Menchov super in Spain; Landis mellow in yellow
We did not have to wait till the Alps to find a new world order at the 93rd Tour de France.
At the foot of the final 1,860-metre climb to Pla-de-Beret, located in the heart of the Ikkurina homeland, 19 riders had their sights set on victory. This was expected, but with a mild average gradient of five and a half percent, an explosion of the third kind wasn't on the cards.
However, two things the punters weren't counting on were two super-Mikes, Rasmussen and Boogerd, who dispelled any notion of internal rivalry, sacrificing themselves for Rabobank team leader Denis Menchov; and a handful of favourites not performing as they would have liked.
As Chicken Rasmussen swung off before the final climb, his duty done, the Dutch champion with a mouthful of teeth chomped through the lead group as if on a feeding frenzy, and one by one, the names of Zubeldia, Schleck, Arroyo, Azevedo, Rogers, Simoni, Fothen and Totschnig all fell victim to this piranha of the peloton.
The orange fiesta didn't end there, though, as it then became time for Menchov to turn the screws further still. Seven kilometres from the finish, just five were left - Carlos Sastre, Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans, Floyd Landis and Menchov - and four kilometres later, Leipheimer thinned it to three, taking only Landis and Menchov for company.
Prior to this day, talk has revolved around T-Mobile and Phonak. But Denis Nikolayevich Menchov, born January 25, 1978 in Orel, Russia, changed all that in one fell swoop. Among a sea of madly-waving Ikkurina flags, he bested his companions in a three-up sprint, flexing his hardened arms as he crossed the Val d'Aran, and punching the air with anger.
"We left this morning [with no set plan], thinking that we would see what would happen during the race," Menchov said.
"We knew that AG2R would work a lot and T-Mobile as well. So it depended on the situation, if we would work or not. In the finale, the situation was that there were three of us [from Rabobank] all going well. Michael [Rasmussen] made an enormous effort, and I have to thank him for that."
Denying the move with Boogerd and Rasmussen was premeditated, Menchov explained, "After the Portillon, as there were three of us in the group, we talked. Michael asked me if I was feeling well, and I said yes. So we decided to work [together].
"I was confident that we would come to the Tour with a very good team, and now we can see that it is truly a great team," he said.
But it wasn't all Rabo-way or Rabo's day, because American Floyd Landis, the third rider to finish behind Menchov and Leipheimer, has found himself the new maillot jaune. Moments after overnight leader Cyril Dessel crossed the line with a desperate lunge, 4'45 behind the first trio, the 30 year-old Phonak leader from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, swung his head around to the leaderboard, and a pat on the back from team doctor Denise Demir said it all.
"It's a dream come true - I didn't expect to have things go quite so well," began Landis.
"The goal for our team since the start was to win the yellow jersey, so if we do that without winning stages, I guess that would be fine," he said with a wry grin. "It's always nice to be able to win a stage, but today there was more value in working on the last climb and try to get some time on the other guys who were dropped.
"Probably some people misjudged the strength of our team; today we gambled a little," he added, referring to the rest of his team not supporting him on the final climb. "A couple of teams were very confident and did most of the work for us. Probably we can't expect that to happen anymore, but we'll take it."
Second best today but hunger-flat a few days before, Leipheimer, the man from Butte, Montana, must continue to ride onwards and upwards if he is to improve on his sixth place overall from last year.
"Well, it was great, but I'm so... ," Leipheimer muttered. "I wanted to go to the last turn first, but I misjudged it a little bit. Menchov's got a pretty good kick.
"Yesterday, I was a little bit low on fuel. So I made sure I ate a lot today, and I felt great. I wanted to put everything in an attack to win - I really thought I was going to win but I just couldn't get through that last turn first. I knew it was going to be tight and to come so close, it just hurts," he said.
Not to take anything away from Dessel, AG2R's man of the moment still holds second spot on the Classement Général, eight seconds behind Landis.
"I gave it everything I had. It's a big disappointment but I don't have any regrets, as I couldn't have done any better," he said. "I really dug the last remaining energy out of my body, and unfortunately I wasn't rewarded, as I lost the yellow and also the mountains jersey. It's a real pity, especially for my teammates, who supported me all the way."
