Defending champion Alberto Contador (Astana) took back 10 seconds of his deficit to yellow jersey Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) on Friday as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) won the 12th stage of the Tour de France.
Contador’s teammate Alexander Vinokourov was off the front on the final obstacle of the day, the Côte de la Croix-Neuve, and going for the stage win, when Contador abruptly rocketed out of the yellow-jersey group in response to an attack by Rodriguez.
The two quickly caught and dropped the Kazakh, and fought it out for the stage win, Rodriguez crossing the line first. Contador took second — but more importantly, he took seconds, Schleck having been unable to match the speed of his attack.
Vinokourov hung on for third, and Schleck fought back to minimize his losses and retain the maillot jaune for another day.
Two other jerseys changed shoulders, though. Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam) regained the green points jersey, while Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) reclaimed the polka-dot jersey as best climber.
“I am very happy to win this stage,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that Andy and Alberto would be watching each other and I knew I would have a chance. The legs responded when they needed and I was able to fend off Contador in the sprint. The main goal was to try to win a stage, we’ll see about the GC.”
As for Contador, he proclaimed himself “very satisfied with today’s stage.”
“It’s always important when you can take time,” he said. “I didn’t see Andy attacking, so I decided to go. I always like this climb and I had good sensations. The team did a great job today. I am only sorry Vinokourov couldn’t win.”
Another hot day in the hill country
The 210.5km leg from Bourg-de-Péage to Mende began with a winding and rolling route through the narrow back roads of the Massif Central. It featured five categorized climbs, three Category 3 ascents and two Cat. 2s.
The day’s climbs
- The Category 3 Côte de Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain, summiting at 31km.
- The Category 3 Col des Nonières, at 59km.
- The Category 2 Suc de Montivernoux, at 96km.
- The Category 3 Côte de la Mouline, at 133km.
- The Category 2 Côte de la Croix-Neuve, at 208.5km, 2km.
That final climb was the steepest of the entire Tour, just 3.1km long but averaging 10 percent, with 14 percent pitches on its three switchbacks.
The temperatures were once again in the mid-90s, with a light wind. The peloton was down to 177 riders after Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) withdrew due to general fatigue and Mark Renshaw (HTC-Columbia) was ejected for head-butting Garmin’s Julian Dean in Thursday’s sprint finish.
Some 20 riders gassed it on the Cat. 3 Côte de Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain, splitting the peloton; among the protagonists were Schleck and Contador. But it seemed more test than attack, and the bunch soon regrouped.
Next to go was a three-man group containing Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions), Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) and Alberto Faria Da Costa Rui (Caisse d’Epargne).
Hesjedal was best placed in 12th overall at 5:42, and thus they would not get much leeway. But Fedrigo led over the Côte de Saint-Barthélémy-le-Plain with Hesjedal second and Da Costa Rui third before they were dragged back to the bunch.
Behind, a crash took down Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), throwing a monkey wrench into his battle for the polka-dotted mountains jersey.
Next to go were former yellow jersey Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Farnese) and Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux). They never made much headway and soon were back in the bunch as the peloton approached the day’s second climb, the Cat. 3 Col des Nonières.
A big break goes away
Going over the top a group of 18 had formed, representing 15 teams, with a lead of 24 seconds. Hesjedal was in there again, and so too was Vinokourov, 14th at 6:31 and Andreas Klöden (Team RadioShack), at 20th at 9:05.
Charteau and Hushovd were in there, too, hunting mountain and sprint points, respectively. Hushovd took second at the first intermediate sprint, good for four points and a tie with green points Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese).
Meanwhile, Charteau led Christophe Kern (Cofidis) and Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse d’Epargne) over the Col des Nonières, retaking the polka-dot jersey.
Charteau set about padding his lead in the mountains competition as the break rolled along. He took second behind Sandy Casar (FdJ) on the third climb, and first on the fourth.
