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Stage 13 analysis: Miracle for Hushovd in Lourdes

The world champion prevailed in a tense, exciting stage in the Pyrenees.

Words by Edward Pickering in Lourdes

Friday July 15, 2011

Two years ago, L’Equipe carried a poll taken among the Tour de France peloton, asking the question, ‘who is the best descender in the bunch?’

The winner was Thor Hushovd. The cycling public rarely see the Norwegian go down a mountain – we’re used to watching the overall favourites descend, but the television cameras rarely tarry for the autobus. However, the regard in which Hushovd’s descending skills are held by the bunch was unmistakeable.

And today, we saw why. Hushovd crossed the Col d’Aubisque a full two minutes behind FDJ’s heroic and aggressive Jérémy Roy, but swept down the mountain, through the mist at the top, then in bright sunshine down the Col du Soulor. He picked up David Moncoutié, who was able to observe Hushovd’s descending skills at close quarters, as a non-contributing passenger.

The whole day had been a battle of unequals, each favoured by different terrain. Roy had punished Hushovd on the climb. Now Hushovd set to work on pulling him back on the drag down the valley to Lourdes.

The result looked in the balance almost all the way. The television cameras framed the development of the pursuit on straight, open roads. First Hushovd looked like the favourite. Then Roy looked as if he was going to hang on.

But the inequality of the pursuit match eventually and inevitably decided its result. Roy’s resistance and heart were broken on an uphill stretch on the outskirts of Lourdes as he was caught. And Hushovd the former bunch sprinter didn’t even want to sprint – he went right past the Frenchman for a stage win to go with his week in the yellow jersey. He’s the second Norwegian to win a surprise stage in the Pyrenees, following Dag-Otto Lauritzen in 1987. A world champion, a week in the yellow jersey, a mountain stage win – it’s as if Hushovd’s arrival in Lourdes was blessed.

***

But as always, the stage was about the losers as well as the winners: Don’t believe the myths. The Tour de France rarely favours underdogs or plucky enterprise.

One only has to look at the evidence of the 2011 race so far to see that. Until today, there have been 11 stages (plus a team time trial), and only two of them have seen breaks stay away. You can’t argue with the laws of physics – peloton beats escape, almost every time. The battle between pluck and pragmatism is an unequal one.

No team has epitomised this principle this year so much as Française des Jeux. The statistics are heartbreaking for the romantics: in those 11 road stages, they’ve had 11 different riders in breaks, with a net result of a few Combativity Prizes. The cycling equivalent of a pat on the head and a ‘good try’.

Make that 12 escapees in 12 stages. Roy had already spent yesterday on the attack over the Hourquette d’Ancizan and Tourmalet, making today’s effort look even more impressive. His consolation, his pat on the head, was the polka dot jersey, along with a red number on his back for the prix de la combativité. It was his second of the race, and FDJ’s fourth.

***
Today’s break was always destined to succeed, and everybody in the bunch seemed to know it, because it took an hour for the break to go. The GC riders called a truce, and ahead, Roy, Hushovd and Moncoutié, along with Lars Bak of HTC, Jérôme Pineau of Quick Step, Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, Vladimir Gusev of Katusha, Alessandro Petacchi of Lampre, Dimitri Fofonov of Astana and Maarten Tjallingii of Rabobank made their way to the Aubisque.

A group of such size and disparate talents was never going to maintain its integrity, and it duly blew to pieces on the climb.

It was surprisingly Hushovd who went away first, chased down and passed by Roy, then Moncoutié. Behind, Boasson Hagen pursued, although the Sky rider was quickly distanced.

Roy set about building a big lead by the summit – he was 45 seconds in front of his countryman at the top, and 1-50 ahead of Hushovd. The gap came in a little on the short descent of the Aubisque, and worryingly for Roy, it didn’t go out again on the brief two-kilometre climb of the Soulor.

But it was down the other side that Hushovd did the damage. With Roy 30 seconds clear along the valley road, but often visible ahead, he couldn’t have been more of a carrot if he’d painted himself orange, like the group of Basque fans back on the climb.

As the gap hovered persistently around a dozen seconds in the final 10 kilometres, Hushovd briefly showed frustration at Moncoutié’s lack of contribution, and the Frenchman rallied to take a couple of turns on the front, but all it did was expose himself to Hushovd’s attack to bridge to Roy at three kilometres to go. After one of the most tense and exciting battles of the entire 2011 Tour, the last two kilometres were almost anticlimactic, save for Hushovd’s deserved joy.

Behind Hushovd, Roy and Moncoutié, the bunch rode conservatively. Philippe Gilbert attacked out of the bunch in the final 25 kilometres to take the green jersey points for 10th place, but the riders in the top 10, so aggressive yesterday, rode over the Aubisque together.

It was almost as if they knew nothing they did could have matched the heroics of the escape.

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