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Hello and welcome back to the toughest bike race on earth. Today's stage 12 from Bourg-de-Péage to Mende has a few medium mountain climbs on the menu before finishing on the Montée Laurent Jalabert in Mende. This profile looks like anything could happen, so fasten your seat belts!
The riders have gathered in the start area of the old town of Bourg-de-Péage on the Isère river. They'll head out on a 7km-stroll in direction of Valence before the flag will be waved down by Race Director Christian Prudhomme.
Another hot day for the Tour peloton begins. Today, the riders will cover 210 kilometres across the outskirts of the Central mountain range of France, crossing the country southwestwards from the Rhone valley to Mende. It will be an exciting stage for sure, as the profile looks inviting to all sorts of attackers. Let's see what they have in mind for today.
Today's climbs are the following:
km 31.0 - Côte de Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain - 10.7 km climb at 3.1 % - Cat. 3
km 59.0 - Col des Nonières - 5.7 km climb at 3.8 % - Cat. 3
km 96.0 - Suc de Montivernoux - 13.7 km climb at 4.4 % - Cat. 2
km 133.0 - Côte de la Mouline - 3.9 km climb at 5 % - Cat. 3
km 208.5 - Côte de la Croix-Neuve (Montée Laurent Jalabert) - 3.1 km climb at 10.1 % - Cat. 2
Plenty of KOM points up for grabs for Jérôme Pineau (Quickstep), who leads the classification by a mere 2 points over Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom)!
The day could also see Thor Hushovd (Cervélo) going out for more intermediate sprint points to re-claim his green jersey from Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre). There are two sprints on the menu, one in Mariac (74.5 km), and another one in Langogne (158.5 km).
The Tour has lost another rider this morning: Samuel Dumoulin of Cofidis has decided to abandon the race as a result of his injuries from the first week, and accumulated fatigue. The Frenchman will be happy to return home to his family; he has a newborn baby with his wife Magali Lavenu, daughter of AG2R manager Vincent Lavenu.
Enough unnecessary trivia, back to the race: they're off! Fabian Wegmann (Milram) has triggered a reaction by the bunch as he jumped away. Look out for Ardennes Classics riders on this stage, it's their territory!
Lars Boom (Rabobank) is next to try. He's reeled in at km 3.5.
The first 17 kilometres of the stage look flattish, before the Cat.3 Côte de Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain begins. They might have to wait until there to launch a proper attack...
They're racing hard, not letting anyone get away. This might be a fast stage - many riders will want a go and even the GC contenders could battle it out on the final climb to the Mende aerodrome.
Alberto Contador (Astana) has already won twice on today's last climb. Both times, it was during Paris-Nice, once in 2007 and once this year, when he distanced Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel).
It's a short, but very steep hill, 3.1 kilometres at 10.1 percent average gradient.
The bunch is still driving it hard as the first climb of the day begins.
Ouch! This climb already makes a lot of guys suffer, including Lance Armstrong (Radio Shack), who has fallen out the back...
Armstrong is with teammate Andreas Klöden, Alessadro Petacchi (Lampre) and Robbie McEwen (Katusha).
OK, we have a breakaway trio with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), Rui Costa (Caisse) and Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues). They have about 22 seconds over the bunch now as they approach the summit of the Cat. 3 climb.
Pineau has crashed back in the bunch! The Quickstep rider went down together with Geraint Thomas (Sky).
But both riders have jumped on their bikes again and contniued the race.
The leading trio is still out there, but their advantage has shrunk to 15 seconds. Hesjedal will not be given the go to really get away, he is 12th overall at 5'42" off race leader Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank).
Hesjedal knows this. He sat up and is waiting for the bunch to catch him. Two riders still in the lead with Fédrigo and Costa.
Wow. Radioshack are driving the bunch now and have just caught the two escapees. First, Armstrong and Klöden fall back on the climb, and now they have taken over control of the race!
