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Tour of Britain stages 4-6: Boom extends his lead

The Tour of Britain‘s three most mountainous stages ended in contrasting sprints won by world champion Thor Hushovd, lead-out specialist Mark Renshaw and overall leader Lars Boom. Ahead of the final two flat stages and individual time trial Boom – a specialist against the clock with two prologue wins to his name this year – holds a commanding 28-second advantage over the field and has established himself as the odds-on favourite to defend the gold jersey all the way to Sunday’s finish in London.

Stage 4: Welshpool to Caerphilly, 183.7km

World champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) prevailed after the concluding first category climb of Caerphilly Mountain shattered the leading group ahead of the finish. Lars Boom (Rabobank) finished a strong second to preserve his overall lead.

An Post’s Pieter Ghyllebert was prominent in the day’s breakaway as he sought to consolidate his lead in the sprinters’ competition, which he duly did by winning at each of the three intermediates. He was joined in the escape group by Jack Bauer (Endura) and Kristian House (Rapha Condor). The trio established a 5½-minute lead until Sky started driving the chase behind, looking to set up Welshman Geraint Thomas for a win on home soil.

Ahead of his defence of the rainbow jersey, Hushovd showed he is in fine form with a strong win

The break was caught inside the final ten kilometres as the peloton headed for the steep final climb. Sky’s Steve Cummings was the first to attack, joined quickly by Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Rapha Condor) as the bunch shattered behind them. They were gradually reeled in, and a selection of around 25 riders tackled the resultant descent together.

In the final sprint Hushovd took the final corner with around 200 metres remaining in first place, and easily held off Boom by at least four lengths to claim the win. Thomas was forced to slow as Hushovd beat him to the corner and finished 11th, although still in the same time as the stage winner.

With Mark Cavendish finishing in a chasing group 31 seconds down Thomas moved up to second overall, 12 seconds behind Boom. Boy van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) is third at 14 seconds.

Stage 4 result:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 4:32:22

2. Lars Boom (Rabobank) same time

3) Cesare Benedetti (NetApp) s/t

4) Ian Bibby (Motorpoint) s/t

5) Boy Van Poppel (UnitedHealthcare) s/t

Stage 5: Exeter to Exmouth, 180.3km

The best double act in the business – if comedy had the Two Ronnies, when it comes to cycling sprints their equivalent is the Two Marks – notched up yet another one-two on the HTC-Highroad farewell tour. But this time it was Mark Renshaw who raised his arms in victory as Mark Cavendish gifted his lead-out man the win in Exmouth.

The Devon stage featured three categorised climbs in quick succession in its first third before a long and largely flat run to the finish, and constantly ebbed and flowed for much of its length. Rapha Condor’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke was the main protagonist early on, breaking away and collecting the maximum 22 points from the day’s three categorised climbs to take over the lead in the King of the Mountains competition. He was eventually caught by two chasing groups to form a 13-man escape. This in turn was reduced after the final sprint 26km from the finish to the trio of Alex Wetterall (Endura), Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Damien Gaudin (Europcar).

Renshaw seized a rare moment in the limelight after a classy gift from teammate Cavendish (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

With HTC-Highroad – minus Alex Rasumssen, who was dismissed for missing a third doping control – and Garmin-Cervélo leading the peloton, last man Gaudin was left dangling off the front until being finally swept up with less than 4km left. In a frenetic run to the finish, Garmin took over the pace-setting with HTC keeping a watching brief, but were challenged at the front by both An Post and UnitedHealthcare, with the latter jumping to the front inside the last kilometre.

But as the leaders swung round the final right-hander on to the sea-front in Exmouth with 250 metres left, the familiar white-jerseyed pairing of Renshaw and Cavendish accelerated and took over. Renshaw opened up his lead-out as usual but Cavendish delayed his own sprint to hold the rest of the bunch at bay, allowing the Aussie to claim only his second individual stage of the year at a canter. Just to prove a point, Cavendish easily outsprinted the rest of the field to take second ahead of UnitedHealthcare’s Robert Förster and Sky’s Geraint Thomas. Thomas remains second overall, 12 seconds behind Lars Boom.

