Escape controls transitional stage while Maillot Jaune rolls on
Cédric Vasseur seized his second Tour de France win ten years after his first from an escape of five. The 36 year-old Frenchman played poker with his companions on the final stretch along Boulevard Michelet to narrowly out-gun Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux) and subsequently added to Quickstep's victory haul in the Tour. The Maillot Jaune group of Michael Rasmussen rolled in ten minutes back led by Sébastien Chavanel (Française Des Jeux); the Dane continues to lead the overall classification.
The escape group of five, formed out of an earlier move of 11, rolled into the final kilometre with Jens Voigt (Team CSC) leading Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Casar, Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole) and Vasseur. The five carefully sized up each other under the hot French sun while maintaining their gap over Staf Scheirlinckx and Paolo Bossoni behind. 700 metres, 500, 400... The group moved down the right side of the eight-metre wide finishing straight but no one moved from their positions save for Casar being slightly off to the left of Swiss Albasini with Halgand and Vasseur in tow.
Outside the Vélodrome de Marseille, which has seen the finish of the Tour in years past, Casar surrendered to the tension and opened his thrust to the line at 300 metres to the finish line. Compatriot Vasseur reacted immediately from fifth wheel with a push down the right side barriers that saw him move to the front in a flash. 28 year-old Casar remounted with a fierce drive that saw him miss his first Tour win by a mere 10 centimetres.
"This is fantastic, to win a stage in my tenth and last tour. It was the tenth stage, my tenth tour and ten years after my last Tour victory," stated an emotional Vasseur who rode for GAN in 1997. "It couldn't get any better. This is a fantastic dream. All day long, I heard people shouting my name along the course. Winning a stage in the Tour is unimaginable."
Vasseur's win adds to Quickstep's two previous victories with Steegmans in Gent and Boonen in Bourg-en-Bresse. "When I heard he won from 'Fitte' [Wilfried Peeters] it was perfect, this is fantastic as he is a great guy. He rode the perfect sprint," remarked Boonen.
"Fu**! Five more metres and I was the winner," blasted an angry Casar at the finish to Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet. "It is frustrating. It has been so long since I last won a race. I might not get such an occasion any time soon." His last win came two years ago with the Route du Sud overall.
"Vasseur has played it very well. Sprinting from behind. It was Voigt's mistake to leave the barriers and open the door for him. I had no morale after the Alps. This morning I didn't know if I would be able to make a break. The other guys in the escape were stronger than I in the climbs. I hung on because I wanted to win so badly... Fu**!"
The French one-two French finish may not have suited Casar but it pleased Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. He talked with the French riders before the start of the stage in Tallard, wishing them good luck and saying that he would not mind having a French winner today.
Albasini finished in third off to Casar's left with Halgand and Voigt getting fourth and fifth in the city that last hosted a Tour stage in 2003 when Jacob Piil won.
"I was in the wheel of Voigt which is normally not the worst position," explained Albasini. "Being in the second position I had at least five metres on Vasseur who was in last position. I was very nervous because this was a golden opportunity. After 200 kilometres you don't have the same sprint in your legs."
Halgand's attacking style earned him the Prix de la Combativité for most aggressive rider.
The five's earlier escape companions trailed home with nothing in hand. The six were ditched at 31.5 kilometres to go when Voigt hit hard while the yellow jersey group was at 10'22". Halgand and Albasini were quickest to respond to the German but the others were not so lucky. Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Paolo Bossoni (Lampre-Fondital), Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Andriy Grivko (Milram) were left to suffer along the hot roads of the Provence Bouches du Rhône.
Rasmussen holds the overall lead by 2'35" over Valverde with Saturday's time trial looming after two more transitional stages.
How it unfolded
With the Alps retreating behind them and the first time trial plus the Pyrenees looming ahead, the riders of the Tour de France had the first of three consecutive transition stages on Wednesday. 171 of them lined out in Tallard for the start of the 229.5 kilometre stage, a southward-bound race which would be run off in very hot temperatures.
The mainly flat parcours would see the peloton encounter three categorised climbs en route; first off, the fourth category ascents of Chateauneuf Val Saint Donat and Villedieu at km 57 and km 93, then the third cat pairing of Les Bastides and La Gineste Pass, at km 201.5 and km 219.5. The last of these would come just ten kilometres from the finish, making it a possible springboard for a winning move.
In addition to the four rated climbs, two intermediate sprints also fell at Osaison (km 82.5) and Saint Maximin La Sainte Baume (154.5).
The first hour of racing was run off at a high speed and after several attacks, a group comprising six riders clipped away. They were Simon Gerrans (Ag2r Prévoyance), Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux), Andriy Grivko (Milram), Anthony Charteau (Crédit Agricole), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Claudio Corioni (Lampre-Fondital). However the move was reeled in after about 37 kilometres of racing.
Approximately four kilometres later the ever-aggressive German champion Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) launched an attack. He was out front for several kilometres but was hauled back before the first climb, the Chateauneuf Val Saint Donat.
Prior to the start of the race it had been announced that T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz returned a positive A sample for extremely high levels of testosterone. The out of competition test was taking at the team training camp in the Pyrenees on June 8th. The team has be run along very strict anti-doping grounds this year and motivated perhaps by anger at what had happened, or perhaps determination to achieve something positive in the magenta jersey, Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile) took the top climbing points there ahead of Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) and Yaroslav Popovych (Discovery Channel).
The young German rider persisted with his move and after 68.5 kilometres of racing, he had a 25 second gap on the peloton. He extended this lead to 1'40 and then at km 80, he was caught by ten others. They were Jens Voigt (CSC), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Paolo Bossoni (Lampre), Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Michael Albasini and Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liqugas), Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux), Cedric Vasseur (Quick Step - Innergetic) and Andriy Grivko (Milram).
Two and a half kilometres later, Vasseur led them across the the sprint line in Oraisin (km 82.5), taking the points and time bonus ahead of Andriy Grivko (Milram) and Paolo Bossoni (Lampre-Fondital). The break had a lead of 4'20 at that point and with the peloton deciding that this would be a chance to recover their legs after the Alps, the time gap quickly soared.
Halgand beat Scheirlinckx and Voigt to the summit of the next climb, the Côte De Villedieu. By the time they hit the feedzone in Cadarache, 112 kilometres from the end, the gap was up to a considerable 10'04. This had climbed to 11'02 over the Rabobank-led peloton with 100 clicks left to cover and thereafter dropped slightly.
Injured Astana leader Alexandre Vinokourov got new dressing on his wounds approximately 15 minutes later, with the race doctor Caterine Guyot explaining afterwards that his previous bandages had become uncomfortable with the heat.
Back up front, the gap was hovering at or above the ten minute mark for a long time. Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Jens Voigt (CSC) and Paolo Bossoni (Lampre) were the first three over the line at the uncontested sprint at Saint Maxim la Sainte Baume (75 km to go) and then with approximately 50 remaining their lead was back up around the eleven minute mark. Rabobank were riding tempo to keep things under control, but showed no signs that they wanted to bring back the move. Tom Boonen and his Quick.Step – Innergetic team were happy to let the 11 riders up front take the top points in the final sprint, thus protecting Boonen's lead in the green jersey competition. They didn't ride as a result, and with ten different teams represented in the break, there was very little effort by the peloton to catch them.
Things were quite controlled up front, as well, but Voigt then sparked off the start of the hostilities when he surged clear with just under 32 kilometres to go. The break was on the long run up to the summit of the third category Les Bastides climb at that point, and the increasingly aggressive racing saw a split in the front group approaching the top. Halgand attacked and was joined by Albasini and then Casar, crossing the prime line together. Voigt, Vasseur, Burghardt and Scheirlinckx then followed in pursuit, 9" back.
Once past the top, there was a merging between the group and a slight reshuffling. Voigt, Casar, Albasini, Vasseur and Halgand pushed on ahead and going under the 20 kilometres to go banner, they were 35" ahead of pursuers Burghardt, Scheirlinckx, Flecha, Bossoni and Kuschynski. Grivko had been dropped a little earlier, losing his chance of success.
Halgand was the next aggressor, kicking hard with approximately 18 kilometres remaining. He was joined straight away by Albasini and then Voigt clawed his way back on, Vasseur latched firmly onto his back wheel. Casar was under pressure but he too rejoined with 16 kilometres remaining.
The leaders were on the run up to the top of the final climb of the day and several unsuccessful attacks were fired off. Voigt had won a stage last year and the other riders seemed to fear him, leaving it up to him to bring back some of the moves. The German rider also found himself left on the front on several occasions, being force to lead the others along. He was frustrated with this but decided to keep the pace relatively high towards the top of the climb, seeking to avoid the stop/start racing that could cause him to lose out.
The quintet remained intact until the summit, where Halgand stretched things out again when he sprinted for the points. Voigt, Albasini, Vasseur and Casar were next over the top and the five then rode together down the descent and in towards Marseille.
Voigt tried his hand with four kilometres remaining, but this move was covered by Halgand. Vasseur was sitting at the back of the group, looking both calm and confident, and he put in a big attack with three clicks to go. Albasini brought the others back up to him, then Halgand gave it a dig. However Casar was planted firmly on his wheel and this effort fizzled out.
The almost inevitable regrouping saw Voigt once again left on the front. He led them under the kite, gradually winding up the speed inside the final 500 metres. However Vasseur – eleven months his senior – had the benefit of his own career experience and he waited for the perfect moment to strike, jumping hard from the back of the group with approximately 200 metres to go.
The former Tour yellow jersey quickly got two lengths on the others and while Casar busted a gut to get back on terms, the 37 year old veteran hung on to take an extremely close victory over his compatriot. Albasini and Halgand were next home, just ahead of Voigt, and then Scheirlinckx and Bossoni came in 36 seconds down. Burghardt, Kuchynski, Flecha and Grivko finished further back, between 1'01 and 3'42 in arrears.
Boonen's QuickStep – Innergetic team finally came to the front inside the final few kilometres, giving Rabobank some welcome relief after being on the front for almost the whole stage. The 2005 world champ went for the sprint for twelfth place but was just pipped by Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux). Francisco Ventoso (Saunier Duval – Prodir) and Robert Hunter (Barloworld) finished in between the green jersey and Zabel, ensuring that Boonen picked up an additional three points over his rival, and extended his green jersey lead to 16.
Rasmussen finished safely in the peloton to preserve his own lead. Tomorrow and possibly Friday are likely to either go the way of another break or to a big bunch gallop, increasing the chances the Rasmussen will hang onto the lead into his least favourite discipline, the individual time trial, on Saturday.