Lance likes it hot - sometimes
Just like a fine bottle of red, 34 year-old Austrian Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner) showed the cycling world today that he's not just getting older, he's getting better. On a stifling first day in the Pyrenees mountains, one of the veterans of the peloton used the strength acquired from 14 years as a professional to outlast and outride his nine other breakaway companions in a mammoth 200 kilometre-plus breakaway.
"This Tour de France has been very hard for me. After the first week, I had no motivation and wanted to go home," said Totschnig, who finished seventh overall in last year's Tour but illness prevented him from arriving in Fromentine two weeks ago in top form.
"Today, I said to my director I wanted to attack and get in a break that would make it the finish. I had a little bit of luck, but also a lot of strength. Today's victory is better than finishing 10th in the [final] classification," he said.
Behind Totschnig and his breakaway mates on the penultimate hors categorié climb of the Port de Pailhères, a clever strategy from T-Mobile disturbed Discovery's plans of safely taking Lance Armstrong to at least the foot of the final climb. "I rode 12 of the 15 kilometres up Pailhères isolated," admitted the six-time Tour winner. "It's scary when you see an entire team ride as fast as they can at the bottom.
"Their [T-Mobile's] thing is to ride a medium-fast tempo for a long time to control the race and take it from 50 guys to 30 guys to 20 guys to 15 guys, and that obviously disrupted our plan. You see what order they were in, you see what they were setting up for, so that naturally gives you fear in that sort of situation.
"You fight back or you run away; I felt good at the time and I was motivated to not be put down by such strong tactics. But I have to say that was the right thing to do... if I was the director, that would of been my call, too."
Despite what happened, Armstrong seemed to like it hot today. Each time CSC leader Ivan Basso accelerated at the base of Ax-3 Domaines, the 33 year-old Texan responded immediately, or stuck to Jan Ullrich's wheel, who was predictably much stronger than he was in the Alps, only losing contact inside the final kilometre. Armstrong also gapped Basso just before the finish, but only by two seconds, while Der Kaiser's deficit was 18 seconds.
For mountains leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), it was the Dane's turn to have an off-day, but his 51 seconds lost to Armstrong still meant he held onto his second position overall. "I was hoping for more," said a cooked Chicken after the stage. "I am a little disappointed but on the other hand, I am limiting my losses to less than a minute to maybe the best bike rider in history... so that is okay for a bad day."
In contrast to the lightly fried Chicken Rasmussen, 27 year-old Basso enjoyed a 'buona etappa' and was really the only rider capable of matching and attacking Armstrong on the final climb. "I had a good day; it was a hard course, hard climbs... so, of course, I am very happy going into tomorrow. And tomorrow, I will try like I did today," he said.
Added CSC's team manager Bjarne Riis: "It was exactly what we'd hoped for. We knew that Basso has been doing well the last couple of days, and maybe we've underplayed our role a bit to take off some of the pressure. We tried to attack Lance, but as always, he's very strong."
"I gave every inch of myself," said Ullrich, who moved from eighth to fourth overall after today, one place behind Basso. "In the last kilometre, I couldn't follow Armstrong anymore; my legs just had too much lactic acid in them."
Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer was not surprisingly completely spent after his superb fifth-place finish. "I tell you, the first five k of the Pailhères was very difficult - a little bit too much for me," said the 31 year-old American.
"I think I always suffer at the bottom of the climbs, so again, I just rode my own race. It took me a while but I came back; I think Floyd and I hung for... I don't know, about half of it... I don't remember. We both went steady, and he was kind of dragging me along - it was all I could do, just follow. It was great, because we could always see the three in front of us, so I don't think they put much time on us," he said.
Out of T-Mobile's tenacious trio, it was Alexandre Vinokourov who lost largest, paying for his earlier efforts on the Pailhères and on previous days, consequently dipping out of the top 10. "I tried again, I went to the maximum limit," said an exhausted Vino straight after the stage. "I did join them again after the descent, but it was just at the foot of the last climb, and I just couldn't attack anymore.
"My legs weren't that bad, but I still felt the stage to Briançon. We planned to go à bloc on the first climb and we succeeded, but then Lance showed again that he was strong enough to stay on our wheel. Tomorrow it will be hot again, another day in high mountains and there can be attacks right from the beginning. If we can isolate Lance on the Peyresourde, it will be hard for him," said the 31 year-old never-say-die Kazakhstani.
