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24 hours from the Tour de France

The title of the Gene Pitney song is actually 24 Hours from Tulsa, but what the hell? For both die-hard and occasional cycling fans, the biggest day in the sport’s cycling calendar is now just one day away. Tomorrow, in Liege in Belgium, the 2012 edition of the Tour de France begins. Three weeks of hell. Two wheels. One amazing race.

Will Sky’s Bradley Wiggins live up to his billing as the bookies’ favourite and become the first British rider to wear the coveted yellow jersey in Paris (let alone the first to finish on the Paris podium)? Or will Australia’s Cadel Evans be able to defend the title he won with such battling panache last July?

Will the combination of Mark Cavendish‘s preparations for the Olympic road race and Sky’s focus on Wiggins compromise his effectiveness as he seeks to add to his 20 Tour stage wins in defence of his green jersey? Or will we see a new sprint king crowned in Peter Sagan or perhaps Andre Greipel, Matt Goss or Mark Renshaw, all former teammates of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad?

Who will delight us with their daring attacks on the steep climbs and equally precipitous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees? And who will provide us with the drama and romance which featured protagonists such as French media darling Thomas Voeckler and Johnny ‘Barbed Wire’ Hoogerland?

In previous years I have provided stage-by-stage recaps and analysis here. However, all cycling coverage has now transferred over to our new dedicated site velovoices.com, where you will find full previews, daily recaps, stats and analysis throughout the next three weeks. Just click on the banner above and come and join us!

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Tour de France 2011 review: Talking points

In the final part of my post-Tour de France review, now the dust has settled here are a few observations looking back on the best race in recent history, with some analysis as to what made it so good and looking forward to what could be done to make things even better for the 2012 edition. And some random thoughts about a few of the key themes that stick in mind – just because.

1. A truly great parcours

After last year’s race, which celebrated 100 years of racing in the Pyrenees and included both the hills of the Ardennes classics and the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, I lavished praise on Christian Prudhomme and his team for devising a spectacular and varied parcours which tested the riders across many different aspects of their craft. If anything, this year’s route was even better, giving us a race of three distinct parts. First there was the rolling profile of the first week, which contained no major climbs but a variety of flat and hilly finishes which brought the best out of Philippe Gilbert and forced the top contenders to come out to play rather than hide anonymously in the bunch. The second week saw Thomas Voeckler grittily defend the yellow jersey with echoes of 2004 as he tracked the favourites up to Plateau de Beille. And the final week produced day after day of attacking cycling, whether it was descending or climbing, or even the first or last climb of the day.

Looks can be deceiving - the 2011 Tour de France was no easy ride for the peloton (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Andy Schleck complained about “mortally dangerous” downhill finishes and that fans do not want to see the race decided on descents. He was only partially right. No one wants to see riders put at unnecessary risk – the memory of Wouter Weylandt’s fatal crash at the Giro remains fresh in the memory – but any descent carries inherent risks, just as a bunch sprint does, and a descent is generally only as dangerous as the riders are willing to make it. It is in the nature of professional cyclists to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, and no matter how safe the organisers make a descent there will always be someone who is willing to take a risk beyond the limits of their own talent. And most fans don’t care where the race is decided, as long as the racing is honest, exciting and favours the best man on the day. This year, the descents provided some of the best racing spectacle of the entire Tour, from Thor Hushovd‘s daredevil riding to claim his two stage wins, to the critical Evans/Contador/Sánchez break into Gap which cost Schleck more than a minute and fuelled his ire. Deal with it, Andy. This year’s race provided opportunities for descenders as well as climbers and time-trialists, and the combination of handling skills and bravery required to do the former well are important parts of a rider’s armoury in which Schleck was found lacking – and Cadel Evans, crucially, was not.

All this made for some fantastically varied racing, with different riders in the ascendancy on different stages. Compare that to this year’s Giro, which was packed with one epic climb after another, but too often featured the same names and faces at the front day after day in the mountains. Chapeau, Monsieur Prudhomme. Chapeau.

2. Jersey rule changes

During the race, I wrote about my thoughts on the changes to the scoring system for both the green jersey and the polka dot jersey classifications, and pronounced the former a big success while reckoning the latter was a qualified success. With the benefit of hindsight at the end of the race, I stand by my assessment of the points competition and, although I still have some reservations about the King of the Mountains, it was definitely an improvement.

The race for the green jersey gave us a three-cornered battle between the best pure sprinter in the world (Mark Cavendish), the punchy classics specialist (Philippe Gilbert) and, somewhere in between, a less rapid bit extremely dogged sprinter (José Joaquín Rojas). Cavendish rightfully won the jersey courtesy of his five stage wins, but was made to work in the intermediate sprints for the first time, and then forced to sweat until Paris after being deducted points for missing the time limit on the Galibier. Rojas never won a stage, but his doggedness and greater ability on the climbs kept him in contention throughout. And Gilbert powered through on the uphill stages and constantly went on the attack in search of points. It made for a fascinating competition, and the decision to have only one intermediate sprint and then award a larger number of points for it was an inspired one, giving us a race-within-a-race virtually every day – as opposed to the old system, where the day’s break would always mop up the meagre points on offer.