Stage winner Menchov sits ominously in third, 1'01 in arrears, and Davitamon-Lotto's Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre of Team CSC aren't doing too badly, either, 1'17 and 1'52 behind the American maillot jaune.
"I really wanted to follow Leipheimer and Landis," said Evans, "but I was just unable to follow in the end. Landis did a lot of work, so I think he was the strongest. It was a pretty good day for me, as we were gaining a lot of time on the other contenders."
Asked if he thought the Tour will be decided between him and Landis, Menchov said: "No, we have to have more respect here.
"Apart from myself and Landis, Sastre and Evans were also really good today, and we have to see what happens in the last week of the Tour. Today also wasn't a climb to open up big time gaps, though we will see them afterwards, in the Alps."
Said Landis about whether his team will defend the maillot jaune or not: "It will be difficult to control it and try to keep it, as we don't have so much time on a lot of guys.
"If it's in our interest, and we can find a common goal and some help along the way, I wouldn't be opposed to letting someone else have it for a little while. The objective is to have it on the last day - that would be the best scenario!" he joked.
As for the rest, they'll have to wait till the Alps if they're to fight for the overall, or, as in the case of Discovery Channel's George Hincapie, change tack, the 33 year-old a serious casualty of today's Pyrenéean war, finishing a massive twenty one and a half minutes back.
"It's just not coming together; it's very disappointing," were some of the few words told by the dejected Discovery Channel rider. "General [classification] is over for me; I'm just going to go for stage wins."
'Your team attacked at the penultimate climb - what was that about?', T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden was asked. "We wanted to reduce the group, and succeeded. Maybe we attacked a little too soon; at the end there was only Mike [Rogers] and me left. Then, unfortunately, I cramped, so that wasn't so good.
"The ones in front of me were stronger," admitted Klöden.
Regarding the minor classifications, the maillot vert remains largely unchanged with Robbie McEwen still well on top, although extending his lead over Tom Boonen by another six points today; Saunier Duval's David De La Fuente is the new polka-dot jersey, enjoying a comfortable buffer over AG2R's Dessel and Gerolsteiner's Fabian Wegmann; and Wegmann's 24 year-old team-mate is fast creating an unassailable lead in the young riders' classification, right now a massive 12 minutes ahead of Lampre's 'Kid' Cunego.
"I've been riding on my bike for seven hours, I've climbed five cols... tomorrow, there's a stage of 212 kilometres, and after that, a stage of 230 kilometres... I think that's just great," Boonen said sarcastically.
"This is scandalous, it's over the top. I'm also supporting the battle against doping, but with these sorts of stages, the battle will never be won," he said.
As the day's post-stage celebrations came to a close, the television camera panned skywards, honing in on an eagle flying with its wings outstretched, effortlessly using the wind's currents to sail in the breeze. One couldn't help wondering if this were a metaphor for the apparent ease Floyd Landis has shown so far in the 2006 Tour de France.
"I'll probably have to have a hip replacement soon after the Tour... But I'm not finished yet," Landis said.
How it unfolded
At 11:00 in Tarbes, 168 riders started this long, hard stage across the Pyrenees to a new stage finish atop Pla-de-Beret in Spain. There were two intermediate sprints at Arcizac-ez-Angles after 17.5 km and Luchon at the 151.0 km mark. Stage 11's climbs are the hors category Col du Tourmalet (2,115m), an 18.4 km climb at 7.7% grade after 76 km; the Cat 1 Col d'Aspin (1,489m.), a 12.3 km climb at 5.2% grade after 106 km; the Cat 1 Col de Peyresourde (1,569 m), a 9.5 km climb at 7.1% grade after 137 km; the Cat. 1 Col du Portillon (1,320m), a 7.9 km climb at 8.4% grade after 162 km; and the final ascent up to the Cat. 1 Pla-de-Beret (1,860m), a 13.5 km climb at 5.4% grade after 205 km.
