Tour de France 2012: 340 miles to Paris

Just four stages to go, and is it all over bar the shouting? There was a lot of expectation about yesterday’s stage, with predictions of explosive attacks, big changes in the general classification and some dramatic riding from individuals. We did get all those, but mostly from Thomas Voeckler who’s now moved up to 23rd place in the overall standings as well as leading the King of the Mountains.

In the race for the yellow jersey – or what we saw of it, given that French TV were rather preoccupied with Voeckler and Feillu alone at the front of the stage – it was another day of the attritional warfare that’s come to be the standard for Grand Tour racing over the last few years. That the change in style of racing – fewer huge attacks and racers sprinting up long mountain climbs like they weren’t there – occurred after drug testing regimes improved dramatically is purely a coincidence, of course. The racing’s not about dramatic breaks but slow torture, going right at the edge of your threshold (hence why they all have power meter and heart rate monitors) until either you or your opponents drop off the back. It’s an endurance sport which rewards those who can make themselves suffer the most.

I saw an interesting discussion earlier where someone suggested that one of the reasons why some European fans don’t like Lance Armstrong is that we never saw him beaten in his prime. One of the features of the Tour over the last few decades has been that there comes a point when the champion cracks – Hinault finally beating Lemond, then Indurain beating Lemond, Riis eclipsing Indurain etc – but that never happened with Armstrong as he retired as champion. Yesterday was when that definitively happened to Cadel Evans as he slipped off the back of the peloton and this time the team didn’t order Tejay Van Garderen to go back and help him. The torch is passed on to the next generation as the top three of this year’s race go off ahead of everyone else.

Today’s the last chance for a lot of riders to make a serious impact on the overall classification, as it’s the last mountain stage and mountain top finish of the race. It’s a short stage, starting with a few smaller climbs, then leaving two big climbs to the end, including a re-ascent of the Peyresaude at the end, with a final climb up to Peyregaudes to finish. If Nibali has any designs on winning, then he needs to attack today, but if he merely wants to hold on to a podium place then he has to watch out for what Van Den Broeck, Zubeldia and Van Garderen might do to try and knock him out of third place.

The real drama today could be in the battle for the King of the Mountains jersey – Voeckler has a narrow lead over Kessiakoff, but there are plenty of points available today and it could come down to how much energy Voeckler has left after his heroics. Of course, it’s also possible that the two could end the day very close on points, leading to some interesting battles for the five points available on Friday and the two on Sunday.

Today and tomorrow are also the last chance for many teams to get a stage win from this year’s race. Teams not expecting to have a chance in Saturday’s time trial or Sunday’s sprint on the Champs-Elysees will be looking to get riders into a break and hoping they can do a Voeckler. Movistar, Euskaltel, Katusha and Lampre would have expected more coming into this race and they’ll be wanting something to keep the sponsors happy.