The changes in the mountains classification lent greater weight to the big summit finishes, meaning that the jersey would be decided by someone who was prominent on the key climbing days rather than a tactician who mopped up points on lesser days and won the jersey by stealth. Samuel Sánchez had a win and two seconds on the four Pyrenean and Alpine summit finishes. There was no argument that he was a worthy winner, and even if the polka dot jersey is still something of a consolation prize and a poor relation to its yellow and green cousins, at least it was won in a deserving and visible fashion.

3. Is the Giro/Tour double now impossible?

I commented after last year’s Tour on the fact that those top riders who had ridden in both the Giro and the Tour all had much poorer results in the latter race, and that was even more the case this year. It is now virtually impossible for a cyclist to shake off the fatigue of a tough Giro in time to be 100% for the Tour, even assuming that he is capable of managing to hit peak form twice in quick succession. Alberto Contador trounced his rivals at the Giro, but looked heavy-legged for much of the Tour and could only finish fifth – this from the man who had won his previous six Grand Tour participations. Contador has already stated that he will not ride the Giro again.

In all, only two of the top 35 finishers at the Tour also competed at the Giro. AG2R’s Hubert Dupont finished an anonymous 22nd, having come 12th in Italy.

Increasingly now, it is a case of either/or. The serious Tour contenders now sit out the Giro, which weakens the field at the earlier race. Cadel Evans skipped it this year, having attempted both last year, and it seemed to pay off handsomely as the resultant freshness in his legs allowed him to lead two massive chases in the Alps which ultimately provided the springboard to his eventual win.

It is increasingly an issue, though. The Giro and the Tour are both wonderful races, but with all the top riders now splitting their efforts it is a problem which is to the detriment of both races.

4. Why so many crashes?

Particularly in the opening week, there was a larger than usual number of crashes, particularly ones involving top GC contenders. Bradley Wiggins, Alexandre Vinokourov, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Janez Brajkovič and Chris Horner all crashed out before the first rest day, with Andreas Klöden following later. There were a number of factors at play here. The stage one accident which delayed Contador by over a minute put everyone on edge and desperate to ride on the front, and a combination of narrow roads and windy conditions contributed to several of the crashes. Damp roads towards the end of the first week didn’t help either. And neither did camera bikes and media cars, which brought down Nicki Sørensen, Juan Antonio Flecha and, most dramatically of all, Johnny Hoogerland.

The fact is crashes will always happen in a giant race such as the Tour de France. And the ones involving the intervention of other vehicles were certainly avoidable. But arguably the nerve-inducing effect of Contador’s initial crash had the biggest impact of all. Thankfully at least there was no repeat of Weylandt’s fatal Giro crash or the one involving a police outrider which killed a female spectator two years ago.

Riders, motorbikes and cars alike were in the wars a bit too often in this year's race (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

5. Will the French ever win the Tour again?

Everyone got very excited over Thomas Voeckler‘s ten days in yellow, but brave though his defence of the jersey was it should be remembered that he only earned it by being in a successful breakaway rather than taking time in a direct head-to-head. The reality is that Voeckler, for all his undoubted talents, does not have the right set of skills to be a genuine Tour contender. Nonetheless, with five riders in the final top 15, there is reason for optimism that one of Pierre Rolland, Jérôme Coppel or Arnold Jeannesson – all 25 or under – can develop into a real force in the next couple of years. If it’s going to be any of them, my money’s on Rolland.

Voeckler is certainly capable of another top ten finish, but riding for the GC does not play to his strengths. Give me the swashbuckling, attacking, never-say-die rider we are accustomed to seeing rather than one who is content to follow wheels to finish in the relative anonymity of ninth or tenth place.

6. A race of champions

Helped by a fantastic parcours and the evenness of the competition, the 2011 Tour provided an even greater quota of champions and heroes than the usual. The four jersey winners – Evans, Cavendish, Sánchez and Rolland – require little explanation. But you can add to those Andy Schleck and Contador for their long-range mountain attacks (even though Andy loses points for his tentative attacking in the Pyrenees and constant whining whenever the stage finished with a descent). Gilbert was the hero of the first week, Voeckler the second. Thor Hushovd won two unlikely stages courtesy of his superior descending skills. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Jelle Vanendert emerged from the shadow of injured team leaders to take maiden stage wins. Johnny Hoogerland became the spiritual successor to Jens Voigt as the Tour’s tough guy. And Voigt himself provided his own typical Jens Voigt moment, crashing heavily before remounting to explode the peloton on a subsequent climb.

In truth, though, all 167 finishers were heroes one and all.

More agony for Andy Schleck - runner-up for the third year in a row (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

7. Will Andy Schleck ever win the Tour?

He has some way to go before he matches the record of Joop Zoetemelk (six) and Jan Ullrich (five), but Andy Schleck already holds the dubious honour of being the only man to finish as runner-up in three consecutive years. He may yet be awarded the 2010 edition retrospectively, depending on the outcome of Contador’s twice-delayed hearing at CAS, but will he ever win the Tour on the road?

