Survival of the fittest: A new world order

Is Hincapie Discovery's future Tour contender?

The most anticipated stage of the 2005 Tour went better than anticipated and beyond expectation, as the best riders in this year's race went mano-a-mano until the two strongest prevailed - but what one also saw was a surprise winner and a possible successor to Lance Armstrong's throne within Discovery Channel, as 32 year-old Classics man turned mountain man George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) deservedly won the finest victory of his career.

"I kind of decided on my own to go on my own in one of these breaks, get a gap, and be there when Lance needed me," said Hincapie on his earlier motives. "But we ended up getting 18 minutes and once Johan saw that, he said: 'Listen George, you're probably not going to come back here now, you can do your own race.' From then on, I started thinking about the win and thinking it was possible, and for it to work out is a dream come true."

When Lance Armstrong was interviewed after the stage, the maillot jaune was only too happy for his teammate and best friend, and even went as far as saying he could be Discovery's man for next year's Tour de France.

"I'm trying to deal with one thing right now - I just won the biggest race of my life!" smiled a bemused Hincapie. "Let me think about this and other stuff later. You know, I've been working for Lance a long time, and for him to say stuff like that is pretty amazing; if they want to give me a shot, I'll do what I can."

The only other rider from the original 14-man breakaway to match the American all-star from Greenville, South Carolina, was Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (Phonak), who was also the best-placed GC rider in 24th position at the start of the day. As a consequence of his second-place finish, the 27 year-old moved inside the top 20 on GC and took the day's combativitié prize, but for Pereiro, it was small consolation for doing the lions's share of the work, only to be outsprinted with 300 metres to go.

Said a rather pissed Pereiro at the finish line: "I asked him [Hincapie] to work, as we had to collaborate to battle it out in a sprint - but he didn't. Sometimes it's not the strongest that wins. I think I showed I was one the guys that wanted this stage the most. I thought there was victory in it for me, but that's life... I'll continue trying and one day I hope to be rewarded. Now, I'll continue to help Floyd [Landis] get on the podium."

Back in the peloton, it was predictably a race of attrition. Not too far into the final climb, just Ivan Basso (CSC) and Armstrong were left, while Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) was left floundering in a similar position to what we've seen in years past, losing precious seconds as the kilometres ticked downwards and the road veered upwards. At the line, there was no sprint for sixth, as the 27 year-old Italian and six-time Tour winner rolled across five minutes and four seconds behind Hincapie, silently acknowledging each other's strength.

"It is a great day for the team," said Armstrong, overjoyed at his teammate's success and looking ever-surer of a seventh Tour victory exactly one week from now.

"It is an ideal situation to have a teammate in the break who didn't have to work and to have three or four guys with me. It was perfect; I could wait until the final climb to ride with Ivan, but also to take time out of Jan. But it wasn't easy being on Ivan's wheel; he was very strong today."

Ninth placed Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), who was unable to respond to an early, though hardly difficult acceleration from Basso on the Pla d'Adet, did what he always does, containing his losses as best as he could, but today his best was still one and a half minutes behind Armstrong. While the powerful German retained his fourth place overall, his [time] deficit on GC is far too large to see him wearing yellow, and will have his work cut out for him just to make the podium come Paris.

While Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) isn't at the top level he was throughout the second week of the race, the lanky Dane isn't faltering, either. Today, the 31 year-old former world MTB champion dug deep to finish a mere four seconds behind Ullrich and only lose one place on the overall to Basso - and with just 23 seconds between them, the Italian should be wary if Chicken decides to fly the coop once more.

"I wanted to stay in the race for the podium, but at first, it was a matter of controlling at not letting any dangerous people get away as far as the [mountains] jersey goes," Rasmussen said after the stage. "It's almost practically impossible that I lose the jersey right now, so yes, I can focus 100 percent on the podium. I'm very happy with the way things are going."

Ullrich's teammate Alexandre Vinokourov, who rarely fails to attack but never quite cracks, rode the stage the only way he knows how - by attacking, of course! Vino may have given up hopes of a podium finish, but winning a stage? Never! "You know, I always attack, it's in my head, that's how I am," said the hard-headed though likeable Kamikaze Kazakhstani. "It just gets very hard after two weeks of riding and then there's the heat. I suffered a little, but I wanted to break the others' rhythm by attacking."

Next to come in behind the Kazakhstan national champion was Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer, who rode commendably to finish on his on in 13th place, and now finds himself sitting pretty in sixth on GC. "It was just...just survival. All anybody can do is do their own pace... " said the exhausted 31 year-old American straight after he finished.

