Favourites begin to firm up
After his disastrous day in the mountains less than 24 hours before, millions of onlookers the world over witnessed an impressive turn around from Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) as he sprinted to victory in Briançon. With 140 km to go, cunning-as-a-cat Vino attacked le groupe maillot jaune and brought several others with him, eventually reducing the group to just he and Botero. At the line Briançon, he outsprinted the Phonak man in a scene reminiscent of his equally impressive Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory in April this year.
"If you keep staying on the wheel, it's impossible to win the Tour - you have to risk something, which is what I did today," said Vinokourov. "It was a beautiful stage win for me, and also good motivation for the team to keep on attacking in the Pyrenées.
"I knew that I was stronger than Botero in the sprint, but you never know what can happen, even if I trust myself. I was thinking about the sprint I had made with Voigt at Liège-Bastogne-Liège...In the last kilometre, I stayed on his wheel, starting my sprint about 250 metres from the finish - and it obviously worked for me."
As a consequence of his win today, 31 year-old Vino moved up four places to 12th on GC, while his breakaway companion Santiago Botero jumped from 11th to 6th. Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) showed a rare pair of sprinting legs to win the 25-man bunch kick for third, and he too moved up a notch to find himself behind maillot jaune Lance Armstrong and Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), 2'34 in arrears.
Oscar Pereiro (Phonak) and Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel) were also part of the Vino-inspired move of the day, but succumbed to the pace set by the champion of Kazakhstan and his Colombian counterpart. Said Pereiro at the finish line: "I came to this Tour with ambition, wanting a good placing on GC. It's clear that I'm not here to stay behind Discovery Channel when I have the power to attack, and that's what we do. You have to try, every day. This was planned since yesterday, also for Botero to go. Floyd [Landis] also feels strong. I want to try again in the Pyrenées and go for a win."
For Discovery Channel and the rest of the contenders, it was a pretty standard and far less eventful day at the office. Armstrong's team did what they had to but only that, controlling the situation to curb what was once a three-plus minute advantage to a minute and a quarter by the day's end.
"Well, he definitely wasn't our concern today," Armstrong responded when asked why his team let Vinokourov go.
"Our main concern was to keep the team together. He's now six and a half minutes behind on GC and we can't chase down everybody who's at 5, 6, 7 minutes - we have to prioritise. And he was not on our list of priorities, so we let him out there and controlled the pace. If his objective was to win a stage - mission accomplished. If his objective was to blow up the Discovery team - mission not accomplished."
'97 Tour champ Jan Ullrich, who finished 15th on the stage and kept his top-10 standing on GC, appears to be recovering well from his crash of three days ago and looks ready to do something special in the Pyrenées, his favourite hunting ground.
"Today there wasn't any attacks in the main bunch. Lance let his boys drive hard so nobody could go. I felt good today, and I hope I will still get better in the days to come," said Ullrich at the finish. "It's always important to stay with Lance and not lose any time. The Pyrenees are waiting, there's yet another time trial to come, so the Tour's definitely not over yet!"
Added Vinokourov: "It will be very hard [to beat Armstrong], but in the Tour de France, anything can happen and you never know, and Lance can have a bad day too, like he did in 2003."
How it unfolded
172 riders began Stage 11 under a warm Alpine summer sun, as Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) didn't take the start. His wife Susanna was stopped by a routine patrol Tuesday evening on the A43 autoroute near Chambery and the police placed her in garde a vue for further investigation of drug trafficking after they allegedly found EPO and other substances in her car. This morning, the gendarmes came to Frigo's Hotel Mercure in Courchevel and brought to their HQ in Albertville for questioning.
On the descent from Courchevel, there were attacks right from the start, with a two man break getting away. It was mini-cannonball Sammy Dumoulin (Ag2r) and giant viking Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) who had attacked. Maillot vert Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) crashed on the descent and came back with his teammate Guido Trenti after a visit to race doctor Gerard Porte to check out his knee. After 30km of racing, the mutt and jeff break had a 5'20 lead on the disinterested peloton. Dumoulin and Hushovd thought they might be able to get over the Col de la Madeleine ahead of the peloton and get to the first intermediate sprint in Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne after 97.5km, but their plans were soon put paid to.
A few kilometres into the 25.4km climb of the 6.1% average Hors Categorie climb of the Col de la Madeleine, Pereiro (Phonak) attacked. With 18km to ascend to the 2000m. summit of the Col de la Madeleine, Hushovd had dropped Dumoulin and was 0'30 ahead of the little Frenchman. An eight man counterattack group had exited the peloton, led by Vinokourov (T-Mobile), Chris Horner (SDV), Pereiro, Botero (Phonak), Martinez (Euskaltel), Heras (Liberty), Mancebo (Illes Balears) and Caucchioli (CA) at 5'07, with the Discovery-led peloton at 6'56.
Paco Mancebo was 7th on GC, 4'00 behind Armstrong, but no real threat to the American, so there was no chase behind. As the counter-attack group reeled in the two front runners, Heras dropped off the pace. 8km from the summit of the Col de la Madeleine, Hushovd was caught by the chase, with the groupe maillot jaune at 1'10. At the summit, the gap was 0'47 as Vino and Pereiro were dropping Martinez and Botero. Horner and Mancebo both eased up, dropped back to the groupe maillot jaune, not believing that the break could make it to Briançon. Atop the Col de la Madeleine, Moreau took the KOM points from Rasmussen.
