By Andrew Hood
Since the 2003 Tour route was released in December, Sunday’s stage 8 over the Télégraphe and Galibier climbs and up the 21 famed switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez had all the makings of a classic.
Well, it certainly lived up to expectations.
More than 400,000 fans lined the twisting, 14km final climb to Alpe d’Huez and enjoyed one of the most spectacular and exciting Tour stages in years.
Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) delivered on his promise to win a Tour stage and shot away from a lead group of favorites with just over 7km to go and held on for the biggest win of his career.
Lance Armstrong surged into the yellow jersey, but it wasn’t easy for the four-time Tour winner. Armstrong held off blistering attacks from Joseba Beloki (ONCE), Alex Vinokourov (Telekom) and Tyler Hamilton (CSC) — who rode through another painful day on the bike with a fractured right collarbone.
The overnight leader Richard Virenque (Quick Step) faltered on the lower flanks of Alpe d’Huez to end his dream of wearing the maillot jaune in Monday’s Bastille Day stage, but at least he’ll have the best climber’s polka-dot jersey to wear for his fans.
The day’s major losers were Gilberto Simoni (Saeco), whose woes continued, and Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), who joined three other teammates in an early Tour exit suffering with a virus.
Meanwhile, Jan Ullrich (Bianchi), Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola) and Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole) struggled through their own personal tribulations to remain in contention.
Like Armstrong said after donning the yellow jersey for the first time in the 2003 Tour, this race is far from over.
Hundreds of thousands of fans packed the course throughout the day as the French continued to show their affection for the Tour’s 100th birthday. A hot summer sun welcomed the riders in Sallanches who enjoyed wonderful unobstructed views of snow-clad Mont Blanc.
There were plenty of early attacks in this monster stage. Virenque, bedecked in all yellow for his first day in the maillot jaune since 1992, jumped early and grabbed the day’s first mountain points over the Cat. 3 Côte de Megève. The day’s first move went when Juan Antonio Flecha (ibanesto.com) and Angel Casero (Bianchi) slipped off the front over the Megève summit. Jens Voigt (Crédit Agricole) bridged up to join the move and the peloton broke into two groups.
Things came back together before the day’s second climb, the Cat. 3 Côte des Rafforts at 30km, and Virenque slipped ahead to pad his lead in the KoM competition.
Ag2r’s Nicolas Portal shot off the front and at 60km was joined by four riders — Axel Merckx (Lotto-Domo), Franck Rénier (La Boulangère) and Pierrick Fedrigo (Crédit Agricole). The break stayed away to the base of the Télégraphe at 121km.
Fedrigo and Rénier dropped Merckx and Portal and chugged upward. Saeco’s Gerrit Glomser attacked off the front of the main bunch heading up the climb. Fedrigo won the points at the Télégraphe while Virenque came through fifth with the main bunch.
U.S. Postal –Berry Floor then took over setting the pace up the long, grinding Galibier, the Tour’s highest point at 2645 meters. The attackers were brought back with about 7km to go to the summit. Postal’s George Hincapie, Manuel Beltran and José Luis Rubiera set a punishing pace that sent Simoni off the back.
“I’m very disappointed again today,” said Simoni, who finished 45th, 12:42 back. “I had my strong will today, but nothing else. That’s all that kept me in the race today. I will start tomorrow, but I cannot continue like this.”
Armstrong said he could tell up the Galibier that his legs weren’t responding the way he would have liked. “I could tell I didn’t have great legs on the Galibier and I made the decision to ride a conservative day,” Armstrong said. “It was not a great day, but you don’t have to make a show every day.”
One rider intent on making an impression in this year’s Tour is Vini Caldirola’s Stefano Garzelli, who shot ahead to take the points over the Galibier and win the 5000-euro Souvenir Henri Desgrange, a prize in honor of the Tour’s founding father.
“I’m proud that I was first over the Galibier because I have been having breathing problems and I wanted to leave a sign of my presence at this Tour,” said Garzelli, who finished 15th at 4:46 and sits 17th overall, 4:44 back.
On the descent, French champion Didier Rous (La Boulangère) and Basque rider Mikel Astarloza (ag2r) went on the attack and hit the base of Alpe d’Huez with a 2:30 lead. On the approach, U.S. Postal’s Roberto Heras tangled up his bike and fell off without suffering major consequences.
Mayo on the march
Mayo has been nipping at Armstrong’s heels since June’s Dauphiné Libéré. Throughout the Tour dress rehearsal, Mayo was attacking Armstrong in the mountains and only ceded the race for the time he lost in the individual time trial.
Euskaltel was intent on making something happening on the Tour’s most famous climb and loaded three riders into the early front group at the base of the Alpe.
The base of the climb saw a familiar sight as Postal moved to the fore and newcomer Beltran set an explosive pace off the front. Too explosive, according to Armstrong.
“There’s no doubt about that. ‘Triki’ is new to our team and he went too hard, too fast. A fast tempo is a good thing, but that was super-sonic. That was not a good thing because it immediately put ‘Chechu’ (Rubiera) in trouble,” Armstrong said. “If it looked fast on TV, I can confirm it — it was very fast.”
