Yellow jersey on the defensive after teammates’ failure
Lance Armstrong looked around near the summit of the rather anonymous Cat. 2 Col de la Schlucht in the chilly Vosges Mountains and couldn’t find many friendly faces. In the big front group he was with, there were no other Discovery Channel riders. No Chechu, no Triki, no Popo. Not even his 2005 favorite mountain goat, José Azevedo.
What the six-time Tour champion did see were lots of riders licking their chops. For the first time in years at the Tour de France, Armstrong was isolated.
“It was not a great day. I didn’t feel very good and the other teams did feel good,” said Armstrong, who finished 20th to retain the overall leader’s jersey. “It was not a great situation for me to be alone in a group like that, with a fast downhill. I just had to try to limit the damage and stay at the front.”
The 231km stage 8 was just meant to be an appetizer for the main courses waiting in the Alps, but the final high-speed run up the Schlucht climb electrified the Tour as it entered its second week.
Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team ganged up on Armstrong, just like they always said they would do. Illes Balears was throwing down the gauntlet, trying to set up rookie star Alejandro Valverde. And CSC confidently put four men into that privileged front group
A pumped up Chris Horner was there, so was Cadel Evans. The revived Joseba Beloki and Roberto Heras were riding strong for Liberty Seguros. In all, 32 riders made it through with the first group behind the breakaway pair; stage winner Pieter Weening (Rabobank) and runner-up Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile).
The big buzz was Armstrong riding up a mountain without his domineering Discovery Channel bodyguard putting out the fires. “Under situations like that, it would be hard to win the Tour. We have to evaluate where we are and make some adjustments,” Armstrong admitted. “It was a strange climb, it’s a long climb, not very steep, able to keep 30-40-50 guys there and they’re able to take shots at you from the back and it’s hard to control all those attacks.”
Fire in the hole
Midway up the Schlucht, Alexandre Vinokourov opened the hostilities for T-Mobile with a trio of stinging attacks that punched a hole through Armstrong’s protected layer of Discovery Channel jerseys.
Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole) also made an early jab, as did Valverde, all moves that left Discovery Channel in shambles. Two-time Giro champion Paolo Savoldelli covered the first two attacks, but the Italian then had to leave the responsibility of chasing to Armstrong himself.
The problem for Armstrong was there were still 30 men and a long way to the summit before the winding descent to the flat finish in Gérardmer. Most of the other main contenders had teammates.
“We finally had another team pulling hard on the mountains with Illes Balears. That was the situation we’ve always been waiting for. We had two or three riders attacking and others from different teams,” said T-Mobile sport director Mario Kummer. “That’s the situation we’ve always dreamed of. Maybe Discovery Channel is beatable.”
An inspired Klöden, back in form after an uneven spring, went up the road chasing the stage win while a determined Jan Ullrich marked Armstrong, who had his hands full covering moves from all sides.
“Our tactics were to attack,” said Ullrich, who was looking sharp after stumbling out of the blocks last weekend. “Vino tried first, then it was Andreas’s turn. My job was to stay with Lance. It was just the first mountain of the Tour. That was a lot of fun.”
It might have been fun for Ullrich and Co., fun for tens of thousands of fans packed onto the narrow road and fun for cycling hacks who couldn’t quite believe their eyes — some were already suggesting that Armstrong was bluffing, as he did on the Alpe d’Huez stage in 2001 — but according to Armstrong, it was no fun at all.
“I wasn’t great. I was isolated and I was suffering,” Armstrong said. When asked what was wrong he quickly added, “That’s a great question. I don’t know. Perhaps we’ve been a little too active, maybe the guys are tired. I can’t comment until we sit down with them.”
Most of the big contenders made it through with the lead group. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), Floyd Landis (Phonak), Bobby Julich (CSC) and Chris Horner (Saunier Duval) all finished 27 seconds back.
For those in the front-row, it was an impressive afternoon.
“I’ve never seen a team just implode like that,” Julich said of Discovery’s apparent troubles. “I don’t even think Lance understood what was going on there. T-Mobile are either over their limit or they’re much stronger than I thought they were. We got a race on our hands.”
Chasing the jersey
The 231.5km stage from Pforzheim, Germany to Gérardmer was the hilliest so far, with the opening 143.5km of racing inside Germany before crossing the Rhine and returning to France where it will stay (except for a short detour into Spain on stage 15).
The course opened with four Cat. 3 climbs across Germany’s Black Forest followed by a long flat along the Rhine Valley before plunging into the Vosges mountains with the Col de la Schlucht, the first Cat. 2 climb of this 92nd Tour.
Two riders, Christophe Mengin (Française des Jeux) and Sergey Gonchar (Domina Vacanze), didn’t sign in. Three more would abandon: Sylvain Calzati (Ag2r), Isaac Galvez (Illes Balears) and Leon Van Bon (Davitamon-Lotto), to leaving 180 riders in the race.
With the day’s first climb, the Cat. 3 Dobel hill (5.9km at 5.9 percent) coming at 14.5km, it didn’t take long before the hostilities began. Jörg Ludewig (Domina Vacanze) and Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval) were the first to go, followed by a more dangerous group.
