Following an audacious surprise attack at the base of one of the most legendary climbs in the Tour de France, Thor Hushovd of team Garmin-Cervelo outdueled a pair of disappointed Frenchmen to snatch victory in Friday's Stage 13.
The reigning world champion, Hushovd is a big, powerful rider not known as a climber. What the hell was he doing, going on the offensive at the base of the hors categorie Col d'Aubisque? When it became clear that his quixotic attack was actually tactical masterstroke, I was reminded of a long-ago speech made by Hushovd's boss. Garmin was founded in 2007, its stated mission: to be a bastion of clean riding in a sport with a bad drug problem. "We will succeed not by out-horse-powering" their foes, vowed general manager Jonathan Vaughters, "not by crushing the competition with 6.7 watts per/kilogram at threshold." (I'm told that's a lot.) Rather, he promised "panache." He predicted that his guys would attack "when no one else would."
By doing precisely that, Hushovd delivered the men in argyle their third stage win of the 2011 Tour. The other star of Friday's stage was the awe-inspiring Col d'Aubisque, whose dramatic vistas were much more interesting than the racing, with the exception of Hushovd's heroics. The main contenders in the general classification were content to ride together, saving their legs for Saturday's finish atop the daunting Plateau de Beille.
I was last on the Aubisque in 2007, when a stick-thin Dane named Michael Rasmussen won Stage 16, and appeared to sew up the race, by withstanding the surges of Alberto Contador. This put Tour officials in an awkward position. Rasmussen had become a PR nightmare; they wished he would just disappear. Despite never testing positive for drugs, it had been revealed during the Tour that the rider nicknamed "Chicken" had missed a series of doping controls in the run-up to the race. (Rasmussen claimed to have been training in Mexico. When an Italian TV reporter broke the news that he'd run into Rasmussen in Italy during the time the Dane was supposed to be in Mexico, Rasmussen was tossed from the Tour by his own team, and his absurd alibi became the stuff of legend.)
Five years later, Tour officials once again find themselves in the awkward position of regretting the presence in their race of one of the stars of the sport. Contador won the '07 Tour after Chicken got the boot. He won it again in '09 and '10. But the latter victory is now in question, due to his positive test for Clenbuterol during last year's Tour. That positive test is still under appeal. Contador could conceivably win his fourth Tour de France, then be stripped of last year's, and this year's, titles.
Booed by spectators at the Tour's official presentation on the eve of Stage 1, the proud Spaniard has become a bit of an embarrassment to the race. So you can imagine how relieved Tour officials are that Contador doesn't look like himself this year. It could be that he's still cooked from winning the three-week Giro d'Italia in May. He could be distracted by his upcoming hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He could be slowed by a saddle sore. Contador is "actually riding with a very sore bottom," Phil Liggett of Versus reported on Friday morning.
Whatever the cause, Contador is counterpunching this July. On Thursday, on the upper slopes of Luz-Ardiden, he was tenderized by the tag-team of Frank and Andy Schleck, the gifted brothers riding for Leopard-Trek. On Frank's third attack, he got away. Five hundred meters from the finish, it was Ivan Basso's turn to take a dig. The Liquigas rider's acceleration was marked by Andy, by Cadel Evans of BMC and by Damiano Cunego of Lampre-ISD. Unable to hang was the man formerly known as the World's Best Climber. Contador lost 13 seconds to that trio, but the psychological impact of that gap, the implications, were huge. Contador, the best stage racer of his generation, is mortal.
Here are some other unexpected developments as the Tour enters the meat of its mountain stages. (After leaving the Pyrenees on Saturday, the riders will spend most of the final week in the Alps.)
-- Garmin-Cervelo is having an amazing race. Vaughters' argyle-nauts had contested in three previous Tours, and never won a stage. That streak came to an end in Stage 2, when Garmin won the team time trial, in the process putting Hushovd into the yellow jersey. The next day -- July 4 -- Garmin's Tyler Farrar won in a sprint finish into Redon. Expected to lose the maillot jaune after a day or two, Hushovd stunned experts by clinging to it for a full week. When a mass crash on a slick descent took out a slew of riders in Stage 9, race leaders, including Hushovd, slowed the pace to allow riders slowed by that crash to catch up to the peloton. That bit of sportsmanship cost Hushovd the yellow jersey. He handed it off to ...
-- Thomas Voeckler, the plucky French rider for Team Europcar, an underdog squad of little-engine-that-could types who have managed to keep their man in yellow for five straight days. This despite the fact that the gritty Voeckler is not known as a superior climber.
-- Frank Schleck, long thought to be less talented than his little brother, looks to have the better form a fortnight into this Tour. His third attack on Luz-Ardiden was simply too much for GC favorites like his brother, Basso, Contador and Cadel Evans, whom Frank leapfrogged to take second place overall. Frank trails Voeckler by 1:49. Evans, the best time trial rider among the GC favorites, lurks just 17 seconds back. Twice a runner-up in this race, the Aussie nicknamed "Cuddles" is now well positioned to finally win himself a Tour.
-- Team Radio Shack. If they let teams replace injured riders, Johan Bruyneel would probably be calling on Alphonse about now. Bruyneel's talented squad came into this race with no fewer than four podium threats. But Jani Brajkovic and Chris Horner crashed out in the first week. Levi Leipheimer hemorrhaged a big chunk of time in another fall. On Friday morning, Andreas Kloden abandoned the race. After injuring his back in a major pileup last Sunday, the German hit the deck again on Thursday, and pulled out of the race on Friday morning. By far the Tour's most snake-bitten team.
-- Tom Danielson. Feel-good story of the Tour. A former Lance Armstrong Discovery Channel teammate who was dubbed "The Next Big Thing" in American cycling, the wispy climber faded into obscurity. Yes, he's had some nice results -- including several top-10 finishes in the Vuelta a Espana. But after signing him in 2008, Vaughters never selected Danielson for his Tour de France roster. So it was more than a little poignant to see the 33-year-old Tour rookie making most of the elite selections on the climb up Luz Ardiden on Thursday. By holding his own with the best in the world, TD vaulted from 17th place to 10th. He is the best-placed rider on one of the Tour's best teams. Look for him Saturday on the Plateau de Beille.