Friday 23 February 2018

Leaders fail to ignite race

Brendan Gallagher , on Plateau de Beille

Bradley Wiggins must be cursing. Not only was he in the shape to do something special in the Tour de France but the general classification battle has developed into a grinding tactical stalemate between reluctant galacticos that would have played into his hands beautifully.

Barring something truly spectacular in the Alps, this Tour will now probably be decided at Saturday's individual time-trial in Grenoble where Wiggins would have happily ripped into everybody currently in the top 10.

Alas, he will be at home in Lancashire on a training ride feeling his way back after having his broken collarbone operated earlier this week.

To underline the point, his Sky subordinate Rigoberto Uran, a tough Colombian hired to ride shotgun with Wiggins through the mountains, was strong enough when let off the leash yesterday to finish fifth in the toughest Pyrenean stage in a few years, a magnificent ride which earned him the white jersey for the leading rider under 25 in the GC.

Uran now stands 11th overall and securing a top 10 place for him will become a strong focus for Sky in a testing final week.

Despite the setback of losing Wiggins, Sky have continued to ride with panache and guts ever since with Geraint Thomas a force most days and Edvald Boasson Hagen working hard. But it could have been even better. If Thomas Voeckler can easily hang on to yellow in the high mountains -- as he did on Saturday-- Wiggins would have undoubtedly thrived as well.

This Tour has been spectacular and exhilarating in every way save for the GC contest, which again failed to ignite in the glorious setting of Plateau de Beille, where the winner on the four previous summit finishes has won the Tour itself.

With all due respect to the splendid Jelle Vanendert, yesterday's winner, that will not be the case this year. The trouble is this: Andy and Frank Schleck, by dint of Alberto Contador's misfortune in the first stage, are in the driving seat and playing a defensive game.

Frank is 2min 11secs ahead of Contador and Andy 1min 45 secs. It's a canny but dangerous gameplan, not least because Cadel Evans could be the biggest danger of all.

Contador is biding his time. Not quite in the form he showed at the Giro in May, he also suffered soft tissue damage to his knee on stage 5. He needs to hit back with one big effort, and he can only do that if he is confident with his knee.

If the Schlecks were his only worry he would back himself, but Evans is a good time-triallist so at some stage in the Alps he may have to have a go.

In the meantime it's stalemate and the biggest beneficiary is Voeckler, the popular French all-rounder who fully expected to be relieved of the yellow jersey the moment the peloton reached the Pyrenees on Thursday. Yet here we are heading towards the Alps and Paris and he is still 1min 49secs ahead of Frank Schleck in second. He couldn't, could he?

Today the attention switches briefly to the sprinters and probably their final burn up before the Champs Elysees, although Tuesday's run to Gap might also interest them.

Mark Cavendish, who was safely seen home by Bernie Eisel within the time limit, leads Jose Rojas by 13 points and Philippe Gilbert by 24 and could do with a maximum 45 for winning the stage from Limoux to Montpellier.

In contrast to the GC contenders the green jersey guys have been going at it hammer and tongs although it remains to be seen if even they consider it worthwhile putting in an extra burst in today's Intermediate sprint which is just 45km from the finish.

Nicolas Roche's top 10 aspirations took a massive hit as he finished 33rd in yesterday's stage to drop from 11th to 18th in the overall standings. His chance went when he fell away on the final ascent to Plateau de Beille.


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