The finish was a classy gesture by Cavendish in recognition of Renshaw’s three years of service as the pilot fish nonpareil to the best finisher in the sport. It also made a point to the Australian selectors who have chosen not to include him in their squad for the upcoming World Championships.

Renshaw acknowledged Cavendish’s generosity after the stage, telling journalists:

I dare say he wasn’t giving 110% [at the finish]! There’s been a lot of times I’ve helped him to victories so it was great to see him help me win a stage.

The plan was to work for Cav like all the time. I made sure I was first through the corner at 250 [metres to go] and put the head down and went from there. I maybe put one or two lengths into him through the corner and he probably hesitated a second or two to give me a few metres advantage.

Stage 5 result:

1. Mark Renshaw (HTC-Highroad) 4:17:38

2. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) same time

3. Robert Förster (UnitedHealthcare) s/t

4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t

5. Andrew Fenn (An Post) s/t

Stage 6: Taunton to Wells, 146km

Lars Boom strengthened his grip on the gold jersey by claiming his second win of the race after a crash-marred stage that climbed Cheddar Gorge before finishing in Wells.

There was plenty of early action, with the first King of the Mountains and sprint intermediates coming within the first 20 km. Climbing classification leader Jonathan Tiernan-Locke led a small break over the top of the opening third category climb before returning to the bunch. The key GC contenders then went after the three bonus seconds available at the first sprint. Boom already looked to be on his way to securing the maximum bonus when behind him second-placed Geraint Thomas attempted to squeeze into a small gap and appeared to touch pedals with sixth overall Ian Bibby (Motorpoint), causing the pair to go down heavily. Although Thomas eventually remounted and was able to regain the peloton after they neutralised racing, Bibby was forced to abandon and taken to hospital with a broken collarbone.

Boom is now firmly in command at the top of the GC after his second win

The day’s main breakaway subsequently formed, comprising Ben Swift (Sky), Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), Mark McNally (An Post) and Paul Voss (Endura), although the Rabobank-led peloton kept them on a tight leash and never allowed them much more than one minute’s advantage. Swift yo-yoed off the back on the climb of Cheddar Gorge before being dropped on the descent, leaving the other three to continue out in front before being finally caught on the final first category climb of the race, Old Bristol Hill, with less than 30km remaining. Tiernan-Locke was first over the summit, ensuring victory in the King of the Mountains competition.

On the run-in to the finish the peloton shattered, leaving a front group of 21 including Boom to contest the finish, while a struggling Thomas found himself cast adrift in the main bunch. Endura’s Iker Camano launched a late solo attack, but he was reeled in before the final sprint. Garmin-Cervélo’s Gabriel Rasch and Julian Dean led into a tight right-hander with 200 metres to go. However both overcooked it, with Rasch piling straight into the barrier. Immediately behind them, Boom was able to profit from the resultant confusion to win the sprint as he pleased by at least six bike lengths ahead of Europcar’s Alexandre Pichot and NetApp’s Leopold König.

With his time bonuses and with Thomas finishing 1:24 down in the main bunch, Boom extended his overall advantage to 28 seconds over new second-place man König, with Garmin’s Daniel Lloyd now the best-placed British rider in third, a further second back. Thomas dropped out of overall contention to 12th overall.

With a comfortable cushion and his biggest strength, Sunday’s short time trial, to come, Boom is now in complete control of the race and should clinch overall victory barring an accident. Having won two stages and added a second place, there is no question that he has been the strongest and most consistent performer this week, and throughout today’s stage he was always well placed at the front of the bunch ready to cover any moves his rivals threw at him.

After five completed stages, the winners provide some insight into who is carrying good form into next week’s World Championships in Copenhagen. Boom will enter the time trial on a wave of confidence and form, and poses an outside threat in the road race. The latter, which is more suited to pure sprinters than in recent years, will see Mark Cavendish installed as the man to beat, backed by a very strong British team which includes Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins – second and third at the Vuelta a España – veteran David Millar, Thomas, Steve Cummings, Jeremy Hunt and Ian Stannard.

Stage four winner Thor Hushovd is sure to put in a strong defence of the rainbow jersey and Peter Sagan, who is not racing here but was the dominant sprinter at the Vuelta with three wins, will also feature at the sharp end. Neither can rely on a team as strong as Britain’s, but both will be riding on others’ coat-tails ready to pounce at the finish. Mark Renshaw will, of course, be absent from the Australian squad.

