Stage 17 – The Fat Lady Clears Her Throat

Stage 17 was the last day in the Pyrenees. Stages 18 and 20 will finish in bunch sprints, with no chance for anyone to take time, and stage 19 is a time trial, for which Wiggins is the clear favourite, so anyone with remaining GC ambitions had to attack hard today. The stage itself was 143km, with two first category climbs (the first after just 17kms, and a mountain top finish), punctuated by the HC categorised Port de Bales. As yesterday, the early part of the stage was dominated by attacks, but nothing stuck until the lower slopes of the first climb, where a fairly large group got away. As they have all race, Sky controlled the pace in the bunch, helped at this point by Liquigas-Cannondale, whilst in the break we saw Voeckler (Europcar) and Kessiakoff (Astana) battling hard for the king of the mountains points. In the end, Voeckler proved too wily for the Swede, finishing ahead of him on all of the climbs they contested, and he will surely now take the jersey all the way to Paris, a well deserved classification victory. On the wet slopes of the first major descent, Nibali used his famous descending to gap the bunch, but Sky were all over him, closing the gap to 20 seconds, prompting Nibali to sit up.

By this point we had 7 riders in the lead, including Voeckler and Kessiakoff, Movistar‘s Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa, Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale). A chase group of 11 riders had formed behind, with some big names included, and by the bottom of the Port de Bales the two groups had combined, leaving Movistar with three riders. They took up the initiative and tapped out a steady tempo to consolidate the break-away’s lead. As they hit the climb proper however, the true climbers pushed the pace, and the group splintered, leaving Rui Costa out alone at the front, pursued by Valverde, Martinez and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack-Nissan). Soon Valverde made his move, attack his companions and gliding across to team mate Rui Costa, who paced him for several hundred metres before Valverde proved too much for him as well, and forged on alone, cresting the climb with a good lead over both the pursuants and the main bunch. Back in the main bunch, the work of Liquigas had blown the main bunch apart, with just 30 riders remaining in the yellow jersey group. The descent was slippery and tricky, but everyone arrived intact at the bottom of the last climb of the day, where Liquigas continued to set a searing pace in the select yellow jersey group. One by one the breakaway were caught and passed, until only Valverde remained out front, his slender lead decreasing.

It was clear that Liquigas were trying to set up an attack for Nibali, but in the end it was Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen Van Den Broek of Lotto-Bellisol who kicked things of. A re-shuffling took place culminating with eight riders climbing together in pursuit of Valverde, including Wiggins, Froome and Nibali. Wiggins had a word with Froome and soon Froome upped the tempo enough to drop everyone but his teammate in the yellow jersey. Soon, however, even Wiggins couldn’t handle the pace as they drove into the final kilometre, rapidly closing the gap to Valverde who was clinging to hopes of a stage win with all his might. Froome waited for his captain, however, and while they may have lost the opportunity for another Sky stage win, they crossed the finish line together 19 seconds behind the Spanish stage winner and ahead of their general classification rivals yet again. Despite his best efforts, Nibali lost time to Wiggins and Froome, and with the only deciding stage remaining being a time trial it seems clear that the race is set for a historic British 1-2

Today’s stage is a lumpy one, and with yesterdays efforts behind them it should be perfect for the breakaway to stay away.