Tomorrow in Pau, the second and final rest day takes place before the 2005 Tour is laid to rest one week from now. Those riders still well-placed on the classement général have 24 hours to mull over what is ostensibly their last chance on Stage 16 from Mourenx to Pau, given Armstrong's dominance against the clock in each of his previous six Tour victories. But for the sprinters, it feels like the battle for green's just getting started...

How it unfolded

Sunday's Stage 15 was the Queen Stage of the 2005 Tour de France, the hardest stage of the race with five tough ascents before the final Hors Categorie climb to Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet), where Lance Armstrong took top honours four years ago. With a blast of hot, humid high pressure from Africa baking southern Europe, the day's stage was made even more difficult from the weather conditions.

At 11:10, Stage 15 got under way in first time stage town Lézat-sur-Lèze and the temp was 24 degrees celsius. There were a few preliminary attacks as always, but things got serious after 20km near Sabarat, when a 10 rider group got a gap, including Arrieta (Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne), Botero (Phonak Hearing Systems), Contador and Serrano (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), Augé (Cofidis, Le Credit Par Telephone), Pineau (Bouygues Telecom), Commesso (Lampre-Caffita), Casar (Française Des Jeux) and Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), but Discovery chased the dangerous break down after 6km.

In the tiny village of Maury after 28 km, Boogerd (Rabobank) was on the attack and got a gap, which provoked a big reaction and 13 riders go across to him. The bakers dozen plus Boogie were Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Sevilla (T-Mobile Team), Dekker and Kroon (Rabobank), Pereiro (Phonak Hearing Systems), Bertogliati (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Davis (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Caucchioli (Credit Agricole), Brochard and Pineau (Bouygues Telecom), Bertolini (Domina Vacanze), Camano (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Astarloza (Ag2r-Prevoyance). Davis took the sprint in Clermont with the peloton chasing behind, but once the news filtered back to the peloton who was up the road, they sat up and the big break was quickly 4'00 up the road. At the next intermediate sprint in Argein (km 69.5), Bertolini took the sprint, with Discovery Channel riding easy tempo 13'00 behind.

Atop the first climb, the Cat. 2 Col du Portet d'Aspet (souvenir Casartelli) a 5.9km, 6.9% climb to 1069m, Rabobank's Dekker was driving the break and at the summit, the 13 escapees had 17'24 on the peloton. On the descent of the Portet d'Aspet, the break and peloton passed the flower bedecked monument where Italian 1992 Olympic Champion Fabio Casartelli died after a crash ten years ago tomorrow. The status-quo remained as Dekker and Kroon drove the pace up and over the Cat. 1 Col de Menté, a 7km climb at 8.1% to 1349m., where Luis Ocaña crashed out of the 1971 Tour De France while wearing the maillot jaune. The gap over the top back to the peloton was 17'57 with 120km still left to race.

As the heat and fast pace began to take its toll as the temps climbed into the low 30s. The break sped down the tricky descent to Saint-Beat and the feed zone with the gap now 19'10, the largest gap for any break in this year's Tour De France. The race then passed through Spain for 10km, where the Cat. 1 Col du Portillon began. Ascending to 1320m, Portillon is an 8.3km climb with a 7.2% grade, and while Rabobank continued to drive the break, CSC sent Luke Roberts to the front to up the pace as the third of the day's six ascents approached, but Basso had a puncture, which shut off the CSC action. Up front, Dekker dropped off the break after his day's work was done, while his teammate Kroon took over. Atop the Portillon, Astarloza, Pineau and Bertogliati had all dropped off, leaving 10 up front as the hot wind began to pick up as the afternoon progressed. As the peloton climbed up the Portillon, CSC's Sorensen had limited the gap to 16'30 behind.

Down the wide open descent the now 10 front runners were still working hard, with Pereiro and the Rabobank riders driving the pace. Hincapie was just sitting on, acting as break police for his Discovery Channel leader, maillot jaune Armstrong. As the Cat. 1 Col de Peyresourde commenced with 56km to race, the day's longest ascent at 13km, a 6.9% climb to 1569m, Kroon pushed the pace hard and then dropped off, and he and his Rabobank team were doing a great job of taking the pressure off of Rasmussen and defending his maillot a pois of the Tour's best climber.

The gap was still around 15'00 as the groupe maillot jaune began the first slopes of Peyresourde. Carlos Sastre was doing the forcing for CSC, with Armstrong, Popovych, Azevedo and Rubiera (Discovery Channel), Ullrich, Klöden and Vinokourov (T-Mobile Team), Basso (CSC), Landis (Phonak), Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), maillot a pois Rasmussen (Rabobank), Mazzoleni (Lampre-Cafitta), Horner and Piepoli (Saunier Duval), Moreau and Kashechkin (Credit Agricole), Mancebo Illes Balears), Contador and Jaksche (Liberty Seguros) and Evans (Davitamon-Lotto). The stakes were getting higher as Discovery Channel took over the chase and atop the Peyresourde, the gap was 11'28 behind the break.

