A new page in cycling history: Luxembourger King of L'Alpe

145 kilometres from the foot of the legendary climb of L'Alpe d'Huez, twenty-five riders embarked on...

Landis sails back into maillot jaune - and maybe for good

145 kilometres from the foot of the legendary climb of L'Alpe d'Huez, twenty-five riders embarked on an escape fuelled only by hope. But when fifteen of the original twenty-five were still there at this critical point, almost half an hour ahead of schedule and holding a lead of three and a quarter minutes, hope turned to belief for two men.

As Damiano Cunego and Fränk Schleck went mano-a-mano virtually the whole way up the twenty-one hairpin ascent, a fierce battle for the maillot jaune was been waged behind. However, this didn't concern them, particularly Schleck, who was set to become the first Luxembourger in cycling history to achieve victory atop L'Alpe.

Although the 26 year-old looked the more comfortable, effortlessly spinning a small gear à la Armstrong, his equally prodigious Italian companion - not to mention a Giro d'Italia champion - was a renowned pure climber, desperate for a big win.

And if someone asked who would be leading the race three kilometres from the finish, a few may have picked Cunego - though certainly not Schleck. Yet the baby-faced Luxembourger defied the odds and the law of gravity with a perfectly-timed attack, flying up, up and away to earn the most magnificent achievement of his four-year career.

"I'm a bit afraid to attack," said Schleck, "But today I had to attack, as I knew that Cunego is a better sprinter than me. If you get the chance to win the stage on Alpe d'Huez, you need to grab that chance.

"Normally, I would've needed to stay with Carlos [Sastre], to help him out if necessary. But I got in the breakaway, together with three teammates. A lot of riders told me to go back as I was too close in the GC. I was at eleven minutes, so I said no, just like Bjarne [Riis].

"He told me not to pull, as we had three more guys. Jens [Voigt] and David [Zabriskie] did an amazing job today, it was crazy what they did. They believed in me and they were never in doubt; I want to say thank you to those guys, and all of the team who believed in me."

Cunego's second place should not regarded as a loss, as he was up against someone who rode the best race of his life today. Rather, after two lacklustre years, the 24 year-old strawberry blonde from Cerro Veronese should use the occasion to mark his resurgence among the world's best riders.

"I would have liked to win," lamented Cunego, "but when you have a guy that's this explosive in front of you, you just can't do anything about it. I don't regret anything, and I'm happy with the way that my form is coming up.

"Yesterday, I said that L'Alpe d'Huez was just a climb like the other ones. I also thought the same while I was climbing, but at the top, the emotion is different than anywhere else. My second place means a lot for the future. I'll come back to win that stage one day," he said.

Landis regains the yellow tunic

Another Italian, Stefano Garzelli, was the next best of the early breakaway, but his third place was overshadowed by the man right behind him: Floyd Landis.

Not once looking like he was hurting ("I've got a good poker face!" he joked afterwards), the 30 year-old American from Farmersville, Pennsylvania, looked as if he were on training ride. Testing himself occasionally - which just happened to drop everyone bar Andreas Klöden - but never launching a full-blooded attack we know he's capable of, Landis sailed back into the maillot jaune as easily as he first found himself in it five days ago.

"I don't care at all about what people thought about it," he said when asked about losing the yellow jersey a few days before.

"I think it was a wise thing to do. If you understand how cycling works, you don't comment on that. Today, everybody saw that my team is stronger than some people hoped. I'll let you know when I am at the red line, but I felt well today. It wasn't necessary to take more time on the other guys, I was just content to follow Klöden.

"From now on, I would like to keep the jersey," said Landis. "I can't figure a reason why we would give it away now. But if that scenario arises, it's still a possibility to give it away, but it seems unlikely."

Finishing on the same time as the new yellow jersey, Klöden moves himself one place closer to the top spot, now sitting sixth overall, but more importantly, the 31 year-old is now just two-and-a-half minutes behind the maillot jaune.

"At the foot of the climb, Matthias Kessler rode a great tempo; I saw that some guys had problems, so I told him to go flat out," explained Klöden. "When I passed him, the group had shrunk.

"It was very hard; I tried to take the initiative with our team. It went alright; Floyd was also really strong, but nobody took over the lead work - I had to lead almost everything myself. You saw the result."

Pereiro loses it - just; Dessel still well placed

The man who Landis displaced, Caisse d'Epargne's Oscar Pereiro, lost 1'39 to his former teammate, which was enough to concede the golden fleece by ten seconds. It was an enormous ask for the Spaniard to hold onto the maillot jaune after today's epic stage, though there's little doubt the 28 year-old will continue fighting for a place on the Paris podium.

As for the three riders sitting between Pereiro and Klöden - Cyril Dessel (AG2R-Prevoyance), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Carlos Sastre (Team CSC) - the first is a massive though popular surprise, and the French may have finally found themselves a new stage race hope.

