Mercado jubilates as Dessel takes overall lead

Young Spaniard Juan Miguel Mercado scored his second stage victory in the Tour de France today in Pau, outsprinting his French breakaway companion Cyril Dessel after leading the race for 150 kilometres. Euskaltel's Iñigo Landaluze tried to bridge the gap to the pair in the flat finale, but had to settle for third anyway.

"It's a great victory for me!" said the Agritubel rider, 27, whose first Tour stage win was in Lons-le-Saunier in 2004. "It wasn't easy, because the stage was very mountainous, and Dessel wasn't ready to give the stage win away, even though he was going to take the yellow jersey."

The new leader of the general classification, AG2R's Dessel, was overjoyed in the finish - while still regretting not to have taken the stage win, too.

"It was a marvelous day, I can be very satisfied with my ride - I have the maillot jaune and the maillot à pois. Still, I would have liked to win the stage, as there aren't a lot of opportunities like this in my career... Of course, Mercado also deserved it, as we spent the whole day in front together. But he already had a Tour stage win. He surprised me in the sprint; it's a pity. I had really good legs today."

But of course, the 31 year-old was overjoyed when he put on the desired yellow jersey - which actually hadn't been his objective this morning in Cambo-les-Bains. "Every rider dreams about this jersey... it's a great honour to wear it," he said after the podium ceremony. "In the break, I didn't think about it at all, actually. My only goal this morning was the mountain's jersey! I knew all week that I could get it in the first mountain stage; my form is right."

Dessel believed that the yellow jersey was the reward for a solid first week of racing for him. "I even did a decent time trial although I really am a climber," he said. "I had been waiting for this stage all week, and I was right to ask our mechanic to give me a compact chainset for these really tough climbs. That certainly helped!"

Stage 10 to Pau finally served everybody's needs: not only did a Frenchman get the yellow jersey, but it was also gladly passed on as the defending rider, Serguei Gonchar could not live up to the expectations once the race hit high mountains. In addition, his T-Mobile team really felt the pressure of the precious garment.

GC strategy: T-Mobile lets the jersey go

Back in the bunch, it was interesting to see the GC tactics unfold, and many observers again thought that yellow-defending T-Mobile's showing was not the smartest one. It was the German team who put on the pace in the front of the peloton all day, with three of its four riders placed in Top 5 doing all the work to keep the gap to the leaders reasonably small. Still the two-man break led by 7'23 when they crossed the finish line in Pau, which gives the new wearer of the yellow jersey a lead of 3'45 to 5'35 on the T-Mobile riders Gonchar, Rogers, Sinkewitz and Klöden.

As Australian Mick Rogers put it, "our only goal today was to reduce the gap to those leaders a little, while not spending too much energy, either."

This initiative put overall race favourite Floyd Landis (Phonak) in the lucky position of just having to follow, just like Cadel Evans (Davitamon), George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and all the other GC contenders. Still, the T-Mobile management opted to let go of the overall lead, and give it to French underdog team AG2R, who has Christophe Moreau as team captain since it lost Francisco Mancebo due to the Spanish doping affair. Vincent Lavenu's squad will be very motivated to keep the maillot - and the remaining seven riders of the German team will be relieved not to bear its responsibility any more. For now.

Today's stage also gave the first indications of which riders surprisingly seem to have difficulties in the mountains. In addition to Gonchar, who was already mentioned, Spanish climber Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) was the first to show weaknesses when the bunch reached the first climb, the Col du Soudet. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) had trouble following the pace in the Col du Marie-Blanque, where Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas) were also struggling. None of these riders lost any time though, as the main bunch reformed after the descent of the last climb.

How it unfolded

160 riders departed Cambo-les-Bains at 1215, under sunny skies and 23.5 degrees, with a 15-20 km/h wind blowing from the west. Non-starter was mullet-man Laurent "Broche" Brochard (BTL).

