Stage 13: Béziers - Montélimar
Bizarre circumstances see Pereiro in yellow
On the longest day of the Tour de France, five riders chose to defy the odds. Their names were Jens Voigt, Oscar Pereiro, Sylvain Chavanel, Manuel Quinziato and Andriy Grivko. And on the hottest day so far, they attacked more than 200 kilometres from the finish in Montélimar, preparing themselves for the worst.
Such circumstances call for not only a certain hunger, but a certain toughness. A toughness that only comes with experience, and the man who had that was Voigt.
"Maybe it wasn't me who had the best legs in that break," he said, "but maybe you could say that if I won today, it might have been that I was the one who was most desperate for a win."
Asked what he thought about going in such an early move, Voigt replied: "Honestly, the first thing I thought was, 'Oh no, not me again!'
"Then I noticed that we were allowed to get away; it was quickly ten minutes, twenty minutes... That's when I started to believe in my chances. Only at the very end, about ten, twenty metres before the finish line, I was thinking that this stage should be mine."
But is the 34 year-old born in Grevesmühlen, from the same area as Jan Ullrich, forgetting what he told us fourteen months ago?
Said Voigt to Cyclingnews in May last year, "Of course, it's great publicity to do long solos, it gives you a lot of sympathy from the public and it great TV time for your sponsor. But an unspectacular victory is better than a spectacular death. So that's the new strategy: attack later to stand more chance of actually winning."
However, back then, he didn't totally contradict himself: "I'm an optimist by profession," he said. "At the end of such a break, it's not about who's got the faster legs anymore, but about who's got more strength left."
The latter Voigt didn't have much of, he admitted, though he had more than the rest. "There were a lot of reactions about my last place in the time trial, but today I can say that I saved all my energy for today.
"But it's also a question of character, as not everybody wants to be in a breakaway when it is 35 degrees C at the start of a 230 kilometre stage. It's a bit of both: I didn't want to give up, and I just wanted it to happen. You just need to force luck on your side.
"This stage was one of these days were everything worked out. But from now on, I'll have ten official rest days until the Tour de France ends!" Voigt joked.
More surprising than witnessing a successful escape, and more surprising than Voigt's win, was the massive half-hour advantage of the lead group by the finish.
But perhaps the biggest surprise of all: seeing Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears' Oscar Pereiro, 46th on the Classement Général at the start of the day and 29 minutes down on race leader Floyd Landis, finish second to Voigt and catapult himself into the maillot jaune.
"It's like a dream," said a starry-eyed Pereiro.
"The yellow jersey of the Tour de France is something so incredibly big. Last year, when I won a stage in the Tour, I could already feel how great it was, but today, with the jersey, that's even better. I was dreaming about this, but I never thought it would happen."
Third-placed Cofidis rider Sylvain Chavanel was one of the strongest, and despaired at missing the crucial counter with four kilometres to go.
"I was in the right breakaway today, so of course, a third placing doesn't satisfy me," he said.
"I don't know what to say; I'm really very disappointed. I'll try again... but [my new placing on GC] will prevent me from being able to escape again. I hope that my son, who is one and a half years old, saw me on television and cheered me on!" finished Chavanel, already sounding a little more upbeat.
Such bizarre circumstances haven't been seen since the 2001 Tour de France, when 14 riders gained an even larger lead over the peloton on a rain-soaked day from Colmar to Pontarlier. By the day's end, Stuart O'Grady found himself back in the race lead, but Kazakhstan's Andrei Kivilev, who tragically died in Paris-Nice two years later, became a real danger man in the battle for overall honours.
It took the might of US Postal and Lance Armstrong to reverse the threat, which the Texan and his team did in the end - but can Phonak and Floyd Landis do the same? The 2001 stage to Pontarlier was early in the piece, so time was on Armstrong's side; Pereiro's maillot jaune comes one week later, and just one week before Paris.
"The last two years I finished within the top ten," the 28 year-old Spaniard from Mos, Galicia, reminded the press.
"[This year], I was in a very bad position coming into the Pyrenées, but I think that starting from tomorrow, the Tour will change its face again. I think my condition is good, so I'll definitely fight for the general [classification]."
The good news for Landis is that the Alps are still to come. Beginning next Tuesday, three incredibly difficult, back-to-back stages must be faced, before a 56 kilometre race against the clock sorts out the Classement Général once and for all.
"It's not that they [Phonak] gave me ten minutes, either," said Pereiro.
"I only have a little more than one minute on Landis, so I need to remain realistic. I think that Phonak just didn't want the responsibility of the jersey before heading to the Alps. There is a certain advantage for them to not have it anymore. The won't have to control the race anymore in the coming days.
"I will enjoy every day I wear this yellow jersey and I will try to defend it as long as possible, but I think that the day Floyd decides to get it, he will."
