TDF Stage 14

19 Jul

Stage 14 brought a few punches between the top two riders in the GC, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador – but no knockout punch. Or if you prefer football – it was a defensive battle with very little offense.

With that said, there was a lot of offense by riders that are not trying to win it all.

The breakaway du jour occurred at about the 25km mark of the stage. In the breakaway were riders; Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), Stephane Auge (Cofidis), Amael Moinard (Cofidis), Geraint Thomas (Sky), Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJ), Pavel Brutt (Team Katusha), Jurgen Van De Walle (Quick Step), Pierre Rolland (Bbox) and eventual Stage winner, Christophe Riblon (AG2R). Since none of the riders was a threat to the GC, they were allowed to go, eventually building a lead of around ten minutes.

Astana drilled the peloton today in what was an unexpectedly fast tempo. Typically, the yellow jersey leader’s team assumes this role. It is likely Contador sees himself as the leader-in-waiting – as evidenced by this move. Astana set the high-speed tempo long before the HC climb, Port de Pailheres, which affected the peloton significantly. Most riders assumed the real work would not begin until the climb of Pailheres. The peloton, instead of approaching the first climb in the characteristic mass, stretched into a long thin chain. A testament to just how fast the pace was. It was a clear and strong signal to all riders, but most especially Schleck and the Saxo Bank team, that Contador and Astana planned to attack.

By the time the breakaway was on the climb, Astana had cut the gap to four minutes. The breakaway started to shed riders, until just Van De Wall, Moinard and Riblon remained. Meanwhile, previous Tour winner, Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) took off from the main group, like the others not a threat to the GC so Astana did not attempt to chase him down.

Near the summit of Port de Pailheres, Riblon was able to break from Moinard. He crested the summit alone, descended, Moinard chased him, but was never able to catch.

Meanwhile back at the main group several riders jumped to try to catch the leaders. Rafael Valls (Footon), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne), plus Sastre and the remaining riders from initial breakaway were between the leader Riblon and the main group with Schleck, Contador and other GC hopefuls.

Astana, with Stage 13 winner Alexandre Vinokourov on the front, continued to hammer the pace, dropping riders off the back and picking up breakaway riders on the front. Contador and Schleck were content to dance. Contador attacked at 5km from the finish, Schleck countered. They watched each other and waited – both content to play defense.

Schleck and Contador seemed oblivious to what the other riders were doing. Unchallenged by either Schleck or Contador, the two riders vying for third place, Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) rode aggressively fighting to gain time.

Stage winner Christophe Riblon put in the most impressive ride of the day. Menchov finished a strong 2nd, Sanchez 3rd, Schleck 4th and Contador 7th (same time as Schleck).

Although Schleck did not lose time to Contador, he also did not gain any. Schleck has to gain at least another minute, (preferably more), on Contador before the time-trial (TT) to have any chance at winning the Tour. Last year in the final TT Schleck lost 1:45 to Contador who won the TT and the Tour.

When interviewed Schleck said today’s stage did not suit his climbing style as well as tomorrow’s. For his sake I hope it is true and that he can come out, attack Contador and gain time on him.

Contador holds almost all the cards it seems. He has the stronger team for the mountains, he is arguably the better climber of the two and without a doubt, Contador is much better at time-trials. Schleck could really use his brother, Frank Schleck, (out with a broken clavicle) who is a good climber but also is good tactically.

Andy seemed kind of lost today, unsure of what he should do. If Frank was with him as he was last year, he could also attack Contador and wear him down. It is not hopeless for Andy Schleck to win, but it is going to take him at his best – at his best physically and mentally.

There are three more stages in the Pyrenees, a rest day Wednesday, and the final mountain stage Thursday. Saxo Bank should have been able to gain a little rest today as they did yesterday. Maybe they can stay with Schleck longer and help him gain that much needed time on Contador.
 *pictures are from Getty Images

Stage 15

Stage 15 looks a lot like Stage 14, but with one important exception.  There is no mountain top finish.  Mountain top finishes produce bigger time gaps than do steep descents such as this one.  Time lost on the mountain can be regained on the descent – for those not faint of heart.

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