I am beginning to doubt it. His physical talent is prodigious. No one, not even Contador, can sustain an attack on a climb for as long as Schleck can, and as he showed with his attack more than 60km out en route to his solo win atop the Galibier, he has stamina too. But, even in an era where the pendulum is swinging away from time trial specialists, his weakness against the clock and his dislike for descending and cold, wet conditions are well-documented and considerable handicaps. Against the likes of Contador and Evans, he effectively starts every Grand Tour with a 1½-2 minute disadvantage, and in the modern sport where even the three-week Grand Tours are now won by seconds rather than minutes, that is too big a head start to give his rivals.

Even more worryingly though, is the feeling that he lacks the sheer bloody-mindedness of a great champion. Evans has it. Contador too, and before him Lance Armstrong, Bernard Hinault and all the other great champions. Schleck looks over his shoulder too often, complains too often and seems too content with coming second to suggest he lacks the searing hatred of losing and that crucial all-consuming desire to win at all costs. Cycling’s greatest champions have all been driven by their flaws as much as their strengths. With Andy, I get the feeling he is restrained by them, and I genuinely fear whether we will ever see this talented and likeable young man wear the yellow jersey in Paris.

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race review

Stage-by-stage

In numbers

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

Tour de France stage 21: Five-star Cavendish leaves rivals green with envy

Stage 21: Créteil to Paris Champs-Élysées, 95km

It’s the final day of the Tour de France. The sun is shining on the Champs-Élysées. And the diminutive figure of Mark Cavendish – the Manx Missile – blasts off the front of the peloton to claim victory on the most prestigious sprint stage of all. The year? Take your pick. In 2009 and 2010 he achieved this feat in the colours of HTC-Columbia (as the HTC-Highroad team used to be called). This year, however, he won his fifth stage – his 20th in four years – in the jersey he has always coveted, the green jersey of the winner of the points classification.

Meanwhile Cadel Evans enjoyed the sunny day he had wished for yesterday as he rolled to the finish in the yellow jersey of the overall winner – the first Tour champion ever from the southern hemisphere. To the title of world champion in 2009 he can now finally add the appellation ‘Tour de France winner’.

Cadel Evans rides into Paris as the 2011 Tour de France winner (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

HTC-Highroad put on a tactical masterclass

With all the other jerseys decided, today’s stage was all about the final victory and the fate of the green jersey. HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish started the day with a slender 15-point lead over Movistar’s José Joaquín Rojas, despite having won four stages to the Spaniard’s none. A fifth win would guarantee him his first green jersey no matter what Rojas did, but equally he could not afford to slip up either.

The stage started with the usual processional run in to Paris to allow plenty of time for the traditional photo opportunities of the jersey holders riding together and of yellow jersey Cadel Evans sipping on a glass of celebratory champagne. As is customary, his BMC team were afforded the honour of leading the peloton on to the Champs-Élysées for the first of eight 6km circuits.

Almost immediately, Sky’s Ben Swift accelerated off the front of the bunch, and he was soon joined by Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack), Kristjan Koren (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Cavendish’s teammate Lars Bak. Bak’s presence in the break meant HTC were not obliged to lead the chase, allowing them to sit behind and force other teams to expend energy at the front.

The intermediate sprint came early in the third lap on the uphill stretch near the top of the avenue. After the leading sextet had gone through, HTC came to the front and Cavendish easily beat Rojas to claim seventh, with Mark Renshaw nudging the Spaniard down to ninth. This extended Cavendish’s advantage to 17 points, meaning he now needed only to finish third, and if Rojas finished second then seventh place would be sufficient for the Manxman. Immediately after the sprint, Cavendish had to stop to change bikes, but he quickly regained the peloton.

The break extended its advantage to 43 seconds, but once the sprinters’ teams started to work seriously the gap soon tumbled. The catch was inevitable, and all but Swift and Bak sat up just after the start of the final lap, to be absorbed back into the bunch. Swift was also soon caught, but Bak remained resolutely out in front by seven seconds.

HTC-Highroad then came to the front of the peloton – not to lead the chase of their own man, but to disrupt it. Sure enough Bak’s lead drifted back out to 13 seconds, again forcing other teams to commit themselves to the chase to catch him with 2km remaining. This left the HTC train free to move up and assume control in their own time, which they duly did just before passing under the 1km banner.

The rest was inevitable, and a routine we have seen executed so perfectly so many times before. Four white HTC jerseys with the green of Cavendish tucked in at the back of the line. First the raw power of Bernhard Eisel, HTC’s road captain and Cavendish’s roommate, setting a rapid tempo that opponents struggle just to follow. Then the equally powerful Tony Martin, winner of yesterday’s time trial, took the lead up to 450m out. Matt Goss, this year’s Milan-San Remo winner and one of the fastest sprinters in the world in his own right, led through the final bend at 350m onto the Champs-Élysées to set up Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s most trusted lead-out man, to open up the sprint.

Cavendish held his burst until the final 175 metres because of the headwind, but when he kicked there was no catching him. Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen closed to a bike length, but Cav applied his second kick and extended his advantage before crossing the line to a length-and-a-quarter. André Greipel was third. Rojas, who had been hovering close to Cavendish’s shoulder entering the final half-kilometre, sat up and finished 21st.

