I’m going to pick five moments from 2011. They are a personal choice like any list sometimes you omit more than you include but I’ll explain each moment. They’re presented in no particular order.
First up is Stage 13 of the Tour de France from Pau to Lourdes. Allow me to set the scene. We had Thomas Voeckler in yellow and a relatively short stage across the Pyrenees dominated by the hors catégorie Col d’Aubisque. Revisiting my preview of the stage I called things quite well predicting a breakaway and pointing out the descent would suit risk takers. But few thought Thor Hushovd was going to win.
The stage started fast with breakaways forming at high speed. If you haven’t seen the first hour of a race then you can sometimes miss the best part of the day. Moves come and go until finally the elastic snaps. But what amounts to a few words on this blog misses the effort and pain involved. As soon as the départ réel begins then bicycle combat begins with riders trying to asphyxiate their rivals. The speed hits 60km/h. After all this is the Tour de France and on a stage like this a breakaway has a good chance. “You have to be in it to win it” rings true… and probably rings out via 160 race radio earpieces as desperate DSs bark orders to their riders.
This time a group got away within the first half hour. It was composed of Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Dmitry Fofonov (Astana). David Moncoutié (Cofidis), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad), Jérôme Pineau (Quickstep), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre ), Vladimir Gusev (Katusha) and Jérémy Roy (FDJ) and they made their way to the mighty Aubisque.
What happened next was a surprise but with hindsight, tactical genius. Hushovd attacked at the foot of the Aubisque and it seemed riders and TV viewers alike in thinking he was doomed. But this simply meant others in the breakaway did not chase at first and the Norwegian powered away, taking time on everyone else. Crucially this provided him with a buffer by the time he got to the steeper ramps. Behind Roy and Moncoutié left the others in the breakaway and soon Roy was going solo in pursuit of Hushovd. Indeed Roy caught the world champion and powered past to head over the col whilst Moncoutié caught Hushovd close to the summit. A small descent and then over the Soulor pass and Roy lead by close to two minutes over Moncoutié and Hushovd.
Hushovd had climbed to perfection, taking time on the early slopes and pacing himself on the harder parts, conceding time but perhaps knowing he could take plenty back on the descent. The descent off the Aubisque is technical with cambered hairpin bends and Hushovd was in his element as he barrelled down with Moncoutié struggling to remain in contact. But Hushovd kept the veteran Frenchman with him. Applying hindsight again this was a great move for two reasons. First, the wind was rising in the valley and Hushovd needed any shelter he could get and even if Moncoutié didn’t provide much, he wouldn’t threaten in the sprint. Second, French rivalry meant that Cofidis were extra keen to chase down FDJ to the point of preferring a Garmin win ahead of their arch rivals. So much for solidarité.
Roy had been in several breakaways so far in the race including a big move the previous day and he found the headwind in the valley roads too much and was caught by Thor Hushovd, who powered away from Moncoutié with 3km to go and then went on to celebrate his third stage win of the 2011 Tour de France, his white rainbow-striped clothing shining in the afternoon sun. The strong but silent type, he roared as he crossed the line.
Lourdes is famous as the French city of miracles and a sprinter winning in the Pyrenees could surprise. Good fortune and timing were apparent but there was nothing paranormal, instead Hushovd rode a rational race applying what the French call la science de la course or the science of racing. He has proved able to climb well in previous stage races and by building a lead on the early part of the Aubisque, he could afford to give back time later on. His descending skills allowed him to take back time on Roy and the rising wind meant he and Moncoutié to the Lourdes in time to catch the escape artist. It was one of the smartest rides of the year.
Finally spare a thought for Roy and Moncoutié. Roy won the combatitivity prize for the race when it reached Paris, a reward for his constant attacks and strong riding, a stage win would have been a better reward but then again the frequent moves might have cost him vital energy. And Moncoutié is a rider worth saluting. He began the season with the Mont Faron stage of the Tour Méd and took the Vuelta’s mountain jersey again. He turned pro at the same time as David Millar and has a consistent career whilst the sport around him revolved and revolted.
Photo: Mark Johnson/Ironstring.com