Tour de France 2012: We are against all watches

Three weeks ago, we were all focused on Liege and the prologue of this year’s Tour. It seems odd that we’re not coming to the finish, with just two stages left before everything’s sorted, and this time next week we’ll be watching the Olympic road race.

And as if in practice for that, yesterday we saw Mark Cavendish at his best, reminding everybody just why he’s the world champion. It was one of the bext wins of his career, and a good way to finally match Andre Darrigade’s 22 wins as the Tour’s leading sprinter. I think the best perspective on it came from Nicolas Roche in an interview afterwards when he said he only noticed that Cavendish had gone past them when Luis Leon Sanchez started coasting to the line, assuming the bunch were about to swamp them. They hadn’t realised just how far he’d leapt from the bunch, and that if they’d carried on going, they’d have got second and third on the stage.

It’s also a signal of how confident Bradley Wiggins is in his overall victory that he was able to lead the chase through the last few kilometres and not worry about conserving all his energy for today’s stage. For anyone who hadn’t guessed it, it’s likely the same tactics Great Britain will be using next Saturday, as they’re the ones that worked out very well in Copenhagen last year. We’ll likely see a replay on Sunday in Paris, which may mean we get the spectacle of the yellow jersey leading the peloton in the last few kilometres, which will be somewhat different to the normal routine of the day.

While it’s a relatively long time trial at 51km, it’s not a very complicated route. There aren’t too many technical parts, and no steep climbs or descents, which makes it the perfect course for the power time trial specialists. It would have been interesting to see how Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara would have done on this stage, but as it is, I suspect the winner will be either Wiggins or Tejay Van Garderen. Froome’s a good time triallist, but his best results have come on courses where he can use his climbing abilities more, but I suspect he’ll be happy finishing in the top 5, protecting his second place from Nibali.

Barring an absolute disaster, though, Wiggins and Froome will remain first and second at the end of the stage. The real battle will be taking place behind them. Van Den Broeck probably won’t be able to make up three minutes on Nibali, but it’ll be fun to watch him try, and Van Garderen probably won’t move up from fifth, but if he’s on form this could be BMC’s best chance for a stage win this year, and a chance for him to get his first Tour stage and lay down a marker for future years.

The interesting battle comes from seventh to eleventh place with just a couple of minutes separating Zubeldia, Rolland, Brajkovic, Pinot and Roche and all of them looking to grab a place in the top ten, both for the bragging rights and the ranking points. Further down the rankings, some riders will be looking to try and get their moment in the spotlight, or showcase themselves and their time trialling abilities. Others may be indulging in personal rivalries – David Millar was talking on Twitter last night about he and Dave Zabriskie will be fighting to avoid having to say that the other’s a better time trial rider.

Three weeks ago, I think we were expecting more drama on this stage, but Wiggins and Sky have dominated this Tour to such an extent that the final weekend’s a bit of a procession. Perhaps the main enemy Sky have to fight is complacency, losing focus and making mistakes. Two minutes isn’t that big a gap if you hit a crisis.

Tour de France 2012: The home stretch

It’s been a while since we’ve a Tour where all the major issues have been settled so early. After his performance yesterday, there’s no way Thomas Voeckler can lose the King of the Mountains title, and while Peter Sagan could theoretically be caught in the points competition if Andre Greipel won every sprint up to and including the Champs-Elysees while Sagan barely figured, it’s not likely to happen. In the young riders white jersey competition, Tejay Van Garderen has a three minute lead over Thibaut Pinot (with third place Steven Kruijswijk an hour behind) and isn’t likely to surrender that in the time trial.

And in the general classification, Bradley Wiggins still has his two minute lead over Chris Froome, despite the odd way they finished the stage yesterday. Behind them, the rest of the finishing order seems pretty settled, unless there are some superheroic performances in the time trial to gain a place or two.

