Well, a big breakaway did develop on Friday’s stage 12, but only after the most ferocious opening to any stage of this year’s Tour de France. “The attacks were brutal during the first 13 miles,” Team RadioShack’s Chris Horner wrote in his blog, “and after that they were simply inhumane.”
Indeed, attack after attack came on the back roads rising into the Massif Central until the elastic finally broke and 18 men went clear. Among them were a number of riders who love racing aggressively, notably Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions, Alexander Vinokourov of Astana and Sandy Casar of FDJ.
This important move was in sharp contrast to Saturday’s traditional break by Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha, BBox’s Pierrick Fédrigo and Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, who also love to attack and were hoping for the peloton’s benevolence the day before this Tour returns to the high mountains. And they inevitably got caught before the finish in Revel.
Friday’s big break also faltered before the finish. But until its unfortunate demise it was this Tour’s most significant long-distance escape. Hesjedal, Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden (who snuck into the move to keep RadioShack in the hunt for the prestigious Tour’s team prize) were all in the top 20 overall. And that meant the Saxo Bank team had to race at the front for most of the remaining 150km to defend Andy Schleck’s yellow jersey.
Saxo’s Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady, Niki Sørensen and Jens Voigt are old hands at this type of high-speed chase — which is very different from the tempo riding needed to keep the next day’s “normal” breakaway in check; notably, in 2008, these four veteran team riders had to defend the yellow jerseys of Fränk Schleck and (eventual winner) Carlos Sastre.
They and their three younger teammates Matti Breschel, Jakob Fuglsang and Chris Anker Sørensen kept Friday’s 18-man break within a two- to three-minute margin, pulling the peloton in single file for kilometer after kilometer under another hot sun. The average speed for the 210.5km stage was a remarkable 42.310 kph despite the constantly undulating terrain.
The intensity of the pursuit for hour after hour can be best summarized by a quick review of some riders’ Twitter remarks at the end of the day: “Now that was a hard stage!! Good battle!” (Nicolas Roche of AG2R); “I’d dare to call it crazy, blitzkrieg hard.” (Brent Bookwalter of BMC Racing); “That was one helluva hard day,” (Lance Armstrong of RadioShack); “Dia muy duro hoy.” (Alberto Contador of Astana); “Tough fast stage here today.” (Cadel Evans of BMC Racing); and “Today’s stage was epic…” (Horner).
Hesjedal’s Garmin directeur sportif Matt White went as far as to say, “Today was the hardest day of the race yet.” He might well have been right. It certainly was a hard one for his stand-in team leader Hesjedal, who commented: “Gave it another go today! Almost caused some damage on the GC.”
Klöden had similar sentiments: “Today, long and hard stage … but the group has not worked well together.” It’s always hard to get as many as 18 riders to work together, and half of them made only token pulls, hoping they would have enough left in the tank for the day’s finale.
But the initiative was taken by Hesjedal, Vinokourov, Klöden and Caisse d’Épargne’s promising Belarus rider Vasil Kiryienka, who split from the other 14 with 50km to go. This quartet pulled away on a long uphill and gained time quickly. Within 8km of their counterattack, the four men had a lead of four minutes over the peloton. It was looking like they would indeed cause damage in the GC, especially with the Saxo men (except for Schleck) looking understandably weary.
Instead, on the wide main road leading into Mende, much of it downhill, other teams came to the head of the peloton. The few turns made by Liquigas and Omega-Lotto riders were understandable, defending the GC positions of their respective leaders Ivan Basso and Jurgen Van den Broeck; but there seemed to be no explanation for the huge efforts being made by three Cervélo riders who came to the front.
They had reason to be riding for their sprinter Thor Hushovd because the finish was at the top of this Tour’s steepest hill, the 3.1km Montée Laurent Jalabert. And it wasn’t a climb that would suit their GC leader, Sastre. The only possible explanation was that Sastre was repaying a debt to the Saxo riders — he certainly wouldn’t have won the 2008 Tour if it hadn’t been for his then CSC teammates, Cancellara, Schleck, et cetera.
In any case, the gap closed to 36 seconds in the center of medieval Mende, which marks the start of the vicious climb up to the Croix Neuve plateau. Hesjedal, who’d done most of the work in this excellent break, was the first to drop back. Klöden, whose efforts helped RadioShack take over the team leadership, was next.
Vinokourov was the last to be passed — by his own teammate Contador, who marked an attack by eventual stage winner Joaquin Rodriguez. By a twist of fate, Vinokourov was able to benefit from the work of others 24 hours later.
The Flecha-Fédrigo-Chavanel breakaway gained five minutes over a pack led by tempo-riding Saxo Bank before the sprinters’ team took up the job of closing down the trio 12km from the line. But the sprinters didn’t get the win. Vinokourov followed strong attacks on the St. Ferréol hill by BMC’s Alessandro Ballan, AG2R’s Roche, Quick Step’s Carlos Barredo and Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, before the controversial Kazakh shot clear and held off the peloton in a 7km solo, much of it into the wind.
Breakaways are the essence of the Tour. Let’s hope the riders, like Hesjedal, who don’t always get an ultimate benefit from their efforts, are not discouraged. Without them, this Tour would lose an element that makes this race so exciting and not always predictable.