Although Brad Wiggins impressively defended his yellow jersey at the Tour de France on Sunday (and later astonished the world with his outspoken remarks on the skeptics who believe you have to dope to win the Tour), perhaps the more significant story was his Team Sky losing its controversial yellow helmets to RadioShack-Nissan. Yes, I’m talking about those yellow hats, the ones the Sky riders have been forced to wear since they took the lead in the team race a week ago.
And RadioShack didn’t take first place in the prestigious overall team classification by sneaking someone into a break that gained “free” time. No, they did it by placing four of its men in the front group of 10 riders that emerged on the dastardly category 1 climb, the Col de la Croix, 16 kilometers from the finish of a ferociously raced stage to Porrentruy in Switzerland. Those four men were American Chris Horner, Frenchman Tony Gallopin, Luxembourger Fränk Schleck and Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia
Also in the front group, a half-minute behind the splendidly aggressive young French climber and stage winner, Thibaut Pinot of FDJ-BigMat, were Team Sky’s two climbing heroes, Wiggins and Chris Froome. But the team race is decided by each squad’s top three finishers on every stage, and on Sunday Sky’s third counter was Richie Porte, who finished with his Australian compatriot Mick Rogers in the fourth group to finish, almost five minutes back. That result allowed RadioShack to take over the team GC with a lead of 2:51 on Sky and more than 10 minutes on the next-best squads.
One conclusion to be gained from Sunday’s result in a race, which resembled a semi-mountainous, one-day classic rather than a typical Tour stage, was that the huge efforts made by Rogers and Porte on Saturday’s finish up to La Planche des Belles Filles left them somewhat jaded. Or perhaps they knew that their work was done for the day by the foot of the final climb, and they could ease their way through the final 20 kilometers, reserving themselves for Monday’s time trial.
That’s something we’ll be able to judge after stage 9, the 41.5-kilometer TT from Arc-et-Senans to Besançon, where RadioShack will likely have its strongest time trialists (Fabian Cancellara, Andreas Klöden, Jens Voigt, Horner and Zubeldia) riding as hard as they can to match or even gain time on Sky. That will be a tough task because both Wiggins and Froome are among the top favorites to win the stage, with Rogers and Porte not far behind in their current time-trialing form.
This brings us to the fight for the yellow jersey. Crashes have already eliminated two of the original top-10 contenders: Ryder Hesjedal, who was one of the dozen men forced to quit because of the mass pileup on Friday’s stage 6, and Samuel Sanchez, who crashed out on Sunday with a broken finger and painful shoulder injuries. And definitively out of GC contention because of the stage 6 pileup is Robert Gesink, who now sits in 56th place, more than 20 minutes behind the leaders.
Of the other seven contenders, Wiggins, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale and Denis Menchov of Katusha team occupy the top four overall places; Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol showed great form on Sunday’s viciously steep Col de la Croix and moved up to eighth on GC (at 2:11); Schleck, in 15th at 3:47, is now enjoying his best form of the race; and Omega’s Levi Leipheimer, 21st at 4:46, said he faded on Saturday’s summit finish because of dehydration (“My own fault”) and could bounce back into contention at the time trial.
Monday’s TT will certainly modify the top GC positions because, after nine days of racing, the Tour has left its mark on everyone, due to crashes, injuries or simple fatigue. And some riders are finding better form as the race goes on. The stage win in Besançon might well go to Cancellara or Omega’s world TT champ Tony Martin, both of whom need to get in a solid effort before they contest the London Olympics time trial in three weeks’ time. But the battle for the yellow jersey could well see Wiggins, Evans or Froome taking the win, And don’t rule out Leipheimer, who needs to restore his morale prior to the major mountain stages coming up in the Tour’s next two weeks.
Monday’s course is best suited to those men who can change rhythm easily from a fast, flat opening to a succession of six significant climbs (and descents) on the middle section, which is constantly turning on narrow roads, before adjusting to wider road in the Besançon suburbs, where the generally favorable winds will change to a head wind in the finale. My tip? Given their riding in the past few days, Evans has the spirit and skills to upset Wiggins, while Froome may come through with another stunning performance.
And those yellow helmets? Looks like RadioShack will keep them for another day, and probably for the rest of the Tour.
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John will be analyzing the time trial results later on Monday.