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Great Tour de France Third Weeks (of My Lifetime)

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Are we about to add one to the list?

Sastre makes key 2008 move
Sastre makes key 2008 move
Lars Ronbog, Getty

The third week of the Tour de France is supposed to be when it all happens. It's when attention in the race hits its peak, and nobody wants to fail by running out of gas two or three stages before Paris. It's the most painful way to go. By contrast, it's also the most memorable way to win. Every year someone takes the yellow jersey for good, but if they do it in the third week they get the word "heroic" attached to the feat. The organizers don't always put the hardest stages there, like the Giro, but often enough it's the case, and even if not there can still be some great racing.

The hope for this Tour de France is that we will see some of the same. If you are a Chris Froome fan, you're certainly liking what you see, but can't be completely satisfied with a win built on some small attacks and a juror's decision. You want him to stamp his authority on the race in a way that he only technically has so far. If you are more of a Mollema or Yates or Quintana guy, you're looking for things to get cRaZy over the next few days. The potential is there in terms of stages. Now it's up to the protagonists.

For reference's sake, here's one person's take on what a great third week can look like.

Schleck climbs Galibier

2011: The Age of Heroes

The 2011 Tour de France capped the long-range planning of Cadel Evans, by then a world champion and regular runner-up in Paris, and his retooled, well-heeled BMC team dedicated solely to his success, something he'd been missing all those years. [/gross understatement] His rivals were a mixed bag, with Alberto Contador taking over at Saxo-Sungard -- but then exhausting himself at the Giro d'Italia while nervously awaiting a suspension for his clenbuterol positive -- and the newly formed No-Bjarne's Club, Leopard-Trek. It was actually a pretty impressive lineup in hindsight, with Andy Schleck heading the Leopard guys, Contador, Evans and Bradley Wiggins newly-installed at Team Sky, making four eventual winners in one race, along with the usual (Rabobank) suspects.

The course was nicely backloaded, despite a triptych of Pyrenean stages of note, and had Thomas Voeckler installed in yellow for a long stretch of the race, while Evans and the Schleck Brothers stayed more or less level on time into the third week. The yawning divide in their relative time trialling skills meant that this race was anything but tied, with 42km against the watch looming, so the Schlecks needed to isolate Evans to have any chance of success.

The third week began with a memorable stage to Gap, won by Thor Hushovd, the world champion, who closed down a breakaway over the Col de Manse and won the sprint in Gap over his countryman, Edvald Boasson Hagen. From there the race climbed over Sestriere into Italy, with Boasson Hagen gaining redemption with a solo victory. Not a bad week for Norwegian cycling. That left two stages, which promised to explode the race. The Tour had designed a course around paying tribute to the Col du Galibier, and went back to France over the 2700 meter Col d'Agnel en route to a rare race finish on the Galiber. Sandwiched in between was the Col d'Izoard, another Tour icon, and it was there where this became a race.

Andy Schleck attacked, knowing that his chances of gaining enough time on the final climb didn't look good, or maybe just feeling like a caged bird needing to fly. With 65km left Schleck left the favorites and soloed across the majestic peaks of the Tour, gaining a stage win and a minute on Evans -- a fleeting hope for yellow in Paris. He risked it all, went alone, went big and made for beautiful cycling imagery, just like we imagine those days of yore. Contador lost more time, and the overall battle was down to Evans and the Schlecks.

The next day brought a new, Giroesque format, the short stage with a couple massive climbs. It was back over the Galibier again, and then to Alpe d'Huez. Contador, effectively eliminated, attacked right away, and Andy Schleck -- hold me! -- joined him. Evans chased but suffered a mechanical problem and sank back to the peloton in the hopes that a hundred guys could reel in two. Voeckler, still annoyingly in yellow, went with the attack, but eventually fell back. Contador and Schleck went from two minutes up to just 42 seconds atop the Galibier, and both of them had taken incredible risks, from Italy to the Izoard, so there was no certainty that this move would succeed. But it was beautiful to behold, and it had a chance.

Schleck's notorious descending saw them reeled in as they hit Alpe d'Huez, though Contador tried to go again, but Evans had his prey -- Schleck, the virtual maillot jaune -- in his sights. They stayed together to the finish, and Evans demolished the Schlecks in the next day's time trial to bring home Australia's first and so far only maillot jaune.