"But being the best Frenchman doesn't mean much in my mind," Dessel said.

"What I'm doing is a good surprise for myself and for French cycling. I'm kind of living a dream. Today, the crowd was pushing me with their encouragement. Making the top 10 would be a fantastic result but we're not there yet; there is a 57 kilometre time trial, and I'm not a super specialist."

A pair of Aussies, Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Michael Rogers (T-Mobile), Gerolsteiner's GC-man Levi Leipheimer and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) round out the current top ten on GC.

"It was tough on the last climb but I came out alright so I'm quite happy," said Rogers, who is so far going far better than expected. "It was a hard day, and there's more hard days to come."

With all bar Pereiro two minutes or more off the winning pace, each will need to step up their game or bank on an unlikely Landis collapse over the next forty-eight hours in the Haute Alpes, as the penultimate day's time trial has the American's name written all over it.

"During the next two stages, I'll be riding conservative again," said Landis. "I don't feel the need to win any of those stages; I'll try to win a stage, but if it doesn't work out that way...

"Cycle racing is a tactical game, and to my way of thinking, I would like to save my team as much as possible. Straight after the last day, I would like my team to go home feeling well, if that is possible.

"So, with that in mind, I'll do whatever I can to race conservatively. Most of the times, that means other riders are winning stages. I'm proud of what my team's done today, and on what I've done. Whether I win a stage or not, if I can win the Tour, I will be happy."

So, where to now for Fränk Schleck, a man who is being compared with the great Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul? "I will be more confident. Many people said that I could do well, that I had to be confident. At the end of the day, I ended up winning this fantastic stage. It will take a while before I realise that I've won over here," he said.

How it unfolded

By Tim Maloney

Phase Three of the 93rd Tour de France went full gas with a massive stage through the dark heart through the Hautes Alpes into Isere. After a much needed rest day in Gap, Saunier Duval-Prodir, CSC and Gerolsteiner teams had a visit from the UCI 'vampires' this morning, but no one was found unfit to race.

No one abandoned on rest day so 156 riders took the start at 11:51. Right from the get-go, the attacks started out of Gap as the Tour peloton headed up the Luye River valley to then join the Durance River valley before the first sprint in Embrun. David De la Fuente (Saunier) went on the attack on the outskirts of Gap and was joined by Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Posthuma (Rabobank), Cunego (Lampre), Brard (Caisse d'Epargne), Charteau (C.A) and Albasini (Liquigas).

Then one after another, riders bridged up to the front and at the sprint in Embrun, the break had swelled to 25 riders, including Hincapie and Martinez (Discovery), Schleck, Voigt, Zabriskie (CSC), Mazzoleni (T-Mobile), Arrieta (AG2R), Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Flecha (Rabobank), Merckx (Phonak), Cunego & Vila (Lampre), Arroyo & Garcia-Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne), Charteau (C.A.), Landaluze (Euskaltel), Chavanel (Cofidis), De la Fuente & Lobato (Saunier), Eisel and Vaugrenard (FDJ), Albasini & Garzelli (Liquigas), Pineau (Bouygues) and big Chris Knees (Milram). Speedster Eisel took the sprint from Albasini as maillot jaune Pereiro's Caisse d'Epargne squad was riding tempo 1'30 behind and Schleck (CSC) was the best placed rider in the escape, as the Luxembourger is in 20th place, 10'06 behind Maillot Jaune Pereiro.

The mountain air was cooler than the previous day's heat but the racing was red-hot as the tailwind coming up the valley pushed the break to ride 50.8km in the first hour, with the gap back to the peloton 3'40 in Guillestre after 54km. Before the front group hit the first slopes of the Izoard, Lobato jumped away to try and keep the pace high, and he was caught quickly as CSC jammed harder. As the ascent of the Izoard began after 68km, the gap back to the group MJ was 5'00.

Halfway up the Izoard, it was Stefano Garzelli on the attack as he made a quick jump. As the Bianchi-Liquigas man traversed the Izoard's eerie landscape of the la Casse desert section 3km from the summit with it's spiky seracs, perhaps he saw the ghost of his former teammate Marco Pantani, who helped Garzelli win the 2000 Giro d'Italia on this very ascent of the mythical Izoard. As he crested the hors categorie ascent after 86km of racing, his pace was 20'00 faster than the fastest time schedule. Maillot a pois De La Fuente took second at the GPM, 1'06 behind Garzelli. Garzelli's gap over the chasers never got much more than 1'00, so at the feed zone in Chantmerle at the base of the climb to Serre-Chevalier, Garzelli had sat up and let the chasers catch him.

