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This year's Tour de France took perhaps its most dramatic turn on today's summit finish in La...
Damiano Cunego (Lampre) rides alone
This year's Tour de France took perhaps its most dramatic turn on today's summit finish in La Toussuire, as Maillot Jaune Floyd Landis’ challenge suffered an unexpected collapse. The stage was won by mountain points chaser Michael Rasmussen of Rabobank, who took over the Maillot a Pois from Saunier Duval's David de la Fuente along the way. During the final climb, everybody was stunned to see the Phonak leader lose the Maillot Jaune in such a pronounced fashion by finishing more than 10 minutes down on the winner.
"I had a bad day on the wrong day," a disappointed Landis said in a press conference, several hours after Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne – Illes Balears) took back the jersey he relinquished yesterday. "The team did a good job in the beginning; I suffered from the beginning but I tried to hide it... In the end, I couldn't go. I don't think it was a problem with not eating enough; like I said, I wasn't good from the beginning."
The American knew he very probably lost the Tour de France today. "My chance to win the Tour is very small at this point, but I'm gonna fight, because you never know what's going to happen next," he added, on a more positive note. "I think I did everything I could do to win this Tour. I'd change this day if I could, but I don't know what I would have done differently. So I can't say I regret anything I did."
Naturally, Landis' biggest opponents on the general classification used the American's off-day to make up as much time as they could on him. It all happened in the last ascent of the stage to La Toussuire - a climb that had not been rated the most difficult in this year's race course. But the fatigue of two and a half weeks of racing, as well as the heat took its toll in the peloton, and in the end the fittest survived. CSC's Carlos Sastre initiated the attack on the overall leader when he realized Landis wasn't his usual self on the last climb.
"I saw he was going backwards - he was suffering, he was going bad," Sastre said after the finish. "At that moment, I didn't think too much and I went full gas. Because I had to try something in this Tour; it's been difficult for me [so far], so I had to try something."
The CSC captain is now placed second behind the new overall leader, Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), and may allow himself to cast an eye or two on the maillot jaune. "Today was important, and tomorrow is another really hard day," an always cautious Sastre said about his overall chances. "Now, it's important to recover for tomorrow and we'll see what happens."
The underestimated Spaniard Pereiro found himself back in yellow today at the cérémonie protocolaire, the podium ceremony, and seemed as surprised as the press representatives surrounding him. "For sure, it's a surprise, as we all thought this morning that if all went normally, Floyd would still have the jersey this evening," the Caisse d'Epargne rider said. "But he is not immune to having a bad day, either. Somehow, I just felt in the Galibier that it would be a good day for me. That's why I asked my teammate Xabier Zandio to ride for me, to finish where we are now."
But even though the former teammate of Floyd Landis was overwhelmed with joy with how the day had turned out for him, he also had a compassionate word for the former race leader. "I'm really sad for Floyd, as I honestly would have liked to see him up front at the Tour," he said. "I don't know what happened to him. Maybe he had a hunger knock, I don't know. But I can assure you that I would never have been the first to attack him; he's a friend. Thanks to him, I rode the Tour before, and I owe a lot to Phonak."
T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden, who had a very powerful team with him today on the last climb, moved up from sixth to third overall. The German held a constant tempo until he accelerated with five kilometres to go, dropping Denis Menchov. Pereiro and Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) were able to follow him through the finish.
"I heard that Landis was in trouble over the radio from my directeur sportif, so we immediately put on a good tempo," said Klöden on the finish line. "Then, Sastre attacked, and I just tried to maintain my rhythm, and in the end, give it full gas. This is half a success. Too bad that Pereiro also found good form. But I'm very satisfied with my performance and that of our team - Mazzoleni and Rogers were awesome."
The German looked good on the final slopes as he was leading the trio, but Pereiro proved to be a tad faster in the sprint for third place. "I tried to finish it off in the end, but I just lacked some power reserves," Klöden explained, adding that he was still hoping to improve his standing until Paris.
