Color us impressed with Thor Hushovd. On Friday, when the big sprinter-type won a stage in the Pyrenees, it felt like some sort of Freaky Friday body switcheroo. But now that he’s won Stage 16, the lead-up to the Alps, we have to concede that he’s just one hell of a rider. And for that matter, color us continually impressed with tenacious Thomas Voeckler, who has held onto the yellow jersey for yet another day, staving off a nice strategic breakaway by Cadel Evans, who has moved into second place overall and looks like the best-placed man to win the whole thing this year.
Today’s stage was a long, steady incline, with one Category 2 climb up the Col de Manse leading into a 11.5-kilometer descent into the high-Alps city of Gap. It was a day for riders in the sprinter's competition to collect points, and for perhaps someone to make a move on that final climb and beat the field on the descent. Not the kind of stage for fireworks, but in 2003 that descent did cause Joseba Beloki, who was in second place, 40 seconds behind Lance Armstrong at the time, to crash out, breaking a wrist, an elbow, and his femur, effectively ending his career.
Today, under heavy rain, Hushovd joined a group of ten riders who broke off with about 60 kilometers to go, including popular, hard workers Ryder Hesjedal, Tony Martin, Boasson Hagan, and poor Jérémy Roy, who’d lost Stage 13 after Hushovd caught him in the final 2.5 kilometers. They built a lead of up to six minutes, and as they reached the summit, only three of the ten were left. Hesjedal was first to crest, followed by Hagan and Hushovd. Hesjedal and Hushovd are teammates on Garmin-Cervélo, but Hushovd smartly hung on to Team Sky rider Hagan’s wheel and let him do the work. The three riders entered the flats into Gap as a group, and at that point Hushovd and Hesjedal banded together to make sure one of them got the win. Unsurprisingly, it was Hushovd. Hesjedal came in third.
Back in the Peloton, Contador began attacking without much success, first getting reeled in by the Schlecks' team, Leopard Trek, then by Voeckler. On a third attack, accompanied by Sammy Sanchez and Cadel Evans, he successfully gapped the Schlecks and crested the summit 30 seconds ahead of the Schleck-Voeckler group, and some five minutes behind the breakaway. Then came the big surprise of the day: Cadel Evans switching into rocket-fast time-trial mode as soon as his group of three hit the flats. He crossed the finish line 4:23 behind Hushovd but 1:10 ahead of most of the rest of the GC contenders. Contador managed to stay close behind, losing three seconds to Evans, but coming out a winner in that Evans’s push also helped Contador gain over a minute on Andy Schleck and Voeckler. He’s now 3:42 behind Voeckler, but only 41 seconds behind Andy Schleck. And he’s shown that he is still a force in this year’s race. So is Evans. The finish vaulted Evans over Frank Schleck and into second place, though only by four seconds. He’s now the man to watch.
Tomorrow, the first of three days in the Alps, sends the Tour into Italy, where the stage ends with a cruel, deceptively small Category 2 climb up Colle Pra Martino, which has some sections ascending at a 12 percent grade and a three kilometer switchback descent that averages a 15 percent grade. Should be interesting/terrifying.