Award-winning sports journalist and author
Award-winning sports journalist and author



The consensus is that this is the closest Tour de France ever, with one week left to the finish, but whether close equals boring stalemate or suspense-filled tension is a matter of some debate. Friday’s stage through theVosgesmountains toColmarsummed it up: there were three nasty climbs and it teemed with rain all day. Just right for someone to start sniping at Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador, you might have thought. And there was gunsmoke in the air, but unfortunately it was from someone on the roadside who thought it was clever to pop an airgun at the peloton.


The gendarmes are going after the airgunslinger, and they will probably get their man. As the Rabobank team doctor said after he took a pellet out of Oscar Freire’s leg, the cyclist could have been blinded. The event will have worried the police, because the Tour’s ethos is that it is a free show, not a freefor all. The fans don’t pay to watch and usually they are left alone. They get in the way, they make a mess, they do absurd things to get on television, they yell rude stuff at Lance Armstrong, but interference of any kind is rare, violence virtually unheard. By bizarre coincidence, the last nasty scene was at the same town in 2001, when a guy drove his car into the finish claiming he could hear voices, and 10 onlookers were injured.


Apart from the airgun episode, and a riders’ strike on Tuesday, the second week of the Tour was a matter of watching and waiting, unless you were Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd, for whom every finish mattered in the battle to be best sprinter. Armstrong and Contador eyed each other like hawks, with the American admitting that there was ‘tension’ in the camp. In marriage terms, that’s tension as in divorce pending rather than who does the washing up.


The week was not without its dangers, as Armstrong and Contador’s American team mate Levi Leipheimer found on Thursday, when he crashed and broke his wrist. “It is a serious blow to our team. We had a nice four-headed approach, now 25% of that is gone,” said Armstrong. “Not only does it hurt us, but it helps the others in terms of morale, they will think the team has been weakened. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of bike racing.” That crash was probably the key event of the week, as at a stroke Armstrong lost a key ally in his battle with his Spanish team mate and the rest of the field.


A look down the standings on Saturday said it all: the top 10 riders were covered by just 2min 16sec. That’s the kind of time that can be lost and won in about two miles of a single mountain. In a race that lasts 90-odd hours, it’s next to nothing. The top 10 include Armstrong and Contador, team mates and rivals, and the two big favourites. Their Astana team has a third possible in there in Andreas Kloden, but no one has any idea what the British Olympic track champion Bradley Wiggins is capable of from fourth overall. The Londoner has said from the off he was good for the top 10, and might just be getting ideas of something a little more. There is Wiggins’ team leader Christian Van de Velde ofAmerica, the Luxembourger Andy Schleck, and the strongly fancied Italian Vincenzo Nibali. Any of them can win.


Look a little way outside the top 10, and there are more strong contenders: last year’s winner Carlos Sastre, the runner-up Cadel Evans, and the odd dark horse like Schleck’s brother Andy or the Czech Roman Kreuziger. On paper, any of them could hope, although the same can’t be said of the man in the yellow jersey, the Italian Rinaldo Nocentini, who has spent the last eight days looking like a man who can’t believe his luck. He’s a journeyman who got in the right move on the first mountain stage toAndorra, and he and his Ag2R team have lapped up the publicity, with Nicholas Roche working hard on behalf of the Italian. His reign should end this afternoon when the race enters theAlps.


There is a reason why the Tour is so close, so tense (or boring): it’s been planned that way. This year’s route does not look like those of other years. The usual pattern is for a long time trial at the end of the first week, followed by either thePyreneesor theAlps, with the other mountain range in the last week and final time trial to wrap things up on the last Saturday. That way, the hierarchy is progressively sorted out, with one or two men emerging. In the Armstrong Tours, that tended to mean he had the thing won by half-distance. Now that was boring.


The Tour organiser Christian Prudhomme is relatively new to the job, having taken over in 2006. His predecessor, Jean-Marie Leblanc, was a traditionalist, but Prudhomme is the opposite, and he’s been tinkering with the format for three years now. Some might say it’s because his background is in television. In 2008, by happy chance, his race arrived at its final weekend with four riders still in contention: in constructing this year’s route, he has tried to engineer a similar conclusion by loading all the tough racing into the final seven days, and leaving the toughest day until last.


Looking at what’s waiting this week, you can understand why there wasn’t much action on Friday, as the rain came down, the temperature plummeted among the pine trees, and the riders shivered in their rain jackets. Cold rain does funny things to Tour cyclists, men with near-zero body fat. What meagre reserves they have can run out quickly, so why take risks when there is so much to come? Today, the Tour heads intoSwitzerlandfor a hilltop finish at the Verbier ski resort. Not the toughest, only five miles, but if anyone makes a point, the other contenders will have to spend Monday’s rest day thinking about it.


Tuesday is 100 miles, up the ‘big’ Saint Bernard pass, intoItaly, and back intoFranceover the ‘small’ St Bernard. Nothing but climbing and descending, both times over 2000m above sea level. Wednesday is the same, but with five slightly smaller passes rather than the brace of massive ones. Thursday is 25 miles time trialling aroundLakeAnnecy, to see if anyone has got any strength left from the previous two days. Friday looks innocuous on the map, but has an eight-mile climb just before the finish. And Saturday is the granddaddy of them all, Mont Ventoux, the moonscape mountain that killed Tom Simpson and the one everyone fears.


Evans for one has said he will begin attacking today, but to dislodge Armstrong and Contador, it will take more than one man on one day. The chances are a few hands will be shown on Wednesday, Thursday will eliminate a couple more, but most will wait until Saturday up the ‘giant ofProvence’. Ventoux may determine everything, including whether Prudhomme is a Cocteau or a Clouseau when it comes to setting up a final scene.


This appeared in July 2009 in an Irish Sunday newspaper that doesn’t have  website… or I would give you a link.