Monday, July 12, 2010

Chambery, Stage Ten Départ

Friends: Lance's collapse was just one of several huge stories in yesterday's first truly dramatic stage of The Tour as it presented the peloton its first genuine test in the mountains with two category one climbs, both coming in the last thirty miles of the stage.

Andy Schleck dropping Contador in the last kilometer was a stunning surprise and Evans taking yellow, though not unexpected, could greatly alter the complexion of the days ahead. Lance faltering in the blistering heat could have happened to anyone, but cracking on the final climb and losing twelve minutes was almost unimaginable considering his form and his renowned determination. At least he didn't make Chris Horner stick with him the entire way and let him go on ahead, so he's still somewhat in The Race as is Leipheimer. Lance left shepherding duties to one of his younger teammates.

The Race is over for Lance unless he does something crazy like Landis did four years ago when he lost eight minutes on one stage when he was in yellow and then regained it the next day after binging on testosterone. His momentous ride was considered the most incredible performance in the long history of The Tour. Too bad his drug test results didn't come until four days after The Tour had ended.

Contador may have been slightly off his form to be dropped by Schleck, but it is the first time that Schleck has been able to ride away from him in the mountains. He came into The Race saying he thought it was possible, that it was his dream to be able to look back and not see Contador on his wheel, but no one expected him to be able to do it. He gained ten seconds on him and a group of a dozen others winning his first Tour stage ever.

Evans would have begun the day in yellow if the French rider Chavanal hadn't surprised everyone with a truly inspired ride the day before, as if he had a blood-lust for the yellow jersey after wearing it for a day earlier in The Race. He attacked on the final nine-mile category two climb, while everyone else saved their energy for the next day's stage. Chavanal paid for it as he struggled in yesterday along with Lance. His comments in "L'Equipe" that he thought he could be a contender for the podium are now history.

"L'Equipe" also had a lengthy interview with Evans on the eve of his taking the lead. He expressed confidence that he could win The Race, though no one else except maybe his wife would agree. He said having a lead on his rivals at this point in The Race was unusual for him. In the past he has been a bit behind and has difficulty overcoming a deficit, as it isn't his style to be able to ride away from the elite climbers. He can generally stick with them, as he has great persistence. If he can do that, he'll stand on the top spot of the podium in Paris. He lost ten seconds to Schleck yesterday, but still has a twenty second lead, not much, but possibly enough, especially since he will gain time on him in the one remaining time trial on the penultimate stage in Bordeaux.

Ordinarily at the end of each stage the French post-race interviewer immediately pounces on the stage winner and then any French riders who might have animated the stage. Today he waited twelve minutes for Lance, showing no interest in Schleck or Evans or Contador. Lance knew he would be besieged when he crossed the line. He was the lone rider in his bunch to zip up his jersey as he approached the line so his sponsor's name could be fully recognized, and also sparing the world from close-ups of his pasty white chest.

He might have ridden away from the mob of reporters, but he was fully prepared for their questions, offering no excuses, admitting he'd had a "very bad day." He feared it would be, as he said he had suffered the day before in similar heat and humidity, but didn't lose any time because it wasn't as demanding of a stage.

Now he has two weeks of domestique duty to Leipheimer, who sits in eighth place. He is not unfamiliar to such work, deferring to him at the Giro last year and the past two Tours of California. He knew that might be his role this year at The Tour when he had an up and down early season. He will continue to make The Race interesting and could surprise the peloton with a burst of energy, not having to carefully ration it out to remain in competition.

Another significant story that is being overlooked is the performance of Christian Vande Velde's Canadian teammate Ryder Hesjedal, who nearly won the cobble stage and presently sits in sixth place. Last December at an appearance at Garmin's Chicago store Christian predicted that someone on his team could well be the surprise of The Tour, as he had been two years ago when he finished fourth and Wiggins was last year when he finished just behind Lance. A lot will depend on who is best at coping with the heat if it continues.

The peloton would have been quite envious of the conditions I had ascending the final nine mile climb of Saturday's stage four hours after them. It was so hot Chavanal's team director was squirting water on him as he made his ascent. Riders were grabbing bottles from spectators and immediately pouring them over their heads and down their backs, just as I do when I have water to spare.

I did the climb in a light rain and without the sun beating on me. Nasty storm clouds with thunder and lightning had moved in as I approached St. Claude at the start of the climb. I didn't know whether to seek shelter or to keep riding. I knew that the rain would feel good, so kept riding, not even bothering with my rain jacket. Dark caught me before I could reach the summit, but it was still cool the next morning when I completed the stage.

It took me a little over 24 hours to complete the Tournus-Las Rousses stage with its six climbs. I didn't reach Tournus until after ten p.m. the night before the stage began, two days and nearly 250 miles from Reims, so I was only able to bike one mile into the course that night.

Thanks to reasonable cops, I made it much further down the course than I hoped I might before being stopped, nearly 50 miles and over two of the climb. I was halted in a village half-way up the third climb. It was a perfect place to be marooned, as the town had a toilet publique with a sink. I parked myself on the road across from it and went over every twenty minutes to douse my shirt and head and refill my water bottle for the two-and-a-half hours I spent there. In this heat I make an extra effort to grab the bottles of water the Vittel sponsor passes out as it goes by, as they are somewhat chilled. The bottles are one item that are not thrown. One has to be ready for them and step out and grab.

There are four different newspapers being passed out by the caravan for people to read in the hour between its passing and the arrival of the racers. I make an extra effort, too, to grab "L'Equipe," the one item I am most eager to grab. If I fail to get one and some one near me does, I will trade just about everything else I have gathered for it.

I had expected to meet David the German cyclist here in Chambery tomorrow at noon, but he emailed saying the heat had dramatically slowed him down. That is not such bad news. It means I don't have to stick around and wait for him, but can start on Wednesday's stage nearly two days ahead of the peloton, right after I send this off.

There is a category one climb fifty miles into the stage. I will camp just before it tonight so I can climb it in the cool tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon I will find a bar to watch the peloton tackle its first beyond category climb. They have today to rest up for it, the first of their two rest days. Contador will be out for revenge on Schleck. Evans will be battling to retain the yellow jersey. Lance will want to redeem himself. Wiggins will hope to stick with the lead group of climbers. Leipheimer would like to move up closer to the podium. And Hesjedal will get a chance to prove that he is for real. It only gets more exciting.

Later, George

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