It certainly was an interesting weekend in the Tour de France, where the race moved into the first medium mountain stages, giving the Peloton its first taste of the pain that lies ahead in the Alps and the Pyrenees. After two long days of racing, leading to a rest day today, we ended up with a new overall leader in the Tour, but we also had an inordinate number of crashes, some of which will no doubt have an impact on the final standings in Paris.
Heading into the weekend, Norwegian cyclist Thor Hushovd was in the Yellow Jersey, but he was expected to drop it on Saturday when the riders hit the medium mountain stages. Much to the surprise of many however, Thor rode well and held onto the Jersey for an extra day. That stage was won by Rui Alberto Faria Da Costa of Portugal, who was the lone survivor of an early breakaway.
Sunday brought a similar story, where an early break went on to succeed late in the day, as Rabobank's Luis-Leon Sanchez crossed the finish line ahead of the crowd. Just behind him was Thomas Voeckler of Team Europcar, who managed wrest the Yellow Jersey away from Thor, who was caught out with the rest of the Peloton following a series of crashes. Voeckler, who is hugely popular in his home country of France, now has a 1:49 lead over Sanchez, who sits in second place in the General Classification. Neither of those two men are considered serious contenders to win the race, although Cadel Evans, sitting in third place is. He's 2:26 off the pace, while Frank and Andy Schleck are 2:29 and 2:37 respectively.
Philippe Gilber of Belgium currently wears the Green Jersey, and that looks to be quite the spirited competition all the way to Paris. Behind him are Jose Rojas and Mark Cavendish, both of which would love to wear the Green on the final day. The competition for the Polka Dot Jersey will get interesting in a few days and it currently belongs to Johnny Hoogerland, who was in a horrific crash yesterday that sent him flying into a barbed wire fence alongside the road. He was very shaken up, but managed to finish the ride. We'll see if he manages to answer the bell tomorrow. Finally, Robert Gesink has claimed the White Jersey, for the Tour's best young rider under the age of 25.
As mentioned, crashes have left their mark on the race this year, and the weekend was no exception. A terrible crash on a fast descent yesterday took Astana's Alexander Vinokourov out of the race with a broken femur. That same crash also took out Jurgen Van den Broeck of Belgium, who also had designs on winning the race. Radioshack's Andreas Kloden also went down, but managed to get back up and finish the stage, although he was taken to the hospital afterwards. Later, Hoogerland, who was part of the break, crashed while trying to avoid a media car that swerved into Juan Antonio Fletcha of Team Sky. Fletcha was knocked down hard, but managed to get up and complete the stage as well. Both men seemed quite hurt, and I wouldn't be surprised if they can't continue after the rest day.
Speaking of crashes, defending champ Alberto Contador went down a couple of times over the weekend as well, and while he hasn't suffered any serious damage, the crashes are taking their toll. Contador is currently in 16th place, 4:07 off the leader, and hasn't had a lot of luck with his bikes either. On more than one occasion he has had to swap out machines mid-way through a stage. The Spaniard had found himself in quite a whole on the first rest day, and has a lot of work ahead of him if he hopes to win again. He is also suffering from a bad knee, that will certainly add to the difficulties.
Tomorrow, the riders will head back out on to the road with a 158km (98.17 mile) ride from Aurillac to Carmaux. The course will feature more medium level climbs, including two Category 3 and Category 4 climbs. The sprinters will want to grab the intermediate points early on, then hold on through the climbs ahead.
Things get really interesting on Thursday, when the race heads into the Pyrenees at last. That day will start out mostly flat, but eventually gives way to a single Category 1 climb and two Beyond Category climbs, including one with a finish at the summit. I can't wait!
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