Discovery Channel's youngster Yaroslav Popovych scored a big victory today in medieval Carcassonne, making up for his team's recent disappointments in this Tour de France. The young Ukrainian went out on his very own crusade and attacked his breakaway companions in the final kilometres towards the historic city, and took the victory after 211 kilometres of racing. Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) placed second, with double stage winner Oscar Freire (Rabobank) coming through the finish third - just in time before torrential rain cooled down the town that was baking under 40 degree heat.
"This morning when I stepped out of the team bus, Johan (Bruyneel) told us that we now had to try and win a stage... and that was exactly what we did," said the 26 year-old in the finish. "So I think I can be happy today.
"My most beautiful victory was when I won the World Championships in the U23 category," Popovych continued. "It was more important to me because the emotion was very different. You're standing on a podium and you hear the national anthem of your country. This victory comes in as a nice second, though!"
Popovych, Ballan, Freire and Frenchman Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole) had been racing in front of the peloton for the last half of the stage, but the Phonak-led bunch kept a close eye on them. Nevertheless, today's stage winner moved up to tenth position at 4'15 behind GC leader Floyd Landis (Phonak).
"We'll have to see what happens in the next stages," Popovych replied when asked if he thought he could make a difference on GC now. "If I'm still as bad in the Alps as I was in the Pyrenees then of course, I don't have a chance. There’s still a long way to Paris."
Fast man Freire used this opportunity to grab a few sprint bonuses along the way. The Spaniard now sits in second behind Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) in the maillot vert , but didn't try to go for the points at today's finish line. When Popovych attacked, the Spaniard chose to stay in Ballan's wheel instead of chasing the Ukrainian down.
"No, not at all," explained Popovych when journalists asked him whether there had been an agreement between him and the Rabo rider. "I attacked because it was impossible for me to win over Freire in the sprint. I didn't have another option if I wanted to win the stage. Maybe Freire didn't react because he wanted to see what Ballan was doing. The circumstances were just like that during the race, so that was in my advantage."
In the finale, Frenchman Le Mevel was the first to concede to the overall high pace of today's stage, taking place in the blisteringly hot département Aude. When Popovych charged to the first of his merciless attacks with 8 clicks to go, the Crédit Agricole rider knew his time was up.
"My legs just hurt so much; I couldn't react when Popovych left," a disillusioned Le Mevel told the press at the finish. "I'm disappointed, but it just wasn't possible. These three were just too strong, and they were not nobodies. I should have been able to attack, but it was also very, very hot, and I wasn't in the right rhythm."
Team Phonak and Yellow jersey wearer Floyd Landis were in charge of the field today across the bumpy roads coming down the Pyrenees. "It was a difficult day to control for me," said Landis in the finish. "Yesterday in the mountains was better... The problem was that there were always breaks with too many guys in them, and that other teams wanted to chase."
Indeed, stage 12 started fast and furious, with many break moves initiated, but soon destroyed by a raging bunch. One early jump included Robbie McEwen and Tom Boonen, who was plagued by light stomach troubles since yesterday. Boonen didn't appreciate the riding of his Australian rival in the break, saying it annihilated the escapists's chances.
"Everybody was ready to work in that break to make it succeed," said the world champion, who later got his revenge on McEwen by winning the bunch sprint. "McEwen disturbed the flow by constantly coming up to the front and bringing down the rhythm. He was to one who ruined our break. I thought it was ridiculous."
Later, with the gap to the break of the day being down at a constant four minutes, many believed the sprinters' teams would collaborate to get the better of them before the finish line. But it wasn't to be, also because Quick.Step decided not to chase.
"I wasn't sure about a bunch sprint, as I'm not at a 100 percent because of those stomach problems," explained Boonen. "I didn't want to risk having my teammates work for me and not being able to finish it off. And I certainly didn't want anybody else take advantage of our work."
Asked if he now considered Popovych a threat, race leader Landis said, "No, I don't think so at the moment. He won the stage, congratulations to him. I don't think we are too worried about the classification with him now, but if he does it again, we have a problem."
How it unfolded
On a hot midday Friday, Stage 12 began in the Pyrenees spa town of Luchon at 12.16pm, with 165 riders starting on 14 Julliet, the French national holiday on the way to the beautiful walled city of Carcassonne. Stage 12 had 4 categorized climbs, the Cat 2 Col des Ares after 27 km, the Cat 4 Cote de Pujos after 47.5 km then two back to back Cat 4 ascents, the Cote de Paul de Pailhes (126.0 km) and Cote de Pamiers (136.0 km). Stage 12 also had two intermediate sprints in Caumont after 76.0 km and Mirepoix at the 162.0 km mark.
As always on 14 Julliet, the French were on the attack and just outside of Luchon, it was '05 Giro d'Italia stage winner Le Mevel (C.A) on the move. His attack provoked a large break with French champion Brard (Caisse d'Epargne), Jensy Voigt (CSC), Kopp (Gerolsteiner), De Groot (Rabobank), maillot vert Robbie McEwen and teammate Vansummeren (Davitamon), Bennati and Righi (Lampre), world champ Boonen (Quick.Steo), Moreni (Cofidis), Ventoso (Saunier Duval), Da Cruz (Française des Jeux), massive Maggie Bäckstedt (Liquigas) and Fedrigo (Bouygues). But the break never got more than 0'30 and was doomed as Phonak and T-Mobile chased them down after 20 km at the foot of the first climb of the day.
