Unless you’re a diehard Bouygues Telecom fan, stage 14 of the 2006 Tour de France won’t be remembered as a day marked by large time gains or big victories. The 180.5km stage from Montélimar, in northern Provence, to Gap, in the foothill of the southern Alps, will go down as a day of crashes, abandons and drama.
A spectacular sequence of riders overcooking a right turn at the end of a winding descent with 40km remaining took down half of the day’s six-man breakaway, opening the door for Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom) and Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Fondital) to ride on and contest the stage victory. In the final meters Fédrigo out-kicked the weary Italian, while American Christian Vande Velde (CSC) chased in vain ahead of a splintered peloton to take third.
Not so lucky were Rik Verbrugghe (Cofidis), David Cañada (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile). Verbrugghe was leading the breakaway when he slid out because of what Fédrigo said was melted tar deforming the road surface and launched over a guardrail. The Belgian rider sustained a complex fracture of his left femur and won’t race again this year.
An instant later, Cañada braked and the Spaniard lost control of his bike on a patch of gravel and slid across the road into the guardrail, breaking his right clavicle. Trying to avoid the fallen Cañada, Kessler, the winner of stage 3 into Valkenberg, locked up his wheels and was catapulted over the guardrail. Kessler miraculously remounted his bike and soldiered on to finish in 124th place, 12 minutes down.
The incident was reminiscent of Spaniard Joseba Beloki’s race-ending crash in 2003, also into Gap. That crash, also on melted tar, was made infamous by Lance Armstrong’s quick reflexes and deft bike-handling to miss Beloki, leave the road and continue down across a field.
Sunday’s crash did not affect the overall standings and the top 15 on GC remained unchanged. With a 1:20 lead over American Floyd Landis, Spaniard Oscar Pereiro of Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears retained the race leader’s yellow jersey heading into Monday’s rest day in Gap. Tuesday’s ascent up to L’Alpe d’Huez, however, is sure to reshuffle the overall standings.
Out in pairs
On another hot day in southeast France, two Cat. 3 pitches warmed the peloton of 160 riders before a pair of Cat. 2 climbs closed off the stage. The final climb, the Col de la Sentinelle, topped out just 9.5km from the finish, and delivered a fast, twisting descent into Gap.
Though not a particularly difficult day on paper, the semi-mountainous stage, through valleys strewn with lavender fields and olive orchards, was littered with switchbacks and narrow roads. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know it was going to be that hard,” said CSC’s Dave Zabriskie, who finished 104th on the stage, 8:04 down.
Signs of duress in the peloton were evident even before the race began. American Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) hinted that he might not make it through the day. Former Tour of Lombardy winner Italian Mirko Celestino (Milram) pulled out after 80km, and 2004 Paris-Roubaix winner Marcus Bäckstedt (Liquigas) got off his bike shortly after.
The day’s first significant breakaway slipped away from the peloton on the first Cat. 3 climb, the Côte du Bois-de-Salles, just 10km into the stage. But with American George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) and Dutch rider Michael Boogerd (Rabobank) in the break, Phonak took to the front and brought the group back within 20km. Surprisingly, two-time Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni was dropped by the pace, and would cross the finish line in a small group 20 minutes behind the leaders.
Two kilometers after the first break was caught Commesso and Fédrigo attacked, and were joined by Kessler, Christophe Moreau (AG2R), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d’Épargne), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Mario Aerts (Davitamon-Lotto), Patxi Villa (Lampre), Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Egoï Martinez (Discovery Channel). But by the day’s first sprint point, in La Bonté, 50km into the stage, the GC contenders had sat up to leave only Martinez, Kessler, Aerts, Commesso and Fédrigo up front, with a gap of 30 seconds over the peloton.
At the 52km mark, Verbrugghe and Cañada set off in pursuit of the leading five riders. By the time they reached the front, 20km later, Martinez had dropped back to the peloton, resulting in a lead group of six.
Behind, race leader Pereiro came to the front of the peloton and gave the orders to slow the chase. The gap quickly stretched, from 1:20 at 67.5km to 3:40 at 72.5km and five minutes at 85km, with Kessler doing the majority of the work. Atop the difficult, switchback Cat. 2 Col de Perty, nearly 100km into the stage, the gap reached its maximum of 5:40. The gap began to close as Quick Step-Innergetic and Liquigas came to the front to help Caisse d’Épargne with chasing duties.
It was on a minor, bending descent that the crash shattered the breakaway. Verbrugghe, who was leading the sextet, appeared to lock up his wheels and hit a guardrail on the left side of the road. Behind him, Fédrigo, Commesso and Aerts slipped through, but Cañada’s rear wheel caught some loose gravel and the Saunier Duval rider left a streak on the road as he slid into the guardrail about 10 meters before Verbrugghe’s launching spot. Kessler looked to have his bike in control behind Canada, but as the German slid to his left he simply ran out of road and also pitched off his bike.
