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Suffering on the climb but shining in the sprint, an ecstatic Simon Gerrans sped to his first ever...
Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole) produced a masterful ride
Suffering on the climb but shining in the sprint, an ecstatic Simon Gerrans sped to his first ever Tour de France stage at the summit finish of Prata Nevoso in Italy. The Australian from Crédit Agricole was away for much of the tough, wet Alpine stage with Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danny Pate (Garmin-Chipotle) and Jose Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale), and decisively out-galloped the first two in the final 200 meters. Arrieta finished 55 seconds back.
There was a ferocious scrap behind for the yellow jersey, with Fränk Schleck and his CSC -Saxo Bank team-mates Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre putting considerable pressure on race leader Cadel Evans on the final climb. Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Sastre, Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) managed to jettison the maillot jaune, while Fränk Schleck was more conservative, waiting for the final few hundred metres to jump away in a bid for yellow. Schleck finished 4'41" behind Gerrans, but more importantly nine seconds ahead of Evans.
This saw the Luxembourg national road race champion seize the yellow jersey, ending the day seven seconds ahead of Kohl and a further second up on the previous GC leader.
Menchov had initially appeared the strongest in the finale, and had launched a dangerous attack but slipped and crashed on a hairpin bend, then had to chase back to the group he had previously left behind. He was later part of the Kohl break, yet cracked towards the end and lost 20" to the new King of the Mountains leader. The net result was that he moved to fourth overall, 38 seconds off the race lead.
American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle) is a further second back, gaining a little time on Evans but dropping two places to fifth, while Sastre is now sixth overall, 49" away from team-mate Schleck.
Gerrans was delighted with his stage victory. "It is a very big surprise for me that I climbed with Martinez and Pate, because they are normally much stronger than me in the mountains," he stated. "I was dropped, but fought back and then won the sprint. I wasn't sure about my legs on the last climb. The Tour is a super race, I am very happy."
He was asked about his compatriot's day. "I am sorry Cadel lost the jersey. I don't know by how much, but I think he can get it back."
Schleck had a lot of reason to celebrate. He won the stage to Alpe d'Huez two years ago, but this moment clearly eclipses that. "Every day people asked me when I would take that one second.... I first want to thank my team. Sastre was really strong. Andy put everyone in the red. Andy may take the maillot blanc, too. Luxembourg will do all we can! And my father is here, too… this is so great!"
"It didn't start too well with the rain. We had all the cards to play, we had all the possibilities. Too bad Andy had a fringale [hunger knock] in Hautacam, otherwise we would have been three today. Sastre is always good in the last week of the Tour. Today, he went in a very good moment. And my brother did great work today... merci, brother!"
The younger of the two was delighted with the family success. "This is super," he said, responding to Fränk's comment while speaking to French television. "I saw that he was very good. I am very content. Having jaune in the team and in the family is great!"
Kohl was visibly distressed after the finish, both due to the effort he had put out and also the disappointment to go so close to the jersey without taking it. However he soon saw the positive side of things, having jumped to second overall and taken over from team-mate Sebastian Lang in the King of the Mountains jersey.
"I dreamed about getting up on that podium once in my life, so it's unbelievable. Moreover, to be second on the classification is enormous. My fan-club was here today, too; my whole family cheered me on with two kilometres to go. That gave me so much motivation.
"It was a really hard race today. Sebastian Lang sacrificed himself to get me to through the first climb and to the mountain points at the top. I don't take that for granted, you know."
Menchov is now fourth overall, 38 seconds back, and is surely rueing his crash while on the attack. "It was a dangerous road and very slippery," he told Cyclingnews. "I don't know how I would have done had that not happened. I was pulling hard and feeling good…I was strong [today], but I was a bit unlucky.
"It will be a good finale, lots of riders and it will be really close. There are six or seven riders who can win the tour."
One of those in contention is Vande Velde, now 39" in arrears. "I am very happy. I would say 'break even'," he stated. "I am very happy with how I rode. The break [by Pate] could have helped more than it did, but it is always nice to have numbers up the road. I took time out of Cadel Evans, so I don't think I did so bad. I limited my loses on a really hard climb."
Team-mate and compatriot Pate had an excellent ride, growing stronger as the stage went on and actually appearing to be the most powerful on the final mountain. However the time trial specialist was unable to shake off the other two and had to be content with third.
"I thought we only had a slim chance in the escape, and then when we had 15 minutes it looked better," he stated. "It depended who would chase behind."
Pate had clearly been in a little difficulty on the first big ascent, yet improved. "I was the worst on the HC climb. I was worried about Prato Nevoso. I skipped on a few pulls on the end, because they had proved stronger than me before. I was a little better in the end than I thought. I had a good chance for the win but Simon was too fast."
It was part of a pre-conceived team plan. "We wanted to get into a escape and to keep an eye on a big move going free. We needed a guy up the road in case Christian needed help. He gained some time on Cadel today, but he is not in yellow. Everyone wants this, but maybe it is better so that we don't have to defend it yet. I am not looking [too far] ahead now…only to the rest day for now."
Martinez had attacked early on the final climb, the first category Prato Nevoso, but Pate and then Gerrans got back up to him. The latter was the weakest of the three on the climb but had the necessary explosiveness to win the sprint.
Arrieta was expected to be closer to that fight. "It was important to get into the break today; we had tried a lot of times already. In the end, I thought that one of us Spaniards maybe could have won but, after hitting the final climb so hard, neither of us could make it in the end."
Meanwhile CSC's strong driving softened up the peloton prior to those slopes, with Andy Schleck setting the pace much of the way up the final mountain. Menchov was the most impressive of the GC contenders there but went from a solo breakaway to a solo chaser due to his crash on a slippery uphill bend. CSC stepped off the gas to allow the Russian to rejoin, and he was then able to combine with the other classification riders to put Evans under pressure with repeated attacks.