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Stage 16 – Allez Tommy

Stage 16: the first of two huge days in the Pyrenees, featuring the legendary “Circle of Death”: four massive mountains, the HC classified Col d’Aubisque and iconic Col du Tourmalet, followed by the 1st category Col d’Aspin and Cold de Peyresourde, finishing off with a long fairly straight descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon. The day was all set for a long range attack from the main contenders for the polka dot “king of the mountains” jersey, along with the chancers and those looking to improve their overall position in the race. With a rest day on Tuesday and the Col d’Aubisque coming just 40km into the stage, the break would want to be established early, and so it proved, with a massive 38 riders representing all but one team being allowed to get free. Sky again controlled the pace around the favourites, placing riders on the front of the bunch and covering attacking moves. The challengers for the overall race title, Nibali and Evans, needed to try and do something today, and they were much in evidence early on but without any impact. In the leading group, the pace was pushed on by riders including Voeckler (Europcar), Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) and current KOM jersey holder Kessiakoff (Astana). Despite the steady tempo set on the first climb, the break had broken down over this first climb. They reformed, but on the Col du Tourmalet the proper climbers upped the pace and the break exploded. Martin, Kessiakoff and Ten Dam (Rabobank) were the first to go away, and were soon joined by Voeckler, Hincapie (BMC), Feillu (Saur Saujason) and Sorensen. As the road headed up, riders were shelled, until over the top it was Voeckler and Feillu together, with Martin a minute back. Voekler took the KOM points, and pushed on, sensing a chance of both a stage victory and the KOM jersey. Voeckler and Feillu worked together over the Col du Aspin, with Voeckler taking top points, and must have been heartened to hear that his main rival Kessiakoff had blown – he eventually limped in 45th place, 14 minutes down. 6.5km from the summit of the final climb, and Voeckler pushed the pace, dropping Feillu. That was the last anyone would see of him, as he crested the summit solo, taking maximum points again, and on to the straight forward descent to win the stage, take the KOM jersey and send French fans into ecstasy.
Amongst the main contenders, on the Peyresourde, Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) moved to the front and set a high pace, shelling riders including Evans – his slender GC hopes ended as struggled over the climb, losing almost 5 minutes on his podium rivals and dropping to 7th on GC. By the time Basso pulled over, Nibali was ready to attack, and stepped on the gas, dropping Wiggins and his only remaining supporter, 2nd placed Froome. Froome dug in, pulling Wiggins back up to Nibali, who seeing them coming dug again, but Wiggins had the measure of him, coming around Froome to bridge back. Over the top of the final climb and the top 3 riders on GC were all together, nobody able to break Sky’s domination of this race.
Today is the final day in the mountains, 143kms, a 1st category mountain top finish at Peyragudes, with the 1st cat Col de Mente and the HC rated Port de Bales to soften them up. The weather conditions are pretty bad, with low lying cloud, and today will see the conclusion of the KOM – as I write, Voeckler has already taken points off Kessiakoff over the Col de Mente, the favourites are all together. If Wiggins can stay with his main rivals today, the jersey is as good as won, with only the final Time Trial (for which he’ll be the favourite) standing in his way

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Stage 15 – looking forward to the rest day.

Stage 15 was the final transition between the Alps and the Pyrenees, finishing at Pau. Due to it’s location at the foot of some of the best climbs in the Pyranees, Pau is one of the most frequently featured places in the Tour de France, and yesterday saw the Tour’s 64th visit to the town. Despite being on 158.5km long, the stage featured some 2000m of climbing, with 3 categorised climbs. The break away took a while to get established, and given the stage profile there was always the chance that the sprinters teams would pull it back for the run-in. In the end however the bunch seemingly had one eye on today’s rest day, and failed to get organised – in truth only Lotto-Belisol looked like they wanted to work. So the six riders forged on, creating a gap of almost 12 minutes at the end. The best sprinter in the group was Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), but the run-in toasted him and he finished 1 minute behind his break-away companions. With him out of the picture, Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ-BigMat), a winner in Pau previously, and Christian Vandevelde (Garmin-Sharp) jumped away, with Fedrigo leading out and taking the sprint. Apart from that it was a quiet day.

With a race defining long time trial to come on Saturday, and with Wiggins in yellow and arguably the best time triallist still in the tour, anyone with ambitions of taking the top step in Paris will have to attack Sky over the two remaining high mountain stages. Wednesday’s and Thursday’s mountain stages should be epic

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Stages 12, 13 and 14 – getting away and staying away

Three stages to report on, I’ll keep it brief:

Stage 12, the longest stage of the year and the first of 2 “race saving” rides for one of the big teams, with Garmin-Sharp‘s David Millar taking the victory after the break stayed away to the finish. Two category 1 climbs in the first 100kms meant the break was full of climbers, and as the only non-climber Millar must have looked around after the second descent and fancied his chances. In the end, he got clear from the group with Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) with a few kms to go, and easily took the victory. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) won the bunch kick from Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), to extend his lead in the Green Jersey points competition. Incidently, Millar’s win made him the fourth different British rider to win a stage at this year’s tour, and with Wiggins and Froome in 1st and 2nd place on GC, and Mark Cavendish in the World Champion’s jersey, this is really a golden year for British cycling.

