Vande Velde and Menchov lose ground in yellow jersey battle
AG2R La Mondiale's Cyril Dessel became the second Frenchman to win a stage of this year's Tour on the 157 kilometre route from Cuneo to Jausiers. On a day which passed over two massive climbs including the 2,802m Bonnett-Restefond peak, Dessel was part of a large breakaway which shattered on the final climb and came to the line as a group of four on the long and technical descent. He out-sprinted Sandy Casar (FdJ) and David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) to take revenge for his narrow miss at a victory in 2006. Maillot jaune Fränk Schleck retained the jersey heading into tomorrow's stage to Alpe d'Huez.
For Dessel, positioning was everything in the tight finishing sprint. Arroyo was the first one to attack, trying to get himself in the best spot. But in a drag race on the short straight stretches between curves, Dessel shot past Arroyo, clearly having done his homework. "I knew that if I could take the last turn ahead of the others, I could win. In fact, when I came out of the last corner, I heard someone scream 'You have won!' But I didn't want to take my hands off the bars." The finish area was so tight that riders had to make an immediate right after the sprint.
Silence-Lotto's Yaroslav Popovych was fourth on the stage, and was part of a popular strategy by the teams interested in the overall classification. All the teams of the major contenders were represented in the break in order to provide a buffer for their leaders. But the fireworks which team CSC-Saxo Bank exploded on the Hautacam stage didn't go off today, and all the GC men except for Garmin-Chipotle's Christian Vande Velde were able to stay in contact with yellow jersey Fränk Schleck on the eye-popping altitude of the final climb.
The treacherous descent to the finish, however, was a different situation, and Menchov was hesitant on the tight bends and lost 35 seconds. Vande Velde, who topped the climb 30 seconds behind the yellow jersey group, crashed on the descent and lost 2'36".
Schleck was relieved to have defended the yellow jersey, in particular on the dangerous descent which stirred up memories of his crash at the Tour de Suisse. "The last down down hill was very tricky and I had a lot of flash backs – of Pereiro and of my crash in Suisse where I flipped over the guardrail.
"At the Tour presentation in Brittany, Bernard Hinault told me some tricks and those seemed to have worked," Schleck admitted. "I am happy I was able to get some time on Menchov. The most important thing is that we win in Paris with the team – if it is me or Carlos Sastre."
CSC-Saxo Bank took control of the group of favourites once again with Andy Schleck setting a blistering pace up the final climb of the day to whittle down the group of favourites to ten riders. One of the victims was Vincenzo Nibali, who lost his lead in the young rider classification. "Andy Schleck was firing today and he also showed it two days ago." Andy Schleck on the other hand was pleased to take the lead in the under-25 competition. "It's great. I am very content. If I still have it tomorrow, I hope I can keep it."
Andy's brother Fränk was equally upbeat about the day's outcome. "Having two jerseys in the same team and in fact in the same family is great." He kept on joking. "Maybe tomorrow we will change the jerseys, to confuse everyone."
The huge climb of the Bonette put Garmin-Chipotle's Vande Velde in a bit of trouble, but with the help of his team-mate he had ridden well to limit his losses on the climb. Disaster struck on the way down, however. "On the final climb I was in difficulty. I had a lot of help from Ryder [Hesjedal] – he did an amazing job. We were really close, I was only 35 seconds behind. Then, on the way down, I crashed along with the Cofidis guy. We completely lost our rhythm and it took us a while to get going again. ... Anything can happen tomorrow. It is not over by any means." The mishap dropped Vande Velde to sixth overall, 3'15 behind Fränk Schleck.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) also had trouble with the fast and furious downhill. Riding conservatively, he got dropped from the group and tried to bridge back up with Columbia's Kim Kirchen and Lampre's Sylvester Szmyd. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), who had been tailed off at the top, passed Menchov and managed to catch the group of the yellow jersey with a bit of white-knuckle free-falling. Menchov was joined by Kirchen and Szmyd but could never quite close down the gap to the group of Schleck.
Gerolsteiner had a good day, even if stage victory eluded them. Schumacher entered the breakaway in defence of his team-mate Bernhard Kohl's overall position, and nearly soloed to victory. After riding for 70 kilometres alone in front of the chasing group, he was caught with six kilometres to the top of the final climb.