Stage 6 result:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 3:19:02

2. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) same time

3. Leopold König (NetApp) s/t

4. Jan Barta (NetApp) s/t

5. Steve Cummings (Sky) s/t

General classification:

1. Lars Boom (Rabobank) 20:13:18

2. Leopold König (NetApp) +0:28

3. Daniel Lloyd (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:29

4. Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) +0:31

5. Steve Cummings (Sky) +0:32

Link: Tour of Britain official website

Tour of Britain recaps

Stages 1-3: Manx Missile and Boom win explosive sprints

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My sporting month: September 2011

Ah, September. The end of summer. The beginning of autumn. The conclusion of the last major events of the year in tennis (the US Open) and cycling (the Vuelta a España). The start of the quadrennial highlight in one leading sport. The resumption of hostilities in the qualifying campaign of another. Events all over the world ranging from one of the northernmost countries in Europe to one of the most eastern nations in Asia. And a first encounter between the most successful and longest-serving manager in English football’s top division and a newcomer less than half his age. It should be quite a month. Here’s what I’ll be watching this month.

1. Euro 2012 qualifiers – Bulgaria vs England (2nd), England vs Wales (6th)

England‘s qualifying campaign for next summer’s European Championships resumes with a double-header against the bottom two teams in group F, with victory in both games essential if they are to stay ahead of Montenegro in the race for the one automatic qualification spot.

A day before the anniversary of a 4-0 drubbing at Wembley courtesy of a Jermain Defoe hat-trick, Fabio Capello‘s men will travel to Sofia without key midfielders Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere in search of a repeat win over Bulgaria. Four days later they will host Wales, who have lost all four of their matches to date, including a 2-0 defeat to England in March which was more one-sided than the scoreline suggests.

2. Rugby World Cup (starts 9th)

Over the course of six weeks, 20 teams will battle it out in New Zealand for the right to succeed South Africa as rugby union’s world champions. In 2007 the Springboks ground down defending champions England 15-6 in a dour game, while the tournament’s surprise package Argentina repeated their opening night upset of hosts France with a 34-10 victory in the bronze medal match.

The balance of power in world rugby currently resides firmly with the southern hemisphere sides, with New Zealand hopeful of taking full advantage of their position as hosts to win their first World Cup since they co-hosted the inaugural tournament in 1987. Australia will look to carry forward the form which saw them win the Tri-Nations last weekend to claim their third World Cup, with South Africa also seeking to become the first country to take a hat-trick of victories. It will be a major surprise if England, France or any of the northern hemisphere countries come out on top.

The group phase occupies the whole of the first month, with the final taking place in Auckland’s Eden Park on October 23rd.

3. Manchester United vs Chelsea (18th)

This is more than just a clash between two of the Premier League’s heavyweight teams. Coming just three weeks after Manchester United thrashed Arsenal 8-2 in a battle between the division’s two longest-serving managers, this game is a tussle between the old guard, 69-year old Sir Alex Ferguson, and the new generation as represented by new Chelsea boss André Villas-Boas, who at 33 years old is the youngest manager in the Premier League.

It is too early in the fixture list to call this a season-defining match, but it will certainly lay down a marker for the rest of the campaign. Will the wily old fox – whose team this season has received a fresh injection of youth in the shape of Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley – have too much for the latest pretender to the throne, several of whose players are barely younger than he is?

Cancellara will defend his time trial world title

4. Cycling road world championships (19th-25th)

Copenhagen plays host to the cycling’s road world championships for the fifth time in its history (but the first since 1956) on a relatively flat course which offers major opportunities for British glory. In the men’s events, Thor Hushovd (road race) and Fabian Cancellara (time trial) will defend their rainbow jerseys with Mark Cavendish, supported by a full-strength British team, a major favourite for the former.

In the women’s races Britain’s Emma Pooley (time trial) and Italy’s Girogia Bronzini (road race) are the defending champions. Lizzie Armitstead and former world and Olympic champion Nicole Cooke will be Britain’s main hopes in the road race – the pair finished ninth and fourth respectively in Melbourne last year.

