The podium: it's all about tomorrow
In complete contrast to his victory atop the legendary L'Alpe d'Huez six years ago, T-Mobile's Giuseppe Guerini left a quartet he'd been with most of the day 1400 metres from the finish line, unleashing a predictable though perfectly-timed attack to claim a second Tour de France stage win. Finishing 10 seconds behind were his stunned breakaway companions, Sandy Casar (Francaise Des Jeux), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Tuesday's winner Oscar Pereiro (Phonak).
"I've been looking for a win for a long time," said the 35 year-old Guerini, affectionately known as 'Turbo'.
"My condition was very good; I looked for the right break as I've been doing for the past few days and today it worked perfectly. The last road in was very straight - I jumped away and got a good gap. They didn't chase me immediately, so I knew I could win it and I am delighted that I did."
Captain Jan Ullrich was only too happy for his loyal climbing domestique: "I'm really delighted for Giuseppe, he rode brilliantly. This morning, we decided to get 'Turbo' in a breakaway and we all worked hard to get him up there in the lead group. Beppe then took the bull by the horns to clinch the stage win - super!"
Third-placed Pellizotti was also concerned about his chances in a four-man sprint, but Guerini's attack preceded his own: "I was afraid that if I jumped with Guerini, Casar would take my wheel and then outsprint me, so I took the risk, waited...and lost. But Guerini's attack was really strong, too," he said.
Predictably, things remained status quo at the top, middle and back-end of the leaderboard. Four and a half minutes separate third to fifth place on the overall classification, and five and half minutes separate fifth to tenth - which means that in tomorrow's challenging 55k time-test around St. Etienne, anything can happen - and probably will.
Said the maillot jaune of Lance Armstrong: "Big day tomorrow - I'll give it everything I have. It's difficult to really enjoy yourself too much because it's the Tour de France; every day, there's attacks going up the road. No-one's throwing their retirement party just yet."
Even though it's more than likely the cake's already started to be made, and the 33 year-old is riding his last hours on the bike as a professional, Armstrong said that for now, he's not terribly sad about leaving what's been his life for more than a decade. When asked what image he'd like to be remembered with, he said: "I don't think it will be a picture from the race, or the podium. Maybe a picture from the training camp back in 1999, with Johan, myself, a mechanic...when there were just four of us."
The Guerini one saw today was not unlike the George Hincapie of five days ago, who took a well-earned though surprise victory atop Pla d'Adet on Stage 15. His victory also made it another one for the gregarios, though this time it was the Italian's turn to show he's not only good for what he's paid for, triumphing on a stage predicted to be one for the Classics specialist.
Twice third in the Giro d'Italia, 'Beppe' gave up most his personal ambitions as a stage racer six years ago. Though strangely enough, 1999 was also the year he is best-remembered for, when the-then 29 year-old claimed victory atop 'L'Alpe'. Since then, Guerini has continued to work largely at the service of Ullrich, a man who he has become close friends with. But today, with his job for Der Jan all but done, he got his chance and ran with it - all the way to Le Puy-en-Velay
How it unfolded
The 155 riders remaining in the Tour de France lined up for the second Massif Central stage in the small Auvergnat town of Issoire under sunny skies and warm temperatures in the upper 20s. The short but difficult 153 km stage headed north across the Puy-de-Dome into the Haut Loire region, climbing from the start and topping out on the Cat. 3 Côte de Saint-Eloy-la-Glacière after 38km. Then it was 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.
Swiss rider Alexandre Moos (Phonak) opened the hostilities with an early attack, before the general bagarre began to determine who would make it into today's expected winning break. 10th on GC Christophe Moreau (CA) attacked with Gerolsteiner's Ronny Scholz to take the points on the Cat. 4 Côte des Gerbaudias after 23 km, with Aussie Bradley McGee (Française Des Jeux) chasing them for third. After 35 km, an attack by T-Mobile's Giuseppe Guerini, Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux), and the always aggressive Oscar Pereiro Sio (Phonak) created a small gap over the peloton, which they held until the summit of the Côte de Saint-Eloy-la-Glacière after 38 km. Pereiro took the points ahead of Guerini and Casar, further securing his second place in the mountains classification.
