As the riders approached the first treacherous ascent of a Tour de France that has swung from bloody and gruesome to enchanting, the field of candidates for the yellow jersey began an attack one week in the making.
The lesson after the steep climb up the ruthless col du Tourmalet: Weaklings need not apply. One by one, the podium contenders in the main field dropped the gassed cyclists just hoping to end the day upright. Among those victims was Rabo Bank's podium dark horse, Robert Gesink, who threw out his back earlier. What the surviving front-runners do after Stage 12 remains a mystery.
The course provides the path. The cluster of riders hoping to glide to Paris as victors must decide how to traverse it.
A day that began on Cugnaux's flat, sprint-friendly terrain ended with the hellacious, hazardous scaling of a beast. The col gave way to the exhausting finish atop Luz Ardiden. Thomas Voeckler, the Frenchman who a day earlier expected to surrender the yellow jersey, managed to keep the coveted garment without losing a significant chunk of time.
He finished the stage 1:49 ahead of second-place challenger Frank Schleck. That Spaniard Samuel Sanchez crossed the line first, recovering from an early crash, ranked second to a possible but not probable, reality when the event commenced the previous weekend. It will take at least a few more days to sort and trim the lengthy list of contenders.
The main pack allowed a six-man breakaway to build a cushion that topped 8:30 and, at times, seemed comfortable enough to fend off a late charge. The big boys did not show any teeth until the final 1,800 meters. None flashed the inevitable underbite.
First, Luxembourg's Andy Schleck launched an assault with four kilometers to go. Alberto Contador, the defending champion who beat Schleck by 39 seconds last year, followed but soon lost steam. It did not rival 2010's breathtaking battle to the col's summit, but the absence of a riveting chase has defined this wide-open competition.
Anyone can win.
Anyone can crumple in a finished heap.
The first week of racing claimed Tour mainstays Alexandre Vinokourov, David Zabriskie, Yaroslav Popovych, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner and Janez Brajkovic.
All of them hoped to impact the general classification. Lady Luck, instead, socked all of them in the collective gut. A bloody first seven days featured everything from spectacular peloton wrecks—several of which sent riders flying into ditches and bushes—to a disgraceful crash involving a media car.
Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland sailed like a missile into a barbed-wire fence after a careless driver's ill-timed swerve prompted chaos in a Stage 9 breakaway that might have otherwise succeeded. He demonstrated the ultimate bravery in finishing the course and retaining the King of the Mountains designation for a day.
Hoogerland required 33 stitches and medical attention just so he could stand on a stage and accept the polka dot jersey. The root of this scarring, difficult-to-watch series of catastrophes is clearer than ever: The man to beat now looks beatable.
Contador has conquered this behemoth sojourn three times. Now, the rigors of the route may soon conquer him.
Credit Voeckler's teammate, Pierre Rolland, for keeping him in yellow. French spectators could not have scripted a better story on Bastille Day. Blame the uncertainty surrounding Contador's three-peat bid for the uncommon pandemonium.
Collisions occur each year, and many involve prominent riders. It is rare, though, that so many contenders are eliminated before the punishing Pyrenees. Stage 12 afforded Contador the cushion he needed less than 12 months ago. Nothing seems settled now.
The Spanish champ expended an alarming amount of energy to win the Giro d'Italia. Does he have enough fuel left to make his move as the towering col d'Aubisque and Plateau de Beille beckon? He can erase his four-minute deficit to Voeckler, but can he overtake Australian Cadel Evans or either of the Schleck brothers?
Evans' BMC racing squad has done a superb job pacing him to the Pyrenees. He approached the mountain stages in perfect position to pounce. Friday or Saturday, he just might strike and wreck Contador's hopes for good.
The embattled reigning yellow jersey winner must surmount a horrid start that included three separate wrecks. Then, he must outsmart and out-ride worthy competitors. None of them appear willing to concede an inch or the minutes he needs back.
He lost precious seconds when gaining a sizable advantage might have crushed his pursuers. They want to take the shirt off his back—and that task looks simpler now than most imagined. A man known for breaking his opponents is one more stroke of misfortune from broken. One more errant turn could cost him the Tour's jackpot.
He'll need to close a several-minute gap to leapfrog Evans. A crippling crunch forced Frank Schleck to abandon the 2010 race. His health and laudable form changes the complexion of this one. He has even out-dueled his brother Andy thus far.
Do not write off Voeckler as a potential spoiler. His determination clobbered his pessimism Thursday—he might have the legs to pull off a surprise.
Contador tested positive for the banned substance Clenbuterol and awaits final word on whether cycling's chiefs will strip him of his last title. He blamed rancid meat for the damaging lab result. The riders salivating at the chance to dethrone him will bear down faster and harder than any official in a suit.
Evans may soon seize this Tour and leave a polarizing, world-class reigning champion in his dust. Bailing on such a decorated foe before he can launch a field-changing attack qualifies as stolid to the point of absurdity. Contador's rivals know better than to reach for shovels. That does not mean they have not located a few such tools.
His fate and burden: lose any more ground and the dirt will come flying faster than a time-trialist riding with a jet pack. He is as vulnerable as he might ever be in a career that already stands with some all-time greats.
If he has mastered the art of composure amidst bedlam, the Schlecks, Evans and others understand this opportunity may not come again. They better topple Contador while they can.
An upstart boxer would not shun a bout with an ailing Muhammad Ali. A gifted basketball player would not pass up a playoff series with a rusty Michael Jordan. The torment ahead will determine whether any man can land the knockout blow.
The murky general classification explains the pileups and high-profile withdrawals as much as anything else. The climbs continue and so does the mystery.
So much carnage; so much intrigue. Anybody's race.