Spaniard slips away for traditional win
It arrived a little later than normal, but Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) continued one the Tour de France's more recent traditions by taking his by now almost annual stage victory in Foix on Sunday.
Sanchez has now won four stages in the past five editions of the Tour, a remarkable haul for a non-specialist. The sequence began when he triumphed in Aurillac in 2008, and he repeated the feat at Saint-Girons the following year. A 10th place overall finish in 2010 limited the Spaniard's freedom to sniff out his usual winning break, but he returned to the podium at Saint-Flour at the end of the opening week last year.
Opportunities for the escape artists have been somewhat limited at this year's Tour, but amid all the brute force on show – André Greipel, Peter Sagan and the powerful Sky team have dominated proceedings to date – there was still just enough scope for a rider of Sanchez's finesse to sniff out an opening on the rugged road to Foix.
"This year it just seemed impossible to win a stage, but eventually we succeeded," Sanchez smiled after the finish, although the Spaniard was referring more to his travails and that of his Rabobank team than to the general tendency of this year's Tour.
From a personal standpoint, Sanchez's Tour began disastrously when he suffered a heavy fall on the first road stage in Liège and while he was struggling on the back of the peloton during a crash-marred opening week, his Rabobank team's general classification challenge was falling apart.
In spite of his wrist injury, Sanchez managed to raise himself to enter the race-winning break on the road to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine last week, but in a tactical finale, he lost out to the pugnacious Thomas Voeckler (Europcar). "I started the race badly with the fall in Liège and I couldn't find the legs to attack for a while after that," he said. "I tried earlier this week, but unfortunately it was Voeckler who won."
Sanchez was one of only four riders aboard the Rabobank team bus as it drove to the start in Limoux on Sunday morning, but two of their number made into the day's winning break. Along with Steven Kruijswijk, Sanchez was part of an 11-man group that went clear after 50km, building up a 15-minute lead over the peloton on the final climb, the redoubtable Mur de Péguère.
Approaching the daunting upper section of the climb, Kruijswijk set the pace in a bid to shake off the dangerman Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), and it briefly seemed as though Sanchez would go clear with Sandy Casar (FDJ-BigMat) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) to contest the win.
"We knew that it would be hard with Sagan and Gilbert in the break," he said. "Sagan would have won if there had been a sprint, so our idea was to start forcing the pace from distance. That was our only chance."
While initially, they appeared to have burnt off the young Slovak, he recovered over the summit of the climb, joining forces with Gilbert, Casar and Gorka Izaguirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi), while Sanchez gave lone pursuit behind. "We decided to set a strong pace to try to hold off Sagan, but it almost cost us the stage win," he admitted.
After making contact with the leaders on the descent, Sanchez realised that he needed to shed himself of Sagan if he were to have any chance of salvaging Rabobank's disastrous Tour, and he duly clipped off the front with 11km to race. "Sagan can beat any one of the big sprinters, and in a small group like that he would have won a sprint very easily," Sanchez said. "What's more, Casar and Gilbert had very good legs too."
With the chasers unwilling to tow Sagan to an inevitable sprint win, the canny Sanchez quickly opened up a 40-second lead, and a finisseur of his quality was never going to surrender that kind of advantage on a day like this.
"I had a lot of anger inside, because I've grown used to getting a win in the first week and this year it seemed that it would never come," Sanchez said. "But when you fight, in the end, it comes off."
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