Friday 20 July 2012

Tour de France 2012: Stage 18 Blagnac to Brive la Gaillarde

Yesterday was the stage that the contenders were meant to take on Bradley Wiggins and his Sky Train.

Only Vincenzo Nibali's team of Liquigas-Cannondale can have been charged with attempting that. From the slopes of the penultimate mountain of this year's Tour, Port de Balès, their men were on the front setting the pace. There was just one issue, behind them Wiggins had four men including Chris Froome looking after him. One of who was Richie Porte who along with Mark Cavendish had crashed in the feed zone just before the climb got under way and who had to change bikes as a result.

Up ahead there was a breakaway that included Thomas Voeckler (EUC) and Fedrik Kessiakoff (AST) who were the two men contending for the the King of the Mountains. In each of the first three climbs the result was the same Voeckler to the top first with Kessiakoff second. at the top of Port de Balès while they were no longer in the lead it was the two of them again who made a move from their group but Voeckler was again in the lead. As they climbed the Peyresourde down roads Voeckler descended alone to victory yesterday the main group picked them both up and threw them out the back. But by then we already knew one thing. With a maximum of 7 points left Voeckler had secured the King of the Mountains 134 points to 123. I reckon those two still have one more battle between them to be the combative rider of the Tour.

Froome still waiting for Wiggins while Valvarde survives
The man who had taken the summit of Port de Balès was Alejandro Valvarde (MOV) who had been given his head being so far down on GC. On his return to Tour he lifted himself to win Movistar's second Tour de France stage as a title team.

But as we climbed the Peyresourde we lost Cadel Evans once again, and Nibali looked to be struggling near the top. Lotto Belisol tried on the final climb up to Peyragudes to get Jurgen van den Broeck up the road but they were having none of it, then the yellow Jersey took to the front bringing Chris Froome with him. One by one those left were dropped, Nibali, Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Pierre Rolland (EUC) and van den Broeck. Then there were two! Froome and Wiggins. Froome kept waiting for Wiggins and if anything looked like the only man that could have been a threat to the Maillot Jaune yet again.

The question of whether 'they' could catch Valverde ended in the negative as they came in 19 seconds down, with Pinot recovered to just three seconds behind them. But if Froome had been allowed to go he may well have taken the stage, but Nibali who did recover his legs may well have taken some time though not enough for the lead out of the Maillot Jaune. In the end he lost a further 18 on the men from Sky.

Today's stage is a true transition stage as we head away from the Pyrénées into the heart of Frane. There are mountains points up for grabs, but that will not affect the King of the Mountains, that has been won by Thomas Voeckler with Fredrik Kessiakoff second. There are 20 points up for grabs in the intermediate sprint. But the break away should get it and even if André Greipel were to go for them today and in Paris, Peter Sagan would only have to mark him and come among the point scorers which is a doable task.

So the only focus of today is the sprint at the end. We have lost a number of sprinters over the last 2½ weeks. But one hasn't won since stage 2. His team have more or less acheived their main goal. He wants to test his legs today and in Paris ahead of the Olympics road race in London. Therefore I think that Sagan and Greipel will have a certain Manxman looking to equal a piece of history in Brive la Gaillarde. The Sky train could in escorting Bradley Wiggins to safety also help to lead out the World Champion. If he wins today he would equal the sprint wins of André Darrigade, which could lead to Mark Cavendish bettering that record in Paris if he wins that for the fourth year on the trot. 

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