Tour de Past, Stage 15. 2010, Chaingate.

Andy Schleck was my favourite Tour rider for a while. It’s always good to see young riders come through and especially if they are gifted climbers. By 2010 he had won the previous two white jerseys and finished 2nd in 2009. He just needed another small step up to become overall champion but near the top of the Port de Balès on stage 15 he succumbed to the rotten luck, indecision and poor judgement that plague his career and rob him of a glittering palmarès.

At the start of the day, The second of four Pyrenean stages which would decide the race, Schleck had a stage win and was in yellow with Alberto Contador 31 seconds behind. With the next best rider Samuel Sánchez a further 2 minutes back it seemed the the winner of the Tour would be either Schleck or Contador, who were close friends.

As the French Champion Thomas Voeckler who had attacked out of the days break neared the top of the Port de Balès Schleck attacked out of the group of favourites. It was a strong move and he quickly put a gap on his rivals but he quickly came to a sudden halt. His chain had jumped off his drive-train and soon rider after rider were steaming passed him as tried to continue, unsure what to do. He got off his bike, tried to sort out the issue, got back on, got off again, managed fix things before getting going to chase down Contador. After his pursuit up the rest of the climb, down the other side and along the valley to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon he lost 39 seconds and the yellow jersey to his Spanish pal. He was now 2nd and the top two positions would remain the same all the way to the finish in Paris where Contador won by, 39 seconds.

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Tour de Past, Stage 5. 2014, The Cobbled Stage.

 

This was one of the most action packed stages of the Tour de France in my memory. Pre-race it was described as a mini Paris-Roubaix and had been talked about as the old “Stage where the Tour won’t be won but could be lost”.

It is remembered for the contrasting fortunes of the ‘Big Three’. Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome were considered to be the top GC riders of a generation but this would be the first time that they would be racing against each other in a Grand Tour. Their battles down in the mountains were being eagerly anticipated but it was the flat roads of Northern France which would be decisive.

Froome had come into the race with mixed form, he won the Tour de Romandie but had suffered from illness and injury at various parts of the season. After a great 2013 he was looking vulnerable and it seemed he was not as strong mentally as well as physically. So much had been made in the media about this cobbled stage and Froome’s ability or inability to tackle it. He was constantly asked about it and seemed increasingly nervous in his answers as the day drew closer. His mental state can’t have been helped much when on the previous days stage he had a crash, damaging his hand and ending the day with the left side of his jersey and shorts in tatters. Then, on the morning of the stage, a downpour. It was the last thing Froome would have wanted. It was possible he was past his nervousness and had now accepted the fact that something bad was going to happen. It took only 35km for Froome to go down, but this was only his first crash as he managed to gingerly get back on his bike. After another 45km he was down again. Looking at his face you knew what was coming and although he tried to remount his bike then had a quick discussion with his team doctor and DS it was clear that his Tour was over. It later emerged that he had injured his hand the previous day and crashing on it twice meant he was going to find it nearly impossible to control his bike. The ironic thing of it all was he hadn’t even reached the feared cobbles of the stages as his team car’s door was getting slammed in his face the days breakaway riders had only just reached the first sector of pave, Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Meanwhile Contador and Nibali had so far stayed out of trouble but as the peloton crossed the second section of cobbles Sep Vanmarck, trying to force the selection, turned on the gas. Contador got detached from the front group but Nibali was able to hold on. From then on Contador was left trying to limit his losses as Astana pulled off a performance worthy of winning Paris-Roubaix itself. Jacob Fuglsang started driving things along  for Nibali and he was soon joined by teammate Lieuwe Westra who was in the days break. Incredibly the trio plus Belkin rider Lars Boom managed to create a gap between them and the rest. They had managed to outfox the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan who were the experts on the days terrain. At the end after Lieuwe Westra dropped back having done a mountain of work Boom pulled off an attack which won him the stage. Fuglsang and Nibali were 2nd and 3rd almost a minute ahead of Cancellara and Sagan but more importantly 2 minutes 45 seconds ahead of Contador. Few stages have ever made so much damage to the GC.

