Stage 6: Aigurande - Super Besse
Kirchen takes lead from roughed up Schumacher
Italy's Riccardo Riccò followed through on his promise to win the Tour de France's Super Besse stage with an uphill charge finishing ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans. Behind him the rest raced for the prestigious maillot jaune.
The finish was overshadowed by a crash by yellow jersey wearer Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), who was in the lead group in the final kilometre, but touched wheels and crashed to the pavement. Official do not apply the same time rule for crash victims on hilltop finishes, so the German lost his overall lead to Kim Kirchen (Columbia) who finished fifth behind compatriot Fränk Schleck.
"I came here to gain experience and to win a stage," said Riccò of Team Saunier Duval. The experience of winning ahead of cycling's biggest names, Valverde of Team Caisse d'Epargne, Evans of Silence Lotto and Frank Schleck of CSC will provide confidence for the fiery 24 year-old.
Free from the battle for the maillot jaune taking place in his wake, Riccò charged up the final 200 metres of Route de Besse. After Schumacher clipped the rear wheel of Team Columbia's Kirchen and fell on his left side, the 28 year-old Schleck accelerated forward. Schleck, who won the 2006 Alpe d'Huez stage, attacked, passing Riccò and then Valverde. Riccò responded immediately and moved up the left side of the road with Valverde and Evans in tow.
Schleck drifted back on road's right while Kirchen bridged to his compatriot. Kirchen's efforts gave him the race leader's yellow jersey with six seconds overall on Evans and 16 seconds on Schumacher, who struggled to finish in 25th place.
Schumacher blamed the new race leader for his tumble. "I am very surprised to hear that," said Kirchen after being fitted for his maillot jaune. "I tried to move up on the right side. The guy in front of me [Valverde - ed.] braked and I had to brake too, there was not much I could do," said Kirchen, who also moved back into the maillot vert of the points leader although Thor Hushovd will wear the green in stage seven on Thursday while Kirchen wears yellow.
"The consequences are that I crashed and lost time, and Kim made a move and I had no chance I couldn't avoid it," a disappointed Schumacher said after crossing the line. Schumacher, a 26 year-old German, won the 2006 Benelux Tour in a similar fashion when previous race leader George Hincapie crashed following the pair's entanglement.
Like Kirchen and Riccò, Valverde concluded the first of the Tour's five mountaintop finishes on a positive note. His Caisse d'Epargne team put the hammer down over the final 20 kilometres, including the 11-kilometre romp up Super Besse. None other than 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro finished off the work for Caisse's captain. Along with David Arroyo, he shut down the escaped duo of the USA's Christian Vande Velde and Italy's Leonardo Piepoli.
"I really have to thank my team-mates," noted Valverde. "Considering my crash of yesterday and the fact that I slept only two hours last night, ... I think that I must be satisfied with my stage."
Vande Velde of Team Garmin Chipotle launched his way up the classification with his attack at five kilometres out. He was joined by Riccò's main gun, Piepoli, for a move that lasted 3,800 metres. Vande Velde held on to finish 23 seconds back and is now fourth (at 44") on in the classification behind Schumacher.
"The attacked was planned," said Vande Velde, whose intentions were try to help team-mate Millar move into the yellow jersey. "My legs felt great, but with Piepoli I found myself a little out gunned." Millar lost time and now sits fifth overall, three seconds behind his team-mate Vande Velde.
By finishing third on the stage and ending up second overall by just six seconds behind Kirchen, Evans made a huge impression with his staying power today. He played defence, as he had to do. He held on to the winning express while his closest contender heading into the stage, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), came in another six seconds later. In the GC, Evans now sits ten seconds ahead of the unfortunate Schumacher.
"I expected Valverde to accelerate. It was the same situation as the first day," said a happy Evans. "There were two main objectives: not to lose time on guys like Valverde and to gain time on other guys if it is possible. I saw that I gained time on Menchov and Cunego."
Cunego finished 32 seconds back and now is 1'42" back on the overall, in 14th place.
The day's breakaway belonged again to three Frenchmen. This time it was Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) and Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux). Chavanel took over the lead in the mountains classification, where he is tied on points with Thomas Voeckler.
How it unfolded
The start in Aigurande was taken by 176 riders at 12.25pm. One more rider to bail out of the race was Aurélien Passeron from Saunier Duval, who had crashed into a spectator yesterday. Under a beautiful sky and in warm temperatures, the peloton took off on the 195.5km journey to Super Besse.
