By Hedwig Kröner in Prato Nevoso
Stage 15 from Embrun to Italy's ski station Prato Nevoso will forever remain in Bernhard Kohl's memory. The young Austrian climber from German team Gerolsteiner realised his biggest career goal; one he had since he started cycling when he was just a kid.
Finishing fifth behind the day's winner Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole), Kohl jumped from fourth to second on general classification, and scored the mountain leader's jersey on the way. Although he did not win the stage, the polka-dot garment gave him podium honours on the mountain top finish. "Ever since I was a little kid I dreamed about getting up on that podium once in my life, so it's unbelievable," an incredulous Kohl said after the ceremony. "Moreover, to be second on the classification is enormous. My fan club was here today, too; my whole family cheered me on with two kilometres to go. That gave me so much motivation."
The Austrian was able to stick to the favourites' group on the final ascent to Prato Nevoso, and even put a few seconds into Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Fränk Schleck (CSC) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle). In the lead up to the final climb, the German team worked for its new captain to put him into a perfect position, and get a shot for the polka-dot jersey, which he took over from his team-mate Sebastian Lang.
"It was a really hard race today," Kohl said. "The whole team worked so well, I really have to thank them. Sebastian Lang sacrificed himself to get me to through the first climb and to the mountain points at the top. I don't take that for granted, you know.
"At one point I crashed but nothing happened. Then, in the final climb, I was just so motivated, and I could take advantage of the work of Team CSC again. Andy Schleck did an excellent job and made the pace all the way up. Then, Fränk Schleck attacked once, then Sastre. Afterwards, Fränk couldn't chase as he had Sastre in front. And I caught the right moment to attack again. At the moment, I'm lucky to always use the right tactics. But it's just unbelievable that it worked out so well in the end. I'm overjoyed."
The chase for the yellow jersey gave him an extra boost in the final kilometres. "I heard in the earpiece that it would be very tight for the yellow jersey, so I gave it everything that was left in my body," Kohl continued. "But tactically, it's not so bad to be second, at only seven seconds. And I'm very happy with the second place, as it's more than I ever expected."
Kohl couldn't quite decide which of the two - the mountain jersey or the second overall placing - meant more to him. "Now, I'm just happy to have the polka-dot jersey, which was a childhood dream," he explained. "I never even dared to dream about yellow. To be so close to it is crazy. I hope that one day in my career I will wear it - but now I really need that rest day. I will try to get the jersey, but it'll be very, very difficult."
Thinking about his possibilities in the near future, the Austrian revised his overall goals in the race after today's feat. "My goal was to finish top ten in Paris; now, I'm targeting top five. I hope that I can succeed," he said.
His team manager Hans-Michael Holczer also knows that it will be difficult to do better, or even hold that overall position. "Coming out of the Alps, Kohl needs at least 1'30 to two minutes on Evans before the time trial," the Gerolsteiner boss said. But with two decisive Alpine stages yet to go after the rest day in Italy, the classification is far from being set in stone. Especially with the top three riders all being less than eight seconds down on the new overall leader Fränk Schleck, and at least five other riders still in contention.