"There are still one mountain stage ahead, and a time trial, so nothing is set in stone just yet," he said about today's GC landslide. "If my legs are good tomorrow, we will try to attack again. It will be hard to make up 2’30 on Pereiro in the time trial, so if I can nibble on that advantage a bit, that would be good."
Australian climber Cadel Evans also managed to finish the stage up front and improved his standings from seventh to fifth overall.
"I felt good, today was a much better race for me," the Davitamon rider was happy to say. "Yesterday when we hit the bottom of the climb, you saw the size of the peloton. It wasn’t a very hard race until that point, whereas today I think there were 30 guys at the start of the climb. That style of race suits me and my physiology much better."
Evans was also perplexed at Landis' performance today; "I was surprised when he was behind me on the Col de Croix de Fer. Then he was always behind me and a long way back on Col de Mollard," he added. "There was a chance that perhaps he was really good and just sitting back, but it’s a really big gamble. That said, Floyd has taken big gambles before and they have paid off in the past."
Another surprise today was French rider Cyril Dessel, who again displayed strong motivation in order to keep his placing on general classification. Having switched positions with former AG2R leader Christophe Moreau, Dessel now gets the support of his elder teammate.
"Again, it was a very difficult stage," the now overall fourth-placed said. "I knew that there was something to go for when Landis wasn't there anymore. I really dug deep inside of me again, and tried to surpass my limits. But I feel far away from a final podium in Paris. There is another hard mountain stage and a time trial. We’re not there yet..."
The lean 'chicken', Michael Rasmussen, emerged out of his role as a perfect domestique for Rabobank GC captain Denis Menchov today, taking the polkadot jersey off David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval). The Danish former mountain biker took off early after the start in Bourg d'Oisans, with one mission to accomplish: get back that jersey he had learned to cherish in last year's Tour, and taking his second Tour de France victory.
"I didn't get this stage win as a present," a very emotional Rasmussen said after crossing the line. "We had to work very long in the breakaway before our advantage could grow. On the steeper parts of the Galibier I could accelerate and get away with Casar and Valjavec. They contributed a lot, and also in the valley after the Galibier. After the Col de la Croix-de-Fer I had to go on my own if I wanted to win the stage. It was a long and difficult day and I suffered a lot; but that’s all forgotten now."
The Dane had done a reconnaissance of today's stage before the race, which helped him greatly, he said, as well as the support of his family. "After the rest day, I said to my wife that I would win on Alpe d’Huez for her and our baby," Rasmussen added. "I was very disappointed how things unfolded during yesterday’s stage. Today I had to prove a lot for myself and my wife."
By Tim Maloney
Stage 16 began in le Bourg d’Oisans with 152 riders starting under sunny and warm skies and 30 degrees heat. Yesterday’s 14th stage had brought four abandons - World Champion Tom Boonen (QSI), Beat Zberg (GST), Andriy Grivko (Milram) and Bram De Groot (Rabobank).
The first attack was by AG2R's Moreau but Discovery Channel's Azevedo was chasing him and the rangy Frenchman was brought back after 4km. Next attack was by Rabobank climber Michael Chicken Rasmussen, who was joined first by Valjavec (Lampre), then Casar bridged; after 10km, there were three riders in front of the Phonak led peloton. But Maillot Jaune Landis and his Phonak guys weren't chasing hard and other riders were looking to get up the road in a break.
After 15km of climbing up the Col du Lauteret towards the Galibier, the front trio were 55” ahead of Chechu Rubiera (Discovery), Cente Garcia (Caisse d’Epargne), Verdugo, Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval), Commesso (Lampre) and Astarloza, and 1'20 ahead of the peloton. Other riders were attacking off the front of the group Maillot Jaune to get across to the chase group, including Bruseghin, Lefevre, Simoni, then Popovych (Discovery), Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne) and Parra (Cofidis). Calzati (AG2R) then bridged across alone.
The front trio raced 32.2km in the first hour and at the 35km point, Chicken Rasmussen group was 2'35 ahead of the 14 chasers and 3'45 ahead of the peloton. It was a good move by Discovery Channel's Yaroslav Popovych, who started Stage 16 in 13th place, 7'36 behind Landis and hoped to make a big move on GC today.
