Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Stage Fifteen

For the third time in this year's Tour, Garmin put a man in the day's break, something they had rarely done in previous Tours when they were vying for a spot on the podium, or at least safeguarding a Top Ten position, and didn't wish to squander any energy by sending a rider up the road.

But with their highest placed rider not even in the top fifty and well over an hour behind going into this stage, and their sprinter Farrar, a former stage winner well off his top form not being a factor in the sprints and actually last overall in The Race, the team has been bringing attention to the sponsors on their jersey by doing what all the French teams specialize in, riding off the front and getting air time for those who pay their salaries.

Today it was Christian's turn, after Zabriskie and Millar.  All three are among the best time trialists in the world and led Garmin to their team time trial win in last year's Tour.  Christian said that win was so emotional that he broke into tears in the team bus afterward.  He would have been gushing tears again if he had had a little more oomph in his legs to come around the French rider Fedrigo as the two closed in on the line.  Christian had been tactically brilliant, letting Fedrigo lead him out.  He had also been the only one of the four other riders in the day's 60-mile breakaway group to latch onto Fedrigo's wheel when he sped away four miles from the finish.

The other three couldn't organize a chase among them, perhaps sabotaged by Voeckler, a former teammate of Fedrigo's, who may have made a deal with him not to chase since he had already won a stage this year.   He may have owed him a favor or wished to pocket one.

I will have many questions for Christian the next time I see him, including what his thoughts might be on such an alliance or if he heard the two of them plotting.

When I found a bar to watch the end of the stage there were twenty kilometers to go and at that point there were six riders in the break and they were twelve minutes ahead of the peloton.   Once again none of the sprinters' teams, unlike with Cavendish's team the past few years, were interested in chasing down the break and setting up a sprint win for their rider.  It has made for some rather lackluster sprints for the peloton, this time going for sixth place points.

It was of course a delight to see Christian in prime time at the front, looking cool and comfortable, shouldering the monumental pressure of gaining immortality if he could win the stage.  He would forever after be introduced as a Tour stage winner and remembered as a Pau stage winner whenever The Tour finished in Pau, which it quite often does.  In fact, the last time it did Fedrigo won the stage.  This was his fourth Tour stage win, one more than Voeckler and more than any other active French rider. 

He also becomes the fourth French rider to win a stage this year, quite an improvement over last year when they won only one, though it was the L'Alpe d'Huez stage which counts double or triple.  The French are also delighted to have now tied the Brits with the most stage wins this year.  Like the Brits they have had four different stage winners.  Since Wiggins is sure to win the final time trial and Cavendish may be saving himself to win the final stage on the Champs Elysees, the French better win a couple more if they wish to keep up with their rivals across the Channel.

I'll have a host of questions for Christian: was everyone in the break doing their fair share, was there a point where you were planning to take a flier yourself and leave the break behind, was Vaughters screaming in your ear those final four miles when it was just you and Fedrigo with all the eyes in the cycling world on you, who were you most wary of in the break and whose wheel were you trying to stay on, were you much conscious of the cameraman on the motorcycle riding along beside and in front of you...

When I returned to my bike at 5:30 for several more hours of riding, I began an unexpected eight-mile, 2,000 foot climb from a river valley back up onto the Massif Central.  It was my fourth climb of three miles or more for the day, once again much more than the peloton faced as it rode just north of the Pyrenees before diving back into them for two more stages after a rest day. 

But with the thrill of just having seen Christian's sterling performance, I had a little extra energy in my legs and could ride in one gear higher than I normally would have.  Though both I and the peloton are feeling the fatigue of over two weeks of hard riding and are somewhat looking forward to the end in less than a week, I will also be sorry to see this annual grand epic come to a close, so I am trying to savor my final 400 miles of riding into Paris. 

I have to keep a steady pace to make it, putting in eight hours a day on the bike.  My Mt. Aigoual day those eight hours earned me just over 70 miles, a nine mile per hour average.  Yesterday I averaged just under eleven miles per hour over 92 miles on somewhat less strenuous terrain.  I have another day of the Massif Central and then I can get my average up to over twelve miles per hour and have some one hundred mile days.  I'm still amassing enough miles to rank third nationally among the nearly thirty thousand riders competing in the Endomondo challenge.

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