Quickly, breakaway attempts moved off the front, with three Frenchmen finally managing to jump away: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) and Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux). Chavanel was the one to initiate the escape at km 6, while Bichot and Vaugrenard countered soon after to join him.
Three more riders tried to make it to the leaders, but failed: Stéphane Goubert (AG2R), John Lee Augustyn (Barloworld) and Danny Pate (Garmin-Chipotle). The gap grew continuously. After 33 kilometres, it was already over two minutes.
At km 57, the leaders had 4'50 advantage over the bunch. On the Côte de l'Armelle (Cat. 4, km 70), Chavanel took the points before Vaugrenard and Bichot. The Cofidis rider was out to get the polka dot jersey today.
The trio was given a maximum advantage of five minutes at the summit of the first categorized climb - after that, their lead started to shrink. By the Côte de Crocq (Cat 4, km 89), taken again by Chavanel, the peloton was 4'15 behind.
By the feed zone (km 111), the bunch led by Gerolsteiner was just 3'20 behind. The German squad wanted to keep Stefan Schumacher's yellow jersey, with the other teams also looking forward to a showdown of the GC favourites later on Super Besse. While grabbing his musette, Florent Brard (Cofidis) crashed, but was not hurt badly.
With 76km to go, Cadel Evans had a mechanical, but it was quickly fixed. A bit of rain came down on the riders, but it soon stopped again.
When the escape group got to the foot of the first Cat 2 climb of this year's Tour, the Col de la Croix-Morand (km 158), their advantage was a mere two minutes. Chavanel accelerated with six kilometres to go before the summit and dropped Vaugrenard.
Out of the bunch came Rémi Pauriol (Crédit Agricole) but he was reeled in before the summit, together with Vaugrenard. Chavanel remained in front, together with Bichot, while polka dot jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) came out of the peloton to defend his mountains lead in the final metres before the KOM. He claimed third place, 56 seconds behind the two leaders.
On the climb, a sprinter's autobus formed around green jersey Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), which was almost four minutes back as the favourites geared up for the final ascent to Super Besse.
With 25 kilometres to go, Bichot accelerated, but Chavanel stayed put. But the bunch was only half a minute away, so Chavanel ended his effort and waited for the peloton five kilometres later. Bichot insisted and held an advantage of 25 seconds.
With 18 kilometres to the line, Crédit Agricole's Alexandre Botcharov tried to bridge up to Bichot but failed. He was swallowed by the bunch - led out by Caisse d'Epargne - three clicks later. Bichot himself finally surrendered with 13km to go.
With 11 km to the line, French champ Nicolas Vogondy went down, as well as Erik Zabel, but both were able to continue. Now started a series of attacks that were all countered by a favourites-led group that got decimated in number as the kilometres went by and Caisse d'Epargne maintained a furious rhythm.
First, Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) attacked with Maxime Monfort (Cofidis), but they didn't go far. Next up were Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole) and Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), with David Moncoutié (Cofidis) bridging up to them a little later. Efimkin and Moncoutié managed to hold a gap, while the others were reeled in.
With five kilometres to go, Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) countered. Moncoutié couldn't hold the pace, and neither could Efimkin. Piepoli and Vande Velde continued and hit the steep section of the climb with 1.5km to go just before getting caught again.
Caisse d'Epargne led the favourites group through the flamme rouge. Evans, Valverde, Ricco, Sastre and Kirchen were in front watching each other, with Cunego getting dropped. As they began to sprint, yellow jersey Schumacher crashed 300 metres from the line after touching Kirchen's rear wheel. He was quickly up again, but lost some time.
Ricco outsprinted everyone and led Valverde and Evans over the line. Frank Schleck came in fourth, with Kirchen finishing fifth and therefore taking the yellow jersey from the German.
Stage 7 - Friday, July 11: Brioude - Aurillac, 159km
Stage seven will mark the Tour's second day in France's Massif Central. Despite being on of the shortest stages of the race, it will be no easy day for the peloton. Like the previous stage, the course will be nervous as it traverses the twisting and rolling roads of this part of the country. There will be very little flat riding all day, but the main obstacle will be the second category Pas de Peyrol (Puy Mary) with 42 kilometres remaining.
The historic city of Brioude is another of this year's first-time stage towns, but Aurillac has been visited six times before. The last time the Tour finished here was 1985, and the 237.5-kilometre stage from Saint-Étienne was won by Spain's Eduardo Chozas. Race leader Bernard Hinault had crashed in the sprint on the previous stage and was riding to his fifth overall victory with a fractured nose.
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