Stage 12: Lavelanet - Narbonne
Evans retains maillot jaune on tough day for the Tour
Bursting out of the peloton and opening up a clear lead, Mark Cavendish rocketed to his third stage victory of the Tour de France today. The 23 year old positioned himself perfectly in the chaotic run-up to the sprint, then made his move at precisely the right time to beat Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Erik Zabel (Team Milram) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) to the line in Narbonne.
Cavendish was all smiles after his latest win. "It was a perfect sprint. I am the first [rider] who has won three times in this Tour. The team has done great work," he said.
Cavendish also commented on the variety of victories. "It's brilliant – all three wins came in different conditions." It was raining hard in Toulouse when Cavendish took out his second sprint. Cavendish had a bandage around his right arm. "I crashed a day before the rest day. There was a football rolling across the street! I went down with 50 km/h. It hurt, but that's le Tour!"
Cavendish has already set his eyes on future Tours de France. "I want to return to fight for the green jersey in the coming years. Now, I am really tired."
Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux) knew the battle was for second place today. "I was in third wheel when I launched my sprint with 400 metres to go. I tried to get in the best wheel, but Cavendish was just too strong. I sprinted side by side with Gert [Steegmans]," he said.
Steegmans was next to Chavanel in the sprint, and was disappointed to not deliver after more strong work from his Quick Step team. "With 400m to go I was behind [team-mate Steven De Jongh]. We did the sprint for me today. It's a pity it didn't work out. It was tough with the head wind on the finishing straight. We will try again and hopefully we can succeed."
Race leader Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) stayed out of trouble and maintained his one second gap over closest rival Frank Schleck (CSC – Saxo Bank). Evans was seen on his own coming into the final kilometres, and didn't get an easy ride. "It is hard to stay in the top twenty. My team worked a lot, so they were tired in the end."
The Australian doesn't expect the battle for the overall classification to continue in earnest until the Alps, but said he and his team have a clear strategy. "For us it is important to have the jersey in Paris. We will see if we defend it – it depends on how the race develops." Having the jersey all the way until Paris may be added stress, but Evans stated that all his jerseys go to charity, so he is motivated to keep it.
The general classification was largely unchanged, with two considerable exceptions; Riccardo Riccò, ninth overnight, was thrown out of the race after a positive A sample, while his Saunier Duval team-mates withdrew following the news. This removed Juan Jose Cobo Acebo from the eighth place he had occupied.
The accomplishment of Cavendish was overshadowed by the news of Riccò's positive, but he looked at the situation with a brighter outlook than most. "It's a great deception," said Cavendish. "But to me it means the tests are working and we are catching the cheaters."
Evans made a brief comment concerning the Riccò case. "I am sorry for the sport. But in cycling there are more controls than in any other sport." He confirmed that he was tested since taking the yellow jersey.
With Riccò and David De La Fuente gone, Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) took over the mountains jersey he had tried so hard to seize on stage nine. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) inherited the maillot blanc as best young rider.
The stage was one of the most straightforward of this year's Tour, with peloton in a muted mood after the news of Riccò's exclusion. Following a number of early attacks, Arnaud Gérard (Francaise des Jeux) and Samuël Dumoulin (Cofidis) attacked 36 kilometres after the start, and quickly opened up a lead of 3'55.
Dumoulin led Gerard over the top of the Col de Camperié, 57.5 kilometres into the stage, with Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) taking third and fortifying his slight lead over Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner). Gerard then beat Dumoulin for the first bonus sprint, with points leader Freire netting third.
The duo continued on, but the peloton kept the advantage between a minute and a minute and a half, almost guaranteeing a bunch sprint. The gap dropped to 35" with approximately 55 kilometres remaining, yet it went up to over a minute once again when Juan Jose Oroz (Euskaltel Eukadi) scarpered across the gap and added some welcome power to the move.
Dumoulin, Gerard and Oroz crossed the second prime line in that order and hung on until nine kilometres remaining, when they were finally gobbled up. From there until the line it was all about setting things up for the evitable bunch gallop and the almost equally-inevitable sprint victory by Columbia's 23 year-old Manx missile.
Arnaud was awarded the most aggressive rider of the day, and said he enjoyed his time in the front. "I had fun out there! It was good for the team and obviously a great day. Sébastien [Chavanel] then finished second, so the team had a really good day," he said. "In the end we were very tired, but it's great to race the way we did."
Arnaud was happy to be with Française des Jeux. "It's a team with a lot of young riders." Regarding the three doping positives which have hit the Tour this year, Arnaud said, "It's bad for the cycling image. But you have to catch the cheaters to get the trust back into cycling."
