Friday, July 12, 2013

Stage 13: Was that Paris-Roubaix, or Flanders, or the Tour de France?


Mark Cavendish sprints to victory, after
 sprinting to catch the lead echelon,
 which formed in the crosswinds
 on Stage 13.
Courtesy OPQS/Tim de Waele
If you didn't have a calendar handy this morning, you might have thought it was early spring, rather than July, and the cyclists were riding the northern classics, rather than the 13th stage of the Tour de France.

Those races in the early part of the season are subject to crosswinds, which break up the peloton and lead to groups scrambling in vain to catch on, then minimize their losses. The savvy teams tend to be the ones based in northern Europe, the ones that put a premium on capitalizing on the moment when the winds have the potential to break up the pack.

So, seeing Omega Pharma-QuickStep split the peloton in two wasn't much of a surprise. The team, based in Belgium, thrives on the tactic in such races as the Three Days de Panne and the Tour of Flanders. It managed to shed Marcel Kittel, who has surprised the teams of the established sprinters by winning three stages in the first two weeks.

Omega didn't intend to dispatch Alajandro Valverde, who started the day second in the overall standings. But a flat tire, followed by a slow tire change, cost him dearly. The scene was reminiscent of Big George Hincapie, king of the untimely flat in Paris-Roubaix, his white whale. Like Big George, Valverde was left behind, as the elements and bad luck conspired against him. Valverde ended up losing more than nine minutes to leader Chris Froome and fell from second to 16th, more than 12 minutes in arrears.

But Alberto Contador, Spanish climber, was also attentive. When his Saxo Bank team sensed that Omega needed a hand and that Froomie's Sky mates were dropping like flies, they attacked. Only a handful of Belkins, including GC hopefuls Bauke Mollema and Larens Ten Dam, and Omegas, including Mark Cavendish, and Cannondales, including Peter Sagan, could match their acceleration. Saxo split the leading group and left Froomie in their wake.

Lesson learned on Contador's part. Think back to 2009, when a similar crosswind smacked the side of the peloton and the teammate of the century, Lance Armstrong, put the hammer down, leaving Contador 45 seconds behind. Contador made up the deficit in the time trial, but we're thinking that the lesson would be hard to forget, especially when your own teammate is the one leaving you in the lurch.

By the end of the stage, Cavendish had earned his 25th Tour win,  and Sagan finished second, all but wrapping up the green jersey. Cavs was riding behind teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, who couldn't match Saxo's acceleration, and breathlessly explained later:
"He was a bit gassed, but he still worked to get me across. I finally said, 'move left' and he moved left, and I had to sprint to make it. I managed to just get in when the echelons started. You know that feeling where you know you've got five seconds or it's over? You've got five seconds to make it, and that's it. So, I just sprinted across."
Sagan seems to have a knack for knowing when the key moves will be made and then to match it. His smarts and skills make him so very deserving of the green jersey.

More important in the long run, Contador, Mollema, Ten Dam and Astana's Jakob Fuglsang had closed on Froome. Froome still leads Mollema by 2:28 and Contador by 2:45, but Sky again seems vulnerable. Sky have lost Edvald Boassen Hagen to injury, and Geraint Thomas remains at the back, hobbled by a cracked pelvis and of little use in providing a turn of speed. Froome's righthand man, Richie Porte, disappeared again Friday and finished in the Groupe Valverde.

Froome remains in charge and seems strong enough on his own to ward off individual attacks and minimize losses. Movistar must be devastated, though Nairo Quintana remains in the top 10. Perhaps they'll be more willing to hit Froome hard. Saxo was rewarded, so they'll probably use the tactic again. A few days ago, Garmin was reward with a stage win for its aggression.

So, Froome may sill ride into France in yellow, but even more teams have reason to throw caution to the winds and make the rest of the ride to the Champs Elysses full of fireworks. The Tour looks less and less like it will be boring, even if the same rider remains in yellow for the final 10 days.