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A day expected to be one for the sprinters was anything but that, with the third successful...
A day expected to be one for the sprinters was anything but that, with the third successful breakaway in as many days and the maillot jaune flying into Revel in a 10-man group, which once again caused rumblings at the back-end of the leaderboard.
At the finish line in Revel and after almost 240 kilometres of racing - the longest of the Tour - it was Discovery Channel rider Paolo Savoldelli who proved the pundits wrong. Discovery's objective was to have a rider in the break to allow race leader Lance Armstrong and his team a slightly easier ride, but when the double Giro d'Italia champion and his teammate, José Luis Rubiera, both got in the initial 17-rider move and soon built a sizeable lead, the baby-faced assassin started thinking otherwise.
"Of course, it was good to go in the break, because we had two riders from our team at the finish if we needed to help Lance. But with 17 riders in the break, I knew it would be very difficult to try and win the stage, and it was a kind of lottery," explained Savoldelli.
The 32 year-old from Bergamo obviously got the numbers just right, making the first split with 40k to go and comfortably bridging up to Frenchman Sébastian Hinault (Credit Agricole) on the final ascent of the Côte de Saint-Ferréol. CSC strongman Kurt-Asle Arvesen and another baby-face, Simon Gerrans (Ag2r-Prevoyance), worked hard to bridge up to the pair over the top, but the classy, super-strong Italian benefited from his climbing prowess and had plenty in reserve to outsprint Arvesen for his first Tour de France victory.
"Well, it's a lucky year for me," Savoldelli began by saying.
"Everything has been going well from the beginning of the season. I knew I had a possibility to win a stage, though I've learned at the Tour it's very difficult to win... but when it happens, you are so happy! When I was on the podium, I felt such a huge emotion because of all the people and what was happening there, and it was something missing from my palmarès until now."
When Arvesen was asked if it was better to have waited instead of launching his sprint with around 800 metres to go, the Norwegian said: "If I knew it was only Savoldelli, yes, but I was not sure about Hinault, so I just attacked less than one k to go and was hoping to reach to the end...but didn't."
Discovery also find themselves the front-runners in the teams classification, displacing T-Mobile and leaving the team from Bonn 37 seconds and Team CSC 22'04 in arrears on the overall. "I think it's already gone. If we are lucky tomorrow, we can have three guys in a breakaway and get it back," smiled Arvesen.
"Sorry for keeping you up till late and running third," joked the third-placed Gerrans to his family and friends back home in Australia. A 25 year-old neo-pro who hails from the same town in Victoria's high-country as 80s cycling legend Phil Anderson, running third on such a difficult stage - and in the third week of his first Tour de France - can only spell great things for his many years to come as a professional.
"I thought today could be a good stage for me, so I just played my cards today," he said. "I tried to make the early break, and tried to look after myself in that group until the attacks starting going with about 40k to go. On that last climb, I gave it everything to follow Arvesen - he looked like one of the strongest there - and get across to Savoldelli. Unfortunately, I had nothing left in that last kilometre."
Things were equally exciting 20-plus minutes behind all this, as T-Mobile riders Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov broke the back of the peloton with their offensive riding on the final two climbs. This time, however, Discovery Channel wasn't the team caught out. Instead, it was the seventh and eighth-placed riders on GC at the start of the day, Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Floyd Landis (Phonak), the notable exceptions, with their 20-second deficit seeing them drop one place on the classement général and crafty Kazakhstani Vinokourov moving up two into seventh.
After the stage, maillot jaune Lance Armstrong told it how he saw it: "They [T-Mobile] rode the last 25, 30k with pretty good crosswinds and they rode it fast. There was a big acceleration from them and especially Vino and Jan on the final climb to try and distance Rasmussen and Basso, because they're more or less at three minutes from a podium spot. I turned around, and there was less than 10 guys there and we had three, so it definitely pays to ride at the front," he said.
Today's stage finally brought relief from the Alpine and Pyrenean climbs which had stressed the contenders and terrorised the sprinters for the past week and a half. But the race to Revel wouldn't be an easy one, however; at 239.5 kilometres it was the longest of this year's Tour. The route was also littered with four categorised climbs (the Cat. 3 Cote de Baleix, the Cat. 4 Cote de Betbeze and Cote de Capens and the Cat. 3 Cote de Saint-Ferreol) plus some continuously undulating roads. The stage was tailor made for a long breakaway, then, unless the sprinters' teams were feeling particularly optimistic.
There were no non-starters today but after 18 kilometres of racing, T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden dismounted and got into the team car. Last year's runner up was lying 11th overall this morning and having a pretty decent race, but a crash yesterday resulted in a broken wrist. Klöden started today's stage with a large cast on his arm but that wasn't enough to enable him to continue.
Bobby Julich (Team CSC) took the points on the Col de Baleix (22.5 km), ahead of Alexandre Moos (Phonak) and Joseba Beloki (Liberty Seguros). After the summit, French champion Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) attacked and was joined by Team CSC's Kurt-Asle Arvesen. Several kilometres later Erik Dekker (Rabobank), the last stage winner in Revel in 2000, got across and then it was the turn of Carlos Da Cruz (Française Des Jeux) to make the junction.
