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The final stage of the 2011 TDU has been run and won, with the expected wins for Mark Cavendish in the sprint, and Cadel Evans in the overall coming to fruition. A victory on the Champs Elysees is one of the great achievements for a sprint cyclist, and Cav's ability to produce on the big stages with such consistency will already have him posted as a strong favourite to win the World Championships this September.
Today the final stage of the 2011 TDU gets underway, which is devastatingly disappointing for me, but also extremely exciting considering it is Cadel Evans who will cross the line the champion today, calamitous misadventure notwithstanding. (brief pause while author touches wood.) I can't believe it's nearly over, and conversely can't believe that Gilbert's win on Stage One was only three weeks ago.
Cadel Evans is going to win the Tour de France in 2011. Hahahaha! I'm going to say that again, just because I can. Cadel Evans is going to win the Tour de France in 2011. What a nice sentence to read and write! The time trial last night was expected to be a shootout between the world's best time triallist, Fabian Cancellara, and the next big thing, Tony Martin. Behind these two big hitters doing their thing, the question everyone was interested in was if Cadel could take 57"³ out of Andy Schleck.
Two nights ago there four men still in contention, then Contador was out of the race. Yesterday saw the end of Frank Schleck's chances, and tonight will see the demise of the final contender for the Tour. Andy Schleck will hope to defend his 57sec lead over Cadel Evans tonight, and will certainly fancy his chances. The last time he was in this position, Cadel just didn't have enough in the tank to overhaul Carlos Sastre back in 2008.
One more time over some incredible hills. One more chance for the Schlecks to take seconds away from Cadel. One more opportunity for them to sap the power from his legs to minimize the damage he does to them in tomorrow's TT. One More TIme? 100km, three categorized climbs, 2851m vertical ascent. This stage is not as huge as last night's, but being so short and sharp, there is still enormous potential for damage to be done.
If you were lucky enough to watch Stage 18 last night, you saw one of the best days of bike racing in years. The Schlecks finally attacked and got it right, using their double-threat to maximum advantage, and as a result achieved another stage win, jumped in the GC to now be in a dominant position, and Andy has ridden a stage that will be talked about for years.
We have finally made it to the first of two stages that have loomed large over this whole race, and will play a huge role in determining who is the 2011 Tour de France champion. Today is officially a filthy stage on the bike. 200km, three hors categorie climbs, approximately 470om vertical gain through the stage, including a single climb from 335m above sea level to 2744m! Holy smokes.
Last night's bike race was a return to normalcy for the boys on the road: the break was allowed to go relatively early, it stayed away all day, and despite a few attempts to put time into each other, the GC boys all finished on the same time. And no, despite repeated claims by Paul Sherwen on the commentary, Thomas Voeckler is not a threat to win the overall. He will possibly finish in the top 10, but only possibly.
Dare We Guess? Ok. So last night was on paper the stage that everyone expected-a breakaway that was difficult to get into, but stayed away once established. And yet it was hardly a predictable result, with a shake-up of the GC, another win to Garmin and Thor, and a request from the Schlecks that every stage please be an uphill time trial, or at worst an uphill two man teams time trial. Contador is far from gone, Cadel is looking very good, the Schlecks are not on top of their game (their riding game that is-they can complain with the best of them"¦)
What a stage last night turned out to be! Prior to the stage, the thoughts were that it was always going to be a breakaway, and there wouldn't be much movement on the general classification. Half right! Schlecks Shaken! The high likelihood of the break staying away meant that all of the boys not in with a chance on general were hoping to get a piece of the action, meaning it took hours before the break finally got clear.
Back Swinging. After what seems like both forever, and no time at all, we're headed to the final stanza of this year's Tour. Today's stage is another medium mountain stage, with only one Cat. 2 climb to deal with, followed by a short descent into the town of Gap. The day is a steady climb uphill for the majority of the day, with two sharp descents that may be of note for general standings-the descent that leads to the Col de Manse (the climb of the day) and then the 11km after the summit of the Col, which is all downhill to the finish.
"It's over already?" Most of the riders in the peloton would be thinking that as the rest day ends and they prepare for the final week of this year's Tour. The racing has been brutal: nervous and hectic through the first week, typically savage through the Pyrenees (which happened through the second week), and windy and wet virtually the whole time. For those who have been under the pump, the rest day is a little shining light where they feel like they may be able to recover some of the energy that they have expended.
And Now ... I love that scene from Dude Where’s My Car? So here we sit: Rest Day 2 already! And yet it feels like forever since the Tour started. Weird stuff happens to sports fans in July. The last few days of racing have been typically explosive, with Cav making it 19 TdF career stage wins (good grief the man can find the finish line) yesterday, and Cadel defending manfully against the combined assaults of the brothers Schleck, interspersed with Thor doing the impossible. Standard Tour de France!
