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Norwegian Alps

Edvald Boasson Hagen

[Laurent Rebours/AP]

In just hours, the biggest stage of the Tour will start. I need to go to sleep so I can be awake for it. Hence, a short post on two eventful days.

Yesterday, the riders arrived in the Alps, with a climb up Col de Manse and a finishing descent into Gap. It was a good day for a breakaway, an unlikely one for any change amongst the overall leaders. There were surprises aplenty. Sure enough, a ten-man breakaway emerged, with all ten surviving to finish ahead of the peloton. But it split up on the final climb, with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal taking the lead. The closest chasers were his teammate Thor Hushovd, and non-teammate but fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen. Hushovd, of course, has been one of the heroes of this year’s Tour, holding the yellow jersey for several days and winning a stage, showing a new versatility as much more than a sprinter and competitor for the green jersey (which he has won twice). With a teammate in the lead, he wouldn’t help Boasson Hagen catch up, but Boasson Hagen was able to do so anyway, with Hushovd in tow.

Once the three merged, Hushovd was free to go for the win. In a very slow final kilometer, they jockeyed for position, with Boasson Hagen on Hesjedal’s wheel ready to shoot out for a winning sprint but also turning back to eye Hushovd. In the final 100 meters, when Boasson Hagen looked back one last time, the moment he looked forward again, Hushovd made his move, winning the sprint and his second stage of the Tour, tenth overall. Boasson Hagen chased after him, but it was too late. Hesjedal raised his arm in victory for Hushovd as he crossed the line in third.

An exciting finish, and an unlikely day for Norway, what with its lone two competitors finishing 1-2. But the real action was behind them. Contador finally made his move, attacking on that final climb, only to have all the leaders respond, so that they went over the top of the climb together. But Contador wasn’t finished. He attacked again, on the descent, determined to squeeze out even just a few extra seconds. Sammy Sanchez and Cadel Evans stayed with him, opening a gap on the Schleck brothers, Basso, Cunego, and Thomas Voeckler, who surprised again by looking like he belonged in yellow, every bit the equal of the others. Evans grabbed 3 seconds on Contador and Sanchez at the finish. More important, the other leaders finished another 18 seconds back. This altered the general classification a little: Evans moved ahead of Frank Schleck for second, Contador moved ahead of Basso for sixth. The gap between second and sixth was 1’57”, from Evans to the Schlecks, Sanchez, and Contador. One imagines the three who will stand on the podium in Paris Sunday will come from these five. Voeckler has been riding an inspired race, but it can’t last.

Today was more of the same, as the riders moved on from Gap, crossed into Italy, had a final 2nd category climb, and descended into Pinerolo. 16 riders were in the successful breakaway, including a determined Boasson Hagen, who seized the lead near the end and held it on the descent to win the stage. He agreed in an interview that it went a long way toward making up for his narrow loss yesterday. And again Contador attacked his fellow leaders, this time on the descent. Only Sanchez stayed with him, allowing the two Spaniards to work together to enlarge their lead over the others. But, in a surprise to all of us — viewers, Phil, and Paul alike — the other leaders came from seemingly nowhere to catch them in the final 200 meters. The camera feed gave no evidence that they were closing, but they were. Evans, Cunego, and the Schlecks finished in the same time as Contador and Sanchez. Voeckler lost time, though, finishing 27 seconds back with Basso in another group.

It’s no mystery where Voeckler lost the time. He went off the road twice during the final descent. Still, he remains in yellow for another day, with a lead that has shrunk to 1’18” over Evans, and there remains an envelope of 1′ 57″ containing the Evans, the Schlecks, Sanchez, and Contador.

Tomorrow is the day of truth, with three above category climbs, culminating in the climb of Galibier. Everyone expects Voeckler to give up his lead. Will he crack completely, allowing the expected leaders to assume control? Will he hold on enough to continue to be a factor? For that matter, any of the other leaders could crack. What’s for sure is that Contador will go on the attack, as he must, forcing the pace and ensuring that those not in top form will be revealed. He may be among them. Or perhaps a Schleck will crack. Or Sanchez. The one person who looks least likely to do so is Evans.

We’ll know soon.

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