So, this weekend while you were gorging on barbecue and Miller High Life, Alberto Contador was busy falling a minute and 43 seconds behind in the Tour de France. This is a big deal. Not an insurmountable deal. But a big deal. How did it happen?
Stage 1: Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes, 191.5km (119 miles)
Saturday was positively filled with falls. Prerace talk had focused on crosswinds and the ride’s route over the causeway of Passage du Gois, which is sometimes covered in water. But instead some riders got stymied by traffic islands, some were crowded off narrow roads and into ditches, and some got bucked by a speed bump. Then with just eight kilometers to go, a member of Contador’s former team, Astana (karma!) ran into a spectator and ricocheted back across the pack, knocking down dozens of riders and blocking the rest of the pack from proceeding. Contador happened to be behind the pileup, along with fellow yellow jersey contenders Samuel Sanchez (fourth-place finisher last year), Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, and American Christian Vande Velde. After picking his way over the sea of fallen bikes and riders, Contador finished 1:20 behind the stage winner, Belgian Phillipe Gilbert, and 1:17 behind the first yellow jersey contender to cross the line, Cadel Evans, a good climber who is looking more and more like a serious threat. Contador’s staunch rival Andy Schleck was in front of the pileup, then got into his own separate crash three kilometers from the finish, also ending up a minute and twenty seconds behind Gilbert. But because of Tour rules regarding the final three kilometers of a race, Schleck was credited with the same time as the pack he’d been in, meaning he officially lost only six seconds to Gilbert. The winners of the day were clearly Evans, who’s shown he’s riding both strong and smart, and Schleck, who finally seems to have luck on his side. Contador, on the other hand, never should have been riding that far back in the pack.
Stage 2: Les Essarts team time trial, 23km (14.3 miles)
The next day in the Team Time Trial, Garmin-Cervélo, a team run by former American racer Jonathan Vaughters that prides itself on its anti-doping message, won the day just four seconds ahead of Cadel Evans’s BMC Racing Team. Noncontender Thor Hushovd took the yellow jersey, but Evans is just one second out from the overall lead. Also notable: Andy Schleck’s Leopard Trek team finished just one second behind BMC, which keeps Schleck just four seconds behind Hushovd. But Alberto Contador’s Saxo Bank-Sungard team lost an additional 28 seconds, putting the Spaniard a minute and 42 seconds behind. Also bad: Only four of his teammates finished with him. (Teams start with nine riders; only five need finish to register a team trial time, but it’s still not a good sign for his team that the other five couldn’t keep up.)
Stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon, 198km (123 miles)
Tyler Farrar became the first American to win a TDF stage on the Fourth of July, and there was added poignance. Just two months ago, his 26-year-old training partner and teammate Wouter Weylandt died on a descent in Stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia, causing Farrar and his entire Leopard Trek team to pull out of the race after they’d ridden one day in his honor, with the entire Peloton in black armbands. Now on Garmin-Cervélo, Farrar got a a crucial lead-out from teammate Thor Hushovd, the current yellow-jersey leader and current Road World Champion who has said it is his goal this year to see Farrar wearing the green sprinters’ jersey in Paris. Farrar crossed the finish line holding out his fingers as W’s, in honor of Weylandt. Otherwise, it was a rather ho-hum flat stage, with three big points of excitement. The first, chronologically, only became exciting later, when officials decided to strip Hushovd and Cavendish of their points for jostling with each other (Hushovd moved out of his sprinting line, a big no-no, and Cavendish pushed his way into Hushovd’s lane via his head). The second was actually exciting: Samuel Dumoulin doing a full somersault while still clipped into his pedals while rounding a final turn. And the third was just typical Mark Cavendish, bitching about Frenchman Romain Feillu and his general havoc-causing sprinting style. Cavendish is always pretty vocal, but he’s got only six stages this year by which to secure his reputation as the world’s most dominant sprinter, and two of those victories have already passed him by.
Stage 4: Lorient to Mûr-de-Bretagne, 172.5km (107 miles)
The day started out with Jurgen Van de Walle pulling out of the race after injuries sustained in Stage 1. Poor dude lost control of his bike while gesturing to warn other riders of a traffic obstacle. On a rainy-ish day, there was a typical mid-race breakaway that got caught three kilometers from the end, with BMC’s George Hincapie leading the charge for his team leader, Cadel Evans. One and a half kilometers from the end, on a steep incline, Contador finally made his first bid to reclaim some of his lost time. He was quickly matched by Evans, Alexandre Vinokourov, Hushovd, and others, and attacked again, but couldn’t shake Evans, who beat him for his first-ever TDF stage win in a photo finish. It’s not much, but Contador did get eight seconds back from Andy Schleck. And as we well know, every second counts.