The sweltering heat was at its peak as the break and the groupe maillot jaune plunged down to Loudenvielle, where the penultimate climb of the day began. Perhaps inspired by his Tour de France stage win here eight years ago, Brochard rode hard before the ascent of the Cat. 1 Col de Val Louron-Azet, but his tempo was quickly matched by Pereiro and Boogerd. Hincapie looked good and was just marking everything, obviously under team orders not to work. There were now just six riders left up front: Pereiro, Boogerd, Hincapie, Caucchioli Brochard and Sevilla as the 7.5km climb at 7.9% grade commenced.

Pereiro and Boogerd were doing the forcing up front, while Hincapie and Sevilla were sitting on. Savoldelli and Guerini came back to the peloton on the descent and as the Col de Val Louron-Azet began for the groupe maillot jaune. Sastre went to the front and upped the pace, then Guerini took over the forcing. Next it was Vino's turn, then Basso wound up the pace and all this action completely exploded the groupe maillot jaune. Ullrich was gapped, but dieseled his way back on to Armstrong and Basso. After 2.5km of the penultimate ascent of Stage 15, the break was 8'30 on the group MJ, with maillot a pois Rasmussen almost a half minute back. It was deja vu from the final ascent the day before as Basso and Armstrong powered away with Ullrich hanging on. This was the status quo at the summit of Val Louron-Azet, with the break now 7'37 ahead. But down the mountain to Saint-Lary Soulan at the base of the day's final ascent, the maillot a pois chase group had not rejoined the groupe maillot jaune.

As the steep 10.7km long, 7.6% grade up to the mountaintop finish of the Hors Categorie Pla d'Adet climb to 1669m, this situation wouldn't last for long. The break was now whittled down to four, with Pereiro, Boogerd, Caucchioli and Hincapie 7'05 up the road. Basso attacked hard and only Armstrong could follow. Ullrich was 0'15 behind, with Rasmussen's group 1'25 behind, 8'30 behind the break. In Rasmussen's group, Vino then attacked and Mancebo came across to him. But the T-Mobile strategy to take time from the determined Dane backfired as Rasmussen increased the pace on the last half of the climb and rode away from Vino to close down on Ullrich by the finish of the stage.

Up front, Pereiro attacked with 5km to go and only Hincapie could stay with him. The Phonak man tried to drop Hincapie several times, but it was nothing doing. Hincapie sprinted away from Pereiro and gapped him, sitting up 50 meters from the line, clutching his head in disbelief. George shook his head and then raised his arms for a victory salute for the biggest win of his career.

Caucchioli was a solid third at 0'38, while Rabobank's Boogerd, whose team rode so well today was 4th at 0'57, ahead of tough old (37 today) mullet man Brochard at 2'19. Basso and Armstrong finished sixth and seventh, 5'04 behind Hincapie.

When the dust settled on the hot, hard day, the Tour's toughest, CSC's Basso had gone past Rasmussen into second on GC. The maillot a pois maintained his possible podium spot, as Ullrich managed to pull back a little time on Rasmussen, but not much. The Dane is still 2'49 ahead of the powerful German, but the skinny Dane nicknamed Chicken may need more than that to hold Der Kaiser in next Saturday's penultimate TT. Paco Mancebo had a good day in the heat and suffered to 5th, jumping two places on GC past two Americans. Levi Leipheimer rode smart today and leaped past Floyd Landis into 6th. Landis cracked on the final ascent to Pla d'Adet and lost 4'33 to maillot jaune Armstrong, falling back to 7th on GC. Discovery Channel's other podium visitor Yaro Popovych moved up one place on GC to 12th, and stretched his lead on Kashechkin for the Best Young Rider title to almost 6'00.

Rest Day Monday, July 18, Pau

Stage 16 - Tuesday, July 19: Mourenx-Pau, 180.5km

After a rest day in Pau, the action starts again in the final mountain stage of the 92nd Tour de France. Starting west of Pau in Mourenx, Stage 16 climbs into the heart of the western Pyrenees over the Cat. 3, 4.4km at 6.2%, Col d'Ichere, then the Cat. 2 Col de Marie-Blanque, a 9.3km ascent at7.7%, then up the legendary Col d'Aubisque, the final hors categorie climb of the Tour. Aubisque is 16.5km long at 7%, then it's 72km back over rolling terrain to Pau, with only a small Cat.4 Cote de Pardies-Pietat with 20km to race likely to be a springboard for the winning attack.

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