Tour 2010: Stage 19

The form-book suggested Andy Schleck could lose minutes to Alberto Contador in the only individual time trial of this year’s Tour. As things turned out, it was a lot closer than any of us – including the protagonists themselves – ever imagined. At the first time check, Schleck was actually slightly ahead of the maillot jaune; on the line, he’d lost just 31 seconds, giving Contador a winning margin of 39 seconds – the second-closest finish in Tour history.

A CLOSE-RUN THING

Thirty-nine
On the line.
First check:
Schleck
In front by a nose;
Too close
To call;
Left it all
To Alberto
To do
Or die.
But a guy
With four Grand
Tour wins in hand
Doesn’t crack
So easily
And finally
The man came back
But he was spent
And what it meant
Was clear
From his tears.

Bordeaux-Paulliac, 52km ITT
Won by Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 18

Stages into Bordeaux almost always end in a bunch sprint, so a fourth win for Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Cav duly delivered, but only after a high-speed chase to bring back a four-man breakaway. Daniel Oss (Liquigas) resisted until the 4km-to-go point, but against a headwind and the combined powers of Sky, Lampre and HTC-Columbia, he had no chance whatsoever.
While part of me wants the escapees to succeed, there’s something compelling about the way the peloton gradually raises the tempo, closes the gap and makes the catch to set up the sprinters for the final dash to the line. It’s tightly controlled, immaculately timed and ruthlessly executed – the same order of professionalism we saw from Contador and Schleck on the Tourmalet yesterday, but at 70km/h. I’ve often wondered what it must be like to have been off the front all day, then to look back and see the bunch bearing down on you…

DON’T LOOK BACK

This seemed a good idea
Three hours ago:
Flat roads ahead
A truce behind
And nothing at all to lose.
But now
The blackboard
Is a death warrant,
Ticking off the seconds
Until the hue-and-cry
Must overwhelm us.
A glance
Under the shoulder:
Across the road, so long
Empty,
A roaring breaker
Of speed and colour
Driven on by lust for glory,
Grows, and any moment
It will break upon us.
Panic. One last desperate drive,
But all the forces concentrated
So few seconds from our wheels
Sap our strength, pull us backwards
Drag us down.
And in our loss and vanishing
The natural order
Is restored.

Salies de Béarn-Bordeaux, 198km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 17

Well, we got our showdown between Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) and Alberto Contador (Astana) on the final climb to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet. Apart from a couple of accelerations by Schleck, and one sharp attack by Contador, it wasn’t the knock-down-drag-out fight many had predicted: rather, it was an exhibition of nerve and professionalism in dreadful conditions by the two greatest climbers in the sport. Schleck took the win, Contador kept his yellow jersey, and barring catastrophe, the top two places in Paris look to have been settled. Perhaps best of all, relations between the two men, so strained in the aftermath of Stage 15, seem to be fully restored. And chapeau, too, to Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), who thoroughly deserves his eighth place on the GC after a brilliant Tour so far. Let’s hope he hangs on for the last three days.

HIGH DRAMA

Out of the mist
They come:
The ruler
And the one
Who would take his crown.
Their war,
Fought along
A front a mile high
And ten miles long
Ends here,
Half-lost among
The grey rocks and rainbow crowd.

Matched in strength and will
They watch and wait
Sticking close as brothers
As they tear themselves apart.

And at the line,
Their forces spent,
They lay their arms
Across each other’s shoulders,
Each knowing he has conquered,
Content to share the spoils.

Pau-Col du Tourmalet, 174km
Won by Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Répos 2

A curious reversal of roles today: while the Tour riders are resting, I’m going racing. Tonight is the last in my local bike shop’s annual series of ‘have-a-go’ time trials, and marks the end of my (exceedingly modest) competitive riding for this year.
It’s a simple 10-mile dash against the clock, fastest time wins. As always, I have no illusions about winning, or even a high finish: my sole aim is to beat my mate Kevin. In three years, the only time he’s finished ahead of me was when I foolishly decided to ride The Guv’nor and the chain fell off after two miles.
OK, so it’s not Le Tour. But I still get a thrill every time I pin on a number and make the subtle change from bike-rider to racing cyclist. Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond once said of being a pro, ‘It doesn’t get easier, you just go faster’. Even downhill with a following wind, I won’t match the speeds Fabian Cancellara sustains on the flat. But I’ll have some idea of what he goes through, and that’s good enough for me.

