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Crazy Tour takes another weird twist
By Andrew Hood
It was a mountain too far for Floyd Landis in Wednesday’s epic, four-climb stage 16 across the French Alps as the already-crazy 93rd Tour de France dropped more bombshells in an attack-riddled charge up the finishing climb to La Toussuire. The Phonak team captain apparently bonked on the lower flanks of the 18.4km final climb and saw his hopes of overall victory sink after finishing 22nd on the day, losing eight minutes to the other contenders in the final 12km.
A rejuvenated Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Épargne-Illes Balears) bounced back into the yellow jersey, while Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) won the stage after an all-day attack that also snagged the polka-dotted best-climber’s jersey. It was one of the most dramatic Tour stages in a generation.
“Sometimes you don’t feel well, and sometimes it’s on the wrong day,” said Landis, who plummeted to 11th overall at 8:08. “Today was not a good day to have a bad day. What can I say?
“I don’t think it was a problem of not eating enough. I just wasn’t good from the beginning…. A lot of times I feel that way and I come around at the end. There was never a flat part for 15 minutes where I could recover. I think I would have been better off, but that’s how it goes.”
The Landis implosion was the worst by a legitimate yellow-jersey contender since Jan Ullrich cracked and lost the 1998 Tour de France over the Col du Galibier, the climb that (from the opposite direction) opened Wednesday’s high drama in the mountains.
Despite appearing to be in position to win the 2006 Tour after he re-took the yellow jersey from Pereiro at L’Alpe d’Huez on Tuesday, Landis appeared to be already in difficulty coming up the hors catégorie Croix de la Croix-de-Fer that summited at 55km to go.
With temperatures pushing into the 90s, Team CSC and Caisse d’Épargne drove the pace up and over the day’s third climb, the Cat. 2 Col du Mollard 20km later.
By the time the lead bunch of about 20 contenders hit the base of the Cat. 1 La Toussuire climb, Landis was running on empty, his ashen face in marked contrast to his sweat-soaked yellow jersey.
“I was struggling even on the climbs before that,” Landis said. “I tried to hide it, but I wasn’t good, and then on the last climb there was only a certain speed I could go, which wasn’t very fast.”
Landis’s rivals smelled blood when Denis Menchov (Rabobank) attacked with 14km to go and the race leader couldn’t immediately respond. Sixteen riders came back together before Carlos Sastre (CSC) sprang away 12km from the summit.
T-Mobile still had three men in the group, and the German squad’s Michael Rogers and Eddy Mazzoleni immediately led the chase for team leader Andreas Klöden. Their acceleration left Landis for dead. The 30-year-old Pennsylvanian-turned-Californian saw his dreams of becoming the third American to win the Tour disappear up the road.
“I saw that Landis couldn’t give any more, so I went on the attack,” said Sastre, who bounced from fifth to second overall, 1:50 back. “It’s like a war out there. You have to attack when you can.”
From there, it was every man for himself. Sastre rode like a man possessed to try to distance the T-Mobile trio, while Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Pereiro hung on for the ride.
The Spaniard, who was runner-up to Menchov in last year’s Vuelta a España, caught and passed the attacking Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), who shot away on the Croix de la Fer, and drove it home to take second place behind Rasmussen, 1:41 back.
T-Mobile then did most of the heavy lifting to drop Cyril Dessel (Ag2r) and the struggling Menchov. Pereiro came through in third at 1:54, sprinting home just ahead of Evans and Klöden, to move back into the lead a day after losing it to Landis on L’Alpe d’Huez.
“This Tour has been ‘loco.’ No one expected Landis to lose so much time,” Pereiro said. “Today it crossed a very important hurdle. The podium is looking more secure. If we can get through tomorrow, we can dream of winning this Tour de France.”
Crazy is right. Pereiro came to this Tour to help captain Alejandro Valverde, but when he crashed out in the first week, the team’s hopes faded to black when Pereiro lost nearly 30 minutes across the Pyrénées. But Pereiro grabbed the yellow jersey Saturday in a controversial decision by Landis to allow the jersey to “ride away” to take pressure off his Phonak team.
Now it’s Landis whose name is scratched off the contenders’ list, and this Tour is again very much wide open. There are still four riders (Sastre, Klöden, Dessel and Evans) within three minutes with just four days left.