Stage 13 was brutal. The course headed down to the coast and was quite hilly, but looked like a sprinters stage. However a very nasty Cat 3 hill at 194km split the bunch, and on the other side the peloton hit a brutal section of crosswind. The main favourites were well positioned, losing no time, but the most impressive ride came from Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) who got over the top of the hill and positioned himself well to take the stage win. The bunch was down to 43 riders at the end, showing how even an easy “trasition day” out of the mountains can cause suffering if the racers want it enough.

Stage 14 was the second “race saving” ride, with Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) making up for the team’s misfortune with a solo victory. The earlier part of the stage saw the peloton sabotaged by someone spreading tacks on the road, causing 30-40 punctures, including a team car, and leaving Cadel Evans (BMC Racing, currently 4th on GC) stranded for over a minute with no one to give him a new wheel – eventually a team mate passed him, stopped and got him going again. Bradley Wiggans, in his role as race leader, slowed the bunch to wait for those affected, an action which won him praise for sportsmanship. Of course, slowing the bunch allowed the break to get away, and Sanchez attacked the five remaining breakaway riders to solo to the finish. A number of teams have lost multiple riders, but none so much as Rabobank who have now lost 5 of their original 9 riders.

Today’s stage is the final transition stage, 158.5km into the Pyrenees, finishing at Pau. With a few hills at the end, this is probably one for the breakaway, but the finish is downhill so it may come down to the bunch sprint. Tomorrow is a rest day, and the riders will be making the most of it with the fireworks likely to start on Wednesdays massive mountain stage

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Stage 11 – Evans Cracks

Stage 11, the last proper day in the Alps, and with Sky controlling the race, the pressure was on the GC contenders to attack. The parcours seemed perfect with 2 HC category climbs and a mountaintop finish up a 1st category climb, and both Evans (BMC) and Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) took up the challenge. The racing was fast from the beginning, and a large group of big name riders formed quickly, including between 25 and 31 riders, but in a very fluid group. Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) all made it in to the group, along with Robert Gessink (Rabobank).,The first climb of the day was the Col de la Madeleine, and the pace was upped to an attritional level in the break. In the bunch, Christian Knees and Edvald Boasson Hagen set a high tempo for Sky, controlling the pace well and shelling riders out of the back. Over the top of the Madeleine, and the route plummeted down to La Chambre and onto the Col de la Croix de Fer, via the Col du Glandon. This is where Evans made his move, attacking hard and riding up to his teammates Tejay Van Garderen (currently wearing the White Jersey for best rider under 25), and Marcus Berghardt, both of whom had dropped back from the break to help pace him away. He managed to pull out around 20 seconds lead, but with two climbs major climbs still to go he was already starting to suffer, and it was a heck of a long way out to attack. Fighting the bike, he was dropped by his support men on more than one occasion, struggled to find his rhythm, and finally was brought back by the bunch.

Over the top of the Col de Fer, and the break had shrunk to 7 riders: Horner, Rolland, Martin, Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Robert Kiserlovski (Astana). Sky still had control of the bunch, but the pace setting had taken it’s toll and they were down to 3 riders in Rogers, Wiggins and Froome. On the descent Rolland was looking particularly off balance, and lost his wheel in to one corner coming down hard. No serious damage, but he had to chase hard to try and catch back up, which he didn’t manage until the bottom of the last climb of the day. The break split again, down to four riders, then Rolland made his move, attacking hard and quickly pulling out a 30 second gap to the pursuing Sorensen. It was a gap he managed to hold, winning the stage, his second stage win after last years victory at Alpe D’huze, and the second in two days for Europcar. Behind, the main contenders had been whittled down to around 8 riders, and Nibali saw the chance to attack, sprinting clear of the bunch. Rogers upped the pace for Sky, and Nibali was brought back, and drifted back alongside Wiggins, took a couple of long looks at him to try and gauge how he was feeling, and kicked again. This time it was too much for Rogers, and he rolled off, leaving Chris Froome to take up the pace making. Nibali dug deep, but was eventually brought back, but the attack had taken it’s toll, and Wiggins was struggling. Not as badly as Evans though, who was dropped by the main group, eventually losing around a minute and a half to the leaders and dropping off the podium placings. The sprint for the placings behind Rolland saw Thibay Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) outpacing Froome and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol). Nibali’s performance saw him up to 3rd in the GC, behind Wiggins and Froome. Sky are now left with the problem of 2 riders occupying the top two spots – Froome showed he has the legs in the mountains and could have dropped Wiggins today, but Wiggins is the team leader… Lets hope they remember team orders next time the going gets rough.

