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.
Here, a double header: Stage 18 and Stage 19 of the Tour de France. I could cover each stage as a separate highlight but that means I’d have to drop something else from the year so a tandem highlight…
Stage 18 of the Tour de France saw something special: a contender for the yellow jersey launching a long range attack.
I found the whole 2011 Tour de France great. The first week’s uphill finishes provided variety, although the crashes were a negative aspect. But the race for the yellow jersey was, as usual, quite defensive. On the first real mountain stage, up to Luz Ardiden, we saw the favourites watch each other. The same happened up to the Plateau de Beille. Fans were annoyed but the riders had little choice, if you are contender then taking big risks with early attacks… is risky. As they say you might not win the race on a stage but you can certainly lose it.
If caution is rational, it’s not popular and one rider in particular was getting plenty of criticism: Andy Schleck, especially since he lost time during the downhill run in to Gap.
But things all changed on Stage 18. The race crossed back to France via the giant Col d’Agnel, topping at 2,744 metres. Then they went over the Izoard and here Andy Schleck attacked. He went solo, chasing down a breakaway up the road and then reaching the Col du Lautaret and its infamous headwind with the remnants of the move. He had some help from two team mates and Quick Step’s Dries Devenyns was pulling hard but in time Andy Schleck went away and then went on to the mightly Galibier where he won the stage.
Andy Schleck’s move was fantastic but what happened behind decided the Tour de France too. Behind the chase was on but not organised. If the headwind was hard for Andy Schleck, the same defensive rationale that dogged earlier stages was at play again. None of the leaders wanted to chase for fear of using up their energy in the service of a rival. It was not until 11km to go that Cadel Evans hit the front, “taking his responsibilities” as they say in French. His work started to shell the remaining riders out of the group. As they hit the Galibier the likes of Samuel Sanchez and Tom Danielson were dropped. With the select group led by Evans almost all the way in time even Alberto Contador dropped off and if that was not surprising enough, as they went up the final ramps of this tough climb Thomas Voeckler was still there, his yellow jersey golden on the cloudy peak and safe by just 15 seconds.
For me this was the day Evans won the Tour de France. His work kept the Luxembourg climber in check, meaning he was easy to overhaul in the final time trial. But Andy Schleck gave it his best and took a fine win. High drama.
If Stage 18 provided 90 minutes of action with viewers perched on the rivet of their sofas, Stage 19 took things to another level. ASO had been experimenting with stages and this final Alpine stage was short, a 110km ride from Modane to Alpe-d’Huez. But the Galibier stood in the way.
The stage started downhill and the pace was as lively as the white water river alongside the road when 14 riders got away, it looked like we were set for a long breakaway trying to hold off the leaders on the final climb. The riders were to climb the Galibier via its harder side, using the Col de Télégraphe. It was on the steep early ramps of this that Alberto Contador attacked. There were 92km remaining.
What followed was electrifying television. First Andy Schleck jumped across, soon joined by his brother Frank. Then Cadel Evans bridged across. The gap began to grow and then Thomas Voeckler went, cranking a big gear out of the saddle. But Contador jumped again, shattering the select group again. Soon Voeckler couldn’t follow and Cadel Evans had a mechanical problem, forcing him to stop twice. If the previous day’s move by Andy Schleck was bold, this was even more audacious.
The move didn’t stick but it ended Voeckler’s time in yellow. His energy ran out after chasing Contador and he being paced by his team mates up the final slopes of the Galibier and at one point shouting at the top of his voice for Anthony Charteau to slow down. “Chartix, Chartix” he screamed, his knees pointing outwards like an old man. Like Shakespeare’s Richard III offering his kingdom for a horse, Voeckler was set to lose the race.
Up front the race took the long descent to Bourg d’Oisans and Pierre Rolland clipped off the front. As they started the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Contador attacked and built up a lead. Soon Samuel Sanchez tried to bridge across and joined by Pierre Rolland of Europcar. Rolland had things all in his favour, he needed only to follow because he couldn’t help Contador take time on Voeckler. But Rolland didn’t just sit there, on the final 10% ramp he deployed the big ring and ride Contador and Sanchez off his wheel to win the stage and take the white jersey.
It was a thrilling finish to the stage and provided something for everyone. Viewers got action all stage long. ASO’s “sprint” format for the stage worked. Contador tried again and again, putting the boos and hisses of his reception in the Tour presentation three weeks prior well behind. Cadel Evans played it smart, deploying his forces where it was needed and containing the Schlecks. And if they lost yellow, Europcar took a big stage and the white jersey.