Cavendish celebrates his fifth win at this Tour, his 20th overall and - at last - his first green jersey (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Five stage wins this year, 20 in the last four years, and at last the green jersey for the first time. Cavendish becomes the first British winner of the green jersey and only the second British jersey winner ever. (Robert Millar won the polka dot jersey in 1984.) The next target for Cavendish is André Darrigade, the only sprinter with more stage wins (22, over 12 years). That, and a second green jersey next year.

An emotional Cavendish was close to tears after finally realising a lifelong dream:

I finally got it, but it didn’t come easy. I really had to fight for it all the way to the last finish line and I’m very tired, but it was worth all that effort.

I had eight fantastic team-mates around me all the way, they kept working with me, I was close to getting it for the last two years and now it’s finally here.

I’m so happy, it’s incredible. It’s a great way to finish the Tour and a super, super emotional day.

New champion Evans spoke of being inspired by watching Miguel Indurain as a teenager and his pride in representing his nation:

As a young child we aspire to a lot of things in life, and watching the Tour de France in 1991 and seeing Indurain tear everyone to pieces planted a small seed in my head that continued to grow.

It’s been years of hard work and there were a lot of moments in these three weeks where our Tour was lost, but to get here safely with all my skin – just that alone is a quest in itself.

But to be here wearing the yellow jersey — for my team, my country, a group of people around me — it leaves me a little lost for words. This win is for everyone in our country.

The other prize-winners

In addition to the yellow and green jerseys, the other key prizes had already been settled in advance of today’s result.

The polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains went to Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sánchez. The Spaniard was the most consistent performer on the Tour’s four big summit finishes, winning at Luz-Ardiden and coming second on both Plateau de Beille and Alpe d’Huez.

The youth classification for the best rider aged 25 or under was won by Pierre Rolland. The 24-year old Europcar grimpeur, who first came to attention by winning the mountains classification at the Dauphiné three years ago, finally blossomed on the sport’s biggest stage, never leaving the side of Thomas Voeckler in the mountains and riding to a fantastic victory on the fabled 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez. He finished an impressive 11th overall, 10:43 behind Evans.

Garmin-Cervélo not only claimed their first ever Tour de France victory in the stage two team time trial, but added three further wins courtesy of Thor Hushovd (two) and Tyler Farrar, and placed Tom Danielson ninth overall on his Tour debut. Their consistency earned them the best team prize, calculated from the aggregate time of a team’s first three riders on each stage.

Finally, FDJ’s Jérémy Roy was awarded the overall combativity prize as the rider judged to have been the most attacking over the three weeks of the race. He won the daily equivalent of this award twice, and was memorably denied a solo victory when he was caught and passed by Hushovd 2km from the finish in Lourdes on stage 13. It was fitting that he should also in today’s break.

A race of true champions

The Tour de France has always provided a spectacular tableau for telling great stories but this year perhaps more than any other has been a race of true champions, each of whom has contributed towards the narrative of the most exciting, most unpredictable Tour I can remember watching. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador‘s audacious long-range attacks in the Alps. The devastating speed of Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Highroad train. Crashes galore, including the one which created a new cult hero in Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland. The mighty Thor Hushovd winning not once but twice in the mountains. His compatriot Edvald Boasson Hagen‘s breakthrough wins. The attacking verve of Philippe Gilbert, who single-handedly animated the first half of the race. The never-say-die pluck of Thomas Voeckler, who discovered new abilities he never realised he had in defending the maillot jaune for ten thrilling days, in which we all shared in the agony of every pedal-stroke. The magnificent Pierre Rolland, whose reward for shepherding Voeckler through the mountains was a famous victory at Alpe d’Huez. And so many more, right down to Liquigas’s Fabio Sabatini, the 167th and last finisher in the race, and therefore the lanterne rouge.

I’m sure I have missed out several others worthy of mention. I do not do so deliberately. They are all champions in my book.

But the tale of the 2011 Tour de France starts and ends with its new champion Cadel Evans. The winner on the Mûr-de-Bretagne, the way he twice dragged chasing groups up the Galibier marked him out as a man with both the legs and heart of a worthy champion. The two-time runner up who finally made good through bloody-minded determination and no small amount of skill. The ugly duckling who, over the course of three thrilling weeks in July, became a swan.

Chapeau, et vive Le Tour!

Look out for more posts taking a look back at the 2011 Tour de France over the next few days.

Stage 21 result:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 2:27:02

2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) same time

3. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

4. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

5. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) s/t

General classification:

1. Cadel Evans (BMC) 86:12:22

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:34

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:30

4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +3:20

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:57

6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:55

7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +6:05

8. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +7:23

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +8:15

10. Jean-Christope Péraud (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:11

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 334 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 272

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 236

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 208

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 195

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 108 pts

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 98

3. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 58

5. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 winners & losers

Is Thomas Voecker a genuine contender for 2012?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

Stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 20: Evans triumphs in moment of truth, Schleck becomes the new ‘eternal second’

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

Tour de France analysis: Week 2 winners & losers

As the remaining 170 riders in the Tour de France enjoy the second and final rest day today ahead of the final six stages, here are a few personal thoughts on who the big winners and losers have been during the middle stanza of the race.