After a quiet day where the big swinging cats of the peloton were all nice to each other, the fireworks are set to ignite. Hilltop finishes are always a risk for time gaps, and considering Cadel is currently the only contender who would be happy with how things sit on the overall with a 41km individual TT still to come, there are lads who will be sure to attack madly tonight.
I can remember seeing the photos from the presentation of the teams at the start of the race and thinking how embarrassing it was for the Garmin team to be doing their bow down to Thor thing while he held up a warhammer. I was clearly completely wrong! The Champ Rolls On. The man's a legend, and after yesterday's fantastic win in the World Champion's Rainbow Jersey, he has cemented his place as a giant of the modern era.
More Questions. Ahh the first mountain stage! You’ve just got to love the first chance to have a look at how everyone’s legs are going. Last night showed that Frank has very good legs, Andy may not have legs that are quite so good, Cadel is in very good form, and crucially, Contador is currently not showing great form at all.
Big Hitters' Playground. Gaaaaaame on! It has finally become time for the big swinging cats to unsheathe their claws. It feels like forever since the race started-I reckon the first big climbs don't normally come quite so late-so I reckon there'll be a few lads (and their teams) wondering what their form is like and hoping that they earn the big bucks that they're paid.
Slim To None. The chances of Cav getting beaten two days running in a sprint. Today is a guaranteed bunchie. It's a flat stage heading to the base of the Pyrenees, and the third last opportunity for the sprinters to shine. There's nary a categorised climb to be seen, so everyone's favourite caraccident victim Johnny "Breakaway" Hoogerland will remain in the King of the Mountains jersey for one more stage, although how much longer he can survive in the race itself is anyone's guess.
Desserts And Grace. Great food pun. Well, an ok food pun. I'm sure there are some unemployed former News Of The World staffers who could come up with something better". Enough of unimportant stuff though! Onto the cycling. Last night was a very tough stage-Voeckler's team did indeed keep things quite close to ensure he retained the yellow jersey, and Gilbert hit out hard to try and shake the sprinters prior to the finale.
Attack! Attack! After years of Lance Armstrong inspired sensible bike racing where the best teams would put all of their boys on the from to make life difficult throughout a stage and then have a final climb big gun hit out, early attacks are back. And we, the viewing public, are all the richer for it! The stage last night was, amazingly, even better than the night before in that Alberto Contador set forth on the attack on the first of three massive hills, towing Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Thomas Voeckler up the hill in a battle over 100km.
There are three definite bunch sprints forthcoming in the Tour: the traditional Champs Elysee final stage, and the stages directly before and after the Alps. Today's relatively short stage may also be a bunchie. It's a very lumpy part of the world: virtually no flat, and no straight stretches of road make it an exhausting, but beautiful, area to drive through (let alone ride).
Rest Day Number One! The day everyone is hanging out for on the whole race: riders just want a day off the mental and physical stress; staff want a moment to take a deep breath; France TV want a chance to ask their driver what exactly was he thinking turning into the break group; viewers on the other side of the world want a chance to go to bed early without worrying that they're missing something major"¦ It's a well timed, well earned break for everyone!
Ouch. What a tough day in the saddle for the boys! Everything was under control, with the break only a couple of minutes out in front, Thor getting over the climbs comfortably, and plenty of time to reel the break back in when BOOM! Zabriskie hit the deck, a couple of big hitters also went down from other teams (Kloden, Vino and VDB in particular) and there is a decision made to wait for everyone affected in the crash to catch back up.
Thor is staring down the barrel of a very tough day in the saddle today! He has been fantastic in first gaining the yellow jersey on the back of a great stage one sprint followed by his huge TTT effort, and then holding it with his epic rides up the Mur de Bretagne and Super-Besse. The big Norwegian has arguably been the most appreciated early race leader since Thomas Voeckler back in 2004 as firstly, he is the wearer of the Rainbow Jersey, and also his defense has been both against the odds, and delivered with true panache.
The first climbing day of the Tour has been and gone, and surprisingly, nothing major has changed. We're still unsure of the form of the Schlecks (and particularly Andy); Contador still has a tower of work to do to get back into the race; Evans still looks very good; and Hushovd still has the yellow! So while there have been no significant changes, there has been a significant surprise.
Time For The Hitters. After a couple of days where I've been off the grid, it's a good day to get back on Tour watching duties! We've seen Cav do what Cav does: win Tour stages. Radioshack appear almost cursed, with Brajkovic out, Horner in doubt and Leipheimer losing a minute after slipping on some paint; Sky have had a win through Eddie the Boss, but have lost Wiggo; Garmin continue to hold the yellow jersey, and it appears VDV is their sole gc option as Ryder lost some time behind a crash. Who said the first week is boring?