The lead trio were being chased at 20 seconds by Kurt-Asle Arvesen (CSC), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), and Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval), but only Pellizotti was able to get across to the leaders with a big effort over the top of the climb. Garate fell back to the peloton, while Arvesen was caught by a counter-attacking group containing Jose Azevedo (Discovery), Salvatore Commesso (Lampre), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Bert Grabsch (Phonak), Carlos Da Cruz (FDJ), Alessandro Bertolini (Domina Vacanze), Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Nicolas Portal (Ag2r), and Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo). The 10 man group was 40 seconds behind the leading quartet, but didn't have the cohesion to bridge the gap, despite the efforts of Commesso and Chavanel in particular. The peloton sat up as Pereiro was 17'10 down on GC, and Discovery Channel assumed the position on the front to protect their team captain Lance Armstrong.
The leading four cooperated perfectly, with Pereiro doing some strong turns, Casar and Guerini not holding back, and Pellizotti seemingly in good shape after his long breakaway yesterday. Pereiro took the sprint points and bonus seconds in Ambert (km 55), and the group commenced the Cat. 2 Col de Pradeaux with a one minute gap to the 10 chasers and 4'00 to the peloton. The climb was 11.4 km at 5.6 %, and the leaders drove the pace hard to make sure none of the chasers came back. Behind, Toto Commesso felt that the chase wasn't going fast enough, and set off alone in pursuit of the leaders. He got within 45 seconds before he sagged and was caught by the rest of the group, which split and reformed several times on the climb. In the peloton, Discovery kept the pace hard to prevent attacks and knocked the gap back to 3'30 at the summit of the climb.
The leaders continued to press their advantage, and once it was out to two minutes, it seemed clear that the 10 behind were not coming back. The chase was hampered by the fact that Grabsch and Da Cruz were not working, while Azevedo only started to come through fairly late in the piece. Commesso was continuously aggressive, and was usually marked by Chavanel whenever he tried to attack, but he couldn't rid the break of the dead wood. The bunch had fallen back to nearly nine minutes behind with 50 km to go, which prompted Illes Balears to start chasing in order to protect Paco Mancebo's fifth place on GC from Pereiro. Credit Agricole (for Moreau), Gerolsteiner (for Leipheimer), and Davitamon-Lotto (for Evans and a possible fifth place for McEwen) also put men on the front, and reduced the gap to the leaders to 4'31 at the finish.
Pereiro, winner three days ago, was clearly riding for a top 10 GC place, and he succeeded in this aim, probably at the expense of another stage win. The break held its two minute plus advantage as it dove off the plateau down into Le Puy-en-Velay with 10 km to go, and Pereiro's strength kept the break together almost to the end. There was just one attack: Giuseppe Guerini (T-Mobile) turboed off the front with 1.5 km to go, Casar and Pellizotti looked at Pereiro to chase, but Oscar had already spent his bikkies. The other two realised this too late, as Guerini opened up a 10 second lead under the flamme rouge and hammered to the line to celebrate his second Tour de France stage win. Casar took the sprint for second ahead of Pellizotti, but it was clear that the Frenchman had missed his chance today. The remnants of the chasers were led in by Commesso at 2'43, while McEwen won the bunch sprint for 14th at 4'31.
Stage 20 - Saturday, July 23: Saint-Etienne - Saint-Etienne ITT, 55 km
All things being equal (and even with a few inequalitites) the final 55 km individual time trial in Saint'Etienne should provide a great spectacle at the end of a gruelling three weeks - Armstrong thrives in this race against the clock, and his dominance is well documented. The distance suits Armstrong, but the undulating terrain suits Ullrich's ability to push the big gears and power along. A surprise may be in the works, but chances are it'll come down to these two - Armstrong will want to win at least one stage in this year's Tour, while Ullrich will be trying to pull back 2'12 on Michael Rasmussen to get onto the final step of the podium.