Tour de France

STAGE 9 : July 7

Saint-Girons → Bagnères-de-Bigorre

Just not Mad enough?

New aside on George Hincapie

Dan Martin of Garmin wins the stage after smartly jumping out of the lead group (Froome, Movistar et al.) and winnng with a defiant breakaway with Jakob Fuglsang of the dwindling Astana team. A stage for Ireland, on a day when Andy Murray won Wimbledon for Scotland.

But today was one of those stages where the winner of the day was hardly the whole story. Some questions about the stage, all in hindsight:

Number 1, of course: what was Movistar thinking? Was their intention simply to test Froome? Were they purposefully letting slip just a peek at their potential? (Do pro teams do this, sacrifice a stage win? No, right?) Was Quintana too tired to pull Valverde away from Froome?

And then: What happened to Sky? Reading back through the news flashes, Sky had three guys at the front 17 minutes into the race but then Kennaugh crashed (here’s video — poor guy!) and Garmin, Saxo-Bank, and Movistar successfully separated Froome from any teammates. Richie Porte rode valiantly but was, it seemed, too drained from yesterday ever to get up to the peloton. The course was just too much today. Froome said after the race that it was one of the hardest days that he’d ever had on a bike. Which makes you wonder: did Sky burn it all up yesterday to put Froome into a lead they can’t protect? Valverde is only 1:25 behind and given the course ahead he’s better off with Quintana than Froome is with Porter.

And then, how is it that a team as organized and dominant as Sky yesterday was so quickly neutralized today? Where do tactics leave off and pure physical (or psychological) exhaustion kick in? As with all such existential questions, the answer is simply, ‘It’s the Tour.’ The glorious, punishing, thrilling Tour.

I was sure Movistar would launch the attack on the second-to-last climb to Col de Val Louron. They so obviously seemed to be setting it up, right? In reality I was just jonesing for a Quintana fix, just one more hit of him impassively pedaling away up the hill. Not today. Either he too was drained by yesterday’s race, or he’s already getting cagier.

Instead it was Simon Clarke, riding strong through the middle parts of the stage, who attacked on Val Louron tom come first across the peak, 18 seconds ahead of the breakaway of Rolland, De Clercq, and Bardet.1

The breakaway, in various permutations, was staying in front, though not ever gaining much time. Finally with about 7km to go on the last climb to La Hourquette d’Ancizan, the main group caught Bardet, who was the last survivor of the mid-race breakaway. This was the moment. (I thought.) Quintana soon attacked. Froome and Contador immediately responded. Quintana sat back, then attacked again. Here we go! No, another tepid effort by the Colombian. Froome was there. A third attack by Quintana — Froome and Contador were with him. Martin and Fuglsang — smart! — attacked and everyone let them go. At the time it was the right thing because who were those guys? Martin is Cavendish’s teammate on Omega Quick-Step and Fuglsang rides for Astana, a team suffering from attrition-by-misfortune. Let em go.

Quintana attacked a fourth time, looking back but not, y’know, looking back (see below). Sherwen said Movistar was letting the race slip out of their hands, hurting Valverde’s chance at taking the yellow jersey today. I’m still not sure. Perhaps they did squander control of the peloton — perhaps they’re too inexperienced, or not yet cohesive as a team, I don’t know. It seems like most of their experience is in Spanish races, but Rui Costa has a UCI ranking at #10, Valverde’s at #12, and Quintana is #13 as of mid June. Pretty damn good.

Martin, nephew of Stephen Roche (a daily champion), was first over the top of La Hourquette d’Ancizan as Liggett and Sherwen (and most everyone, probably) was saying Movistar had let the stage slip away. Is is always just about the stage? Usually yes, but Movistar is messing with my mind — I want to believe they were up to something else. The pace was furious.

Martin and Fuglsang built up a 55 second lead on the descent and at the worst moment I lost the feed trying to refresh the page as Martin outsprinted Fuglsang at the line and the chase group of 2o or so riders came in officially at :20 later.

