Ugly, rainy weather greeted the Tour for its first day in the Alps, where the overall champion will most likely be decided after three hard days of racing culminating with the legendary ascent of the 21 hairpins of l'Alpe d'Huez. The riders were understandably apprehensive given the pouring rain and thunderclaps. Team Garmin-Chipotle director Jonathan Vaughters agreed that this was a day that it was better to have been a pro than be a pro.
In between raindrops I wandered around the start village and team buses before the start of the stage from Embrun to Prato Nevoso talking to the team personnel and riders, trying to discover what lay ahead for the racers.
Jonathan Vaughters had a simple explanation of how the Alps would play out. "Everyone is so interested in the tactics on mountain stages. There are no tactics on mountain stages. On mountain stages your legs go or they don't. Tactics are for a week ago. Now we are into either you have horsepower or you don't." Regarding the final climb to Prato Nevoso, he commented, "It is not as selective as Huatacam; not as selective as Alpe d'Huez so I don't know. I think there will be a small group come to the line with the favorites in it."
Of course, everyone wanted to know how his star rider, Christian Vandevelde, is doing "Good. Yesterday he said that with 400 meters to go he was 'I almost attacked. I should have done it and tried to win the stage.. Anytime you have a guy like Christian who is not normally very explosive at all for a sprint finish thinking about sprinting just because why not, he's there, that means he's feeling good."
Power guru Dr. Allen Lim gave the scientific angle to the alpine stages. "They have only done about 30% of the real climbing kilometers. There is 70% of critical climbing kilometers still left in the race so it is hard to say how his numbers are looking. He has been riding with the GC contenders and that is great, about 5.5 to 5.9 watts/kg on climbs longer than 10 minutes. That's right where he needs to be if he can sustain that I think he has a good chance."
Remarking about the position the Garmin-Chipotle finds itself in with Vandevelde in a podium position, "Oh yeah, we are all nervous. But that's OK. He's(Vandevelde) got a handle on it."
The big news of the day was the abandon of Mark Cavendish. Team Columbia PR director Kristy Scrymgeour noted that Mark had already ridden and finished one grand tour this year, the Giro d'Italia, and at 23 he is still very young. Team management was responsible for making the decision who then convinced Mark that it was the right thing to do. There was a huge media scrum on the Team Columbia bus as Cavendish fielded questions, for the last time before heading to the Olympics where he is the odds on favorite to win the gold medal on the track in the Madison event where he will be partnered with his Team Columbia mate Bradley Wiggins.
After the scrum, I chatted briefly with Mark about his incredible performance at this year's Tour. "I rode my first Tour last year. I didn't get any results last year, but I was able to come back and know exactly how the Tour worked. I was able to use that to my advantage and with a strong team it worked out perfectly."
Mark's four stage wins were very convincing, sometimes winning by five or more bike lengths. I asked him if the ease of his wins was a surprise. "No I wasn't surprised by it. I have been doing it all year, more like the past 18 months, by that much. I am 2-3kph faster than anyone else. It is just a matter of getting there, getting your tactical things right and getting a strong team behind you to put you in that position and that is what happened."
On the Pyreneean stage to Huatacam, Fabian 'Spartacus' Cancellara of Team CSC Saxo Bank hauled himself over the Tourmalet in the lead group. It was an amazing performance by a rider who is gravitationally-challenged in the big mountains. "I had a good day and I followed the tactics of the team and everything was fine. We see today but, maybe it won't be the same as the Tourmalet," explains the Swiss rider.
Cancellara was not impressed by the inclement weather. "Yesterday we had a lot of sun and today, ugh(pointing to the rain pouring down) we have to see if we have snow. Bad weather in the beginning; hopefully we will have good weather for the end."
The two time World Time Trial Champion outlined the race strategy for Team CSC Saxo Bank. "It depends on how the race develops. Maybe if some breakaways go, but otherwise we will stay quiet then see for Frank and Carlos on the last climb."
Fabian's teammate Jens Voigt echoed the strategy for the day's stage, "Maybe on the last climb we are going to try to do something. Of course we are going to try to get this one second back. On the last climb we will take our responsibility for this race and try to make it up."
What an exciting finale on both ends of the race. First, there was Danny Pate atempting to win Garmin-Chipotle's first stage of the Tour. Then there was the battle royale amongst all the favorites. I just love it when a rider gets dropped then claws his way back into contention. Andy Schleck seemed to have nine lives on the slopes of Prato Nevoso and was a big part of his brother, Frank, taking yellow.
Chapeau to Rabobank's Denis Menchov for getting right back up from a very unfortunate crash on greasy pavement right as he was launching a very promising attack. That's bike racing, but aggressive efforts should bring positive not negative rewards.
If you are wondering who the Gerlosteiner rider Bernard Kohl is, rewind back to the inaugural Tour of California in 2006 when he was riding for T-Mobile and ascended the fearsome Sierra Road climb in the lead group with eventual overall winner Levi Leipheimer.
In his post race interview Frank Schleck said the yellow jersey was the result of the work of a great team and his brother and Carlos Sastre on the final climb. After watching Team CSC Saxo Bank drill it on the flats to the base of Prato Nevoso it is hard to disagree. When asked who is the team leader, Frank replied that the team still has two leaders himself and Carlos Sastre.
Caisse d'Epargne rider Oscar Perriero suffered a horrific crash on the descent of the Col de Agnello. He literally fell over the guard rail on one switchback and ended up on the road in the next switchback after a total fall of almost 20 feet.