The peloton proceeded through the neutral zone and when the flag dropped at 1230, the attacks started immediately. Aitor Hernández (EUS) went off the front and was joined by Vansummeren (DVL), O'Grady (CSC) and Patrick "Beautiful" Calcagni (Liquigas). More riders bridged across but the determined chase by T-Mobile brought it all together on the climb out of Cambo-les-Bains, where Chavanel (COF) made a solo counter move and after 15km in Helette, his 15" lead drew a strong reaction by the peloton. On small roads among the picturesque Basque country-like Irrissary and Louhoussoa, the pursuit of Chavanel continued on the up and down terrain and the French rider was powering a big gear, half a minute ahead of the peloton.

The chase behind was too intense for Chavanel to stay away solo and he was caught after 33km in the countryside past Lacarre. The first of two intermediate sprints came at Larceveau after 37.5km, where Da Cruz (FDJ) took the points. Quinziato (LIQ) and Vasseur (QST) got off the front a few clicks later and eventually 15 riders were away. Da Cruz (FDJ), Vasseur (Quick.Step), Quinziato (Liquigas), Voigt (CSC), Steegmans (Davitamon), Moreni (Cofidis), Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Landaluze, Isasi (Euskaltel), Posthuma (Rabobank), Bennati (Lampre), Dessel (AG2R), Rinero (Saunier Duval), Sprick (Bouygues) and Mercado (Agritubel) made up the move and at the base of the days's first climb after 44km, the escape had 48" lead on the T-Mobile-led peloton. Atop the first climb of the day, the Cat. 3 Col d'Osquich after 50km, the escape had 1'30" while T-Mobile had Kessler and Rogers riding tempo for now as Mercado was the danger man in the break.

On the other side on Col d'Osquich in Ordiarp with 133km to go, T-Mobile suddenly peeled off the front, with the break already 2' in front. The fuchsia flyers had decided to take a play out of Johan Bruyneel's poker playbook and see what other team might chase if they didn't. Although Phonak moved to the front, the chase pace had slowed dramatically as no team was willing to take the responsibility. The other teams called T-Mobile's bluff and once the break's lead got up to 7' about 10km later, the fuchsia team hit the front again with Kessler and Sinkewitz on the front, right in front of maillot jaune Gonchar's and with the white, green and yellow jerseys of Phonak clustered behind.

At the second intermediate sprint in Laguinge at 74km, it was Lampre's Bennati who took the points and the time bonus, with the peloton 6'30" behind. Then it was a a gentle climb up the small D113 crossroads and the first slopes of the beyond-category Col de Soudet after 101.5km, a 14.7km ascent at 7.3 %. The break was working well and was still gaining time on the peloton. The day had become progressively overcast and muggy as the parcours penetrated deeper into the Pyrenees.

With 6km to the summit of the Col de Soudet and 93km to go, there were only two riders left in the front - Mercado and Dessel - who had shed Landaluze and Rinero, with their lead 9'03". Ag2r's Dessel was best placed on GC in 28th, 3'50" behind Gonchar's and had been maillot jaune virtuel for 30km, while back in the peloton, Iban Mayo was struggling; even though T-Mobile's pace was not that fast, the Euskaltel man seemed to be in agony, as he went out the back early on. On the cloud-shrouded summit of the Soudet amidst large crowds, many of which waving the Basque ikkurina flag, the gap between the break and T-Mobile0led peloton was steady at 9' with 89km still to race. Gonchar's was having problems at the back of the main group as he hung on at the back of the main field.

Out front, Mercado tried to attack for the GPM but Dessel countered and took the points and the front duo then dove down through the mist of the 15km descent of the Soudet and then to the feed zone in Arette with 67km still to race. Landaluze was at 0'50", Rinero at 1'15 and Isasi at 1'40", with Moreni and Vasseur chasing hard to get across to the front group. At the base of Soudet, Landaluze and Rinero got across before the feed zone with 67km, while the other two chasers bridged 10km later outside Escot to make a front group of 7, with a lead of 10'42" on the groupe maillot jaune.

