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Robert Hunter stomped the remaining sprint competitors in the finale of stage 11 to Montpellier and...
Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) in the feed zone.
Robert Hunter stomped the remaining sprint competitors in the finale of stage 11 to Montpellier and in the process has given South Africa its first ever stage win and Barloworld its second in the Tour de France. The 30 year-old rider kept on top of the bunch out of the final right hander on Avenue d'Heidelberg to claim glory over Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) and Murilo Fischer (Liquigas) while super-sprinter Tom Boonen was left behind in a crash at 800 metres to go. Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) continues to hold the Maillot Jaune after a tough and hot transitional stage that saw overall-favourite Christophe Moreau (Ag2r Prévoyance) lose over three minutes due to echelons formed at 72 kilometres out.
Claudio Corti's Barloworld men did it again and this time it was thanks to Robert Hunter. Barloworld's sprinter made good on the team's wildcard invite only two days after Soler's win in Briançon and once again proved that the Great Britain-based team deserved a place in the Tour. "It is hard to say what is exactly different. It was a long hard finish," noted an excited Hunter on what conditions were in place that allowed him to prevail.
Hunter hit the front out of the final turn with 200 metres to the line. It seemed early but the man who turned professional with Lampre in 1999 was able to hold Cancellara's charge heading towards Mas de la Paillade Park. The Swiss, already a winner of two stages in this Tour, hammered his handlebars while Hunter thrusted his fists in glory.
"There were a couple of really fast guys," Hunter continued. Tom was there [until the crash - ed.] And guys like Julian Dean, Pozzato were there too. ... It is always hard coming into a stage like that to think you can win, but today it worked. ... Sometimes you just need that little bit of extra luck.
"I started cycling at the age of 10. I was so competitive and I just wanted to beat my friends. So when they started racing, I started racing. At the end of it all I became better and better and I find myself here today," summarized Hunter fresh off the winner's podium.
The day was not without its madness. An escape containing Scot David Millar (Saunier Duval-Prodir) was nailed back under the Astana thunderstorm. "It was a bit unlucky with those cross-winds as the peloton was going extremely fast, there was nothing we could do about that," commented Millar.
Alexander Vinokourov tried to prove that he is not yet out of this year's Tour overall picture and sent his men on the front. This move resulted in Moreau losing 3'20" and several sprinters losing contact with the main peloton, including Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Bernhard Eisel (T-Mobile) and Erik Zabel (Milram). The speed from then on was so fast that it prevented even the strongest from attacking.
Vinokourov tried to bolt free at 3.8 kilometres to go but the strong Kazakh was no match for the blue team of Tom Boonen. He gained only 50 metres and was swept up soon. The remaining sprinters' teams set about making pace for their men, notably the persistent Quickstep formation for Boonen. The winner of the stage to Bourg-en-Bresse handled Astana's echelons with ease but could not contend with the road furniture in the final kilometre.
Liquigas and Crédit Agricole made pace down the Avenue de la Liberté and into a roundabout on the right side. Francisco José Ventoso (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Fränk Schleck (Team CSC) and Julian Dean (Crédit Agricole) were victims of a lack of space on the left side of the road and went down while the 2005 World Champion was slowed by the wreckage.
"We just came around the corner and it wasn't quite like on the road book," New Zealander Dean noted to Jean-François Quénet of Cyclingnews. "The crash happened in front of me. I had no choice but crash as well. I am okay but I have a busted morale. I had my chance to win a sprint for myself today."
"I was on Fabian's wheel and I told them to stop pulling," explained Schleck. He first saw Dean go down and then he could not avoid the wreckage. "Suddenly Julian went too fast into the corner and I went down with the other guy."
As the green teams of Crédit Agricole and Liquigas faded, T-Mobile came to the front for the 500 metres after the roundabout. It could not contain the jump of Hunter as the riders passed through the turn on Avenue d'Heidelberg and into view of the finish line. Hunter was clear and kept off the charge of Cancellara on his right and, a little further back, Brazilian Murilo Fischer.
Michael Rasmussen safely finished after another tricky day in the Tour de France. He continues to lead in the overall by 2'35" over Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). The Dane commented on Astana's move, "It just shows, even though they are 10 minutes down on GC, that they can make a difference. We are a long ways from Paris and we can't write them off yet." He believes that Moreau (14th at 6'38") is now out of the fight for the race overall. "He definitely lost his chance of winning the Tour today. Usually when a top contender misses out, he is out for good. Last year was different but that was an exception."
Outspoken Jens Voigt did not appreciate Astana's manoeuvres. "Christophe had crashed, it is not fair to make him lose the Tour de France because of that," he explained to Quénet.
"It was a black day for Ag2r," said the French Champion Moreau to Quénet. "My crash happened when Grivko took out my front wheel. Then I was between the bunch and the back group on the small climbs. Gerrans also crashed and Calzati pulled out with knee tendonitis.
"My cleat was broken after my crash and I asked the team car to fix it, and that was when Astana attacked. The team did a tremendous job to help me but at the end of the day, it was a catastrophe but we limited the losses. Today was my bad day, Vino had his... We can't point to anyone [as a GC favourite.]"
On paper, Stage 11 seemed like a typical transition stage at the Tour. It headed north from Marseille, then swung due west from Marseille near the Mediterranean coastline. And as predicted, the heat and wind played an important role.
After a long neutral zone through the gritty suburbs north of Marseille with crowds from the seedy French HLM projects, 171 riders started to race at 13.12 CET. It was a hot and windy afternoon, with no non-starters.
An early attack composed of David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne), Jens Voigt (CSC), Daniele Bennati (Lampre - Fondital), Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner), Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom), Sylvain Chavanel and Nick Nuyens (Cofidis), Benoit Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Barloworld) got an early gap, but Caisse d'Epargne's Arroyo was too dangerous to let go far.
The first sprint took place in La Fare-Les Oliviers after 31.5km and was won by Bennati. Back in the peloton, French champ Moreau and his Ag2r Prévoyance team-mate Simon Gerrans crashed, but both were able to continue.
Milram, Discovery Channel et Maillot Jaune Rasmussen's Rabobankers picked up the pace behind around this time. The Dane is also leading the KOM classification but as he was back in the peloton he didn’t worry about the day's only climb, the category 4 ascent of the Côte de Calissanne. This 1.7 kilometre ascent averaged 5.6% and was won by 2004 World U23 champion Siutsou.
The break was working well together and thanks to a strong tailwind from the south, it had covered 50.8 kilometres in the first hour of racing. By this point it had built a lead of 1'45, but this started to drop quickly as it changed direction and the tailwind became a sidewind, blowing from the Mediterranean up the Rhone River valley.
Sylvain Calzati (Ag2r Prévoyance) abandoned after 53km in Eyguieres. Then twelve kilometres later Vaugrenard, Bennati and Chavanel attacked the break near Aurielle, pressing on without the others who had decided to sit up and wait for the fast-approaching peloton.
This was the perfect moment for a counterattack by Vincente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), Kurt-Asle Arvesen (CSC), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel Euskadi), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre Fondital), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) , Enrico Poitschke (Milram), 1998 King of the Mountains Christophe Rinero and Saunier Duval sprinter Fran Ventoso, who all set off in pursuit.
However the peloton wasn't letting them go and eventually pulled back all the escapees. It was peloton groupée after 83km, at the foot of the Alpilles hills. This didn't last long, though, as Gilbert (Française des Jeux) made a strong move and was quickly joined by German champ Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Dmitriy Fofonov (Crédit Agricole) and Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom). David Millar (Saunier Duval - Prodir) attacked solo and tried to bridge across to make it a quintet off the front on the hot, windy road to Montpellier.
At the sprint in Arles, picturesque city to the north of the Camargue marshes, it was Florencio who took the points ahead of Wegmann. Millar made it across at the 97 kilometre point, bridging after a ten kilometre chase through the beautiful city of Arles, famous for it's Roman arena.
The gap back to the peloton had soared after the feed zone and was up to 7'30". However that wouldn't last long. After the peloton passed through the feed zone and moved into the Departement du Gard, Astana decided to take advantage of the strong sidewinds in the open farm roads west of Arles and the Kazakh squad attacked hard. As the temperatures hovered around 35 degrees, this surprising move split the peloton in two, with Moreau, Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Erik Zabel (Milram) caught behind.
Astana was joined in the action by Quick.Step - Innergetic, Barloworld and Saunier Duval - Prodir and outside the village of Lunel, with 38 kilometres left to race, the inexorable progression of the Astana steamroller rolled over the break.
The second peloton went all out to try and close the gap, with Ag2r and Milram desperately looking to get back on terms with the front of the race. However the power of Astana and Quick.Step, combined with Barloworld, Saunier Duval and CSC, was just too much. Up front almost all the GC favourites were in the sixty strong group; maillot jaune Rasmussen and his teammate Erik Dekker, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Klöden (both Astana), Alejandro Valverde and Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Epargne), Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto), Frank Schleck (CSC), Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval – Prodir), George Hincapie, Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel), Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile), Felix Cardenas (Barloworld) and sprinters Tom Boonen (QuickStep – Innergetic), Julian Dean (Crédit Agricole), Robert Hunter (Barloworld) and Filippo Pozatto (Liquigas).
With 20km to race, Moreau and the second peloton had lost two minutes. Riders like David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne), Michael Boogerd, Peter Weening (Rabobank), Jose Luis Arrieta, Martin Elmiger (Ag2r Prévoyance), Stéphane Goubert (Ag2r Prévoyance), Robert Förster, Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole), Moises Duenas Nevado (Agritubel), Sylvain Chavanel, Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Erik Zabel, Alessandro Cortinovis (Milram) and David De la Fuente (Saunier Duval – Prodir) were here.
The race pace was getting faster and faster, more rapid than the fastest schedule laid out by the race organizers, and the second peloton was continuing to lose time. On the outskirts of Montpellier with some 10 kilometres to go, the gap was up to 2'45 and the pace was simply too fast for anyone to try to attack. An improving Vinokourov did manage to go it alone at the four kilometre to go point, but the Quick.Step and Liquigas teams pulled the Kazakh commando back after one kilometre.
As the road narrowed with 1500m to go, Liquigas hit the front to wind it up for their two sprinters Fischer and Pozatto. This strung out the rest of the peloton.
Just inside the flamme rouge at 1km to go, there was a crash in 15th position. Milram's Sieberg, Crédit Agricole's Dean and Freddy Rodriguez (Predictor Lotto) crashed. Both Boonen and Valverde were caught behind the crash on the right hand curve. T-Mobile's Burghardt led into the right hand turn on to the finishing straight on Avenue de Heidelburg with 300m to go, but had jumped too soon. Liquigas had a great leadout from Karlstrom, yet in the end it was Robbie Hunter who gave wild-card team Barloworld their second stage win in three days.
Hunter, the first South African to win a Tour De France stage, finished just ahead of prologue and stage three winner Cancellara, who was going for the hat-trick. Speedy Brazilian Fisher was third, finishing just ahead of Italians Pozatto and Ballan.
The average speed was quick, 48.08 kilometres per hour, and the Astana tactics had worked as Klöden moved into 6th on general classification. The Moreau group finished at 3'19 and the French champion dropped from 6th to 12th overall.
Friday will be another hot day. It starts from Montpellier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and another transitional stage the Tour heads inland from the Mediterranean coast to the textile town of Castres. Although an early break should get away in the flat first half of the stage, a counter-attack on the tough 10.4 km climb of Montée de la Jeante with 60km to go could be successful.
Km 27.5: Côte de Cantagal: 1.6 km climb @ 4.3 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 58: Côte du Mas-Rouet: 2.4 km climb @ 4.3 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 74.5: Col du Buis: 2.6 km climb @ 4.8 % grade / 4th Cat.
Km 130.5: Montée de la Jeante: 10.4 km climb @ 6.1 % grade / 2nd Cat.
Sprints: Km 81.5: Herepian
Km 101: Olargues