Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Why wait for the Pyrénées?

Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador are happy to wait until the Pyrénées. That doesn't mean anyone else should.

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It’s beginning to sound like a stuck record as everyone repeats: “Oh, we’ll wait till the Pyrénées to try something,” or “It’s all gonna be decided in the Pyrénées.” Lance Armstrong has said it. Andy Schleck has said it. Alberto Contador has said it, as well 99 percent of the media. But why wait? Why not try something in the Massif Central?

Laurent Jalabert didn’t wait in 1995 and very nearly dethroned Miguel Induráin on a stage that had the same summit finish at Mende as this Friday’s stage 12. Greg LeMond didn’t wait in 1990 when he needed to make up time on upstart race leader Claudio Chiappucci, so he organized a counterattacking break with several others on a stage into the Massif Central and gained back most of his deficit — before the Pyrénées.

The next two stages of this year’s race are both through the region of misty mesas and limestone gorges that the Tour doesn’t visit that frequently. It offers the sort of terrain that favors breakaways — and not just the modern type of “no hope” break that forms every day at the Tour.

It’s not worthy of the Tour when the peloton falls into formulaic tactics and ignores stages that could play a significant role. On Wednesday, for instance, after the usual commotion in the first 35km when darting attacks and furious chases preceded the emergence of a group of riders not important on GC, the other 175 men essentially sat up and cruised to the finish. Yes, they’d did have a tough stage the day before and it was again extremely hot with strong winds at times, but riding slowly in the shelter of the peloton the majority enjoyed a day of recovery.

Then, on Thursday, with the sprinters’ teams principally responsible for keeping the race together, the team leaders again had a straightforward five hours on the bike with no major difficulties. So, with the first of the Pyrenean stages still three days away, are the contenders just going to continue following the herd and wait for the high mountains that are most favorable to race leaders Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador? Or will they adopt a different strategy and perhaps stretch the Saxo Bank and Astana teams to breaking point?

The green jersey on the attack: Jalabert at the 1995 Tour. He didn't wait.
The green jersey on the attack: Jalabert at the 1995 Tour. He didn't wait.

For the challengers, the advantages of planning attacks on the hilly courses of the Massif Central is that their teammates can contribute more to the action because they won’t be getting dropped on Cat. 1 climbs and put out of the reckoning. With more men available to get into breaks, help their leaders bridge to a breakaway or ride interference in a hostile chase group, a strong team can change the course of the race.

That’s what Jalabert and his ONCE team did on stage 12 of the 1995 Tour. The GC looked set: Induráin was in the yellow jersey, 2:27 ahead of ONCE’s Alex Zülle, and 6:00 on third-placed Bjarne Riis of Gewiss-Ballan.

Jalabert started the day in the green jersey, his overall deficit almost nine minutes, so the pack didn’t pay much attention when he joined a speculative move on the day’s first climb, more than 200km from the finish.

But the pace on the climb was high (Motorola’s Armstrong was one of the protagonists) and the peloton split. More than half of Induráin’s support riders were in the back half, so when Jalabert decided to re-accelerate on the plateau that followed the climb, the race leader had only two teammates with him. The ONCE team’s response was to send two team members, Spaniard Melchor Mauri and Australian Neil Stephens, up to join Jalabert (who was riding in a four-strong break); the five other ONCE riders (including current RadioShack team manager Johan Bruyneel) stayed with Zülle.

Induráin’s Banesto team had a dilemma. They had four men off the back chasing like crazy to regain the yellow jersey group, so their teammates at the front couldn’t ride full gas after Jalabert. As a result, Jalabert’s group steadily gained ground, their lead topping 10 minutes (and putting the Frenchman in the virtual GC lead) with 80km remaining.

And this wasn’t like the double-digit leads often taken in today’s Tour when the peloton rides a slow tempo. That chase in 1995 was dead serious, orchestrated by the race leader himself, while those up front would average some 42kph on a 222.5km stage that was rarely flat.

From our press car following Jalabert’s group, we had a thrilling view of the efforts being made by the three ONCE riders, ably assisted by Motorola’s Peron and Massimo Podenzana of Brescialat. The only one sitting on the break was Dario Bottaro, a teammate of Riis (who today is the manager of Schleck’s Saxo Bank team).

Stephens eventually rode himself into the ground, and the gap was cut to six minutes by the finish, where Jalabert rode away from the others on the 3km, 10-percent “wall” at Mende to claim his most famous victory. The locals thought that his performance — on Bastille Day — was so special that they renamed the climb up to the Croix Neuve plateau the Montée Laurent Jalabert.

He didn’t take the yellow jersey that day, but the Frenchman did climb to third on GC and finished the Tour in fourth overall, still with the green jersey on his back.

Could something like this happen on Friday? It certainly could. Four teams have two riders sitting within 10 minutes of the two race leaders: Rabobank (with Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink), RadioShack (with Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden), Liquigas (with Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger) and Sky (with Brad Wiggins and Thomas Lövkvist).

If those teams send men up into the attacks on the first part of stage 12, which has an 11.7km Cat. 3 climb starting after just 20km (similar to that stage in 1995), and the peloton splits (as it well could), half the Astana team and the over-worked Saxo Bank squad could lose riders early. And who know what could happen then on a 210.5km stage that has five categorized climbs and quite a few others?

If the challenging teams don’t attack, they will simply play into the hands of Schleck and Contador, who will be more than happy to continue their duel for the yellow jersey on that fierce finishing hill named after a rider who didn’t wait for the Pyrénées: Laurent Jalabert.

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