Kohl, Sastre, Valverde and the Russian Rabobank rider finally managed to get clear of the yellow jersey near the summit, finishing in that order, while Schleck, Vande Velde and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) all gained a handful of seconds just before the line. That reshuffled the general classification but, with first to sixth place separated by just 49 seconds, the Tour de France remains wide open in advance of tomorrow's rest day and the remaining two Alpine stages.
One big name who is still 4'11 adrift is Alejandro Valverde. Had he not lost 5'24 to Schleck on stage ten, he would be in the race lead by a clear 1'13 now. "After Pereiro crashed, I just had to continue," said the Spanish champion. "This stage was important. I made up some time today so I'm happy. But to say that I'm back in contention for the podium is exaggerated."
Schleck's team-mate Jens Voigt will be happy to hear Valverde and the other big names playing down their chances, given that CSC-Saxo Bank has riders in first and sixth overall. "We took control of it and showed we are a team that wants to decide this race," he said. "I guess it worked out pretty well so far. I think now Fränk needs two more minutes to be safe."
156 riders tackled the 15th stage, with only Mark Cavendish (Columbia), who has had enough success for this year's Tour with his four stage wins, deciding to quit the race in order to prepare for the Olympic Games. The first Alpine climbing stage began under dreary weather. It was 16 degrees at the start and raining and there was speculation that there could be snow on the first climb of the day.
Unfazed by this news, Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danny Pate (Garmin Chipotle - H30) and José Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale) took off at kilometre 12. The first sprint in Guillestre after 14.5 kilometres was taken by Martínez, ahead of Arrieta and Pate. Shortly thereafter the three were joined by Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole).
After 25 kilometres the gap had already gone out to five minutes. The peloton let the four get a good gap quickly. With four kilometres covered on the first climb, the Col Agnel, the gap was at 12 minutes. The 20.5-kilometre climb averages 6.6 % and is an hors catégorie climb.
During that climb, Mark Renshaw and Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) were dropped and abandoned the race, but it was not due to a high pace in the peloton. Two kilometres from the top, the gap was 13'40. Over the top of the Col Agnel, Martínez went over ahead of Arrieta. Gerrans struggled a bit in third to get his vest on, while Pate was busy pulling a rain jacket out of his musette.
The bunch followed 11'37 later. Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) edged out Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) for the fifth spot in the mountains sprint. Kohl still received 10 points. Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto), John-Lee Augustyn (Barloworld) and Fränk Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) were the remaining riders to get polka dot points.
Voeckler decided to keep going after taking out the mountain sprint from the peloton and pedaled ahead 45 seconds ahead of the bunch.
The weather over the top wasn't as bad as expected, and the descent was mostly dry, but on the lower part of the mountain the roads became suddenly wet and slick. Oscar Pereiro suffered a terrible crash just before a switchback turn to the right. He went over the guard rail and fell down onto the lower part of the road and was out of the race.
Voeckler found his way back to the bunch once the peloton, which had waited on the 2006 Tour winner after his crash, began to pick up the pace again. Once the bunch got rolling, the gap had gone out to 17 minutes with 70 kilometres to go.
Gerrans led the break over the sprint in Rossana, with 68.5 kilometres to go. Pate followed his wheel, with Arrieta getting the final points. Martínez received no points. The peloton passed the sprint line 17'10 minutes later.
With 50 kilometres to go the gap finally started to come down and was at a bit more than 14 minutes, but once again the peloton was stopped by a crash. This time a large portion of the peloton slid out on a roundabout. Included in the fall was maillot blanc Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and polka dot Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner). Maillot jaune Cadel Evans remained upright.
With just 31 kilometres to go, the mayhem had disrupted the chase enough to ensure that the four leaders, with a 14'40 gap, would stay ahead of the peloton at the finish in Prato Nevoso.
26 kilometres from the finish the break went over the Colle del Morte, a cat 3 climb. Arrieta accelerated. Martínez initially countered but then let the Arrieta go over the top first. Gerrans followed in third, with Pate hanging on the back. The peloton followed less than 13 minutes later.
On the final climb the action started front and back. Martínez put in several accelerations with eight kilometres to go. It did shell his compatriot Arrieta off the back. The Anglophones Gerrans and Pate bravely fought back and the trio continued to ride up the final climb, still with a good lead of almost ten minutes.
At the bottom of the climb the main bunch accelerated enough to quickly thin the group. When the group was only a good dozen, Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) attacked. But he was quickly brought back, with the group down to 10 riders. Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle - H30), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Carlos Sastre, Fränk Schleck and Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
Andy Schleck set an incredible pace at the front. Menchov was the first to attack. Andy Schleck went after him. Menchov was still leading when he slipped and fell in a left hand turn. The group passed him and waited for the Russian to return.
The trio in front started to play cat and mouse. The group of favourites did almost the same, some five minutes further down the slopes. Andy Schleck accelerated hard, taking Kreuziger with him. Menchov got back on, then Kohl countered. With Kreuziger dropping back, it was eventually Kohl, Menchov and Sastre who emerged at the front, with Evans having some trouble with the attacking and change of pace.
In the very front the trio entered the finishing straight, with Gerrans taking a convincing victory.
Valverde countered from the back, but neither Evans nor Fränk Schleck were too concerned. Valverde joined up with the Kohl, Menchov and Sastre less than two kilometres from the finish.
The Evans-led chase group passed the flamme rouge 35 seconds behind the quartet in front. The quartet reduced to a trio when Menchov lost contact 500 metres from the line. Fränk Schleck then sprinted away from Evans and took the yellow jersey.