a truckload of great memories sullied by the evidence of his prior deceptions – there is no question that this most professional and calculating of sports is enlivened by his presence and relentless attacking mentality.

I’m not sure I would automatically doff my cap to him, but I recognise that it was one hell of a great effort today, and because I want to believe in what I see on the field of sporting battle, I find I have to take him at face value when he says:

This is the new Vino and I think everybody understands that now. I must win my popularity in France and I think this victory in teh Tour helps – but I don’t want to talk any more about 2007. I rode well in the breakaway and was great today, and I’m happy.

The mad Manxman

Behind the jubilant Vino, Cavendish beat Alessandro Petacchi, Thor Hushovd and everyone else to win the sprint for second place, in doing so debunking two urban myths: that he only wins because HTC-Columbia’s lead-out train is so strong, and that he cannot climb. With no lead-out whatsoever, he sat patiently on Hushovd’s wheel and then reacted as Petacchi launched an early drive for home, whipping round Hushovd as if he was standing still and turning a bike-length’s deficit into more than a length’s advantage with such ease that he was able to stop pedalling before crossing the line. Even though he did not win the stage, it was a performance every bit as impressive as any of his three previous wins.

And while he is never going to survive with the big guns on the major peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees, it was clear from early on today, as HTC-Columbia featured heavily in leading the chase, that Cavendish was – correctly – confident enough in his ability to get over the final climb in a good enough position to contest the sprint on a course not that dissimilar to the Milan-San Remo one-day race, which he won in 2009.

As has become the case on recent days, Hushovd finished well down the order, allowing Petacchi to reclaim the green jersey. Should the veteran Italian successfully negotiate the Pyrenees, he will be odds-on favourite to retain the maillot vert all the way to Paris, with Hushovd a fading force and Cavendish still 25 points behind.

Nonetheless, Cav made his point quite emphatically. It was a metaphorical two fingers in the face of the race commissaires who have arguably been less than equitable in making decisions which potentially cost him the green jersey both last year (relegating him to the back of the field in Besançon when he allegedly squeezed Hushovd into a barrier which was itself pinching in) and this. And while some would support the commissaires’ decision to expel Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s key lead-out man, from the Tour after Thursday’s stage 11, there are many in the cycling community who think the punishment was excessive. It was the first time in 13 years that a rider had been thrown off the Tour, when Belgian sprinter Tom Steels threw a bottle at a rival rider to earn this most extreme sanction. And the severity and speed of the punishment – the commissaires reviewed the video just once before applying the most severe punishment at their disposal – suggested that this was not so much a considered decision as an opportunistic, knee-jerk reaction designed to clip the wings of a rider who not only rubs many others up the wrong way, but who has been utterly dominant in Tour sprints over the past three years.

With just two realistic opportunities to bridge the points gap to Petacchi, Cavendish admitted that his chances of gaining the green jersey are slim at best:

When Vinokourov went, he went so, so fast. It was an incredible ride from Vinokourov. He deserved the win and to hold off the peloton, it was a very impressive ride. I had to settle for second. It’s about minimising my losses now. I lost a lot of points in that first week and it’s just about minimising my losses and seeing where we go when we get to Paris.

It would be premature to write Cavendish off just yet, though. Although he needs Petacchi and Hushovd to slip up somewhere, hindsight would suggest that if anyone can take advantage of such an unlikely situation, it is the Manx Missile. There are few animals in sport as fearsome as Cavendish when he is backed into a corner and feels the world is conspiring against him; it is at times like these when he tends to be at his most explosive. Green jersey or not, depleted lead-out train or not, no one would be surprised if he were to win both the transition stage (18) to Bordeaux and the most glamorous stage of the lot, the finale on the Champs-Élysées.

Tomorrow, the microscope shifts back onto the green jersey contenders, as day one in the Pyrenees takes us up to the summit of Ax 3 Domaines. I think we can quite categorically say that Vino will be at the front end of the field supporting Contador, and Cavendish will be languishing at the other end of the race in the gruppetto.

Stage 13 result:

1. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) 4:26:26

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) +0:13

3. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) same time

4. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) s/t

5. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) same time

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 63:08:40

2. Alberto Contador (Astana) +0:31

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:45

4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2:58

5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +3:31

6. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +4:06

7. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +4:27

8. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +4:58

9. Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d’Epargne) +5:02

10. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +5:16

Selected others:

11. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) +5:30

12. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +6:12

13. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +6:25

16. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +7:39

18. Cadel Evans (BMC) +8:08

36. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +25:38

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 187 pts

2. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 185

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 162

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 144

5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 138

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 107 pts

2. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 92

3. Mario Aerts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 65

4. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 64

5. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 62

Stage 14 preview:

Start & finish: Revel > Ax 3 Domaines

Distance & type: 184.5 km, high mountains

Prediction: The first category climb of Ax 3 Domaines last featured on the Tour in 2005, when it turned out to be a defining stage. Jan Ullrich‘s T-Mobile team successfully isolated Lance Armstrong, only for the American to absorb every attack and then ride away from the big German, gaining over 30 seconds en route to his seventh Tour win.

This year, it comes at the end of the first day in the Pyrenees. It is immediately preceded by the hors catégorie Port de Pailhères, a monster climb with an average gradient of 7.9% over its 15.5 km length, and with a pronounced kick-up in kilometres 13 and 14 where the slope increases to more than 10%. Expect the peloton to arrive en masse at its base but shatter immediately, with the first two kilometres being one the steepest sections of the climb. By the summit, only a small elite group will remain, with many of the leaders isolated from their teammates.

Knowing that there are three tough days to come may dissuade any all-out attacks up to Ax 3 Domaines, but even the slightest raising of the tempo is likely to be enough to create some major time gaps. For some, it will spell the end of any lingering hope of a podium or even a top-ten spot. Expect the front end of the race to be splintered into ones, twos and threes by the finish.

It could also be a key day in the King of the Mountains classification if one of the polka dot jersey contenders is brave enough to strike out on his own over the top of the Pailhères. With the GC men likely to be watching each other and trying not to use all their energy, it is perhaps the best remaining opportunity for someone to stay clear to claim a stage win. One for Armstrong himself, perhaps, who has been saving himself over the last few days? Or Carlos Sastre, winner here in 2003?

For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs:

Marc’s sports blog

Todd Kinsey’s TDF blog

SportPH

Cyclingproject365

Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road

The social cyclist

Gonecycling

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

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