Reinforcements arrived very soon afterwards when thirteen others bridged the gap. Jose Luis Rubiera and Paolo Savoldelli (Discovery Channel), Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile Team), Allan Davis (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Sébastien Hinault (Credit Agricole), Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Bram Tankink (Quick.Step), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Caffita), Thomas Lövkvist (Française Des Jeux), Andrei Grivko (Domina Vacanze), Samuel Dumoulin (Française Des Jeux) and Simon Gerrans (Ag2r-Prevoyance) joined up with the leading four and set about working well together. And well they might: with 14 teams represented in the break and the best placed rider overall, Sevilla, 38'51 down in 25th overall, the composition looked just right.
Da Cruz pipped Davis and Augé at the intermediate sprint in Rabastens-de-Bigorre, by which time the break was already 1'55 clear. This had stretched to over ten minutes at the top of the Cote de Betbeze (88.5), won by Grivko ahead of Dumoulin and Righi, and continued to grow at a rapid rate.
Grivko took the KOM points once again at the Cote de Capens (159.5 km), with Da Cruz and Dumoulin second and third. The group was working well at this point but Dekker commenced the hostilities when he attacked with 50 kilometres to go. Grivko counterattacked when the Dutchman was brought back, being joined by Gerrans, then Savoldelli and Sevilla. Tankink, Arvesen, Hinault and Righi bridged across to make it eight up front. Dekker and the other riders then began a steady slide backwards, losing any hope of a stage win.
Gerrans led Sevilla and Hinault across the sprint line in Gardouch (198 km), by which time the octet had a lead of 0'30 on the chasers and over 23 minutes on the bunch. This advantage on the latter group stretched to its maximum of 25'02 inside the final 20 kilometres; here, the T-Mobile led peloton were almost delayed by a level crossing. Indeed the support vehicles had to wait for the train to pass before commencing a high-speed chase back to the bunch.
The third category Cote de Saint-Ferreol was next and, with the top just seven kilometres from the line, was the perfect springboard for an attack. Tankink was first to try, jumping clear at the bottom of the climb and opening an immediate gap on the other seven. Hinault then surged clear, catching and passing the Dutchman, before Savoldelli tore up the tree-lined slopes and overhauled both. He and Hinault crossed the summit ensemble and then knuckled down to a high-speed descent.
Gerrans and Arvesen were six seconds back at this point. It seemed the stage was slipping out of their grasp, but Savoldelli was being frustrated by an unhelpful/shattered Hinault. The Giro d'Italia winner sat up, gestured angrily and then jumped clear, only to be hauled back by a fast-closing Arvesen, other two in tow. The Norwegian then jumped with about 1300 metres remaining, opening up a promising-looking gap.
Savoldelli looked to have missed the boat but the Discovery rider was not giving up. He shot after Arvesen, inching his way up to the CSC rider and blowing Hinault off his wheel. The final 300 metres saw a mano-a-mano duel between the two. Both seated in the saddle, pedaling furiously, Savoldelli reeled in the lone leader, then came past within a stone's throw of the line. A disappointed Arvesen rolled home for second, while Gerrans overhauled an exhausted Hinault for third. Grivko finished 24 seconds back in fifth, then Sevilla, Tankink, Righi, Dumoulin and David completed the top ten.
The bunch was still over 20 minutes down at this point and it looked like they might just roll in to the finish. The ever-aggressive Vinokourov had other thoughts, though. The Kazakhstani led the bunch onto the climb and accelerated hard, with Ullrich then taking over and ramping up the speed even more. Armstrong, Rasmussen and Popovych were able to jump straight onto the move, however, with Leipheimer, Basso, Mancebo, Vinokourov, Hincapie and Mazzoleni then bridging before the top of the climb.
Ullrich's motivation was clear; namely, to try to distance Rasmussen and get closer to a podium finish before Saturday's time trial. He didn't succeed in this aim but the others in the move were determined to keep things going. Leipheimer, Mancebo and Vinokourov were looking to move up the general classification, while Armstrong and his Discovery Channel teammates were even more keen to drive the pace in to the finish.
Despite the fact that reducing their deficit to the break actually limited the day's gains in the team classification [the team GC is determined by the combined times of a team's three best riders on each stage - ed.], Discovery blasted down the descent and into Revel. Popovych had over six minutes advantage in the best young rider standings and so this appeared not to be the driving motivation. Perhaps Discovery wanted to distance Floyd Landis, who had angered Armstrong by comments he made in an interview with L'Equipe earlier this week. If so, that goal was certainly achieved. Landis and Evans finished in a small group 0'20 down, with Vinokourov consequently overtaking them and moving up from ninth to seventh overall.
In his post-race comments, however, Armstrong did not allude to any desire to turn the screws on his former teammate. Instead, he said that attack was the best form of defence, and once he realised that he had two teammates with him, he said that Discovery kept the pace high to prevent any further attacks from T-Mobile. This was despite the fact that Ullrich is six minutes behind him on GC, Discovery was actually hurting its chances in the teams classification by reducing the gap to the 17 riders in front, and Popovych sprinted at full gas for 18th place, which could only have been for the purposes of gaining time.
O'Grady and Hushovd led in the next small chase group, sprinting it out for 28th place. While there were no further points on offer, their presence towards the front of the race suggests that they are coping better than maillot vert rival Robbie McEwen with the undulating roads coming at this point of the Tour.
As for the Discovery Channel team, they will be happy with their haul today. This morning Armstrong received his 79th yellow jersey, equalling Bernard Hinault's total. The squad took their second stage win of the race, while Popovych added another few seconds to his best young rider lead. The team also made up over 20 minutes in the team classification, taking over at the top from T-Mobile in those standings. The German team is unlikely to go quietly, though; expect to see more swashbuckling action from the Vinokourov-Ullrich double act before the end of this Tour.