A radically different Tour De France, criticised by many for seemingly putting all its eggs in one basket on the penultimate stage, up the ferocious Mont Ventoux, suddenly rolled back the years and gave us a momentous day on the first alpine stage of this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s event.
Up until now the Tour de France – the pinnacle of the cycling season – was turning into a steady procession around the beautiful French countryside, with simply nothing to excite its millions of fans around the world.
The event had been dominated at the outset by the return of the prodigal son, Lance Armstrong, and his relationship in the Astana squad, alongside overwhelming race favourite Alberto Contador. Rumours of conspiracies inside the team were circulating day after day.
Would Armstrong flex his muscles with Director Sportif Johan Bruyneel, buddies since their days together at US Postal, allowing the Texan to be looked upon as number one rider within the squad receiving extra help from his old lieutenant Levi Leipheimer, and using his immense influence to ostracise the number one rider in the world Contador?
On stage seven that theory was blown out of the water as Contador was allowed to escape from the pack towards the Pyrenean summit of Andorre Arcalis. A show of strength from the Spaniard that sent a message to Armstrong reminding him just who was the boss of the team.
From a British point of view, the fastest sprinter in the world, Mark Cavendish, was looking to improve on his tally of four stage victories in last years race and perhaps become the first ever Briton to wear the coveted green points jersey into Paris. His personal goal remains to beat the record of eight stage wins by a British rider in the Tour, set by Barry Hoban in the late 60Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s.
On stage two Cavendish was already on his way to beating last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s haul with a supreme display of power sprinting, leaving the rest of the field trailing in his wake. As we head into the second rest day, his ambition to surpass Hoban is almost realised, with four victories to his name already and with a final day sprint into Paris looming, ‘Cav’ seems destined to realise his dream.
Unfortunately the authorities controversial decision to strip the Manxman of his points tally achieved on stage 14 citing Ã¢â‚¬Å“dangerous sprintingÃ¢â‚¬Â against his main rival for green, the veteran Norwegian Thor Hushovd, have seemingly ended any hope of him achieving that particular goal this time around.
Another Briton, David Millar provided one of the TourÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s magical moments in the opening week with a solo breakaway into Barcelona. A heroic effort saw the big Scot caught within one and a half kilometres of the finish, a truly magical ride that unfortunately only rewarded him with the dayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s combativity prize.
The remainder of the opening fortnight has passed pretty much with a minimum of fuss, none of the main protagonists seemingly bothered to take up the chase. The awesome power of team Astana at the head of the peloton keeping the race under control as we headed toward what seemed like the day of destiny at the summit of the Ventoux.
Amongst the peloton however another Briton, Bradley Wiggins, has been enjoying a remarkable Tour. Reports before the start of the race suggested he had shed seven kilos of weight and had focused his entire season on a good showing in the biggest race of all. Many observers baulked at such an idea that a rider, known for his amazing speed inside the velodrome, could contest a three week Grand Tour on some of the most unforgiving terrain on the planet.
Thankfully, Wiggins took no notice and remained comfortably inside the top 10 on general classification as we headed into the Pyrenees. Here was his big test and he silenced any critics by climbing to the summits alongside the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best, a stunning effort by the likeable Londoner. As the first day in the Alps came onto the horizon, Wiggins was sixth in the overall standings and in with a real possibility of a top 10 finish going into Paris in seven days time.
Stage 15 of the Tour finally gave us the drama we have come to associate with this event. As we entered the final climb of the day, an 8.8 kilometre assault to the summit of the Verbier in the Swiss Alps, the main contenders for the yellow jersey (and Wiggins) were closing in on a breakaway group that was realising the game was up for the day.
Suddenly Alberto Contador saw his chance, and with a ferocious display of power climbing, accelerated away from his nearest challengers including Lance Armstrong. If ever we needed a reminder of who is the number one bike rider in the world, this was it. Two kilometres later he had broken ArmstrongÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s resistance, only the Luxembourger Andy Schleck was able to respond to the SpaniardÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s awesome power.
Just behind, even more amazingly, was the sight of Wiggins attempting to cut the gap between himself and Schleck, as he also pulled away from Armstrong, who was wilting in the unforgiving heat. Contador finally arrived 43 seconds ahead of Schleck and amazingly 23 seconds later, an exultant Wiggins crossed the line in sixth place, a full 29 seconds ahead of Armstrong, what a performance.
A truly spectacular day had ended with Contador in the yellow jersey, one minute and 37 seconds in front of Armstrong, with Wiggins a further nine seconds back in third position.
The Tour has come alive and after MondayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rest day, if Wiggins can survive the following two days in the hills, ThursdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s individual time trial represents a great opportunity for him to cement a top three position. We would then have the very real possibility of a British rider standing on the podium in Paris for the very first time.
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BIOGRAPHY: Eric Bailly