It was hot and humid in the late Thursday morning sun and as on yesterday's stage, when the the flag dropped at 11:08, the attacks started immediately. Voigt (CSC), Calzati (A2GR), Le Mevel (C.A), Verbrugghe (Cofidis), Gilbert and Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux) got away after 2 km and were joined by two chasers Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne) and Geslin (Bouygues), with T-Mobile chasing the moves and this group came back after a few kilometres. The pace was full gas and a group of 20 were off the front with the first sprint of Arcizac-ez-Angles after 17.5 km, where Robbie Mac (Davitamon-Lotto) took the sprint and solidified his lead in the maillot vert competition.
Right after the sprint was the classic moment for a counterattack, and they came fast and furious up the non-rated climb of the non-rated Col de Lingous. Eventually four riders managed to extricate themselves and form a successful break outside Lugagnan after 32 km. This quartet was made up Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Camano (Euskaltel), De la Fuente (Saunier Duval) and Flecha (Rabobank).
A few clicks later in the village of Boo, the front quartet had the not too scary lead of 1'05 and the chase behind had relented somewhat. The leaders covered 45.9 km in the first hour of racing and at the base of the Tourmalet as they turned onto the D921 road, the front group had a lead of 6'30, as AG2R was riding tempo on the front.
Although French cycling fans might have liked to enjoy the rare sight of French team AG2R leading a French maillot jaune Dessel up the Tourmalet, a sadistic TV director from French TV insisted on following the pathetic sight of a suffering Iban Mayo as he tried to abandon with dignity, out of the sight of the all seeing eye. Eventually Mayo got to the feed zone, where he climbed off for good at this year's Tour De France. Up front, AG2R was riding a steady tempo in the brutal humid heat that bathed the Pyrenees.
3.5 km from summit, the heat and even moderate pace caused Discovery Channel's Savoldelli to drop off the pace among many other riders who were having a hard time on the hot day. De la Fuente took the GPM atop the Tourmalet from Wegmann as the front riders were on a 33 km/h pace. First Tommy Voeckler in 5th then Chicken Rasmussen in 6th and the AG2R led peloton crossed under the summit banner 4'00 behind the front runners. Voeckler kept going to try and bridge across to the front of the race.
On the long, fast 22 km descent of the Tourmalet, there was a general regrouping and at Saint-Marie-de-Campan after 92 km at the base of the Tourmalet the break's gap was 5'35. Atop the the second climb of the day, the Cat 1 Col d'Aspin (1,489m), Wegmann sprinted through the GPM first ahead of De la Fuente, with Voeckler making up ground, now 1'50 behind and the groupe maillot jaune at 4'30. The average speed for the first three hours of racing was 34.1 km/h.
The peloton was still 4'30 behind Flecha, De la Fuente, Camano and Wegmann in the feed zone in Arreau with Voeckler trying hard to get across 0'55 behind the break. As the Cat 1 Col de Peyresourde (1,569 m), began in Aneran with 80 km to go, Camano came out the back, as Voeckler had almost bridged across and had the break in sight 0'20 ahead. But Wegmann and De la Fuente punched it, putting Camano and Flecha off the back and destroying Voeckler's hopes to make it to the front. Popovych then dropped off the still 40 strong groupe maillot jaune with 2 km to the summit of the Peyresourde, as Camano was caught by the peloton. De la Fuente sprinted over the summit of the Peyresourde ahead of Wegmann 3'00 ahead of the peloton, while the cooked Voeckler was pulled back 1 km from the summit and Flecha was still out there. Boogerd led out Rasmussen for more GPM points towards the maillot á pois with 70 km still to race as the mid-afternoon heat had climbed into the low-thirties.
Down in the at the second intermediate sprint in the tree-lined streets of the spa town of Luchon after 151.0 km, De la Fuente took the sprint ahead Wegmann, while Flecha was at 3'10, and Dessel's AG2R squad was still in command at the head of groupe maillot jaune 3'45 behind. Just outside of Luchon, the penultimate climb of Stage 11 commenced, the Cat 1 Col du Portillon (1,320m.), a 7.9 km climb at 8.4% grade, and after 1 km, De la Fuente attacked Wegmann and took off solo. Flecha was caught as the first slopes of the Portillon began. Suddenly T-Mobile took over from AG2R and sent Sinkewitz to the front to start