Of course, you should always take a moment to let it sink in when you’ve pulled off a big achievement, but I’m guessing Wiggins now wishes he’d waited till after he crossed the finish line for his. Now we’ve got yet another round of debates on whether Froome should have gone and tried to catch Valverde, and if he would have been able to beat Wiggins without team orders in place. As many people have pointed out, though, it’s not as if Froome wasn’t aware of what the situation would be when he signed his contract with Sky after last year’s Vuelta – and he was offered the chance to lead other teams, but turned it down. I also have a feeling that we’ll be seeing this same debate ironically repeated in years to come, only with people questioning why Geraint Thomas or Peter Kennaugh aren’t being allowed to attack Froome, their team leader…

Sadly, with the King of the Mountains jersey settled, we won’t get the spectacle of Voeckler and Kessiakoff sprinting up category four climbs in a desperate battle for the single decisive point. The question today will be whether the peloton want to chase down the break or if the terrain will let it stay away. There’s a small climb just 10km from the end which will keep things interesting, either as a chance for someone from the break to launch an attack or for a team to really force the pace and try to split the peloton. We might also see Sky working hard for Cavendish today now the mountain duties are over. This will be a chance for them to practice tactics before the final sprint in Paris and for Cavendish to start getting his routine for the Olympics right.

TV coverage is on ITV4 from 1pm and Eurosport from 12.30. If you’re watching it on Eurosport, then keep watching after the Tour coverage for some highlights from the Women’s Grand Prix Series that happened earlier this year. You may even see me amidst the rain-sodden crowd in Colchester.

In other TV-related news, this year has unsurprisingly set new records for ITV4 in terms of viewer numbers, and they’ve announced that they’ll be showing Saturday and Sunday’s stages on ITV1 as well.

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.

Tour de France 2012: Wait a Schleckond

Yes, it’s a bad pun, but circumstances mean I haven’t been able to use ‘Andy Schleckond’ this year, so an oblique reference to Frank’s troubles will have to do. And in case you missed the news last night, Frank Schleck is now out of the tour after an ‘adverse analytical finding’ from a doping control on Saturday. The lab found traces of a diuretic in his sample, and while that’s not a banned or performance-enhancing substance in itself, it’s on a controlled list because it can be used to mask use of other substances.

As I understand it, the principle would be to take some performance-enhancing substance, then consume lots of liquid and a diuretic to wash traces of it from your system, and then more liquid to rid the system of traces of the diuretic. RadioShack have said that none of their medical staff possess or use Xipamide, the substance found in Frank’s sample, and things don’t look good for him. However, they will now test the other half of his sample to see if he gets the same result – for testing, a sample is divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’, with the B sample being tested after the A has come out positive to guard any contamination or false positives.

The knock-on effects from this could have quite an effect on professional cycling. There have already been reports that the whole RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team is in financial trouble with stories of riders not being paid, a sponsor that’s not interested now Lance Armstrong’s finally retired (and possibly in trouble of his own) and a team that’s not functioning as a cohesive unit, with the Schlecks and team boss Johann Bruyneel openly disparaging each other. This could be the nudge that sends the team over the edge, and other teams are already circling RNT riders with juicy contracts, while there are also stories of yet another new Schleck-focused team being established with the sponsorship of Alpecin shampoo. The reverberations from this could kill one team and strangle another at birth.

Back to the race itself, and it’s the first of two big stages in the Pyrenees. Four climbs in all, and after an early sprint, expect the big men to struggle for most of the day while the leaders and the grimpeurs head off down the road. For Nibali, Evans and Van Den Broeck, today and tomorrow are the last chance they’ll have to take time out of Wiggins and Froome. There’s tests for other riders too – Kessiakoff will be looking for King of the Mountains points, while other riders will be wondering if they can gain a handful of minutes to move up a few places in the overall classification. It’ll also be interesting to see if Rolland and Pinot battle to be the leading French rider, and if Rolland is allowed to get away to try and claim the polka dot jersey.

For the leaders, though, the question isn’t whether there’ll be attacks but when and who’ll launch them. Nibali and Van Den Broeck have looked the most likely to in the previous mountain stages, while Evans has shown signs of weakness. Will Tejay Van Garderen be ordered to escort him again if he gets into trouble, or will he be allowed to push on, especially as Pinot is challenging him for the young riders’ white jersey?

There’s lots of TV coverage today – ITV4 are showing it from noon, while Eurosport start at 9.30, giving us plenty of time for Sean Kelly to umm and talk about bonifications. The riders set off from Pau just after 10am UK time, with the leaders expected to reach the finish in Bagneres-du-Luchon around six hours later.

Tour de France 2012: Take a break

After the peloton took a bonus rest day on Friday, it seems they decided to do the same yesterday as well. After some frantic early attacking – so frantic that Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernie Eisel were trying to calm the pack down because of the chaos at the front – a break got away, and after a bit of chasing from Lotto-Belisol, they were allowed to go clear for the win. That was also because of the nature of yesterday’s stage – while there were only a few categorised climbs, there was over 2000m of ascent in it, which isn’t conducive to a fast hard chase and setting up the sprinters.

