Monday's mountain stage? Bring on the pain and paninis
Sunday's Stage 9 of the Tour de France? That was just an appetizer of what's to come Monday. The main course: A monster Stage 10 through the Tourmalet and La Mongie before the climb up the Hautacam for the race's first summit finish.
That's two beyond-category climbs in one stage. That means we'll really see a separation between the pretenders and contenders.
And that's why you saw all the main contenders play it conservatively on Sunday, when we saw tough climbs, but not the toughest of the Tour by any means. Which brings us to Monday.
The riders' first climb will be up the side of the Tourmalet into La Mongie. (This was where Ivan Basso beat out Lance Armstrong in a last-kilometer spurt in Stage 12 of the 2004 Tour.) This is where riders don't want to overcook it. If you're one of the overall favorites, you have to do what you can to respond and stay with the front group, but you have to remain comfortable, confident and aware of the second climb to come, especially when you hit the bottom of the Tourmalet. Why? The second and last climb is a 14.5-kilometer ascent to Hautacam, which sports an average 7.2 percent gradient and a portion that checks in at 10 percent.
In the old days during a stage like this, you'd see teammates setting the pace and peeling off kilometer by kilometer to set up leaders to attack in the last kilometer. Those days are over. It's less controlled now because there is not a team strong enough to do it anymore. Many teams want to keep the gap to a minimum so their leaders can go for the stage win on the final climb.
What plays into the overall strategy of a race like this is fuel. You have to make sure you eat and drink enough over the top of the Tourmalet. Riders even will wear rain jackets or stick newspapers under their shirts to break the wind and avoid getting chills on their chests during descents. Little things like these help riders conserve energy over the long haul. (Experienced riders will always do this. Sometimes, younger riders will say, "I don't feel cold" or "I don't need a paper" -- they wind up paying the price later in the race.)
We all eat the same kinds of things in this kind of stage -- paninis with ham and cheese or Nutella and bananas, energy and/or protein bars at the beginning of the stage until the descent of the Tourmalet. After that, your body won't be able to break down solid foods. You then switch to gels or, my favorite, Sport Beans (made by the same folks who make Jelly Bellys). They taste good, give you the sensation that you're chewing something, and add electrolytes and vitamins to your system. It's a break from those boring energy gels.
Drinking is also important. This would seem like an obvious one to casual sports fans out there, but it's really hard to think and remind yourself to drink when you're going up a climb. First, you might not feel like you're hot going down the descents because you're getting a nice breeze at 60-70 kilometers per hour, but you're losing liquid by literally breathing because of the high altitudes. Plus, there will be thousands of fans lining the routes of the climbs, especially the Basque fans decked out in orange. You don't want to let go of your handlebars, let alone reach down for your water bottle at that point. It's stressful. You're in the hurt bag; you're thinking, "If that fan knocks me over, good. He'll put me out of my misery!" You're caught in the moment, and the hair on your arms stands up. So, that's why you need to be disciplined before you get to the meat of those two climbs.
Those are the conditions for all the riders. But here's what I'll be looking for from some of the main contenders:
Kim Kirchen: I will be very surprised if the Team Columbia rider is still in the yellow jersey after Monday's Stage 10. He and his team have had a fantastic start, but as I watched him during Sunday's poststage interview, he looked tired. My hat goes off to Kirchen and Columbia; they've had all the momentum. I am not saying they're done, but I think this is where you're going to start seeing some chinks in the armor. In a race like the Tour, the satisfied can become complacent; the hungry become impatient.
Cadel Evans: He's second overall after a small crash during Sunday's Stage 9. I think he's fine physically; you rarely get through a Tour without small crashes like this one. Count yourself lucky if you do. Heading into Monday, I don't think Cadel needs to make that major attack yet. He doesn't want to lose any time on the overall, for sure, but he doesn't have to be the one initiating the attack. If he can stay with the top riders and wait patiently up until about 2 kilometers from the summit finish, I don't think he has much to worry about. Remember, he's a great time trialist; he can play it safe because of that.
Christian Vande Velde: He had a great beginning week to the Tour. Whatever happens from here on out is a bonus. He's never been considered one of the best climbers of the Tour, and Monday's climb is going to be difficult for him, like it will be for everyone -- I just don't know if he'll still be third by the end of the stage. He's shown to be a fantastic leader on a great, new upstart team. You know he's got to be eyeing a Top 10 overall finish, and he can make up time in the final time trial. That's the place to go for it. He knows this because of his experience. Things change in the second and third weeks of the Tour, so look for him to stay the course.
Ricardo Ricco: OK, this kid is getting scary, and confident. With the way he finished the last kilometers of Sunday's stage (making the attack and keeping the gap all the way to the finish), I think he needs to throw away his time-trial bike and just ride the final time trial on his road wheels. With the hard mountain stages ahead, we'll see how serious he's taking the race. (Remember, another Italian cyclist, Marco Pantani, won two mountain stages and slowly ate away at the Tour field to take the race in 1998.)
Carlos Sastre, Frank and Andy Schleck: I am hoping my Team CSC-Saxo Bank teammates can start to light it up Monday. Sastre has to attack in Stage 10 and win back time in the overall standings. You still have three potential contenders here, which is a good and bad thing. Good because you have choices, but bad because you don't know which rider your team should rally around in the front group. Monday will be an important step in who will take leadership of the team and move up the leaderboard.
From Ricco attacking with 21 miles left to being able to hold off the gap to the finish. Very impressive.
Not a lot of "disappointment" in such a status-quo stage, but we have to pick something. It was sad to see Thomas Lovkvist lose the new rider's jersey after he did so much work the past few days to keep teammate Kirchen in yellow. Not that this will be a black cloud hanging over his head considering the success of Team Columbia the first week of the race.
Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.
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