Leaders maintain status quo
On a stifling hot day in Mâcon, Matteo Tosatto showed that without Boonen, without Rujano, without Cretskens and without De Jongh, there's still plenty of fight left in Quick.Step-Innergetic. Going clear a quarter of the way into the race with 14 others, then picking the final counter 17 kilometres from the finish, the 32 year-old lead-out man launched himself with two-hundred metres to go and remained unsurpassed to claim his first victory in two years.
"In the finale, everybody was afraid to pull because we were all afraid of each other," explained Tosatto. "We tried to surprise each other, but when I started the sprint, I was almost sure to win, so long as I went [as hard as I could] to the very last centimetre."
After years of tireless work at the service of Alessandro Petacchi and now world champion Tom Boonen, one may have thought he would have forgotten how to sprint for the win. Though not so for Tosatto, who flew past Gerolsteiner's Ronny Scholz and Cristian Moreni as if he were 'Tommeke' himself.
"At that moment, yes, but after that, we remained very positive in the team," said Tosatto about Boonen's abandon a few days ago. "We're a great group of friends, and today was proof we were right [to remain positive].
"I'm also a fast rider, and I'm able to win a sprint with about forty or fifty riders. Today, I knew the sprint would be between me and Moreni, so I started my sprint and I made sure I didn't make any mistakes. I knew this was a big opportunity for me and that I couldn't lose it."
From the original fifteen, the best-placed rider in the break was Levi Leipheimer, who ended up finishing one minute and six seconds behind Tosatto - but more importantly, the 32 year-old Californian finished 6'54 in front of the peloton, the groupe maillot jaune exactly eight minutes in arrears of the stage winner. Consequently, Leipheimer moved up five places on the classement general to 13th spot, passing his younger team-mate Marcus Fothen, but is still a quarter of a hour behind the maillot jaune of Oscar Pereiro.
The final countdown
Much of the talk this morning in Morzine was still about the stunning performance of Floyd Landis, and what impact this will have on the final classification at the 93rd Tour de France.
"Today, I was hopeful there would be a breakaway," said Landis after his superhuman effort of yesterday. "It took a while but that's normal. Another team rode in front of the peloton - I don't know why they did it, but it was fine with me. In the end, it was a bit of a recovery day.
"It's really a pity what happened yesterday," said Pereiro, "because for Sastre as well as for me, it was a golden opportunity to win the Tour de France.
"Now we are at the eve of the time trial and Floyd Landis has joined us. He's one of the best time triallists in the world, he's probably ready to win the race. Still, I'm happy with what my team and myself did yesterday. We did all that was possible for us to do."
Added Landis: "I'm confident in my time trialling, but we'll have to see. I'm optimistic though. I was strong yesterday and actually did a bit of a time trial then, so I had a good warm up," he laughed.
"Normally, a good time trial would mean that I don't lose more than two minutes on the winner," Pereiro said.
"Tomorrow is another challenge, though, as I'm only allowed to lose 29 seconds on Landis. It will be a very difficult day for me but you never know what can happen. It's probably more a question of how you're feeling. I can say that I felt very good today, so I hope it will be the same tomorrow."
Less than 24 hours from now, however, predictions or possibilities will become redundant. 56 rolling kilometres from is all it will take to decide the last wearer of the maillot jaune on Paris' Champs-Élysées.
How it unfolded
The temperature in Morzine reached 30 degrees as the peloton completed its 2.7 km of neutral riding before the flag dropped for the start of stage 18 - a 197 km ride from the Alps into the flatlands of the Rhone valley north of Lyon, in Mâcon. The bunch saw one rider missing at the line: Oscar Freire (Rabobank) was sick and flew homewards, leaving Robbie McEwen (Davitamon) with a practically unbeatable lead in the points competition: 80 points over Erik Zabel (Milram) in second place.
The climbs on the road ahead included the Côte de Châtillon-en-Michaille (km 98, Cat. 3, 5.1 km climb at 3.7 %), the Col du Berthiand (km 130.5, Cat. 2, 4.7 km climb at 6 %), and the Côte de Chambod (km 139.5, Cat. 4, 1.9 km climb at 6.4 %). There were two intermediate sprints on the menu, in La Tour (km 29.5) and in Polliat (km 169.5).
