An incredible attacking finale, with the yellow and green jerseys off the front, was followed by an unpredictable sprint in Carmaux.
Words by Lionel Birnie in Carmaux
Tuesday July 12, 2011
Occasionally the Tour de France serves up an unexpected feast, the equivalent of stopping at a scruffy, run-down roadside restaurant to discover a chef worthy of a Michelin star works in the kitchen.
Tuesday’s 10th stage was just such an occasion. That’s not to say that the countryside between Aurillac and Carmaux was anything other than stunning, but the profile of the stage suggested predictable fare was on the menu as the peloton reacquainted itself with racing following a day off.
Instead, the final 20 kilometres were as gripping as anything we’ve seen so far. We were treated to the rare sight of both the yellow and green jersey wearers going on the attack. Both Thomas Voeckler and Philippe Gilbert possess a gambler’s spirit and are prepared to take risks even when they already hold a strong hand. You get the feeling that if they found themselves with a fist of cards totalling 19 during a game of blackjack they wouldn’t be able to resist taking another on the basis that it might be a two.
In the end, there was a sprint finish but it was extremely unconventional and provided a minor upset. Andre Greipel, the German who sparred with Mark Cavendish when the two were team-mates at HTC, got the upper hand for the first time since joining Omega Pharma-Lotto.
Perhaps describing the pair as team-mates is stretching things. They wore the same jersey but they almost never rode together in the same races, not since the 2008 Giro d’Italia where Cavendish, with two wins already under his belt, stepped aside for Greipel in Locarno. Their verbal jousting last year made it clear HTC was not big enough for both of them.
Six riders broke away very early on. Remy Di Gregorio of Astana, Sébastien Minard of Ag2r, Arthur Vichot of FDJ, Julien El Fares of Cofidis, Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil and Anthony Delaplace of Saur were the ones who go clear and, although their lead reached four minutes after 50 kilometres, the fact that the HTC team started to share the work at the front of the peloton at that point demonstrated that they felt it could be a day for Cavendish.
And although there was plenty of climbing in the final third of the stage, including a strategically intriguing fourth-category climb, the Côte de Mirandol-Bourgnounac with 15 kilometres to go, the run-in offered all the encouragement HTC needed. The final three kilometres were downhill and very, very fast, before two sharp corners and a final right-hand bend that would play right into Cavendish’s hands.
Lars Bak and Danny Pate did the bulk of the work for HTC but they did enjoy a bit of helping from some other teams, notably Christian Knees of Sky and some Lampre riders.
With 20 kilometres to go, Marcato accelerated on a slight downhill section and got a gap. Minard and Vichot went across to him but the trio were doomed because Omega Pharma had put riders on the front for the Côte de Mirandol-Bourgnounac to lift the pace in an effort to drop Cavendish. Gilbert, in his green jersey, looked as comfortable as ever.
Marcato was the last of the breakaway riders standing but he was caught on the 3.9-kilometre climb. The pace set by Omega Pharma’s Jelle Vanendert was not doing too much damage as Cavendish was still in there.
But it did mean Gilbert was well-placed to respond when Tony Gallopin of Cofidis got a gap. Dries Devenyns, Gilbert, Voeckler and Tony Martin reacted and all of a sudden a five-man group containing two classification leaders was clear. Voeckler told us in an interview in this month’s magazine that the best place to make a break is not on a hill, but just over the top, when the bunch eases slightly.
The sight of Gilbert in green and Voeckler in yellow away in an escape so late in the stage would have had the Tour’s most romantic followers on their feet roaring encouragement.
Forget Leopard-Trek’s marketing slogan, this was True Racing.
Gilbert was risking everything in pursuit of a second stage win. He was in danger of surrendering a great chunk of his handsome lead in the points competition if this failed to work out. Voeckler wasn’t putting quite so much on the line but, as the maillot jaune, he would have been perfectly within his rights to sit back for the day.
The Belgian champion did a couple of huge turns once they’d gone over the top. At one point, after Voeckler had come off the front, Gallopin tried to get him to slot into second place in the line again. Then as the Frenchman drifted to the back, Martin, defending Cavendish, attempted to usher him into fourth place, but Voeckler wasn’t having any of it.
The final eight kilometres were a blur as attack followed attack. Gilbert’s legs finally gave way on a slight rise with about five kilometres to go, although miraculously he managed to finish 14th in the sprint. Those four points were earned the hard way but it would be a shame if he were to reflect on his aggressive riding and decide that his best hope lies with a switch to conservatism.
Rob Ruijgh of Vacansoleil and Biel Kadri of Ag2r tried one last move before the flying descent into Carmaux, then David Millar got a small gap and held it until the road flattened out.
Inside the final kilometre, HTC’s presence had melted away and Cavendish was left exposed. He took the wheel of Liquigas rider Daniel Oss but as the Italian began to fade, he had no option but to open his sprint up early, around 350 metres from the line.
It was asking too much. After his second stage win in Chateauroux last week, Cavendish was asked a slightly pointed question in the press conference about his ‘second kick’. That was a reference to something written in his autobiography where he talked of having the ability to kick twice in a sprint should he need it. Greipel came on strong in Chateauroux, drawing level with Cavendish, only to fade. Asked if he’d used his ‘second kick’ to pull away from Greipel, Cavendish said: “No.”
Today, when he needed it, there didn’t appear to be a second kick to call on.
This time, when Greipel jumped, drew level, then inched past the Manxman, Cavendish had no answer.
The fact Cavendish was there and was able to take up the sprint the way he did should not be overlooked. Tyler Farrar, Matt Goss, Mark Renshaw, Denis Galimzyanov and Alessandro Petacchi all failed to make it over the last hill with the front group.
But for the second time this Tour, Cavendish was left without team-mates at a late point in a sprint stage. It will be frustrating for him, but it has resulted in more open sprints than we have seen in years.