(You can find my thoughts on week one’s winners and losers here.)

Week 2 winners

Against all expectations, Voeckler goes into the final week still in yellow

1. Thomas Voeckler

Having gained the yellow jersey on the final stage before the first rest day, no one would have thought any less of Europcar’s team leader if he had relinquished the overall lead the moment the race reached the Pyrenees. But, just as he did in 2004 when a courageous performance on the climb to Plateau de Beille enabled him to retain the maillot jaune for ten days, a similarly brave ride up the same mountain guaranteed him a seventh day in yellow on Tuesday which, in all probability, will continue at least until Thursday’s finish atop the Galibier.

By a quirk of coincidence, Voeckler went into the first rest day with a lead of 1:49 over Luis-León Sánchez, and will resume with an identical lead over Fränk Schleck. Hanging on to the jersey is unrealistic. However, a hugely creditable top ten finish is certainly within the reach of one of the most-loved riders in the peloton.

Hushovd achieved a rare feat for a sprinter in winning a high mountain stage

2. Thor Hushovd

The reigning world champion was already one of week one’s big winners, but having already spent a week in yellow he added his primary objective of a stage victory in the most unlikely of places, on a Pyrenean mountain stage to Lourdes. A sprinter simply should not be able to win the way he did, powering up the Col d’Aubisque and hunting down long-time leader Jérémy Roy in the final couple of kilometres to claim his ninth career Tour win.

With a move away from Garmin-Cervélo rumoured at the end of the season, it will do his value in cycling’s transfer market no harm whatsoever. Not many riders can boast the rainbow and yellow jerseys and a Tour de France stage win within the space of 12 months, and several teams will no doubt jump at the opportunity to benefit from the Norwegian’s speed, strength and experience.

Sanchez won ten years after Laiseka at Luz-Ardiden

3. Samuel Sánchez

Amazingly the reigning Olympic champion, despite being one of the peloton’s finest attacking climbers in a Euskaltel-Euskadi team full of mountain specialists, had never won a Tour stage before this year. However, he rectified that gap on his palmarès with a fine win at Luz-Ardiden, fittingly ten years after Roberto Laiseka became the orange-clad team’s first Tour winner on the same mountain.

Sánchez also broke free of the pack to claim second on Saturday’s stage to Plateau de Beille. In doing so, he became the only GC contender to make significant time gains this week, rising from 20th, 5:01 behind Voeckler, to sixth at 3:44. It gives him every chance of repeating his top four finish from last year, and also moved him into second in the polka dot jersey competition.

Thomas continues to impress

4. Geraint Thomas

Thomas has slipped to tenth in the white jersey rankings and 42nd overall, 35:27 behind Voeckler’s overall lead. But mere numbers do not indicate the extent to which the Welshman has grown during this race. He has been an impressive fixture on lead-out duties at the sharp end of sprint finishes, only to be somewhat let down by Sky’s duo of Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ben Swift. And he was in good form in the lead break over the Col du Tourmalet despite a couple of awkward crashes before succumbing to the peloton in the closing kilometres of Luz-Ardiden.

Having expanded his burgeoning reputation at this Tour, Thomas is now approaching a crossroads in his road career. Does he want to develop into a super-domestique in the mould of, say, Jens Voigt, or perhaps a top lead-out man, possibly for Mark Cavendish if the rumours of his signing for Sky turn out to be true? Or will he prefer to move elsewhere to further his own ambitions?

5. The maillot jaune

In so far that an inanimate object can be considered a ‘winner’, the yellow jersey itself has been greatly honoured in this race. In previous years where the race has opened up with a short prologue and then a series of flat stages with time bonuses, the jersey has been passed around from sprinter to sprinter seemingly willy-nilly during the opening week. This year, however, it has been worn by only three riders in 15 days: Philippe Gilbert, the king of the one-day classics, world champion Thor Hushovd and Thomas Voeckler, the two-time French champion and a man whose career is inextricably intertwined with his ten-day spell in the race lead in 2004.

That’s quite a roll-call, and I can only hope that the next wearer of the maillot jaune turns out to be a champion worthy of both the name and the fabled item of clothing he will pull on to signify it.

6. Omega Pharma-Lotto

Despite the loss of their top GC contender Jurgen Van Den Broeck in the first week and being reduced to six riders, Omega Pharma-Lotto are arguably the most successful team in the race so far. In Philippe Gilbert, André Greipel and Jelle Vanendert they have had three separate stage winners – in each case, their first Tour wins. Gilbert has been a swashbuckling presence throughout the race, constantly attacking and wearing each of the three major jerseys – yellow, green and polka dots – in the opening week of the race. Vanendert is the current occupant of the climbers’ jersey, has moved up to 20th overall and is certainly capable of improving on that position by the finish. And Gilbert and Greipel are third and fifth in the green jersey standings, with the former still capable of challenging Mark Cavendish for the lead in that classification in the forthcoming mountain stages.To top it all off, Omega Pharma also tops the prize money table, having scooped €67,460 to date. (Thanks to inrng.com for publishing that data.) Not bad at all.

