While each edition of Le Tour is unique it is also the case that the race follows a regular script. Week one is mainly for the sprinters accompanied by the regular quota of crashes. Breakaways try, and mostly fail, to secure a glorious win, except for the one or two per Tour that manage or are allowed to stay away by the peloton. Time-trials are dominated by specialists in the discipline, who are often also candidates for the GC. Mountain stages are won by general classification riders, or the lightweight grimpeurs who are allowed the win primarily because they are not a threat to the GC. Behind the elite few at the head of a mountain stage the rest of the peloton focuses on getting through the day, the riders perhaps having fulfilled their team duties by getting their leader to the foot of a mountain. Behind the peloton sits the grupetto, those riders for whom a day in the mountains is about survival and the expenditure of the minimum amount of energy before renewed efforts on terrain more suitable to their abilities. It’s here in the grupetto that you usually find the sprinters making fine calculations on how much time they can afford to lose to the stage winner without missing the time cut and being disqualified.
Sprinter’s don’t win mountain stages according to received wisdom; except of course when they do. Thor Hushovd’s win at Lourdes on 15 July in the 2011 Tour was one of those occasions. As unlikely as it seems Hushovd, 6 feet tall and weighing 174 lbs (1.83 metres and 79 kilos for lovers of metric) and certainly no mountain goat, crossed the hors categorie Col d’Aubisque in hot pursuit of the day’s breakaway solo leader, Jeremy Roy, and then went on to win the stage. It may help to recall that from Laruns the climb of the Aubisque runs for 16.6 kilometres and rises from 499 metres above sea level to 1,709 metres. If that wasn’t enough the preceding 50 kilometres or so before the climb of the Aubisque were little more than a steady uphill grind.
Normally Hushovd would be one of the last riders one would expect to be gracing the podium of a mountain stage. Simply put, gravity is against him when the terrain goes upwards, while the lighter mountain specialists, many of whom weigh less than 60 kilos, benefit from a higher power to weight ratio, even if they aren’t as physically strong as riders like Hushovd. Along with ten other riders Hushovd had been part of the day’s first successful breakaway which established itself with about 99 kilometres of the stage left to ride. By the foot of the Aubisque the breakaway had built a gap of 6 minutes on the peloton. With 16 kilometres of ascent followed by another 42 kilometres of mostly descent and flat roads to go after the summit had been reached the odds of any rider from the breakaway holding on to secure the stage victory were finely balanced if the peloton decided to chase.
On the early slopes of the Aubisque Hushovd rode aggressively, creating a gap and forcing his breakaway companions to respond. As some dropped away from the group, unable to follow Hushovd’s pacesetting, Jérémy Roy bridged the small gap to Hushovd. Behind them David Moncoutié hovered at a few seconds off the leading pair, sensibly riding his own race by keeping Hushovd and Roy in touching distance but not putting himself into the red by making an unnecessary effort to bridge up to them. As the gradient began to rise Roy broke away from Hushovd, emerging from a road tunnel 9 kilometres from the summit with a clear gap on the Norwegian. Behind him it was now Hushovd’s turn to pace his effort to the summit with the hope of catching Roy on the long run-in to Lourdes. Shortly afterwards he was passed by Moncoutié who then slowly clawed himself back towards Roy only to dangle tantalisingly close just 100 metres behind his French rival.
By the time Roy had reached the top of the Col d’Aubisque he had re-extended the gap over Moncoutié to 53 seconds, while Hushovd was now 2 minutes and 3 seconds down. With 42 kilometres of mostly descent and flat ahead the question was whether Roy riding on his own into a headwind could keep enough of his advantage to cross the finish line in first place. On the Col du Soulour, Roy, the more natural climber of the trio, extended his lead over Hushovd and Moncoutié by a few seconds. From there on in his lead was steadily eroded as Hushovd, widely regarded as one of the best descenders, caught Moncoutié coming off the Soulor. Now working together the pair steadily reduced Roy’s advantage. By the 20 kilometre banner his lead was down to 1 minute 5 seconds. With 10 kilometres to go it was just 18 seconds.
By then Hushovd and Moncoutié could see Roy ahead of them and any realistic chance of victory for him was gone. A slim glimmer of hope was offered as Moncoutié, well aware he would not beat Hushovd in a sprint, refused to work with Hushovd to bridge the last remaining seconds, no doubt hoping for an opportunity to launch a race winning move by breaking away from Hushovd in the final few kilometres or intent on conserving as much energy as possible if the stage did come down to a sprint. In the event it was Hushovd who made the decisive break from Moncoutié, powering away from him on a small climb with 3 kilometres left to go. 800 metres later Hushovd finally blew past the valiant Roy to ride alone through the twisting roads of Lourdes to record a memorable stage victory in the World Champion’s Rainbow Jersey. Sprinter’s it seems can win mountain stages.
Of course stage 13 wasn’t an out-and-out mountain stage. At 152.5 kilometres it was relatively short and the only significant climb was the Col d’Aubisque. A daunting prospect of course, but a lesser challege when compared to the previous day’s stage from Cugnaux to Luz Ardiden, 211 kilometres that included the climbs of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, Col du Tourmalet, and the mountain finish of Luz Ardiden itself, not to mention the six climbs that riders faced on stage 14 from Saint Gaudens to Plateau de Beille.
The sandwiching of stage 13 between two difficult days in the Pyrenees and the stage profile with it’s long descent to the finish line was a crucial factor for Hushovd’s chances of success. As long as the riders in any breakaway were no major threat to the GC then it could be expected that the contenders for overall victory in Paris would be content to let them go, choosing to use the stage to recover from the efforts of the previous day while keeping as much in the tank as possible for stage 14. Thus the first hour or so of stage 13 saw multiple attempts to form a breakaway. Hushovd’s group was the one that stuck and by the Aubisque they had created a lead that gave them a comfortable margin over the peloton, though one that could be brought back if the GC teams thought it necessary.
Hushovd could climb, not like an eagle admittedly, but better than many sprinters. With the summit of the Aubisque appearing 42 kilometres from the stage finish Hushovd could realistically hope to limit his time losses to any better climbers in the breakaway and then take advantage of the benefit he received from gravity going downhill and his skill at descending. As the physically strongest rider Hushovd also enjoyed an advantage on the flat over the less solidly built Roy and Moncoutié. He could also expect to beat either rider in a sprint even at the end of a hard day’s racing.
Tactically Hushovd rode a great race. Placing himself in the winning breakaway was the first step, then forcing the early pace on the Aubisque to shed seven of the riders with him. A sensible ride in the last 9 kilometres of the climb saw him reach the summit with a manageable deficit over Roy and Moncoutié. And from there on in he was able to use his physical advantages to his benefit. When the gap to Roy was reduced to 18 seconds with 10 kilometres Hushovd sensibly let the gap remain stable until with 3 kilometres to go he launched his final big move to win the race, dropping Mouncoutié, overtaking Roy, and riding on to the finish line alone in one prolonged effort.
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