The Standoff Is Underway

Jul 13 2009

adnryThat’s really the only way to put it. Frank Schleck put a few pedal strokes into it on Saturday, but other than that, the GC remained tame. While I can’t say I’m excited about it, after the first seven stages, I can’t say I’m disappointed either. Things had to settle in at some point, and with dangerously hilly stages—but no hilltop finishes—until after the first rest day, this weekend seemed like as good a time as any for peace to break out.

Many have commented that the French are retaking the Tour this year, with three French stage winners, a French team holding the yellow jersey, and two wins for the much maligned (at least by this author) Bbox Telecom team. But I’d say it’s more that the French have been opportunistically feeding off a GC deadlock between Astana, SaxoBank, and Astana (no typo there) and the reticence of a very powerful Columbia-Highroad squad to put in work on stages Mark Cavendish can’t win.

The French aren’t the only ones profiting off this. Thor Hushovd’s move for green is a case in point. The big Norweigan was an unlikely contender to slip away for a stage win over three categorized climbs (though he’s done it before), and obviously wasn’t looking much at collecting time. But by planting himself in a break with Evans and Cancellara, he virtually guaranteed that an Astana-led peloton would let the escapees linger just far enough ahead of the peloton that the Cervelo rider could collect points sprints essentially unmolested.

thordsAs a cute little ancillary benefit, the rest of his the Cervelo squad got to sit on and rest up for unleashing whatever it is that they and the reigning champ have planned for the final week. In case you hadn’t noticed, Sastre is a rider who likes to save all his punches for the final round.

Don’t expect SaxoBank to try and make a move until then, either—no reason to remove the burden of race leadership from Astana’s shoulders. Sure, Ag2r holds yellow and leads the peloton over the climbs, but with the pack 50-strong behind them over the Tourmalet, it’s not exactly Postal hauling the mail. When Andy Schleck make his brief, probing attack on Saturday, the yellow jersey was promptly dropped, and it was a train of Astana riders that hopped into his wake. With so many good cards to play, Bruyneel may not want to tip his hand so obviously in the future.

And in case you needed any more evidence that Astana was in charge here, Mr. We-Might-As-Well-Win has decided toredouble his efforts against the radio-free stages. Before it was just a tweet, and now there are whipsers of a riders’ strike. Need I remind anyone that tomorrow’s radio free-stgaeis also Bastille Day, which has been known to produce some chaotic racing?

Still, I’m guessing we’ll be sitting tight on the real GC fireworks until the final few stages. Until then, look to Cadel Evans to continue to shake things up (Astana will have to stop chasing at some point or risk isolating its contenders), and for the media to continue to milk the Lance v. Contador debate. Keep an eye peeled as well for teams taking inexplicable pulls and/or sitting up when they should chase. You might just see an alliance being forged that will pay big dividends in the race’s brutal final days.

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