“To me, [Floyd] was the big favorite and now he’s blown up,” said Davitamon-Lotto director Marc Sergeant. “Sastre and Klöden look good. It’s going to be a thriller.”
The four-climb stage was being hyped as the most difficult of this year’s Tour.
Wednesday morning, team cars and riders traced their way down the 21 hairpins of L’Alpe d’Huez to arrive in Bourg d’Oisans for the stage start just before noon. Fans were caught by surprise when they spied Lance Armstrong riding in one of the Discovery Channel team cars. The seven-time Tour champ continued his Tour visit, riding in the team’s No. 1 car during the stage.
Temperatures pressed into the 80s at sign-in and everyone knew it was going to be a long, hard day in the saddle.
CSC’s Sastre said before the start, “We have to wait to see how the next days unwind. This has been a very different Tour de France, very open, not a lot of control. I don’t think anything is decided. I am tired after Tuesday but I am very motivated and I think we still have chances. The stage is very important to decide the overall in the race.”
One rider intent on making a statement was Rasmussen. When David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval) slipped away in a long break in Tuesday’s stage, the Dane saved his legs and helped tow team captain Denis Menchov up the Alpe. But with the polka-dot jersey still in play, Wednesday was going to the skinny Dane’s time to step back into the limelight following a fairly quiet Tour so far.
The bunch was agitated from the gun, and Rasmussen got away after only 6km. He was quickly joined by Slovenian climber Tadej Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital). Also bridging out was Sandy Casar, the plucky French rider on Française des Jeux. They quickly drove a wedge into the peloton as the course ramped up some steep, punchy pitches heading out of the valley floor.
“I’ve been riding in the service of the team so far this year because we still have a contender for the yellow jersey,” Rasmussen explained. “I talked to the sport director yesterday and I said, ‘I am going to do it my way today.’ Ninety percent of my season happens in these three days and it’s really important for me to perform.”
Rasmussen’s aggressive move prompted a chase from the bunch, but most of the contenders were content to save their matches for the upcoming monster climbs. Among riders giving chase were José Luis Rubiera and Yaroslav Popovych (both Discovery Channel), Ivan Parra (Cofidis) and José Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval), among others, in a 13-man chase group.
Rasmussen rode the rails, leading the way over the Col du Galibier to take the 5000-euro “Souvenir Henri Desgrange” prize at the highest point of the 2006 Tour, 8681 feet above sea level. The chasers, led by Sylvain Calzati (AG2R), the winner of stage 8, were three minutes back. The main bunch rolled over the windy, treeless summit at 4:40.
Several riders crashed on the tricky, high-speed descent, including key Landis helper Miguel Martin Perdiguero (Phonak), Christophe Brandt (Davitamon-Lotto) and Manuel Calvente (Agritubel). Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati (Lampre) was forced to abandon after injuring his left hip and calf, and Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), who slammed into a concrete wall, would drop out of the top 20 overall to 38th, at 52:01.
Rasmussen dropped Casar and Valjavec on the day’s next climb, the 22.7km-long Col de la Croix de Fer, which tops out at 6781 feet. “Chicken” would keep spinning his spindly legs to take the day’s KoM points and move into the virtual lead in the polka-dot-jersey competition.
Midway up the Croix de la Fer, Leipheimer sprang away from the main pack, which had dwindled to about 30 riders. He quickly surged to open a 150-meter gap and glanced under his right shoulder. No one was giving immediate chase, and away he went.
Team CSC and Caisse d’Épargne both took turns turning the screws on the yellow-jersey bunch. Landis was left with just Axel Merckx as his Phonak teammates wilted under the heat and speed.
Rasmussen cleared the Croix de la Fer, 4:55 ahead of Valjavec, 5:31 ahead of the fast-charging Leipheimer and Casar, who latched on to his wheel, with David Moncoutié (Cofidis) springing ahead of the bunch at 7:51 and Calzati leading the way for the main back at 8:25.
This status quo would hold to the foot of the day’s third climb, the short but steep Cat. 2 Col du Mollard. Rasmussen led the way again, 4:45 ahead of Leipheimer and Valjavec, who hitched a ride on Leipheimer’s wheel. Casar lost the plot and crossed at 7:00, with the Xabier Zandio (Caisse d’Épargne) leading the yellow-jersey group at 7:25.
