— Johann Museeuw, The Lion of Flanders
Yesterday was supposed to be easy, a breather before the punishing final week. It proved to be anything but.
In what will surely go down as one of the most dramatic stages of this year’s race, Mark Cavendish yet again proved he is the fastest man on two wheels, Team Sky came up short yet again in the tactical side of matters, and two Irishmen embellished already burgeoning reputations.
It was billed as the last stage before Paris suited to the sprinters, a 173-kilometre trek where the GC men could hide in the relative sanctuary of the peloton and roll home without being unduly taxed. However, the look of race-leader Chris Froome at the finish told the story of a man who’d been ganged up on and bullied.
And that is exactly what happened on the 13th stage from Tours to Saint Amand Monrond when the irrepressible Kenyan-born Brit missed a crucial split in the bunch with 30 kilometres to go and ceded over one minute to several of his main rivals; Cavendish led a 14-man escape group over the line to silence many who questioned whether he was on the wane.
And all the drama was because of one team — that of Nicolas Roche’s Danish-backed Saxo-Tinkoff Team. Roche put in a phenomenal ride and if teammate and twice winner Alberto Contador is to win a third title this year, he will owe the Irishman an enormous gratitude.
Roche made that crucial split with four other Saxo-Tinkoff riders, including Contador — clearly a planned move, and when they ripped 10 others clear, the race was on.
Along with Team Sky leader Froome, the other big loser was Alejandro Valverde who started the day second but fell out of contention completely.
Valverde, a talented climber who’d have been a strong contender for tomorrow’s leg-breaker to Mont Ventoux, punctured at the worst time imaginable but inexplicably, refused to take the bike offered to him by a teammate, instead waiting for the team car. He got his spare wheel, but by that stage, Roche and his break were milling it up front and pulling out a gap sizeable enough to suggest this Tour is far from over.
The race, on paper, was virtually pan flat aside from one category four climb before the halfway point, so did Froome switch off? It certainly looked so and he is now missing trusted teammate Edvald Boassen Hagen, who pulled out with a broken collarbone.
The reigning champion team Sky did not have the riders to close the gap and Froome’s overall lead fell to 2:28, ahead of Dutch rider Bauke Mollema. Contador is now third overall at 2:45.
Dan Martin was another to profit from the split and he is now 11th overall, albeit almost six minutes down on Froome. The Garmin-SHARP man didn’t make the split but was one of the first over the line in the chase group, crossing in 19th.
Following yesterday’s drama, the stage starts its descent into the south-east of the country and that means only one thing: climbing.
The sprinters who contested yesterday’s finish will have had nightmares about this stage ever since the route was announced but sadly for them, the nightmare is only beginning because there’s a mountainous time-trial next Wednesday, three summit finishes, and today’s gruelling 191km run into Lyon.
Seven categorised climbs in all, six coming in the final 90 kilometres is going to ensure; the sprinters will not make it to the finish with the GC men, the GC men will all be watching each other and while the GC men watch one another, a sizeable break of riders is likely to forge clear and contest the finish in Lyon.
Tomorrow is the day of reckoning, however, and has been earmarked as one of three stages that will decide this year’s race. Mont Ventoux, where the stage finishes, hasn’t featured at the Tour since 2009 when almost one million people lined a 15km section of road from the base village of Bedoin to the weather mast at the top.
At 240kms in length, and four climbs before the riders hit Ventoux at all, there will be riders outside the time limit, cracking from exhaustion, or laying down a marker for yellow.
Riders lay their cards on the table and it’s a survival of the fittest.
A select group should break clear to fight it out for the stage, with the big GC men next. Whoever ends the day in yellow is the man to beat.