MY OWN RACE

There will be no crowds
Straining to see me start,

No cameras to capture
My grimaces and smooth pedal strokes,

No helicopters overhead
Shadowing me through the lonely miles,

No team car in my slipstream
Loaded with spares and moral support,

No fans along the barriers
Shouting, waving, urging me in,

No soigneur at the finish
With drinks, towels and strong arms waiting:

Just the pain, desire, isolation
And fear of falling short

In my own race.
With only myself to beat.

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (Cervélo Test Team)
KoM: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)

Tour 2010: Stage 16

Another French stage win, no change in the GC: the peloton aren’t making it easy for me, are they? So I make no apology for writing a second Armstrong poem. In 1999, I was in Pau when it hosted the finish of Stage 16 from Lannemezan. As we made our way back to the car after seeing Lance receive his eleventh maillot jaune, we passed the US Postal team car. Lance’s Trek bike was on the roof, so close I could read his name on the top-tube. Then and there, I vowed I’d get one some day. I had to wait five years, but it happened. I still have it: it’s a bit scuffed and tired-looking after more than 25,000 miles, but the magic is still there. Which made Lance’s rather desolate efforts in Pau today all the more poignant. Maybe the champion will finish his Tour career as he began it: as a hero.

FADED GLORY

Eleven years and
Several lives ago
I saw him
Pull on yellow here
And take the crowd’s applause;
Another day done
For the resurgent star
On the long road to Paris
And the first of seven.

Today
I watched him
Chase grimly into town
Among the hopeless hopefuls
Beg his body
To summon up the old fire
But fade
Fall back
And finish nowhere.

Would I sit now,
As I did then,
Five hours in the sun
To see him?
Or maybe I should simply look
At the carbon bike, just like his,
Now hanging on my garage wall
And remember where I saw it first
And why I had to have it.

Bagnères de Luchon-Pau, 199.5km
Won by Pierrick Fédrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 15

The French riders, it seems, can do no wrong. A day after Christophe Riblon’s epic solo victory at Ax 3 Domaines, Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) broke away to win alone in Bagnères de Luchon, on the day the Tour marked (celebrated is perhaps the wrong word) the centenary of its first Pyrenean stage. That he won while wearing the French road-race champion’s tricolore jersey made it all the sweeter for him and his legions of supporters: he’s officially been a National Treasure since he wore the maillot jaune for 10 days in 2004.
One rider who probably hasn’t added to his fan-base today is Alberto Contador (Astana). who continued to race after Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) unshipped his chain at the crucial moment on the final HC climb of Port de Balès. After a 20km chase at speeds touching 100km/hr, Schleck lost the yellow jersey to Contador by eight seconds – precisely the same margin by which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989.
Should Contador have waited? Like Campagnolo v Shimano, the compulsory wearing of helmets and whether it’s OK to jump red lights, this debate will probably run for ever without reaching a definitive conclusion. Deciding to wait would have shown sportsmanship of the highest order and would have been wonderful to see; at the same time, Schleck had attacked first, and they’re both here to win a bike race. I just hope it sets up a battle royal on the Tourmalet on Wednesday. Meanwhile, what odds on the French riders making it three in a row tomorrow?

LOSING IT

A sudden check:
And in the grinding
Of links and sprockets
He hears
His own death-rattle.

Triple-espresso trembling
Fingers, fat with fatigue,
Fumble:
Every moment
A thousand years.

Steadier hands rush in to push.
And then he is alone
On the mountain:
With everything to lose
But his chain.

Pamiers-Bagnères de Luchon
Won by Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)

Tour 2010: Stage 14

And so we reached the Pyrenees, and the stages that will decide the Tour. Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador were so caught up in their own private battle that they seemed to forget the race going on around them. At one point on the final climb they slowed until they were almost doing track-stands, oblivious to third- and fourth-placed Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank), unable to believe their luck, dashing for the summit and gaining 15 precious seconds each.
The undisputed hero of the day was Christophe Riblon (AG2R). A virtual unknown before today, he was first over the 6,500ft hors categorie Port de Pailhères, then held on to his slender advantage to cross the line at Ax 3 Domaines alone after a breakaway of more than 100 miles. There can surely be no better way to land your first-ever Tour stage win.