"I tried, but it just wasn't enough. On the climb, I couldn't hold the pace anymore. There was a lot of headwind on the final climb, too, so it was hard being on my own. And it was very long." Schumacher did win the most aggressive rider award of the day. "It's nice to be most combative rider. I never received the red number so I'll be proud to stick it on my jersey tomorrow."
Kohl was thankful for how the day turned out. "For us, the situation was perfect. Schumacher was in the big escape of the day, and I stayed with Sastre and Schleck. We took three minutes out of Vande Velde and 30 seconds out of Menchov. It was a really good performance."
Kohl still has a solid lead in the mountains classification, 25 points ahead of his team-mate Sebastian Lang and 30 ahead of Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom). Kohl was already thinking about the next day. "Now, I am happy about my GC placing and about my polka dot jersey. Nobody was able to take that away from me today, and I'll be very honoured to wear it tomorrow on the stage to L'Alpe d'Huez."
A surprise rider in the final four was Yaroslav Popovych. The team-mate of Evans was expected to stay with his leader. Instead, Popovych had the green light to go for the stage win. The Ukrainian came up short in the end, but was happy with the race. "It was good because I made the escape. I covered the break to give the team something and also to try to race a little for myself. If something dangerous would have happened to Evans, certainly, I would have waited." With Popovych in the big break of the day that pedaled at times more than five minutes ahead of the peloton, such a move could have been costly in a mountain stage.
No rider demonstrated the danger of the descent of the Bonette more than Barloworld's John-Lee Augustyn. The South African was the first over the top, but early on the long downhill was trying to match the acceleration of riders who had caught up and misjudged a bend. He rode up and over an earthen embankment and slid down the loose rocky pitch for several metres. He was unhurt, but had to wait for a spare bike and lost all chances of a potential stage victory.
At the end of the stage, the top six was only slightly different than at the start. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle - H30) dropped one place each, while CSC's Carlos Sastre moved up into fourth. Fränk Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) continues to lead the race with his slim margin of seven seconds over Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and eight seconds over Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto).
How it unfolded
153 riders took the start at 12:32 under sunny skies. Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) was the first to attack, of course, but he was quickly brought back. Chavanel was again in a group when the first sprint in Vignolo was hit after 20.5 kilometres. The Frenchman took the points ahead of George Hincapie (Columbia) and Bram Tankink (Rabobank).
Chavanel resisted for a while, but was then taken back into the wings of the peloton. His team-mate David Moncoutié was the next to go, at kilometre 26. 15 minutes later it was over for him, too.
Then Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole), Sébastien Rosseler (Quick Step), Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) went off the front. In the first hour of racing the peloton covered 49 km/h.
A large group of 24 riders was on the attack behind. There were some interesting names in there. Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto), Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Jens Voigt (CSC-Saxo Bank), Haimar Zubeldia and Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Arroyo, Iván Gutiérrez and Nicolas Portal (Caisse d'Epargne), Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Columbia), John-Lee Augustyn and Giampaolo Cheula (Barloworld), Murilo Fischer (Liquigas), Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre), Cyril Dessel (AG2R La Mondiale), Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel), Juan Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Danny Pate (Garmin Chipotle - H30)
At the second sprint in Vinadio, after 50 kilometres Dumoulin preceded Schumacher and Le Mével. The chase group was 1'40 behind, the peloton 4'25.
With the climb of the Col de la Lombarde starting there was a flurry of activity. Notably Voeckler and Schumacher accelerated out of the front group. Schumacher then continued by himself, with almost 60 kilometres covered.
Behind, Damiano Cunego and Sylvester Szmyd (Lampre), Tadej Valjavec (AG2R La Mondiale), Maxime Monfort (Cofidis) and Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) shot out of the peloton. They were quickly joined by Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Matteo Carrara (Quick Step), Rémi Pauriol (Crédit Agricole) and David Moncoutié (Cofidis) to take up the chase.
Burghardt and Freire on the other hand were dropped out of the front group.
Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), who barely made the time cut yesterday, had to abandon. He was suffering from stomach trouble.
Five kilometres from the top of the col de la Lombarde, Schumacher had 1'40 on his first chaser, Le Mevel. The Dessel-Zubeldia-Chavanel group was 4'15 back and the Cunego group a further minute behind.
