Post Stage Analysis

Contador Rides Away to Stage Win and Yellow Jersey
Contador calls today "a liberation," Armstrong trails by over a minute

Alberto Contador rode away from the field today on the final climb to Verbier. The Spanish climber, who won the 2007 Tour de France, won the stage and took over the race lead. His team-mate American Lance Armstrong suffered on the climb, but still holds second in the general classification. Bradley Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream now sits third 1:46 behind Alberto Contador. As expected, this mountain stage reshuffled the hierarchy in this Tour de France. Tomorrow’s a rest day, then it’s back into the mountains.

The Story

It all came down to the final climb today, though a series of breakaway attempts animated the early kilometers of the stage. Over the first two climbs of the day, Franco Pellizotti and Egoi Martinez continued their battle in the mountains classification. Pellizotti got the better of Martinez in both exchanges and has now added to his lead. Astana, meanwhile, kept tight control over the race, and never allowed the assorted escapes to gain much road.

Just past kilometer 50, Ryder Hesjdahl of Garmin-Slipstream attacked from a twelve rider escape which was then dangling just 25 seconds ahead of the Astana-driven field. Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank, David Moncoutié of Cofidis, Jurgen van den Broeck of Silence-Lotto, Mikel Astarloza of Euskaltel-Euskadi, José Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse d'Épargne, Amaël Moinard of Cofidis, Simon Spilak of Lampre-Ngc, and Pierrick Fédrigo of Bbox Bouygues chased after the Canadian. Over the summit of the Côte de Prévonloup, the group came together. With the vigorous encouragement of his team manager, Juan Antonio Flecha of Rabobank soon bridged across to the group and the nine steadily rode away from the main field. On the Col des Mosses with 70 kilometers to race, the break held an advantage of 4:05 over the main field. Astana continued to do the majority of the chasing, as Astarloza became the virtual Yellow Jersey.

Through the long valley on the road to the final climb to Verbier, Astana continued to work on the front and the gap to the break began to diminish steadily. With 20 kilometers to go and the gap shrinking all the time, Simon Spilak of Lampre-Ngc attacked the break and set off alone. Behind, Liquigas-Doimo went to the front to protect the mountains lead of Franco Pellizotti and to set up their general classification hopes Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger. With breakaway rider Pierrick Fédrigo sitting third in the mountains classification, Liquigas wanted to be certain that the escape did not survive to the finish.

Inside 10 kilometers to go, Mikel Astarloza, Jurgen van den Broeck, Fabian Cancellara, Ryder Hesjdahl, and Pierrick Fédrigo chased Spilak, who remained alone out in front. The chase had only one minute gap over the fast-closing main field, while Spilak rode 40 seconds ahead of the chase. Plainly, it would be all back together on the final climb.

As Spilak made the left-hand turn onto the climb, Saxo Bank came to the front and David Millar brought his Garmin-Slipstream team-mates Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vandevelde into position near the front. As the main field caught the break, Cancellara went to the front and put in a hard effort for his Saxo Bank team. Saxo Bank clearly had ideas for this stage and as they began the climb, the Danish team rode a hard tempo on the front. Riders began to slip backwards, including last year’s Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre, who often does not shine during the first big accelerations of a mountain stage. Indeed, the Spanish climber steadily rode his way back into the general classification battle later in the climb. Yellow Jersey Rinaldo Nocentini also dropped off the pace, and said a fond adio to the race lead he has held for the last week.

The first attack came from Fränk Schleck and Alberto Contador proved quick to jump on to the wheel of the rider from Luxemburg. Armstrong then brought the rest of the group up to the two leaders. Vincenzo Nibali, Roman Kreuziger, Andreas Klöden, Bradley Wiggins, Christian Vandevelde, and Andy Schleck were among the riders who remained in this elite group, as the race already began to break apart.

As the group came back together, Alberto Contador saw his opportunity and took it. With his trademark acceleration, the Spanish climber attacked hard out of the favorites group. The gap opened up immediately and no could follow. In a replay of the finish on Arcalís, Andy Schleck soon set off in pursuit of Contador, but could not close the gap.

Behind, Andreas Klöden began setting tempo with Armstrong on his wheel. Fränk Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, and Vincenzo Nibali also sat in the group, benefitting from the pace-making from Klöden. With approximately 5 kilometers to go, Contador, his earpiece wafting in the breeze, held a 22 second advantage over Andy Schleck and a 44 second advantage over the chase group led by his team-mate Andreas Klöden. Carlos Sastre, meanwhile, steadily climbed his way back toward the chase group, while Vandevelde dropped back.