Fédrigo was lucky to escape the carnage. — Verbrugghe’s bike hit him as it flew up in the air. “I was on Rik’s wheel,” said Fédrigo. “The road was uneven and then his wheel seemed to lock up. It was a bit like the crash of [Joseba] Beloki in Gap the last time. His bike hit me, but luckily it didn’t stop me from riding. It’s unfortunate for them. I hope they are okay.”
But Verbrugghe wasn’t okay, he was battered and bloodied and was carried off on a backboard. It was later revealed by a Cofidis team doctor that the Belgian, who won a stage at this year’s Giro d’Italia, will need to have a pin inserted in his fractured femur.
Closing the gap
Shortly after the crash, dark clouds began to loom over the Cat. 2 Col de la Sentinelle, which had a fast, winding descent into a finish that passed through five traffic circles in the final 2km.
As the lead trio hit the 5.2km climb, their lead had dwindled down to two minutes. Fédrigo attacked halfway up the climb, and though Commesso was able to hold the pace, Aerts was dropped. The pair — Fédrigo, a former French national champion, and Commesso, a two-time Italian national champion — reached the summit with a 25-second advantage over a dwindling lead group. Whether or not they would stay away to the finish was as certain as a coin toss.
Discovery Channel took the front in the final downhills, with Yaroslav Popovych trying to close the deficit, looking to set up Hincapie for a likely bunch sprint. But as the group hit the bottom of the descent, Vande Velde found an opportunity and hit the gas.
“Discovery was working for George, to maybe pull one off like they did at the Tour of California,” Vande Velde said. “Popovych went for it on the downhill, and that kind of messed up the chase. At the end, with about 1.5km to go, our group was spread out from side to side and I squeezed past Boogerd on the barriers. I had a little bit of a run going through there and I told Boogerd to watch out. No team was taking the bull by the horn, so I just went. It was a very outside chance. I was getting pretty tired myself, but the guys weren’t moving. I didn’t even see them when I went, but they were going so slow. I almost caught them at the end.”
As Commesso did when he beat Alex Vinokourov in a two-up cat-and-mouse sprint in Freiburg, Germany, at the 2000 Tour, the stocky Italian sprinter was all smiles in the final kilometer, grinning as he looked repeatedly over his shoulder at Fédrigo. A betting man would have been a fool to place his wages on the Frenchman, but Fédrigo played his draft perfectly, coming around Commesso in the final 50 meters. Once passed, Commesso could only bang his bars and shake his head. Vande Velde crossed the line three seconds later, four seconds ahead of a pack of 33 riders that contained all the GC favorites.
“That’s the reason why I tried to attack in the final climb,” said Fédrigo, whose stage win was the first for French squad Bouygues Telecom at this year’s Tour, and the third for a French rider. “When I looked round, Aerts couldn’t follow us but Commesso was still there. I knew he would be fast in a sprint for the finish, so I had to play some poker with him.”
As for the race leader, Pereiro was realistic about his chances of holding on to the yellow jersey in the coming days in the Alps, which offer a pair of consecutive mountaintop finishes followed by stage 17’s hors-categorie climb up the Col de Joux-Plane before finishing in Morzine.
“I’m a little tired but on the final climb today I still felt good and was able to stay at the front of the peloton,” Pereiro said. “I think that I’ve got some good form. Of course it’s my intention to defend the yellow jersey but I really don’t how it will finish in the Alps. But I’ll be riding at my limit to make this moment last as long as possible.”
Less than an hour after the stage ended and the riders had gone to their hotels, the dark clouds that had hovered overhead opened into a symphony of vicious thunder and hard rain. Had that rain come an hour earlier, one can only guess how the day had ended, and how many more riders might have ended up in the hospital.
1. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Bouygues Telecom
2. Salvatore Commesso (I), Lampre, same time
3. Christian Vande Velde (USA), CSC, at 0:03
4. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 0:07
5. Georg Totschnig (A), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
6. Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, s.t.
7. Cristian Moreni (I), Cofidis, s.t.
8. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, s.t.
9. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, s.t.
10. Alexandre Botcharov (Rus), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
1. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B.
2. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 1:29
3. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 1:37
4. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 2:30
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 2:46
6. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 3:21
7. Klöden Andréas (G), T-Mobile, at 3:58
8. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 4:51
9. Miguel Juan Miguel (Sp), Agritubel, at 5:02
10. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 5:13
To see how the stage unfolded, simply CLICK HERE to open our Live Update Window.