As the front runners plunged down the narrow, twisting 20km descent of the Col de la Madeleine to the feed zone in Saint-Avre after 75km, Pereiro took a short off road excursion, but luckily got back with the break with no consequences. At the feed zone down in the Maurienne river valley, the break had gained some time on the chasing peloton and was just 1'10 ahead, with the long uphill 22km slog along the wide N6 road to the first intermediate sprint at Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne after 97.5km. Discovery Channel backed off the chase somewhat and at the sprint in Saint-Michel-De-Maurienne, Vino took the points and the four fugitives started the 12km climb of the Cat. 1 Col du Telegraphe over 2'00 ahead of the groupe maillot jaune.
Martinez dropped as the ascent started, with Pereiro doing a lot of work in the break for Botero. At the summit of the 6.7% average grade Telegraphe to 1566m., Vino took the points, while Pereiro dropped off from the break and then there were two, with the groupe maillot jaune at 3'15.
Vino and Botero dove down the 4km descent to Valloire, where the second Hors Categorie climb of Stage 11 commenced. It was the last time Lance Armstrong would confront the mythical slopes of the 17.5km climb of the Col du Galibier, and his Discovery Channel team was totally in control of the situation as they kept the Kazakh killer Vino on a short leash. Up the long, tough 6.9% average grade, with 9km to go, Vino was now alone in front as he dropped Botero and pedaled well towards the summit, at 2645m the highest climb of the 2005 Tour De France. Discovery Channel's pace behind Vino was beginning to take its toll after 10km of the Galibier. T-Mobile's Guerini was helping Klöden, who was yo-yoing off the back of the now 20 rider groupe maillot jaune.
With 4km to go to the summit of the Galibier, Vino was still alone in the lead, 0'40 ahead of Botero and 2'55 in front of the groupe maillot jaune. A magnificent George Hincapie was riding the tempo on the front for Discovery Channel, ahead of the perfect formation of Savoldelli, Azevedo, maillot jaune Armstrong, with teammate Popovych guarding his wheel. Jan Ullrich was right there, as was maillot à pois Rasmussen (Rabobank), Moreau (CA), Basso, Julich and Sastre (CSC), Landis (Phonak), Valverde in his maillot blanc of Best Young Rider and Mancebo (Illes Balears), Mazzoleni (Lampre-Cafitta), Piepoli (SDV), Evans (Davitamon-Lotto), Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) and Jaksche (Liberty Seguros).
At the summit of the Hors Categorie Galibier, Vino took the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize and signaled for a drink as he passed over the top. Botero had closed down on Vino and was just 0'42 behind as the long descent down the Col de Lautaret commenced. The road was wet from some recent rainshowers and Briançon was still 40km away. Maillot à pois Chicken Rasmussen flew the coop from the groupe maillot jaune 2'23 behind to take KOM points, while Moreau led the groupe maillot jaune over the Galibier, 2'40 behind Vino, while Klöden's group was chasing a further half-minute back at 3'15.
As Vinokourov descended to the Durance River valley with 35km to go on the Lautaret, Botero got across and the dynamic duo who had been on the attack for 120km were now 2'25 ahead of the groupe maillot jaune, which had swelled to 25 riders. At the second intermediate sprint at Moulin-Baron after 162km and with 11km to Briançon, Vino and Botero came through going all out, trying to stay ahead of the hard chasing 26 strong Discovery led groupe maillot jaune.
The duo held on into Briançon and after 140km off the front, Vino easily sprinted in ahead of Botero for the win, gaining a 0'20 time bonus and moving up to 12th on GC, 4'47 behind Armstrong. The Phonak Colombian moved ahead of his American teammate Landis into 6th on GC, 3'48 behind the maillot jaune. 1'15 behind the two escapees, Moreau took the sprint for third in Briançon and moved ahead of Ivan Basso in to third on GC with his 0'08 time bonus. Levi Leipheimer was steady eddy today, but dropped one place on GC as Botero passed him and thanks to the yeoman's work by T-Mobile's Beppe Guerini to bring him back to the front group, Andreas Klöden stayed in the top 10, while Landis was bumped out by his teammate Botero.
Stage 12 - Thursday, July 14: Briançon-Digne-les-Bains, 187 km
On France's national holiday, Le Tour heads south from Briançon on the Route Napoléon, through the hot, barren southern Alps to Provence on an unforgiving stage with numerous hard climbs. Eddy Merckx was the last TDF stage winner 36 years ago; should we watch for a last minute attack by T-Mobile's Alex Vinokourov on the final Col de l'Orme to try for a stage win as he did in Gap two years ago, or will his legs be too tired after his 140km break Wednesday?
Stage 12 rated climbs
Côte des Demoiselles-coiffées (Cat. 3, 61km, 1067m, 4.6km at 4.8%)
Col Saint-Jean (Cat. 2, 88km, 1332m, 13.2km at 4%)
Col de Labouret (Cat. 4, 115.5km, 1240m, 2.2km climb at 3.2%)
Col du Corobin (Cat. 2, 156km, 1230m, 12.4km, 4.5%)
Col de l'Orme (Cat. 4, 177km, 734m, 2.7km at 3.9%)