The early break
- 12. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin–Transitions), 12th at 05:42
14. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) 14t at 06:31
20. Andréas Kloden (Team RadioShack), 20th at 09:05
24. Sandy Casar (FDJ), 24th at 10:46
31. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Team HTC-Columbia), 31st at 17:50
33. Mario Aerts (Omega Pharma – Lotto), 33rd at 20:09
34. Rémi Pauriol (Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne), 34th at 20:26
39. Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel – Euskadi), 39t at 26:28
47. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom), 47th at 38:27
48. Rafael Valls Ferri (Footon-Servetto), 48th at 39:10
54. Amaël Moinard (Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne), 54th at 46:16
61. Mathieu Perget (Caisse D’Epargne), 61st at 49:53
63. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), 63rd at 50:52
72. Mauro Santambrogio (BMC Racing Team), 72nd at 56:03
76. Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse D’Epargne), 76th at 58:01
96. Christophe Kern (Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne), 96th at 1:13:18
129. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam), 129th at 1:28:06
167. Grega Bole (Lampre – Farnese), 167th at 1:48:47
At the 103km mark the break held an advantage of 2:20.
Hushovd won the next intermediate sprint and broke his tie with Petacchi, regaining the green jersey.
Breaking the break
Then Klöden accelerated and split the break. Hesjedal, Vinokourov and Vasil Kiryienka (Caisse D’Epargne) matched him and all of a sudden it was a four-man break. Content with his work, Hushovd sat up and drifted back, having snagged all the points on offer barring those awaiting him at the finish.
With 44.5km to go, the gap was going out, to 3:32. A 12-man chase group, the remnants of the original break, was hovering some 45 seconds behind the quartet.
But as the kilometers ticked off, the chase was closing in, to 15 seconds with 15km to go. The peloton was a further 90 seconds in arrears, with Liquigas, Cervélo, Saxo Bank and Omega Pharma-Lotto providing the horsepower.
Five kilometers from the line the foursome had 45 seconds on the chase as they approached the final obstacle, the Category 2 Côte de la Croix-Neuve.
Hesjedal was immediately in difficulty, shooting out the back of the break. Klöden was next. Kiryienka was setting the pace with Vinokourov on his wheel.
John Gadret (Ag2r) jumped out of the bunch but got nowhere. Schleck and Contador were riding side by side, but Sky’s Bradley Wiggins was drifting backward.
Ahead, Vino’ shed Kiryienka with 3km to go as the bunch caught Hesjedal.
Contador seizes the day
And then Contador countered a move by Rodriguez, catching Schleck by surprise. The two men quickly caught Vino’ and drove forward, the Kazakh unable to match their pace as they shot over the summit of the Côte de la Croix-Neuve and began the descent to the finish.
Schleck was losing ground, 11 seconds behind, as he crossed the top.
Rodriguez got the win ahead Contador with an clearly irked Vinokourov finishing third. The yellow jersey crossed at 10 seconds, his advantage over the defending champ now just 31 seconds.
“I couldn’t quite follow Contador when he attacked, but Mende is a special climb. It’s very explosive,” said Schleck. “The Pyrenees will decide everything. I am glad I defended the yellow jersey. There’s no need to panic. The stage was very hard today but the team rode great to protect me.”
- Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) abandoned the Tour on stage 12.
Saturday’s stage 13 will be a beautiful day for spectators, as it passes through a landscape full of deep gorges and hilltop villages on the southern end of the Massif Central. The hardest climb of the day is the Cat. 3 Côte d’Ambialet. The shorter St. Ferréol climb could be decisive on the finishing loop before a flat run-in to the line.
When the Tour finished in Mende in 1995, two men were left from a long successful breakaway that finished 19:14 ahead of the peloton. One was Armstrong, the other a Ukrainian, Sergei Uchakov. Armstrong failed to drop his rival on the St. Ferréol climb and was favored to take the sprint — but he was devastated when he lost.
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