|The Split. Photo credit: Cyclingtips.com.au|
Mark Cavendish won his 25th stage of Le Tour de France today. He's a quarter of a C-note deep in top steppers although he's having to work harder for them these days. It was a chaotic finish to a chaotic stage and the Manx Missile made a great move to chase down Cannondale's Maciej Bodnar who was himself chasing down Cavendish's own teammate Niki Terpstra; and easily pulled away from the ever present Peter Sagan who gained his 7th podium of this tour. On any other day that would have been the story, Cavendish winning his second stage and quieting the growing rumble that is saying Kittel - and not himself - is the best sprinter in the world. On any other day it would have been, except today was not any other day and it wasn't a story...not by a longshot.
No, the story today was about some of the most aggressive team riding the tour has seen this year, and maybe in a few years. I can't remember a more brutal flat, wind riddled stage since 2008 when Lance Armstrong worked like a boss to distance his main competition...who just so happened to be his teammate Alberto Contador. Contador would again be part of the story today, only this time he was the aggressor, and there would be no debating whether or not it was the right move, because he wasn't working against his own team, he was working against the number one squad in the world - Team Sky.
It was a brilliant piece of tactical cycling that took place at the perfect moment. It was with approximately 31 km to go, long after the first fissures had started to show in a peloton that had been made fragile by some of the most brutal canicule crosswinds the tour has seen this year. The battles had started nearly 70 km earlier when the first breaks started to form. Valverde and Kittel among others were already in danger and working hard to catch back up to a break about 1/3rd the size of the peloton. Then Valverde punctured and his day (and his GC hopes) were done. The lead group which contained most of the Saxo, OPQS, Cannondale and Sky teams smelled blood in the water and attacked. for the next 60 plus km they formed hard working echelons which accordioned across the roads and created a multi minute split between the groups.
Then when they sensed a relaxation in the lead pack, Contador and his Saxo Tinkoff boys attacked with a ferocity that was stunning. This time they had Belkin and OPQS there to help and they quickly distanced the now shrunken and hobbled Team Sky group still battling to maintain contact with 14 leaders. Sky had started the day with only seven riders and by this time had seen 2 miss the cut leaving only British strong man Stannard, Thomas and his pesky pelvis , Suitsou and Kennagh there to work for Froome. They fought valiantly and kept the lead at around 10 seconds for the first 10km. With no other teams willing to help however, the leaders pulled away and left Froome resigned to his fate and a loss on the day of over a minute. He maintains a 2:25 lead over second place - now filled by Contador. Still a large lead and one that should hold up through the mountains...but you never know.
Valverde was the big loser today (did I say big? I meant monumental) losing nearly 10 minutes to the leader and over 8 to the yellow jersey. That is a perfect example of how brutally fast today's racing was. Dirty was in a group of FIFTY riders who all lost that much time to the lead pack on a stage flatter than a pancake...and they weren't even last! I've said it before and I'll say it again; these sprint stages are anything but rest days on wheels until they last few km before the sprint. For riders they can be some of the most hardcore days in the saddle...and can mean the difference between gaining or losing a lot of time, and a lot of places. For fans they can be some of the most exciting few hours of racing we'll ever see.