On Monday afternoon three men took profit from the mechanical of Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) on the Port de Balès: Alberto Contador (Astana), who took over the yellow jersey, was the primary beneficiary but the third and fourth-placed riders on general classification, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) respectively, also reduced their time gap to Schleck.
Menchov responded to the attack from Contador and said that he was focusing on following the Spaniard, rather than checking out what was going on with Schleck. "I can't explain [what happened with Schleck] because I didn't see what happened. We know that Alberto and Andy play with each other. We have to follow one of them. I saw the reaction of Contador and I thought it was decisive, so I tried to follow him," Menchov said.
When asked if he felt that what Contador did was fair play or not Menchov passed on the question to the Spaniard. "I don't know. You'll have to ask him. The question [what to do with Schleck] didn't come up in me [during the race]," Menchov said.
Menchov told Cyclingnews yesterday that he considered both Sanchez and Schleck as his main rivals for the podium. By gaining 39 seconds on Schleck the 32-year-old Russian rider now lies at two minutes and five seconds behind the unfortunate Luxembourger. With only two mountain stages left Menchov is more and more convinced that he can reduce the gap enough to go past Schleck in the 52km time trial on the penultimate stage. If he also takes thirteen seconds on Sanchez then he would finish second, which would be his best result ever in the Tour de France.
Theoretically Menchov still has a chance to win the Tour de France but the Russian played down those expectations. "It's difficult and too early to say. Today nothing changed, concerning positions. I'm quite far from Contador and he's a very strong climber. Perhaps there's a chance but I'll take it day-by-day," Menchov said.
One of those days where Menchov will try to improve his position is tomorrow's stage towards Pau, including two first category and two hors catégorie climbs: the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d'Aubisque.
What do you think about the Andy Schleck mechanical? Should his GC rivals have waited or were they in the right to attack? Weigh in on the Cyclingnews Forum.
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford was happy to see former Gerolsteiner team manager Hans-Michael Holczer at the start of stage 15 in Pamiers but admitted to Holczer that he'd been right when he had warned him that creating a successful professional team is extremely hard work.
With team leader Bradley Wiggins struggling in the mountains and now totally out of overall contention, Brailsford has seen how months of hard work count for virtually nothing. While other teams are fighting for the yellow jersey, a place on the podium or a minor jersey, Team Sky can only hope for a stage victory.
Brailsford admits that the biggest thing the team will take home from the Tour de France will be a lot of harsh lessons learnt about the hardest and biggest race in cycling.
"You can plans as much as you like but there is nothing like doing this race and then going back and reflecting on what you didn't know and learning from it. Even after two weeks, I'm not afraid to say there's a lot we didn't know," he said.
"I'm a novice at this race but I've got a smart group of people around me who learn really quick. Would we change the way we approach things? How we get the best out of people? Certainly not. It's like the Olympics Games, the first one blows you away but by the time you've done three or four, you just take it on. I guess it's the same here. You have to do the hours and we're doing them.
"Last year Brad got fourth and so it was right to go for that again. We're going to evaluate for next year on the basis of this year. However I do think the long term goal of this team is to develop young British riders and see if we can win this race. It's a dream. It might happen, it might not. But it gives us the mission.
"This year Geraint Thomas stepped up and performed at the Tour. I'm confident he did that because he's in the right team environment. If we can do that with Ben Swift, Ian Stannard, Pete Kennaugh and others, and not let our heads drop, absolutely we can create a great team."
Not giving up on Wiggins
Brailsford has often ridden in the lead team car during stages and has seen Bradley Wiggins suffer on the climbs. Brailsford is not certainly giving up on him.
"Bradley is not going as well as we hoped he would do but you've just got to stand there and take it on the chin. There's no point in making excuses," Brailsford said.
"I don't think he's potentially going as well as he was last year. I don't know what the reasons are. We've got some ideas but after the race we'll sit down, debrief and have a look at it. There is a kind of grieving process but we've got to get through the race first before we decide where we next year.
"One of the things I've learnt in the 12 years I've been doing the Olympics programme is that you think something is going to happen but the body gives you a nasty shock. And it's excruciating when it happens. But that's sport. If you want to try and win the big prize and be the hero, you have to accept that you can also lose. If you're not willing to walk the tightrope and face that excruciating pain then you shouldn't get up there."
