Today’s stage was quite possibly the most exciting I’ve ever seen. The only letdown: what once seemed to be a wide-open Tour now appears to be a two-horse race.
Here’s what’s what:
1. Sandy Casar’s win renders moot the huge tactical gaffe committed by the 4-man break in allowing itself to be caught by Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, and Christophe Moreau within the final kilometer. Had Schleck and Contador a bit of time to catch their breath before the sprint, they just might have taken the stage—as it was, they looked set to ride right by the original four had a corner not interrupted their plans.
2. For Casar, it was his third Tour de France stage win (he was declared the winner of last year’s Stage 16 after Mikael Astarloza’s DQ), and the first this year for La Francaise des Jeux. After a rather anonymous first week, it’s easy to see why Madiot had his boys following wheels until now. And those kits…magnifique!
3. As for Luis Leon Sanchez, we really expected more from a rider we thought might make a serious bid for the GC. True, he sits eighth currently, but one has to wonder if he’ll remain there for long. As for the stage, Sanchez and Cunego were the two favorites to take the win—had they better knowledge of the finale.
4. As for the rest, it’s become abundantly clear that Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador are the two main contenders for the 2010 Tour de France. Samuel Sanchez is doing his best to spoil the party, but after what we saw today, it’s hard to see anyone other than Schleck and Contador on the first two steps of the podium in Paris.
5. Behind Schleck, Contador, and Samuel Sanchez, the rest of the top-10 began to shake itself out as well, as Rabobank’s duo of Robert Gesink and Denis Menchov pulled Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer and Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez away from Jurgen Van den Broeck, Ivan Basso, and Lance Armstrong (who appeared to rebound quite nicely after Sunday’s 12-minute loss). The effort bumped Menchov into fourth over VDB2, and Levi, Gesink, and Rodriguez into sixth, seventh, and ninth. Not a bad day for them.
6. Rabobank is now the only team with two riders inside the top-10, after Roman Kreuziger lost time to slip to 11th—one spot behind his teammate, Ivan Basso. While Kreuziger’s performance certainly wasn’t terrible, it’s a bit disappointing that he was unable to stay with one of the first three groups of overall contenders. For a rider many were looking to challenge for a top-5 placing in Paris, things aren’t looking very promising at the moment.
7. And speaking of teammates, at what point are people going to lay-off Alexandre Vinokourov? His acceleration seemed to be un-choreographed, a brash show of defiance from a rider many would love to see derail Contador’s Tour. But to Vino’s detractors, I say this: give the guy a break! You are more than welcome to hate the rider, but his tactics appear sound. His attack forced an already thinning peloton to up the pace just a bit, shedding several secondary contenders and the yellow jersey. And with Vino still lurking in 13th-place on GC, he’ll remain just enough of a threat to warrant attention from other teams—giving Contador a tactical advantage over Schleck and Saxo Bank.
8. As for Evans, it was revealed after the race that he rode the stage with a broken elbow sustained—we are to assume—in his crash early in Sunday’s stage. The news seemed to stop many of Cuddles’ detractors in their tracks, quickly turning snickers of “we knew he was too good to be true” into sighs of “wow, what a rider”. On second thought, maybe I was wrong.
9. And last but not least, at what point will everyone admit that Bradley Wiggins is a bust for Team Sky? Wiggins lost another five minutes today and has never been relevant in this year’s race. His performance this year proves what many of us—Jonathan Vaughters included—suspected: Wiggo is not a grand tour contender. Hey Brad, Wayne Rooney’s on the phone.
10. My final thought for the day: Alberto Contador has Andy Schleck—and his team—right where he wants him. With several hard transitional days before the Pyrenees, Schleck and his Saxo Bank mates will once again be faced with the burden of protecting and maintaining the race lead. At this point in the Tour, there are few men out of contention enough to take yellow in one these next few stages, thus making it difficult for Schleck to turn over the jersey to another squad. All Contador—and his team—need to do now is follow Schleck’s wheel and wait for the next major mountain rendezvous. With only 41 seconds in his pocket, things don’t look good for Andy.