And so, Pierrick Fedrigo got to pick up France’s fourth stage win of the Tour, which means that they’re now tied with the UK as the nation with the most stage wins this year. Behind them, there’s three each for Slovakia (Sagan) and Germany (Greipel) and one each for Switzerland (Cancellara) and Spain (Sanchez).

In terms of the team performance at this point, there’s an interesting chart at the Inner Ring showing the amounts of prize money won by each team. Unsurprisingly, Sky are top with Liquigas-Cannondale second, Europcar third and then all the way down to Movistar in last place. Of course, that chart will change a lot over the next week, especially when the big prize money from the end of the race is added in, though it does give a good indication of which teams have and haven’t been successful on this Tour.

More important to the teams isn’t the prize money itself but the world ranking points that come along with results. These points go towards their ranking in the UCI World Tour, and while there is a rivalry between the teams and riders to come top in that, for the smaller teams, it’s more important to not come bottom. There’s no explicit relegation from the top tier of the World Tour down to the next level (Professional Continental), but performance is one of the criteria by which the UCI judge whether a team is allowed to stay as a ProTeam on the World Tour. The eighteen teams with that status are guaranteed invites to the World Tour events, and promoters and race sponsors want to know that they’re getting the best. If a team’s not performing at the right level – or don’t have the riders to compete at that level in the upcoming season – then they can be dropped.

World Tour points are also important to the national cycling federations, as the national rankings determine how many riders you can enter in events like the Olympics and the World Championships. A key part of British Cycling’s strategy last year was getting British riders scoring points in World Tour events to ensure that they could enter a team of 8 to support Cavendish.

That’s another reason why doing well on the Grand Tours can be the key to a whole season – there are points available to the first five riders on every stage, as well as points to the top 20 overall finishers. A good Tour means you can rocket up the table, and a rider who’s managed to pick himself up a few points can negotiate himself a much better contract in years to come. As an example, FDJ-BigMat have just 79 points so far this year. Thibaut Pinot’s stage win and second place is already worth 30 points to them, and if he carries on to Paris in 10th place, he’ll earn another 50, meaning he’ll have earned as much in one race as the rest of the team managed all season.

Which, of course, is what some of them might be doing this rest day. While the big guns like Wiggins and Sagan aren’t going to be going anywhere, there’ll be a lot of teams looking to build up their rosters for next year, be it Saxo-Tinkoff trying to ensure they have enough points to keep the UCI happy or a Professional Continental team like Europcar looking to get enough ranked riders to move up to join the big boys of world cycling.

Tour de France 2012: Getting a bit tacky

And lo, the headlines were filled with puns, just as the road was filled with pointy things. It made for an altogether odd day as Mark Cavendish led the peloton up a climb, while Peter Sagan sprinted up a steep climb with a breakaway as the leaders all found themselves needing new wheels – and in some cases, new bikes. The upshot of it all was that what could have been a tough stage for Bradley Wiggins turned into another day when no-one except the breakaway gained any time on him and he became as the potential new patron of the Tour.

I was thinking last night that professional cycling is perhaps unique amongst sports in the amount of time rivals spend in each other’s company. There’s the hours on the road in the peloton each day, then everyone’s usually staying in the same place afterwards, possibly even the same hotel. While riders might not socialise with each other much outside of races, when they’re competing, they’re spending a lot of time together, and many of them will have spent years in the peloton together, even if they’ve never been on the same team. That sort of proximity, coupled with cycling’s long history, brings in a certain etiquette amongst competitors, notably yesterday that you don’t profit from someone else’s externally inflicted misfortune.

The status of patron is a nebulous one, but generally applies to a rider who carries a certain authority and inspires a certain amount of respect and fear amongst the peloton. Wiggins basically telling the peloton that they were going to neutralise the race while those affected by the tacks got back into the group was the action of a patron, laying down the law which just about everyone accepted. It’s a sign of the respect he’s gathered this year, and the respect that’s automatically given to the yellow jersey, that such requests are obeyed by the other riders. Except for Pierre Rolland, of course, though I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes if he suffers a problem in the last week.