2008: Riis' Master Stroke

Evans' reputation for tragedy, overturned with prejudice in 2011, dated back a ways, but to nothing more so than the 2008 race. Evans was second already the previous year to newbie Contador, in the second chaotic post-Puerto race, and Contador's Astana team so disgusted the Tour that they were disinvited from the 2008 race. Evans showed up with his Silence-Lotto team hoping to fill the leadership void, but his support were a bunch of Belgian classics guys -- good riders but not very well suited to a race that would follow a typicalish format of peaking at Alpe d'Huez and following that with a bruising 53km time trial.

The early story was the ascension of the coming HTC juggernaut, which launched Mark Cavendish into history and briefly installed Kim Kirchen in yellow. But the bigger story was man versus team, the latter being Bjarne's Boys: the Schlecks, Carlos Sastre, Jens Voigt, Fabian Cancellara and just a brilliantly coherent collection of diverse talents. Andy was a bright young star, but a Tour debutant and therefore not likely to win. But Frank had a chance, if he could stay out of his own way against the watch (ha!) and Sastre, well, he'd already been on the podium twice and was probably the race's best climber. None of them could hold a candle to Evans in the time trial, however, so it would be close either way.

Evans shadowed Frank in week 1 and the two dispatched Kirchen in the Pyrenees, while basically keeping the hostilities to a minimum. and they headed to the Alps with Evans in yellow by a second over Frank and 1.28 over Sastre. But Schleck took nine seconds and yellow on a short climb in Prato Nevoso, Italy before the second rest day. That's pressure point #1. Pressure point #2 was applied the next day by Andy, who was not in contention but who set a blistering pace up the Col de la Bonette, the "highest" "road" in Europe. This was the second of two immense climbs, a course Nairo Quintana would be dreaming of if he were still the guy from last July, and it's also best remembered for John Lee Augustyn skidding off the road and watching his bike tumble down the hillside without him. Anyway, Andy's climbing made it a dreadfully hard day, and Frank remained in yellow by eight seconds.

Pressure point #3 was the next day, on Alpe d'Huez, but not before Frank and Andy continued to pore on the wattage over the Galibier and Croix de Fer. Finally, after nearly three days of Frank's jabs and Andy's body blows, it was Sastre's chance to throw the haymaker at poor Evans, as he galloped away on the Alpe and, for all intents and purposes, was never seen again. Sastre got a 1.24 lead with four stages remaining, dropped a few seconds here and there, nearly matched Evans on the penultimate stage ITT, and coasted into Paris a champion.

Riis leads Ullrich Mike Powell

1997: Passing the Torch Around

Delving into the dark days here, but it's worth a short mention. In 1996 Bjarne Riis (and his special fuel) finally dislodged Miguel Indurain (and whatever he was riding on) from his five-year run of domination. Thus began an era of open competition for the first time in seemingly forever, given that the previous seven Tours went to Big Mig and LeMond, and not long before that, Hinault and Fignon.

I'm not sure this counts as a great third week; in reality that Tour was over in the Pyrenees. Jan Ullrich, who had ridden nearly as well as his mentor and leader Riis in assisting the Dane's 1996 win, was on a bloody rampage that pundits predicted wouldn't end for the better part of a decade. Ullrich had more or less ended things with two stage wins in three days, a Pyrenean epic and a St. Etienne ITT. Or it was over when Ullrich shadower Marco Pantani on Alpe d'Huez. So yeah, it wasn't a great final week. And I'll remember it as long as I live, for one (in hindsight wonderful) reason.

OK, back to the real story...

Fignon attacks Lemond AFP

1989: The Gold Standard

The Tours involving Greg LeMond were all pretty dramatic, and I was tempted to start with 1990 or 91-- the former when LeMond eventually tracked down Claudio Chiappucci, closing what had been whittled to a six second gap with a beat-down in the time trial, and the latter more of a beheading fueled by orange juice or whatever. His earlier ones were dramatic if you watched American TV, but in France I have a feeling they were pretty run-of-the-mill Hinault wins and a gift to his young protege. That leaves 1989.

