Andrew Hood’s Tour de France Notebook – That brutal descent

The Bonette bust
Most Tours are decided on the climbs, but the 23.5km descent off the 2802-meter Col de Bonette made for some decisive moments in what’s been a wild 95th edition. There were several crashes, including a spectacular fall by John Lee Augustyne (Barloworld), who toppled over the edge near the summit, and another by Christian Vande Velde; the falls undercut their respective runs for glory.

By Andrew Hood

The Bonette bust
Most Tours are decided on the climbs, but the 23.5km descent off the 2802-meter Col de Bonette made for some decisive moments in what’s been a wild 95th edition.

There were several crashes, including a spectacular fall by John Lee Augustyne (Barloworld), who toppled over the edge near the summit, and another by Christian Vande Velde; the falls undercut their respective runs for glory.

Other GC favorites had their trials and tribulations as Frank Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) was able to retain his seven-second hold on the yellow jersey.

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) lost the wheel on the upper switchbacks and ended up losing 35 seconds on a day that he didn’t want to.

“Nothing special happened, I just lost the wheel on a corner. It was very technical and dangerous on the top,” said Menchov, who slipped to fifth at 1:13 back. “I didn’t panic, but I just wanted to get down as safe and fast as possible. When you’re alone with so much head-wind, it’s hard to regain time. It’s a pity to lose 30 seconds. I lost some time today, but tomorrow is a harder stage and there’s still the long time trial.”

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) isn’t known for his descending skills, but the Aussie claimed he was hoping to latch onto the wheel of renowned kamikaze Samuel Sánchez coming off the fearsome Bonette summit with 23km to go.

“In the descent, I wanted to go with Sánchez, and just on the corner, I went past a motorbike that was stopped, that’s where he took 200m and he stayed there until the final kilometer,” said Evans, who remained third at eight seconds back. “I didn’t go quite as well as I wanted. CSC rode an incredible pace for the entire climb. That made it a bit more difficult.”

Sánchez, meanwhile, was hoping to drop like a rock and perhaps even reel in the attacking leaders, but he too suffered on the twisting, off-camber descent.

“I was cramping in my calves and I just wasn’t at my best today. I lost contact on the climbing part so it took me a little while to catch the group and then pass them, so that cut into my advantage,” said Sánchez, who settled into ninth overall at 5:23 back. “It was a horrible stage and the heat made it ever worse. It was a stage to suffer. I collapsed at the line. I’m glad it’s over.”

Race leader Schleck was able to defend his yellow jersey despite having his own demons to overcome when the road turned downhill.

Schleck suffered a horrible crash in the Tour de Swiss last month when he came in too hot into a sweeping right-hander, hit the traffic guardrail and somersaulted into a ravine.

Luckily for Schleck, he wasn’t seriously injured, but that crash was on his mind as he snuck down the Bonnette with teammates Carlos Sastre and brother, Andy.

A pre-race chat with five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault helped Schleck endure the harrowing descent.

“That last downhill was really tricky. I had a lot of flashbacks of the crash of Pereiro and my crash in Switzerland when I flipped over the rail,” Schleck said. “Before the presentation in Brittany, I spoke with Hinault for about 30 minutes. He showed me some tricks on how to go downhill. It gave me some confidence today and we could get some time on Menchov.”

George Hincapie (Columbia) rode to fifth at just 24 seconds behind the winning, four-man break who held a gap over the summit. Hincapie lost contact in the final kilometer of the Bonette climb, but was unwilling to risk too much on the descent.

“I thought I could have gotten back on to catch that group and won the stage, but I would have had to risk my life,” Hincapie said. “I wasn’t willing to take that risk.”

We’re glad you didn’t, George.

Andy back in white
Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) is back in the white jersey after another phenomenal performance in the mountains.

The younger Schleck held the white jersey following the first Pyrénéan stage, but lost so much time after bonking up the Hautacam stage that he all but gave up on the best young rider’s classification.

Schleck was back at his best at Prato Nevoso, where he helped pace older brother, Frank, into the yellow jersey. He was back at it again over the Bonette, where he paced up the final half of the tortuous climb to gap Christian Vande Velde and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), who started the day in white.

Nibali chased back, but forfeited the prestigious white jersey by six seconds to Schleck.

“It’s nice to be back in white because after Hautacam, I lost so much time that all I am doing now is working for the team,” Schleck said. “Tomorrow is the big day for the team. I will work for Carlos and Frank and hopefully one of them will be in yellow at the end of the day.”

The Schleck brothers are extremely close. Frank gave Andy his first yellow jersey as a gift following the Prato Nevoso stage.

The pair were together on the podium following Tuesday’s stage, with Andy joking, “I’d like to change this white one for the yellow one.” Frank replied, “Andy will win the Tour someday. He’s got the right head for it. He’s strong, but he lives like a puppy dog right now. He lives at home still and my mom babies him too much. Once he toughens up, he’ll win the Tour.”

Alpe d’Huez
A list of the past 25 riders to win a Tour de France stage atop the legendary Alpe d’Huez climb, the climax of this year’s mountain stages:

? 1952: Fausto Coppi (ITA)
? 1976: Joop Zoetemelk (NED)
? 1977: Hennie Kuiper (NED)
? 1978: Hennie Kuiper (NED)
? 1979: Joachim Agostinho (POR)
? Joop Zoetemelk (NED)
? 1981: Peter Winnen (NED)
? 1982: Beat Breu (SUI)
? 1983: Peter Winnen (NED)
? 1984: Luis Herrera (COL)
? 1986: Bernard Hinault (FRA)
? 1987: Federico Echave (ESP)
? 1988: Steven Rooks (NED)
? 1989: Gert-Jan Theunisse (NED)
? 1990: Gianni Bugno (ITA)
? 1991: Gianni Bugno (ITA)
? 1992: Andy Hampsten (USA)
? 1994: Roberto Conti (ITA)
? 1995: Marco Pantani (ITA)
? 1997: Marco Pantani (ITA)
? 1999: Giuseppe Guerini (ITA)
? 2001: Lance Armstrong (USA)
? 2003: Iban Mayo (ESP)
? 2004: Lance Armstrong (USA)
? 2006: Frank Schleck (LUX)