Today’s stage is the longest of this year’s tour at 226km, as we transition out of the alps and back on to a few hilly / flat stages. With two 1st category climbs before the 100km mark, and a nasty 3rd category kick up at the end, it has breakaway written all over it

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Stage 10 – Nibali tries his luck

Stage 10, the first really mountains stage, and after Sky’s dominance of the time trial, the rivals for the Yellow Jersey knew that the real racing starts from here. The profile included the Hors Categorie classified climb of the Col de Grand Colombier, but before that a break of 11 formed, including French National Hero Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) and renowned hardman Jens “shut up legs” Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan). On to the main climb of the day, and Sky set a blistering pace, not allowing any space to the main rivals of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale). Over the top, and Nibali attacked, using his descending skills (best descender in the peloton?) and burning up teammate and Green Jersey wearer Peter Sagan, to gap the remaining 25 or so riders by 30 seconds and move into virtual 2nd place in the GC. Sky, however, know how dangerous he is, and a massive turn by Australian Richie Porte pulled the bunch back up to him. And so it stayed, the only other move of note being Jurgen Van Den Broek (Lotto-Belisol), who attacked on the last climb and took enough time to move himself up from 9th to 8th on GC. Voeckler (Europcar) won the stage with a well timed “sprint” into the uphill finish – I use the term advisedly as after the day’s efforts, they looked like they were riding through treacle.

Stage 11 is already on the road, they’re just approaching the top of the HC climbs of Col de la Madeleine (26km), with the Col de la Croix de Fer (22.4km at 6.9% average) after the descent. The other two main climbs are the 2nd category Col du Mollard, and the stage finishes on the 18km / 6.1% climb to La Toussuire, only the second mountain top finish of the race so far. The GC contenders know they need to attack Sky and try to isolate Wiggins by the end if they are to take any time, but Wiggins’ “domestiques” (support riders) of Rogers, Boassan Hagan, Porte and Froome are an awesome combination, so it will take some doing. The break is away, with 23 riders and some big big names in there, but no-one to challenge Wiggans. Should be an exciting day!

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Stage 9: The Truth Hurts

The Individual Time Trial: They call it “The Race of Truth”. And unless you’re Sky, the truth makes scary reading.

The course was medium length, at 41km, and a bit hilly at the beginning, but not enough to dissuade the TT specialists and there were no real surprises in the early rides of Stage 9. World Champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma Quickstep), with a wrist strapped due to a broken bone, was riding his last stage in this year’s Tour but his luck, which as deserted him throughout the race, was in no mood of changing, and within the first few kilometres suffered a puncture. He withdrew from the race last night to prepare for the Olympics. The other pre-stage favourite, Fabien Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) put Martin out of his miser, going 1:19 quicker at the finish. However, a succession of riders set first sectors faster than Cancellara, and it became clear that his provisional first place was under threat. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) pushed him hard, finishing 27 and 7 seconds back respectively, but by now the GC contenders, including Chris Froome (Sky), were on the road. The Kenyan-born rider, stormed to a 24-second lead at the first check but Bradley Wiggins (Sky), his rhythm and speed looking awesome, crossed the check point five seconds faster than Froome.
Sky’s Froome was looking almost as assured as Wiggins in his time trial position, out of the saddle on the rolling terrain, and faster than Van Garderen at the second check point. Wiggins came in 16 seconds faster than Froome, cementing his position as Sky’s undoubted leader in the race. Denis Menchov (Katusha) crossed the line in his Russian national time trial champion’s kit for an eventual 7th place, then Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) for 10th, but both were well off the pace and looking set to lose over two minutes. Froome meanwhile had crushed Cancellara by 22 seconds but it was left to the Yellow Jersey of Wiggins to set the pace, finishing 31 seconds ahead of Froome and putting 1 minute 43 seconds into Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who finished 12th but just managed to hold on to 2nd place in the General Classification. The Tour is far from over but Wiggins has landed a heavy blow. On the downside, it is now open season on Sky, and they will really have their work cut out to defend the lead for another 2 weeks.
Today is rest day 1 of 2, the race continues tomorrow with Stage 10, 194.5km in the high mountains, including the 17.4km HC (“Hors Category”) climb of the Col de Grand Colombier. Ouch

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