With 3 kilometers to race, Bradley Wiggins, the pursuit champion turned stage racer, attacked from the chase group. Fränk Schleck countered, and went on alone. Klöden continued to work for Armstrong with Vincenzo Nibali sitting on. Nibali then scooted away and joined Wiggins. Fränk Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, and Vincenzo Nibali soon joined forces, and rode away from the Armstrong-Klöden group. Cadel Evans also began to ride away from the Armstrong group, though he could not reach the chase group. The Australian later said he was on a bad day. From behind, meanwhile, Carlos Sastre climbed up to the Armstrong group and continued on alone. Just short of the finish, Sastre caught the threesome of Wiggins, Schleck, and Nibali.

Up ahead, Alberto Contador crossed the line alone and made his trademark gun-fire victory salute. Andy Schleck followed 43 seconds later. With just under 1 kilometer to race, Vincenzo Nibali sprinted free of the Wiggins group and took third on the stage, while Wiggins, Fränk Schleck, and Sastre crossed together at 1:06 behind Contador. Evans finished 20 seconds later. Then came Armstrong and Klöden together. In the final meters, Klöden opened a small gap over Armstrong and finished ahead of the American by 6 seconds. Rinaldo Nocentini, meanwhile, who began the day in the Yellow Jersey, finished 19th, 2:36 behind Contador. Though he conceded the race lead, Nocentini rode well enough to remain in the top ten in the general classification.

After the stage, Contador said that he had not intended to attack so early in the climb. “Looking at the situation, I decided to attack. I am very happy about the gap I opened up on my rivals,” he said. The fast pace at the bottom of the climb set by Saxo Bank suited the Spanish climber well. “I wanted to have a fast pace at the start of the climb,” he explained. Of his team’s leadership situation, Contador commented, “I think that the differences now in the Astana team are pretty big, and I think the team now needs to back me.” “Yes, he was my idol,” said Contador of team-mate Lance Armstrong. “But I don’t put a lot of importance on dropping him. He’s just like any other rival,” concluded the new race leader. Contador last received the Yellow Jersey when Michael Rasmussen was ejected from the race. “I am very happy to win the jersey on the road and in a different manner than the last time,” Contador said today.

Perhaps more surprising than Contador’s big attack today was the ride of Bradley Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream. The two-time Olympic gold medalist in the pursuit climbed with an elite group today on this slopes of Verbier and showed for the first time that he might be able to hold a high general classification position all the way to Paris. The transition from the pursuit is not unprecedented. Bradley McGee made a similar transition and placed in the top ten at the Giro d’Italia, before injury derailed his career. After the stage today, Wiggins said, “I rode fearlessly.” From the car, his sports director Matt White told him to “keep pushing,” and Wiggins has ridden into third place in the general classification. “The signs are good for a podium place in Paris,” Wiggins concluded and he dedicated his efforts to his wife and family.

General Classification

Here is the current top ten:
Alberto Contador Astana
Lance Armstrong Astana 1:37
Bradley Wiggins Garmin-Slipstream 1:46
Andreas Klöden Astana 2:17
Andy Schleck Saxo Bank 2:26
Rinaldo Nocentini AG2R-La Mondiale 2:30
Vincenzo Nibali Liquigas-Doimo 2:51
Tony Martin Columbia-HTC 3:07
Christophe Le Mével Français des Jeux 3:09
Fränk Schleck Saxo Bank 3:25

As just about everyone expected, the general classification reshuffled on this second mountain stage of the Tour. Alberto Contador grabbed hold of the race today and gave it a hard shake. The 2007 Tour winner now leads the general classification after his big ride on the slopes of Verbier. His team-mate Lance Armstrong now sits second at 1:37. Armstrong admitted that he “suffered” on the climb today, and that he could not follow the tempo of his team-mate Alberto Contador. The American conceded that Contador is the “best rider in the Tour,” and said he would not attack him. Andreas Klöden is currently fourth at 2:17, adding to the Astana mix. It remains to be seen how well the Astana team can unite in support of Contador’s efforts.

After his big ride today on the road to Verbier, Bradley Wiggins moves up to third, and is hoping to hold a podium position all the way to Paris. He will face a big challenge from the Schleck brothers. Andy Schleck sits fifth at 2:26, while Fränk Schleck is tenth at 3:25. The Schleck brothers have a strong and unified team behind them, and no doubt have more cards to play in the coming days in the mountains.

Rinaldo Nocentini, meanwhile, ended his long stretch in the Yellow Jersey, but climbed well enough to stay in the top ten. The Italian from AG2R-La Mondiale is now sixth at 2:30. The young Italian from Liquigas-Doimo Vincenzo Nibali had a good day out today, and currently sits seventh at 2:51. Though he lost the White Jersey to Andy Schleck, Tony Martin remains in the top ten, eighth at 3:07. Christophe Le Mével who rode into the top ten during yesterday’s breakaway climbed well enough to hold ninth at 3:09, while Fränk Schleck moves up to tenth.

