3-1 to Spaniard in recurring match-up
From Anquetil and Poulidor to Hinault and LeMond, the richest chapters of Tour de France lore have been built around the race's great duels. There may be no such epoch-defining pairing in this year's Tour, but the latest installment of one of its lesser known running battles was played out on the road to Foix on Sunday.
The meetings of Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) and Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) will only ever be a curious footnote to Tour history, a local row while great events were being decided elsewhere, but the sequence has been a fascinating one nonetheless.
Sánchez's triumph on stage 14 was his fourth win in the past five Tours de France, and on three of those occasions, the Spaniard has won from a break that included Casar. In 2009, Sánchez proved too quick in the sprint in Saint-Girons, and then beat Casar into third on the uphill finish at Saint-Flour last year. In Foix on Sunday, the Frenchman was again relegated to third.
Not that Sánchez has had it all his own way. In 2010, Casar took a fine stage win in the Alps over the Col de la Madeleine, pipping Sánchez in a gripping sprint in Saint-Jean-de-Mauriennes. The pair renewed hostilities in the Pyrenees on Sunday, infiltrating the break of the day 50 kilometres into the stage.
"It was the same kind of stage in which we've often done battle before," Casar told Cyclingnews at the start of Monday's stage in Samatan. "We have the same temperament and the same style of riding."
Both solid climbers with a decent turn of speed, Casar and Sánchez boast similarly wide armouries, but the sharpest weapon each man wields is his racing intelligence. After being distanced by Casar's forcing on the final climb of the Mur de Pégéure, Sánchez had the sangfroid to latch back on to the reduced leading group on the descent, and then the acumen to choose his moment on the run-in to the finish, attacking alone with 11 kilometres to race.
"He's certainly my bête noire and I think he was good again yesterday," Casar said admiringly. "He was very strong and he played it very well. He really attacked at the right moment, right where he needed to go."
It may well have been a case of déjà vu all over again as Casar turned and saw Sánchez alongside him when the break formed, but such was the quality of the eleven-man group that the Frenchman had little time to dwell on their past encounters.
"It crossed my mind, but it just such a strong break in general," Casar said. "You also had Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, Velits… a lot of riders who could go all the way, so that made it a lot more complicated.
"There was more than one rider to keep an eye, not just Luis. That said, he really attacked where he needed to go and he was really strong. In the finale, he never weakened and we weren't able to close the gap."
Casar was outsprinted for second place in Foix by Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), and he explained that he had been hoping to take advantage of the green jersey's presence to slip away on the final climb. "I was thinking that if Sagan fell behind, then the others wouldn't help to bring him back," he said. "But instead, Sagan was the one who was able to fight back up to me and it was the others who were chasing on. That changed things a bit."
Though disappointed not to have added to his haul of three Tour stage wins, Casar is hopeful that he will have further opportunities when the race returns to the Pyrenees in earnest later in the week, particularly given the manner in which Sky has been defending Bradley Wiggins' yellow jersey.
"It's good for Sky if riders like me who are no threat on GC go up the road early on, so there are still opportunities," he said.