Keep on fighting
Brailsford has called on the Team Sky riders to fight on and look for stage victories. It is always difficult to get in the attack that sticks in the mountains, that stays away and perhaps means a rider can fight for the stage victory.
"When you're back is against the wall, what do you do? Do you quit? Or do you keep on fighting? What we've talked about is keeping on fighting. You've got to give 100 percent. That's all you can ask of the guys.
"Now, rather than 12th place or whatever, I'm more concerned about the attitude in the team. We'd very much like to win a stage, we've been trying for a few days. We'll keep trying at that. And we've got to keep your head up, keep morale up and keep on going. There's still a week left in the race.
"Nobody wants a lukewarm hero and so if Brad has the legs and is up for it, then in the coming days, I think he would like to get up the road and go down fighting than just riding and getting 20th. That's our goal for the rest of the Tour."
Belgian distances Gesink and Leipheimer on stage 15
Another mountain stage went by and Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) once again managed to gain time on the riders that are eyeing his current fifth place on the Tour de France general classification. On the other hand, the 27-year-old Belgian lost time on all the riders ahead of him overall during today's 15th stage, which makes the podium spot the Belgian home front is hoping for almost impossible. Van den Broeck doesn't care about what others are hoping for and keeps going for the top-10 he aimed at when the Tour de France started in Rotterdam.
During the dramatic stage over the Port de Balès the race exploded within four kilometres of the summit. Van den Broeck didn't join the Contador group but managed to keep up with Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) when he tried to get back to the front. It resulted in a bonus of 26 seconds over Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), who're ranked sixth and seventh in the GC.
After freshening up in the team bus Van den Broeck talked with the press and the Belgian explained that he was pleased with today's outcome. "I gained time on the riders right behind me so I succeeded in reaching the goals I set myself [for today]. With two mountain stages to go things are looking good. Hopefully it stays like that. I'm always careful, though. You never know what they're going to do tomorrow. In the Tour de France anything can happen. The Tour is three weeks at the limit and as long as we're not at the finish line on the Champs Elysées you can't be sure," Van den Broeck said.
Van den Broeck had a privileged view on the things that happened with Schleck and Contador on the final climb but the Belgian said he wasn't focused on the two protagonists. "I don't have to look at those guys. I have to watch the guys that are behind me. I'm not looking at second or third place," Van den Broeck said.
In trying to do so Van den Broeck cooperated with Schleck, as the duo both had interest in descending as fast as possible to the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon. Van den Broeck also saw how Schleck reacted after crossing the finish line, when he seemed to be looking for a fight. The Belgian expects a fierce reaction on the bike from Schleck in one of the upcoming mountain stages. "I do expect it. I heard his reaction after the line. I heard enough. Maybe not tomorrow, it can happen in the stage after that, too," Van den Broeck said.
One day earlier, after the stage finish in Ax-3-Domaines, Van den Broeck wasn't giving the attending journalists an easy job. The Belgian rider responded to the questions with short answers, seemingly arrogant or at least annoyed with their presence. In his column in Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws the Belgian apologized, blaming that the hectic finale and arrival zone resulted in his impulsive behaviour.
"Just imagine, you did an extraordinary effort, you're searching for fresh air and then the media storms all over you. That's why I reacted impulsively. The collision of [Robbie] McEwen with a photographer in Guegnon was still fresh in my mind. I plead for a bit more calm and respect," Van den Broeck told Sporza. On Monday, the problems were solved as Lance Armstrong and Cadel Evans's bodyguard Serge Borlée was around to get Van den Broeck in the car straight away, so he could use as much time as possible to recover... leaving behind the stressed out journalists with all their questions.
Top Ten Gift Ideas For Andy Schleck's 26th Birthday*
*by Alberto Contador
1. A signed yellow jersey
2. A new groupset
3. A dream holiday to somewhere other than Curaçao
4. An apology
5. DVD highlights of stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France, Bagnères de Bigorre - Luz-Ardiden
6. DVD highlights of stage 2 of the 2010 Tour de France, Brussels-Spa
7. The Lion King soundtrack, particularly track two - "I Just Can't Wait To Be King"
8. A bicycle repair manual
9. A new Spanish pen-pal
10. A dog-eared copy of "How To Lose Friends And Alienate People" by Toby Young
Quote of the day
Astana directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli in Bagnères de Luchon: "The most important thing for me is to have a clear conscience and I have that tonight. I didn't tell him to wait, that's for sure..."
