Next, a day of rest, but L'Alpe awaits...
Today along the windy, hilly roads to Gap, a 27 year-old Frenchman by the catchy name of Pierrick Fedrigo proved patience is a virtue.
Finding the right move 35 kilometres into the race, doing enough work to stay up front and out of trouble - but never showing his true strength until the final two hundred metres - Fedrigo came out a winner. A comfortable victor over Lampre-Fondital's Salvatore Commesso, even though the Italian was arguably the stronger of the two on the day, last year's French national champion also showed the strongest is not always the smartest.
"Tactically, I did very well in the final kilometre," said a modest Fedrigo. "I stayed on Commesso's wheel until there was only 200 metres to go, so I could overtake him easily.
"At that moment, you can't realise what is happening. But I can tell you now that it is a beautiful sensation, because it hasn't been easy for us since the start of the Tour.
"Even if we tried to get in a break, we still didn't have the guarantee that we would battle for the stage win," Fedrigo said.
"But we managed to get there, as we remained motivated until the end. For sure, this Tour is now a real success for us. Our goal was to win a stage in this Tour de France, as we don't have a GC rider in the team. That's why we're trying to get into the breakaway groups, with the success of today as a result."
Commesso, who has been without a win since his victory in the Trofeo Matteotti in July 2002, was in tears at the finish, telling Italian television he over-geared himself in the sprint. But from his reaction, it was clear that desperation also got the better of him on this day.
"This wasn't because of Fedrigo," said the 31 year-old when asked about the gesture of banging his fists against the bars. "It was just because of myself. I haven't won any race for two years."
"Everyday I work for the others," continued Commesso, "and for the one time that it is my day, I'm only able to lose. What can I do to win? Kill my opponents?"
Team CSC's strong American Christian Vandevelde came within a hair's breadth of victory himself. Attacking a fatigued peloton inside the final kilometre, the 30 year-old was attempting to steal victory from underneath Fedrigo and Commesso's noses, but came up just three seconds short.
Explained Vandevelde, "At the end of the race, everyone was really tired, and there was no team who took it into their hands. So I just went.
"We had a little drama with the team GC; we hoped that the break wouldn't be gone for half an hour like yesterday. But in the end, everything came back together and we even put some time into the team GC - it was good! Being the leader of the teams' competition will now give us more responsibility in the race."
Four seconds behind Vandevelde, Christophe Moreau led home a 33-strong peloton that including all the GC favourites, leaving the leaderboard at status quo. At one point in the race, a quarter of the breakaway group were placed in the top 20 on the Classement Général, but neither of the top teams were letting a situation like yesterday happen again so soon.
And although the heat may not have been as serious a factor as yesterday's stage to Montélimar, where the mercury hit 40 degrees C, the day was not without its casualties.
Mirko Celestino (Milram) and Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas) both abandoned, before the breakaway was halved 40 kilometres from the finish, when Saunier Duval's David Canada lost it on a descent, taking out Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile) and Rik Verbrugghe (Cofidis). Canada and Verbrugghe were evacuated to hospital, the former diagnosed with a broken right collarbone and the latter a broken femur; Kessler got back up and finished, 12 minutes behind the stage winner.
"I was following right behind Verbrugghe," said stage winner Fedrigo. "Because of the heat, the road was deformed, reminding me about the crash of Joseba Beloki some years ago, also here in Gap.
"Verbrugghe had to brake very hard, causing his wheels to slip; I touched his bike, but I could keep riding. It's very sad that it happened and I hope he wasn't hurt too bad, but those things just happen in cycling."
Tomorrow brings the second and final day of rest in Gap, before the 156 strong peloton tackle the first of three consecutive - and torturous - stages in the Haute Alpes, beginning with the often travelled though seldom enjoyed road to L'Alpe-d'Huez.
