American Floyd Landis (Phonak) may have started stage 15 of the Tour de France listening around him for the Russian inflection of Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, but after a dramatic 187km stage that featured three alpine climbs and ended in rain clouds atop L’Alpe d’Huez, the Phonak team leader will spend stage 16 paying closer attention to the German language of T-Mobile’s Andreas Klöden.
Klöden, who finished second at the 2004 Tour de France, was Landis’s main general classification rival on the 21 switchbacks of the infamous Alpe, accelerating early on the climb behind teammate Andreas Kessler and matching Landis’s more conservative pace at the top. The German finished the stage alongside the American and moved up from seventh to sixth overall.
Ahead of the overall contenders, CSC’s Fränk Schleck dropped breakaway companion and 2004 Giro d’Italia winner Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital) 2.5km from the line to become the first Luxembourger to win on cycling’s most storied mountain. It was a Tour-debut victory for the 26-year-old Schleck, who won the Amstel Gold Race in April, and it was CSC’s second stage win of the Tour.
In addition to a shift in adversaries, Landis will also begin stage 16 wearing the yellow jersey of the race leader. Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears), who Landis essentially “lent” the leader’s jersey for a few days, lost 1:39 to Landis on the final climb and now sits second overall, 10 seconds down. Another GC hopeful, Aussie Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) crossed the line with Pereiro and sits in seventh, 2:56 back, with his hope for a yellow jersey fading.
And while the day was a disappointment for Evans, his teammate Robbie McEwen came one step closer to the green points jersey after the abandonment of world champion Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic). Boonen, who failed to win a stage this year after winning two of the first three stages in 2005, had complained of a sore throat and got off his bike — on the second of the day’s climbs, the Col du Lautaret. McEwen now holds a 45-point lead over Rabobank’s Oscar Freire, who has won two stages in this Tour.
A big breakaway
While Tuesday’s stage won’t be remembered as the hardest of this year’s Tour, it was widely anticipated as the first of three consecutive alpine stages, especially as two of the last three Alpe d’Huez finishes were taken by seven-time Tour champ Lance Armstrong.
And the mysticism of a stage win at the Alpe didn’t disappoint. On stage 15, riders faced the 14.2km climb of the hors-catégorie Col d’Izoard, the 12.1km Cat. 2 Lautaret, and the 13.8km climb up the hors-catégorie climb to L’Alpe d’Huez, which averages 7.9 percent.
Only 30km into the stage, the day’s key breakaway was established after the high pace created a split in the field. In that group were George Hincapie and Egoï Martinez (Discovery Channel); Eddy Mazzoleni (T-Mobile); David Zabriskie, Jens Voigt and Schleck (CSC); Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner); José Luis Arrieta (AG2R); Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank); Axel Merckx (Phonak); Cunego and Patxi Vila (Lampre); David Arroyo and Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Épargne); Anthony Charteau (Crédit Agricole); Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel); Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis); KOM jersey wearer David de la Fuente and Ruben Lobato (Saunier Duval-Prodir); Bernhard Eisel and Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux); Stefano Garzelli and Michael Albasini (Liquigas); Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom); and Christian Knees (Milram).
The 25 leaders immediately opened a gap of 50 seconds, which quickly stretched to three minutes within 15km. Of the leaders, Hincapie, Voigt, Zabriskie, Flecha and Garcia-Acosta had previously won Tour stages, while Schleck was the best-placed rider in the group, 10:06 behind Pereiro.
Schleck said he initially drew some criticism for his presence in the break. “It was meant that I stay with Carlos [Sastre] until the end to help him out,” Schleck said. “But it came that way that I got in a breakaway and we had three guys up there. A lot of riders told me to go back, because I was too close in overall, but I had 10 minutes and I said no, and I don’t have to pull, either.”
The peloton hit the slopes of the legendary Izoard 4:30 behind the 25 escapees. Venezuelan José Rujano (Quick Step), the King of the Mountains from last year’s Giro d’Italia, attacked from the peloton at the base of the climb with little reaction from the field. Ahead, Garzelli, the 2000 Giro winner, attacked the lead group, which was shedding riders as the pace up the Izoard quickened.
The peloton crossed the summit 6:30 behind Garzelli while, ahead, Martinez crashed on the descent and, though he took several minutes to recompose himself, later rejoined the main bunch. Knees also crashed on the descent, with an official’s vehicle nearly running over the Milram rider.
As Garzelli reached the town of Briançon, 105.5km into the stage, his gap over a diminished group of Hincapie, Schleck, Voigt, Zabriskie, Mazzoleni, Arrieta, Merckx, Cunego, Vila, Arroyo, Charteau, Landaluze, Chavanel, De la Fuente and Lobato had dropped to just 30 seconds. The Liquigas rider sat up to rejoin the breakaway at the feed zone, with Flecha and Wegmann also rejoining the group 3:05 ahead of Rujano’s eight-man chase group and 4:50 ahead of the peloton.
Attacks began again on the gently sloped Lautaret, as Vila and De la Fuente surged ahead of the lead group. Zabriskie and Voigt led the chase up the Lautaret, cresting the climb 30 seconds behind the two Spaniards. The peloton was four minutes back having caught the Rujano group while, further back, Boonen abandoned as rain began to fall.
On wet roads down the 30km-long Lautaret descent, Zabriskie took to the front and drove the group in his trademark aerodynamic tuck, with Voigt also contributing to the pace.
“It was important that we were represented in the breakaway,” Zabriskie said. “But once we had Fränk in the break, I knew we were riding for the win.”
Battles on the Alpe
The scene on the 21-turn Alpe d’Huez was a chaotic mix of enthusiastic fans and fading breakaway riders dropping back to aid their team leaders.
