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Aérogramme Day 11: Sprinters Day of Agony

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A Sprinter’s Difficult Day

Five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain once said that the riders he admired the most were the sprinters. He admired their high-speed acrobatics. And he was in awe of their ability to dig deep in the high mountains of the Tour de France, just to have another shot at a stage win down the road.

The first 10 days of this year’s Tour have been particularly demanding as the Tour riders battled rain, stiff crosswinds and cobbles. And the intense racing quickly took, as many contenders faltered as soon as the race hit the Pyrénées. But for sprinters, the Pyrenees can be even more problematic.

Words & images: James Startt
From: Lannemazan, France

Andre Greipel sat inside his Lotto-Soudal team bus this morning before the start of Stage 11 in downtown Pau. And although the German sprinter has had a successful Tour to date, one that has included two stage wins, he knew that today’s stage from Pau to Cauterets would be a complicated one. With no less than six climbs over 188 kilometers, the statuesque Greipel understood that he would spend much of the day in survival mode, simply hoping to make it to the finish before the time cut-off imposed by the Tour. And to make matters worse, there was the question of the green points jersey he needed to defend.

“Before he can think about surviving, he has to think about the points sprint, which is about 45 kilometers into the stage,” said Herman Frisson, one of the team directors.  “That’s not going to be easy. There is a climb eight kilometers before the sprint. That’s a little bit of a problem for André. There are guys like Peter Sagan or John Degenkolb that can climb. And then, after that, it’s the grupetto!”

But Frisson added that even the gruppetto would not come easily today. “There are some very hard climbs today. The Tourmalet is the next to the last climb and that’s a very hard climb. For a sprinter, three days in the Pyrénées is very hard. They can have good days, but also real bad days. And when a sprinter has a bad day in the mountains, things can get dangerous really quickly. Very quickly they can be fighting for survival, fighting not to get eliminated in the time cut.”

With the green jersey still on his shoulders, Greipel stepped out of the team bus and chatted with journalists while signing autographs. “There are no easy days in the Tour, but the mountains in particular are complicated.” While some sprinters get nervous before a big mountain stage, Greipel says he is not one of them. “What’s the use? All you can do is give your best.”

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From the start, Frisson hoped that an attack would go away immediately so that the riders in the breakaway would pick up the biggest points in case Greipel was dropped on the climb and could not contest the sprint.

But such a scenario only proved to be wishful thinking. Attacks did occur from the gun, but none that lasted. And as the pack hit the day’s first climb, the Côte de Loucrup, the pack split into two groups with Greipel caught behind. Over the summit, his Lotto teammates quickly organized a chase, and Greipel did manage to regain contact with the pack just before the sprint. But the German could do no better than 9th place. His rival, Peter Sagan, managed to finish second. Tonight at the finish, the green jersey would be his to defend.

But while Griepel may have been frustrated, he had no time to dwell on such misfortunes, as two of the Tour’s historic climbs, the Col d’Aspin, and the Col du Tourmalet,  were next on the menu.

Since the Tour first ventured into the Pyrénées in 1910, the 2115-meter Tourmalet has been a central climb, and one that has often left strong impressions. Octave Lapize, winner of the race in 1910, had only one thing to say to the race organizers when he crossed the summit of the Tour’s inaugural ascension of the Tourmalet. “Assassins!”

Race organizers, however, seemed unimpressed, and the mythic mountain pass has remained a fixture ever since.

For Greipel, getting over the Tourmalet, appeared less dramatic, as he had no problem staying with the grupetto, along with many of the other Tour sprinters, a small consolation after his rough start to the stage.

By the finish in Cauterets, he finished in 147th place, 32 minutes, 34 seconds behind the day’s winner, Polish rider Rafal Majka, of the Tinkoff-Saxo Bank squad. For Greipel, the second day in the Pyrénées proved to be a day of mixed returns. But then the Pyrénées never come easy for the sprinters.

Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.