LAVAUR, France (VN) — It was raining at the start of Wednesday’s stage 11 in Blaye-les-Mines, a down-on-its-luck coal-mining town on the southern edge of the Massif Central. Riders stayed in their team buses as long as possible. Some ventured outside to give hurried interviews in the shelter of their bus’s canopy or a journalist’s umbrella.
“Same old shit,” said Tuesday’s stage winner André “The Gorilla” Greipel of Omega-Pharma. He was referring to the sixth consecutive rainy stage, though maybe he hoped that at the end of the day in Lavaur his comment might apply to one more victory over arch rival Mark “Manx Missile” Cavendish of HTC-Highroad.
The other sprinter with pretensions of winning the stage was Tyler Farrar, who’s too polite to have a nickname. His teammates call him Ty, but one Aussie associate suggested “the fastest ’ranga in the world” in reference to Farrar’s shock of red (or orange) hair. After Farrar won the Fourth of July stage in Redon, an American fan suggested “the Flying Ty-ger.”
In last-minute adjustments Tuesday, KOM leader Johny “Barbed Wire” Hoogerland had a Mavic wrench tighten his cleats, and Garmin team man Julian Dean got his mechanic to lower his tire pressures a touch to 8 bar.
When we asked Garmin general manager Jonathan Vaughters about his team’s plan for the day, he declined specifics, but simply said, “It’s Belgian weather, so it’s good for guys from Belgium.” And Farrar, of course, lives in Ghent in the heart of Flanders.
The rain was easing off as the 177 survivors set off on their 167.5km, S-shaped loop to Lavaur, that’s less than 50km away as the crow flies, but heavy showers soon returned. And though there was a 90-minute respite from the rain in the middle of the afternoon, it returned with a vengeance in the last 10km, along with winds gusting from the left of the peloton.
That wind was at the racers backs as they headed southeast on the middle section of the course, which helped the peloton cover more than 47km of undulating roads in the second hour. The day’s early six-man break was being held at a fluctuating three-minute margin, with the majority of the work being done by the strongest team workers, notably Sebastian Lang of Omega-Lotto, Danny Pate and Lars Bak of HTC and Ramunas Navardauskas and Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin.
HTC has only been doing this type of tempo work on the handful of stages that Cavendish or teammate Matt Goss have had a chance of winning. Garmin has done the same for Farrar, but also had to perform even longer and harder work for the seven straight days that their Thor Hushovd wore the yellow jersey.
On the harder sections Wednesday, including the 4km-long Puylaurens climb, it was Hesjedal who was pulling the pack at a relentless speed, halving the break’s three-minute lead before the 30km-to-go marker. The rangy Canadian was despondent on Tuesday after being dropped on stage 10’s last hill with 15km to race. “I’m just experiencing really bad legs,” he told VeloNews. “I can’t remember my legs have ever felt this bad. So it can only come up from here.”
Showing his admiration for Hesjedal and his other teammates, Farrar later said, “I think as a team we’re riding an amazing Tour de France. And Ryder went down quite hard four or five days ago so it looks like this is a good sign that it’s starting to come back around for him.” Indeed, the effort he put in Wednesday showed that Hesjedal is coming around and he may be able to help his healthier teammates Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde in the climbing stages ahead.
As the team workers eased back into the 132-strong peloton heading into town on a long straightaway into Lavaur after reeling in the last of the breakaways, the final sprint did indeed involve Farrar, Greipel and Cavendish.
Entering the final kilometer, it looked as if the Manx Missile was going to have a simple path to the win as Mark Renshaw took up the pacer’s role from team locomotive Tony Martin; but then, with 600 meters to go, Cavendish said his shoe bumped against Frenchman Roman Feillu’s wheel and the buckle sprang loose — and he had to quickly clasp it shut before following Renshaw’s lead-out.
Meanwhile, Farrar said he and lead-out rider Julian Dean misjudged Garmin’s lead-out.
“It was such a long straight you could see (the finish banner) from so far out you thought you were closer than you were,” Farrar said. “We got nervous and jumped just a little too early. If we’d waited a little bit longer it would have been OK. But we misjudged it and came 100 meters short on the lead-out.”
“And so they (Cavendish and Greipel) were able to come over us in the last 500 meters. But, no, there wasn’t much wind in the end really. Just a lot of rain.”
Losing, as Cavendish did to Greipel on Tuesday, is often a good medicine. And HTC didn’t want to take a second defeat in two days, knowing that this Tour has only two more possible sprint stages.
And Renshaw said that if he hadn’t have been dropped on stage 10’s final little hill that Cavendish would have won in Carmaux, too. “I’m sure if I would have been there for Cav, he wouldn’t have lost to André Greipel,” said the fast Aussie. “But it’s hard to be good every day, especially in the Tour de France. So I’m glad that we made amends today. We used the whole team, all our resources to win.”
Now Cavendish, Greipel and Farrar have to go into survival mode for the next three stages, hoping they don’t get eliminated in the mountains before they can renew their rivalry on Sunday’s stage into Montpellier. They’ll also be hoping it doesn’t rain again.