Blazin' Saddles: Plateau de Snail
Well, something must be up if the entire cast of Tour favourites can't drop little Tommy Voeckler on the queen stage of the race in the Pyrenees. Saddles takes a look at the second summit finish and lists what we have learned from stage 14 to Plateau de Beille.
1. "Frandy" are playing a very dangerous game. It has to be said, Leopard Schrek seem to have about as much tactical acumen as a plate of beouf bourguignon in Milan. And what's more, they're so deluded they keep on labelling themselves "the strongest". The sad thing is that the Tour is there to be won, but they seem incapable of getting a firm grip on it. Firstly, they don't know who their leader is; secondly Andy seems blissfully unaware that an attack in the last 200m of a 17km climb will not prove to be the race's decisive move. Especially when it only wins you two seconds.
2. Underestimate Thomas Voecker at your peril. If the cycling gods had a sense of humour, they'd contrive to see Voeckler on the top of the podium in Paris next weekend. He would be the people's choice as winner - and would serve as a constant reminder for all those supposedly superior riders around him that just because they get paid more than a plucky man from Alsace doesn't give them carte blanche to win the world's biggest cycling race.
3. Records are there to be broken. Unless something very odd happens between here and Paris, then no one will be able to say that the winner atop Plateau de Beille always goes on to triumph in the Tour anymore. Although, at this rate, Jelle Vanendert could well be allowed back into the game while the race favourites draw lots in the Alps to decide who gets to ride on the outside with a view of the valley.
4. Omega Pharma-Lotto and Europcar are the teams of the Tour. Forget HTC - we already knew they would rule the sprints; and forget Leopard Trek with their lavish budget of €15m. Lotto have notched three stages over mixed terrain while having to deal with the withdrawal of their team leader Jurgen Van den Broeck and workhorse Jurgen Van de Walle. As for Europcar, they almost folded in the winter, have a budget of €4m, have three debutants in their ranks (one of whom crashed heavily twice on day one), and have lost their in-form rider Kern to tendonitis; oh, and also they have the yellow jersey.
5. Evans could win the Tour and not have to do anything. Granted, the Australian has ridden a shrewd race, but bar his stage win early on, he's had it pretty easy - primarily because no one seems to be taking him seriously. "Every day that goes with the Schlecks not taking time off Evans is making victory harder for them to claim," said Contador - and he's right.
6. Contador's being let off the hook. We've never seen the Spaniard so off the boil - but even a completely hopeless Contador seems to be a match for the rest. Apart from his unfortunate time loss on the opening stage, and then the 20-odd seconds on the TTT, Contador has done nothing essentially worse than the others - we're just used to him being so much better. The higher and steeper climbs of the Alps will suit a revitalised Contador to a tee. The only rider in the top 35 who rode the exhausting Giro, Bertie must think Christmas came early.
7. Basso is the new Ullrich. The Italian has no acceleration, but once he gets into the groove in the biggest possible gear, he just keeps on juggernauting to the finish.
8. FDJ are going to have one hell of a post-race party. With Sandy Casar picking up yet another combativity prize (worth €2,000) and the likes of Mickael Delage and Jeremy Roy taking virtually every uncontested summit and intermediate sprint prizes up for grabs, the kitty is going to be huge in Paris. So big, that Mark Madiot's men may even forget their lack of stage win over the three week race.
Gaffe of the Day: Jens Voigt's twice coming a cropper on the descent of the Col d'Agnes.
Plat du Jour: Monjetard - a delightful dish made from beans and duck.
Word of the Day: Roland - a country in Eastern Europe famed both for its plumbers and unheralded cyclists.
Uses for... Jens Voigt: Crash test dummy
Tweet of the Day: "Voeckler can win the TdF. He's got 2 mins and they can't shake him. He wasn't swining off the back, he was one of the strongest. He won't lose 2:06 on the time trial assuming he keeps them close on Alpe d'Huez. His teammate Pierre Rolland has been a rockstar and has to continue to be. Lastly, the dude knows how to suffer." Lance Armstrong
Quote of the Day #1: "Winning at Plateau de Beille... it's not bad, huh?" Jelle Vanendert
Quote of the Day #2: "The Schleck brothers were there and they've got the yellow jersey to gain and then they look at me to pull for them. I joke with them and say, 'I'm not here to tow you to Paris'." Cadel Evans
Stage 15 prediction: Thomas Voeckler to attack along with Jelle Vanendert after just 10km. No one will take them seriously, and while the race favourites haggle over who enters the feeding zone on whose wheel, the pair will build up a seven-minute advantage. The Frenchman will gift the stage to the Vanendert, who becomes the first Belgian back-to-back winner since Tintin thwarted Thomson and Thompson on consecutive nights back in Tibet, 1963. And Saddles' serious prediction: Cavendish, with Renshaw taking second.