Fascinating day’s racing in the Tour de France yesterday, as the riders tackled what is arguably the race’s toughest day – 209km including three out of category climbs, culminating in the most famous climb in cycling, Alp d’Huez.
And as expected, the attacks started early on the final climb, as the climbers were forced to go out looking for time on Cadel Evans, knowing that they required a buffer leading into the final 53km time-trial on Saturday.
The first attack, which proved decisive on the day, was by Carlos Sastre of Team CSC, right at the foot of the climb. In what became obvious as a planned tactical move, CSC propelled Sastre off the front, and then defended all the chasing attacks through the Schleck brothers. The result was that the chasing group was never cohesively formed, and momentum was lost every time another attack was chased down. On numerous occasions, the unsuccessful rider would sit up, wait for the group to rejoin, and the entire group began looking at one another as if to ask “What now? Who’s next?”.
In the surest indication of the tactics, Denis Menchov was dropped about 2km into the climb, and at one stage slipped about 25 seconds behind the yellow jersey, but was able to rejoin the group about halfway up the climb, such was the slowing down in that chase group. Meanwhile, Sastre grew his lead steadily, opening up about 10 seconds per kilometer, and putting himself in virtual yellow. With 8km to go, he was 55 seconds up, in yellow on the road.
The real action was behind, and Andy Schleck in particular looked in unbelievable form, such was the ease with which he controlled the attacks. Those attacks came predominantly from Kohl (The King of the Mountains leader, who’ll go on to win that jersey now that the Alps are done), and the AG2R trio of Efimkin, Valjavec and Goubert (who were very impressive on the day – where have they beeen before this?). Every single one was easily neutralised, and Sastre benefited from the resultant hesitance.
Evans defends to limit his losses
Eventually, it was Evans, who would by then have recognized the danger of Sastre opening up too much of a lead, who went to the front and drove the pace on more steadily. By this time, with about 4 km to go, Sastre’s lead was about 2:10, and threatening to become insurmountable. However, thanks to the fact that the attacks were not coming anymore, the gap started to stabilize, only growing by a few more seconds in the final 3km. And then, the combination of a levelling off of the climb in the final 2km, and the group sprints in the final 500m, saw the gaps come down a little, finishing at 2:03 to Sanchez and Andy Schleck, with Evans finishing a further 12 seconds down.
The slowest ascent in many years – EPO, anyone?
One interesting statistic is that Sastre’s climbing time on Alp d’Huez yesterday was 39:31, almost two minutes slower that the record of 37:35 by Marco Pantani in 1998 (probably with a hematocrit of 60% and EPO coming out of his sweat glands). It was the 17th fastest climb in history. Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong share the top 5 times between them. The list of climb winners is actually littered with riders who’ve either confessed or tested positive for drug use (though that is probably not surprising, given what we know about cycling!).
Now, I realise that there are many, many factors that go into the final climb performance in the Tour – weather, tactics, race situation, preceding climbs etc. However, I think that an interesting analysis may be to look at the last 15 years of Tour de France data, and work out what the average climbing rate is on the big mountains. Given that there are probably 3 mountain finishes per year, that would provide45 climbs to analyse (at least), and I think it would be interesting to see whether the climbing rates have gone down drastically in the last two years. I suspect they have. In particular, I’d guess that if you looked at the tenth and fiftieth fastest times per year (to control the effects of attacks, tactics etc), they’d be much slower. Accessing that data is difficult, but I’m certainly going to try – if anyone has information on climbing rates or times taken on the big Tour climbs, please let me know, we’ll work on a paper together!
An enthralling time-trial to come
Back to the race, and the result of yesterday’s racing is that Evans is now 94 seconds behind Sastre (he is in fourth, with Schleck and Kohl ahead of him) with the 53km time-trial to come on Saturday. The burning question, then, is whether that gap is sufficient for Sastre to remain in yellow? There are of course three other riders with a shot at winning – Frank Schleck, Bernard Kohl and Denis Menchov are in range. However, Schleck and Kohl’s time-trial credentials would suggest they’re not likely to hold off Evans, and Menchov is (barring a miracle ride) probably not close enough. He also hasn’t shown any sharpness in the last two days, so I expect it’s a two man show.
So Evans or Sastre? Evans took 1:16 out of Sastre in the first time-trial of only 29.5km in week 1. That would suggest that 1:34 over 53km is no problem. However, there is the small matter of 17 days of racing between then and now, including two mountain ranges, which tends to level off those gaps in many instances (it could also grow them, of course, but I think the last few days have shown that Sastre is in better form later in the race). Also, Sastre in yellow, starting after Evans, with a huge incentive, means he should ride better than he did in week 1. Evans will of course be equally motivated, hungry to claim yellow after the close finish last year.
So at this stage, too close to call. Personally (if I may voice an opinion), I hope Sastre holds on (at the risk of incurring the wrath of the Aussie readers!), because he’s been more aggressive and yesterday’s win combined with attacks earlier in the Alps make him my favourite. Call it “romanticism”, but I like the rider with panache and attacking flair, which Sastre has more of than Evans, it would seem (though Sastre is certainly not a flamboyant rider – if I could give the jersey away, it’d go to Andy Schleck).
Evans, for his part, will certainly be deserving of the win if he does claw back the time. So I certainly think he’s a great rider. But he’s a grinder, a non-attacker who controls and is decent at everything but not spectacular at any one discipline. Then again, who knows, perhaps on Saturday he whips out the fastest ever time-trial in a Tour and wins it by 2 minutes?!
Time will tell. We’ll bring you that action!