It wasn’t as explosive as some might have expected or desired, but the action today was certainly revealing. Here’s what we saw:
1. French housewives have a new hearthrob and his name is Brice Feillu. Svelte, handsome, a mountaintop winner in the Pyrennes, and the polka dot jersey to boot! Can you say Ree-chard Virenque? (Now teach your brother to climb; you needed to wait 28 minutes to celebrate with him.) He's also the first neo-pro to win a Tour stage since an American did it in 1993!
2. Italians have their first yellow jersey in nine years. Tifosi everywhere are celebrating. But how long will Nocentini keep it?
3. As for Astana, it’s now clear that they came to the race with perhaps the strongest team ever to take the line in the Tour. Three riders in the lead group, several more able to ride tempo and blow the race apart. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: it’s their race to lose.
First of all, we need to credit Lance with being a good teammate. He rode wheels and let Contador fly when the time was right.
But I’m not sure he had a choice. Watching Lance in the last few kilometers, he appears to have lost the killer acceleration that made him so terrific in the mountains. The power is there, but the alacrity with which he could leave his competitors seems to have diminished with age. Of course, I could be wrong. Lance might have been dutifully playing the role of dedicated teammate, confident in knowing that Contador was softening the competition for his own assault on yellow. But I'm not buying it. While Lance is definitely one of the strongest riders in the race, he’s a small step below his old self and his teammate. Podium and a stage? Yes. An 8th title? Nope.
And speaking of Contador, how about his acceleration? He rode clear past Jurgen Van Den Broeck and the moto! In the end, he only gained a handful of seconds, but the ease with which he broke free has to put fear in the hearts of the rest. With such talent and such a team, Contador is now the top favorite for victory.
One last thought before moving-on: are we discounting Levi Leipheimer? He's never struggled to follow the leaders, and he seems to have been given little responsibility to work--yet. Could he quietly ride his way onto the podium? Maybe the Giro was the best thing for him?
4. As for the rest of the lead group, credit Cadel Evans with at least trying to stir the pot. Too bad though, he just doesn’t seem to have it compared to Contador, nor does his team have an answer to Astana (although Van Den Broeck was nice to see at the front). Garmin rode exeptionally well with Wiggins and VDV both riding-in with the favorites. It will be very interesting to see if Wiggo can keep this up as the mountains continue.
Andy Schleck confirmed he's a top contender, but will need to attack as the race progresses. He appears to have an acceleration approaching Contador's; he’ll just need to turn his reactivity into proactivity. Brother Frank finished with him, boding well for the mountains to come.
5. As we suspected, Tony Martin seems to be Columbia’s most talented GC rider. He’s got a good grip on white, and never appeared in difficulty today. Columbia should put Kirchen, Momfort, and Rogers to work for him (he’s the best time trialist of the lot). Then they need to sign him to a long-term contract.
And Liquigas? A mixed bag. Nibali hung-in and now lies at 1:54; Kreuzinger lost a bit at the end and has slipped down to 2:40. To be honest, I thought the opposite would have been the case with Nibali slipping while Kreuziger hung tough. That said, there’s a lot left to race and Liquigas is a strong, but continually underrated team. I still see one of these two finishing on the podium—at least Top-5.
6. Are we missing anyone? Sastre and Menchov both hung-in well, unfortunately that’s not going to get them anywhere in this year’s race. Like so many others, they need to attack. Following wheels won't cut it. Karpets was there for Katusha, but does anyone take him seriously? Don't think so.
What about you? What do you see happening over the next two days? Is Lance conceding leadership or biding his time?
Share your thoughts with the rest of us.