Prudhomme's 2011 Tour has struck a good balance (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

7. Christian Prudhomme

It has been a good couple of weeks for the Tour’s race director, who has dealt decisively with the fall-out from two nasty crashes involving media vehicles and Alexandr Kolobnev‘s positive drugs test without allowing either to overwhelm the racing itself.

This year’s race route seems to have received universal praise for its varied nature. Uphill finishes in the first week shook up the traditional sprinters’ order, and a downhill finish in the Pyrenees this week resulted in a dramatic break-and-catch as Thor Hushovd overhauled Jérémy Roy 2km from the finish in Lourdes. The parcours is packed with challenging stages, but without the succession of sadistic mountain stages which drew criticism during the recent Giro d’Italia for being too hard.

He has also overseen significant revisions to both the sprinters’ and climbers’ competitions. For me, the green jersey changes have been a huge success, tilting the balance towards the fastest men (Mark Cavendish) and away from the merely consistent (José Joaquín Rojas), while allowing a puncheur such as Philippe Gilbert to stay in contact via a combination of uphill finishes and the rejigged intermediate sprints. I am less convinced by the new polka dot jersey competition (see below), but at least it will be won by a genuine top climber and not someone who tactically accumulates points on the lesser ascents.

Week 2 losers

1. Underperforming teams

Hoogerland has earned a lot of media attention for Vacansoleil, although he has certainly paid for it

Take your pick, really. There are 22 teams competing at the Tour, each with slightly different objectives, but several are severely underperforming and there are a couple who you could be forgiven for thinking had never shown up. Two weeks in, only eight teams have claimed stage victories so far, with HTC-Highroad (four for Mark Cavendish), Omega Pharma-Lotto (three, as mentioned above) and Garmin-Cervélo (three, including the team time trial) dominating proceedings.

Others have set their bar lower, but easily met their objectives. FDJ have successfully put at least one man in virtually every break so far and picked up a bucketful of sprint and mountain prizes – only Omega Pharma and Garmin have accumulated more prize money than the French wild-card selection so far. Vacansoleil-DCM have also been fairly prominent in their debut Tour, giving their sponsors valuable exposure, placing Johnny Hoogerland in the polka dot jersey and seeing him turned into a cult hero after that accident.

Some teams, however, are probably wondering why they bothered. RadioShack started the race with four genuine GC riders, but only Levi Leipheimer still remains and he is a lowly 25th, already nearly 17 minutes down. Astana‘s only claims to fame are the TV coverage they received after Alexandre Vinokourov’s career-ending crash and the fact they rank 22nd and last in terms of accumulated prize money. Katusha have managed the odd minor placing here and there, but are also the only team to have lost a rider due to a doping offence. And even Rabobank, despite claiming a stage win with Luis-León Sánchez, will be disappointed that a team containing climbing talents such as Sánchez, Robert Gesink and Laurens ten Dam cannot boast a single rider inside the top 30.

Roy's gallant effort will soon be forgotten (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

2. Jérémy Roy

Roy has been a regular presence in breakaways but has precious little to show for it other than a day in the polka dot jersey and a glorious near-miss on the downhill stage to Lourdes. His futile solo break provided one of the defining memories of the past two weeks, but in the manner of all sporting near-misses it will not be long until that stage is remembered only for the fact that Thor Hushovd won it, rather than Roy’s gallant effort.

Such is the lot – and the lottery – of those who try so bravely and fall just short. A Tour de France stage win could have been a defining and lucrative achievement in a career which has been long on noble effort but short on actual wins. Instead he will be consigned to the footnotes of Tour history, soon to be forgotten. That’s cycling for you.

Vanendert leads the race for the polka dot jersey

3. The King of the Mountains competition

The polka dot jersey has always been the least highly regarded of the three major prizes, but changes to the scoring system this year put the focus squarely on performances in the four hors catégorie summit finishes which should at least ensure the competition will be won by one of the strongest climbers. For now, I remain dubious about the impact of the changes. My one big reservation is that the jersey will be won ‘by accident’ by a GC contender and end up being regarded as a consolation prize, rather than being something which a rider actively goes out to win. For me, the worst possible result would be if the King of the Mountains ends up also being the overall winner.

Currently Omega Pharma’s Jelle Vanendert leads the classification by two points over Samuel Sánchez, with both men having finished first and second on the two HC finishes to date. With Sánchez targeting the top five overall, the polka dot jersey will probably not be a priority for him, but it will be interesting to see if Vanendert now focuses more on the jersey than on securing a high top 20 finish. Many potential polka dot winners have in the past prioritised finishing 14th or 15th over going for the mountains competition, and if it is going to be considered as a serious and worthwhile enterprise, then the best thing that could happen would be for Vanendert (or anyone else for that matter) setting it as their number one objective for the final week. If nothing else, it would ensure more attacking riding in the Alps, with the King of the Mountains being a race-within-a-race in addition to the battle for yellow.