On tomorrow's queen stage to Pla d'Adet, Armstrong believed it would undoubtedly be the hardest stage of the Tour.
"We're definitely going to have hard time recovering from today's stage and certainly tomorrow's no cakewalk," he said. "If it's going to be this hot again tomorrow, there's going to be a lot of guys going home, I suspect.
Asked if another early breakaway would work in his favour, Armstrong said to Cyclingnews: "Typically, in the final week of the Tour, those breaks are neither here or there. We know what's going to happen from the rivals, we know they can't attack, but it's going to be very tough - I would not want to be in any explosive moves in tomorrow's stage."
How it unfolded
The first Pyrenean stage would play a vital part in influencing the final general classification of this year's Tour. Although Sunday's leg to Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet) is undoubtedly harder, today's was tough for several reasons. The 220.5 kilometre distance was the fourth longest of the race, the heat was oppressive and the stage brought the first big climbs in several days, a change in pace which is always a jolt to the system.
The profile was no walk in the park, either. A mainly flat first-third was offset by three category four climbs - the Col de Villerouge (90.5km), the Col de Bedos (98.5km) and the Col des Fourches (104km), the third cat Col du Paradis (115.5km), then two stiff ascents inside the final 45 kilometres really acting to stir things up.
The first of these, the 2100 metre Hors Categorie Port-de-Pailhères, was certain to fragment the main field. This would be followed immediately by the Cat. 1 Ax-3 Domaines climb, another leg-sapping ascent which would put many into trouble. This proved to be the case back in 2003, when these two mountains concluded the 13th stage of the race; on that occasion Jan Ullrich distanced Lance Armstrong on the final climb, taking 7 seconds out of the Texan by the finish.
Two years on, the big question was if he or any other GC contender would be able to see off Armstrong once again. Every day is bringing the Discovery Channel leader closer to Paris and a seventh consecutive win; if his farewell party is to be ruined, making the most of today's stage was vital.
160 riders lined out at the start in Agde, with just Gerben Löwik of Rabobank not signing on. Seven kilometres after the drop of the flag, ten riders decided to chance their luck and tore clear. In the break were Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile), Alexandre Moos (Phonak), Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval), Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas), Walter Bénéteau (Bouygues Telecom), Carlos Da Cruz and Philippe Gilbert (FDJ), Andrei Grivko (Domina Vacanze) and Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r Prévoyance).
With Totschnig best placed overall, 11 minutes and 43 seconds back in 22nd place, Armstrong's Discovery Channel team was likely to give them some leeway. Rabobank was not too worried either, as the leading KOM classified rider in the move, Juan Manuel Garate, had just 24 points to Michael Rasmussen's 160.
Francaise des Jeux pair Da Cruz and Gilbert bested Grivko at the first sprint in Narbonne, then repeated this prime order 28 kilometres later in Saint-Laurent-de-Caberisse. Krivtsov led Garate and Grivko over the top of the first climb, the Col de Villerouge, by which time the gap was up to eight minutes. Garate beat 32nd birthday celebrant Garzelli and Beneteau on the Col de Bedos, then also scooped top points on the next two hills.
The gap was up to 9'35 as the race passed through the feed zone at Couiza, 88 kilometres from the stage end. This increased by another few seconds but by the time the escapees reached the bottom of the Hors Categorié Port-de-Pailhères, their advantage had started to fall. This news prompted Moos, Garzelli and Beneteau to strike clear of the others on the climb, Totschnig soon getting across and Moos falling back.
Behind, it was all go. T-Mobile threw down the gauntlet to Armstrong and his team on the Pailhères, substantially ramping up the pace and causing pandemonium in the bunch. Several of the team massed at the front including, of course, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov, then the former Alpe d'Huez stage winner Giuseppe Guerini turned it up a couple of more clicks. Accelerating violently out of the saddle, he put the hurt on the GC contenders and provided the springboard for an impressive Vinokourov attack.
The Kazakhstani quickly opened a gap but - surprisingly - it was none other than his own teammate Ullrich who dragged him back. The German was trying to put Armstrong under pressure, and while the Texan responded to the first surge, he didn't match the second. Ullrich, Vinokourov, Basso, Landis and Andrei Kashechkin drew clear, opening a 10 second gap.
