Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon, 197 km (122.4 mi)
It took four mountains worth of effort, but Thomas Voecker took the win and the mountains jersey. Photograph: AFP
Once again it was a race of two parts. Part one was the battle involving those who are not a threat to the general classification and allowed to go off the front early and entertain; the other part is the battle involving the Yellow jersey. As has been the case since Brad Wiggins took Yellow back on stage 7 and cemented his lead at the time-trial two days later, this battle has become a real damp squid, so thank goodness for the entertainment put on by stage winner, Thomas Voeckler.
Voeckler got into a huge break early on the stage that went over the first of the days four big climbs — the Col d’Aubisque — together. They were barely onto the slopes of the Tourmalet — the days biggest climb — when the pace went up and the group began to splinter. Eventually just a handful of men were left including Voeckler; the leader of the mountains classification jersey, Fredrik Kessiakoff; the chief pace setter responsible for fragmenting the group, Dan Martin; and a pair of old-boys, Jens Voigt and George Hincapie, among others.
Voeckler claimed he wasn’t out to get the polka-dot jersey, but he clearly wasn’t being entirely truthful for over the course of the day he would pick up maximum points on every single climb. It was on the Tourmalet, with Martin looking like he had given way to much way to soon, that Voeckler made his decisive move … one that only Brice Feillu could match as he moved clear of the rest. The pair went over the Col d’Aspin together, and on the day’s final climb, the Col de Peyresourde, Voeckler kicked again and went clear. He wouldn’t be seen again. Feillu cracked as a chase containing Alexandr Vinokourov, Gorka Izaguirre and Chris Anker Sörensen moved past. Sörensen eventually went on alone but was never going to get close to the Frenchman who rode himself into the King of the Mountains prize and to his second stage victory of this Tour … not a bad consolation at all for missing out on this year’s GC battle.
That King of the Mountains prize looks like it’s going to have a more dramatic conclusion than the race for Yellow. Once he realised he wasn’t going to better Voeckler today, Kessiakoff, backed right off finishing 14-17 behind his new rival, making me wonder if he was saving himself for a renewed effort tomorrow. Just 4 points stand between the pair as Voeckler looks to become the first French winner of the mountains jersey since Richard Virenque in 2004.
Further down the road in that fading GC battle, Sky were controlling things and nobody was doing what Vockler had been. The Tourmalet, while far from the finish, still should have been the spring board to really split open the race and test the Sky legs. Isolate Wiggins and Froome and see if they might crack over the final two climbs. The worst someone might do is crack themselves and slip a few places back in the standings, but who really remembers the best of the rest anyway?
Sky kept up a relentless pace allowing Liquigas to come through later on. The high pressure took its toll on Cadel Evans who displayed why he was unable to do any attacking. He cracked and lost some big time (4-47 to Wiggins) including his chance of a podium finish as he slipped to 7th overall. It was a sad sight to see the defending champion like that, though it has to be remembered that Evans at 35-years of age would have been the second oldest man to ever win the Tour had he done it this year, so perhaps it was all just one year too much for the Australian. He can take satisfaction that he got that Tour victory in before it was too late.
Nobody budged off the front of that Yellow jersey group until halfway up the Peyresourde when finally Vincenzo Nibali put in a dig showing why his Liquigas team had taken up the lead. The move forced Froome and Wiggins to go with him leaving everyone else behind. It was clear now that only Nibali had the legs, and even then the Sky duo could match it. Only Nibali could test them but clearly he couldn’t do it any earlier for as they went over the top of that last climb it was Nibali who looked to be on his limit having kicked once more only to find Wiggins right behind him.
Good for Team Sky though … their tactics have been absolutely perfect. Yes it’s bad for us watching on the television hoping for a dramatic battle with climbers hammering those desperate for Saturday’s time-trial, but Sky are out to win the race, not let others go up the road for our entertainment. It may not make for great racing, but it’s the tactic that works and if they finish this Tour with two men on the top two steps of the podium then they were right to employ it.
I guess we can’t expect a classic every year. The scenario of last year in which Cadel Evans came into the final time-trial with a defecit to Andy Schleck who had put the hurt on through the final mountain stages, was exactly what we wanted again this time up, but unlike a movie or a stage show, the Tour de France, like all live sport, isn’t scripted, and sometimes you don’t get what you want.
Is it a good thing that the only coverage we got of the Tour de France between 1991 and 1995 was half hour highlights on Channel 4 in the UK? I ask this because what we’re seeing here in 2012 with live coverage for hours on end, is kind of what we got during those years when Miguel Indurain would dominate the time-trial and then mark his rivals the rest of the way. Or even more so, because this Sky team looks stronger than any of those Banesto teams when Indurain had to do a lot of the work himself without the shelter of the backwheel of a Richie Porte or Chris Froome.
Which bodes the question: Is this what you have to accept and expect from a cleaner sport?
It looks like it and we seen hints of it last year also. Gone are the days of a Marco Pantani style attack in which nobody stands a chance and from which he continues to power up a climb with no chance to those who prefer to pace themselves back onto him. Nibali may have had an Alberto Contador turn of pace, but he couldn’t sustain it, and Sky knew it. All they had to do was keep their rhythmn and close the gap. If that’s not what you wanted then maybe you shouldn’t have shouted so loud for the UCI to push through a suspension to Contador for it would have been interesting to see how he went about today differently — assuming, of course, that he was doing it clean.
But there’s always tomorrow and it has a tough finish to it, so don’t rule out one last effort, though it looks as though only Nibali stands capable of putting it in.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“Worried? Not really, to be honest. Yeah, it was hard at the end of a long day, it hurts, but Brad and I both know they weren’t really going anywhere. We were quite within ourselves there at the end.” — Chris Froome puts the boot into the attacks of Vincenzo Nibali
STAGE 16 RESULT
1. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Europcar in 5-35-02
2. Chris Anker Sorensen (Den) Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank at 1-40
3. Gorka Iziguirre (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 3-22
4. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana at st
5. Brice Feillu (Fra) Saur-Sojasun at 4-06
6. Jens Voigt (Ger) RadioShack-Nissan at 4-18
11. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 7-09
12. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Team Sky
13. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky all at st.
35. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 11-56
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION AFTER STAGE 16
1. Bradley Wiggins (GBr) Team Sky in 74-15-32
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Team Sky at 2-05
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale at 2-23
4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) Lotto-Belisol at 5-46
5. Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) RadioShack-Nissan at 7-13
6. Tejay Van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing at 7-55
7. Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing at 8-06
8. Janez Brajkovic (Slo) Astana at 9-09
9. Pierre Rolland (Fra) Europcar at 10-10
10. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) FDJ-Big Mat at 11-43
11. Nicolas Roche (Irl) Ag2r La Mondiale at 11-47
As we all know Frank Schleck didn’t start the day, while three men failed to finish it. They were Grega Bole of Lampre, Jan Ghyselinck of Cofidis and Vladimir Gusev of Katusha. That brings the field down to 152 men, with 46 — or 23 percent of the 198 starters — having left.