Feillu is one of three French stage runners-up so far this Tour

4. French stage winners

Even though the French have been able to cheer on a week (and counting) of Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey, this masks the fact that we have yet to see a home rider win a stage at this year’s Tour. Last year we had no fewer than six French winners – the host nation’s best haul since 1997 – which initiated celebrations of a home renaissance. There have been three near misses so far – Romain Feillu (stage three), Voeckler himself (stage nine) and Roy (stage 13) have all finished second – but unless a Frenchman wins from a successful break on one of the next two stages, the return this year is likely to be zero. Which would be a real shame, as the Tour needs French successes in the same way Formula 1 relies on Ferrari being competitive.

Of course, all that would be rendered irrelevant in the (highly unlikely) event of Voeckler triumphing in Paris, but it is curious that the French have gone from boom to bust within 12 months.

Despite being set up perfectly by his team, Andy Schleck gained just two seconds over most of his rivals in the Pyrenees

5. Leopard-Trek

It may seem odd to classify a first-year team which has its leaders Fränk and Andy Schleck currently sitting second and fourth overall – and includes fan favourites Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara – as a ‘loser’, but it is difficult to escape the feeling that Leopard-Trek have underperformed over the past week and lost a lot of friends in the process. With defending champion Alberto Contador on the ropes and suffering from knee problems, the team has twice driven hard in the Pyrenees to isolate the other favourites from their teammates and allow the brothers to hit them with one-two combination attacks. Only on both occasions the Schlecks have shown an unwillingness to risk the big attack which could truly crack the general classification open and eliminate Contador from contention completely. The net result has been a huge effort by their team leading to a series of half-hearted accelerations, none of which has lasted more than a dozen or so pedal-strokes.

For all that great work by the likes of Voigt, Andy has gained two – count them, two – seconds over most of his rivals. It may well end up being a successful strategy which wins one Schleck or the other the Tour. But for riders of such ability, it is a desperately dull and business-like way to win which lacks any flair whatsoever, and which is alienating neutral viewers in their droves. I find myself hoping that someone – even Contador, who I am not a fan of – gives them reason to regret their conservative approach in the final week.

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

french riders 6 last year

Tour de France stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 10: Aurillac to Carmaux, 158km

André Greipel – nicknamed ‘The Gorilla’ – edged out former HTC-Highroad teammate Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish in Carmaux after Omega Pharma-Lotto teammate Philippe Gilbert had attempted to beat the entire peloton single-handed. The current green jersey was unsuccessful in his solo bid, but he did blow the peloton apart on the final climb of the day, denying several of the pure sprinters the opportunity to contest the finish.

André Greipel beats Mark Cavendish to take his first career Tour stage (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

A busy rest day and a rapid start

Cult hero Hoogerland still has his sense of humour

The big news from the rest day was the withdrawal of Katusha’s Alexandr Kolobnev after a positive doping test for the banned diuretic drug hydrochlorothiazide, which can be used as a masking agent. In addition, Yaroslav Popovych pulled out due to a fever, further weakening Andreas Klöden‘s prospects after crashes had previously claimed Janez Brajkovič and Chris Horner. Popovych’s departure meant RadioShack joined Omega Pharma-Lotto in taking the day’s start with just six remaining riders.

More hearteningly, however, Johnny Hoogerland was able to ride in the polka dot jersey on his newly polka-dotted bike, despite requiring 33 stitches after he had been personally introduced to a barbed wire fence on Sunday. Before the start, he told ITV’s Ned Boulting that the entire team had been randomly drug-tested at 7.30am, and that he didn’t feel like much of a hero – although he clearly hasn’t lost his sense of humour:

I’m taped and I’m bandaged everywhere, so I feel more like a crash-test dummy than a cyclist or a hero.

Re-energised by a day’s rest, the stage set off at a flying pace on a gradual downhill profile, with nearly 52km covered in the first hour, making it the quickest start to any stage to date. Six men – all but one French – formed the early break, with the highest placed being Cofidis’s Julien El Fares, who started the day 15:06 behind race leader Thomas Voeckler. He was joined by compatriots Rémy Di Gregorio (Astana), Arthur Vichot (FDJ), Sébastien Minard (AG2R La Mondiale) and Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun), and also Italy’s Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM).

Vichot claimed maximum points at the intermediate sprint in Maurs after just 37.5km. Less than three minutes later the peloton arrived to contest seventh place, and Mark Cavendish claimed the nine points on offer. José Joaquín Rojas was denied eighth by Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, and similarly Philippe Gilbert was denied tenth by Rojas’s teammate Francisco Ventoso as tactics came to the fore in the green jersey competition.

Marcato took maximum points over the first three climbs of the day to protect teammate Hoogerland’s King of the Mountains advantage. The peloton allowed the leaders to maintain a lead of around three minutes before a couple of bursts of acceleration brought the gap down to under a minute in advance of the final climb with 15km to go.

Gilbert takes on the peloton single-handed

Gilbert had the courage and power to take on the peloton single-handed

With the pack closing in, Marcato, Minard and Vichot broke free of their breakaway companions in an attempt to fend off the peloton. However, Omega Pharma-Lotto hit the front on the fourth-category climb and set an aggressive tempo to try to dislodge the other teams’ sprinters. Their pace quickly swallowed up the three survivors and succeeded in tearing the peloton asunder.