5. Singapore Grand Prix (25th)

The battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship may be all but mathematically over – Sebastian Vettel‘s seventh win of the season in Belgium moved him 92 points clear with a maximum of just 175 still available – but that will not diminish the spectacle of Singapore’s night race, the first of five consecutive grands prix following the end of the final European race in Italy a fortnight before.

In last year’s race Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso just managed to hold off eventual world champion Vettel by less than three-tenths of a second to claim the hat-trick of pole position, fastest lap and race win. It was a victory significantly less controversial than his previous one for Renault in the race’s maiden outing in 2008, when he took first place after teammate Nelson Piquet Jr was ordered to crash by the team to force a safety car period. That provided the platform for Alonso to charge through the field from 15th on the grid. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton is the only other driver to have won in Singapore.

Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

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 2011 review: In numbers

Like many other great sporting events, the Tour de France can boast an overwhelming wealth of statistics concerning its riders, stages and general history, all of which help tell the story of each year’s race. Here are a few of the key numbers which help define the last three weeks of consistently exciting racing, and put the achievements of the race’s many heroes into context.

The basics

3,430.5 – Total race distance (in kilometres).

167 – Number of finishers, out of 198 starters.

86:12:22 – Aggregate time of the winner, Cadel Evans.

39.8 – In kph, Evans’ average speed.

The battle for the yellow jersey

Evans' final margin of victory reflected the close nature of the race

1:34 – Cadel Evans‘ winning margin over Andy Schleck – only the second time in the last six years the Tour has been decided by one minute or more.

5 – Wearers of the yellow jersey in this year’s race (Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Thomas Voeckler, Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans).

1 – Number of days on which Evans wore the yellow jersey – the final stage in Paris.

1 – Stages won by Evans (stage four).

10 – Days spent by Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey, the same number he managed in 2004.

3 – Andy Schleck was overall runner-up for the third year running. He has yet to win the Tour.

12 – Evans‘ win made Australia the 12th country to produce a Tour winner – but the first from the southern hemisphere.

6 – Alberto Contador‘s fifth-place finish ended his run of winning the last six Grand Tours he has entered, including his last three Tours de France.

5 – Number of French riders who finished in the top 15.

The race for the other jerseys

Rojas finished second in the green jersey competition despite not winning a stage

3 – Only three men wore the green jersey this year (Philippe Gilbert, Rojas, Cavendish).

7 – By contrast, seven men wore the polka dot jersey for leading the mountains classification (Gilbert, Evans, Johnny Hoogerland, Tejay Van Garderen, Samuel Sánchez, Jérémy Roy and Jelle Vanendert).

6 – Six riders wore the white jersey as the leader of the youth (under-25s) classification (Geraint Thomas, Robert Gesink, Arnold Jeannesson, Rigoberto Urán, Rein Taaramae, Pierre Rolland).

0 – Stage wins for José Joaquín Rojas, who finished as runner-up in the green jersey competition to Mark Cavendish.

Stage winners

White jersey winner Rolland was this year's only French stage winner

1 – Stages won by French riders at this year’s Tour, after winning six last year. Pierre Rolland won stage 19 at Alpe d’Huez.

5 – Number of stages won by Mark Cavendish, taking his total in the past four years to 20.

3 – Three men were multiple stage winners this year: Cavendish (five), Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen (two each).

1 – Tyler Farrar won stage three, becoming the first American rider to win a Tour stage on the 4th of July.

3 – Cavendish won stage 11 in Lavaur. It is the third consecutive year in which he has won the 11th stage at the Tour.

2 – Cavendish is one of only two men to have won four or more stages in four consecutive years at the Tour. The other is Eddy Merckx.

11 – Only 11 of the 22 competing teams won stages. HTC-Highroad recorded six, more than any other team.

4 – Stage wins by the two Norwegian riders in the race – two each by Thor Hushovd and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

3 – Cavendish‘s victory in Paris marked the third consecutive time he has won the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. He was already the only man in Tour history to achieve this feat two years in a row.

And finally …

3:57:43 – Time gap between Cadel Evans and last-placed finisher Fabio Sabatini, the lanterne rouge.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports and Infostrada.)

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race review

Stage-by-stage

 

Talking points

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

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