Reflections on a wonderful Tour

Alberto Contador has won his third Tour de France joining Philippe Thys, Louison Bobet and Greg LeMond as a three time winner of the world’s biggest race. Alessandro Petacchi has won the Green Jersey in the Tour to add to his wins in the points competition in the Giro and the Vuelta. He becomes the fourth man to achieve the grand slam of points jerseys along with Eddy Merckx, Laurent Jalabert and Djamolidin Abdoujaparov. Andy Schleck has won the white young rider’s jersey for the third time emulating the only other rider who has achieved this feat, Jan Ullrich. Cadel Evans wore the Yellow Jersey as the current world champion becoming only the 2nd man to do so in the past 20 years after Tom Boonen in 2006. Mark Cavendish is now the third rider to have won four or more stages in three consecutive Tours after Eddy Merckx and René le Gréves. The Manxman also became the first man to win back to back road stages into Paris since Charles Pélissier in 1930 and 1931.

Many aspects made this one of the most memorable Tours ever. The crashes and go slow on Stage 2, all the hoo-ha on the cobbles the following day, Cavendish’s ups and downs, Andy Schleck losing his chain and Contador’s subsequent attack, plenty of French stage winners and most importantly of all, the fact that the Yellow, Green and Polka Dot jerseys all came down to their last competitive day of racing.

John Wilcockson wrote an article recently suggesting that Contador could already be on the way out, I completely disagree. I think that Contador rode a perfect race. He rode a solid time trial followed by an unexpectedly excellent performance over the cobbles considering he had never ridden a cobbled race before. He managed to coax Andy Schleck into working with him on Stage Nine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne thereby distancing all of their mutual rivals and putting Schleck into the Yellow Jersey which he would then have the responsibility of defending.

He then took the yellow jersey after stage 15 which tasked his team with defending the Maillot Jaune for only three days (not including the final time trial and the procession into Paris). Then despite the presence of a fierce headwind on a flat time trial course he put over half a minute into his closest rival to seal his third Tour victory. It seems to me that Contador’s Tour worked out perfectly, despite the fact he didn’t win a stage. When people think of Greg LeMond they think of a three time Tour winner. They’re less concerned with the fact that he ‘only’ won four Tour stages in his career and won the 1990 edition without winning a stage.

Going into the second half of the race, Schleck led Contador by 41 seconds, the Spaniard took back 10 of those seconds on Stage 12 which meant the riders entered the Pyrenées separated by 31 seconds. On Stage 15 to Bagnéres-de-Luchon the now infamous chain incident occurred which saw Contador seize the Yellow Jersey with a lead of 8 seconds. Whether this attack was sporting or not, Contador clearly had this stage ear marked as the one where he hoped to assume the race lead. Contador countered the attack of the hapless Andy Schleck who dropped his chain shortly after his initial burst of speed. To me, the speed at which Contador zoomed past his team mate Vinokourov suggested that he would have caught and passed Schleck. There is no guarantee that Schleck would have gotten on to the back wheel of Contador. Judging by their inseparability in the subsequent mountains stages, it would seem that the best Schleck could have hoped for on that stage would have been to finish alongside Contador.

The major difference to the race that this would have made is that Schleck would still have been in yellow when it came to the stage finish atop the Col du Tourmalet. But the dynamic of the race would not have changed as Contador would probably have been content taking a 31 second deficit into the final time trial. Even if Schleck had been in yellow, the onus would still have been on him to drop Contador, which he evidently wasn’t able to do anyway. Contador on the other hand, being paced up the climb, seemed like he could have distanced Schleck if he had really applied himself. Therefore, I don’t think the chain incident would have ultimately changed the overall outcome of the race. It’s all ifs, buts and maybes, but it is wonderful that these are the type of ‘what-ifs’ that are being discussed rather than the likes of ‘what would have been the outcome if yer man who tested positive hadn’t have influenced the race?’.

I watched Stage 17 again this morning. Seán Kelly mentioned while commentating that when the Tour is over people will have forgotten the 39 seconds that Contador gained due to Schleck’s dropped chain. Remarkably, the gap between the two in the final general classement was exactly 39 seconds. Had this bizarre twist of fate not occurred, I feel Kelly would have been right. After all, how many minutes was Andy Schleck spared when the decision was made to stage a go slow on Stage 2?

As for Wilcockson’s suggestion that Contador is close to the end of his Tour de France reign; the triple Tour champion is now 27 years old and has won the last five Grand Tours that he’s entered. To put this into perspective the last seven Tour winners and the age they were when they won their first Tour are: Carlos Sastre 33, Oscar Pereiro 29, Lance Armstrong 27, Marco Pantani 28, Jan Ullrich 23, Bjarne Riis 32, Miguel Indurain 27.

Apart from the prodigious Jan Ullrich none of the recent former Tour winners were younger than Contador is now when they won their first Tour de France. He must also be commended for being competitive for the whole year before the Tour, in the week long stage races and the Ardennes classics. Perhaps this is the reason why many people reckon he wasn’t on his best form in this year’s Tour. So what will he be capable of if he returns next year back to his best? He will be very very hard to beat for a number of years to come.

In the race for the Green Jersey Mark Cavendish finished 11 points behind Alessandro Petacchi. Intermediate sprints are worth six points each but Cavendish didn’t contest any of them throughout the Tour (there were 45 in total). If he had won two of them he would have won the Green Jersey. However, we also mustn’t forget that Thor Hushovd was very hard done by on Stage 2 when the race finish was neutralised and no points were awarded when the bunch crossed the line. Hushovd had managed to stay with the main peloton which finished the stage behind Sylvain Chavanel. His main Green Jersey rivals Cavendish and Petacchi finished in groups 10 minutes and 13 minutes down respectively. Undoubtedly, Hushovd was in better form in the first week of the Tour than the last week, which means he probably would have been favourite to take the bunch sprint for 2nd place. Regardless, even if he had only finished 5th on the stage he would have landed an extra 22 points. He lost the Green Jersey by 21.

It was also a great Tour de France for Nicolas Roche who achieved his pre-Tour goal of a top 15 place. He sat in 18th place overall before the stage finish on the Tourmalet. On that foggy evening on the final climb of the race he put in the best performance of his career to take 12th place on the stage. This moved him up into 15th on G.C. capitalising on the time lost by Thomas Lofkvist, Alexander Vinokourov and Carlos Sastre. He followed up his immense performance in the mountains by also putting in his best ever time trial performance, finishing ahead of the likes of Armstrong, Kloden and Kreuziger to defend his 15th place which he carried proudly into Paris last Sunday.

The Tour de France withdrawal is now beginning to set in, but fear not, for there is plenty of other races on the calendar. In fact it’s been a good week for Irishmen all round. David McCann has just secured 5th place overall in the Tour of Qinghai Lake and Dan Martin took 3rd place in the Italian Brixia Tour. Most of the major Tour stars will be back in action this Saturday in the Pro Tour Clásica de San Sebastián. Roche will be present along with Philip Deignan who will be riding his first race since he was forced out of the Tour de Suisse due to illness. And sure it’s not that long until the Vuelta!

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  1. Mark Allen - July 27, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    I discovered this blog during the TDF and will continue to follow your posts! Great work. Thanks.

  2. irishpeloton - July 28, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    Thanks Mark. Really appreciate that. Don’t be afraid to spread the good word!

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