They are on a false flat descent now, approaching the next Cat. 3 climb Col des Nonières, a 5.7 km ascent averaging 3.8 percent.
Ah, we have a new break. Three riders again: Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Benoit Vaugrenard (FDJ). Chavanel started the move - how come this doesn't surprise us?
They have 12 seconds.
Chavanel literally can't get no satisfaction at this Tour. He's already won two stages and worn the yellow jersey for two days.
This is also the right territory for Cunego. The 'Piccolo Principe' is still looking for a stage win at the Tour, after winning the white jersey of best young rider in 2006.
The bunch are on the second climb now, the Col des Nonières. The first hour of racing was super fast, as 49.3 kilometres were covered even though the region is really undulating.
We awaited confirmation to tell you - the trio was caught at the foot of the climb. What a hard-raced stage!
Sorry about not being able to update there - the CN blimb had a mechanical!
The riders have passed the summit of the climb now, aon their way to the next one. We have an 18-rider group off the front, including Vinokourov and Charteau. They have one minute over the bunch. Let's sort out their names.
Here is our rider list:
A. Vinokourov, A. Klöden, R. Hesjedal, S. Casar, T. Hushovd, M. Aerts, K. Sivtsov, M. Santambrogio, C. Barredo, V. Kiryienka, A. Charteau, M. Perget, C. Kern, A. Moinard, R. Pauriol, G. Verdugo, G. Bole, R. Valls Ferri
Quite an interesting group. They have 1'45" after the first intermediate sprint of the stage, where Lampre's Grega Bole took maximum points over Hushovd. Points leader Petacchi and Hushovd are thus even now, both having 61 points on their accounts.
The group is riding well and increases its advantage to 2'15".
Let's see if Pineau's team-mate Barredo will battle it out with Charteau on the next climb. Polkadot jersey wearer Pineau didn't make this group but Barredo could see to it that Charteau doesn't score too many points...
They are half way up the Cat. 2 climb of Suc de Montivernoux now. We'll see how this break will develop. Definitely there are many team srepresented but the bunch won't let it take too much time - riders like Hesjedal, Vinokourov or Klöden are just too high-profile to be given too much of a lead.
Cofidis is well-represented with three riders in the break. Maybe the young French riders can capitalise on that.
38.2 kilometres were covered during the second half of the stage. That's an average speed of 43.8 km/h since the stage start.
The final climb up the Montée Laurent Jalabert in Mende is perfectly suited for short, explosive efforts for climbers such as Contador, Schleck, Joaquin Rodriguez or Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez. Astana manager Yvon Sanquer said that Sanchez "moreover needs to gain some time on a climb like this one," - so don't be surprised to see the Euskaltel rider on the front of the bunch in a few hours time.
The gap is stable around 2'15" in the 13.7km-climb. At the top, the riders will grab their food bags to re-charge their batteries.
Vinokourov has already won at the aerodrome of Mende 11 years ago, in 1999 at the GP du Midi Libre. Will he repeat his feat here today? It's interesting that he has been given the green light to ride a stage for himself instead of continuing his support of Contador. Goes to show how much influence the Kazakh still has in his Astana team...
They're on top of the climb now. Casar took the points in front of Charteau, with Barredo third. Casar might still have a plan for the KOM jersey at this race, with the Pyrenees still coming up.
Charteau has thus re-conquered the plokadot jersey from Pineau, who crashed early in the stage and didn't make the breakaway.
Saxo Bank are driving the bunch at around two minutes from the escape. That'll be a lot of work for them throughout the stage.
The crowds have flocked atop the climb - so have the cows!
The landscape around this region is quite spectacular, with steep rocky peaks in the middle of the hills. The riders are now munching away their rice cakes and energy gels.
Will Klöden be able to follow Vinokourov if the Kazakh gears up in Mende later on? We can't see it happening, bearing in mind the recent performances of the German. 'Vino' looks very strong here today.
They are riding through a forest now - a bit of shade and a cool breeze would make everybody happy, no doubt! Tempreatures are again in their thirties today, the sun relentless.
