It seems the Yellow Jersey has been made of butter this year. Sure, last year’s race—in which a mere three riders each enjoyed at least six days in the fleece—was something of an aberration, but it’s beginning to get ridiculous out there.
Five lead changes in nine stages of racing is something the Tour hasn’t seen since the tumult of 1998, and even then, it took Chris Bordman’s rough introduction to an unfortunate bit of Irish landscaping to accomplish the feat. It’s all the more baffling that these changes in race lead have been accomplished without time bonuses and a GC battle between sprinters; historically speaking, that’s what causes games of musical maillot jaune
On rare occasions—the chaotic Tours of the late 80s come to mind—two or more GC favorites will waver back and forth, trading off the race lead, sometimes until the final day. But, even with the Cancellara-Chavanel-Cancellara-Chavanel exchange in the first week, there’s been nothing even resembling “trades” for the race leaders in 2010; it’s been acquisition, catastrophe.
Cancellara took the race lead in the prologue, and with time bonuses off the table, seemed a solid candidate to hold it to the mountains. Then, on Stage 2, a freak accident took out the entire field, prompting him to give it up to save his team’s GC chances. It fell to Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman from an ostensibly cobble-ready squad—ideal traits for a placeholder Yellow Jersey in this year’s course—who seemed even more likely to carry it to the mountains.
But the cobbles thought otherwise, and three punctures later, Cancellara found himself back in yellow, surely the favorite to hold it to the Tour’s first true mountaintop finish. But in the heat and Cat 2 climbs, Cancellara cracked, dropped a fat fifteen minutes on the overall, and ceded the jersey once again to Chavanel. Not to be outdone, the Frenchman rode under the pressure of the true contenders to the point of total implosion the next day, bequeathing the jersey to Cadel Evans.
While Cadel doesn’t have the best history of race leadership, riding with his best supporting cast ever and the confidence of a strong Giro campaign made his shoulders feel like a relatively safe place for the coveted maillot jaune. But on a day where the Tour guide insisted a big GC battle was “an unlikely scenario“, Evans lost nearly 10 minutes; an impressive performance given the broken elbow he’d concealed during the stage, but enough to all but eliminate him as an overall contender.
And the crazy thing is, the madness might not stop with Andy Schleck. Sure, SaxoBank has been an active, impressive squad thus far this Tour. But after today’s woodchipper, it seems unlikely that they’ll have much interest in pulling back wave after wave of patriotic Frenchman on tomorrow’s still-not-easy Bastille Day stage—especially with this descent featuring in the final kilometers.
With a mere 0:41 on Contador—one second less than the Luxembourger lost to the Spaniard over 9k in the prolgue—it’s unlikely Bjarne Riis will chose to completely shoulder the weight of the race for the next two weeks, especially not with this pancake chrono as the last GC word before Paris. Fobbing leadership off on another squad would be a good way for the team to sit back and plot their battle plan against Contador, who’s looking better by the day.
So how many more leaders will this race see? I shudder to even imagine. In theory, it could be none. But despite the widely accepted opinion that today marked a de facto reduction of this Tour to a two-man race, I think we’ll see at least two more wearers before the jersey’s true recipient is finally decided.
Let’s just hope that if Andy does decide to rid himself of this thing, it’s under less catastrophic circumstances than we’ve seen thus far.