HIGH ACHIEVER

Two thousand metres up,
Twenty miles to go,
He has
Two minutes.
Below
The heads of state
Watch each other,
Too intent on their own affairs
To pay attention
To a man
Twenty-four minutes down
With four wins
And no chance.
But though all their feints
And mind games
He goes on,
Shoulders rolling,
Through the madness
Of Basque flags
Campervans
Evian showers
And fat men running
To the line
That marks
The end
And the beginning.

Revel-Ax 3 Domaines
Won by Christophe Riblon (AG2R)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 13

Thirteen stages and no drug scandals. The Tour organisers must have been holding their breath, wondering how long their charmed life could last. And then, the result they’ve surely been dreading: a stage win for Alexandre Vinokourov. In 2007, the Astana rider was nailed for blood doping and banned for a year – a sanction many felt was too lenient. He never confessed and has certainly never shown any contrition. Since his return to racing last season he’s won a number of races, including this year’s Liège-Bastgone-Liège. Let’s be absolutely clear: the Kazakh rider hasn’t tested positive for anything since 2007 and we have to assume he’s riding clean now. But it still leaves a nasty taste.

BAD BLOOD

One name
I didn’t want to read
At the top of the table:
One man
I hoped I wouldn’t have to watch
Zipping up his jersey,
Arms held high in celebration.
The same arms that felt
The needles’ sting
And welcomed the blood
Rich with poisoned promise.
No confession, no remorse:
Ride out the ban
And come back
Like it never happened.
A red sock left
In the machine;
Clean
But discolouring everything –
A stain it seems
We still can’t quite remove.

Rodez-Revel, 196km
Won by Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 12

Despite being technically a ‘transitional’ stage, there wasn’t much respite for the peloton today, with three third- and two second-category climbs on the 210.5km slog from Bourg de Péage to Mende. The final climb of the Montée Laurent Jalabert – named after one of France’s most beloved riders, who won here in 1995 – saw Albert Contador (Astana) go on the attack at last: in the end he gained just 10 seconds on Andy Schleck, but the Tour has been won and lost by less than that before. Just as the organisers doubtless hoped and intended, it’s all going to be decided on the great cols of the Pyrenees next week. Expect fireworks.

OPENING SALVO

Two to go,
And the men
Who would be king
Are shoulder to shoulder:
An intimate skirmish
In the wider war
Against gravity, altitude
And lactic acid.

One kicks
With intent
To hurt.
The other
Stays down,
Unable to rise
To this sudden challenge
And everywhere, alarm-bells sound.

This is not
The killer blow
That ends it all:
But to lose
Even a little
From not enough
Is sure to sting
Somewhere.

Bourg de Péage-Mende, 210.5km
Won by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Tour 2010: Stage 11

From the summit of the third-category climb of the Col de Cabre, 56km from the start in Sisteron, it was downhill or flat pretty much all the way to the finish in Bourg lès Valence, another 128km away. It was a profile that made a bunch sprint all but inevitable, and HTC-Columbia duly buried themselves again to reel in the equally predictable breakaway, and set up a third victory for their man, Mark Cavendish.
Cavendish has now won 13 Tour stages, putting him ahead of true greats Mario Cipollini, Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen (riding the Tour again this year at age 38 with Katusha) in the list of the Tour’s most prolific sprinters. That got me thinking…

GREAT STUFF?

Back in ’99
Mario arrived to sign
The start sheet
Dressed
As Caesar:
Laughed at the fine.
A real crowd-pleaser.

Six years in a row
Erik took the green maillot;
Every day
Chased
The small scores:
Hard way to go
And win the sprint wars.

Fastest of his day
Robbie rides the Tour his way.
Three times he’s
Taken
Green, and won
The Champs-Elysées
(And that’s the big one)

So, what does it mean
Now Cavendish has got 13?
He’s truly
Greater
Than these past
Heroes of the scene;
Or just he rides fast?

Sisteron-Bourg lès Valence, 184.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)