Maillot vert nabs victory on scorching day while race favourites bide their time
Drawing on his solid climbing abilities in the tough finale and thus saving strength for the big bunch gallop, Oscar Freire burst out of the peloton to seize his fourth-ever Tour de France stage victory.
The Spanish Rabobank rider beat Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Erik Zabel (Milram) and the rest of the main field into Digne les Bains, defending his green jersey in the best possible fashion and moving ever-closer to what would be a first-ever win in that classification.
The triple world champion was happy wiht the way things worked out. "In the end I was afraid of getting boxed in. But I was behind Zabel; I took the right wheel today and I went at the correct moment. It got pretty tight in the end, though, and I almost collided with him."
He won a Tour stage in 2002 and took two four years later, but is only this year really showing that he could take the final green jersey. He's also getting stronger as the Tour goes on. "I am in better shape now [than earlier in the race]," he stated. "I had some health problems, but now I feel good."
After a number of unsuccessful attacks on the final climb, Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) surged clear on the descent and tried to hold on for a solo victory. He was caught with just over two kilometres to go, though, and the stage was set for the third bunch finish in as many days.
Dominant Tour sprinter Mark Cavendish (Columbia) had lost contact on the climb and thus missed out on the gallop. He was lying second in the maillot vert classification but Freire padded out his advantage over Cavendish and third-placed rider Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) with his victory. Hushovd and Zabel are now second and third overall, 47 and 52 points back respectively, and the Spaniard is pulling away.
"I hope to keep green," said Freire. "And in the mountains we have a leader like Menchov. We hope he can take yellow... For me, Menchov is the best candidate [to win] this Tour."
Menchov and all the main favourites finished in the peloton, preserving the overnight general classification positions. Cadel Evans remains in yellow and will thus head into the Alps tomorrow with a one-second lead over Fränk Schleck (CSC - Saxo Bank). Christian Vande Velde (Team Garmin-Chipotle p/b H30) is third, 38 seconds back, with Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Menchov also less than a minute adrift.
Evans was again happy with how Silence-Lotto worked. "It's a Belgian team and that is its specialty," he stated. "I felt the heat today. But I am satisfied with how things went. Everything is fine. I have recovered from my crash."
The 2007 Tour runner-up was not worried about the team having a lack of experience in the mountains: "Popovych is getting better and better. And then in the mountains I have to do my race. It will be interesting tomorrow…CSC has two strong climbers. Then there are Menchov, Kohl, Vande Velde."
The 194.5-kilometre stage was the final one before three tough days in the Alps and so it was unsurprising that a breakaway group tried its luck. Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), William Bonnet (Crédit Agricole), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne) went away with seventeen others after some ten minutes of racing, then forged ahead from this group approximately 45 kilometres after the start.
The quartet eked out a maximum lead of almost six minutes, before the Milram, Liquigas and Bouygues Telecom teams started working to bring this back. "It was very hard," Casar stated after the stage. "We got a good gap, then relaxed a bit. After the feed zone the peloton started riding really hard."
Gutierrez took the top points on the category four Cote de Mane and also did the same at the intermediate sprint in Oraison; his ambitions extended further than this, though, and he jumped away from the other three with 28 kilometres remaining. However, even though he is a former Spanish time trial champion, he couldn't hold off the peloton and was finally reeled in with just over ten kilometres left.
A flurry of attacks followed, with Tour de Suisse winner Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) taking maximum points on the final climb. Bernhard Kohl added two more points to get closer to Gerolsteiner team-mate Sebastian Lang. Chavanel's move was the most impressive, though, but nothing was to stand in the way of a bunch gallop and, as it turned out, Freire's fourth-ever stage win in the Tour.
Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) finished eighth in the sprint, unable to fully capitalise on his team's work: "I felt good today," he stated. "We did tempo at the front. [On the last climb] some of the sprinters got dropped. It really moved in the front and it was very dangerous. Feillu went from far out. I think I had a better placing in my legs…if I had been five spots further up, I may have been able to stay on Freire's wheel. Who knows?"
Many may ask themselves the same but, as the maillot vert-holder underlined, he is the most consistent sprinter in this Tour de France. The green jersey battle is become a little easier to predict; the maillot jaune should follow suit once the Alps start tomorrow and the general classification gaps open a bit further.
How it unfolded
With all yesterday's finishers present and correct, 158 riders took the départ réel at 12:23 local time for another hot day of racing in Southern France.
