Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer rode a tactically perfect race Saturday to inch closer to overall victory in the Dauphiné Libéré during a dynamic 169km climbing stage that saw Iban Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) return to the winner’s circle.
With Russian challenger Denis Menchov (Rabobank) crashing on the tricky descent off the Cat. 2 Col du Mollard with about 30km to go, Leipheimer rode with calm confidence to finish fourth at 1:37 behind winner Mayo to widen his lead to 1:48 over Christophe Moreau (Ag2r) with just one stage to go.
“Today was a big day and it turned out perfect,” said Leipheimer, who finished third overall last year. “I didn’t suffer at all and I just had to follow the wheels of the strongest climbers. Tactically, it was easy for me today.”
The Gerolsteiner captain woke up feeling strong in sunny Briançon and was confident he could handle anything Moreau or Menchov threw at him. The “queen stage” tackled such classic cols as the Galibier and the Croix-de-Fer before the new summit finish to the La Toussuire ski station at 1700 meters.
But it was the steep, rough Mollard descent that would foil any chances Menchov had of derailing Leipheimer’s victory train.
Moreau, who started the day third, unleashed a reckless attack coming down the Galibier and the Col de Telegraph early on and the Frenchman tried it again after topping over the Croix-de-Fer and the Mollard climbs later in the stage. Leipheimer and Menchov chased, but the Russian’s front wheel slid out on loose gravel.
“It was a very dangerous descent,” Leipheimer said. “There was a lot of gravel and it was not a good road. It looked like his front tire hit a big piece of gravel and his front wheel washed out. It didn’t look like he was badly hurt. I was so concentrated on not crashing myself. I did see him come back.”
But the banged-up Menchov couldn’t follow the Leipheimer group’s pace on the final climb, eventually crossing the line 19th at 5:23 back, his right side covered in dirt. He slipped from second to sixth at 4:14 back.
Leipheimer then paced up the 18.5km climb up Toussuire with Moreau and Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval) to finish fourth at 1:37, all but securing overall victory with just one stage left.
Mayo back in the high life
Three Spanish riders, each with something to prove, hit the base of the Toussuire climb with what looked like a winning gap of 1:42.
Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile), Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) and Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) formed a Spanish armada on the hardest day of the Dauphiné Libéré. David Arroyo (Caisse d’Epargne) was originally part of this group that chugged away over the Croix-de-la-Fer, but he faded on the long, hot climb.
Sevilla was once Spanish cycling’s hot new star after finishing second in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana, but he has struggled the past few seasons with injuries and bad luck.
He was eclipsed by Mayo, who shot to prominence after his thrilling victory at L’Alpe d’Huez in the 2003 Tour. The flashy Basque seemed poised to challenge Lance Armstrong’s Tour stranglehold in 2004 when he took two minutes out of the Texan on the climbing TT up Ventoux en route to winning the Dauphiné that year. But he suffered one of cycling’s most spectacular implosions, struggling with back problems, viral infections and a general loss of morale.
Now he, too, has been overshadowed by another rider, Valverde, the latest up-and-comer to feed the dreams of Spanish glory in the Tour.
Valverde threw the first punch, dropping Sevilla with about 10km to go. But 5km later it was Mayo’s turn to drop Valverde, and he soloed home for an emotional win, his first since his dramatic Dauphiné victory in 2004.
“I went two years without winning and yesterday I came close (second), so today I knew I could do it,” said a happy Mayo. “I cannot describe the joy I feel right now. After the awful year I had last year, this victory washes away the bitter taste in my mouth.”
After suffering through a winless and injury-plagued 2005 season with knee and back problems, Mayo focused on regaining his confidence. His form started to come around at such races as the Volta a Pais Vasco in April. But Friday’s ride, when he finished second to breakaway winner Ludovic Turpin (Ag2r), gave him the injection of confidence his morale needed.
“More than anything, it’s been my head. I made the sacrifices last year, but I had some injuries and I could never find my rhythm,” Mayo explained. “It was a vicious circle, but I knew the legs were coming around. Yesterday’s result confirmed to me I was back.”
Mayo will return to the Tour de France next month, but with very different goals. No longer a giant-killer, he will tackle the race with the same wild abandon he did in 2003, when he won a stage and finished sixth.
