The favourites cancelled each other out on Plateau de Beille. Is Thomas Voeckler suddenly looking like a possible Tour winner?
Words by Edward Pickering
Saturday July 16, 2011
At what point in the next few days is the world of cycling going to start considering Thomas Voeckler as a potential Tour de France winner? Two of the four key summit finishes of the 2011 race are now behind the riders, and the Frenchman carries a lead of almost two minutes into the final week.
Voeckler, normally the attacker par excellence, changed his tactics on Plateau de Beille. From an expansive, free-flowing, attacking game, he switched to catenaccio, stifling the ambitions of the pre-race favourites, shutting down attacks one by one. And just as seven years ago on the same climb, the whole of France willed him on to finish strongly enough to keep his yellow jersey for just a few more days, now the nation is daring to hope for the impossible.
The yellow jersey is visibly growing in confidence. Even on Luz Ardiden, where he possibly even surprised himself with how well he is climbing, he still rode a little on the back foot, and conceded a handful of seconds in the final kilometre. On Plateau de Beille, he was rarely out of the first three or four riders on the road, daring the others to attack, personally chasing down Ivan Basso on four separate occasions.
The other riders in the front group, the Grand Tour usual suspects – the Schlecks, Evans, Contador and Basso – were timid and conservative in comparison. Only Jelle Vanendert, no threat overall but now a mountain stage winner, and Samuel Sanchez, of whose stealthy rise up to sixth place in the GC the others will soon have to start taking notice, were allowed off the front.
While Voeckler is justified in riding defensively, the pre-Tour favourites rode like accountants. Alberto Contador was a shadow of the rider who easily won the Giro, and won on Plateau de Beille in 2007. He covered some attacks, but made none of his own. Ivan Basso accelerated a few times, but was shut down too easily. Cadel Evans attacked once (although like Voeckler, he doesn’t really have to, being the best time triallist in the top five). Andy Schleck made a couple of digs.
But we’re now two weeks into the Tour, and many pre-race favourites look far too much like they’re trying not to lose the yellow jersey, rather than trying to win it. Voeckler did his attacking in the first 10 days of the race. He’s gained the time, while the others hid. Surely they’re not going to leave it until the time trial?
The Schlecks looked like they had big ambitions for today’s stage, and they put a textbook tactical plan into place. After setting a strong pace on the Tourmalet on Thursday, Leopard-Trek had been left short-staffed on Luz Ardiden, so they put Linus Gerdemann and Jens Voigt into the early break, which consisted of 24 riders. With the two Germans safely up the road, and available to be called on in the valley road to Les Cabannes at the bottom of Plateau de Beille and on the climb, they could sit back and save themselves.
With such numbers, the break should really have had a very good chance of staying clear, especially when their lead reached nine minutes on the Col de Latrape, the third of six climbs. But instead of working together, internecine warfare broke out.
Sandy Casar, one of three inevitable representatives of FDJ, and Julien El Fares (Cofidis) attacked, with David Millar of Garmin bridging across. Christophe Riblon (Ag2r) joined them, just as Millar dropped off the back. Meanwhile, five more riders joined the front group. Jens Voigt crashed twice on the descent of the Port de Lers, denting both Leopard’s grand plan, and possibly the road. The German dusted himself off and continued.
In turn, Euskaltel’s Gorka Izagirre went for a solo attack, chased down by a large group, before Sylvain Chavanel had a go.
The situation was extremely fluid, and it made for entertaining, if confusing racing. Unfortunately, by attacking each other, the group were painting their own death warrent in large letters on the road.
Meanwhile, Leopard hit the front of the peloton with 75 kilometres to go, setting a searing pace. Part two of their tactical plan was coming into action. They’d stay on the front right until Les Cabannes.
The survivors of the group hit the bottom of the climb two and a half minutes clear of the peloton, who were haring down the tailwind-assisted valley road so fast, Fabian Cancellara had been dropped. Sandy Casar attacked, and he’d stay in front until the favourites caught him with 6.5 kilometres to go.
Leopard hit the climb like a heavyweight boxer. The peloton, which had maintained its integrity in the shelter of their slipstream, disintegrated immediately, while Maxime Monfort, then Jens Voigt almost sprinted up the first couple of kilometres.
But instead of laying the foundation for a Schleck attack, their effort fizzled out. Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde went to the front for Danielson for two kilometres, but it was only after a short attack by Andy Schleck that we were left with almost a carbon copy of the situation on Luz Ardiden: a group of a dozen riders looking at each other.
The strongest climbers of the Tour were there: the Schlecks, Evans, Basso, Contador, Voeckler and his Europcar team-mate Pierre Rolland, Sanchez, Damiano Cunego, Jelle Vanendert, Tom Danielson, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Rigoberto Uran.
In spite of faltering briefly at the bottom, Basso especially made a lot of effort, stringing out the group and each time shedding one or two riders – Danielson and Cunego were two of the first to go.
But all the way up, the same pattern was repeated. An acceleration by Basso, or Andy Schleck, followed by Thomas Voeckler, then the others. And then the group would fan across the road, slowing to allow anybody who’d been briefly dropped to get back on.
The favourites’ obsession with each other was made clear when Vanendert attacked with seven kilometres to go, and nobody even moved. The stage winner had been decided, and the Belgian made up for his defeat by Sanchez at Luz Ardiden. He also took the polka dot jersey.
Sanchez followed Vanendert with three and a half to go, and the group made a half-hearted attempt to go after him, but the Spaniard is still not yet considered enough of a threat to chase.
The lack of enterprise exhibited by the favourites was comically underlined when Andy Schleck attacked towards the finish and gained two seconds. The favourites rode up one of the hardest summit finishes in cycling together, and left it down to a mini-group sprint.
The Schlecks, Evans, Contador and Basso are watching each other carefully. But are they looking in the wrong direction?