Kirchen holds yellow; Cunego in red after crash
Spaniard Luis León Sánchez dominated the final descent into Aurillac after an undulating stage through the Massif Central to win ahead of an elite group of riders containing yellow jersey Kim Kirchen and former leader Stefan Schumacher. Notably absent from this group was Italian Damiano Cunego, who suffered a crash earlier in the stage and further damage to his overall challenge.
"I had my chance today, but I am working for Valverde and the real goal is to take the jersey in Paris," said Sánchez after his victory in the Cantal département of southwestern France.
Sánchez, who spends most of his time working for Caisse d'Epargne leader Alejandro Valverde, made the most of his freedom to join the final escape of David De La Fuente, Josep Jufré (both Saunier Duval-Scott) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas).
He made contact with De La Fuente over the top of the final climb of Saint-Jean-de-Donne and with 4.5 kilometres of descending and another 4.5 kilometres of flat to Aurillac, Sánchez took matters into his own hands.
"I have really learnt a lot in this team, I am only 24, I hope that in three or four years I can fight for the race overall," he added.
Sánchez was solo for the final four kilometres in a move similar to his two stage wins in Paris-Nice. He won with arms pointing to the sky and had six seconds in hand over Schumacher, Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas) and Kirchen. The latter continues to hold the race lead over Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) by six seconds.
The day in the Massif Central, despite only 159 kilometres in length, was marked by heavy winds and mayhem. The race splintered from the gun under numerous attacks on undulating roads. This made the going tough for Cunego, Lampre's earmarked rider for the overall classification, when he was caught out following a crash at kilometre 60.
Cunego was still on the ground as CSC-Saxo Bank were thundering along at the head of the peloton. A dramatic chase-back by his Lampre team worked, but his legs were weakened to the point that he was gapped on the final climb of Saint-Jean-de-Donne. He finished in a large group some 33 seconds down on the winner.
"I crashed and everything was compromised," Cunego said, disappointed with his day. "I remained behind, chasing. We were able to catch up thanks to the last ditch effort by my team-mates. I have to give a big thanks to them. We caught up but I suffered a lot."
The classification favourites were also put on the rivet in what was expected to be part of two easier transitional stages leading to Monday's high-mountain finish at Hautacam. Team CSC-Saxo Bank rose to the top for its captains - Fränk and Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre - over the windy stage with five categorised climbs.
Although the race for the most part came back together by Aurillac, there were classification men who missed out - namely Cunego, but also Manuel Beltrán (Liquigas) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Briton's David Millar (Garmin Chipotle - H30), who was once within reach of the maillot jaune, also fell a further 27 seconds behind the leaders.
The seventh stage also saw the first mass time cut of riders; Millar's team-mate Magnus Backstedt, Mauro Facci (Quick Step), John Gadret (AG2R La Mondiale), Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) and Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux) will all not be allowed to start tomorrow's stage from Figeac.
"It was a hard day. I think it was the hardest stage so far," said Luxemburger Andy Schleck. Team-mate Jens Voigt added: "We had a cross-wind section, we managed to split it up. It looked promising for a moment, but we did not have the people there to help us. Even having the strongest team in the race is not good enough."
"The whole day, it was crazy," said former race leader Stefan Schumacher. The German attempted to get clear in the finale. "I tried it in the end. I got second. It was nice to win a stage but today I tried to attack for the jersey."
"It was a hard stage - very hard," added Pozzato. "We went all out from the first to the last kilometre."
A consolation for Spaniard De La Fuente, the most aggressive rider of the 2006 Tour de France, is that he moved into the lead of the mountains competition. Topping the final climb first helped him move into the maillot blanc à pois rouges by one point over Frenchmen Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) and Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom).
How it unfolded
The day began with temperatures around 25° Celsius in Brioude. 176 riders took the start of the 7th stage with the départ réel at 1:17pm. There were no overnight abandons.
French darling Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) and US hope William Frischkorn (Garmin Chipotle - H30) attacked right from the gun, but were reeled at kilometre four. Aggressive racing continued with further breakaway attempts, all of which were quickly marked.
On the Cat. 3 Côte de Fraisse (km 11), David Millar (Garmin Chipotle - H30) was first to take the points, followed by Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux), David Moncoutié (Cofidis) and Bram Tankink (Rabobank). Over the top the attacks continued. Quinziato (Liquigas), Arrieta (AG2R), Pineau (Bouygues), Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Gerard (Francaise des Jeux) - attacked at the 22km mark but never got to over 30 seconds ahead of the peloton before being caught at the 32km mark.