The yellow jersey was by this point without teammates and seemed isolated. However, after waiting a couple of minutes he put in a powerful burst to bridge the gap, moving pointedly up alongside Vinokourov to show that he was in no real difficultly. This prompted a slight stall in the break, enabling Leipheimer, Evans and Klöden to also join. Landis then decided that there were too many rivals up front and drove the pace, putting a weakening Vinokourov into all sorts of trouble.
Basso took over, riding elegantly and dragging Armstrong, Ullrich and Kashechkin away. Another stall saw a slight regrouping, then a second surge by the Italian CSC rider carried Ullrich, Armstrong, and Landis clear. Leipheimer succeeded in bridging shortly afterwards and these five crested the summit of the Pailhères together.
Meanwhile, up front, Totschnig had scuppered any thoughts Garzelli had about a birthday win by dropping the former Giro winner on the climb. He was a minute clear of the Liquigas rider at the top, 3'15 ahead of a fading Beneteau and a further 32 seconds ahead of the Ullrich-led chase. Mancebo, Rasmussen, Evans, Klöden and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) were an additional 15 seconds back, slightly ahead of Vinokourov, while other GC riders such as Jörg Jaksche (Liberty Seguros), Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) and Bobby Julich (Team CSC) were further down the mountain.
Totschnig made the most of an easing in the chase on the descent to add another minute to his lead, a buffer that would prove vital by the day's end. Rasmussen's group also capitalised on the stall to get back on, as did a stubborn Vinokourov. He returned to the regrouped chase bunch just before the start of the final climb, then blasted straight past and drew clear. Looking suddenly fresher, he seemed set to gain some time on Armstrong's group. Yet, once again, it was the other T-Mobile riders (Klöden in this instance) who brought him back, thinking of setting Ullrich up for an attack. As Vino headed due south, Basso kicked and went in the opposite direction, getting rid of all bar Ullrich, Armstrong, Leipheimer and Landis.
With five kilometres remaining this quintet was still 3'15 seconds off Totschnig. Leipheimer and Landis faded shortly afterwards, as did a recaptured Garzelli, leaving just the Gerolsteiner rider out front. The three chasers knew that the only hope they had of catching him was to work well together, and they did, motivated further by the fact that they were putting some good time into the dropped GC contenders.
A fast pedaling Armstrong was happy to contribute, secure in the knowledge that Rasmussen's already slim chances of taking yellow were going up in flames. A smooth Basso and a strained Ullrich also rolled through, keeping the tempo high. Inside the final two kilometres the German tried to put in a dig but was clearly unable to do so; Armstrong responded by driving the pace, sending the 1997 Tour winner into difficultly and out the back. He then went again inside the final 200 metres, crossing the line 56 seconds after an ecstatic Totschnig and two seconds clear of third-placed Basso. Ullrich came home 20 seconds later in fourth, with the pairings of Leipheimer and Landis, then Mancebo and Rasmussen also finishing within two minutes of the stage winner.
Stage 15 - Sunday, July 17: Lézat-sur-Lèze - Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet), 205.5 km
It doesn't come much tougher than this - one Hors Categorie, four cat 1 cols and one cat 2 climb that adds up to 54km of climbing and an average gradient of 7.96% - that also adds up to plenty of pain! Riders will pass the monument to Fabio Casartelli, killed on the Col du Portet d'Aspet in 1995, where the peloton will most likely slow down to pay its respects as it rides past. It's then on to the Col de Mente, Portillon, Peyresourde, Val-Louron Azet before finishing up Lat-d'Adet in St-Lary - Soulan. The climbs are evenly spaced out, and it's pretty clear to see what everyone is in for - plenty of mountains that don't necessarily reach great heights, but do so very quickly.
Stage 15 will probably serve as the ultimate selection day, and look for Armstrong, Ullrich, Basso, and maybe Rasmussen to fight it out for the stage and GC honours.
Stage 15 climbs
Col du Portet d'Aspet (souvenir Casartelli) (Cat. 2, km 85, 5.9 km climb at 6.9 %)
Col de Menté (Cat. 1, km 100.5, 7.0 km climb at 8.6 %)
Col du Portillon (Cat. 1, km 137.5, 8.4 km climb at 7.3 %)
Col de Peyresourde (Cat. 1, km 162, 15.3 km climb at 7 %)
Col de Val-Louron-Azet (Cat. 1, km 182.5, 7.4 km climb at 8.3 %)
Saint-Lary-Soulan (Pla-d'Adet) (HC, km 205.5, 10.3 km climb at 8.3 %)