It is always sad when a rider crashes out of a race but when it’s a contender getting into the team car you can get a feeling that the race is being spoiled, that it won’t mean as much, that what could have been an epic race is now going to be a second rate show. I would have been more disappointed at Froome abandoning the race had I not thought something was going to happen to him anyway, I must have subconsciously prepared myself for the outcome. But still, the fact that I wouldn’t see the “Big 3” fight it out in the mountains was depressing. However, I knew that the manner of Nibali’s ride would mean Froomes exit would not diminish the importance of of his potential Tour win and the prestige of the race overall.

Much was said before and after the stage about the suitability of having a cobbled stage in the Tour de France. Some said it could reduce the GC fight to a lottery while other had concerns over rider safety. To address the first concern, Nibali benefited over his rivals due to good preparation and a strong team performance not luck. Time was gained in the same way as it is in the mountains. Considering safety, while Froome’s crash and one which took out Valverde and Van Garderen may have been caused by the race for position on the first sector, in the end more riders crashed off the pave than on it. The organisers took out two sections of cobbles in the morning before the stage when they saw how heavy the rain was but they were obviously happy with the way things turned out as they included a cobbled stage in the very next edition of the Tour de France.

Tour de Past, Stage 3. 2009, Contador gets double crossed in the cross winds.

Lance Armstrong’s return to cycling in 2009 seemed very strange at the time. Sure, he probably couldn’t stay away from the sport and a few other clichés but at 37 he surely couldn’t achieve what he had in the past. Was he going to be happy playing a support role for Alberto Contador in their Astana team?

After enjoying taking part in the Tour Down Under and the Giro d’Italia, getting massive appearance fees along the way, the question of whether Armstrong was a team player or not would be answered within days of Astana’s main objective of the year starting.

With only 32km of the stage to La Grande-Motte left the peloton encountered some unexpected crosswinds. HTC-Columbia with 8 riders at the front immediately realised what the scenario meant and started drilling it in order to distance Mark Cavendish from his sprint rivals. There was quickly a split in the pack with only 28 men in the first group. As well as the 8 HTC riders Lance Armstrong was there along with 2 of his Astana team mates. Alberto Contador wasn’t in that number. While everyone was expecting the Astana men to allow themselves to get pulled along and hope that Contador’s group would catch up with 20km to go Armstrong ordered Yaroslav Popovych and Haimar Zubeldia to the front. This was a direct challenge to Contador at best but it could also be called a mutiny. The one thing you can say in the Texans defence was that there were no GC men in the front group so he wasn’t aiding any other dangermen. But this is typical Lance, he does everything for himself. He was also needlessly burning out two Astana riders with a Team Time Trial coming up the next day and introduced an atmosphere of mistrust to the team.

In the end HTC-Columbia got their reward for their superb team play as Mark Cavendish won the stage with his famous mobile phone celebration.

Tour de France Preview.

Chris Froome. Alpe d'huez.

The first Saturday of July is almost upon us. A date millions of sports fans across the world have been yearning for, as nothing major has been happening since the start of the summer. Le Tour de France starts and while it is back in its traditional spot on the cycling calendar the location of the Grand Depart is highly irregular. Unfathomably the race begins in Leeds! Not Le Eds but Leeds, Yorkshire. As a traditionalist this is a little hard for me to take. Everyone surely knows the rightful city of departure should have been Edinburgh. So as I learn to live with this oversight from the organisers over the next three weeks what can I expect from the race itself?
The route of La Grande Boucle has also been taken in a new direction. Instead of being a great loop the route map resembles a squiggly j written by a Doctor, hopefully not Michele Ferrari. A quick look through the 21 stages will show you a lack of some of the Tours more famous mountain top finishes and may lead you to think that it will be substandard race . This years Tour will be different but far from boring. There will be five stages finishing on category 1 or HC mountains, the hardest ranked climbs. Furthermore, only four of the other stages can be described as truly pan-flat, one of which has cobbles, and the only time trial will be run on the penultimate stage instead of early on in the race ensuring experts against the clock can’t gain an early advantage then boringly defend their lead in the mountains, not that Bradley Wiggins is going to be in the race. So there are going to be plenty of opportunities along the route for exciting, attacking riding that should make this a tour to remember.