The pace of the chase quickened as the leaders reached the town of Bourg d’Oisans, at the foot of the Alpe, with a lead over the peloton of 3:30. After both Zabriskie and Voigt sat up, Schleck was alone with just seven riders: Cunego, Lobato, Hincapie, Chavanel, Vila, Garzelli and Mazzoleni. After Vila softened up the group, forcing Hincapie to drop back (he would arrive in 30th place at 4:31), Cunego attacked repeatedly, paring the lead group until only Schleck could follow. While the young men battled for the stage win, the fight for the yellow jersey began to take shape three minutes behind them.
Kessler, who has had a spectacular Tour after winning stage 3 and crashing dramatically on stage 14, took to the front and pulled as Klöden, Landis, Menchov and Evans followed. But after Kessler dropped off the group Menchov lost contact. With 10km remaining, Schleck and Cunego held a tenuous 2:50 lead over Landis, Klöden and Evans, while Pereiro struggled behind. In between the leaders and the GC contenders, the remnants of the day’s breakaway, including Landis’s teammate Merckx, trudged up the mountain alone.
The race situation changed again as Landis surged, dropping Evans, while Schleck and Cunego slowed, allowing Mazzoleni to regain contact. And after Landis reached a slowing Merckx, the pace allowed Sastre and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) to catch the Landis group before Klöden upped the pace, looking to distance himself from Sastre.
“All I could do is ride my own pace,” Leipheimer said. “They went into the bottom so hard, and I don’t like that. And then I got on a good wheel with Sastre, he was doing all the work. And then when Merckx was going, that was okay, that was pretty comfortable, but I knew eventually that Klöden was going to attack, and I just couldn’t… my legs were dead at that point.”
Klöden’s attack proved too much for Merckx, Leipheimer and Sastre, while one minute up the road, Cunego and Schleck again rode away from Mazzoleni. The T-Mobile rider then dropped back and set the tempo for Klöden and Landis, while Garzelli, Lobato and Chavanel hitched on for a ride to the finish line.
With just over 2km remaining, Schleck attacked on a steep section of road and opened a quick gap on Cunego, who was unable to respond. By the finish, the CSC rider’s advantage had grown to 11 seconds, and while he zipped up his jersey and flexed across the finish line, Cunego could only shake his head at what could have been.
“I knew it was not possible to arrive with Cunego, because he is a faster sprinter,” Schleck said. “My attack wasn’t planned, but when you have an opportunity to win a stage like Alpe d’Huez you have to take it, because it won’t happen too many times in your life.”
Seventy seconds after Schleck crossed the line Garzelli outsprinted Landis for third place, while Klöden took fifth in the same time. Sastre was ninth at 1:35 to stay fifth overall and Leipheimer finished 10th at 1:49, to move into ninth overall. A disappointed Menchov finished 11th, at 2:21, while Evans finished 16th at 2:29 behind Schleck, and dropping two places to seventh overall at 2:56 behind the American.
“Not good enough today, not good enough,” Evans said. “That’s all there is to it. I tried. Tomorrow I’ll try to hang on again.”
The next rider on GC, T-Mobile’s Michael Rogers, now sits over five minutes down. Frenchman Cyril Dessel of AG2R, who dropped his chain at the foot of the help, finished 19th on the stage, and now is third on GC, 2:02 behind Landis.
After the stage Landis was questioned about his conservative approach — he never really attacked, only putting in one surge on the climb to reach his teammate, Merckx. Instead, he spent most of the final climb following Klöden’s wheel.
“I attacked to get to Axel,” Landis said. “I assumed Klöden would be fine, and it was fine with me that he was there. It would have been just as well if Pereiro kept his lead. I only had to stay with Klöden, that was my objective.”
Klöden was likewise content with his ride. “I felt very strong today,” he said. “Way stronger than I felt in the Pyrénées, where I had cramps. The whole team worked really well. We decided this morning we had to place someone in the breakaway if it was bigger than six riders. Mazzoleni did that, and Kessler did a great job of tearing apart the peloton in the first kilometers of Alpe d’Huez. It was a pity that I was the only guy pulling, but I can understand because Landis is ahead of me.”
Again questioned about his decision not to defend the leader’s jersey on stage 13, essentially loaning it to Pereiro for stages 14 and 15, Landis grew terse.
“I don’t care at all [about the criticism],” he said. “I think it was the wise thing to do, and anyone that knows anything about bicycle racing didn’t’ say anything bad about that. Bicycle racing is a tactical game. To my way of thinking is I would like to save my team as much as possible, right up until the last day if it’s possible.
“With that in mind, I will do what I can do to race conservatively, and let other people win stages. I think it shows confidence in me and in my team. I’d like to win a stage, but I don’t have to. If I finish the race without a stage win but with the yellow jersey, I will be more than happy.”
Judging by his form Tuesday, the Phonak leader is more than able to do just that. He climbed the 14.2km of L’Alpe d’Huez the fastest of anyone, with a time of 38:34, followed by Klöden (38:35), Sastre (38:59), Leipheimer (39:13) and Menchov (39:42). All these riders should again be in the picture Wednesday for the most brutal stage yet of the Tour, 182km from Bourg d’Oisans to the summit finish of La Toussuire via the Col du Galibier, Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Mollard.
1. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC
2. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre, at 0:11
3. Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 1:10
4. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, same time
5. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
6. Ruben Lobato (Sp), Saunier Duval, at 1:14
7. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Cofidis, at 1:18
8. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), T-Mobile, at 1:28
9. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 1:35
10. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 1:49
1. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak
2. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B., at 0:10
3. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 2:02
4. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 2:12
5. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 2:17
6. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 2:29
7. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 2:56
8. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 5:01
9. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 6:18
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 6:20
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