Carlos Sastre did not likely have the day he might have liked, but climbed back to the general classification riders by the finale. Last year’s Tour winner now sits eleventh at 3:52. After the race, he said he was content with his ride, but also admitted that Contador is on another level. Christian Vandevelde had a rough day on the climb and dropped to twelfth at 3:59. The American has pledged his support to the podium ambitions of his team-mate Bradley Wiggins. Cadel Evans also had a rough day, and sits fourteenth at 4:27.

Other general classification riders: 11) Carlos Sastre Cervélo TestTeam @ 3:52 12) Christian Vandevelde Garmin-Slipstream @ 3:59 14) Cadel Evans Silence-Lotto @ 4:27 15) Maxime Monfort Columbia-HTC @ 4:38 16) Roman Kreuziger Liquigas-Doimo @ 4:40.

Other classifications: Franco Pellizotti now leads the mountains classification by 8 points ahead of Egoi Martinez. The two riders continued their battle for the points today, with Pellizotti inching further ahead. Pierrick Fédrigo of Bbox Bouygues is third, and trails the leading two by more than 30 points. Watch for Pellizotti and Martinez to continue their rivalry when the mountains start again on Tuesday.

The White Jersey of best young rider changed hands today, and Andy Schleck now leads Vincenzo Nibali. Tony Martin rode well on today’s final climb and ends the day third in the Young Riders classification.

The Points classification remains unchanged today with Thor Hushovd leading Mark Cavendish by 18 points. The relegation of Cavendish in yesterday’s sprint has dimmed the British sprinters hopes of winning back the Green Jersey from his Norwegian rival.

Simon Spilak of Lampre-Ngc wins the combativity prize for today’s stage. Spilak spent the day in the break and attacked solo just before the final climb of the day.

Looking Ahead

Rest day tomorrow. Then, more mountains!

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Terrain Type: Mountainous. Mountain-top finish!
GC Importance: The general classification riders will race today, but the time gaps may not be significant at the finish. The final climb is not especially difficult, but it’s definitely not a good day to have bad legs.

The Climbs:
Côte du Rafour 3.7 km, avg. 5.1 %, Catégorie 3
Col des Étroits 1.5 km, avg. 5 %, Catégorie 3
Côte de La Carrière 6.3 km, avg. 4.4 %, Catégorie 3
Côte de Prévonloup 4.5 km, avg. 4.7 %, Catégorie 3
Col des Mosses 13.8 km, avg. 4 %, Catégorie 2
Verbier 8.8 km, avg. 7.5 %, Catégorie 1

The Tour visits Switzerland during this stage for the second mountain-top finish of this year’s race. Setting out from Pontarlier, the course travels east passing by Lac de Neuchâtel and climbs six categorized climbs. The finishing climb to the ski resort town at Verbier, which has a category 1 rating, makes it’s début at the Tour de France this year. This stage suits the climbers and offers one of their main chances to chase yellow. Time gaps should open up by the finish, though the main contenders will likely remain close on time in Verbier.

Situated approximately 20 kilometers from the Swiss border, Pontarlier was recently designated one of the 25 most beautiful cities in France. Since I’ve never been there, I’ll have to take their word for it. During the nineteenth century, Pontarlier became known as the capital of Absinthe, the favorite drink of artists like Charles Baudelaire, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde. Absinthe was hugely popular in France until its ban in 1915. Many of the old distilleries still stand. Not into the “Green Fairy”? Pontarlier was also home to pioneers of aviation in the early years of the twentieth century.

Pontarlier has hosted the Tour de France on six occasions. The Tour visited the city most recently in 2001, when stage 9 departed from Pontarlier and finished in Aix-les-Bains. Serguei Ivanov won the stage, while Stuart O’Grady wore the Yellow Jersey of race leader.

Verbier is known for winter sports, perched as it is high in the Swiss Alps. The resort faces southwest, and enjoys bright sunny days throughout the winter. Skiers first began shushing about Verbier in the 1920s, and before mechanical lifts, walked up the slopes of the mountain. Now, all is modern, and there are countless lifts and more than 400 kilometers of runs in the area. During the summer, it’s all about mountain biking.

Though Verbier has never hosted the Tour de France, the 2008 Tour de Suisse included a stage finish in the town. Kim Kirchen won the stage that day ahead of Andreas Klöden and Roman Kreuziger. Kirchen held the leader’s jersey in Verbier, but conceded it to Roman Kreuziger in the end.

