July 25, 2009 Leave a comment
In the end, the stage which the Tour de France organisers had set up to guarantee fireworks on the penultimate day of the race delivered little more than a succession of damp squibs.
Sure, we saw the lead bunch quickly whittled down to just the main contenders. And yes, we did see a string of accelerations which repeatedly stretched and occasionally splintered the group. But there was never a truly destructive, sustained attack from anyone, and on a day which started with high hopes – and a mere 38 seconds separating third from sixth – by the time the leaders had crossed the finish line at the summit of Mont Ventoux, the only change at the top of the general classification was that Frank Schleck had swapped places with Andreas Klöden for fifth, and had missed out on overtaking Bradley Wiggins by four seconds.
In the end, it was a combination of the conditions (headwinds of up to 40kph near the top of the climb, hardly unusual for Ventoux) and tactics – Andy Schleck’s repeated attacks (12 in all), aimed primarily at trying to leapfrog his brother into a podium place, were generally abandoned within seconds because Frank could not keep pace. Every time an attack succeeded in dislodging one or more members of the lead pack, the younger Schleck would relent, allowing not just his brother but everyone else to regain lost ground.
After several rounds of quick-slow-quick-slow, it became obvious that the remnants of the breakaway which had led since the early kilometres were going to succeed in staying clear at the front, thanks to the chess game going on behind them. That should in no way diminish the achievements of Juan Manuel Garate and Tony Martin, who were the only two of the original sixteen to survive, but the fact is that a genuine flat-out race among the yellow jersey group would have swallowed them up before the finish.
Anyhow, the record will show that in the last couple of hundred metres, Garate sped clear to claim a fine win for both himself and his beleaguered Rabobank squad, who have endured a miserable three weeks, as both their overall contender, Denis Menchov (winner of May’s Giro d’Italia) and their sprinter Oscar Freire had disappeared virtually without trace.
And just because the pace was less than flat-out doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough going. While Alberto Contador seemed to have little problem responding to Andy Schleck’s constant attacks, Klöden was repeatedly dropped, and by the final three kilometres, at which point Schleck launched perhaps his biggest attack of all, it was becoming clear that Wiggins was at his absolute limit too. As he increasingly lost touch with the lead group, now also containing Frank Schleck, his fourth place came under serious threat. With just 23 seconds separating him from Wiggins, Frank endured an agonising wait after crossing the finish line, counting the gap until the Brit’s arrival. Finally, squeezing out every last scrap, Wiggins all but collapsed over the line … 20 seconds behind Frank. He had held onto fourth by three seconds – equivalent to maybe 20 metres – but it is a fine achievement for a rider who has never previously finished inside the top 100 in Paris.
That was pretty much it as far as the serious racing was concerned, although there was an amusing cameo some 25 minutes later as a large and tired gruppetto trundled towards the finish. New best buddies Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd shared a laugh and staged a mock sprint … for 104th place. Cavendish finished ahead – as he has done repeatedly throughout this Tour – but this was merely a microcosm of what we had seen with the leaders earlier: a slow-motion, not-quite race that had no impact whatsoever on the overall results.
It’s a shame. This final week of the Tour has been consistently thrilling, building to a crescendo today that never quite happened. No one is to blame, but at the same time I can’t help but feel slightly cheated, like turning up to a football match only to find it has been postponed.
But that’s just the way sport is. It has the capacity to delight and frustrate in equal measure, and on the whole this has been a good Tour, with twists and turns aplenty both on and off the road. We have seen Contador emerge victorious from his intra-team battle with Lance Armstrong; Lance himself has defied both his age and the sceptics by earning a podium finish four years after his initial retirement; Hushovd and Cavendish have engaged in a fascinating tortoise-and-hare battle for the green jersey.
I’m just hoping Cav will sign off with a (sixth) win tomorrowin Paris. I don’t think any sane observer could argue he doesn’t deserve it. Add that to Wiggo’s fourth place and it would end the 2009 Tour on a real high note for British cycling, which has never been in ruder health.
Overall standings after stage 20:
1. Alberto Contador 81h 46’ 17”
2. Andy Schleck @ 4’ 11″ behind
3. Lance Armstrong @ 5’ 24”
4. Bradley Wiggins @ 6’ 01”
5. Frank Schleck @ 5’ 59”
6. Andreas Klöden @ 6’ 42”
7. Vincenzo Nibali @ 7′ 35″
8. Christian Vande Velde @ 12′ 04″
9. Roman Kreuziger @ 13′ 16″
10. Christophe Le Mevel @ 14′ 25″