Good news, Alberto - you don't even have to tell us your radio wasn't working this time...
Voeckler's happy hunting ground
Next time a professional bike race visits the Port de Balès, stake the family château on a good performance from Thomas Voeckler. The climb has made only one previous appearance on the Tour de France parcours, but already held a special place in Voeckler's memory prior to Monday, the Frenchman having defended his race lead and set up overall victory here in the 2006 Route du Sud.
Another little Venice
It seems every country has its own 'little Venice' and France is no different. Sixty kilometres south of Toulouse, Pamiers, the start town of Stage 15, with winding canals that surround the old district and its three tall bell towers, goes by the epithet of 'little Venice' and is the largest town in the Ariège region. But we didn't spot any gondolas; for enchanting Pamiers, that would be just plain tacky.
Pale-faced on the Port de Balès
While utilising much of the off-race route on the fifteenth stage, well-honed intuition that Monday's stage would be significant saw the Procycling-mobile cut back onto the race route in Fronsac, 51.5 kilometres from the finish and at the base of the day's final climb, the Port de Balès. As many would have seen on the television coverage, the Port de Balès is a narrow, steep and sometimes winding climb of 19.3 kilometres, and there were numerous occasions when all that separated our Citröen Picasso, aka "The Pickaxe", and its esteemed occupants from certain death was a few cycling fans. Designated driver Daniel Friebe duly steered the rather unwieldy people-mover to safety, but after reaching Bagneres-de-Luchon, it did take an hour or two before 'Friebos' regained his naturally effervescent colour.
While the mountain specialists take centre stage during the Pyrenees, spare a thought for the sprinters suffering at the back of the caravan that crawls through the mountains. Still among them is veteran Australian sprinter Robbie McEwen (Katusha).
McEwen has not been able to win a stage at this year's Tour de France so far, mainly because of a crash after the fourth stage in Gueugnon. The 38-year-old collided with a photographer, and hurt his back and elbow.
In the days following the crash McEwen's name often crackled through the race radio among the first dropped riders. The Australian showed courage and didn't give in, even though many observers expected him to pull out sooner or later. Almost two weeks later McEwen is still there, and he's not planning to give up.
“I'm still not going well. My lower back is still bruised, my elbow is hurting too. I'm not sitting straight up my bike and because of that my knee starts hurting. I've caught bronchitis too. It feels like I'm hopping from one sore to the other,” McEwen told Cyclingnews.
“I'm not thinking about the possible sprint stages ahead. I look at things day-by-day, so right now I'm only thinking about making it through this stage,” McEwen said before the start of stage fifteen.
More than five hours later a hurt but proud McEwen lead the grupetto over the finish line. “I've done this before you know. I've got experience and I know how you handle these things. If you get dropped you've got to ride at your own tempo uphill, in the descents it's all about gaining time on the grupetto,” McEwen told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “Everybody's hurting in these stages and the body isn't co-operating but during these stages the mind takes over. After my big leg injury I had only one goal, and that was this Tour de France. I'm not going to give it up just like that.”
McEwen wasn't looking forward to Tuesday's stage to Pau, and the fact that there's a furious Luxembourger in the peloton who's keen to put on some fireworks won't help.
“It will be really hard as it kicks off right away with the Col de Peyresourde. If they race a bit in front – which will always be the case – then it can become a very long they for us. For the general classification riders it's easy when they have a bad day because they end up in the grupetto and for sure they'll make it within the time cut.
"If we have a bad day and get dropped early on, then it's a 200 kilometre-long time trial through the mountains," he said. "It's a hard Tour and I'm going bad but I'm staying at the level I am, so I'm hoping that the others are getting worse so I'm able to come at their level.”
Alberto Contador has posted a YouTube apology to former Tour de France leader Andy Schleck for the timing of an attack that sees the Spaniard now lead the race. The Astana rider admitted he wasn’t happy with how he’s taken the Tour’s yellow jersey, and hopes it doesn’t impact his relationship with the Luxembourg rider.
