Two podium places still up for grabs
Soloing into the mountain-top finish in Mende with arms outstretched and a facial expression that bordered between a smile and grimace, Marcos Serrano finally gave Liberty Seguros something to smile about. The Spanish team came to the race with high hopes to challenge for the overall classification with Joseba Beloki and Roberto Heras, but both never really looked like performing to expectations, and thus the emphasis switched to salvaging their Tour with a stage victory.
From the moment he attacked his breakaway group on the lower slopes of the Cote de la Croix-Neuve, the 32 year-old from Valencia was thinking of nothing except crossing the line first. "I couldn't even hear the team manager because there were so many people shouting," Serrano said of the enormous crowds that lined the final climb.
"This morning, Manolo reminded us what happened in '95 here," he added, speaking about Laurent Jalabert's victory atop Mende exactly 10 years ago. "He told us it was difficult to win the stage, but it was a stage for our team. I was told to go in the break, so I am lucky for that, because it could have been someone else."
Asked who he feared most from the 10-man breakaway, Serrano said: "I was afraid of everybody. But in the end, I knew I had to take my chance."
Essentially the last chance for anyone whose name wasn't Lance Armstrong to gain time on Lance Armstrong, the Croix-Neuve provided the expected selection, as the four strongest riders in the 92nd Tour de France battled their way up its 10 percent slopes, finishing 11'18 behind Serrano and led home by Cadel Evans - one of the strongest performers in this critical third week. The net result is that Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) now moves to within 2'12 of third-placed Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), meaning that a podium place is still possible if the German rides like he can in Saturday's time trial.
The 28 year-old Davitamon-Lotto rider told Cyclingnews this morning he was extremely frustrated after being caught out on yesterday's stage to Revel, and was determined not to let that happen again. Today, Evans proved it was positioning rather than the legs that saw him lose those 20 seconds, gaining back that deficit and more to re-find his position of two days ago, seventh on the classement générale.
"Better late than never," he said seconds after he crossed the finish line. "He [Armstrong] was pretty angry about it because I sat on all the way; hey, I can sit on the climb in the headwind, but I can't come 'round. But if you put a finish line in front of me, I have to sprint for it - I'm a bike racer... sorry Lance."
Quizzed on what Armstrong said to him, the Australian replied: "What was that for?"
So what did you say? "I couldn't think of any answer straight away... it's hard after a finish like that!" exclaimed Evans with a smile.
Speaking of Lance, the six-time Tour winner looks more assured of number seven as each day wears on, now just three days away from a final victory lap on the Champs Elysées. "I've always said I'm a lucky guy," said Armstrong.
"It's also nice to know it's the last one. For me, it's tough to have a big smile, but now that the Tour's almost finished, my career's almost finished, I have to say it's a nice feeling. There's never been a true panic within the team or myself, but I suppose that's what happens when you prepare 100 percent, have the experience, have what I think is a great team around me, and a great director - it makes things much easier."
On his pick for the podium (besides himself), he said: "Basso second, Ullrich third. That simple."
"Jan is looking stronger and stronger, and he might be the favourite for Saturday. Rasmussen rode bravely today, but I think those 30 seconds will be the 30 seconds that knocks him off the podium."
Interestingly, at the end of today's stage, Armstrong was asked to submit a blood sample on top of the urine sample he was required to give as the maillot jaune, the UCI medicos never failing to keep the Texan on his toes.
Team CSC's Ivan Basso, Armstrong's only real challenger in this year's race, was responsible for creating the four-man final selection, but has seemingly run out of ideas rather than legs on how to beat his arch-rival. "My team worked for me the last 20k; I tried to do something and I did it at 100 percent, but Lance was [too] strong - I did my best," he said.
"I felt strong, but not enough to drop Lance... maybe in the time trial, I can take four minutes out of Lance," joked the likeable Italian.
American Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) was one of four riders along with Vinokourov, Rasmussen and Mancebo to finish in the group behind Armstrong, 37 seconds in arrears, and it will require an extraordinary effort from the 31 year-old to make the podium come Paris. "Well, today was a bit more steep [than yesterday] and I just can't match the power of Lance and Basso right now," he said. "It's obvious everyone's racing for second, third, fourth and fifth... no chance of winning, I think."
How it unfolded
It was a hot, dry and windy noontime in the university city of Albi, with temps in the mid-20s expected to hit the low 30s by mid afternoon, and a west-northwest breeze blowing on the left quarter as the parcours headed into the Massif Central. After a minute of silence this morning in memory of Amy Gillett, the race was on and it was full gas again at the start. At the first intermediate sprint at Villefranche-D'albigeois (km 13), it was big man Van Summeren (Davitamon-Lotto) ahead of Vino and Moreau. 8km later, Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) was on the attack again, this time with Heras (Liberty Seguros). After 30km, 23 riders had gotten across to the two Spaniards, with Azevedo, Guerini, Julich, Arroyo, Menchov, Moos, Bernucci, Horner, Contador, Hushovd, Garzelli, Moncoutié, White, Sinkewitz, Tankink, Fedrigo, Voeckler, Wegmann and Casar joining Flecha and Heras. But Discovery Channel rode the break down and it was peloton groupé.
The next to attack was the ever aggressive Carlos Da Cruz (Francaise des Jeux), who went away after 40 km and held a slender lead over the peloton. After 49km of racing on the first ascent of the day, the Côte de la Béssède, a Cat. 4, 8.3 km climb at 2.9 %, Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Roberts (CSC) went in pursuit of Da Cruz and were joined by Kessler (T-Mobile Team), Zandio (Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne), Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto) Serrano (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Vasseur (Cofidis, Le Credit Par Telephone), Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Zandio took the KOM from Kessler and Merckx and this break had the right mix of riders to stay away. After 73km in the hot, dusty bourg of Saint Afftique, the gap was over 3'00.