Kanstantsin Siutsou from HTC got some medical assistance at the race doctor's car and now gets back on.
Andy Schleck is having a well-known black-coloured soda drink, banned in other teams for its high acidity... If it helps!
Saxo Bank is in a hurry, the bunch is strung out on a descent. The gap is 1'51".
Of course, having Klöden and Vinokourov in the break means that Saxo Bank will have to do all the chasing by itself.
Only a few more kilometres before the break reaches the start of the fourth climb of today. They are on a rolling descent through the woods right now.
The riders and followers of the Tour de France are still in shock over the exclusion of Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) yesterday. The Australian was accused of irregular sprinting and head-butting Julian Dean of Garmin-Transitions. It was a controversial decision, a little too heavy for many observers.
The riders are crossing a bridge over the river Loire. The water is absolutely still, there is no wind at all today...
Lampre has engaged in the chase together with Saxo Bank. They want to catch the escape before the intermediate sprint of Lagogne with 58 kilometres to go to protect Petacchi's green jersey. We'll see if they succeed.
There are a few riders celebrating their birthdays today, by the way. Stefano Garzelli turns 37 today, André Greipel 28 - and Miguel Indurain 48! Happy birthday from here!
The break has passed the Cat 3 La Mouline climb. Charteau took the points in front of Casar and Barredo, but the Frenchman was really suffering to do so. We wonder if he's going to be up front still on the last ascent in Mende, especially since there are still a few climbs on the road prior to that - even if they are not counting for KOM points.
Instead of shrinking, the gap has actually increased since Lampre joined Saxo Bank at the front of the bunch... It is now 2'40".
In 20 kilometres, we'll have the second intermediate sprint.
French farmers are continuing their artwork on this Tour de France, with this year's theme being the hexagonal shape of France outlined in the fields. We were just able to spot another beautiful "Hexagone" down there.
The break's advantage is still 2'10" with the group doing a great job. Saxo Bank has help of Danilo Hondo of Lampre but it seems unlikely thatt the bunch will catch the escape any time soon. Perhaps for the final climb in Mende...
Now it's Cancellara again at the front of the bunch. Ah, it works! The bunch is strung out now that Spartacus puts on his motor...
The black parts of the jersey of Footon's Valls Ferri show lots of white transpiration marks, the riders are losing plenty minerals in the heat.
Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé has just reported from the aerodrome in Mende, where we'll land our blimp later on once the crowds have gone home.
"There are a lot of people already on the Montée Jalabert," he said. "It's really a steep nasty climb. A good position at the foot will be all important because if you're too far back and the pace is set in front you'll have a hard time to move up - especially if you have a mechanical. There's also a short drop towards the runway which is quite steep."
We're at the sprint. This time, Hushovd gets the points in front of Bole, who started his sprint too soon. Hushovd is pleased with himself.
The riders pass the artificial lake of Laussac. No time for a swim, but the water sure looks inviting!!
And the Tuhdergod Thor sits up, job done for today. It's 167 points for him, so he takes the green jersey back from Petacchi.
Vinokourov tries to make a selection in the break. Hesjedal, Kiryienka and Klöden can follow him, but the others are dropped.
Casar missed the move. He must feel bummed.
It's quite uphill again here after the sprint, even though the climb doesn't count for the KOM classification. The remainder of the break splits up.
The gap to the front is growing. Maybe Bjarne Riis is thinking about leaving the race lead to Garmin to protect his riders from too much efforts in the coming days? 3'30" is the gap now.
Casar is fighting to make it back on, inciting the others not to give up.
The Hesjedal group has 35 seconds over its chasers, led by Casar.
The Canadian is 5'42" back from Schleck on GC, Vinokourov 6'31".
Ah: Liquigas and Cervélo are now lending a leg in the chase to protect their leader's places. This will help Saxo Bank.
The group around Casar is trying hard but the others seem stronger.