The Stages

While the tours first week is usually run over flat terrain where the sprinters excel and the yellow jersey favourites stay quiet bidding their time, this year things should hot up as early as the second stage. Nine categorised climbs will be tackled between York and Sheffield including the famous Cote d’Oxenhope Moor, The 2nd Category Cote de Holme Moss before the fearsome Cote de Jenkin Road just 5km before the finish line. While this should make things interesting it is still early on in the race. As the old saying goes, ‘The tour wont be won on the roads of Yorkshire’. Though unfortunately for some fans at the roadside plenty of Strava KOM’s will be gained. One day where the race could be lost is Stage 5. The route runs from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut and will commemorate those who fought in the First World War. Over 15km will be run over some of the cobbles used in the Paris-Roubaix race. These sort of conditions require strong riding and plenty of concentration so those unprepared could crash out for an early exit. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a top rider doesn’t make it past this day. Other days not to miss are Stage 10 to La Planche des Belles Filles, where Chris Froome kicked Sir Brads arse two years ago and started the feud between them that lasts to this day, and the final two mountain days on Stages 17 and 18 where the riders will battle over the Col de Peyresourde, the Tourmalet and Hautacam. This should all set things up nicely for a afore mentioned time trial on Saturday the 26th of July.
Who can be expected to be in contention at this point? Welcome to my comprehensive guide of the main contenders for the three main competitions.

The Riders

The Green Points Jersey:
Peter Sagan

The Polka-Dot Mountains Jersey:
Does anyone actually care?

The Yellow Jersey:
There are three clear favourites in this years race. Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali are perhaps the top riders of this generation and this will be the first time they compete against each other at a Grand Tour. Out of the trio Nibali has the best nickname but ‘Nibbles’ will have to improve his early season form to be able to challenge ‘El Pistolero’ and em ‘Froome Dog‘. As defending champion, Chris Froome will be the odds-on favourite for the race but he and the rest of his Sky team have been fragile at times this year, partly down to their strict diets and 0% body fat, and seem to pick up injuries and illness quite easily. Perhaps when Froome is staring down at his stem as he’s racing around the world all he’s thinking about is when Sir Dave of Brailsford is going to give him a decent meal. So while Froome resembles an octopus whisking an egg after playing a Sean Kelly drinking game *, when he’s on the bike, Contador is one of the most stylish riders ever seen. Unfortunately this style hasn’t brought him Tour de France success since 2010 when he got a taste for drug laced steaks. His career had stagnated after his dopping ban but he is now putting in performances similar to those in the days when he was winning all the Grand Tours. He would be my tip for victory.
Of the other riders it is one that isn’t appearing which made the most pre-race headlines. With the race starting in his home country and having plenty of success in the Tour in the past surely David Millar merited an entry. Of the Brits actually there watch out for Mark Cavendish attempting to take the yellow jersey in Stage 1 near his mums house, or something, and 21 year old Simon Yates who will be starting the first of many Tours.
Watching how the French riders perform in their home race is always an interesting aspect of the race. With no victories since Bernard Hinaults in 1985 the French public are always on the lookout for their next star. This ensures an exciting atmosphere during the race. Thibaut Pinot and Jean-Christophe Peraud should provide some hope until they ultimately fail in the final week and watch out for ‘Little’ Tommy Voeckler in his final Tour de France. Actually don’t look out for him as he struggles, or pretends to struggle, up the mountains. His gurning face is one of the most distressing sights known to man.
The other riders who may challenge for the podium are Rui Costa in the rainbow jersey of World Champion, Alejandro Valverde who’s dog Piti takes drugs, Andrew Talansky who is a great outside bet and Andy Schleck who actually wont challenge for the podium but he needs a mention in any Tour de France preview.

So now all you need to do is  sit back, pull a few sickies from work and enjoy the 101st Tour de France.

*Take a drink every time Sean Kelly says “Making The Calculation“, “Turd“, “Majorly Difficult” or “Tour Of France”.
*Finish all your drinks if you hear anyone else in the entire world say “Tour Of France”.