How it unfolded
Phase three of the 93rd Tour de France kicked off on a transitional stage Sunday on stage 14. There were 181km from Montélimar-Gap to race and 160 riders took the start at 1.01pm on yet another hot sunny day, with temperatures expected to rise into the high 30's by the finish in Gap. Stage 14 included four categorized ascents, the Cat.3 Cote du Bois-de-Salles after 14.0km, Cat.3 Col de Peyruergue (72.5km), the Cat.2 Col de Perty (97.0km) and the Cat 2. Col de la Sentinelle at 171.0km, just 9.5km from the finish in Gap. There were two intermediate sprints on Stage 14th in La Bonte (50.0km) and La Plaine (160.5km), just before the ascent of the final climb of the Col de la Sentinelle.
Kopp (Gerolsteiner), Schröder (Milram) and Lobato (Saunier Duval) attacked almost from the drop of the flag and after 5km, they were 20 seconds ahead of the peloton, with Française des Jeux and AG2R teams chasing - the break was caught in a few kilometres. On the day's first climb, the Cat.3 Cote du Bois-de-Salles, another break went and Boogerd (Rabobank) led over the summit. This escape had Hincapie (Discovery), Mazzoleni (T-Mobile), Goubert (AG2R), Ballan, Commesso and Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital), Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne), Rujano (Quick.Step), Camaño (Euskaltel) and Boogerd (Rabobank).
Phonak decided to pursue the escape and the gap was hovering about 30 seconds as the chase wound through the rocky terrain of the Vaucluse. On the uphill towards Rousset-les-Vignes, the peloton closed down on the break and the remains of the escape came back in the pretty town after 31.5km. A few kilometres later, Commesso, Kessler and Fedrigo went on the attack and got a gap, then were joined by big names like, Sastre, Karpets, Leipheimer and Moreau, so all hell broke lose.
After 39km at the foot of the Montagne de Lance, Martinez (Euskaltel), Kessler (T-Mobile), Aerts (Davitamon), Fedrigo and Commesso again were away. Not only the temps but also the pace was hot as the Tour escapees rode the 46.8km in the first hour. Aerts won the first sprint in La Bonte after 50km, with the peloton chasing hard 30 seconds behind. Verbrugghe (Cofidis) and Canada (Saunier Duval) then bridged across to the lead group after a 21km chase, while they passed Martinez on the way up as he gave up hope on the break and dropped back to the group of the maillot jaune after 65km.
Race leader Oscar Pereiro signaled his Caisse d'Epargne team to chop off the chase soon thereafter and things calmed down. On the Cat.3 Col de Peyruergue after 72.5km, cannonball Commesso took the GPM and the gap back to the peloton was 3'40. The rocky peaks of the Baronnies range loomed to the south as the mid afternoon heat approached 34 degrees. At the feed zone in Saint-Auban-sur-l'Ouvèze, the gap had stabilized at 5 minutes and Milram's Mirko Celestino abandoned when the peloton passed through. Caisse d'Epargne resumed their tempo and atop the Cat.2 Col de Perty after 97.0km, Canada was first over the GPM, with the peloton at 5'37. Once the long descent to the Durance River valley began, Quick.Step, Milram's milkmen and Liquigas-Bianchi began to chase.
The break was working well but with 39km to go, disaster struck on a downhill right hand reverse camber bend. Three riders crashed out of the escape, cutting the front runners strength by 50 percent in one fell swoop. First, Canada, who was riding next to last wheel had his front wheel slip out and he hit the deck hard, while last wheel Matze Kessler flipped over the top of him and went head over heels, over the guardrail and into a ditch. A little further in front, second rider Verbrugghe lost control and almost avoided hitting the guardrail and riding into a field, but he also flipped over the guardrail and into the ditch. Other than his dignity, Kessler was not hurt much and got back on his bike to be absorbed by the chasing peloton, but Canada (broken collarbone) and Verbrugghe (broken left femur) were forced to abandon.