Once past the monument to the founder of the Tour De France and over the summit of the 2,645m. Col du Galibier, the highest point of the Tour, it was Rasmussen who took the points and the 5,000 euro prize for the Souvenir Henri Desgranges. The 14 strong chase group went across the summit 3' behind the front group, with the peloton at 4'35. On the descent three riders hit the deck as they went wide on a turn; Brandt, Calvente and Phonak's Martin Perdiguero, an important teammate for Maillot Jaune Landis. Popovych bombed the descent and tried to get across to the front trio but halfway down the Galibier, he sat up when he realized that he wasn't gaining time on the others.
As the ascent of Stage 16's second climb began in St. Etienne de Cuines, the steep Hors Category 22km long Col de la Croix-de-Fer, Valjavec took the intermediate sprint from the front trio. The 14 chasers were at 5'55 with Phonak on the front of the peloton at 7'15. Rasmussen and Valjavec then dumped Casar as the tough Col de la Croix-de-Fer climbed upwards, while behind riders began to drop out of the chase group and the group Maillot Jaune. Halfway up the ascent, Chicken flapped his wings and rode away from Valjavec as he realized he might have a chance at the stage win as well as the Maillot Pois. 10km from the summit, Rasmussen led Valjavec by 35”, Casar by 1'45 , Astarloza and the remains of the chase group by 6'00. The peloton was at 7'10.
Behind the escape, CSC cranked up the pace with 70km to go and sucked up the crumbs of the chase group. The group Maillot Jaune was down to Azevedo (Discovery Channel), Sastre, Schleck, Vandevelde (CSC), Kloden, Guerini, Kessler, Mazzoleni, Rogers (T-Mobile), Moreau, Calzati, Dessel, Goubert (AG2R), Leipheimer and Fothen (Gerolsteiner), Menchov and Boogerd (Rabobank), Evans and Horner (Davitamon Lotto), Cunego (Lampre), Arroyo, Karpets, Pereiro, and Zandio (Caisse d’Epargne), plus Caucchioli (Credit Agricole), Camano and Zubledia (Euskaltel) and Maillot Jaune Landis and Merckx of the Phonak team. The loss of Perdiguero was affecting Landis, as he had only Merckx to go back to the team car to get bottles.
With 12km to the summit of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer, Leipheimer attacked out of the group Maillot Jaune. The Gerolsteiner rider kept on at a strong pace and at the summit of the Col de la Croix-de-Fer, with 55.5km to the finish in La Toussuire, Rasmussen was alone in the lead. Valjavec was 5'00 behind. On the 15km descent to the mountain village of Belleville, the status quo remained before the riders hit the penultimate climb of the day, the short and difficult Cat 2 Col du Mollard. This was a 5.8km ascent at 7% average grade. Rasmussen was tiring but still looking good and, at the summit with some 35km to race, Rasmussen led Valjavec and Leipheimer by 4'55. A struggling Casar was 6'40 and the group Maillot Jaune at about 7'20, with T Mobile was riding tempo.
On the tricky descent of the Cat 2 Col du Mollard, a slightly cooked Chicken was having trouble navigating the technical, twisting road that led to the Arc River valley, Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne and the long, final ascent of 18.4km to the finish La Toussuire. Leipheimer was 4'50 behind, with the group Maillot Jaune and Caisse d'Epargne's Xandio pounding away on the front 6'50 back. The determined Dane knew he already had the Maillot Pois but he also wanted another stage win, like last year. However Leipheimer was also determined to bring home a victory from this year's Tour, if he could.
In the peloton, AG2R were attacking out the back as Moreau, Goubert and Calzati were all dropped at the same time at the bottom of the final climb. However tough old Moreau got back on. At 15km to go, Chicken was hanging tough and Levi was at 4' and closing. By this point the Rabobank man had been away for 170km. T-Mobile then sent Mick Rogers to the front to up the pace in the group Maillot Jaune, as Kloden wanted to test the legs of the others with 15km to go. Five hundred metres later, Menchov attacked and got a gap. However T-Mobile's Mazzoleni rode him down and the Fuchsia boys sent Mick Rogers to the front again.