“After trying to max for the Tour for two years and having it fall completely apart, I won’t go with any concrete goals,” he said. “It seems I do better without the pressure of any specific goals. I will go back to regain the taste for the Tour and see how the race unfolds.”
With the Galibier coming early, it didn’t take long before the strongest riders pulled clear of a weary bunch that wasn’t looking forward to a hard day in the saddle. The 169km, four-climb race mirrored the same stage the peloton will see in the final week of the Tour next month.
A group of about 15 riders pulled clear over the Galibier’s “easy” side – though at 21km at 5.5 percent to the 2556m summit, that’s hardly easy in anyone’s book – and things came back together despite Moreau’s early attack off the long descent on the twisting Col de Telegraphe.
Moreau spiced things up again on the long 22.5km climb at 7 percent up the Col de la Croix-de-Fer at 113km. Working in the group were Valverde, Caucchioli, Menchov, Leipheimer, Piepoli, Wielinga, Sevilla, Kohl, Arroyo and Azevedo.
Arroyo, Mayo, Sevilla and Valverde then pulled clear from this group coming over the Croix summit and hit the base of the Cat. 2 Col du Mollard, 6km at 7 percent at 133.5km, nursing a 30-second gap on the Leipheimer group, now back up to about 25 riders.
The gap to the “Spanish armada” widened to 1:28 over the Mollard summit, as Sevilla led the way with the mountain points.
In the yellow-jersey group, Moreau made another stab, drawing out Leipheimer and Menchov before the whole bunch hurtled down the harrowing descent to the base of the final Toussuire climb.
Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) was providing a helpful tow for Leipheimer as the bunch hit the base of the day’s final climb, with the Spanish armada holding a lead of 1:43 at the base.
One final hurdle
The 58th Dauphine Libere ends Sunday with the 131km seventh stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Grenoble. The short course rolls down the valley before hitting the first of four rated climbs packed into the final half of the stage with the Cat. 3 Col du Barioz at 74. There are three Cat. 4 climbs sandwiched in over the next 35km, which could provide a springboard for non-threatening riders to attack in search of a stage win.
With Menchov’s slide, German phenom Bernhard Kohl (T-Mobile) moved into third overall at 2:51 back while Discovery Channel’s Jose Azevedo shook off a spill on the Galibier to finish strongly and move into fourth at 3:00 back.
Valverde inched up to seventh overall and Hincapie settled in nicely at 10th, 6:48 back.
Ryder Hesjedal (Phonak) is enjoying a fine week and enters the finale in 17th overall at 13:37 back while compatriot Michael Barry (Discovery) is 43rd in his first race back since crashing at the Tour of Flanders.
Dave Zabriskie (CSC) suffered through cramps Saturday, but sits 29th overall while Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) is 36th at 28:16. Floyd Landis (Phonak), using the Dauphiné as preparation for the Tour de France, is 49th overall.
With the hardest stage in the bag, Leipheimer inches toward becoming just the fourth American to win one of cycling’s most difficult and prestigious titles.
“I’m very happy, but it’s not over yet. Tomorrow is still a hard day,” Leipheimer said. “I’d love to win this race. After a stage like today, it doesn’t get much harder, more beautiful or more challenging than this. For me to ride so well in a day like that, I am happy.”
Stage 6, Briançon-La Toussuire
1. Iban Mayo (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, 169kkm in 5:01:42
2. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears, at 1:21
3. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r, at 1:37
4. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, same time
5. Leonardo Piepoli (I), Saunier Duval-Prodir, s.t.
6. Bernhard Kohl (A), T-Mobile, at 2:00
7. Jose Azevedo (Por), Discovery Channel, at 2:37
8. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Ag2r, at 3:17
9. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), T-Mobile, at 3:26
10. Pietro Caucchioli (I), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
1. Levi.Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, 24:58:49
2. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r, at 1:48
3. Bernhard Kohl (A), T-Mobile, at 2:51
4. Jose Azevedo (Por), Discovery Channel, at 3:00
5. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Ag2r, at 3:29
6. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 4:14
7. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears, at 4:21
8. Leonardo Piepoli Sdv (I), Saunier Duval-Prodir, at 5:13
9. Pietro Caucchioli (I), Crédit Agricole, at 5:45
10. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, at 6:48