How it unfolded
Le Tour's longest stage was another baking hot day for the peloton that started on the Mediterranean seacoast in Béziers, a flat to rolling stage through the hot rocky vineyards of Herault, Gard and the Ardeche regions that finally finished in Montélimar, famous for its sweet, sticky nougat. There were five Cat. 4 climbs on Stage 13; Cote de Puéchabon (57.5km), Cote de la Cardonille (77.5km), Cote de l'Arbousset (119.5km), Cote de Saint-Maurice d'Ibie (195.5km) and finally the Cote de Villeneuve de Berg (205.5km). Two intermediate sprints were contested on Stage 13 in Aduze (117.5km) and Vallon-Pont-d'Arc (177.5km).
A quarter of an hour before Saturday noon, 160 cyclists gazed wistfully at the close by beaches, then headed northeast into the hot back country of Herault. The temps were already nudging thirty and would eventually reach the mid thirties by the feed zone in Ales after 130km of racing. A few kilometres after the start, it was Toto Commesso (Lampre-Fondital) on the attack and this provoked another fast start, despite the Tour peloton having two weeks of racing in their legs.
But Commesso was chased down and a general battle began on the front of the race to try and get away. Eventually after 21km in Lezignan-le-Cebe, a six rider group managed to get a small gap. Voigt (CSC), Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), Quinziato (Liquigas), Grivko (Milram), with Chavanel and Coyot (Cofidis) were 0'10 ahead of the peloton. Credit Agricole was chasing but when Coyot sat up, the chase eased. After 31km in Belarga, the gap was 0'50, with the day's first ascent of the Cat 4 Cote de Puéchabon coming next. Maillot jaune Landis had his Phonak squad on the front riding tempo, but the best placed rider in the break was Oscar Pereiro Sio (Caisse d'Epargne) who was 46th overall, 28'50 behind Landis.
A tailwind was helping the break along and they covered 50.4km in the first hour and atop the Puéchabon climb, Chavanel took the GPM with the peloton now just cruising along 9'05 behind. The pattern for Stage 13 was set as the break was working well together, Phonak was riding easy tempo on the front of the peloton and everybody knew they were in for a long day in the saddle.
By the second climb of the day, the Col de la Cardonille after 77.5km where Grivko took the GPM, the gap was up to 12'50, the largest margin posted by any escape at this year's Tour De France so far. But it was destined to go higher, much higher as Phonak was setting a pedestrian pace in the front of the peloton, while the break was flying. The gap continued to go up and at the first intermediate sprint in Anduze halfway through Stage 13 with 112.5km to race, Quinziato took the points and then the front quintet hit the third climb, the Cote de l'Arbousset. Chavanel took his second GPM and the peloton was creeping along 12km and almost 19'00 behind.
On the other side of the climb at the feed zone in Bagard, the gap continued to climb and eventually with 70km to go, the break's lead was up to 24'30. Phonak decided to pick up the pace as they didn't want to lose the maillot jaune. Voigt and Grivko were working the most in the break and with 63km left, the gap had now climbed to 25'10. After four hours of racing, the average speed of stage 13 was 42.3 km/h, and at the final intermediate sprint in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc after 177.5km of racing, Pereiro rode through the sprint first under a baking hot afternoon sun as the break's margin had now climbed to 26'20. Pereiro was just 2'30 from becoming maillot jaune virtuel with 52km to race to the finish in Montélimar.
The escape hit the penultimate climb of the day on the Cote de Saint-Maurice d'Ibie with over 27'00 advance on the peloton. After 195.5km, Chavanel took the points on the penultimate summit with the lead now at 28'00 and then dove down to the quaint village of de Villeneuve de Berg and climbed the final ascent of the Cote de Villeneuve de Berg. Near the GPM, there was an attack of Grivko, then a counter by Quinziato and the Milram rider was dropped, leaving four up front as the young Ukrainian had shot his wad.
Attacks on the approach to Montélimar split the remaining four riders and Voigt and Pereiro gapped the other two with 4 km to go. Voigt made a hard attack in the last kilometre and almost dropped the Caisse d'Epargne rider, but Pereiro fought back to him and the two contested the sprint and the powerful 34 year-old German took the win for his third career stage win in the Tour De France. The other two riders came in 0'40 behind, with Chavanel 3rd and the Italian in 4th. Grivko finished fifth at 6'23, while with the gap still at 28'00 between the break and the peloton, both Rabobank and AG2R hit the front with 25km to go to up the pace in the last half-hour of racing. But the chase didn't sustain itself and eventually the peloton came in 29'57 behind, passing the maillot jaune from Landis to his former Phonak teammate Oscar Pereiro Sio. The Caisse d'Epargne rider now leads the 2006 classement general by 1'29 over second place Floyd Landis.
Stage 14 - Sunday, July 16: Montélimar-Gap / 181km
After Stage 13 - one of the most boring stages in recent Tour De France memory - Phase Three of the 93rd Tour De France kicks off on this transitional day before the second rest day. Look for the road to Gap to be another hot, hard and fast ride, with a tailwind likely and the final 5.2km, 5% grade of the Col de la Sentinelle starting just 15km from the finish on the tree shaded Ave.Marechal Foch in Gap to be the decider. No contenders will be in evidence at the end, but look for Discovery Channel's George Hincapie to score a stage win in Gap.
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