And yes, we are into the last week and the chances to take the advantage back from Wiggins and Sky are slipping away, though the press are now trying to create drama by heating the embers of the supposed Wiggins/Froome internal feud. It probably stung more than anything attempted going uphill yesterday, anyway.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget that there was an interesting race at the front yesterday, and Luis Leon Sanchez found one way to beat Peter Sagan by starting the sprint a few kilometres before the line. It was very interesting to see Sagan’s relative ease on the climb yesterday – perhaps he finally worked out what the inner ring on his bike is for? – which suggests he could become a GC contender in years to come.

Interesting fact of the day: The only riders in the top ten to have taken time from Wiggins in a stage this year are Froome, Rolland and Pinot.

After entering the Pyrenees yesterday, the race heads out and comes back in again today. It looks like a flat stage, with only three categorised climbs, but there’s a lot of up and down before the run-in to Pau, and there’ll be a lot of teams without wins this year who’ll be wanting to get one. That could make for an interesting battle between whoever gets in the break and Orica-GreenEdge trying to pull them back to give Matt Goss another chance to come second in a sprint. Toss a coin – heads says the break stays away this time and someone gets his moment of glory, tails and it’s a sprint, with Greipel, Cavendish, Goss, Sagan et al battling to the line. My tip for the day is Cavendish – after his work yesterday, and with a rest day tomorrow, Sky will be doing more to help him and I think they’ll want to start rehearsing their sprint train for Paris next Sunday.

Tour de France 2012: Hitting the wall

One of the key features of this year’s Tour has been the organisers hunt through France for some of the steepest roads, rather than just settling for the highest. The theory is that this gives us much more exciting racing, especially in the post-EPO era, where you’re more likely to see sustainable attacks on short, savage ramps than you are on a long and consistent ones.

And so yesterday was determined by the climb near the finish. Perhaps not quite as dramatically as La Planche des Belle Filles did last week, but Mont Saint Clair dramatically reduced the peloton and gave Cadel Evans the chance to set Bradley Wiggins to the test on another climb, one that Wiggins passed admirably. Behind the dramatics at the front, a peloton that had already been split by crosswinds was being further reduced by the steepness of the climb, which drastically reduced the field of sprinters for the finish. There were a couple of surprises at the end – first, seeing the yellow jersey lead out the sprint for a team mate with an incredible burst of speed and secondly, that Andre Greipel had made it over the climb while Goss and Cavendish hadn’t. He got to match Peter Sagan by taking his third win of the Tour, though Sagan now seems to have a stranglehold on the green jersey, unless circumstances completely remove him from a couple of sprints.

Despite the attacks on the final climb and BMC’s work to split the peloton in the winds, there were no changes amongst the leaders, and now there are just a handful of stages left that might change the overall positions. The transition is over, and we’re into the Pyrenees as we enter the final week.

The day starts in the foothills after climbing to the Col du Portel, then heads over two category 1 climbs before a descent and run-in to Foix. The length of the run-in at the end makes it unlikely that any of the leaders is going to put any time into their rivals, as unless they can get into a big group, they’ll be chased and caught on the run-in. However, the second climb of the day on the Mur de Peguere gets very steep at the top and while breaking off from a group might not work, it’s a place where someone who cracks and drops off from the main group is likely to lose a lot of time that they won’t make back up on the descent. Lots of teams will be remembering how Wiggins cracked on the similarly steep climb of the Angliru in last year’s Vuelta and may be seeking to do the same again.

It’s a good day for a breakaway to take the stage and try to hold out across the two big climbs, though the Perguere will likely shatter them apart too, and they’ll need to regroup to stay out ahead on the run-in. It could be a day for a rider like Sylvain Chavanel to shine – someone who’s been looking for glory for the past two weeks but found none as yet, and is far enough down in the overall classification to be allowed to get away. Pierre Rolland is too highly placed to be allowed to get away, but look for him to try and grab some King of the Mountains points as he battles with Kessiakoff.

Tour de France 2012: The bonus rest day

So, the day where they turn the map the other way around and put the big mountains at the start of it becomes the day the breakaway stays away and delivers a winner. Yesterday was the Tour’s equivalent of declaration bowling in cricket – everyone has a contractual obligation to be there and deliver a result, but only a few are going to put real effort in. It was down to a combination of factors – riders tired from two tough days in the mountains, a course for the stage that the sprinters didn’t fancy, and a breakaway that was willing to push on and open up a gap that wasn’t going to be chased down. Of course, days like yesterday are good for the future of the Tour, as they ensure that people will keep trying to get into breaks in the hopes that they might be doing it on the day without a chase.

