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tour de france

Tour de France Contenders Bide Time Before Pyrenees

Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan grew up watching four-hour silent Japanese feeds of the Tour de France because her dad needed more than ABC's meager coverage. She'll be writing about the Tour (or TDF) for the next two weeks. Today's installment: French Bastille-Day failure.

At the end of Tuesday's Stage 9 in the Alps, new yellow-jersey-holder Andy Schleck threw down a challenge to his closest rival, Alberto Contador, who trails by 41 seconds. "It's up to him to attack in the Pyrenees," said Schleck. But why wait until the Pyrenees, which don't start till Stage 14? That's so not Contador's style! Well, that's because yesterday's final stage in the Alps, Stage 10, didn't have any climbs steep enough for Contador to drop Schleck if he did decide to attack. On an "intermediate" stage like today's 179km (111mi) ride from Chambréy to Gap, the only guys who have a chance of escaping are those with no hope of winning overall, the guys who the Peloton don't think are worth chasing down.

Indeed, there was a breakaway around 35km in and the Peloton made no effort to chase it down. Four riders, Sergio Paulinho (RadioShack), Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d'Eparge), Mario Aerts (Omega-Pharma) and Dries Devenyns (QuickStep), sped off, followed a few minutes later by two Frenchmen, Pierre Rolland (BBox) and Maxime Bouet (Ag2r). The last two were effectively "granted permission" by the Peloton to catch the break since it is Bastille Day and not an important stage, and it didn't seem fair that there would be no French riders in contention for the stage win.

The pace of the Peloton was casual at best. The temperature hovered at around 100 degrees all day, and no one wanted to ride too hard after the Schleck-Contador Stage 9 explosion. Cadel Evans hung back after losing eight minutes and the yellow jersey yesterday. ("Thanks to everyone who supported me today, even if I sucked," he wrote on his Twitter.) Schleck, as a gesture of thanks to his team, kept going back to the team car and fetching water for everyone else. His brother Frank, by the way, just had surgery to repair the three breaks to his clavicle he suffered after falling on the cobblestones in Stage 3. Here are some pictures he Tweeted, but don't look unless you have a strong stomach.

The stage ended with RadioShack's Paulinho, from Portugal, and Cassie d'Epargne's Kiryienka, from Belarus, sprinting it out and Paulinho taking the stage in a photo finish. The French dudes in the breakaway didn't even come close to winning on Bastille Day, and the Peloton came in 13:30 later.

Expect a couple quiet days as the race moves to the Pyrenees, where the winner will most definitely be decided. Today, Stage 11, is for the sprinters. Bicycling magazine's Bill Strickland, author of Tour de Lance, about Armstrong's comeback season of 2008-2009, think our 7-time champ will try to go for a win in Stage 12 or Stage 13, which would be exciting. As for Schleck, he'll have to spend the next few days figuring out how he's going to gain significant time on Contador in the Pyrenees, since he's almost certain to do terribly in comparison with Contador in Stage 19, the individual time trial. Consider this: In the only measure we have from this year's Tour, the 5.5-mile Prologue, Schleck finished 42 seconds slower than Contador. The time trial in Stage 19 is 32 miles, or roughly six times the length of the Prologue, which means that in a linear model, Schleck would finish a full four minutes back. Realistically, he'll probably lose two minutes, which could mean the entire race if things are still close going into that stage.

We'll have more coverage in the next few days if anything interesting happens; for now we leave you with a video of Spanish rider Joseba Beloki's famous crash on the same ride into Gap in 2003 when the 125-degree tarmac melted, ripped off his rear wheel, broke his leg, elbow, and wrist, and effectively ended his career. (Beloki almost took down Lance Armstrong, too). And, for your pleasure, the truly awesome Stage 9 finish on Tuesday that cemented the Schleck-Contador supremacy. Check out how no one in the lead group had any idea they'd closed the gap, or how fast they were coming.


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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images