Alberto Contador belatedly attempted to reignite his defence of the Tour de France by punching an aggressive heckler on the Alpe d’Huez. But 24 hours later, his great rival Andy Schleck took the real body blow when the race was snatched away from him – this time by BMC’s Cadel Evans. Schleck the Younger, entered Saturday’s time trial in Grenoble with a slim 57-second advantage over the Aussie. But with less than half of the 45km course completed, it was clear that the yellow jersey was heading Down Under for the first time.
Just over a week ago, a Guardian headline suggested that the Tour de France 2011 had been a bit lacklustre, with the big guns failing to make a decisive move. In Tour terms I must admit that I’m a total “newbie” (I only tuned in at a late stage of last year’s duel between Contador and the younger of Luxembourg’s cycling Schleck brothers). But though I’d still have problems picking the legendary Eddy Merckx out in an identity parade, I have to disagree with Richard Williams’ piece. The last three weeks have been a great exhibition of sporting excellence, extraordinary stamina and, at times, sheer recklessness.
I knew the 98th Tour de France was going to be the perfect antidote to a frustrating Wimbledon when I tuned in on the opening day. ITV’s presenter Gary Imlach cheekily pointed out that the channel’s coverage of the 2011 Tour was, in some respects, a continuation of its coverage of the 2010 Tour. That’s because “L’Affaire Contador” — last year’s winner failed a dope test — has yet to be resolved. His home federation exonerated him (quelle surprise!), but the Spaniard still awaits the outcome of an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). So he entered the 2011 Tour under a big cloud, and was roundly booed by spectators during the opening ceremony.
You could call it karma — or just the vicissitudes of a punishing event — that Alberto’s first Tour for the Saxo Bank team (previously home of the Schlecks) seemed doomed from the outset. He fell behind his main rivals on Stage One, after getting caught behind a big pile-up on the road. Thereafter he was always playing catch-up, battling a sore knee and trying to shake off fatigue from winning the Giro d’Italia in May.
But Contador’s problems were pretty minor compared with the disasters that befell some of the 198 riders in this year’s race. Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins had to abandon, after breaking his collarbone on Stage Seven. The clumsily bandaged face of Holland’s Laurens Ten Dam was the result of a headlong dive into a ditch on Stage 15. Miraculously no bones were broken and he later commented: “You don’t quit the Tour because of a thick lip.”
Even my four-year-old nephew (who does a mean Novak Djokovic impersonation) has seen the graphic footage of the 2011 Tour’s most notorious incident. An act of vehicular madness by a French TV car almost took out Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) and Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland on Stage Nine. As the driver swerved to avoid a tree, Flecha crashed to the tarmac and Hoogerland found himself wrapped around a barbed wire fence – his shorts in tatters.
Graphic photos of Hoogerland’s lacerated hind quarters dominated the sports pages for the next few days. His tear-stained face on the podium after the race also spoke volumes about his narrow escape. Both riders got back up and finished the stage. It’s that kind of stoicism that makes this event special. I’ll remember those guys next time I see a tennis player take a (tactical) injury time-out for a broken finger nail.