While the peloton were having an impromptu rest day and recovery ride, the five riders up front were making the most of their opportunity and did provide an exciting finish. Sometimes a successful breakaway can end with the one rider who has some strength left soloing to the line, but Peraud and Millar had the strength to sprint for the line, giving David Millar the chance to pick up his first stage win since 2003 and the rather fitting sight of a British repentant ex-doper winning on the anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death. That’s the fourth stage win by a different British rider in this Tour, with BMC’s Steve Cummings now the only British rider in the peloton without one.

Could today see the fifth British win, and Mark Cavendish’s second? It certainly looks like a sprinter’s stage, though there’s the complication of a category 3 climb not long before the finish. If the sprinters make it over that in the main group, then there’s a tricky finish to negotiate with an almost Giro D’Italia style tight bend within the last kilometre. The hill might mean a determined break could stay clear, but it’s more likely to be where a few riders get shed off the back after helping their sprinters to get over. The tight finish does mean that a sprinter can go from hero to zero very quickly if they’re following the wrong wheel, so it’s a bit of a lottery.

It’s also Bastille Day, so don’t be surprised to see heroics from French riders looking for victory or simply a bit of glory. While the rise of Rolland and Pinot means the French aren’t desperate for a winner this year, it’s still the national day in the Tour de France, and a French winner today would be guaranteed minor heroic status for a few years.

Tour de France 2012: When I want it, I’ll come and take it

Eleven stages done and we have our first candidate for ‘most over-analysed thirty seconds of this year’s Tour’ – amongst the English-speaking media, anyway (the French report is ‘Rolland first, Pinot second, others were also riding bikes yesterday’). Chris Froome’s sudden burst of acceleration with around four kilometres to go to La Toussoire, followed by an equally sudden easing-off as it was realised that while Nibali and Van Den Broeck were following him, Wiggins wasn’t, has been replayed and discussed many times since yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday delivered everything the organisers would have wanted when they drew up the route – high drama on the high roads, lots of attacks, a yellow jersey under pressure, a champion cracking, interesting team tactics, a rewriting of lots of the general classification and, of course, a Frenchman crossing the line first. Of course, I managed to miss a lot of it thanks to a puncture and a broken spoke while I was out on a ride of my own, without a support vehicle to give me a replacement. But that’s what highlights are for, right?

Luckily, I was back in time for the decisive climb of La Toussoire. While the battle for the yellow jersey is important, Pierre Rolland’s ride to victory was a superb effort from him, and confirms that he can be the challenger for overall victory that France has been waiting for for several years. He perfectly combined effort and aggression, riding away from his breakaway companions and then keeping a constant pace to the top. Behind him, Thibaut Pinot also showed a lot of promise in finishing second, managing to stick with the favourites group when it mattered. Both of them are now in the top ten of the general classification, and one interesting conflict over the next week might be their battle to be the leading French rider of the Tour.

After yesterday, I think we know two things about the battle for the yellow jersey. First, that Vincenzo Nibali now seems the only real threat to Team Sky, and second, that no one’s going to shut up about whether Froome or Wiggins is the stronger Sky rider, and if Froome should be allowed to attack his team leader. The key thing here is that Froome knows that he’s at the Tour as support for Wiggins, and would have known that when he signed his new contract with Sky after the Vuelta last year (when there were plenty of offers for him to move to other teams as their leader). That final attack did look like a statement of intent, but it also made strategic sense for the team – there was no way he’d gain enough time to catch Wiggins with it, but he could secure time over the other rivals. However, when Nibali and Van Den Broeck were able to go with him – and Rolland was too far ahead to be caught for the stage victory – Sky’s bosses called him back.

(This is a good argument against team radios, of course. While I don’t think they should be totally banned, I think giving every rider one does eliminate some of the spontaneity. My personal solution would be to say that each team can have no more than two riders with radios at any one time.)