Nobody reading this site, I'm guessing, needs any help remembering the final ITT in Paris, but lost behind the tears of joy and defeat on the Champs Elysees was an unbelievable final week. Fignon and LeMond were essentially tied as the race arrived in Gap, ready for yet another epic Alps finale, but on the Sunday before the final rest day, LeMond put his time trialling to work and reversed his seven second deficit to take a 40" lead, with Charly Mottet at 2.17 and Pedro Delgado, the 1988 winner, at 2.48. [Mottet would melt away in the Alps and Delgado would concede another 50 seconds.] Then, after the rest break, the two former winners simply went toe to toe. On stage 16 LeMond put 13 seconds into Fignon over the Izoard. The next day Fignon dropped LeMond on Alpe d'Huez, and took the yellow jersey by 26 seconds. Fignon won stage 18 with a furious attack to Villard de Lans, extending his lead to 50 seconds. Then LeMond won stage 19, another alpine affair to Aix-Les-Bains, but Fignon came in at the same time. Saturday was a sprint stage, leading to the dramatic concluding ITT in Paris where LeMond defied all history, logic and convention to win the Tour by eight seconds.

I was a huge LeMond fan, and in this week Fignon scared the daylights out of me. He attacked, and attacked again, putting LeMond on the defensive, riding like the champion he was. He lost friends for his prickly demeanor and lost admirers for his botched final stage, but he gained my respect with the way he rode up until that final stage. It was Fignon's Tour, and while LeMond stole it fair and square, the battle they waged won't be forgotten.

1987: The Mega-Golden Standard

The third Friday of the '87 Tour ended in Avignon, after a hilly stage, with perpetual challenger Charly Mottet, sort of the Bauke Mollema of his era, in yellow. it was time for a final rest day, and nobody had any idea what would happen next. Jean-Francois Bernard, the new standard-bearer at Toshiba after Hinault retired, LeMond got shot, and the La Vie Claire grocery chain pulled their sponsorship, sat 1.11 behind but with plenty of action to come. Stephen Roche was a handful of seconds behind Bernard, making for a tight three way race, but the race's purest climbers -- Pedro Delgado, Robert Millar and the Colombians -- weren't too much further back, in case anyone felt too at ease.

From there, the race witnessed one of the great maillot jaune hot potato contests of its history, with five riders taking a turn wearing it over the last eight days. Here's how it went down.

  • Stage 18 was a time trial on Mount Goddam Ventoux, won by Bernard and propelling him into the maillot jaune. If I'm remembering properly, I think that's when Bernard Tapie promised him a new sports car. It was pretty much his last good day as a cyclist.
  • Stage 19 was a climb-fest, albeit lesser beasts, but Bernard suffered an ill-timed flat, crawled back to the peloton, then watched helplessly from further back as Roche and Mottet attacked in a feed zone. He conceded four minutes and Roche took the overall lead by 41 and 79 seconds over Mottet and Delgado, respectively.
  • Stage 20, ho hum, went to Alpe d'Huez, and now it was Roche who suffered, while Delgado grabbed the overall lead by 25 seconds on Roche, with Mottet fading as usual and Bernard clawing his way back to 2.02 down.
  • Stage 21 went to La Plagne, via the Galiber, and Delgado padded his lead a bit (while Fignon won the stage), giving him 39 seconds on the Irishman. This was the most dramatic stage of the week, with Roche on the attack on the Madeleine, only to have Delgado's powerful PDM team track him down and Delgado to go solo by a minute. Roche apparently played the role of beaten man, so Delgado would ease up some, but then went full gas and narrowed his gap to mere seconds, collapsing on the line and having oxygen applied to him. [Delgado was a bit too nice, or dumb -- let's go with nice -- to be the champion he could have been, it seems.]
  • Stage 22 was another climbing nightmare, ending with the Joux-Plane and a descent to Morzine. Roche cut his deficit to 23 seconds on Delgado as the two traded blows all throughout the finale, with Roche going last and making it stick. This sounds like the sort of stage, along with the previous day, that would be amazing to watch on DVD. I'm sure if I'm ever in Ireland I can find a nice copy.
  • Stage 23 (there were a lot of stages in 1987) was uneventful. Stage 24 was the time trial in Dijon, where Delgado knew he needed more than the 23 seconds he had in hand, and sure enough, Roche came in second on the stage -- behind that guy, Bernard -- to take a 40 second lead into Paris.
I'm exhausted just thinking about this. This has to be the best final week of a Tour de France in the last 30 years. Funny, all of these involve the Alps at the end, which is probably not so much of a coincidence as it is an indication that when the Alps come last, riders keep a few bullets in their chamber. Anyway, if this week bears any resemblance to 1987, I think we will all accept the final outcome.