A large group formed after only five kilometres, containing Stijn Devolder (Quick Step), Stuart O'Grady (CSC-Saxo Bank), Juan José Oroz and Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Vicente Garcia and Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Bernhard Eisel (Columbia), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Matteo Bono (Lampre), William Bonnet (Crédit Agricole), Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale), Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner), Eduardo Gonzalo and David Le Lay (Agritubel), Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Matthieu Sprick and Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Marco Velo (Team Milram), Sandy Casar and Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux) and William Frischkorn (Garmin Chipotle - H30)
After 20 kilometres the gap was just above the one-minute mark, and continued to hold steady as Devolder took the sprint in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence (km 37) ahead of Frischkorn and Eisel.
With the gap now coming down, Gutierrez, Bonnet, Tankink and Casar took a flyer as the break covered a staggering 52 kilometres in the first hour. The remaining breakaway riders were caught at kilometre 56.
The peloton then allowed the four escapees to continue undisturbed and the gap increased to 3'50 at kilometre 75. In the feed zone in Les Huguets, after 80 kilometres, Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) crashed while Nicolas Jalabert (Agritubel) abandoned the race.
With a 100 kilometres to go, the gap had increased to its maximum of over six minutes. Liquigas started to take over the work in the peloton, steadily reducing the break's advantage. In 10 kilometres it had dropped by two minutes and as the break passed through Cereste with 87 kilometres remaining it was down to 3'20.
Gutierrez took the points on the fourth category Côte de Mane, followed by Tankink, Casar and Bonnet as the Liquigas led bunch crested the summit three minutes later.
With 49.5km to go the break passed the sprint in Oraison where Gutierrez took it uncontested from Bonnet, Tankink and Casar. The peloton was now just 2'21 in arrears.
Forty kilometres from the line the gap had melted in the hot sun even more, and was down to 1'12. The sprinters' teams held it steady, not wanting to make the catch too soon. Most of the work was still done by Liquigas, with Milram and Bouygues Telecom also pitching in, while Columbia sat back in the knowledge that today's finish was unlikely to suit Mark Cavendish.
When the gap dipped below the one-minute mark, Gutiérrez attacked hard with 27 kilometres remaining. Tankink tried to counter, but could get into the Spaniard's slipstream. Casar joined Tankink behind while Bonnet was dropped and caught by the peloton.
Gutierrez hit the 20-kilometre to go sign 44 seconds ahead of the peloton. The 2007 Spanish time trial champion was trying desperately to use his skills against the clock, but the hungry peloton came to within 15 seconds with 12 kilometres to go.
With 10 to go Gutierrez was caught, but the pace stayed high and many riders were sent packing from the peloton, including Mark Cavendish. Over the top of the Col de l'Orne, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) took maximum points from Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner).
On the descent it was Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) who made a brave solo move, but the Frenchman was allowed just a couple of hundred metres before being swallowed up inside the final two kilometres.
The bunch sprint was an exciting affair, for once not featuring Cavendish. Instead it was Oscar Freire (Rabobank) who had too much speed for Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) and Erik Zabel (Milram), taking his fourth Tour stage.
Stage 15 - Sunday, July 20: Embrun - Prato Nevoso, 183km
This stage was to have been a 216-kilometre epic from yesterdays' finish town of Digne les Bains. Because of rock falls on the Col de Larche the start has been moved to the ancient town of Embrun, shortening the stage by 33 kilometres.
The stage starts climbing almost immediately up to the vertiginously high Col Agnel at 2744 metres, which surprisingly is not the highest point of his year's Tour. It does mark a first for 2008 though, as the Tour has up until now been entirely contested in France and this is a border crossing into Italy.
The stage descends into the Italian province of Cuneo, part of the Piemonte region, crossing the rather sinister sounding third category Colle del Morte to an uphill finish at the ski resort of Prato Nevoso. The 11.4-kilometre ascent to the finish should provide a platform for the overall contenders to take time out of one another before the second rest day.
This is the first visit of the Tour to both towns, but Pratonevoso has been a stage finish in the Giro d'Italia. The most recent occasion was in 2000, when Stefano Garzelli (then Mercatone Uno, now Acqua e Sapone) put pressure on race leader Francesco Casagrande (Vini Caldirola) with stage victory. Garzelli went on to take the pink jersey two days later in the mountain time trial to Sestrieres.