“Today I managed to get on the podium, which makes me happy. The problem with that was the circumstances,” said Contador in the video, filmed in his hotel room. “Right when I attacked Andy had a mechanical on the last climb. The race was in full gear and, well, maybe I made a mistake, I'm sorry.
“At a time like that all you think about is riding as fast as you can,” he continued. “I'm not happy, in the sense that, to me, fair play is very important. Just like I did in the Spa stage, when both Andy and Fränk were behind the pack, I didn't hesitate to stop the bunch so that they could catch up.
“Many people criticized me for doing that, especially after the stage on the cobbles, when the crash happened and the whole bunch split as a result, and it allowed Andy to take time on me, but I always settle it by saying I'd do it again,” said Contador. “The kind of thing that happened today is not something I like, it's not my style and I hope my relationship with Andy will remain as good as before.”
Saxo Bank team owner Bjarne Riis wasn’t judging Contador after the stage. “I would have hoped he would have waited, and I think I would have waited... I think he did wait at the beginning but then it was a while before Andy was on the bike again.
“I don’t know. Was it possible for Contador to wait in that situation, with [Samuel] Sanchez [Euskaltel] and [Denis] Menchov [Rabobank] attacking? He has to follow those guys, for sure. He might not need to pull [with them] or attack, but he has to follow those guys."
Cervelo co-founder Gerard Vroomen was amongst those Tweeting on the topic, initially saying: “Contador just gained a great chance to win, but he lost the chance to win greatly.” But after considering Contador’s response, Vroomen added: “Alberto has a tiny point: Schleck didn't wait for him after the cobblestone crash so complaints about fair play ring hollow.”
Contador's apology in Spanish with English captions can be seen below:
Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) - eighth on stage, third overall @ 2:00: Again it was a very hard day; it seemed that the Balès would never end. I suffered a lot, but we finished the day with a bang.
Keeping the podium spot will be very complicated - Menchov is very strong and he is a great rider.
There is a lot of talk about an incident in the race [Schleck's mechanical]; I believe that we shouldn't focus on something that is natural in cycling - tomorrow it could happen to me or anyone else...
In the race, I didn't know if Andy had a problem or not. He started very strong, Contador went after him, then Menchov moved... From the TV it sure looks great, but in the race, at 200 beats a minute, with thousands of screaming fans on the road... The instinct is telling you to go with the big move and mark the man.
Lloyd Mondory (AG2R-La Mondiale) - fourth on stage, 104th overall @ 2:12:08: It has been a while since I wanted to show I could do anything other than sprints. I battled for 80km to be in the break and eventually I was smiling.
When there was the first big acceleration, I tried to manage and set a good pace as it was impossible to follow the climbers. Eventually, I didn't lose much time. I'm hooked, I rode a good descent and I gave everything.
When the group behind caught us I said: 'No, I'm not going to sit up and I should pick up fourth place for me and the team. It is a day which is good for the morale after the difficult beginning of the Tour de France. The Tour started well but I spent a lot of time after Brussels recovering from my fall.
In this type of stage, my role in the team is getting bottles and protecting Nicolas Roche in the valley to be in the best possible shape at the foot of climbs. Today, I was able to escape... I really wanted to be ahead, especially since I am going to see my children and wife tonight.
Now, I'll do the utmost to help Nicolas Roche take the best possible place overall. And then, AG2R La Mondiale will continue to move forward. Yesterday Christophe [Riblon] had his day of glory, it could be that today and tomorrow I will have another.
We want to honour our sponsor who is one of the most faithful in the peloton. Their grace means that we can do the job that we love and we have always dreamt of doing. This is the least we can do - giving everything we can during these three weeks of the Tour de France.
Luke Roberts (Team Milram) - fifth on stage, 92nd overall @ 2:04:44: The first hour and a half were once again enormously difficult. There were permanent attacks in which we took part, like the day before. For the decisive attack, I thought - now or never!
I was overjoyed to come over the top of the climb with Contador. Then I knew that I would get a top placing. Fifth place after this hard day is simply sensational.
Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) - second on stage, 79th overall @ 1:43:33: "I was feeling good today, but Voeckler was too strong when he attacked. I couldn't follow him so I tried to go my pace.
I hope this good form is going to help me in the last week and in the races after the Tour.
Aitor Pérez Arrieta (Footon-Servetto) - third on stage, 81st overall @ 1:46:07: I'm very happy with this podium place. I felt rather good all day long, but I think I missed a rider in that break, even two if you count on Ballan's final sprint, but still I showed I'm able to fight for a victory in such a Tour de France.
You may say I lacked quite a bit to notch up the win, but at least I gave my best and that's why I'm happy. I could stand that first selection in Balès, but Voeckler was really strong. I didn't see him so fit in previous stages, but when you see this kind of rider giving his best, you can understand those are real winners.
It was difficult to bridge that gap in Ballan when I dropped, but I managed to recover and do the end of the climb at my pace, I think I was good there. After all, I think Voeckler had a better point than all of us to get into the break, but I'm proud of what I did.
You have to contest every single place and that's why I sprinted so hard against Ballan; this podium will not make it into the history books, but it's a big personal achievement. The goal from now is reaching Paris, but now I'm only thinking about tomorrow's stage, because we have to tackle the Peyresourde right from the start and it's going to be really tough.
Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam) - 24th on stage, 13th overall @ 9:02: The second stage in the Pyrenees was really fast. The first 100km seemed more like a motorbike than a bike race. We were riding at average speeds of over 47km/h over terrain that was not exactly flat.
Afterwards, when the breakaway took place, the peloton stopped a little and at the end of the race, with the Port de Balès, the pace was oppressive, it was really hard. In today's stage we've seen changes in the general classification and a lot of riders who are starting to feel tired, myself included, after a very hot Tour de France ridden at lightning speeds.
I'm getting closer to the top riders and that gives me a special motivation after all the problems I suffered at the start of the race. In that sense, I'm feeling really very happy.
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) 36th on stage, 22nd overall @ 16:16: I'm a bit tired and sore today. I don't know what's going on.
My tape [on a fractured elbow] and stuff fell off. I'm getting skin problems from having so much treatment and having tape holding things together. It's one ailment or the other but I'm still hanging in there. Tomorrow's another day.
Older brother training again after collarbone surgery
According to older brother Fränk, Andy Schleck is even more of a danger to Alberto Contador now that the Saxo Bank rider lost his yellow jersey on stage 15 of the Tour de France.
Andy Schleck was on the attack when he suffered an ill-timed mechanical with his chain on the final slopes of the Port de Balès. He was forced to stop and fix the problem as Contador, Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov distanced themselves from the Saxo Bank leader. Contador now leads Schleck by eight seconds in the overall, having turned around a 31 second deficit.
“Andy felt very strong and everyone could see that when he attacked. I don’t want to judge, Contador is a good guy but Armstrong won seven Tours and I remember him waiting for Ullrich and vice versa,” Fränk Schleck told Cyclingnews.
Unsurprisingly, older sibling Frank added that he would have waited for a rival if he had been in Contador’s shoes. “Of course it’s a race and I respect his decision and it was Alberto’s to make. Maybe he didn’t see it but I think they have radios. I would have waited.”
Both brothers spoke at the end of the stage on phone, Fränk revealing that one of the first thing Andy does is call his brother once he’s on the team bus. “He’s furious with the mistake, from the mechanical but he wont give up and he’s going to carry on fighting. There’s no way he’ll give up. In many ways he’s more dangerous now.”
Fränk, who crashed out of the race on stage three with a broken collarbone enjoyed his first day back on the bike on Monday, after a successful surgery last week. The Tour de Suisse winner was a potential threat to Contador coming into this year’s Tour but has now set his sights firmly on the Vuelta in September, a race he started but failed to finish last year.
“I’m improving. Today was the first time I’ve been back on the road and turning my legs. I cant’ get out of the saddle and I can only handle smooth roads as the collarbone is still hurting. It’s only been 12 days since the surgery,” he told Cyclingnews.
“It’s going to be another few weeks before I can think about racing again. It’s all day-by-day. For my shape and my body it’s good to have a three-week race in you. I’ll go for the Vuelta.”