By Tom Demerly.
This Tour de France has been a novel one. Racing
is back. The return of Lance Armstrong, bringing sensation to
the race; the return of the team trial on a course that seemed
to grate away the less experienced teams and “filter”
out the true favorites; there is the elimination of time bonuses
for finish places and at intermediate sprints. All this refreshment
and we are only half way through our first week. Add to this
an inspiring solo win by Thomas Voeckler today on a stage thought
to be consigned to the sprinters and we have a return to true
Voeckler is no stranger to the long solo move.
He made a name for himself five years ago when he dared a similar
solo move and landed the yellow jersey. He endeared himself
to French fans and the world by struggling mightily in the lower
foothills of the mountains to try to hold on to the jersey.
The French love the demi-hero, and Voeckler, who wears the blue,
white and red trim of a French National Champion, is a worthy
Today was guessed to be another day for the bunch
sprint. The guess was wrong. The kink in the stage was the kilometers
raced along the coast. Crosswinds sliced the group into angled
lines against the maritime gale. These echelons boggle the normal
order of a field sprint finish. That, combined with Voeckler’s
daring initiative early in the race, made for a novel day, one
of several in this year’s Tour. Voeckler is a man of initiative
and daring. That seems to be a spirit that pervades this year’s
Tour de France.
The two themes to this year’s Tour are the
pleasant competitive surprises and a return to what feels like
genuine racing. The controversy so far is over who is truly
On Thursday the Tour makes its southernmost incursion
on the European continent to Barcelona. The stage is serrated
with nasty climbs during the back half making a nervous night
for sprint favorite Mark Cavendish. While Cavendish will be
hungry for another stage victory on Thursday this will not go
down easily to the sprinters because of its coastal proximity
(wind again) and the climbing in the back half. If Cavendish
prevails again tomorrow he will prove his mettle as something
special- something beyond the Cippolini-esque specialty sprinter
who sniped on the flat stages but cowered when the roads began
Speaking of Cavendish, he goes to survival mode
on Friday as the race makes an abrupt transition to a titanic
mountain top finish at Andorre Arcalis. The climb up to Andorre
at 7,349 feet is about as difficult a transition from these
early coastal stages as the Tour organization could arrange.
It is a tortuous assault on the riders and a day sure to fill
the “broom wagon”, the van that trails the race
collecting riders who have abandoned. This stage has been pivotal
in the Tour before. It is a steep enough, long enough, isolated
enough climb to draw the real favorites out. There has been
debate about the significance of the team trial result, questions
about the form of the returning Armstrong. Has he succeeded
so far on guile or on fitness? We’ll know Friday. No one
can fake it on the way to Andorre.
So, it would appear we have our race back-
our Tour de France. There have been surprises, there is inspiration
and there is a brand of suspense we haven’t felt in four
years or more. As the Tour de France heads into only the back
half of its first week there is so much to savor.