The first sprint in St. Flour (km 46.5) was won by Robert Hunter (Barloworld), ahead of Murilo Fischer (Liquigas) and Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole). With a bit of rain coming down, the bunch approached the second KOM climb of the day, the Cat. 4 Côte de Villedieu (km 52). On the ascent, six riders managed to get a 20 second gap: David Millar (Garmin Chipotle - H30), Jens Voigt (CSC-Saxo Bank), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom), Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) and Benoit Vaugrenard (Francaise des Jeux).
A few kilometres later, Lilian Jégou (Francaise des Jeux) crashed into a tree and had to abandon because of a broken wrist, and another crash took down Damiano Cunego (Lampre) at kilometre 61, splitting the bunch into several groups. As Millar was still in front, the pace was high in the first group, led by CSC riders.
But the break of Millar would not last, as he began the move with a slow leak in one of his tyres. ""I had a flat when I was in the break with Jens Voigt," Millar said. "Fortuantely it took 15km to deflate."
As the break was reeled in the bunch was still split up, with Cunego in the second group being helped by strong man Marzio Bruseghin, but a third group behind was losing even more time.
The first group, led by CSC and Caisse d'Epargne riders, gave it full gas. leading the chasers by 30 seconds. The group included: Evans, Cioni, Sastre, Cancellara, Gustov, Schleck, Schleck, Voigt, Valverde, Pereiro, Sanchez, Kirchen, Lövkvist, Pozzato, Kreuziger, Nibali, Kohl, Valjavec, Menchov, Freire, Cobo, Ricco, Vaugrenard, Vande Velde and Millar.
Luis Leon Sanchez launched a solo attack at km 68, but didn't last long under the pressure of CSC' Voigt and Cancellara, who distanced the chase group more and more. 40 seconds mid-race, with 80 kilometres to go.
At the sprint in Paulhac (km 74), Oscar Freire (Rabobank) took the points ahead of Kim Kirchen (Columbia).
With the race full-on, the riders in front didn't even slow as passed through the feed zone at km 85.5. and many missed out on their lunches. Damiano Cunego (Lampre), George Hincapie (Columbia) and Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) were amongst others were in the second group, desperately trying to come back, with Cunego doing a lot of the work himself. But Lampre also received some help from Quick Step, and the gap came down to 20 seconds at the feed zone.
They finally made it with 66 kilometres to the line, just before tackling the Cat. 2 Col d'Entremont. There was an immediate counter from Josep Jufré (Saunier Duval-Scott) and Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne), again. The two got a gap, and some company when Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott) went after them.
Team Columbia in the front of the bunch let the four-men escape have their way. The leaders had a 37 seconds-gap with 2.5 kilometres to go to the summit of the mountain.
De La Fuente passed ahead of Jufré, Sánchez and Nibali over the top to score some more KOM points, which would later give him the polka dot jersey. The bunch crested the summit 1'15 minutes behind, with Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole) trying to bridge over to the break, but he never succeeded.
Halfway into the climb, two more riders quit the Tour: Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) and John Gadret (AG2R).
The next climb, the Cat. 2 Pas de Puy Mary (km117) was less hectic. The breakaway had two minutes over the bunch, with Le Mevel still hanging in there doing a chasse-patate. As he was caught, Eukaltel-Euskadi's Mikel Astarloza also tried to bridge up with four kilometres to the summit, but suffered a similar fate than the Frenchman later on.
On a foggy mountaintop, De La Fuente scored another 10 points for the KOM jersey. On the descent, the Spaniard got scared and dropped a bit off the back. But he managed to stick with his breakaway companions nonetheless, catching up with them with 29 km to go.
20 kilometres to the line, Astarloza was caught by the bunch, which started putting some pressure on as it was still over one minute behind the leaders.
The Cat. 3 Côte de Saint-Jean-de-Donne (km 150) was the last climb of the day. De La Fuente was eager to get to the top first, as this would give him the polka dot jersey. He did so, saving a small margin ahead of the chasing bunch, out of which Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) attacked. But he was marked by Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) and did not get far.
In the descent towards Aurillac, De La Fuente continued his efforts, with the former breakaway riders all being caught. he sat up with 7.5 kilometres to go, seeing it was no use.
The climb had split the field, however, but the overall favourites were all together in the first group. Four kilometres to the line, the winning move went with Sanchez opening up a 20 seconds-gap. A reward for all of today's efforts, the Spaniard could hold his advantage all the way and saluted the heavens as he crossed the line. Yellow jersey Kim Kirchen (Columbia) crossed the finish in fourth position, securing his overall lead.