A long stage with a six-man break for most of it, relatively dull (Sherwen getting into the archeology of Provence at one point), with two crashes in the peloton near the end, and a strong showing by the race’s youngest rider. Oh yeah and Mark Cavendish wins his 24th career stage.
The breakaway of De Gendt, Arashiro, Reza, Sicard, Lutsenko, and Delaplace formed almost immediately, at 3km into the race, even before the NBC coverage started — their lead was already over 10 minutes when NBC came online. For most of the day, they rode well together, De Gendt flashing a gentlemanly wave of thanks as the others let him take the first mountain points on Col d l’Ange. Arashiro is one of two Japanese riders in this year’s race along with Fumiyuki Beppu. Liggett and Sherwen focused mainly on De Gendt, who seemed strongest, and Arashiro, who wore the Japan national champion jersey. Liggett teased us with the notion that the break could survive and take the stage; Sherwen demurely would have none of it.
Then on the descent from the final climb at Côte des Bastides, about 12km from the finish, it was Reza and Lutsenko who broke away and charged. Lutsenko, only 20 years old riding his first Tour, managed to drop even Reza (the only Frenchman I’ve ever heard of who’s named Kevin — pardon: Kévin). Liggett and Sherwen were both impressed (me too!), cheering his defiance and courage, all the more so since Lutsenko started 22 minutes down on the yellow jersey. Sherwen, describing what an amazing experience a rider’s first Tour is, could not contain himself: &rlquo;The goosebumps that these guys feel on their bodies are just incredible.’ A strange thing to say indeed, but it was a moment of uncontained excitement that made up for a generally uninteresting race.
Lutsenko refusing to give up.
What neither Liggett or Sherwen pointed out was that even though Eurocar had two riders in the break (Arashiro and Reza), the team was nowhere to be seen in the peloton and did nothing to slow it down and give the break a chance. It was all Team Sky and Omega chasing unimpeded. This was a little disappointing since protecting the break would not have endangered Rolland’s mountains jersey at all (Rolland is the Eurocar leader). All the more so since, although these breaks are almost always doomed, who can forget Jan Bakelants managing to win on a break just 3 days ago. It would have been incredible: the possibility of either the first black winner or the first Japanese winner of a stage, but Eurocar showed no interest.
Instead, the pack caught them and the sprinters got their chance once again to show off while remaining irrelevant to the standings and ultimate outcome of the race. Okay, I will say this in favor of sprint finishes: it is a team effort. Every premier sprinter gets to be that on the strength of talent and his team’s skill at leading him out. This is an amazingly hard thing to do, to get a line of three or four guys to the front of the peloton, with the sprinter in third or fourth spot, and hold off the other teams trying to do the same, all at speeds over 40mph. It’s nuts. And sprinting, in and of itself (say, on the track), will turn your blood into adrenaline (or maybe testosterone). That is all true.
Is that enough to make Cavendish or Kittel or Sagan great? Great sprinters are always qualified as sprinters, never great champions who specialize in sprints. The same is true for great climbers, though I’m partial to climbers because they endure far, far greater suffering and they must push themselves psychologically much further, and because they mostly win it on their own — no lead-out for them. The exception on sprinters who were great champions is of course my hero Sean Kelly. Kelly was really a great one-day-race winner who sprinted lethally and could climb well enough to place respetcably in the long stage races. If Cavendish ever wins Paris–Roubaix (once let alone twice), then I’ll have to reconsider.
Here’s Sean Kelly being a total badass (perhaps that whole rant was an excuse to post this picture, SO BE IT).
Here is a terrific anecdote about Kelly’ final Tour de France in 1987. Struggling on a flat stage after injuring his shoulder:
Word got around the peloton and one by one the big names came back for a chat. No one dreamed of attacking at this time. Kelly tried to joke about his difficulties. He talked about what a great vacation the Tour is, a complete tour of France and free room and board too. [Read the whole thing!]
Paris–Roubaix, 1985 (the year Madiot won; Kelly won it in ’84 and ’86).
Also, how fast is Chavanel? Incredible. Kadri, Bakelants, and Chavanel are my favorites so far of guys with no chance.
Lastly, here’s Sagan getting his cleat fixed: