Maillot jaune takes stage and extends overall lead by 47 seconds
In the last mountain stage of the 2007 Tour de France maillot jaune Michael Rasmussen withstood the Discovery Channel attacks of Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to deliver a punch of his own, surging at 900 metres remaining to take the stage and add 47 seconds to his overall lead. American Leipheimer finished second to gain time on Cadel Evans in the fight for a podium spot while 'Kid Contador' placed third.
"This is a great victory since winning in the yellow jersey is very hard," Rasmussen said with a grin. "Nevertheless, the overall victory is more important than a stage win.
"Two days ago I noticed I could not follow the accelerations of Discovery Channel's Contador, so today I used a different tactic. I maintained my own pace and apparently Contador got tired, I used this advantage in the last kilometre."
Rasmussen responded amazingly after the Tour's second rest day and a bombardment of doping allegations, proving his abilities on the Aubisque and showing he has a strong chance to win the overall in four days. Contador remains in second in the general classification, now at 3'10".
"Three minutes is too much," stated Discovery Team Manager Johan Bruyneel to Jean-François Quénet of Cyclingnews. "Alberto did all he could, we must accept the defeat. It will be necessary to go flat-out in the time trial because we never know."
The area of Green Mountain Honey was the last chance for Contador to gain some time on current race leader Rasmussen but, after numerous and honourable attempts, the Spaniard had to resign himself to riding in the wheels of super-domestique Leipheimer.
At the base of the 16.6-kilometre climb, the game was on as the escape was starting to shatter under the influence of CSC's Carlos Sastre who was desperate to grab a stage win. The 32 year-old Spaniard attacked Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) and Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) at 13.6 kilometres remaining to leave the polka dot-clad Colombian struggling while his compatriot latched on.
The artilleries led to Soler's capture by the Rasmussen groupe at kilometre 10.8 while the Spanish duo was caught 1300 metres later to clear the way for a two-in-one GC/stage battle. Rabo's Russian/Dutch combo of Denis Menchov and Michael Boogerd proved its strength; Menchov jammed the accelerator up the seven percent gradients to good effect, dropping Alejandro Valverde and Fränk Schleck before he released control to Boogerd.
The former Dutch champion did wonders in his last Tour de France for team captain Rasmussen while Menchov faded off the back. Discovery Channel took over next with Yaroslav Popovych to whittle the group down to Contador, Rasmussen, Leipheimer and Evans by 10 kilometres to go.
Leipheimer took over after 'Popo' peeled off but his accelerations did not seem violent enough to put Rasmussen on the ropes. It did, however, provide a setup for Contador's first move at 8.5 kilometres to go. The Spaniard went as the four men exited a tunnel but Rasmussen was able to close down while Evans showed signs of stress. The Aussie was dropped 2000 metres later as Rasmussen countered 'Kid Contador' with a move of his own.
Leipheimer held tight during the accelerations and eventually came through to ride a long three-kilometre section on the front. He was encouraged by Rasmussen who sensed the American was vying for third overall in addition to helping Contador.
Rasmussen stopped spending his energy swatting flies and waving the motorbikes forward to land the deathblow on Contador. Like the days before, the Spaniard had tried his attacks (around three today) but found the Dane too resilient and, today, Rasmussen countered in the last 900 metres to go clear.
Once the gap was established, Discovery gave Leipheimer the permission to pull away from Contador and ride for time on Evans. He gained 17 seconds by the day's end and moved within 56 seconds of third overall, currently 5'59" back on Rasmussen.
Evans wound his way up the hot Aubisque as the cool water of Valentine fell downwards. He was encouraged by the large numbers of Australians cheering who had turned out to watch a beautiful spectacular, oblivious to cycling's recent controversies. Evans limited his losses to give himself a fighting chance in next Saturday's time trial, finishing fourth, 43 seconds down.
"I did not want to concede any time to Leipheimer. I had to ride at my own pace," Evans let out at the finish to Cyclingnews' John Trevorrow. "I might have underestimated Leipheimer a little bit.
"[Leipheimer] was working for Contador; I thought they were more interested in the win than the [final overall] podium. I know Bruyneel is not such a silly directeur, maybe he was playing with me. There were times were I could have accelerated, but when it is two to one I am always at a disadvantage. I had to ride my tempo.
"I don't' feel secure [in my third overall]. It is not over because Leipheimer is good in a flat time trial."
"It was our goal to reach the podium in this race, that is getting closer," Predicator Team Manager Marc Sergeant confirmed. "We were afraid of today's stage but we came through."
"We were happy to see that Cadel is a lot better than last year. We have built a good program for him and there is no more to expect."
Rasmussen may have increased his overall lead but he lost his lead in the fight for the maillot à pois rouges of best climber. Soler rode free early on to garner maximum points on the Col de la Pierre-Saint-Martin and the Col de Marie-Blanque. He clawed his way up the Col d'Aubisque, retaking Sastre and Mayo, to finish fifth and gain additional points. In addition, the 24 year-old Colombian picked up the prix de la combativité for most aggressive rider.
"It was a difficult day but it turned out to be fantastic for me, as I could grab the points on the first climbs. I am very happy with the jersey," Soler noted of his successful day. He explained how he clawed his way back for the stage finale. "There were always attacks and I tried to dose my forces to finish well."
The Colombian was followed by Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Juan José Cobo (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Sastre, and Caisse d'Epargne's Oscar Pereiro and Valverde, who rounded out the top ten.
How It Unfolded
After a turbulent rest day in Pau thanks to the positive test for a homologous blood transfusion by Alexandre Vinokourov, the Tour resumed with five more stages to go until Paris. Today’s stage was the last in the Pyrenees, making it crucially important for the general classification.
The start was delayed due to a brief protest by riders from French and German teams but eventually things got underway. The peloton moved through the 2.9 kilometres neutral zone and crossed the start at kilometre zéro at 10h58, 13 minutes later than planned. 151 riders were at the start, this number missing the Astana team who had pulled out after the news concerning Vinokourov.
Cofidis rider Stéphane Augé attacked after eight kilometres of racing, jumping away in the verdant bocage outside Orthez. One kilometre later, three riders came across; they were big Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), go-go Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Christophe Rinero (Saunier Duval).
The peloton had no interest in this break and in Bastanes, after 15 kilometres of racing, the quartet had a two minute lead. Six kilometres later this had soared to 6'20" and it kept climbing due to Rabobank’s decision not to drive things hard back in the peloton. But at the 30 kilometre point near Laruns, the lead hit 8'30" and Rabobank then accelerated at the front of the peloton to keep things under control.
Rinero took the points at the intermediate sprint of Mauléon-Licharre (km 36), while back in the bunch Barloworld was now riding tempo on the front of the peloton. They had pulled the gap back to 7’30” within ten kilometres. However, as the first slopes of the hors category Port de Larrau climb began 66 kilometres after the start, the hard-working break had gained time once again and was now 8'55" ahead of the chasing peloton.
Barloworld's Cardenas attacked as the climb began for the chasers, this being a set-up move for his team-mate and countryman Soler, who was wearing the Maillot Pois of Best Climber. Soler was actually lying second in the competition this morning but wore the maillot a pois due to the fact that KOM leader Michael Rasmussen also held yellow.
The Colombian was becoming attached to the jersey and was determined to do his utmost to keep it. The long, lean Barloworld climber got a gap on the climb and was quickly followed by CSC's Carlos Sastre and Euskaltel's tiny Amets Txurruka, one of the revelations of this years Tour.
Realising this was a dangerous move, Discovery Channel's Sergio Paulinho and Yaroslav Popovych tried to bridge with Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval – Prodir). However they were left behind by the Basque and reabsorbed by the Rabobank-led peloton. As Txurruka was being dropped, Mayo managed to jump across to Soler and Sastre. This meant that there were still three riders in pursuit of the escape.
Garcia Acosta took the KOM on the top of the hors categorie Port de Larrau, 70 kilometres into the stage. Rinero and Augé were dropped on the steep 14.7 kilometres climb, but the Sastre group was closing in at 3'05 and Soler led that group across for fifth place.
Maillot Jaune Rasmussen didn’t want to let the KOM jersey go and thus led the rest of the riders over the top for 8th, 4'35" back. Meanwhile Bouygues Telecom rider Mathieu Sprick decided he had enough and abandoned.
By this point the Tour De France had entered Spain for a 52 kilometres ride through the Province of Navarre, and descended the Port de Larrau to the second climb of the day, the third category Alto Laza. This was a 3.5 kilometres climb at a 6.8 % grade.
Going over the summit of this little bump of a climb, the break of Garcia and Verdugo were still riding hard off the front. Augé and Rinero were two minutes back and the Sastre-led chasers were a further 45 seconds down. The group Maillot Jaune were chasing at 5'40". The race had averaged 34.8 kilometres per hour by this point, 93 kilometres after the start.
Co-operation at the front
Sastre and his two companions were coming up fast and finally hit the front of the race after 110km. Some small bombs had been set off by ETA as the Tour riders traversed the town of Belagua in Navarra, but no riders were near to the improvised explosive devices.
Next up was the third climb of the day, the 1st Cat. Col de la Pierre-Saint-Martin. This was a 14.2 kilometres ascent at a 5.2 % grade that climbed back out of Spain into France.
As they scaled the climb, Cente Acosta, Verdugo, Soler, Sastre and Mayo were 1’35’’ ahead of Augé and 1’55’’ up on Rinero. The groupe maillot jaune was led by Rabobank's bad boy Thomas Dekker, and they were at 4’20’’.
A long descent followed, taking the riders back into France from the Spanish border at the summit of the Col de la Pierre-Saint-Martin. The gap between the break and the peloton began to fall and, as the first category, 9.3 kilometre Col de Marie-Blanque began, the break had 3'48" with some 48 kilometres remaining.
Once again, the Rabobankers lived up to their nickname "Orange Crush”; their pace had reduced the yellow jersey group to 20 riders and reeled the break back to a two minute lead.
Garcia Acosta had been dropped back from the break on the climb and as he was caught on the decent, the big Caisse d'Epargne rouleur went to the front of the group Maillot Jaune to chase the break down. His huge pulls gave the Rabobankers a little relief just when it counted.
As the final ascent of the day approached, the legendary Col d'Aubisque, the now 15 strong groupe maillot jaune had the break in their sights. The mountain was first climbed in the 1910 edition of the Tour De France, and was a hors categorie ascent which was even tougher due to the fact that it began after some 202 kilometres of racing.
The break began the climb with a 40" lead over the Mechov/Boogerd chasing group. Verdugo came off the break as the climb began, while Soler cranked up the pace and put the hurt on Sastre and Mayo with 15 kilometres still to climb. Sastre countered and this action gapped Mayo, who then powered a huge gear past Soler and grinded his way back on to Sastre. The Colombian was dropped 13.5 kilometres from the top.
Meanwhile back in the Rasmussen group, Menchov was crouched low over his bars while Boogerd was dancing out of the saddle behind him. Rasmussen sat next in line with Contador then glued to the Danes wheel.
Sastre attacked Mayo once more twelve kilometres from the top. The peloton was just 30” back at this point and while Menchov dropped off the back, Discovery Channel's Popovych took over on the front of the group with Contador now glued to the Ukrainian’s wheel.
This group caught Soler with 11.5 kilometres to go, and he tried to follow. One and a half kilometres later Sastre and Mayo were hanging on as the Aubisque steepened notably. The rapidly dwindling peloton was 20" behind and the pace had popped Frank Schleck (CSC) and the Caisse d'Epargne duo of Valverde and Periero.
Showdown for yellow jersey
It was now just Popo, Contador, Rasmussen, Leipheimer and Evans left up front. As Sastre and Mayo were caught with 9 kilometres to race, having spent 140 kilometres in the break, Popo finally dropped off after a huge effort. Leipheimer then made an acceleration but it was easily covered by Rasmussen.
Behind them, the experienced Sastre was going all out to try and lose as little time as possible to the front quartet.
Exiting the tunnel with 7.3 kilometres to go, Contador had attacked. Rasmussen didn't respond immediately, but slowly but surely upped the pace behind the Discovery Channel rider and
pulled him back after 300 metres. Then it was the turn of Leipheimer to try again, but once more,
Rasmussen just rode the other Discovery Channel rider down. Sastre was going all out 35" behind, while the Caisse d'Epargne chase group was a minute adrift and had caught Mayo.
Contador went again with 6.5 kilometres and, his face a mask of pain, Rasmussen responded again. This time it took the maillot jaune more time to get back to the Spaniard. Leipheimer was gapped by this acceleration and as Rasmussen got up to Contador, he attacked the Discovery Channel rider. This dropped Evans, who had been clinging on.
It meant another ding-dong battle between Rasmussen and Contador, who had punched their way clear of the rest in Gourette, 5 kilometres from the top. Evans and Leipheimer were now 15" behind, Sastre at 55", Popo and Soler were at 1'05" and the Valverde group were closing on them at 1'10". Levi had attacked Evans and gotten back across to the front duo so now it was two Disco boys on one Rabobanker, bad odds for Rasmussen. However, so far, he had handled anything the Discovery Channel riders could dish out.
Evans, meanwhile, was still trying. After an all-out chase over 1500 metres, the Australian had almost clawed his way back to the front trio. However the gutsy Aussie just couldn't close the final few seconds. In contrast to his laboured style, Rasmussen was making it look easy as he continually waved the TV motor further away from the break.
Leipheimer was making tempo at this point, riding both for Contador and to further distance Evans who was hanging tough 10" behind. Further down the mountain, Soler had accelerated away from the front of the Valverde group and gotten across to and passed Sastre. The Colombian didn't know his own strength as he was simply flying up the mountain, 1'05" behind the leading trio and 45” up on the Valverde group.
With 1.8 kilometres left to the line the riders entered the barriers zone and were now protected from the crazy crowds. That freed up more room to attack but when Contador didn’t try again, Rasmussen attacked inside the final kilometre. This caused Leipheimer to drop off the pace.
The chicken then scratched and kicked dirt in the face of his rival, blowing Contador away to race to a fantastic solo win atop the Aubisque. It was his second stage win of the 2007 Tour De France and taken at an average speed of 34.20 kilometres / hr.
Leipheimer came across second at 26", Contador was third at 36" and the gutsy Evans was fourth at 43". New maillot pois Soler made a strong comeback to finish fifth at 1'25, placing ahead of Zubeldia at 1'52', a heroic Sastre at 2'12" and Valverde and Periero at 2'27".
Rasmussen's tremendous ride has now put him 3'10" ahead of Contador, with Evans still hanging on in third, 5'03" behind Rasmussen. The gap between Contador and Evans is 1'53"; 127 seconds. Evans will have to ride just over 2 seconds per kilometre faster than Contador in Sunday's 55.5 kilometres time trial in Cognac. That’s possible for the Aussie but unlikely, as Contador is a decent tester and will be motivated to keep his second place.
It could however be a close call as to which rider ends up second or third in this years Tour De France. With his solid second place today, American Levi Leipheimer is on his way to his best Tour De France finish ever. The Discovery Channel rider is currently in fourth, 5'59" behind Evans and if the Aussie has bad legs or a mechanical in Saturday's TT, Leipheimer might even be able to get on the podium.
As for the others, CSC’s Carlos Sastre rode courageously today to stay away for 140 kilometres and then hold on for dear life on the final ascent of the Aubisque. He made sure his fifth place on GC wasn't just because Andreas Klöden, the rider ahead of him after Stage 15, had left the Tour.
However Euskaltel's Haimar Zubeldia, currently sitting sixth, made up time on Sastre today and may be able to ride past the CSC man in the Cognac TT. The gap between the two riders is only 27" and Zubeldia will probably be a better time trialist on the power course on Saturday.
There is then a big gap back to 7th. Alejandro Valverde is sitting 13'28" from Rasmussen, which is a decent position for the Caisse d'Epargne rider in his first full tour. T-Mobile's Kim Kirchen (8th at a 14'46") and Discovery Channel's Yaro Popovych (9th at a 16'00") are next on the Tour De France GC list, with incredible discovery Barloworld's Mauricio Soler tenth at 16'41". The long, lean Colombian took over the lead in the competition for the best climber on today's stage, but is only ten points clear. If Rasmussen want two jerseys, tomorrow could see the two clash on the smaller hills.
Stage 17: Thursday 26 July Pau-Castelsarrasin / 188.5 km
After the mountains come the rolling hills from Pau to Castelsarrasin. This will see the opportunistic rouleurs go on the attack for what could be their last chance for a stage win. With five lower category climbs across upper Gascony certain to provoke agression, a break should make it home across the hot, dry plains of Haute-Garonne west of Toulouse to Castelsarrasin.
Kilometre 23: Côte de Baleix: 1.4Kilometre climb at a 8 % grade / 3rd Cat.
Kilometre 54: Côte de Villecomtal: 3.7Kilometre climb at a 4.3 % grade / 4th Cat.
Kilometre 59.5: Côte de Miélan: 1.4Kilometre climb at a 5.4 % grade / 4th Cat.
Kilometre 63.5: Côte de Sainte-Dode-aux-Croix: 2.0Kilometre climb at a 5 % grade / 4th Cat.
Kilometre 72.5: Côte de Theux: 1.4Kilometre climb at a 6.4 % grade / 4th Cat.
Kilometre 169.5: Côte de la Montagnère: 1.4Kilometre climb at a 5.3 % grade / 4th Cat.
Kilometre 44.5: Rabastens-de-Bigorre
Kilometre 146.5: Solomiac