Wow, what a stage. Happy Alpe Day indeed. What a week. For all the things that haven't been what we'd hoped this year, the Tour de France has saved the 2011 cycling season, and then some. Even Belgians will admit that this has been the best week of the year. And there's still one ultimate suffer-fest left to go. [Grinta: Italian for gritty, determined valor.]
Like a Swiss f'ing watch, I will be camping for tomorrow's finale. If the Gods of Cycling could send a phone signal to Darrington, Washington, I would be most grateful. Anyhow, a few thoughts to chew on from today's epic event...
- Despite losing several contenders to crashes, we are being treated to one of the closest finishes in Tour history. Even if Andy Schleck defies the odds and holds his 57" advantage over Cadel Evans, it would still mark the eighth-closest Tour in history. By my calculation Cadel is anywhere from 45-60" better than Andy on this course on a good day for both. That puts us into the range of the closest Tour ever, Greg LeMond's 8" victory in 1989. Nobody who saw it live can forget Fignon crumpling on the ground after completing his losing ride. Tomorrow we may well see another unforgettable moment. If Andy loses, well, he will be back. If Cadel loses, we're talking Greek tragedy.
[Someday I will buy a beer for Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport.]
- Predicting a winner based on past performances is virtually worthless. We all know Evans is generally good enough to pull back right about a minute. What matters far more tomorrow is who has more in the tank. I doubt we will get this story before Paris, but what hurts more, going on long attacks two consecutive days or pinning them back twice?
- Oh, and the score now stands Cadel 2, Panache 0. To be clear, this is not a criticism, particularly today where Cadel didn't calculate staying in the pack; he dropped back to it due to a mechanical. Anyway, I'm not a big armchair DS -- I figure these guys do what they think gives them the best chance to win. Cadel wins slowly and painfully; Andy grows wings and flies... for a while.
- Close Tours are a bit like the 2000 US elections -- you can point to dozens of incidents that seemed innocuous but eventually made all the difference. Stay tuned for a week or so of "remember when you watched that attack on stage 4? THAT WAS THE TOUR!" Andy will get the worst of it if he loses, since the conventional wisdom is that the Schlecks could have fought harder in the Pyrenees. Maybe... but then they didn't look so fantastic, and anyway Andy needed all his reserves for his adventures over the last two days. Hindsight says he wasn't aggressive earlier, but it also says he won on the Galibier. Evans, for his part, might get served a few helpings of regrets if he's the loser tomorrow, but I can't recall him dropping any time over the first two weeks.
- Please don't try to convince me that Frank has a chance of anything higher than third. The best you can say about him is that he has to fend off Voeckler (1.17 back of Frank) and Cunego (2.38 back). Oh, and I suppose Contador can put 3' into him if Frank isn't on his best form.
- The finish line pictures are truly stunning. No fresh-looking riders breezily checking their finish time. Pretty much everyone, especially the main combatants, is emptying themselves on the roads of the Tour. I'm not overly cynical to begin with, but to me this is the sport I love in its true form.
- OK, so who are you rooting for? The gritty, aging veteran who's on the verge of wiping out a decade of near misses and setting a precedent for his country? Or the dashing kid who's aiming to become the first modern winner from his speck of a country? Vote: