You might remember that last year I wrote about my growing interest in the Tour de France. It's basically all Stephen's fault for sparking my interest the year I was ill. My big regret is not discovering it sooner. What a combination of bravery, drama and adrenaline! I love my F1 but the Tour takes excitement to a whole new level.
I still can't get over the fact that the top 8 riders are within 5 minutes of each other after 18 days of hardcore cycling. And, at the time of writing, the day before the final time trial, we really don't have a clue who is going to win.
There is literally nothing like watching a group of a couple of hundred cyclists speed along a narrow road together with spectators within touching distance, dressed in all manner of weird costumes. This year's tour has had its heartbreakingly dramatic moments. An early new hero of mine was Johnny Hoogerland. Early in the race, the driver of a French tv car decided, crazily, to go keep going no matter what rather than use the brakes that had been helpfully provided. This resulted in injury to two cyclists. Poor Johnny Hoogerland was catapulted into a barbed wire fence and the poor guy was seen, still cycling, being patched up by a medic in a car riding alongside him. What was even more remarkable was his forgiving attitude towards the driver whose recklessness could have killed him - saying that he probably felt bad enough himself.
Another hero of mine over the last two weeks has been Thomas Voeckler, the current overall leader. Every single day since he acquired the yellow jersey on stage 9, he's said that he's not going to keep it for long - and, certainly, people who know more about cycling than I do tended to agree with them. He was definitely going to lose it in the Pyrenees, and absolutely incontrovertibly he would lose it yesterday on the brutal and unforgiving climb to the highest ever stage finish at the top of the Galibier. Voeckler may well have believed the commentators himself, but he has been brave and brilliant and managed to hold on by the skin of his teeth. His lead went down from 1:45 to a mere sliver of 15 seconds. There's a lot of me that wants him to pull off a race win because for sheer tenacity he deserves it.
But he's not the only brave one. Luxembourg rider Andy Schleck, last year's runner up, took some criticism the other day for having a bit of a gripe about the final descent of a stage being too dangerous. Do you know what? Anyone who's been through 16 stages of the Tour de France is entitled to be a bit grumpy in my view and, as someone who much prefers going up to coming down, I sympathise. I don't like walking down a hill, but coming down a hill laced with spectators and hairpin bends at up to 60 kph along with a couple of hundred other cyclists is the ultimate in craziness to me. Whatever you think of him, and I like him, his bravery yesterday, breaking away from the main field with 60 km to go, and winning the stage, was amazing. He has to be at least on the podium - and he's owed a victory from last year.
Cadel Evans, who set the pace in the group behind Schleck yesterday, which helped Voeckler to hang on, ironically, is another contender. He's ridden a good race too. He and the other two would be my ideal podium.
I, unusually, managed to catch a load of yesterday's thrilling stage live. You seriously didn't know from one minute to the next who was going to win the stage or who was going to be wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the day. It was fantastic - and apparently it rates as one of the most exciting stages ever. I was gripped by it.
The defending champion, Alberto Contador, is lagging a bit behind but still seems to be a danger. He can't be written off. I find it hard to warm to him after last year when he took advantage of Andy Schleck's mechanical failure on the Tourmalet. It's not his fault his drugs cases haven't been resolved before now, but it's possible he could win the Tour and have his victory taken off him.
The riders I have most sympathy with today are the sprinters. They are not best suited to this sort of Alpine torture - the second assault of the Galibier in 24 hours has to go down as cruel and unusual punishment, surely - and our Mark Cavendish lost 20 points (but thankfully not his place in the race due to the number of people who had the same issue) of his lead in the green jersey competition for toiling in after the cut-off time yesterday. Let's hope he can hang on until Paris and win that competition.
Today's stage ends at the top of the Alpe d'Huez. By tea time, we may have a clearer idea of who's going to win this thing. The only thing I can say for sure is that I'm an ABC (anybody but Contador) girl.