Thursday, July 21, 2011

The greatest stage in recent memory

The climb up the Galibier. (Photos courtesy of
My apologies for being MIA for the past few days. I came back to a pile of work and other random bits and pieces of life that needed my attention since my return from France/Geneva. This is one of the problems with going on vacation... work doesn't stop accumulating just because I'm gone.

In any case, if you weren't aware, there is this little race that's been going on across the pond called the Tour de France. In this little race, there is a group of protagonists who have been riding their bikes over hills, down mountains, and  across fields... all wanting to wear a bright yellow jersey on the streets of Paris. Apparently, winning this bright yellow jersey is, well, only one of the biggest accomplishments in any sport.

Over the past two weeks, we've had the opportunity to watch some incredible racing. Philippe Gilbert winning the first stage with incredible panache. Thor Husholvd winning the yellow jersey and then defending it for an entire week (while even leading out Tyler Farrar for the latter's first career TdF stage win). And Tommy Voeckler taking over the yellow jersey and doggedly holding onto it through the mountains in which he was supposed to lose it.

But today's stage... it was probably the most brilliant bike racing I've seen in recent memory.

There are plenty of accounts about the race that you can read here, here, and here. But here are my thoughts about some of the important points of the race.

- This stage was, without doubt, the Queen stage of this year's Tour de France. The parcours covered 200km while climbing three hors categorie climbs, including the impressive Col d'Izoard and finishing at the summit of the Galibier. After my experience with the Etape, the thought of riding three HC climbs over 200km just blows my mind. Those pros deserve some serious props for doing what they do.

- 60km from the finish of the stage, Andy Schleck launches a serious attack on the most difficult part of the Col d'Izoard. Over the past several stages, Schleck had been receiving a lot of flack for not being sufficiently aggressive as a rider. People mocked his complaints about the dangerous descents, his attacks that lasted 2.3 meters before he backed off, and his constant over-the-shoulder glances at Contador and the other GC contendors. But when he tooks off with 60km to go, I thought "Whoa, Andy. Take it easy there... You're way too far from the finish line." But he proved me wrong... what an incredibly gutsy move to attack from that far off. It was stirring to watch him catch and pass all those who had been in the breakaway... then drop all stragglers on the Galibier to win the stage by a healthy margin. He rode like someone who wants to win the Tour.

- Cadel Evans has a lot of heart. He was the only one of the other GC contenders that had the legs to fight to try to bring Schleck back. Aside from the fact that he looks constipated when he's on the rivet, he really rides with a lot of heart. You can just tell that he desperately wants to win the Tour and realizes that his chances become slimmer with each passing year. But he's done a great job so far and I still think he's got the advantage if the GC standings remain as they are now when they get to the time trial in Grenoble. He's a far better time trialist than Schleck so I think Andy will need more than 2 minutes to fend off Cuddles.

- I have become a huge Tommy Voeckler fan. I think anybody who loves cycling has become a cycling fan. The Frenchman who shouldn't be where he is... is doing what nobody expected him to do. He was expected to lose the jersey as soon as the Tour hit the Pyrenees but he doggedly fought and managed to stay with the favored GC contendors. On yesterday's stage, he decided to take a detour through some house's parking lot... and still managed to hold onto his jersey. And today... today he rode like a champion. Watching him fight with the top GC names and grind his way up to hold onto the maillot jaune today was inspiring. Sure, Andy Schleck may have won one of the most incredible stages in recent memory... but Voeckler won the hearts of cycling fans all over the world with his inspired effort.

- I am not the biggest fan of Alberto Contador, though I certainly respect the fact that he is probably the most talented cyclist in the professional peloton. Even being down a few minutes on the GC, he is one of the only cyclists who can launch an attack on the other GC favorites and gain back large chunks of time on the most difficult climbs in cycling. But I think he just pushed himself too far this year... and after the most difficult Giro in recent memory, the queen stage of the Tour proved to be just too much for AC. I have to admit that it was somewhat strange to see him getting dropped... how many times have we seen that happen? We're so used to watching him stand on those pedals and fly away from his competitors....

I am tremendously excited about tomorrow's stage 19. This was the stage of the Etape that I rode and I can't wait to see how the pros ride it. Yes, it will be completely different because they'll climb the Galibier at 16mph vs my 5mph and I'm pretty sure their hamstrings will hold up fine on Alpe d'Huez... But I'm excited because I've seen that route. I've ridden that same road. And knowing how much I suffered on some of the climbs will give me a whole new appreciation for the strength and skill of the pros. I suspect that tomorrow Frank Schleck will attack in order to weaken Voeckler and Cuddles before Andy makes a big attack to try to gain as much time as possible before the time trial on Saturday. But we shall see....

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