Tour 2010: Stage 20

The final kilometres of this year’s Tour were played out in traditional fashion in Paris. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) won his fifth stage, and also became the first rider ever to win on the Champs-Elysées two years running. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) was second, which gave him overall victory in the green jersey competition.
Alberto Contador (Astana) won the Tour without winning a stage and having been pushed every inch of the way by Andy Schleck. Could we see a change at the top of the sport next season? One man who’s definitely heading for the exit, this time for good, is Lance Armstrong, who finished an anonymous 23rd – not the glorious last hurrah we’d have liked to have seen from the seven-time winner.
It’s been a great Tour, and for the first time in years, I’ve enjoyed it from start to finish. So, inspired by my blog-pal Chloe, my closing entry in this three-week poetry marathon is a retrospective of the entire event in haiku; one for each of the 20 stages.
Thanks for joining me on the road to Paris.

PROLOGUE

Twenty-two times nine
Slaves to the clock. One stands; cries
‘I am Spartacus!”

STAGE 1.

Stage, one; countries, two.
On the run into Brussels
Petacchi sprouts wings.

STAGE 2

Spa cure for the blues:
Chavanel is in yellow;
France is feeling good.

STAGE 3

On a day in Hell,
Cobbles claim men’s bones and souls.
But Thor’s in heaven.

STAGE 4

As the Champagne flows
For Petacchi once again,
Has Cav’s bubble burst?

STAGE 5

So the lead-out train
Gets it right. And suddenly
Cav is back on track.

STAGE 6

First Cav couldn’t win
Now it seems he cannot stop.
Two down, three to go.

STAGE 7

Second time around
Taking yellow the hard way.
Chapeau, Chavanel.

STAGE 8

As the road heads up
Schleck breaks free of gravity.
Shades of Charly Gaul.

STAGE 9

On the Madeleine
Sandy’s out there on his own.
Still is at the line.

STAGE 10

Where Beloki fell
Paulinho makes no mistake
Keeps his winning Gap.

STAGE 11

Cav makes it thirteen
Beats Robbie, Cipo, Zabel
Along with the rest.

STAGE 12

Alberto goes clear;
Andy loses by a hair.
Shape of things to come?

STAGE 13

Vino’s comeback win,
But his past means this is not
One to Revel in.

STAGE 14

Riblon wins alone:
After three lean, unseen years
The Ax man cometh.

STAGE 15

Centenary day
In the Pyrenees. Vockler
Leaves them on a high.

STAGE 16

Peyresourde, Aspin,
Tourmalet, Aubisque. Such names
Don’t scare Fédrigo.

STAGE 17

And then there were two.
On the highest, hardest road
They are on their own.

STAGE 18

Sprinters call it home.
Cav blazes into Bordeaux,
Claims a vintage win.

STAGE 19

Schleck is cast to fail.
Doesn’t read the script. Almost
Forces a rewrite.

STAGE 20

Number five for Cav,
Three for Contador. For Lance
It’s seven and out.

Longjumeau-Paris Champs-Elysées, 102.5km
Won by Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)

Maillot jaune: Alberto Contador (Astana)
Maillot vert: Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini)
Maillot au pois: Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)
Maillot blanc: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Team classification: Radio Shack
Lanterne rouge: Adriano Malori (Lampre-Farnese Vini) @ 4h 27m 03s

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: 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 9

French cycling fans haven’t had so much to cheer about in years. Another sensational stage for the home riders saw Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) take the win, with Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) – riding his last Tour at the ripe old age of 39 – finishing fourth and Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) fifth. Charteau also took over the lead in the KoM classification from Jerome Pineau (Quick Step) while Moreau completed a French one-two-three at the head of the race for the polka-dot jersey.
Cadel Evans (BMC), riding with a cracked elbow sustained in a crash on Sunday, lost more than eight minutes and the maillot jaune he’d won on Stage 8. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) now leads the GC, 41 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Astana): the only two realistic contenders for overall victory finished together, just two seconds behind Casar.
Today’s poem is about none of them, however: my sympathies were all with Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel). By turning himself inside-out on the final climb of the Col de la Madeleine, and taking all kinds of insane risks going down the other side, he managed to get within 10 seconds of Contador, Schleck and Moreau on the final 5km run-in to the finish. But he just couldn’t make contact, and eventually finished 50 seconds behind them. I know what it’s liked to get shelled out the back of a group and watch, powerless to respond, as the gap slowly widens and they head off down the road. At least I didn’t have to see a possible Tour stage win go with them.

SNAPPED ELASTIC

Ten seconds.
That’s all.
Count them, out loud.

Not much to make up
You’d think
When you’ve had
20 k downhill
And Olympic gold hung round your neck.

Yet that
Achingly
Tiny

Gap

Might as well be
Another mountain
An ocean
A trip to the moon.

Power leaks
From legs
Already screaming
Teeth grind
Eyes screw shut
Hands haul on bars
As if to bend them back

And now you see
That wheel through
The wrong end of the telescope
And you know
You have
To let it go.

Morzine-Avoriaz-Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 204.5km
Won by Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux)
Maillot jaune: Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)