Monday, July 6, 2009

on the eve of the team time trial

by Graham Watson

I've just drunk a very nice bottle of wine in Montpellier, and wished it could have been two, for today's stage has re-opened the soap-opera attraction that so symbolizes the Tour de France. Trouble was, I was alone, so a second bottle was perhaps beyond my reach, at least as far as justification goes... We have today enjoyed a stunning finale to a stage that looked so dull to begin with. Cancellara is still race-leader, but Astana has closed-in thanks to a bit of racing intelligence by Lance Armstrong, and not one bit of stupidity by Alberto Contador. The outcome is that Armstrong is Astana's leader 'on the road'
and a lot of questions are being asked of the 2007 Tour winner, Contador...

How a stage changed so suddenly can be summed up in just a few words - a 90-degree right-hand corner with about 45-kilometres to go despatched the peloton into a roaring side-wind, at the front of which was Team Columbia going headlong into the wind. The 25-odd cyclists that happened to be with them formed a front group that quickly took control of the stage, if not the race overall. A gap quickly grew and, until the Tour reaches the mountains on Sunday, we'll have to wait to see how serious are the implications of that move. At first, Armstrong and Zubeldia and Popovych bided their time, waiting to see if the main group could manag to get back to them. But when a 30-second gap was announced, that was the time for Astana's three escapees to put the hammer down and build on their advantage. The result is that Astana will enter the mountains with Armstrong as its leader, at least for as long a he wants to lead.

It is anticipation of tomorrow's team time trial that made today's long and very hot stage so dull - until that last-hour fling. There are so many different Tours de France within this Tour de France that it is too early to see the bigger picture. Fabian Cancellara wants to get to or through the Pyrenees as race-leader, and preferably with his Saxo Bank team in one piece and ready to do some damage overall in the last ten days. Saxo Bank also want to win tomorrow's TTT and win back some time on Astana in the overall Team GC. Astana, meanwhile, want to win the TTT, gain more time on Saxo Bank for the Team competition, and preferably launch one of their team leaders into the Yellow Jersey by early next week. Because of their unique situation, Astana needed to have Lance or Alberto as a clear leader before the first mountains, and this seems to have come today. Whatever the result of tomorrow's TTT, Lance has become the team leader for the Pyrenees, against which Alberto can do nothing unless Lance concedes time in the mountains. If Lance does not lose any time, then Astana, and the Tour, are both set for a very, very, interesting conclusion...

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