Klöden hangs on to overall lead
Francesco De Bonis of Gerolsteiner and Astana's Andreas Klöden put on amazing shows of strength Saturday afternoon, as the young Italian joined an early escape group and was able to hold on to sprint to the stage win. Klöden held on to his overall lead by nearly single-handedly controlling the chasing group on the final climbs. John Gadret of AG2R finished second in the dramatic finale and Manuel Beltran of Liquigas was third.
"The escape left very early and there was a lot of uncertainty in the middle," De Bonis said. "When I found myself alone, I felt very tired and following Beltran used up a lot of strength. At 100 meters to go I only saw Gadret and I was still very afraid. I didn't believe it until 50 meters before the finish!" His Directeur Sportif, Reimund Dietzen, called it "a dream ride".
The 25 year-old neo-pro took his first pro win in dramatic fashion. He joined an escape group which formed early, and went after the King of the Mountain points. On the final climb, only 20 km or so before the finish, he took off from the remains of the group to take the points that would assure him the coveted jersey, and just kept on going. Beltran caught up with him and the two went under the Flamme Rouge together. Gadret came up from behind and shot past them, looking like he would take the stage. But young De Bonis was not to be denied. He surprised the French rider with an attack and passed him with 100 meters to go, crossing the finish line with a three second advantage and a joyous demonstration.
Only the day before, the Italian had made his mark. He finished 20th in Friday's time trial, as the best of his team, 1'03" behind winner Klöden. It was an impressive performance by the rider who is better known for the climbing abilities he demonstrated Saturday.
Klöden was equally impressive in defending his yellow leader's jersey. Near the end of the race he had only Maxim Iglinsky at his side, and in the end the slender German was on his own. But he showed that he was rightfully team captain and race leader, often leading the pack up the long climbs, fast enough to drop the slower riders off the back and to pick up time on those ahead of him. He now goes into the final stage with a lead of 35 seconds over Roman Kreuzgier of Liquigas and 43 seconds over Marco Pinotti of High Road.
How it unfolded
The race got off right on time under sunny skies, with one rider, Patxi Vila of Lampre not taking the start. The remaining riders were eager to get going on this short but mountainous Queen stage, which featured three category one climbs, plus a uncategorized climb up to the finish line, in only 112.4 kms. A landslide forced the organizers to cancel the third climb of the day, Saint-Luc, and the peloton took a flat way around instead.
Almost immediately the first attacks came out of the field, and only 20 km into the stage, an escape group had formed. It wasn't far ahead of the field, and the make-up of the group remained fluid. Some of the riders involved were Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), Chris Anke Sorenson (CSC), Luca Barla (Milram), Ludovic Turpin (AG2R), Nicolas Crosbie (Bouygues Telecom), Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre) and Jerome Coppel (Francaise des Jeux).
With 95 km to go, there were seven riders in the lead, but it was still only a slight lead and Astana wasn't going to let the race slip out of its hands. This group worked well together, though, and within six kilometres had built up a lead of 1'20". The group, which had grown, consisted of David Lopez Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel), Hubert Schwab (QuickStep), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Steve Zampieri (Cofidis), Dmitriy Fofonov (Credit Agricole), Volodymir Gustov (CSC), Francesco De Bonis (Gerolsteiner), John Gadret (AG2R), Patrice Halgand (Credit Agricole), and Stef Clement (Rabobank).
Astana picked up the speed and pulled the peloton up the first mountain. The team increased the tempo enough that the first non-climbers were dropped off the back, and the escapees' lead stayed around 1'13" with 87 km to to go.
Gerolsteiner's young De Bonis took the mountain points on the Cote de St. Martin, ahead of Zubeldia and Zampieri. The group had a lead of 1'38" at this point, Back in the field, Astana continued to keep watch over everything, and Thomas Dekker kept a close eye on Andreas Klöden. The young Dutchman went into the stage only five seconds behind the Astana rider in the GC.
The leaders started up the second climb, up to Vercorin, with a slowly increasing lead, nearly two minutes at this point. They then passed through the first intermediate sprint at km. 48.6, without contesting it. Albasini went across first, followed by Zubeldia and Halgand.
Astana startd to see the leader's jersey slipping off of Klöden shoulders and forced the speed again, pulling the lead down to 1'40" with 60 km to go. With 55 km to go, Saunier Duval started showing up behind Rabobank and Klöden in the peloton. The lead had dropped to about 1'10".