Spanish sprinter Galvez (Caisse d'Epargne) abandoned and as the Cat 2 Col des Ares began, Hincapie (Discovery), Voigt (CSC), Bennati (Lampre) and Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) counterattacked, but Rabobank's Chicken Rasmussen went peckin' for points at the GPM and the determined Dane took the honours. On the descent, another big break formed, including Hincapie, Voigt, Bennati, Pereiro, Rasmussen, Guerini (T-Mob), Goubert (AG2R), Cunego (Lampre), Hushovd (C.A), Verdugo (Euskaltel), Moncoutié, Chavanel and Moreni (Cofidis), Millar (Saunier) and Albasini (Liquigas), and as they approached the second climb of the day, the Cat 4 Cote de Pujos after 47.5 km, the 15 strong break had a 0'50 lead on the Davitamon-Lotto led peloton. The Belgian outfit had missed the break, while Discovery Channel's Paolo Savoldelli, who crashed on the descent of the Pla-de-Beret yesterday while returning to his hotel, abandoned after 42 km. Later in the stage, his Discovery Channel teammate Noval also abandoned.
Millar took the GPM points on the Cote de Pujos ahead of Rasmussen, but last year's TdF maillot á pois winner had gained enough points to get closer to the current maillot á pois David De la Fuente (Saunier Duval). It was a red hot afternoon with white hot racing as 46 km were raced in the first hour. The chase continued across the Haute-Garonne with about 1'00 between the break and the peloton, and as the escape passed into the Ariege departement, six riders sat up and waited for the peloton as they didn't think the break could stay away because Davitamon-Lotto wasn't going to let Bennati get away.
Hincapie, Voigt, Guerini, Goubert, Bennati, Verdugo, Moncoutié, Millar and Albasini kept on riding and sure enough at the day's first intermediate sprint, Bennati took the points in Caumont after 76.0 km. The break had been away for 50 km and had never gotten more than a 1'10" lead, and once Bouygues and Milram joined the chase, that spelled curtains for this escape. 10 km later after the feed zone in St.Girons with the peloton closing fast, Albasini attacked but it was futile as he and the remains of the break were brought back two clicks later. Peloton groupé with 125 km to race and the pace was still swift, with average speed for the second hour of Stage 12 at 47.2 km/h on the small, rolling roads of the Ariege.
After the peloton settled down for lunch, at the 98 km point on the descent of the Plantaurel hills, Freire (Rabobank), Ballan (Lampre), Popovych (Discovery) and Le Mevel (C.A.) attacked and had gained 0'30 after 102 km in Clermont. Davitamon-Lotto considered chasing Freire briefly, but decided to let him and his three companions go. Next up were the two back-to-back Cat 4 ascents, the Côte Du Pâl De Pailhes after 126.0 km and Cote de Pamiers 10 clicks later. Le Mevel took the first GPM while Popovych took the second and the Phonak led peloton was already almost 4 minutes in arrears. At the day's second intermediate sprint in Mirepoix, it was Freire who took the points with 49.5 km to race to Carcassonne.
The afternoon temps were 40 degrees as the break followed the baking asphalt ribbon towards the finish. Erik Zabel's Milram milkmen hit the front to relieve Phonak and the gap between the break and the peloton was stable at 4 minutes. As the front quartet hit the outskirts of Carcassonne in the last 10 km, the attacks started, with Popovych trying repeatedly to get away from the others and Ballan chasing him every time but one. That last attack with 3.5 km to go saw the Ukrainian talent finally cracking Ballan and riding to a solo win in Carcassonne, with Ballan, Freire and Le Mevel coming in about 0'30 behind the Ukrainian.
After yesterday's poor performance for Discovery Channel and today's abandons by Savoldelli and Noval, Popovych gave his team a much needed boost. Popovych was 26th on Thursday's mountain stage and lost 6'25 to maillot jaune Floyd Landis and dropped down to 23rd on GC, 9'00 behind the lead, but today, Popo clawed back half of his losses and won his first Tour de France stage and fifth career pro win. Popovych is currently in 10th on GC, 4'15 behind Landis and Discovery Channel's best placed rider in the 2006 Tour de France.
Stage 13 - Saturday, July 15: Béziers-Montélimar, 231 km
Le Tour's longest day is a flat to rolling stage from the seacoast through the hot rocky vineyards of Herault, Gard and the Ardeche that finishes in the sweet, nougaty town of Montélimar. Stage 13 should be a day long struggle between sprinters teams and escape artists who will try to hang on for the win, but as on Stage 9, the competition for the maillot vert may bring it all together in the end, where Big Bad Belgian Boonen will try to finally turn the tables on Killer Kangaroo McEwen. But don't count out Lampre-Fondital's cannonball Toto Commesso, who will be on the hunt for his third career Tour de France stage win in Montélimar.