Brett Lancaster is leading the bunch out, with Cancellara on his wheel.
In front, Hesjedal is suffering but follows the pace cranked out by Vinokourov. Kiryienka still looks really good even after this long breakaway.
Klöden has now been asked to take a turn in front. The gap to the peloton is stable at 3'40" right now, but we are still waiting to know the gap between the leaders and the chase group.
The gap between the four leaders and their chasers hasn't changed, it is still about 35 seconds. If they can keep up their pace then they should be able to defend their lead until the finish against the peloton.
But we still expect fireworks also back in the bunch as someone like Samuel Sanchez will surely want to make up some time on GC today.
Vino's Specialized bike kas golden Kazakh motives all over it; what a distinguished sight.
They ride as hard as they can towards Mende, preparing for that final climb that got its name after the famous French climber Laurent Jalabert, who won here on July 14, 1995.
The gap is down to 2'50 for the escape, so no yellow jersey for Hesjedal today if everything goes to plan. The four of them will battle it out for the victory in all likelihood, as the last climb is just 3.1 kilometres long - not long enough for Contador et al. to come back.
Klöden grabs a bottle from his team car in a descent around a corner. Not an easy task.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) is cooked at the back of the bunch. He'll be glad to reach the finish today.
It's confirmed: Tyler Farrar has just abandoned the Tour de France. Too bad for him.
The leaders pass under the 15km to go banner. Cervélo is working hard in front of the bunch to bring the gap down, it's now 1'45". Perhaps they're hoping that Carlos Sastre can make up some time, or maybe Hushovd is looking to take more points in the finish?
It's pretty open roads in the downhill run to Mende and the gap is coming down. It'll be a tight finish if the climbers go full gas on the last climb. 1'20" now.
The chase group in between is 33 seconds adrift. They'll be caught.
Yellow jersey wearer Andy Schleck is near the front of the bunch, while Vinokourov is taking another turn in the lead, clearly wanting this stage victory badly. The Kazakh wants to come back to fomer Tour de France glory...
Contador is on Schleck's wheel, as the gap drops to under a minute. The overall favourites and climbers have all moved up. The tension is on.
The remainder of the break is caught.
The Vinokourov group is still out there, though. They are starting to climb. Here we go for the 10 percent climb...
Hesjedal is dropped, he's cooked right way.
Klöden also lets go of Kiryienka and Vinokouorv. We can see Petacchi as one of the first riders of the bunch to hit the climb. What does he think?
AG2R's John Gadret gives it a dig out of the bunch.
Kiryienka leads Vinokourov off the front.
Armstrong is out the back.
The GC favourites mark each other, noa attacks there. Gadret can't hold his tempo and the bunch moves up on him again.
Vinokourov attacks! Kiryienka drops back a bit. The Kazakh is going for it, suffering like he's able to.
Wiggins hangs on Sastre's wheel, but loses it. This climb is naasty.
Contador and Schleck look to par. No attack though from anyone in the GC group.
Ah - there goes Katusha's Rodriguez!
Contador chases him up, and Schleck has trouble following. Contador pushes through. Schleck cannot respond!
Contador bridges up to Vinojkourov. Ah, the Kazakh won't like that. Contador gives it everything now. The gap is getting bigger.
But Contador has Rodriguez in tow. They're on the flat part to the finish now. If Rodriguez takes it, Astana has really lost out!
Rodriguez sucks Contador's wheel. The Katusha rider waits. He comes round... and takes the victory!
Only ten seconds or so gained on Schleck for Contador. Does that match a stage win for the Kazakh? Uh - seems likely to us in the blimp that Vinokourov won't be very happy about his teammates' tactics. As they say, sh** happens!
Armstrong gets in at 3'35" and immediately turns around, back to the bus.
Thanks for having joined us again today. Look out for full results, report and pics coming up soon on Cyclingnews, and we hope to entertain you again tomorrow for stage 13 from Rodez to Revel, where a breakaway will certainly try to hold off the bunch again.