20 kilometres later on the Cat. 3 Côte de Raujolles, a 2.7 km climb at 5.2 %, it was Da Cruz taking the KOM ahead Merckx, Roberts and Vasseur, while Discovery Channel had Noval and Padrnos riding tempo on the front of the groupe maillot jaune 10'55 behind. Down the backside of the Raujolles climb, the break rode over the spectacular new Viaduct di Millau, the highest viaduct in Europe. 2.6km long, the Viaduct rises to 342m on seven towers, while the road surface is 270m above the gorge of the Tarn Valley.
As the first Cat.2 Côte de Boyne began after 122.5km, the break was 12'20 ahead of the Discovery Channel and Rabobank led peloton. Atop the 9.2 km, 5.3 % grade ascent, Da Cruz took the points as the road shimmered in the afternoon heat. No descent for relief as the race entered the Departement of Lozere and traversed the corrugated terrain of the Tarn plateau west of the Gorges du Tarn, France's Grand Canyon. The insatiable Da Cruz took the points at the second intermediate sprint in Le Massegros after 138km with 51km to go and the peloton was just cruising along 13'00 behind as the break entered the Causse de Sauveterre. Twenty-five kilometres later in Chanac, the gap between the break and the peloton had increased to 15'00 and the tactics started as CSC got onto the front.
On the penultimate ascent of Cat. 3 Côte de Chabrits after 180km, a steep 1.7 km climb at 7.1 % that dropped into Mende, Da Cruz attacked, but the real race was Merckx, Kessler, Pellizotti and Serrano watching each other, while past maillot jaune Voeckler was just hanging on for dear life. In the groupe maillot jaune, CSC had gone to the front to take control of the pace to make sure that Ivan Basso was in the best possible position on the final two climbs. From the break, Zandio went after Da Cruz and behind him, Merckx made the perfect counter move. Over the summit of the Côte de Chabrits with 9km to go, Voeckler found new energy and bridged across to Merckx, with Serrano, Zandio and Vasseur 0'10 behind. 2km later in Mende, the five riders had come together, as Kessler, Roberts, Pellizotti, Martinez and Da Cruz were now gapped definitively.
Just before the five front runners made the sharp right turn in Mende up the steep final climb up to the airport finish atop the Côte de la Croix Neuve, Pellizotti had bridged across to the now six-strong front group. Dedicated to Laurent Jalabert, who won a Tour De France stage here ten years ago, the short, sharp Cat. 2 ascent was a 3.1 km climb at 10.1 %. Among huge crowds lining the climb, Merckx made the tempo, then attacked hard twice but couldn't make the difference. Serrano took over for Merckx as Zandio and Pellizotti went out the back, as did Voeckler. Only Merckx, Serrano and a surprising Vasseur were left up front, but as the road steepened in the final kilometre of the ascent, Merckx was yo-yoing on and off the back. Serrano was riding hard as he began to gain ground on Merckx and Vasseur and eventually got a 50m gap on the two chasers as he passed over the summit with 1500m to go. The road leveled off over the KOM and Serrano dove down the hill to the aerodrome with 0'15 on the two chasers. Taking his fifth win as a pro and the third stage win by a Spanish rider at Le Tour, Serrano came in to win solo, 0'27 ahead of Vasseur, who sprinted past Merckx for second. Axel gesticulated in anger at the Frenchman, who he felt didn't chase enough behind the Liberty Seguros rider.
In the groupe maillot jaune, 10'00 behind, Sastre was driving the pace in Mende as the steep final ascent of Côte de la Croix Neuve with only 20 riders left. Moreau dropped off the back as George and Popo rode tempo up front. After a kilometre of the 3.7km ascent, Basso attacked hard, completely exploding the group. Suddenly there were only four left: Armstrong, Basso, an enterprising Cadel Evans and Jan Ullrich. Basso's attack had gapped Vino, and dropped Rasmussen, Leipheimer and Mancebo.
With 3km to go, Armstrong accelerated, while Vino was caught by Levi and Rasmussen, 0'40 behind, with Landis and Mazzoleni at 1'00. At 1km to the KOM (2.5km to go), Ullrich dropped off, but battled back to the front group as the road flattened out 500m before the KOM. The gap to the Rasmussen group was 0'35 as Leipheimer was riding well to limit the time loss. The groupe maillot jaune dove down to the Mende airport, where Evans took the sprint for 11th, 11'18 behind Serrano. The Rasmussen group, with Vino, maillot a pois Rasmussen, Leipheimer and Mancebo came in 0'37 back, while Piepoli finished 0'43 behind Armstrong's group, and Landis and Mazzoleni were at 0'49.
Big loser on the day was Rasmussen, who couldn't follow the Basso acceleration and ended up losing time to 4th placed Ullrich. The German is now just 2'12 out of the final podium Tour spot now held by the Danish climber. Cadel Evans had a superb ride today to stay with Armstrong, Ullrich and Basso and jumped one place into 7th on GC, 1'37 out of sixth place. Floyd Landis rode hard today and maintained his 9th place on GC, gaining time on 10th place Moreau. With a good time trial Saturday, Landis can move up to 7th place on GC, but it won't be easy for the Phonak rider.
Stage 19 - Friday, July 22: Issoire-Le Puy en Velay, 153.5km
The third to last stage of the 92nd Tour de France starts in the small Auvergnat town of Issoire and heads north across the Puy-de-Dome into the Haut Loire region. The short, intense stage climbs from the get-go topping out on a Cat 3 climb after 38km. Then it's down to Ambert, up the Cat 2 Col de Pradeaux and then up and down for the next 85km over two Cat 4 climbs to the rolling, then flat run-in to Le Puy en Velay.