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That Tour Rhythm

Thomas Voeckler crossing the line at Plateau de Beille

[Peter Dejong/AP]

Another post about the Tour? Well, why not? It beats talking about the deficit.

As I have mentioned before, once I start watching Tour coverage in the morning, I find it almost impossible to break away. If I have an appointment, as I did a week ago yesterday, then I drag myself away, even though there are only 5k to go and my hero Mark Cavendish is poised for another stage victory. Or if I have to take Gail and Joel to the airport, as I did this past Tuesday, I head out with them early, but race home to see what I missed, which alas was Greipel edging Cavendish at the line.

This point in the tour, the second half of week two, is always a tough one for me to handle, because it coincides with the playing of the British Open golf championship, and if there’s anything I watch with greater intensity than the Tour, it’s golf, especially the major championships. What I’ve discovered in recent years, to my surprise, is that the conflict ends up being easily resolved. When I try to switch back and forth between the two events, I find that the starkly different rhythms of the two make golf the loser in the battle for my attention.

Take today, for example. The Tour was in its last day in the Pyrenees, set to conclude with the massive climb up to Plateau de Beille. There had yet to be a shakeout among the big names, but today might be the day, and it could happen at any moment once the climb commenced. How would the Schleck brothers, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, and Alberto Contador handle the climb? Who would attack? Would there be a surprise contender? Would one of them crack?

Over in Sandwich, England, we had just as weighty questions regarding Darren Clarke, Lucas Glover, Thomas Bjørn, and a host of others. And given my interest level in the two sports and their leading participants, I without question have more interest in the fates of the golfers than the riders. Yet, once I start watching the riders, I just can’t break away. And when I do, the slower rhythm of the golf, the more gradual unfolding of its essential moments, makes me return instantly to the Tour.

Fortunately, the Tour ends well before the midway point of the day’s round in golf, so I can afford to stick with the riders to the stage’s conclusion, then switch over for good. But even then, when I make the switch, it takes maybe half an hour for me to adjust.

A case in point was what happened two years ago, when Tom Watson, at age 59, was making a run for the Open championship. My favorite golfer over the decades, poised to win his 6th Open, an unimaginable accomplishment. But the Tour won my attention, and when I did turn to golf, I didn’t warm up to it for a while. (Then, of course, Watson came to the 18th hole needing just a par for the unimaginable to happen, the Tour was long forgotten, no other sporting event could compare to what was happening in front of my eyes, … . Sigh.)

We’ll see how this plays out tomorrow. But the Tour features a flat stage, a day for the sprinters, a chance for the tour leaders to take it easy, and I may be watching golf until the stage nears its last 10k.

As for today, a great stage indeed. The favorites finished all together, letting Belgian rider Jelle Vanendert break off to build a lead near the top of the climb, and allowing Sammy Sanchez to follow him nearer still to the top. Vanendert and Sanchez finished 1-2, in reverse of their finish two days ago in the Pyrenees on the climb up to Luz-Ardiden. Their gains were modest, 46 and 25 seconds over Andy Schleck in third, 2 seconds more over the other Tour big shots — Frank Schleck, Evans, Contador, Basso. The only change this made to their relative overall rankings was to place Sanchez just a bit ahead of Contador, as they swapped 6th and 7th places.

But I didn’t even mention the real stunner, which is that once again Thomas Voeckler stayed with them up the mountain, holding onto the yellow jersey. Everyone knows it won’t last. He’ll crack on one of the mountain stages. But he’s shown no sign of cracking yet. And when he donned the yellow jersey at the podium afterwards, Bernard Hinault had warm words for him. (Hinault, 5-time champion, French racing giant, winner in ’85 when we saw him ((and everyone else)) on the final day in Paris during our honeymoon, stage manages the daily presentations. It’s always fascinating to see how he greets each of the day’s award winners.)

Following Voeckler in the standings are the riders we are all watching — Frank Schleck, Evans, Andy Schleck, Basso, Sanchez, and Contador. With tomorrow’s sprint day and Monday’s rest day, they will hit the Alps on Tuesday. There are some major climbs Wednesday, but the really big ones await on Thursday and Friday. Then, and perhaps only then, will the truth be revealed. After that, without a break, this year’s lone individual time trial will take place Saturday in Grenoble. It’s going to be an exciting three days.

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