With 11.5km to go, Chicken was holding off Leipheimer with a 3'45 gap; the ever diminishing group Maillot Jaune was at 5'25 by this point and closing the gap to the Gerolsteiner man. Behind, Sastre made a strong move with 11km to go and this provoked T-Mobile to accelerate. Suddenly, Maillot Jaune Landis went out the back, the Phonak man clearly out of gas and having blown sky-high. Landis was now just creeping up the ascent, while Sastre was flying up the road. In just 1000m, the American had lost 1'00 to Sastre.
Rasmussen was still ahead of Leipheimer with 8km to go, while Sastre was closing down fast on the American. At the same time, the Periero-Dessel group was taking time out fast from the American. As Landis passed under the 10km to go arc in a haze of hurt, the Phonak man knew he would be losing the Maillot Jaune at the finish.
With 6km to go, Rasmussen was now 3'30 ahead of Sastre and Leipheimer but the tough Dane was starting to croak big time, a vacant look in his eyes and his mouth wide open. In the Periero-Dessel group, Mazzoleni was hammering hard with Kloden on his wheel, plus Menchov, Evans, Caucchioli and Moreau. As for Landis, he had managed to stay with Karpets for a while but with 6km to go, he had already lost 4' to the new Maillot Jaune Pereiro. Two clicks later, Chicken was still ahead with Sastre one kilometre and 3' behind him. Leipheimer was caught and spat out the back as Kloden attacked hard, 4.5km from the finish. The German’s acceleration dumped Menchov and Dessel, but Pereiro and Evans were on his wheel. The trio started to pull Sastre back, who was slowing noticeably.
Three kilometres from the finish, Rasmussen was at 2'15 over Sastre, while Pereiro was the Maillot Jaune virtuel. Kloden and Evans were at 3', and AG2R duo Moreau and Dessel were at 3'20. As for Menchov, he was dropped and chasing alone at 3'30. Landis was at 9' behind Rasmussen.
Under the flamme rouge of the last km and then over the finish line, Chicken Rasmussen had soared like an eagle for a huge solo win and the conquest of the Maillot a Pois of Best Climber. It was an astonishing, heroic 173km ride, five hours plus off the front on a sweltering day through the Alps at an average speed of 32.31km/hr. 1'41 later, it was audacious attacker Carlos Sastre (CSC) who was second on the stage and rode into 2nd on GC, while 3rd place Pereiro was 13” behind Sastre and reconquered the Maillot Jaune.
As for Evans and Kloden, they were right with the Caisse d'Epargne rider for 4th and 5th. Almost three kilometres down the mountain, former Maillot Jaune Landis had been caught by his Phonak teammate Axel Merckx, who was pacing the American along. He eventually crossed the finish line in 23rd place, 10'04 back and dropped out of the top 10 into 11th on GC. He will start tomorrow 8'08 behind new Maillot Jaune Pereiro.
The final act in the 2006 Tour's Alpine Trilogy is the longest yet. At 200km, it contains two category one, one category two and a category three climb, with a final ascent of the steep Hors Category Col de Joux-Plane, where Lance Armstrong cracked big time in 2000, before a wild plunge to finish in Morzine. An early break can get an advantage on Stage 17, but can they hold it all the way to Morzine?
Stage 17 climbs
Cat 1: 82km Col des Saisies / 1,650 m. 14.9km @ 6.4%
Cat 2: 108.5km Col des Aravis / 1,498 m. 5.9km @ 7.3%
Cat 1: 133.5km Col de la Colombière / 1,618 m. 11.8km @ 5.9%
Cat 3: 160.5km Côte de Châtillon / 735 m. 5.1km @ 4.9%
Hors Category: 187km Col de Joux-Plane / 1,700 m. 11.7km @ 8.7%