Tuesday's L'Equipe had an article on Landaluze, wondering why the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who won the Dauphiné Libéré in 2005 was even in the race. Landaluze was found positive in a doping control in '05 and was suspended, then cleared by the Spanish federation. However, the UCI didn't agree with this decision and have recently appealed Landaluze's case to the Court for Arbitration of Sport. According to the ProTour Code of Ethics, any rider under investigation should not be allowed to race, but the Euskaltel-Euskadi squad seems to have a unique interpretation of the rules and Landaluze didn't seem too concerned in the break.

With 52km to go in Escot, as the first slopes of the Cat. 1 Col de Marie-Blanque began after 148km, the seven breakaways confronted the 9.3km climb at 7.7% grade together. Moreni and Vasseur were just sitting on after their hard chase, while the T-Mobile-led peloton was 11' behind. Halfway up the ascent, Mercado attacked and only Dessel could follow him. This attack off the front blew the break apart and the remaining five riders just rode at their own pace to try and stay close and get back on the steep descent of the Marie-Blanque. T-Mobile sent Eddy Mazzoleni to the front to up the pace on the long, straight and steep ascent of the Marie-Blanque. Although no one attacked, T-Mobile's pace was taking its toll on the groupe maillot jaune as riders continually went out the back. Matze Kessler was on the front for T-Mobile riding tempo.

Atop the Marie Blanque, Dessel took the GPM ahead of Mercado, with Landaluze trailing at 27", while Moreni and Rinero were at 1' and Vasseur and Isasi at 2'. There were 42km left to the finish in Pau and it looked like Dessel had an excellent change to become maillot jaune in Pau.

Rasmussen, Moreau, Popovych, together with Kessler and Sinkewitz of T-Mobile, were leading up the Marie Blanque while 2km from the summit, maillot jaune Gonchar's was just hanging on at the back. Suddenly, Chicken Rasmussen flew the coop from the groupe maillot jaune and there was no reaction from behind. Maillot blanc Fothen had dropped off the back, as just ahead of him, both Leipheimer and Cunego were struggling. Chicken hit the GPM line in 8th place, 8'37" behind Dessel, while the groupe maillot jaune was at 9'15", with Gonchar's was still there.

Long, lean Landaluze was trying hard to get back across to the front duo and on the ascent to Sevignacq-Meyracq with 25km to go, the Basque was within 5", but the two front riders punched it and Landaluze then lost ground, while Moreni and Rinero were at 1'15". But no-one was getting across to the two front riders, as Dessel was looking for the dream of a maillot jaune, while Mercado was hoping for his second Tour de France career stage win in Pau. With 20km to go, the two front runners had a lead of 9'15" on the groupe maillot jaune, where there was the bizarre sight of current maillot jaune Gonchar's fetching bottles for his teammates.

The front duo rode into Pau after being away for 160km and the chasers hadn't pulled back much time on the from riders. Dessel and Mercado duelled it out and the Spanish rider took the head-to-head sprint to win the stage. Landaluze soloed in at 0'55", while Moreni was fourth over Rinero at 2'24", Isasi at 5' and Vasseur at 5'34", with Bennati taking the bunch sprint at 7'27". Dessel was the new maillot jaune ahead Mercado, while Moreni had moved into fourth on GC, just 6" behind former maillot jaune Gonchar's, who maintained 3rd place overall.

Thursday, July 13 - Stage 11: Tarbes-Val d'Aran/Pla-de-Beret (Spain), 206 km

More mountains on the menu, including a new stage finish atop Pla-de-Beret in Spain. This long, hard stage will show just who the real contenders are for the win in the 93rd Tour de France. With one beyond-category and four first category climbs on the program, there is no margin for error on the second and hardest stage across the Pyrenees. Will a Euskaltel-Euskadi rider try to show off in front of their fervent Basque supporters by attacking on the final 13.5km ascent up to the Spanish ski station of Pla-de-Beret? Don't bet against it!

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