David Millar (Saunier Duval), Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery) and Benoît Vaugrenard (FDJ) were the first riders to launch an attack after only three kilometres of racing. Moreni, Gilbert and Paolini chased them, but were caught. The three leaders had 28 seconds over the bunch before Vaugrenard dropped back, leaving only Popovych and Millar in front. The two first seemed to be able to get away - 1'20 after 20 kilometres - but then the bunch accelerated for the first sprint, and they were caught just after it (km 30).
After 47 kilometres, finally the great escape was organised and got away, even if Team Lampre wanted to prevent this at first. A group of 15 riders jumped: Egoi Martinez (Discovery Channel), David Zabriskie (Team CSC), Patrik Sinkewitz (T-Mobile), Sylvain Calzati (AG2R-Prevoyance), Levi Leipheimer and Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Mario Aerts (Davitamon-Lotto), Matteo Tosatto (Quick-Step-Innergetic), Sébastien Hinault (Crédit Agricole), Iñaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Cristian Moreni (Cofidis), Benoît Vaugrenard (Française Des Jeux), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom).
Just ten minutes later, the break had 3'30 over the bunch, and had raced at 52 km/h during the first hour of the stage - a record in this year's Tour. A few kilometres later, the gap stabilized at 3'45, with Saunier Duval leading the bunch.
But the Spanish team didn't make up a lot of time on the breakaway, if its intention was to put David De La Fuente back on second place for the mountains jersey. The advantage of the 15 rider-group was still 3'20 at the second climb of the day after 130 kilometres.
Team Lampre offered some support to chase, and the gap went down a little more as the riders passed the last difficulty of the day - close to three minutes in the descent of the last climb. In front, Calzati sensed the danger of the bunch coming back, and tried to jump away, but didn't make it. Soon after, Leipheimer did the same and got a gap with 50 km to go, and Isasi joined him.
With 40 clicks away from the finish, Leipheimer and Isasi worked well together, but still only had 30 seconds, with the bunch at 4'20 - Davitamon didn't seem interested in bringing it down to a bunch sprint today. (Maybe it was just too hot: 40° in Mâcon.) The gap only increased, and it was 5'40 at the 25 kilometre-mark.
Leipheimer and Isasi, meanwhile, didn't sit up, even if they hovered at 15 seconds in front of the chasers for quite a while. Finally, they were caught at 20 km to go, with the bunch at 6'40.
Two clicks later, the break disintegrated as many had a go in trying to solo to the finish: Ronny Scholz attacked next after having profited from his teammate Leipheimer being in the first move. Moreni took off after Scholz, and then Tosatto. The three got a small gap, but a splinter group tried to get up with Leipheimer, Quinziato, Flecha, Sinkewitz and Pineau with about 13 kilometres to go. Leipheimer, though, did not work as his teammate Scholz was in front.
The two Italians and the German led the chasers by 20 seconds under the 10 km-mark, with the remainder of the day's break a little further back. There was a regrouping with 8 km to go, but the three leaders worked well together and increased their advantage to 50 seconds with 4 clicks away from the line. behind, Quinziato countered the chasers and tried to get across on his own, but didn't succeed.
Scholz did the bulk of the work in the final kilometres, and paid for it in the end: After leading the trio under the flamme rouge, the two Italians got the better of him, with sprint lead-out man Tosatto the freshest and most experienced. Scholz was cooked with 300 metres to go, and Moreni (in third position) never got around Tosatto, who was the strongest today.
Stage 19 - Saturday, July 22: Le Creusot - Montceau-les-Mines ITT, 57 km
The penultimate stage of the 2006 Tour de France is a rolling time test over a course that is similar to one that Jan Ullrich won in 1998 from Montceau-les-Mines to Le Creusot. It will reveal who is the strongest time triallist in this year's Tour and will undoubtedly decide who will win overall.