It's always pleasant to poke a bit of fun at CSC-Saxo Bank, with its Outward Bound-like team-building exercises, mandated by director Bjarne Riis, an earnest Dane with a slightly checkered past. But the truth is, they're a class bunch. Davis Phinney, the ex-Tour de France stage winner with whom I happened to be watching today's stage, recalled being stiffed on the eve of the Tour of California prologue earlier this year: an American rider who was supposed to speak before a fundraiser for the Davis Phinney Foundation bailed on short notice.
Phinney mentioned it to CSC's Bobby Julich, who rounded up Jens Voigt, Fabian Cancellara and Riis on almost no notice. Each spoke, then took questions from a grateful audience. The CSC guys completely saved the day. The next day Cancellara destroyed the field in the prologue. They're good guys, and they're good.
Having driven the pace throughout today's Queen Stage (read: gnarliest), the strongest team in the world had an ungodly six riders in the lead group at the base of today's third and final beyond-category climb, the fabled Alpe d'Huez. And then, bedlam. With his teammate Frank Schleck in yellow, CSC's Carlos Sastre stomped on the accelerator almost as soon as he got out of Bourg d'Oisans, the village at the base of the climb.
Sastre is a Spanish climbing specialist with five Top 10 Tour de France finishes. He's the guy who won a Tour stage five years ago with a pacifier in his mouth -- to celebrate the recent birth of his baby girl. He's also the guy who's looked more comfortable in the mountains than anyone else so far in this Tour.
In the moments after Sastre launched, you could see the other members of the yellow jersey group turn their eyes to Frank Schleck, and his little bro, Andy. Weren't they going to chase? Hell no. That was their teammate on the road.
Rabobank's Denis Menchov, who along with Australia' Cadel Evans was a heavy pre-race favorite, burned a book of matches just to hold the Spaniard's wheel. When Sastre unleashed second nasty burst, Menchov was cooked.
Over one 200-meter stretch, Sastre put a football field between himself and Schleck's yellow jersey group. So spent was Menchov from his vain chase that the Russian (pushing a giant, Ullrich-like gear -- was he even in his small ring up front?), lost touch with that elite fraternity for nearly half the climb.
Menchov was able to catch back on because of the strange cards being played in front of him. From their frequent surges and apparently effortless counter-attacks; from their composed, un-anguished faces, one got the impression that the Schlecks -- especially Andy -- had the strength to mount a sustained attack. Yet they were content to kind bottle up the GC group, allowing Sastre to get further and further up the road.
Why aren't they chasing harder? I wondered aloud. Phinney, having just returned from his morning ride, tendered this opinion between bites of cereal:
"I just think it's the beauty of this year's Tour. This is what a dope-free ride looks like. In the past you'd see Pantani and these other guys with 50-plus hematocrit levels put in these superhuman accelerations, riding this thing as if it was flat.
"This is real guys feeling the true effects of 2 ½ weeks of riding, suffering deeply from 20,000 feet of climbing so far today. It's a beautiful thing."
Davis, by the way, has more than passing intimacy with suffering on this forbidding hunk of granite. The man who won 328 races in his career says he never found out more about himself than on the day he came in last on the Alpe d'Huez.
He was especially proud of Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vandevelde, who threw a couple haymakers of his own on the Alpe; all of them were marked by one Schleck or another. I wrote yesterday that CVV lost 2 ½ minutes on the final, brutal climb. I later learned that he'd summited the Bonnette a mere half-minute behind the "Heads of State," but lost additional time when he overcooked a corner on the descent, sliding out, then losing still more precious seconds regaining his rhythm and momentum on the descent.
For his supremely gutsy effort, Sastre was rewarded with a stage win and the yellow jersey (He's the seventh rider to wear it in this wide-open, most excellent Tour) What remains unclear to me is whether Sastre tore the yellow jersey off his mate, or if, under the orders of Riis, Frank Shcleck folded it up nicely and handed it to him.
What it all boils down to is that the 95th Tour will be decided in Saturday's flat, twisting 53km time trial through the Cher region in the midsection of France. Can Carlos hang on? He now holds a 1:34 lead over Evans. He's 2:39 ahead of Menchov. Both those riders, along with Vandevelde (now 4:41 in arrears) are much more powerful time trailers than is Sastre, who has historically been a bit soft in the Race of Truth. Despite his trips in recent years to the wind tunnel at MIT, he's historically been a bit soft in The Race of Truth. But as Schleck noted during the rest day, "They say [the yellow jersey] gives you wings."
Will Sastre find those wings? How delightful that when Phil Liggett declaimed that we are bearing down on one of the closest finishes in the history of the Tour de France, he wasn't exaggerating.
It's a beautiful thing.