The Throne

On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.

To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.

What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.

What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.

We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.

Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.

A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.

We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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15 comments

  1. randomactsofcycling

    It’s great to watch and I think those calling the race boring and timid have perhaps never ridden up these hills! They’re nasty! Or perhaps they were raised on a diet of PED fuelled attacks that could be sustained for outrageous length.
    It’s amazing how many have come out and said Voeckler has a genuine shot at the title but I’m with Jens….. I wouldn’t want to be against him.
    I can’t help but think that Basso has more up his sleeve but given his oft referenced lack of conviction when descending, perhaps it’s an opportunity for the others to put a few more seconds into him on the coming two stages. I’m rooting for Cadel. He’s a smart one as well as tenacious and given he and Contador are almost on-par in terms of TIme Trialling, he’s gotta be odds-on.

  2. C.Monaco

    Yes, oui, very acute study of the racing we’ve seen. Love this year’s race, glad to see le Tour living up. After all, the calendar is packed full of contenders and la dame is always the top favorite; doesn’t always win.

  3. Champs

    Evans’ rivals will have to go deep this week. They all need to move up about two minutes for a fighting chance of holding on in the ITT.

    Meanwhile, Evans can keep his powder dry all week. He doesn’t even have to defend the yellow jersey, much less attack, though he certainly looks strong enough to manage.

    The race will have to be blown apart to take this away from Evans. If it is, I pray that it happens on the road, and not the back of an ambulance or at a drug testing lab.

  4. P Poppenjay

    I am new in watching every day of the Tour and I have found it fascinating and exciting,wondering if every Tour has matched this one. I read that Lance said if Voeckler still had the yellow after the Pyrenees that he could win the TOUR. Yes, he does.
    I have watched HTC and Cavendish with great interest. Such teamwork. Then I reread Padraig’ remark about Cavendish’s security blanket. I am a newbie…

  5. Jonathan

    I still think Voeckler can hang in there. His early season wins prove his mettle. His tenacity on Beille was amazing. If he didn’t need to, it almost looked like HE could have attacked. And his team is proving strong.

    If he can hang in there in the Alps and has 2 minutes over everyone else he’s a shoe in.

  6. sophrosune

    I think you have to say it’s entertaining racing, albeit very defensive. On the Plateau de Beille I counted 5 attacks (or digs) by A. Schleck (including his final attack to the line), 1 by F. Schleck and maybe 2 by Basso (it’s hard to tell because he hardly ever gets out of his saddle). The rest of the 10 riders just covered the moves, except for Sanchez, who gained some seconds, and Vanendert, who eventually won the stage.

    I really get the sense that there’s a fair amount of the riders keeping their powder dry. While Contador has been suffering by all appearances, I have not seen the drooling of A. Schleck so common to his all-out efforts. What is he waiting for?

    Voeckler is definitely playing possum and unfortunately it takes away from his strong riding in this year’s tour. Can’t he just say he is in good form and he’s looking to defend the yellow jersey to Pariis instead of “I don’t stand a chance.”?

  7. Burns

    Is it possible that the “leaders” stripped of their PED’s have become mortal like Voeckler? That a mere mortal can now have a possibility to win the Tour? This is the best Tour in YEARS!

  8. MCH

    As has been suggested, I believe that all of us – journos, blogsters, and fans – have to recallibrate what we expect from tour riders. The fireworks we’ve seen on climbs day after day were entertaining, but may not be seen again – at least not everyday by the same riders. Put another way, we now seem to be watching a marathon, whereas over the last decades we’ve watched sprints. What some are calling negative racing, should probably be called conservation of energy. The risk of blowing seems to be higher – if it happens, recovery will be very, very difficult.

    I find myself a bit torn. On one hand, the incredible climbing duels of the past decades were really exciting to watch. On the other hand, I like the idea of clean riders and a return to 80’s style racing. Perhaps the riders also need to recallibrate by re-thinking tactics? I also look forward to riders re-learning that the all-or-nothing, crazy attack can work in this environment.

    In any case, seems to me that big picture we’re watching a transition to a different style of racing. It’ll be fun to watch how it develops over the next several years.

  9. Jim

    PEDs probably do figure into it a bit. But – consider how many of the top 10 finishers over the last decade have been popped for doping. They all doped – or darn near all of the best ones. I’ve come to think that Armstrong was not a creature of the pharmaceutical companies; he was merely far & away the best grand tour rider on the best team, in an era when all the top guys and many of the domestiques were doped to the gills. What if Armstrong isn’t just a cheat, but actually happens to have been the Michael Jordan of our sport, a guy who would have dominated in a dope-free world, but who dominated in a world of dopers too? We remember his great days and those inhuman accelerations, but do you remember the names of the guys he dropped, or held onto? Pantani, Ulrich, Vino, Basso, Contador, Rasmussen. To a man, they doped. This doesn’t remove the stain of (substantially alleged, still not proved conclusively) doping from Armstrong, but it does restore his sporting honor, even if it’s a sort of honor among thieves.

    As for this year’s race… it’s utterly remarkable. I suspect the Shlecki will pull away in the Alps and if they don’t do so then Cadel will nip them in the TT, but there is basic parity among the GC contenders. At the same time I must give all credit in the world to the men who are really animating it. Hushovd’s performance in defending the jersey and then taking a stage wearing the rainbow stripes was awe inspiring – it’s been a few years since we had a world champ race with such panache. Stop calling him a sprinter, Paul, he’s a classics specialist and a rouleur. So too is Gilbert’s attacking spirit honoring the Belgian jersey, several domestiques’ relentless pursuit of breakaway glory is inspiring, and Voeckler’s party crashing is just stunning. He doesn’t know that he can’t do it, and until he finds out, he’s going to keep hanging in there.

    It’s the best tour in years. This is racing, not the chess we’re used to. Wonderful stuff.

  10. Dave

    Voeckler and Gilbert have together made this year’s installment a really exciting Tour. Though Voeckler is one of my favorite riders, I can’t see him arriving in Paris while wearing Yellow. That being said, he has really brought honor to the Yellow jersey by his attacking and tenacious riding. In fact, seeing both the Green (Gilbert) and Yellow (Voeckler) jerseys off the front of the peloton last week was spectacular (and in stark contrast to many of the GC favorites who race so much with their heads, instead of their hearts). I agree, this has been one of the most exciting Tours that I can remember. The only thing that would make it better would be for Voeckler to somehow manage to eke out a win (I know that I’m keeping my fingers crossed).

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  12. MCH

    I think that today’s stage may give some indication of racing in this era. When the field is much more level, guts, panache, and daring are going to make the difference. Who’s willing to take the big risks? Who’s willing to lay it all on the line? Who’s willing to go for 1st or nothing? One can hope.

  13. P Poppenjay

    YES! Jim and Dave. You give credence and validity to a newbie’s view.
    Keeping my fingers crossed with you, Dave.
    Was on my feet this morning(the 19th) watching.
    Guts, panache, daring–you said it, MCH!

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