Stage 21: Étampes - Paris/Champs Élysées
Triumph for CSC as Quick Step salvages its Tour
Kicking early and immediately getting a gap over the other sprinters, Belgian rider Gert Steegmans galloped to final-stage victory in the Tour de France and thus saved Quick Step's Tour. The 27-year-old finished comfortable clear of Gerard Ciolek (Columbia) and points victor Oscar Freire (Rabobank), while overnight race leader Carlos Sastre stayed out of trouble on the Parisian finishing circuit and won his first Tour de France.
Sastre started the race as one of three possible leaders for the CSC team but, having gone close without ever winning a Grand Tour before, few thought it likely that he could end up with the final maillot jaune. The quiet Spaniard kept a low profile in the first half of the race, then took over the role of domestique du luxe once team-mate Fränk Schleck grabbed the yellow jersey on Prato Nevoso.
Unlike Schleck, race favourite Cadel Evans (Silence Lotto) and most of the other main contenders, Sastre was clearly still building form as the race headed into the third week and he capitalised on these fresher legs to win the Alpe d'Huez stage and then defend his lead in the time trial. He was, as expected, delighted with his success.
"Today was a really nice day," Sastre said after the finish. "The team has done everything to make this Tour as easy as possible for me and even as we came to Paris for the final stage, they continued to work for me. It's a great atmosphere now; relief has set in and now everyone is happy."
The 33-year-old Spaniard has finished as runner-up in two Vueltas and also been third, fourth, eighth and ninth in previous Tours. After banging on the door of a Grand Tour victory for several seasons, he said that he understood the disappointment of his closest challenger.
"There are so many Australians here because of Cadel Evans," he stated. "For him to finish second again in the Tour de France... well, I feel for him. I have finished third and fourth and I know what it is to get close. But I believe he has every right to be happy because he did his best."
Prior to this edition of the race, Sastre's biggest win in the Tour was his stage victory on Plateau de Bonascre back in 2003. He crossed the line with a pacifier in his mouth, dedicating the victory to his new daughter, and once again his family were at the forefront of his mind today.
"It was beautiful to have my children with me on the podium," he stated, underlining their importance. "It's great to win the Tour de France but my kids represent the biggest victory in my life. They are so important to me and I want to share that moment with them and have them close to me.
"Now I have a couple of races to do in Belgium and Holland before I go to the Olympic Games and then start to consider the Vuelta a España."
Cadel Evans finished second last year and with fellow podium-getters Alberto Contador, the 2007 champion, and his Astana team-mate Levi Leipheimer missing from this year's race, many were expecting the Australian to continue his upwards trajectory. It was not to be.
He said that his strength was depleted by a number of factors, including his hard fall. His team was also weak, although he didn't specifically refer to that when giving a post-stage reaction.
"There were more dramas than I expected or wanted and fighting for every second at the end was exhausting," he stated. "The crash before the race reached the Pyrenees was very taxing and it cost me a fair bit of strength; I used everything I had in the second week and perhaps that's the price I paid in the third week.
"It showed in the final time trial - I rode consistently and reached all the time checks well, but I was just not riding as fast as the other guys. That's the way it goes. I'm cursing one Spanish rider, number 29, who brought me down by accident but, well, that's racing and there are a few years ahead of me yet."
Steegmans quickest of the quick
The final stage was, as per usual, run off at a relaxed pace until the peloton hit the Champs Elysees and began eight laps of the finishing circuit. A flurry of attacks ensued but none of these moves looked like staying clear until the end. The principal aggressors included Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) and Jose Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne), the pairing of Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel), a later trio comprising Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Columbia) and Alexandre Botcharov (Crédit Agricole), plus two subsequent solo attacks by Française des Jeux team-mates Arnaud Gerard and Philippe Gilbert.
However, the CSC, Rabobank, Garmin Chipotle and Quick Step squads were determined to keep things together for a bunch gallop and ultimately had their way. Steegmans was the one who profited most from that.
"The team worked perfectly so that I could win this sprint," he said, explaining that judging the right moment and place to go was everything. "I knew the last turn very well and I knew I'd timed it well enough not to be harassed by anyone in the final expect perhaps the two or three who were right on my wheel. Matteo Tossato gave me a pace that was so fast that I could not even get around him.
"It's great to win here. Tom [Boonen] is usually our leader. The fact that he is not here added pressure on me and also Stijn Devolder. It was not easy, and this victory has been a long time in coming. Still, the team has consistently done its best and finally the work they were doing helped give me that little bit of extra confidence."