Question Marks. Today is a long, lumpy stage with a kicker in the final 2km. It's not hard enough for the GC boys to do more than snipe a few seconds on each other here or there, but maybe too hard for the pure sprinters to be a part of the finale. And therein lies the question mark. For Garmin and now HTC, the first few days have been successful, and so the two teams most likely to cover any breakaway and make things a bunch kick will be wondering if it is worth their while to burn their boys up in ensuring it is a sprint when their two sprinters are not 100% guaranteed to be in a position to sprint for the line anyway.
Cav in Form. Another day, another bunchy and-seemingly inevitably-another win to Cav. He is an amazing bike rider, with an incredible knack for winning, and as regular and almost easy as his wins at the Tour seem, he is beating some very good bike riders and teams who are often racing solely to beat him. Tyler apparently just wasn't on form today, so didn't contest the sprint, which isn't like him: usually when he gets a sniff of the finish line, all thoughts of physical unreadiness fly out the window as he goes for the win.
Turned Tables. For the past couple of years, Garmin have been on the back foot in the sprints at the Tour particularly. The HTC train has been dominant, they've won the Teams TTs at most Grand Tours, and Cav has just been winning sprints at will. The Garmin squad has had some shocking injuries, have just been on the wrong side of the TTs, and despite being at times agonisingly close, Ty hasn't been able to get Cav. Now? Garmin's train is humming, they won the TTT, Cav's had some bad luck, and the mood on the two team buses could not be different.
Death Of The Curse. There is a theory within cycling circles that the person who is the current world champion (and thus wearer of the Rainbow Jersey) is stricken by a curse, meaning their season in the Bands is a poor one. That appears to have changed. For two years in a row, the defending world champion, and wearer of the Rainbow Jersey has held the Yellow Jersey at the Tour. Last year, despite a broken arm from a crash on the stage, Cadel Evans rode to the yellow jersey at the Tour.
Gilbert Gilbert. That's Gilbert repeating. Geddit?? haha! Dad Joke if ever I saw one! Today, stage 4, is another one for the punchy power climbers, with Phillipe Gilbert being the red-hot favourite. The finale is a 2km 6.6% kicker which is still probably not hard enough to let skinny blokes like Contador and Schleck do their thing, and will be more up Evans or Gilbert's alley.
A Great Result. After all of my brash talk about Garmin's cherry having been popped, and Tyler thus being assured of the win on Stage 3, it was so exciting to see the result this morning! The race wasn't quite the shootout I'd anticipated, but Garmin executed their final kilometres brilliantly, and if there ever was a deserving winner of a stage, it is Ty Farrar.
Duelling Trains. There's something about certain sporting moments when two competitors meet each other in their pomp and just go head to head. There's a minimum of tactics, and a maximum of fireworks, and we, the interested onlookers can only marvel at how good this is, and wonder who will crack first? Some of my favourite moments include the Daniel Komen-Haile Gebresellasie 5km & 10km track & field battles in the mid-90s; the Australia-Great Britain Teams Pursuit at the World Track Champs last year, and in last year's Tour, the Schleck-Contador duel on the Tourmalet.
The Dotty Jumper. Or the polka dot (climbers) jersey, or the king of the mountains. This is the jersey that is currently the least predictable of those up for grabs in the Tour, and also currently the least closely followed (this is perhaps untrue in non-Anglophone countries, but comparing the amount of coverage that Cav gets in his green jersey battles, as opposed to Anthony Charteau in his dotty battles, I don't think so).
Talking About The Green. We're into the final couple of days prior to the big show starting, and I reckon it's time to throw my two cents into the prediction ring. I'll start with the green (or points) jersey-a jersey that two of the boys from Garmin have worn in the past two seasons, but which neither actually held. Wiggo and Millar both rode in the green jersey the day after the Prologue, yet neither was leading the points competition, which was lead by Fabian Cancellara, who happened to also be holding the yellow jersey, and so of course wore that on the day.
Two Weeks Out. If the energy was up a week ago, things have gotten even more hyped for all of the teams headed to le Tour now. Cyclists will have ridden themselves into or out of spots as the final places are essentially solidified based on a combination of form, usefulness to team goals and personality.
Three Weeks to Go. We're approaching mid-June, and the cycling world in Europe is building to a frenzy of anticipation: three weeks 'til the Tour! Most teams will have had five or six of their riders locked in as starters since before the season began, with only a badly-timed injury preventing big hitters like Thor Hushovd, Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde from Garmin from starting.