How it unfolded
What should have been a quiet, relaxing morning before a transitional stage to the Mediterranean turned out to be quite a hectic morning, with Riccardo Riccò testing positive for EPO and being taken to the police station for questioning. His team, Saunier Duval-Scott, decided to pull out of the Tour.
The peloton minus Saunier Duval-Scott set off at 13:25. A few early attempts to break away were reeled back in, but after five kilometres a group with Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Steven De Jongh (Quick Step), Freddy Bichot (Agritubel), Bram Tankink (Rabobank), Martin Müller (Team Milram), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) and William Frischkorn (Garmin Chipotle - H30) formed. However, after 12 kilometres their adventure was over.
The pace was very fast right from the start. Baden Cooke (Barloworld) crashed in this early, nervous phase. He would abandon a short while later. Another break at kilometre 25 was brought back quickly.
After 36 kilometres Arnaud Gerard (Française des Jeux) and Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) accelerated out of the peloton. They made good time and after four kilometres on the front, they had a minute on the bunch.
Dumoulin led Gerard over the top of the col de Camperié, at kilometre 57.5. The bunch followed 3'40 later. Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) had stormed out of the bunch on that category three climb. With Riccò and De La Fuente out of the picture, Lang could hope again to take out the climber's jersey.
The peloton picked up the pace again and by the sprint in Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet at kilometre 76 the gap was down to 1'40. Gerard preceded Dumoulin over the line. In the bunch the green jersey dudes started to muscle to the front. Hushovd tried hard for the remaining two points, but Oscar Freire was able to hold him off and extend his lead for another two points.
When the duo passed the feed zone eight kilometres later they were only 50 seconds ahead. However, the bunch took its time to munch and the gap was again a minute and a half before the 100km marker was passed.
Jimmy Engoulvent (Crédit Agricole) decided to take some action by crashing. He got to get some treatment, but quickly was back up in the bunch.
Despite the fast pace of over 48 km/h, the two leaders kept losing ground. When it was not much more than half a minute, Juan José Oroz (Euskaltel-Euskadi) rocketed out of the bunch. With 53 kilometres to go he joined the leaders. The three had more power, so the gap went up again to a minute and a half.
With 34 km the gap was down to 35 seconds, and it yo-yoed a bit. When it was 50 seconds and the riders hit the 30-kilometre marker, Dumoulin attacked. It was still four kilometres to the final intermediate sprint.
Oroz was attentive and dragged himself and Gerard back up to the attacker. After this little bras de fer, the trio continued to work together again, extending its lead past the one-minute mark.
Dumoulin took the sprint in Thezan-des-Corbieres, ahead of Gerard and Oroz. The gap was down below the minute marker again. Peter Velits (Team Milram) suffered a flat tyre, which was bad timing. The peloton had given it some stick and Velits had a hard time catching up, but eventually did.
With 15 kilometres to go the gap was down to 30 seconds, with the peloton led by Quick Step, Columbia, Milram, Liquigas. The roads were dead straight for the most part.
Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) also suffered an untimely flat tyre, while the peloton came within a dozen seconds and a dozen kilometres to go. Thomas Lövkvist flatted as well, reducing the pulling power for Columbia on the front.
With nine kilometres to go the break was finally caught, despite a last ditch effort by the three. CSC was leading the charge at the time of the junction.
The sprinters' teams kept it together. Then Cavendish delivered for Columbia as scripted.
Stage 13 - Friday, July 18: Narbonne - Nîmes, 182km
With just three fourth category climbs in the way, this should be another stage for the sprinters. The route continues its way across the southern edge of France between the Pyrenees and the Alps. It's likely that a break will try to get away, but even more likely that the sprinters' domestiques will bring them back before they reach the finish.
The stage travels from one Roman settlement to another: leaving the oldest one in Narbonne, and arriving in probably the most famous one in Nîmes. The capital of the Gard department, Nîmes is home to probably the highest concentration of historic Roman sites outside Italy. These include the best preserved arena in France which still gets used for concerts and bullfights, the Maison Carrée a temple dedicated to the sons of Agrippa, and most famously: the Pont du Gard a three level aqueduct which lies 20 kilometres to the north.
Nîmes' other big claim to fame is as the origin of Serge de Nîmes, an indigo blue fabric that has changed the world. Over the years its name has been shortened to one word that most people will recognise: Denim. The city has hosted the Tour 15 times before, with Aitor Gonzales (Fassa Bortolo) taking the victory in 2004, the last time it finished here.
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