CSC’s Kurt-Asle Arvesen shot ahead followed by teammate Jens Voigt in an attempt to grab the yellow jersey, but George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), starting the stage second at 55 seconds back, marked his wheel. Also slipping out were Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Andrey Kaschechkin (Crédit Agricole) and Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux).
“I’d like win a stage or take the King of the Mountains jersey, either one would be great,” Rasmussen told VeloNews on Friday. “The Vosges will be important because that’s the first hard climbs of the Tour.”
Rasmussen took advantage of the bumpy start, scooping up the climber’s points at all four climbs as he went off alone ahead of the Hincapie-Voigt group.
Dave Zabriskie, the Utahan who wore the yellow jersey for the opening three days, hasn’t fully recovered from his crash in the team time trial and he was having trouble staying in contact with the peloton on the short, demanding climbs. He’d suffer throughout the day, riding across the line last in 180th at 51:12 back — just 3:30 inside the time cut.
Zabriskie wasn’t the only one to be dropped. The early climbs also spit out a group of some 35 riders, including green jersey Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Wegmann, the Gerolsteiner rider who started the day with the KoM jersey. They fell almost four minutes back before reaching the valley roads and had a long chase to re-catch the peloton
Already, T-Mobile was very active, placing six men at the head of the pack to reel in the Hincapie-Voigt break, which finally lost its momentum coming out of the Black Forest. Rasmussen was content with the points he earned that put him into the jersey.
There were a flurry of other attacks, but nothing stuck until Nicki Sørensen (CSC) was joined by Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Caffita), Cédric Vasseur (Cofidis), Weening, Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) and Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak). Three in the break were previous Tour stage-winners, with Vasseur winning in La Châtre in 1997, Flecha in Toulouse in 2003 and Commesso twice, in Albi in 1999 and 2000 in Freiburg.
Sørensen was the best-placed rider on GC, starting the day 20th only 2:01 back. The leaders soon opened up a gap of 3:15, putting Sorensen safely into the virtual Tour lead.
The group held a 6:10 gap as it rolled through the town of Guemar at the 164.5km mark. Illes Balears then started to hammer the pace at the front, intent on setting up its Tour rookie, Valverde for a possible stage win.
The leaders were soon on the final climb, the Cat. 2 Col de la Schlucht. At 16.8km long, the climb averaged 4.4 percent, hardly the steepest climb the Tour will face this year, but the first serious hurdle the peloton’s faced since leaving France’s west coast a week ago.
At the base of the climb, the break’s lead had narrowed to three minutes. When the gap was down to 2:25, Weening made a strong attack to drop his fellow escapees. Sørensen, Flecha and Commesso gave chase, but the long, lanky Dutchman was flying toward the summit.
“I knew that was the right moment to attack, because if I waited for the group to get closer, I was sure we would be caught,” said Weening, 25. A promising young rider, Weening is often tipped as the next big star in Dutch cycling, more so than the much-hyped Thomas Dekker.
The main bunch pulled within 50 seconds of Weening with 5km still to climb, but the Dutchman hung tough. Attacks livened up the pace behind him when Klöden finally shot out and gave chase, catching Weening just short of the summit.
“I was glad to hear that Klöden was coming up, because alone it would be more difficult to hold off the peloton,” Weening said. “On the descent, I took a little breather but the peloton was close.”
So close, in fact, you could see the long line of the main bunch trailing behind Klöden and Weening on the snaking descent. The bunch came within eight seconds, but Illes Balears couldn’t find any allies to shut down the gap. The lead pair kept hammering and suddenly the gap opened to 25 seconds with 2km to go.
Weening was on Klöden’s wheel for the final sprint and just had enough to hold off the more experienced veteran to earn his first victory as a professional.“We just said to each other, come on, let’s keep going. We’ve come this far, make them catch us,” said Weening, who squirted past Klöden’s right shoulder to take the photo-finish by less than a centimeter. “If the sprint had been two meters longer I wouldn’t have made it. My legs were completely spent.”
Stage 8 -Pforzheim to Gérardmer >231.5km
1. Pieter Weening (Nl), Rabobank, 231.5km in 5:03:54(45.705kph)
2. Andréas Klöden (G),T-Mobile, same time
3. Alejandro Valverde (Sp),Illes Balears, at 00:27
4. Kim Kirchen (Lux),Fassa Bortolo, at 00:27
5. Jens Voigt (G),CSC, at 00:27
6. Jan Ullrich (G),T-Mobile, at 00:27
7. Cadel Evans (Aus),Davitamon-Lotto, at 00:27
8. Christophe Moreau (F),Credit Agricole, at 00:27
9. Christopher Horner (USA),Saunier Duval, at 00:27
10. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz),T-Mobile, at 00:27
Full results are posted
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, 1322.5km in 28:06:17 (47.056kph)
2. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, at 01:00
3. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 01:02
4. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, at 01:07
5. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 01:26
6. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, at 01:36
7. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 01:36
8. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, at 01:47
9. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 01:50
10. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 01:50
Full results are posted
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