It's a huge relief for the Belgian team, which normally starts the race with very high expectations. Boonen's absence was part of the problem, but there were other reasons too. "Several factors have prevented the Quick Step team from winning," he explained. "The first is, of course, Cavendish. And then, Barredo was a little too nervous when he had the opportunity to win the stage a few days ago. Yet the team did not need to save its Tour; we had a meeting yesterday and our managers praised our work, even though we had not yet won a stage."
Second placed Ciolek and third placed Freire had very different feelings about the sprint. When Cyclingnews caught up with Ciolek, the Columbia rider didn't look happy at all. "I guess the efforts are still visible [on my face]. Second place is not what I had hoped for. I made a mistake in the last 250m and that has decided the outcome of the race. I let a small gap open to the guy in front of me and I didn't close it quickly enough."
On the other hand Oscar Freire felt good, despite not taking pout the win. "I was in a perfect position, but I just didn't have the legs. I am still happy, it was a great Tour de France for me. The green jersey is an accomplishment that was one of my biggest career goals."
How it unfolded
As is the tradition on the final stage of the Tour each year, the mood was relaxed and jovial in the peloton as the riders rolled out from Étampes. Clear skies increased the festive atmosphere and there were plenty of laughs, as well as the obligatory photographs of the teams, the jersey holders and the champagne celebrations.
The speed inched up as the bunch neared Paris and there Carlos Sastre's CSC squad led the peloton into the heart of the French capital. Longtime team-member Stuart O'Grady had the honours of taking the riders across the line on the Champs Elysees, beginning what would be eight full laps of the fast, flat 6.5 kilometre finishing circuit.
First to attack was Stéphane Augé, the Cofidis rider going clear just as the riders approached the Arc du Triomphe. He was quickly joined by French champion Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel), but the break was soon closed down by the peloton. A subsequent solo move by Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) also suffered the same fate.
Xavier Florencio (Bouygues Telecom) was next to try and was joined by fellow Spaniard Jose Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne). The latter took the sprint points at the end of lap one, but they were caught several minutes later, 41 kilometres from the finish. Another group then went away for a short while, this number including Florent Brard (Cofidis), Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) plus several others.
Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) and Vogondy were clear the next time across the Place de la Concorde and took the race across the finish line for the fourth time. CSC's Stuart O'Grady led the peloton across some ten seconds later. This gap increased to twenty seconds, the most significant of the day by that point, but it had dropped to eight by the time Barredo took the prime at the end of four laps of racing.
The duo were then joined by Laurent Lefevere (Bouygues Telecom) plus several others on the drop down from the Arc du Triomphe, before finally being caught at the end of that long stretch.
Gianpaolo Cheula (Barloworld) kicked clear and got Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Bram Tankink (Rabobank), and Johann Van Summeren (Silence – Lotto) for company. These two were recaptured, after which Augé, Kanstantsin Siutsou (Columbia) and Alexandre Botcharov (Crédit Agricole) forged ahead and started the penultimate lap with a lead over the CSC-led main bunch.
The peloton was having none of it and closed back up to the trio on the drop down from the Arc du Triomphe, only for Botcharov to solo clear alone and stay out front for another couple of minutes.
After his recapture, Arnaud Gerard (Française des Jeux) was next to try, surging ahead just before the Place de la Concorde and leading the race across the start/finish line for the start of the final lap. Oscar Freire's Rabobank team hit the front and ramped up the speed on the rise up to the Arc du Triomphe, bringing back Gerard. However his team-mate Philippe Gilbert countered almost immediately, wheeling around the bend near the Arc du Triomphe and driving hard on the slight descent.
Gilbert was trying to take the first stage win for the French team but Rabobank were determined to give Freire a shot to secure his green jersey in style. They hauled him back by the end of the return stretch.
Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) then went with just over three kilometres to go. The Frenchman was chased down by future team-mates Quick Step, while at the back of the bunch Jens Voigt (CSC) had a broken saddle and dropped off the back.
A bunch gallop was looking inevitable at this point and, with this in mind, Garmin Chipotle's David Millar led the peloton under the kite in order to help Julian Dean prepare for the sprint. The Scot was then passed by a Quick Step train intent on paving the way for Gert Steegmans.
Once around the sweeping bend on the Champs Elysees, the big Belgian jumped clear and immediately got a gap over Gerard Ciolek (Columbia) and the other riders. Ciolek did what he could to close him down but ran out of road, crossing the finish line a length back. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) was next home, sealing his win in the points competition, while maillot jaune Sastre, mountains leader Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and white jersey wearer Andy Schleck (CSC) finished close behind, sealing their victories in those classifications.
Aside from the overall and best young rider awards, CSC also secured the prize for best team. Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) was the most aggressive competitor while Wim Vansevenant (Silence – Lotto) was Lanterne Rouge for the third year running, the novelty value of this title ensuring more post-Tour criterium contracts for the Belgian.
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