Although the focus of the Tour de France is the final overall victory, whose outcome will likely not be known until the Bordeaux time trial on Saturday, there are many other races going on every day. Out of a total purse of $4.4 million (at current exchange rates), only $1.3 million is allocated to the final classification ($585,000 to the winner down to $520 for the last finisher), leaving some $3 million for all the other prizes and allocated team expenses.
So on Sunday, when the first round of the four-part punch-up in the Pyrénées was a tie between race leaders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador — and the 14 seconds they gave up to nearest challengers Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov was neither here nor there — perhaps more interesting were the battles raging behind them.
Of greatest significance was the continuing duel for the overall team classification between Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack squad and the Caisse d’Épargne team of Spanish leader Luis Leon Sanchez. There’s only a $65,000 prize for the Tour’s winning team, but an even greater incentive is the prestige of the whole team being presented with the award on the podium in Paris.
The team contest is scored like the individual classification with the accumulation of each day’s result. For the yellow jersey, it’s just the one rider’s time every stage. For the team race, it’s decided by adding the times of a team’s top three riders on each stage — which can be a different trio each day.
So, on a tough mountain stage like Sunday’s, a squad’s best three riders on the road in the closing kilometers have to race as hard as they possibly can, possibly harder than the top guys on GC, and try to finish ahead of their closest competitors on the rival team.
The intensity of the team race was clear on stage 14 when the day’s first break contained RadioShack’s Jani Brajkovic; rival Caisse d’Épargne immediately put Spanish national champion Ivan Gutierrez in a chase group to catch the frontrunners. But when Gutierrez slipped into a six-man counterattack and moved a half-minute ahead, RadioShack went to the front of the pack, closing the gap to 14 seconds before Gutierrez reluctantly sat up and waited.
That chase allowed four others — including eventual stage winner Christophe Riblon of AG2R — to jump across to the leaders to form the nine-man breakaway that gained 10 minutes in the next 50km before Team Astana (hoping that Contador would win the stage) pulled the peloton to within four minutes on reaching the day’s major climb, the hors-cat Port de Pailhères, with 45km left to race.
It was on this climb that two other races took shape. In front, Riblon made the move that eventually won him the stage (and its $10,400 prize); and behind, Anthony Charteau of BBox spurted ahead of the main peloton to claim eight extra KOM points to extend his narrow lead over French rival Jérôme Pineau of Quick Step in the best climber’s competition for the polka-dot jersey (which has $32,500 awaiting the winner in Paris).
At the same time, as the 166-strong peloton was being cut to about 30 riders on the 15km climb, the team race was in full swing. Caisse d’Épargne put its young Belarus rider Vasil Kiryienka into a chase group with Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) and Rafael Valls (Footon-Servetto), and then sent Christophe Moreau ahead before the summit. Meanwhile, three RadioShack men (Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden) matched two other Caisse d’Épargne riders (L.L. Sanchez and Ruben Plaza) in the main group that crossed the Pailhères summit almost three minutes behind Riblon.
The team-race battle would intensify on the difficult 8km climb to the finish at Ax-3 Domaines. Plaza was the first Caisse man to drop back, while The Shack’s Leipheimer and Caisse’s Sanchez were the only rivals to initially stick with the small Schleck-Contador group at the front.
The Caisse tactic of sending men ahead before this final climb paid off because Sanchez connected with Moreau to reach the finish line only nine seconds behind Leipheimer, while Kiryienka crossed 14 seconds later. The Shack’s Horner was another 10 seconds adrift after helping teammate Klöden on the latter part of the climb.
Klöden avoided a potential disaster when he mistakenly veered right where the team cars were taking their mandatory diversion around the finish area, but the veteran German quickly realized his error and backtracked to latch onto a threesome led by Ivan Basso to finish only four seconds after Horner.
When the respective stage times for the three top riders from each team were added, Caisse took back 29 seconds back from Shack to go into the overall team lead with an eight-second advantage (it would have been just four seconds without Klöden’s small mistake).
If that tight contest wasn’t excitement enough, there was also a fierce fight between the contestants for the current 10th place on GC. Two of these candidates, Sastre and Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov were up the road with Leipheimer’s chase group, while Liquigas-Doimo’s Roman Kreuziger was dropped by the group containing the other top-10 hopefuls, Basso, Nicolas Roche (AG2R) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions).
This day’s fight was taken by a remarkably fresh Hesjedal, who jumped away from the others in the last 3km, gained 30 seconds on them, and caught Vinokourov before the line, just 11 seconds behind Sastre. So going into Monday’s second Pyrenean stage, the gaps between these six riders had narrowed to the following: 10. Basso; 11. Vinokourov, 12 seconds back; 12. Kreuziger, at 19 seconds; 13. Hesjedal, at 25 seconds; 14. Roche, at 1:11; 15. Sastre, at 1:23.
That tight top-10 battle will continue through the Pyrénées this week, as will the ongoing duels for the team and best climber’s prizes. The one classification that saw no major changes Sunday was the one for the sprinter’s green jersey. All the top candidates arrived together at the Ax-3 Domaines summit, almost 37 minutes behind stage winner Riblon, a comfortable seven minutes inside the stage’s 15-percent time limit.
But to finish with the 59-man gruppetto on such a tough stage is no mean feat. Even though they’re not in the headlines until the Tour returns to the plains on Friday, the sprinters have to ride almost as hard as those up front, sometimes harder.
The Tour de France indeed is a race of many different contests.