There are moments when commentary on even the most marginal events rises to such shrieking hyperbole that we're compelled to see what the fuss is all about. Today, Stage 18 of the Tour de France, was one of those days. Total. Freakout. Perhaps this is not unexpected from veteran Versus cycling announcer Phil Liggett, who gets fluttery when the lads start "dancing on the pedals" in any ol' race, but this was different. From the moment the heavily favored Andy Schleck began a 60-kilometer solo breakaway to finish first atop the fabled Galibier pass — the highest-altitude finish in Tour history — a protracted tantric orgasm shuddered through the cycling universe. Poor Liggett's going to need some Brandy and a Coumadin to settle down from what he called "one of the greatest rides in modern Tour times." But even the professionally nonplused gents on Eurosport (the Versus network's relatively ghetto competitor, but the most reliable free streaming option) were hollering that Stage 18 "will tell you everything you need to know about this sport."
So what happened? Until today, the Tour de France has been a particularly vanilla event (this despite the presence of the first black dude in Tour history). No heroes, no villains, which is to say, no Lance Armstrong. The only thing that had made this Tour notable was the somewhat surreal carnage, which, with the barbed wire and torn spandex and everything, had begun to look less and less like a bike race and more and more like snuff porn. Today, Luxembourger Andy Schleck broke the race open with good tactics and the kind of grit one does not normally associate with natives of a grand duchy. Last year's winner, all-around bad ass Alberto Contador, was torched. A French underdog, Tommy Voeckler, held onto the overall lead by a scant 15 seconds. And the rest of the peloton was pretty much wasted. There are three days left. Here are the riders to watch and how to know what's what.
Andy Schleck: Half of the cycling Olsen twins — he and big brother Frank, both racing for team Leopard Trek, have predicted that they'd both be on the podium at the end of the race — Andy is easy to cheer against, but his ride today showed that all the wonky strategizing he's known for has some guts behind it. To break early, as Schleck did, means to suffer the long climb alone, never knowing what the chase group is up to. It was an assault, his first truly decisive move. He's favored overall and put the screws into Contador today — probably gratifying after last year's, ahem, "chain gate." Still, if the contest was getting with the podium girls, our odds would be on brother Frank.
Tommy Voeckler: The French underdog who has donned the yellow jersey with a kind of obligatory Gallic shrug, and he finished today gasping for air, literally unable to speak. Everyone treats him as if he were riding for Team Jerry's Kids. The commentators hate him, and he doesn't exactly fire the casual fan's imagination. (Dude gave himself a zero percent chance of winning the tour.) Still, his tenacity is something to behold, and the French are absolutely apeshit about him. Even Armstrong multi-Tweeted about how he could actually win.
Cadel Evans: Evans, an oft-accused "wheel sucker," was the only one who even tried to chase down Schleck today, with a style accurately described by The Inner Ring folks (if you follow only one TdF twitter, make it this one) as "huncred and crab-like toil." (Note the typos. As I say: freaking out.) He grabbed some Spandexed sack when no other big shots would. For that attack, Voeckler owes him at least a sleeve of his yellow jersey today.
Alberto Contador: By all accounts, including his own, he lost the Tour today, shattering in the last 10 kilometers. His team-bridging partnership with fellow Spaniard Sammy Sanchez is one of this year's more touching stories, a genuine bromance in a sport that doesn't see much of that kind of thing. He's still a very talented climber, perhaps the most talented. All you can hope for now is that he'll mix it up tomorrow — hang with the leaders and maybe rip off a breakaway during the climb, just to keep things interesting.
Mark Cavendish: He's dominating the race-within-the-race for the green jersey, given to the Tour's points leader — or rather, he was dominating until he drifted too far back of the lead today, forcing the Tour to deduct some points. The important thing to know about Cavendish's HTC-Highroad team is that they're not here to win the Tour; they're here to help Cavendish win sprints. The whole team is built around moments like the ones you see in the video here, from Stage 7 (a big stage for sprinters; it featured a sprint for points midway through the race and another at the finish). Cavendish's principal competition in this stage came from Philippe Gilbert and André "The Gorilla" Greipel, a legit sprinter in his own right, who defected from HTC after spending too much time playing second fiddle. But take a look at how HTC runs the show:
0:02: Watch the organization of Cavendish's leadout train, a 9-man strong lead-out team putting him in perfect position to win the sprint.
0:09: Two riders from HTC peel off the front, leaving two more HTC riders in front of Philippe Gilbert, who's leading Cavendish.
0:12-0:13: The remaining HTC leaders are looking around to make sure Cavendish is in the right position.
0:23: Cavendish's teammates have all broken off, and now you see Gilbert get out of the saddle and go for it. But Cavendish jumps at the perfect moment, somewhere around 0:31, and overtakes him.
Now, go to the end of the race and you'll see the organization at work again, on a tricky finish:
1:47: They're getting themselves in place before the big turn, right before the finish. When they come off the corner, HTC is totally organized.
1:51: Cavendish is all set, with plenty of protection around him.
1:59: Cavendish makes the jump.
2:01: HTC teammates give him the "smell you later" look and let up. Guess who's on his wheel? Greipel.
2:04: Greipel has the "oh shit" moment and tries to move across the field, but it's way too late.
2:37: Greipel's face is all twisted and sad, like a Greek Theater mask.
Nate Cavalieri will write about the last few stages of the Tour de France for us. He's written for Lonely Planet and Spin and cycled across Zambia as a part of the Tour d'Afrique. Follow him on Twitter, @natecavalieri.