Schumacher kept a steady pace and was the first back in to France. The border was marked by the top of the Col de la Lombarde. Le Mevel followed around two minutes later. Voeckler followed at 3'35, with the first chase group at 4'35. The remaining points were taken by Popovych, Siutsou, Voigt, Dessel, Augustyn, Rosseler and Gutierrez. The CSC-led bunch was down 9'25.
On the descent the Cunego group made junction with the other large group, making it a solid 30 riders strong. Le Mevel attempted to reach Schumacher by himself. He came within two minutes before losing ground.
When the peloton was almost done with the descent, Arnaud Coyot (Caisse d'Epargne) slid out and and a rough fall onto a dirt parking lot. He created a lot of dust, but after a bit of treatment continued with a new bike.
In Isola, Schumacher was the first to hit the feed zone. He got there five minutes before the chase group. With 45 kilometres remaining, Le Mevel was finally caught on the lower slopes of the Bonette. The leaders had its maximum gap of 12 minutes, and the peloton started to pick up the pace again, the gap now quickly diminishing.
The pace increased with the first vertical metres of the climb. Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) set the pace initially, but soon was replaced again by CSC. Cancellara hit the front and did his work before dropping back. The acceleration brought the gap to 10 minutes within only a couple of kilometres.
What was worse for Schumacher was the fact that the chase group was within three minutes and there were still 16 kilometres to the top of the climb. From the yellow jersey group, sprinters like Hushovd, Freire and Zabel said good-bye to the peloton. The latter was shrinking with every switchback.
With 14 kilometres to the top, the gap was still two and a half minutes to the chasers for Schumacher. He did lose ground to the bunch, only eight and a half minutes behind.
Cunego was the next one to have trouble. He couldn't answer an acceleration by the Valjavec. Further back white jersey Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) also had trouble following the rhythm.
The yellow jersey group was down to 10 riders. Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Fränk Schleck, Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Kim Kirchen (Columbia) and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Notably missing was Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle - H30), who was some 30 seconds back.
Arvesen dropped back after having done his work for CSC.
Schumacher kept losing ground and was caught less than four kilometres from the summit. Popovych, Arroyo, Portal, Hincapie, Siutsou, Augustyn, Valjavec, Schumacher, Dessel and Casar were heading the charge now. Voigt was dropping back and briefly offering his services for CSC, before riding his own pace to finish the race.
In the front group, Augustyn accelerated to be the first over the top of the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond. Popovych, Arroyo, Dessel and Casar followed closely. Augustyn then overshot a sharp right hand bend and crashed spectacularly. He was able to continue, but the race for the stage win was over.
Valverde and Kirchen had trouble following the others near the summit.
Valverde was able to get across on the descent, but Kirchen didn't manage. He found himself with Menchov, who also wasn't fast enough going down, and Szmyd, who was in the break earlier and started to get passed by others.
The four leaders stayed away, setting it up for an exciting finish. Behind Menchov and Vande Velde lost some valuable time, with Fränk Schleck conserving his slim lead.
Stage 17 - Wednesday, July 23: Embrun - L'Alpe d'Huez, 210.5km
This is the stage that all climbers want to win. Those mythical 21 hairpin bends have become synonymous with the Tour de France and a year without the Alpe seems somehow to have something missing. This is a long stage that takes in the familiar but no less brutal Cols du Galibier and Croix de Fer, although as a change they are tackled in a different order from usual.
In all likelihood, the main contenders will sit behind their team-mates for as long as possible and look to make their move on the final steep climb to Alpe d'Huez. The non super-climbers high up in the overall will be looking to hold on for as long as possible. For the sprinters however, this will be a day of pure suffering.
The small town of Embrun must think all of its Christmases have come at once as this is their second stage of the Tour this year (they have been awarded the start of stage 15 due to rock falls in the Alps forcing a course change.) Alpe d'Huez on the other hand has hosted the Tour 25 times since that first time in 1952 when Fausto Coppi won, this equates to almost every other year.
Last time the Tour finished here, in 2006, it saw the emergence of Fränk Schleck (CSC), now wearing yellow, as he dropped riders like former Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre) on the way to victory.