As the second ascent of the day of the Col du Lautaret commenced, CSC was driving the pace in the escape with Zabriskie and Voigt up the relatively gentle slopes of the Lautaret, but the gap to the group maillot jaune started to drop. In the peloton, Phonak and T-Mobile had now joined Caisse d'Epargne in the chase and the difference was 4'00 and falling, as De La Fuente and Vila had gone off the front of the break, which seemed to confuse the general organisation of the escapee until CSC's Dave Z and Voigt hit the front hard. World champion Tom Boonen was having a bad day and couldn't even stay with the gruppetto because of breathing problems, and he abandoned in the feed zone.

The pressure was on in the peloton as the additional chasers upped the pace in the group maillot jaune. Former MJ Gonchar was pounding his usual huge gear on the front and rider after rider went out the back as the group maillot jaune scaled the Lautaret. Rabobank's Weening was also pulling along with hardman Cente Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne) who dropped out of the break after the Izoard to go back the group maillot jaune. At the summit of the Lautaret, De La Fuente and Vila passed over the summit 0'25 ahead of 13 others, with Cunego, Garzelli, Zabriskie, Voigt, Lobato, Schleck, Hincapie, Merckx, Hincapie, Landaluze, Arrieta, Mazzoleni and Chavanel, with the group maillot jaune at 4'20.

The break now had 38.5km to the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez; down the mountain to Le Freney d'Oisans, they raced then a long straight road down the Romanche River valley to Le Bourg-d'Oisans at the foot of the final ascent of the mythical hors categorie 13.9km ascent. De La Fuente and Vila had come back to the escape and as dark clouds gathered atop the crest of les Grandes Rousses above l'Alpe d'Huez, a few raindrops began to sprinkle down, then the skies opened up. Dave Z was on the front tracing a careful trajectory down the long, gentle descent of the Lautaret. The group maillot jaune was still at 3'50 with 30km to go.

The rain had stopped, but the road was still wet as down past the Chambon Dam and then all along the valley towards Le Bourg-d'Oisans, the pursuit match between the escape and the groups was on, as Vila and Dave Z were hammering on the front with 25km to go. The gap was now 3'40 as the group maillot jaune had gained back 0'40 since the summit of the Lautaret. Rabobank's Flecha was hammering on the front, with Gonchar right behind. The tension began to crank up as the base of l'Alpe approached. Although he had crashed on the slippery descent of the Lautaret, Voigt had gotten back on and was now all out on the road to Le Bourg-d'Oisans, with the gap at 3'00 with 15km to go. Although the rain had cooled things down, the racing was still white hot as the break came through Le Bourg-d'Oisans a quarter of an hour ahead of the fastest time schedule.

After 140km away in the break, Vila hit the front as l'Alpe d'Huez commenced, and the courageous Voigt and his CSC teammate Dave Z dropped off the pace. Arrieta, Landaluze and Merckx came off. Cunego accelerated hard and maillot a pois De La Fuente went out the back. Cunego went again with only Schleck able to follow. As the group maillot jaune hit l'Alpe d'Huez, Rabobank's Flecha was all out on the front, as third place on GC Dessel (AG2R) dropped his chain at the worst moment possible!

After 2km of l'Alpe and Cunego's accelerations, only Lobato, Schleck, Arroyo, Cunego and Mazzoleni were left in front as Hincapie and Garzelli were together 0'10 back. Clearly Cunego had great legs and was just tearing the break apart with his accelerations and when he went for the third time in the third kilometre of the ascent, only Schleck could get across to the Italian, while the group maillot jaune was still 2'45 behind. Phonak had blown things apart with Martin Perdiguero forcing for Landis, and only Kessler, Klöden, Evans and Menchov could hang on to the Fast Floyd. Behind them, Boogerd and Rasmussen were trying to get across, as Caucchioli was chasing with maillot jaune Pereiro, Simoni, Leipheimer, Azevedo and Horner, while Sastre was fighting his way up, and Popovych didn't have the legs.

With 10km to climb, Cunego and Schleck were 0'10 ahead of Mazzoleni and 0'20 ahead of Lobato, with the group maillot jaune at 2'20. The favourites' chase group was 2'00 behind the front duo and 0'20 ahead of maillot jaune Pereiro as Klöden then accelerated, dropping his teammate Kessler, Evans and big meat Menchov, whose big climbing gears finally caught up with him. It was just Floyd and Klöden, and although Evans had fought back, Landis went again and the Davitamon-Lotto Aussie went out the back again for good.

CSC's Sastre was coming back as he caught his teammates Voigt and Zabriskie; Evans and Leipheimer was hanging on the back for dear life. Menchov was battling hard being this group to try and limit his losses to Landis. Sastre and Leipheimer come across to Landis and Klöden with 7.2km to go and 400m later, Floyd jumped across to his teammate Axel Merckx, who then upped the pace which then dumped Leipheimer.

