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Return to Racing.
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 racing.

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 prince.

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 strongest.

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 to ripple.

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.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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