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Tour de France

Inside the Tour, with John Wilcockson – Hautacam is this Tour’s first major challenge

On a day when race leader Kim Kirchen of Team Columbia admitted he was suffering, and third-placed Stefan Schumacher of Gerolsteiner was dropped on the final climb, Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde rode as strongly as he has ever since the start of this 95th Tour de France — and he moved up to third place on GC. It’s already been a remarkable performance by the Chicago native, whose best previous Tour rides were 25th last year and 24th in 2006 when he was riding as a team player for CSC.

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By John Wilcockson

Vande Velde is playing the role of team leader for the first time of his Tour career.

Vande Velde is playing the role of team leader for the first time of his Tour career.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

On a day when race leader Kim Kirchen of Team Columbia admitted he was suffering, and third-placed Stefan Schumacher of Gerolsteiner was dropped on the final climb, Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde rode as strongly as he has ever since the start of this 95th Tour de France — and he moved up to third place on GC. It’s already been a remarkable performance by the Chicago native, whose best previous Tour rides were 25th last year and 24th in 2006 when he was riding as a team player for CSC.

Vande Velde has been groomed this year as the leader of the Garmin team by manager Jonathan Vaughters. That’s why he started this Tour with the Garmin team’s No. 1 slot, and why he is wearing No. 191 on his back. Before he started Sunday’s stage 9 in Toulouse, I asked Vande Velde how he felt about this new responsibility.

“It was a little intimidating at first,” he admitted, “but now I feel I’ve grown into that role. I feel pretty comfortable with it right now, actually.”

Never in his 11 years of pro racing has Vande Velde spoken with so much confidence. He has often had doubts about his ability, and he suffered through several seasons with a painful back and shoulder. But he has persevered. Asked whether he felt confident going into Sunday’s first true mountain stage, he said, “I do, actually, I do. As long as nothing has changed from the way I’ve felt the last couple of days, then I think I shouldn’t have so much trouble.” Then, he quickly added, “I hope.”

He needn’t have worried.

Vande Velde not only looks comfortable as the leader of his American team, but he also looks comfortable climbing alongside riders who only a year ago were his bosses at CSC: Carlos Sastre and Fränk Schleck. That was the case on Sunday in the Pyrenees. The 224km stage caused Schumacher to get dropped on the Col d’Aspin, an it also saw two other riders drop out of the top 10: Vande Velde’s teammate David Millar (who lost 3:17 and fell from seventh to 25th) and Team Columbia’s Thomas Lövkvist (who lost 5:10 and his white jersey as best young rider).

Millar’s drop down the rankings wasn’t a surprise given his build that’s not suited to climbing multiple mountain passes. Lövkvist, who lost contact with the 40-strong main group on the Col d’Aspin right when stage winner Riccardo Riccò attacked 4km from the summit, rode to the finish with his team captain George Hincapie.

Hincapie said he wasn’t surprised that the young Swede had a bad day. “He’s young and he’s worked really hard for the team all week,” said the American team captain. “He has had a lot of stress and pressure. So, no, it’s not a surprise he had a bad day.”

Vande Velde is new to the duties of team leader, but he has been seasoned working as a team rider in all three grand tours, including the recent Giro d’Italia where he wore the leader’s pink jersey for a day when he and the team won the opening team time trial, and finished 52nd in the final classification.

Decision time at Hautacam
There have been three Tour stages that have finished atop the ski station of Hautacam — in 1994, 1996 and 2000. That first year, it was the only climb of the stage, which was also the first one in the high mountains. Miguel Induráin was already in the yellow jersey, but he rode strongly on the Hautacam to add two minutes to his GC advantage over chief rival Tony Rominger. The Spaniard did not win the stage; he left that honor to Frenchman Luc Leblanc by a few seconds.

Two years later, Induráin was on the receiving end of a decisive attack by Bjarne Riis, who also went into the stage wearing the yellow jersey he had won in the Alps. The Dane played with the opposition and raced to a clear stage victory. As in 1996, there were no climbs earlier in the stage.

That wasn’t the case in 2000, when the race went over the hors-cat Col d’Aubisque immediately before the Hautacam. An earlier breakaway rider, Javier Otxoa, started the climb 10 minutes ahead pf the GC favorites and he won by less than a minute ahead of Lance Armstrong. The Texan made one of the most decisive attacks of his career to gain three minutes on Jan Ullrich and five minutes on Marco Pantani — and take the yellow jersey.

Each time the Tour has had a stage finish at Hautacam, the rider who wore the yellow jersey at the end of the stage (Induráin, Riis and Armstrong) defended his lead all the way to Paris. Will history repeat itself on Monday? Maybe not. Cadel Evans was all set to take the yellow jersey at Hautacam, being only six seconds behind current leader Kirchen. The Luxembourger will almost certainly lose the lead, but the bad crash Evans suffered 110km from the end of Sunday’s stage could prevent him making the decisive effort he needs to make on the brutal 14.4km Hautacam climb.

Of his rivals, the ones most likely to challenge Evans for the yellow jersey on Monday are Denis Menchov, Alejandro Valverde, Carlos Sastre (and his CSC teammates Fränk and Andy Schleck), and stage 9 winner Riccò. The brilliant Italian climber said in his post-race press conference that he wants to help his Saunier Duval-Scott teammate Leonardo Piepoli win the stage. If Riccò does that then he will be sure to ride hard with Piepoli all the way to the finish. That would be a wonderful return gesture for the stage win Piepoli helped Riccò take last year on the prestigious Tre Cime di Lavaredo stage at the Giro d’Italia.

A joint Riccò-Piepoli attack to Hautacam on Monday could break this Tour apart; it’s even possible that the two friends could gain the two and a half minutes that separate Riccò from Evans on the current GC. But knowing the determination with which Evans wants to win this Tour, and his tolerance for pain, I would bank on the Aussie fulfilling his dream.

As for Vande Velde, he has been riding so well, especially on the climbs, that he should still be in the top five by the end of the momentous stage. For the first time, the mighty hors-cat Col du Tourmalet precedes the climb to Hautacam. The Tourmalet will filter the leaders down to a very elite group, with only a few — Sastre, Riccò, Evans and Valverde — likely to start the final climb supported by a teammate or two.

Whatever the outcome, what’s certain is that the frequent 10- and 9-percent grades of the Hautacam will guarantee a wonderful race you won’t want to miss.

These are the relatives positions of our top favorites going into the stage:

OUR 11 FAVORITES(after nine stages)
1. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 38:07:19
2. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 0:06
(3. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 0:44)
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 1:03
6. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 1:12
7. Stijn Devolder (BEL), Quick Step at 1:21
9. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1:27
10. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 1:34
11. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:56
12. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:58
15. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre at 2:09
21. Riccardo Ricco (ITA), Saunier Duval at 2:35