For me the big question behind today’s race was: is this stage typical of the state of European cycling, or at least stage race cycling, in that races are shaped around team tactics geared (no pun — ) toward placing the leader at the top and then protecting him?2 Maybe everyone already knows this and I’m only just gleaning it.

But think of Sagan and Cannondale in stage 7, Froome and Sky yesterday, and Movistar with six (!) riders surrounding Valverde today. And then think of Armstrong, attacking and attacking. Think of Hinault, Fignon: the last of the French champions. (Dan Martin winning today reminds us that Ireland has a more recent Tour winner than France herself. Heh.)

Insert here a reverential moment for Eddy Merckx’s 130km solo breakaway in stage 173 of the 1969 Tour.


’Bravo Merckx! Bravo Merckx! Bravo Merckx!’

These were team leaders who attacked. Today it seems different. These guys are riding just as hard, and probably this is an uncharitable assessment taking into account that this is only stage 9 and there are some really serious mountains up ahead, but I wonder. Is this the era of the team leader who, finding himself surrounding by hostile jerseys, rides to stay in contact with the lead is pretty much playing defense? Valverde rode well but what if he was at his strongest today? Quintana said he ‘missed a bit of strength’ to pull away from Froome (or so he would have us believe and take it with a grain of salt) though he pulled four feint-attacks on the final climb. But what if, somewhere along the 10 kilometres of the final climb to La Hourquette d’Ancizan, Froome, who conserved 30% of his energy all day long by riding behind the Movistar guys — what if he had ridden up alongside Valverde, looked him in the eye, and just dropped him.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Lance Armstrong and he’s far, far from my favorite rider for any number of reasons, but these are the cojones I want to see from the guy who wins the Tour this year, every year. You know what I’m talking about. Alpe d’Huez. The look. It comes here at 0:194:

I was going to say perhaps today was too early for such a move, but Alpe d’Huez in 2001 was stage 10. As in: tomorrow! (Tomorrow’s a rest day but you know what I mean.)

So we’ll wait and see what kind of competitor Froome turns out to be. Likewise Valverde, Contador, Quintana, Schleck. And here’s hoping that whoever emerges can do it with some panache, a bit of tactics and a bit of inspiration.

It’s been great to see all-French AG2R send up fighter after fighter, first my man Blel Kadri and then today Romain Bardet in the breakaway with Rolland, Bakelants the Battler, Hesjedal, De Gendt, and De Clercq.

Other housecleaning before heading in to the rest day:

Froome was born in Nairobi. Here are some images of the city from when I was there in March 2010.

Cheers to also Froome who, in his first day in yellow, observed rule #14 of the Velominati:

Rule #15 // Black shorts should also be worn with leader’s jerseys.

Black shorts, or at least standard team-kit shorts, must be worn with Championship jerseys and race leadership jerseys. Don’t over-match your kit, or accept that you will look like a douche.

Nice write-up of today’s here, and the first time I’ve seen a French classicist poet cited in a race review.

And one more question: why oh why does Paul Sherwen namecheck the Isle of Man at every single possible opportunity? Is this some weird term of a secret Aussie-English treaty?

1. I realized today my note-taking system is not entirely accurate due to the lag between the official updates on and NBC’s not-very-good web feed. Sometimes when I write down times and distances from the broadcast, it’s for something that’s already happened that I’m seeing on the site. Whatever, it’s just a damn blog!

2. I never did get to my recapitulation theory of the Tour, which simplistically states that the anatomy of a single stage recapitulates the anatomy of a stage race: the first 30–40% has little to no bearing on the final outcome, which is ultimately determined by punctuated, heightened events and not sustained, rising performance. It’s just a theory!

3. Col de Peyersourde was one of the mountains that day of Merckx’s solo. Today it was the third of five climbs, where De Gendt snuck up on Rolland to be first over. More great stuff on Merckx at 100 Tours 100 Tales.

4. From the YouTune comments: ’What really is happening: Lance has put some drugs on his shoulder and is licking it off to give him a boost.’ Ha!

Here is your daily champion for Stage 9:
Satchel Paige
‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.’
Hall of Famer. Born today in 1906 in Mobile, Alabama.