Nacer Bouhanni was prominent on Stage Eight to Albacete once the break got caught with around 20 miles to go, and it looked like standard sprinter stage fare – Giant, Lampre, F de J and GreenEDGE would control it for their sprinters.
But at the least suggestion of a cross wind it was Tom Boonen who initiated the word which strikes fear into the heart of any climber – ‘echelon.’ The French word is ‘bordure’ which Carlton Kirby tells us means ‘crosswind’.
The other day we commented on the sheer brutality of pro bike racing as Alejandro Valverde tore the race to shreds on the horrible ascent of Cumbres. But the fact is that the parcours don’t even have to be hilly for the racing to be savage…
Sky, Tinkoff and BMC all thought it was a good idea to keep their GC guys out of trouble and maybe empty a few contenders out the back.
On roads which could hardly have been flatter or straighter there was total carnage as echelons formed, merged then split again.
Cadel Evans was well to the fore but quite why I couldn’t figure out; if he was toasted on Cumbres then it’s not going to get any easier come the mountains in the north – albeit the mercury shouldn’t be as high.
I recently read the autobiographies of Robbie McEwen and Charly Wegelius with both men saying that Cadel’s riding up front in the early days of Grand Tours may look good for TV and keep him out of trouble but it exacts a heavy toll physically and mentally upon him and his team – Stage Eight looked like an example of that to me.
Contador continues to amaze, his slight frame is about as unsuited as you could imagine for brutal north European-style echelon riding but he’s there in the midst of the madness.
But he does have two of the peloton’s biggest pieces of field artillery in his arsenal; Daniele Benatti has been a pro for a dozen years, originally as part of ‘Super Mario’ Cipollini’s sprint-masters Acqua & Sapone squadra but over the years has built a splendid palmares of his own with two Tour de France, three Giro and eight (if you count TTT’s) Vuelta stages and there are few major races which he hasn’t won stages in, from Austria to Romandie to Tirreno.
The edge may be off his sprint but his raw power hasn’t left him – to see him power an echelon is an impressive sight.
Contador’s other field howitzer is Matteo Tosatto who’s now in his 18th pro season and has a Giro and Tour stage win to his name – but his job now isn’t to win, it’s to shepherd his Spanish boss and set brutal tempos which have all but the very strongest cowering in his slipstream.
It’s like Barry Hoban always says about Eddy Merckx, the Belgian was the strongest and the best – but he also assembled a team of strong, dedicated riders around him which made him even harder to beat.
But we’ve not mentioned the winner – Nacer Bouhanni (F Des J & France) and what we like about the man is his desperation to win.
It was apparent yesterday when he clung on for dear life in the echelon frenzies then saw the clear air at the death, knew it was very early but still went and won.
We even forgive him for his ‘hand bags at dawn’ stuff to Degenkolb t’other day – it was really himself he was mad at, not the German.
Stage Nine on Sunday, the 181 K from Carboneras de Guadazaon to Aramon Valdelinares definitely will not see Nacer’s wiry little body switching and punching for the finish line and the stage win – he’ll be aboard the autobus with the other sprinters and chronomen.
There’s a 3rd cat. climb at 120 K, a 2nd cat. at 167 K before the 11 K grind to the 1st cat. finish – the longest climb of the race so far.
A break will go but will be extinguished by the GC men trying to exterminate each other in those last 11 kilometres – boring this race is not.
Dan Martin – yes, again!