Commentary

Unlike past years, this Tour still a work in progress

Updated: July 14, 2008, 6:50 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

ARGELES-GAZOST, France -- The first high-altitude, uphill finish in the Tour de France usually is where the race favorite tries to put the hammer down. But Monday in the Pyrenees, there was no real foreman in the crew, and the riders chiseled at each other instead, inflicting small wounds and building modest gains.

The overall picture is still a work in progress.

For various reasons, none of the men generally considered capable of winning this Tour definitively asserted himself Monday. That left the door open for opportunists. Stage winner Leonardo Piepoli of the Saunier Duval team seized Bastille Day on the grueling Hautacam climb with the help of a teammate and a prodding challenge by CSC-Saxo Bank's Frank Schleck, but Piepoli is 11 minutes back in the standings and won't be a factor in the overall. Behind them, a group of contenders eyed each other and jockeyed, but no one busted a big move.

[+] EnlargeChristian Vande Velde
AP Photo/Bas CzerwinskiChristian Vande Velde now sits third overall, 38 seconds behind overall leader Cadel Evans.
Australia's Cadel Evans of the Belgian Silence-Lotto team took the overall lead by a solitary second and showed grit by staying with the lead pack on Hautacam when he was still tender from a crash Sunday in which he initially feared he'd broken his collarbone. But Evans is a rider who traditionally has finished high in this race by following other people's wheels in the mountains, and in his condition, Monday was no time to break the mold. Rabobank's Russian leader, Denis Menchov, played it similarly safe and is in fifth place, 57 seconds back.

Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vande Velde tightened his grip on third place, 38 seconds off Evans' pace, by sticking to the blueprint his team directors drew up. Vande Velde stayed tucked in the lead group, riding smoothly all the way, but later wondered whether he had squandered a precious chance.

"It was a bit frustrating, if anything, but I felt good," the 32-year-old Chicago native said outside the team bus at the base of Hautacam after completing perhaps the most dangerous part of his day -- a post-stage solo descent among rowdy Basque fans and against continued traffic on the course, which was the fastest way to get back.

"It was just that when the attacks went at the bottom [of the Hautacam], I thought Cadel and Menchov were going to set some more tempo and work together and bring it back," he said. "We really played a lot of cat and mouse. There was a lot of attacking and sitting and attacking and sitting, and we really lost a lot of time. … I guess I depended on them too much.

"My best chance was today. I really feel like I missed out on a good opportunity, a little bit, in hindsight. But I really shouldn't think about that. I'm really happy with the way things went today, the way I felt."

Team CSC, which has two cards to play in this poker game in Carlos Sastre and Frank Schleck, ordered cheery warrior Jens Voigt of Germany to the front to set a torrid tempo on the penultimate climb of the stage, the perennial Tour milestone of the Col du Tourmalet. The tactic succeeded in blowing up the peloton and launched Schleck, one of two talented brothers from Luxembourg, and Spain's Sastre into the top 10 at second and sixth, respectively.

Schleck broke away on the Hautacam with Italy's Piepoli and Piepoli's Spanish teammate Juan Jose Cobo, but he finished 28 seconds off their pace. Voigt said the team had mixed feelings when that aggressive ride didn't quite put Schleck over the top.

"I'm sure Frank is disappointed -- who knows, we may never get any closer than we are now [to the overall lead]," Voigt said. "But when you look at the teams who have had the yellow jersey -- Caisse d'Epargne, explosion totale. Columbia, explosion totale. I think we are quite happy we don't have the yellow jersey yet."

Team Columbia expected to cede the top spot Monday, although the intrepid Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg refused to play it nonchalantly in the thin air, which is not his favorite environment, and ground his way to a 15th-place finish, good for seventh in the overall. The team's American road captain, George Hincapie, had a tough day in the saddle and wasn't able to help Kirchen. Columbia is top-heavy with sprinters, and four of them staggered in with the grupetto (fancy cycling jargon for the riders who are just trying to survive the day).

And Voigt was right about Caisse d'Epargne, as Spanish leader Alejandro Valverde found yet another way not to live up to his annual prerace hype. Valverde faded on the Tourmalet and later was hampered by a mechanical problem; he finished almost six minutes off the pace and is close to five minutes back in the overall. In a statement released by the team, he said he is changing his focus from the general classification to a stage win. Lampre's leader, Damiano Cunego of Italy, had a similar letdown before Tuesday's rest day.

As for Saunier Duval, the Spanish-licensed team collected its third stage win and again created a buzz with its accelerations in the mountains -- moves that stand out in stark relief against a peloton that looks more mortal than it has in recent years. Cobo and young Italian climbing sensation Riccardo Ricco -- nicknamed "The Cobra" because of his swift, lethal strikes -- sit in eighth and ninth place, respectively. But with strong time trialers like Evans and Vande Velde in the top three and more seasoned Grand Tour riders like Menchov and Sastre in the mix, they're unlikely to be title threats.

"This isn't the top 10 I would have expected at this point in time," said Vande Velde, who counted himself among the surprises.

He's not alone.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.