I’m pretty sure that Froome has been promised a leading role on Sky in the future (hence him agreeing the new contract), possibly even starting at this year’s Vuelta if he recovers well enough from the Tour. Then at next year’s Tour, he can lead the team and then everyone on Twitter can start questioning why Wiggins and Rigoberto Uran aren’t being allowed to attack him…

Today’s an odd stage as the race transitions out of the Alps. It starts with two climbs, then levels out, but has a final tricky climb near the end that seems to be there solely to put the sprinters’ teams off from chasing down a break. I wouldn’t be surprised to see several breaks today, probably starting with one featuring Frederik Kessiakoff as he tries to grab King of the Mountains points early. It might also be a stage where BMC release Philippe Gilbert, as it could suit him and other Classic riders. Liquigas may be tempted to give chase to any break that doesn’t get too far down the road, as the uphill finish should suit Peter Sagan. If things do come together, Sky will be at the front to protect Bradley Wiggins, which could set up Boasson Hagen, or possibly even Cavendish if he wants to start preparing himself for the Olympic climb of Box Hill before a sprint finish.

Tour de France 2012: The sharp end

It’s odd how much people become obsessed with who is and who isn’t a good descender, when I’d question just how much effect descending skills have on the race result. I know that they’re a dramatic part of the race, and sometimes an accident can really shake things up – I still think Beloki would have beaten Armstrong in 2003 if not for their accident – but the time that sometimes gets gained on them isn’t usually huge, especially compared to the sort of gap that can be attained with a big mountain ride or time trial.

And as we saw yesterday, even if you do pull off a great descent and open up a gap, you often end up isolated and trying to ride alone against a pack that’s chasing you down, losing all the gains you made. That’s what happened to Nibali yesterday, and it will be interesting to see what effect his exertions yesterday have on him today. There’s clearly a desire amongst the other leaders to attack Wiggins and Sky, but there’s also an element of them all watching each other, knowing that if they don’t break Wiggins and Froome, there’s not room for them all on the podium at the end of the race.

And while the leaders are battling, there’s the potential for interesting racing ahead of them. With lots of punchy riders effectively out of the competition for the yellow jersey, there’s the potential to see some great contests up front, like we saw yesterday, and now Voeckler’s got the polka dot jersey on, there’s always the possibility of him putting in one of his trademark Hero of France performances to try and keep hold of it.

There’s no messing about on today’s stage. Almost straight from the start in the Olympic town of ALbertville, it heads straight up to the Col de la Madeleine. The Madeleine’s a massive climb – 25km at 6% – but one where it’s more likely to see a breakaway form than to see the favourites begin any major attacks on each other. With two more big climbs to come, it’d take a Herculean performance for anyone to stay away that long with little support. Remember that even Andy Schleck waited until the penultimate climb of a long day last year before attacking. It will be a chance for some of the teams to slip riders into the breakaway group that might come in handy later on, so look out for various Liquigas, BMC, Lotto and possibly RadioShack riders getting ahead.

The fireworks are likely to start on the next climb, the Croix de Fer, with even the breakaway riders pushing hard towards the top of it. As well as 25 King of the Mountains points, there’s the €5000 Souvenir Henri Desgranges to be won for being the first rider over the top of the Tour’s highest point. There’s a maximum of 75 King of the Mountains points to be won today – 25 each on the two high climbs, 20 at the finish and 5 on the Col du Mollard that juts into the descent from the Croix de Fer – and Voeckler currently leads the competition with 28, so today could shape up that contest a lot.

I think there are two main places where attacks will be launched in the yellow jersey group today. Firstly, near the top of the Croix de Fer, looking to sneak over ahead and then race down, putting in maximum effort up the Mollard and then hoping to reach the final climb to La Toussuire with enough of an advantage and the energy to hold on. You can call it the Schleck option as it’s what he tried last year, forcing Cadel Evans to chase him all the way up the Galibier. It’s high-risk, but potentially high reward.

The other likely place is on the final ascent. It’s the more conventional place to attack, and perhaps the more likely to succeed as it’s easier for a rider to pace himself and expend what energy he has left up a single climb. It’s also likely to be the place by which Wiggins will find himself without any of his team to support him, making him much more vulnerable. Of course, if Wiggins was to find himself in real trouble while an attack goes up the road, then this could be the moment for Chris Froome to be released, which would be fascinating to watch.

There are likely to be lots of attacking attempts today, so it’s one to keep an eye on for a while, as the full story might take a while to become visible. Luckily, this is one stage with lots of TV coverage, with live pictures coming from the start of the stage. Both Eurosport and ITV4 start their coverage at noon.