In in Huez d'Oisans with 5km to go to the finish atop l'Alpe d'Huez, Cunego was riding hard, maybe too hard as Schleck was smartly playing possum and T-Mobile's Mazzoleni was ready to pounce in the front three, but the T-Mobile man then dropped off the front group to wait for Klöden. Chavanel, Lobato and Garzelli were at 040, maillot a pois De la Fuente at 1'15 and fading, Merckx Landis, Klöden, Leipheimer and Sastre were at 1'45, Evans and Menchov at 1'55 and the group maillot jaune at 2'45. With 4500m to race, Klöden attacked but Landis covered the move easily, while Leipheimer, then Sastre were dropped.

At the 2km mark, Rasmussen came up to a suffering Menchov to give the grimacing Russian a hand, while Mazzoleni had joined the Landis / Klöden group. The front duo still had 1'45 on the closest chasers and would go to the finish together, but with 2200m to race, Schleck went hard and Cunego hesitated and was gapped. The lanky Amstel Gold Race winner powered away while the Italian - like Schleck in his rookie Tour de France and his first time racing up l'Alpe d'Huez - did his best to stay close to Schleck.

The CSC rider won the stage for his third career elite win and the lanky Luxembourger was certainly in a hurry to get to the top of l'Alpe d'Huez, as he finished 15'00 faster than fastest time schedule in an average speed of 38.38km/h. Schleck had started the day in 20th on GC, 10'00 behind maillot jaune Pereiro and jumped eight places to 12th, now 7'07 behind new leader Landis. A valiant, combative Cunego came across the line 0'10 behind Schleck and learned his first lesson on l'Alpe the hard way today, but can still be proud of his performance.

Garzelli took the sprint from Landis, Klöden and their five man group, 1'08 behind Schleck and the classy Italian also earned most aggressive rider on Stage 15. Sastre had tailed off the Landis group at 1'35, with Leipheimer off the pace at 1'49 and a gutsy Menchov, who fought l'Alpe d'Huez like a tiger today and finished at 2'21, losing 1'13 to Landis today.

And speaking of fighting, a tenacious maillot jaune Pereiro was an excellent 14th today and dignified his cherished tunic by going all-out, but Landis was too strong for him to contain on the 13.9km final ascent and the Spanish rider from Caisse d'Epargne lost his maillot jaune to Landis by just 0'10. The record for the ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez of 36'50 was set by Marco Pantani, while Lance Armstrong rode a 37'30 when he won the ITT up l'Alpe d'Huez in 2004. Today, Landis and Klöden ascended the 13.9km climb in 38'37.

Courageous former maillot jaune Cyril Dessel came flying up l'Alpe d'Huez after dropping his chain at the beginning of the ascent and ended up 22nd on Stage 15, incredibly maintaining his 3rd place on GC just 10 ahead of Menchov, who stayed where he was in 4th but lost time on Landis.

Sastre came up 1 place to 5th, 2'17 behind Landis, while Klöden also moved up one slot on GC to 6th. Evans dropped three places to 7th, Klöden's former slot, 2'56 behind Landis. Mercado and Moreau dropped out of the top 10, while Leipheimer and Zubeldia came back into the first 10 riders. Popovych lost 4'31 today and is now in 13th, 7'36 behind. CSC is atop the TDF Team GC, and besides Schleck's win and Landis adorning the maillot jaune for the second time at this Tour de France, as the Tour's podium music struck for Frank Schleck, Jens Voigt came across the finish line 13'50 behind his teammate, the jersey of his bloody left shoulder torn from his crash on the descent of the Lautaret. Voigt's left fist was clenched in victory as he saw that his teammate Schleck had won atop l'Alpe d'Huez and the CSC team strategy had worked.

Stage 16 - Wednesday, July 19: Le Bourg-d'Oisans-La Toussuire, 182 km

Stage 16 could be the key to the 2006 Tour. The crucial lynchpin stage begins by immediately ascending the immense Galibier, then descends over 60km to attack the Beyond Category Col de la Croix-de-Fer, then the transition climb of Col du Mollard, and then down to St.Jean-de-Maurienne to the final ascent of the new climb up to the ski station of La Toussuire. It's not a steep grade at 6% but it is 18.4km long, which could lead to big gaps at the finish. Look for Cunego to go on the attack again on the final ascent if he's still in contention, as Landis and Phonak just need to mark their adversaries.

Stage 16 climbs:

Beyond Category: 45.5km Col du Galibier 2,645 m - 42.8km @ 4.5%
Beyond Category: 127.5km Col de la Croix-de-Fer / 2,067 m - 22.7km @ 7%
Cat 2: 147.5km Col du Mollard / 1,638 m - 5.8km @ 7%
Cat 1: 182.5km La Toussuire / 1,690 m. - 18.4km @ 6%

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