Shortly before the summit, Cofidis’s Tony Gallopin went off the front and Gilbert responded with a big kick to which only three other riders were able to respond: yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler, Dries Devenyns (Quick Step) and Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), giving us the rare image of both the yellow and green jerseys in a break at the front of the race. For a brief moment, it looked like they might just elude the peloton as they built a 16-second lead, but with Garmin-Cervélo and Leopard-Trek committing numbers at the front, the break was gradually reeled back in.

Undeterred, Gilbert forged on alone as the group’s effort fizzled out, but as the road ramped up with 5km to go he stalled and the peloton swallowed him up half a kilometre later. Three separate counter-attacks followed in rapid succession, the last by Garmin’s David Millar. But the pack now had the smell of the finish in their nostrils and they were not going to let it go. Millar was pulled back with 1.3km left, and Omega Pharma took control of the field under the flamme rouge.

Greipel has now won stages at all three Grand Tours

The HTC train had by now disappeared – Mark Renshaw had been dropped on the climb and Matt Goss was ill during the stage – but Cavendish nonetheless looked in prime position as the leaders flicked through a chicane and both right and left 90-degree corners in the final kilometre. With Liquigas’s Daniel Oss providing a convenient lead-out, Cavendish jumped out of his slipstream inside the final 200 metres only for Greipel to come off his wheel and sneak past in the final 25 metres to win by a wheel-length. Rojas was a distant third.

Nonetheless, with tomorrow’s stage even better suited to the sprinters, Cavendish more than halved his deficit to Gilbert in the race for the green jersey. He now trails the Belgian by 31 points, with Rojas in between. It now appears to be between these three, although if Thor Hushovd can gain some useful intermediate points in the mountains he may be able to claw his way back into contention.

All the leading GC riders finished safely in the 81-strong lead group, with no change in the top ten. Hoogerland finished well down the field but retained the polka dot jersey.

Greipel’s first Tour victory makes him the 14th active rider to record wins at each of cycling’s three Grand Tours – the Giro, Tour and Vuelta – after Gilbert and Tyler Farrar also completed their hat-tricks last week. Cavendish had already completed this particular triple at last year’s Vuelta.

Greipel hailed his win as the biggest of his career:

When I crossed the line I was just really happy. It was the biggest moment in my cycling career and it’s a special day.

I’m really happy to have found a team [Omega Pharma-Lotto] that I could ride for in the Tour de France. Of course I had my own ambitions here and I tried to win a stage and now I’ve managed that. I wanted to show myself and prove that I can be competitive in this race. I’m happy that I could win for this team.

He was tactful in his comments about Cavendish, with whom he had a fractious relationship at HTC:

[Cavendish] has proved he’s the fastest sprinter in the world. He’s won 17 Tour stages and I’ve won just one, so that says it all. I have a lot of respect for him. [He] was not always friendly toward me in his comments, but that’s not my style. I prefer to let my legs do the talking.

Cavendish, not always the most gracious of losers, said he had made a mistake but nonetheless congratulated Greipel:

I’m disappointed. I feel I made a mistake but Greipel beat me, so there’s no excuse I can say about that. I went early but it wasn’t too early on this type of finish. But I didn’t commit enough. I kicked with 170 meters to go but Greipel came fast and beat me. I’m happy for him. He’s come here to the Tour de France and won.

Gilbert was pleased to have contributed to his teammate’s victory after a great tactical plan executed by all six remaining members of the Omega Pharma team gave both himself and Greipel a fair shot at victory:

This victory [by Greipel] is a victory for the team. We planned to make the race hard on the final ascent. It was not very steep, but we really climbed it quickly. Then I continued to ride at the front – then there were only five of us, and I tried and thought I might be able to win the stage.

In the end, it became very difficult because there was still a climb near the finish and I could not hold on to my advantage. I went back in the peloton, and immediately took the wheel of Greipel so no other sprinter could get in his wake. Finally he managed to win, it is very beautiful. He really wanted this win!

The energy expended by Gilbert in his solo effort could ultimately cost him the green jersey in Paris – he did well to finish 14th and salvage four points – but his incessant willingness to attack has been the defining feature of a race which passed its halfway points (in terms of distance) today. Win or lose, cycling fans wouldn’t have it any other way, particularly from a rider who combines both style and substance so effectively. Chapeau.

Stage 11 preview

A gently rolling stage which presents the last opportunity for a bunch sprint until Sunday, on the other side of the Pyrenees. If a break has not successfully formed early on, an attack is certain to go away on the third-category Côte de Tonnac, the ascent of which starts at 25km. Both the intermediate sprint and the finish are flat, so expect Gilbert, Rojas and Cavendish to be active at both in search of green jersey points. It will be a big surprise if the finish in Lavaur is anything other than a bunch sprint.

Stage 10 result:

1. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 3:31:21

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) s/t

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) s/t

5. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

General classification:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 42:06:32

2. Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) +1:49

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +2:26

4. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:29

5. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:37

6. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +2:38

7. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +2:38

8. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +2:43

9. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +2:55

10. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +3:08

Points classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 226 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 209

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 197

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 163

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 135

Mountains classification:

1. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) 22 pts

2. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 17

3. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 5

4. Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM) 5

5. Rui Costa (Movistar) 5

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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