The gap for the now break of three was 3'30 minutes with 20km to ride to the foot of the Col de la Sentinelle, and Fedrigo, Aerts and Commesso were working well together but Liquigas had four riders on the front going hard. The front trio was hanging tough and at the final sprint in La Plaine, just before the ascent of the final climb, their lead was 2'45 ahead of the Liquigas-Bianchi led peloton. Route du Sud winner Fedrigo was working hard and as the peloton turned left onto the road that led up the Col de la Sentinelle, the Italian team stopped their chase and no one team took over until Caisse d'Epargne's Flo Brard hit the front to maintain the pace.
At 15km to go, the gap was 2 minutes and falling as the front trio turned left on the little road that led to the summit. As the melting asphalt glistened, Commesso powered away on the front of the break to try and control the pace. Gerolsteiner upped the pace in the peloton, which provoked an attack by Ag2r's Calzati. Halfway up the Col de la Sentinelle, the break had 1'45 when Fedrigo attacked hard and dumped Aerts, but Commesso kept contact.
At the front of the chasing peloton, Calzati's attack was neutralized and the chase had slowed behind as there was a lot of manoeuvring for the GPM, because maillot à pois De la Fuente was dropped from the favourites' group. At the summit of the Sentinelle with 8.5km, the front duo had a gap of 45 seconds and were still working well together, but the gap was falling fast as Boogerd took the third place GPM points ahead of Schleck and Rasmussen. The descent was slick with melting asphalt but the two front riders were still going all out as Boogerd, Popovych, Hincapie and maillot jaune Pereiro were chasing hard behind. With 5km left, the front duo was just 0'22 ahead and falling as Popovych and Azevedo were going all out to bring back the break and give Big George Hincapie a shot at the win. But at the 3km mark as the descent to Gap was almost finished, the peloton's pursuit slowed as no one wanted to take the initiative.
Discovery Channel's Popovych hit the front again with 2.5km to go, but it was too late. The hesitation had given the front duo just enough of a gap to stay away until the end. CSC's Vandevelde made a strong countermove at the 1km mark from the group maillot jaune and as he closed the gap into Gap quickly, the suspense mounted. With 500m to go, the two front riders made the last turn onto the finishing straight. Toto Commesso was in front and he went first, but Fedrigo went past him and the Italian blew with 30m to go.
2005 French champion Fedrigo won for the third stage victory by a French rider and the first ever Tour de France stage win for Bouygues Telecom.
Runner-up Toto Commesso was devastated by the loss and his failure to win his third career stage win at Le Tour. In tears, the Lampre-Fondital cannonball told Italian TV that "I've been trying to get in a good break since the beginning. It's been four years without a win for me and it's really tough to lose like this." American Christian Vandevelde (CSC), having his best Tour ever made a smart attack with one kilometre to go to solo in third, ahead of AG2R'S old warhorse Moreau, who won the sprint from the groupe maillot jaune and moved past Discovery Channel's Popovych into 10th on GC.
Oscar Pereiro Sio will keep the yellow jersey when stage 15 starts on Tuesday and he and his Caisse d'Epargne team will likely ride hard to defend it. Robbie McEwen (DVL) leads the chase for the maillot vert of best sprinter with 252 pts, 30 points ahead of Quick-Step-Innergetic's World Champion Tom Boonen, while in the race for the best climber's jersey, David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval) still leads with 80 points, but last year's winner Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) has closed to within 7 points of the fading Spaniard.
Tuesday, July 18 - Stage 15: Gap-l'Alpe-d'Huez, 187 km
Phase three of the 93rd Tour de France goes full bore with a massive stage through the dark heart of the Hautes Alpes into Isère. An early break of contenders' teammates will get established on the Col d'Izoard, then it's up and over the Col du Lautaret, where the long descent will probably bring the race back together at the foot of l'Alpe d'Huez for a ding-dong battle up the final 14km to the legendary finish. Menchov and his strong climbers' team at Rabobank will certainly go on the attack Tuesday, while Landis and Klöden will try to hang tough.
Hors Categorie: 86km Col d'Izoard 2,360 m. 14.2 km at 7%
Cat 2: 134km Col du Lautaret 2,058 m.; 12.1 km at 4.4%
Hors Categorie: 187km l'Alpe d'Huez 1,860 m 13.9 km at 7.9%
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