Rasmussen hit the base of La Toussuire holding a 4:20 gap on Leipheimer and Valjavec (who would quickly fade) and 6:15 on the small bunch of team leaders.
Christophe Moreau (Ag2r) was the first to get dropped. The veteran Frenchman, who finished second overall at the Dauphine Libéré in June and rode well up this same climb, would later claw back to the leaders and help tow teammate Dessel to the line.
Others were quick to follow, including Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile) and Markus Fothen (Gerolsteiner). Merckx took the final pulls in the opening kilometers of the climb and pulled off to leave Landis isolated in the front group, which was now down to 16 riders.
With just under 14km to go, Menchov attacked and sent a jolt through the front group. The Russian sprang away, prompting Rogers, Pereiro and Evans to grab his wheel.
The world soon found out why Landis wasn’t quick to chase. With 12km still to race, Spanish rider Sastre shot up the right side of the road to open a big gap, prompting T-Mobile’s Rogers and Mazzoleni to take up the chase.
And then, Landis simply blew. His face ashen, his yellow jersey drenched in sweat, unable to take a feed from his team car, the Phonak captain had the look of defeat etched on his scrunched-up face as rider after rider slipped past his slumped shoulders.
Sastre, meanwhile, was gaining ground, putting a minute into the chase group of Rogers, Mazzoleni, Klöden (T-Mobile), Pereiro (Caisse d’Épargne), Moreau and Dessel (AG2R), Menchov (Rabobank), Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Pietro Caucchioli (Crédit Agricole).
Leipheimer’s efforts started to cost him and Sastre bridged up and then dropped him, to keep driving up the climb.
With about 5km to go, Klöden attacked to drop everyone except Evans and Pereiro. The trio was closing in on the suffering Sastre while Rasmussen was grinding up the road to maintain his winning advantage.
Rasmussen came through with an emotional victory and swept up enough points to capture the king of the mountains jersey.
“Many of the favorites were afraid of what was coming. Levi was the only one to try and he really didn’t come close to me,” Rasmussen said. “I did the entire stage from start to finish in early June, so I knew every meter of the course. I was prepared for what was coming and that makes it a lot easier mentally.”
Sastre came through in second at 1:41, with Pereiro shooting out to take third 1:54 back, to move back into the yellow jersey a day after losing it to Landis on Alpe d’Huez.
A dejected Landis came through 10:04 behind Rasmussen, his yellow jersey soaked in sweat, his face sunken from the effort and his dreams of winning this crazy Tour de France completely shattered.
Nevertheless, when asked if things could change for him Thursday, Landis said in typical fighting fashion, “Yeah, it could change for a lot of reasons and for a lot of different people. My chances of winning the Tour are very small at this point. But I’ll keep fighting because you never know what’s going to happen next. But I wouldn’t say the odds are good.”
Meanwhile, Klöden, who finished runner-up to Lance Armstrong in 2004, remains optimistic about his chances. If he sees a chance to attack the yellow jersey on Thursday’s final, less punishing day in the Alps, he’ll take it.
“I have to see how the legs are. It’s getting tougher day by day,” said Klöden. “But if we have a chance to attack tomorrow, then we have to. To close a deficit of 2:29 on Pereiro on the time trial will be too difficult. We have to try to claw back more time before then.”
Klöden admitted that it had been unwise to allow Pereiro, who before the race was not considered a big contender, to move up the general classification after his long breakaway on stage 12.
“It’s too bad we gave Pereiro that gift of nearly 30 minutes,” he said.
1. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank
2. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 1:41
3. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B., at 1:54
4. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 1:56
5. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, same time
6. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 2:37
7. Pietro Caucchioli (I), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
8. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 2:37
9. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 3:24
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 3:42
1. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne-I.B.
2. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, at 1:50
3. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 2:29
4. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 2:43
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 2:56
6. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank, at 3:58
7. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 6:47
8. Christophe Moreau (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 7:03
9. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 7:46
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 8:06
To see how the stage unfolded, simply CLICKHERE to open our Live Update Window.