Thrilling stage in the Tour de France today. The finishing climb was a category 2, but only because it was near the finish of the stage. It wasn't that steep, maybe 4% or 5%, but it was long, and finishing climbs like that, especially early in the Tour de France, can make for exciting finishes because more riders can hang around than on the Alpine or Pyrenean climbs that can kick up into the 10-12% slope range (that's not to say I'm not amazed that professionals can turn a big chainring and crank up a mountain like the Col de la Schlucht at around 25 mph; that's just sick).
Everyone knew Vino would attack, but few expected the following:
- Team Discovery Channel didn't have anyone strong enough to hang with the late attacks, leaving Armstrong isolated with his chief rivals on the final climb. Lance was clearly disappointed in his team after the stage, though he tried to be respectful, saying perhaps his team had been worked too hard. But Brunyeel and Armstrong aren't going to sleep as easy tonight, and no one will feel worse than Lance's teammates about not being there for him at the end. I don't think Brunyeel or Armstrong will chew the team out tonight. Everyone saw what happened and knows what they have to do. Still, all the confidence and psychological advantage Team Discovery earned in the prologue and team trial evaporated on the Col de la Schlucht today.
- Andreas Kloden, who'd had a very disappointing early race season, looked super strong in finishing second, and that was a finish that even a photo couldn't clarify.
- Pieter Weening wins the stage with after attacking on the last third of the stage. His winning attack was particularly impressive given how high the pace has been and how many A-listers were attacking on that final climb. Great day for Rabobank, with Rasmussen donning the polkadot jersey. Somewhere, the Dutch crazies were partying on some mountaintop. They may not have been seeing their self-composed can-can tune "Boogerd is the Best," but Weening has two syllables and fits in nicely. "Weening iiiiiiiiiis, the best-he-is-the-best. Weening iiiiiiiiis the best-he-is-the-best. Wee ning is the best-he-is-the-best. Wee-ning is the best-he-is-the-best." I'm not kidding, those are the lyrics. It's much more exciting when you're dancing in your bike cleats and singing it with several hundred Dutch youths dressed in cow suits on the side of the road on Alpe D'Huez.
I can only imagine what Brunyeel was shouting into the team 2-way radio on the final climb when Salvodelli became the last team member to drop off, leaving Lance alone.
"C'mon boys, we can't leave Lance ah-lone. Dis ees vuh-ry baaad. C'mon Paolo! C'mon Popo! Venga venga venga! C'mon guys! We can't leave Lance like this. Get up to the front, boys!"
If Kloden really is regaining his from from last year, then they can launch him, Vino, and Ullrich against Armstrong in alternating waves, as they did today. As soon as Lance covered Vino's second attack, he didn't have a chance to catch his breath before Kloden launched off the front. If Armstrong gets isolated again, things could get ugly. Toss in Landis, Leipheimer, and Basso, and Armstrong may not have one restful day in the mountains. Also, we have yet to hear from Heras and Mayo, and I'm anticipating some attacks from them in the Alps and Pyrenees. If Lance has any chinks in his form, he's unlikely to be able to hide them on a stage. Brunyeel will have to be in the team car doing lots of calculations to decide which attacks Lance should cover; depending on who has opened up which gaps, and depending on how much time he and Lance think he'll take from them on the final individual time trial, Lance can decide when to accelerate and when to sit tight. Ooh it's going to be a doozy of a Tour.
Armstrong's face looks particularly gaunt this year. Today he wasn't particularly strong, but at the end of the day he lost no time to any serious GC contenders, and that's with T-Mobile burning their three top guys pretty hard on a stage that wasn't decisive. Lance wasn't as explosive relative to the other riders as he usually is, in part because the slope was so gentle, but he still covered all the key attacks and finished with the same time as every rider that mattered.
Team Discovery Channel is more suited for staying around Lance on steeper climbs, and I suspect they'll bounce back when the roads rise up more quickly. It's been an interesting Tour thus far, with fortunes changing dramatically from one day to the next. One day Zabriskie is in yellow jersey, then a few days later he's almost dead last. One day Team Discovery Channel looks like they'll dominate, then the next day they seem to be the most vulnerable of the major teams. Early in the Tour, Boonen seemed like the next Petacchi, then a crash and a few more stages later, Robbie McEwen seems like the sprinter to beat.
A riders fortunes can change in one day on the mountains. Eddy Mercx, the greatest cyclist ever, seemed destined to win his sixth Tour. Then, on the ride up to the mountaintop finish at Pra-Loup, he cracked, and just like that it was over for him. The pace has been unbelievably high in the Tour this year. It's the fastest Tour in history thus far, and so I expect some riders to crack suddenly over the next two weeks. It's always difficult to predict who those will be, but it will happen.
Can't wait for tomorrow's stage, and in about half an hour, correction, in about half a minute, I guess it will be on television. Might as well stay up at this point and catch the first half, though I'll be on a bus headed to DC during the stage conclusion. I'll have to catch the replay in the evening.