The acceleration fractured the front group and race leader Virenque immediately fell off the back.
“It was very fast and I felt right away that I was not going to be able to keep the pace,” said Virenque, who finished 35th and slipped to 18th overall, 4:48 back. “I tried to protect the yellow jersey for the first few kilometers but I soon realized it was a mission impossible. I just went at my own rhythm.”
Beltran’s work thinned the lead group to about 15 riders. Rubiera took a pull until Beloki (ONCE) delivered on his promise to attack with 11km to go. Beloki’s move forced Armstrong on the defensive and his chase brought the lead group down to just five riders: Armstrong and Heras (USPS), Mayo and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) and the surprising Tyler Hamilton (CSC).
Beloki would attack Armstrong and the leaders at least two more times but he was content to finish with the front group.
“I am content that I was able to stay with Armstrong because the American had the strength to bring me back. He rode a very smart race,” said Beloki, now second overall, 40 seconds back. “It’s possible that he’s not as strong as other years, but he’s still strong enough to win the Tour. I will keep attacking because I don’t want to just finish on the podium. I want to win.”
Heras was setting the pace when Mayo shot ahead with 7.3km to go and never looked back. The Alpe d’Huez climbing record looked like it might be in danger, but Mayo spent much of the final 800 meters celebrating his apparent victory.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Mayo, who won in 5 hours, 57 minutes, 30 seconds with an average speed of 36.775 kph. “I don’t care if I wasted some time toward the finish. I wanted to savor every moment because this may never happen again,” he said.
Mayo’s attack carried him more than two minutes ahead of the Armstrong group and shot him into third place overall only 1:10 back. Mayo came here with the ambitions of winning a stage; he balked at talk of winning the Tour.
“There is still a lot of Tour remaining, but it’s very complicated to think about the overall,” Mayo said. “There are still many hard stages left and now I just want to enjoy this victory.”
Armstrong in yellow
With Mayo up the road, Vinokourov made a move and hung on to finish second in the stage and move into fourth overall, 1:17 back.
The lead group was down to Armstrong, Heras, Zubeldia, Roberto Laiseka (who bridged up but later faded), Francisco Mancebo (ibanesto.com), Hamilton, Beloki and Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo).
Hamilton had a great day and defied many expectations that he couldn’t ride with the best with a fractured collarbone. The tough New Englander stayed with Armstrong on the bottom part of the climb and even made a few moves toward the top, which he insisted were to keep the pace at a steady speed instead of the painful accelerations that wrack his shoulder with pain.
“The legs felt super all day,” Hamilton said. “On the first steep parts of the climb, I didn’t want to panic. I knew if I could hang on Lance’s wheel after his acceleration I knew I would be okay.”
Hamilton said he has only 50-percent strength in his shoulder, something he says handicaps him in the sharp accelerations. Hamilton hung on to finish an impressive seventh and bounced to sixth overall, 1:52 back. Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis was more than happy.
“I think what Tyler did today was something amazing and now I believe he is a contender again in this Tour,” said Riis, a 1996 Tour winner. “The next few days are important for Tyler. Maybe the shoulder can begin to even heal.”
Armstrong admitted he didn’t have the same form that shot him to victory at Alpe d’Huez in 2001, when he “bluffed” bad form early in the stage and then delivered the now-famous “look” before jetting to victory in a stage that’s now part of cycling’s lore.
“There was no bluff today. It was a hard day. There were a lot of attacks and I didn’t have the greatest legs – no bluffing,” said Armstrong. “This Tour still has a long way to go. I won’t forget that. This race is not finished.”
Armstrong said he was puzzled by the tactics of his fellow riders, who seemed more interested in trying to attack him instead of working together to limit the losses to Mayo and increase the advantage on riders such as Jan Ullrich (Bianchi), who was suffering in their wake.
“The tactics were interesting,” Armstrong said. “The other riders were all looking at me. My job was to follow the attacks. If we had worked together, the distance to Mayo could have been less and the gap to Ullrich more…. The other attacks didn’t go far, but you have to control them. When Mayo went, he went. I decided to let Mayo go and limit my losses against Beloki.”
In the lead group’s wake, Moreau suffered through a broken spoke that inhibited him from standing out of the saddle and said his team car was too far back to change bikes. He powered through to finish with Ullrich, Heras and Alessio’s Pietro Caucchioli, 3:36 back.
Ullrich rebounded from a bad start on the lower flanks of the climb to limit his losses, said Bianchi’s team manager Rudy Pevenage.
“Ullrich had a stomach bug after the team time trial and he was quite weak,” said Pevenage, who admitted they kept the news a secret. “We think he’s recovering and in the light of all that, his performance today was sensational.”
Armstrong’s now in yellow but even the four-time Tour champion admitted things are not on cruise control.
“If you had asked me a month ago if I would suffer like that on Alpe d’Huez, I would have said ‘no way.’ Let’s hope things get better, not worse,” he said. “I’m perhaps not as strong as other years. I’ve had some problems that I’ve felt since the beginning of the Tour. I feel like I’m getting a little better.”
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