De Bonis was determined to win the KOM jersey, and took off shortly before the peak. He crossed under the banner first with Zampieri second and Zubeldia third. Their advantage was back up to 1'30". THe group got smaller, too, as at least Lopez Garcia couldn't keep up with the pace.
Zampieri was leading the escape group around a hairpin curve on the descent with 45 km to go. His front wheel slipped away and down he went. The Swiss rider appeared uninjured but had large black oil smears on his left leg. He quickly caught up again with Lopez Garcia, who was trailing the group, in his fight to catch up again. Zubeldia had meanwhile established a few meters lead over the group, which was starting to pull apart on the rapid descent. But by the time they hit the bottom, they were all back togehter again, with a lead of about 1'50".
With 38 km to go, the lead had picked up to just over two minutes as the peloton went through the feed zone. Astana had moved back into the lead. Soon after, at the second intermediate sprint, with 31 km to go, Albasini went through first again, picking up some more bonus seconds. He was the virtual leader at this point. Clement and Schwab were second and third. Astana led the peloton under the arch for the sprint, exactly two minutes later.
The attacks out of the escape group started with 26 km to go, with Halgand breaking out first. De Bonis went with him as behind them, the rest of the group fell apart. Schwab, Gustov and Zubeldia caught them, but the rest were dropped or struggled desperately to stay within sight.
Maxim Iglinksy took over the lead work, and put enough pressure on to drop the lead to 1'20". He was so good, in fact, that at 24 km, an orange-and-blue clad rider dropped off the back of the peloton, and Thomas Dekker indicated that was it for his chances in this race.
Di Bonis took over the lead up front, and he and Halgand opened up a lead over their former escape copmanions. The field started overtaking those who had fallen out of the breakaway group, while individual riders tried their luck to jump out of the peloton. One of them, Triki Beltran, made his way up to near the front.
At 22 km, Klöden was alone, but still leading the group and looking confident. Gustov caught up with De Bonis and Halgand at 21 km and a 1'04" lead, and Zubeldia made the connection again. At 19 km, with 43 seconds, De Bonis took off, in hopes of more mountain points, quickly building up a sizeable lead.
Morabito and Iglinksy came up to help Klöden. The peloton was 24 seconds behind the remains of the former escape group, and De Bonis was 25 seconds ahead of them with 25 kms to go.
Sandy Casar decided to look for his chances for the overall win, and with 13 km left, had left the peloton and caught up with the remnants of the escape group. He changed places with Halgand, who was being absorbed back into the peloton, which was now 51 seconds behind De Bonis.
Iglinksy continued to pull the group up, with Klöden right behind him and Rabobank's Denis Menchov in fourth place. The peloton had shrunk to about 20 riders.
Klöden took over the lead, seeing the danger in Casar's attempt, and pulled the peloton apart as he overtook the former escape group. Juan Manual Garate of Quick Step jumped out and joined John Gadret (AG2R), who was slightly ahead. With only 10 km to go, De Bonis contined to hold a 10 second lead over Beltran and 39 seconds over the Klöden group, which could no longer be callled a peloton. Gadret and Garate caught Beltran and the three gave chase to the Gerolsteiner youngster, who was 28 seconds ahead with one kilometre to go to the mountain points.
De Bonis achieved his goal of taking the King of the Mountains pink jersey, with a narow 20 second lead over those behind him. He shot down the short descent, hoping desperately to hold up for the stage win. Klöden contined to hold control of the group, which had overtaken Beltran, Gerate and Gadret. At 7km, Beltran took off again, picking up a few seconds lead. High Road's Morris Possoni, wearing the green points jersey, was the next to jump out. But Klöden continued to pull the group along, not letting the Italian get away.
The last few kilometres wre uphill again, and Beltran pulled up to the young Italian, with the following group also coming closer and closer Jose Angel Gomez Marchante of Saunier Duval jumped out, halfway between the two leaders and the following pack.
Beltran led the way under the Flamme Rouge, with De Bonis on his rear wheel. The Spaniard did his best to shake the young Italian, but the Gerolsteiner rider wsn't going down without a fight.
With only a few hundred meters to go, the two were caught. Gadret shot by them and looked to have the win. But De Bonis was determined to have it all and somewhere found the strength to sprint past the French rider and take the win. He caught him at 100 meters and had enough of a lead to raise his arms joyfully before collapsing in exhaustion and happy tears in his soigneur's arms. The remains of the peloton, ihcluding leader Klöden, crossed the finish line only seven seconds later.