Profile Details

This stage begins and ends with a climb, which is really quite nice and symmetrical when it comes right down to it. The first climb of the day begins not far from the start in Pontarlier and has a category 3 rating. The Côte de Refour climbs 3.7 kilometers at an average gradient of 5.1%. Relatively speaking, this climb is not especially difficult, but it main prove sufficient to provoke an early breakaway. The climb summits at kilometer 8 and reaches 1084 meters above sea level.

Just ten kilometers later comes the summit of the second category 3 climb of the day. The Tour, meanwhile, has crossed into Swiss territory. The Col des Étroits climbs 1.5 kilometers at an average gradient of 5%. If the break didn’t succeed in their escape on the Côte de Refour, this second climb of the day should send them on their merry way.

From the summit of the Col des Étroits at kilometer 18.5, the course descends 17 kilometers to Yverdon-les-Bains. Then the course climbs an uncategorized bump, before ascending the Côte de La Carrière. This category 3 climb lasts six kilometers and has an average gradient of 4.4%. Two kilometers after the summit comes the first intermediate sprint of the day at Thierrens. The sprint is at kilometer 56.5, and there remains still 150 kilometers of racing. We’re just getting started.

After the sprint in Thierrens, the course descends, before hitting yet another climb. The Côte de Prévonloup also has a category 3 rating. Apparently, they are all the rage, these category 3 ratings. The côte climbs 4.5 kilometers at an average gradient of 4.7%. The Côte de Prévonloup summits at kilometer 74, and a stretch of rolling terrain follows. The race passes through Épagny at kilometer 99.5, and then begins a gradual ascent to the base of the next climb.

Just after the town of Les Moulins, the riders will climb the category 2 Col des Mosses. The Col des Mosses is more lengthy than the previous climbs of this stage and lasts 13.8 kilometers. The gradient is not especially difficult and the Col des Mosses climbs at a gentle 4%. The col is a nice warm-up for the final climb of the day, but should not prove especially decisive. An ambitious general classification rider with team-mates up the road could make a move on the Col des Mosses, but it’s still a long ride to the finish. From the summit of the Col des Mosses, there remains 70 kilometers to race.

The course descends, passing through Aigle, and reaches its lowest point at Bex. From Bex at kilometer 161, it’s all uphill to the finish. The second, and final intermediate sprint comes at kilometer 181 in the town of Martigny. Just outside Martigny, the course climbs steadily to Villette-le-Châble where the final climb of day begins. Expect to see the major teams working hard on the way to Villette-le-Châble.

The climb to Verbier tops out at 1468 meters above sea level. It is rated a category 1, and is not a killer as mountain-top finishes go. This isn’t the Blockhaus or the Alpe d’Huez, but the constant climbing in this stage should take its toll. The slightly easier climb should make for hard racing, as the teams of the general classification favorites go all out to force a selection.

The climb to Verbier ascends 8.8 kilometers, and has an average gradient of 7.5%. The road is wide with good pavement and banked, sweeping corners. Look over the edge and watch Villette-le-Châble shrink in the distance the the climb gains elevation. The road switchbacks smoothly up the climb with panoramic views of the valley and the surrounding mountain peaks. There are few obvious spots to attack on this climb, because the gradient is mostly uniform. The tempo should be fast, though, as the favorites swoop through the switchbacks to the finish in Verbier.

Who to Watch

The general classification favorites will race today, because this stage offers one of only three mountain top finishes in this Tour. Watch for an early break to go on the Côte du Rafours or the Col des Étroits, and deep in the third week of this Tour, the general classification teams may let them ride. This stage suits a climber like David Moncoutié, who won a mountain stage of the Critérium Dauphiné Libéré from a long break and has two previous Tour stage victories to his credit. Riders like Igor Anton of Euskaltel-Euskadi, Rigoberto Uran of Caisse d’Épargne, Christophe Moreau of Agritubel, or Yury Trophimov of Bbox-Bouygues could also win this stage from a break.

Much depends on how the general classification battles plays out, of course. An ambitious and crafty general classification rider could make a play on the Col des Mosses, but it’s a long 70 kilometer ride between the summit of the climb and the finish in Verbiers. The smooth gradients of the final climb should favor the riders with strong teams who can set a fast tempo. Saxo Bank, Astana, and Rabobank should all find this stage to their liking. Watch for them to ride hard on the front of the Yellow Jersey group as the road begins to climb to Villette-le-Châble. There should be time gaps at the finish, though they may be small. This stage won’t likely decide the Tour, but it could help one of the climbers add to his advantage before the finale on Mont Ventoux.  — Gavia

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Gavia (updates to this preview will be made during the race and especially the day before the stage with current analysis)<-->