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McEwen dashes Horner’s hopes; Armstrong holds lead

If American Chris Horner had hoped to leave an impression on his first Tour de France, he can consider his mission accomplished. The 33-year-old California native, who joined the Spanish squad Saunier Duval-Prodir at the end of the 2004 season after three seasons spent dominating the domestic calendar, came painfully close to winning stage 13 in Montpellier on Friday. But he was caught before the line by a hard-charging peloton. Instead of an amazing victory, Horner could only watch as Aussie Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) took his third sprint win of this Tour by edging out Stuart O’Grady

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By Neal Rogers

McEwen rockets out to another stage win

McEwen rockets out to another stage win

Photo: AFP

If American Chris Horner had hoped to leave an impression on his first Tour de France, he can consider his mission accomplished. The 33-year-old California native, who joined the Spanish squad Saunier Duval-Prodir at the end of the 2004 season after three seasons spent dominating the domestic calendar, came painfully close to winning stage 13 in Montpellier on Friday. But he was caught before the line by a hard-charging peloton.

Instead of an amazing victory, Horner could only watch as Aussie Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) took his third sprint win of this Tour by edging out Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis). McEwen’s lead-out man, American Fred Rodriguez, took third.

After spending 150km off the front of the 173.5km stage, nearly all of it in a five-man breakaway, Horner came into the final 5km with Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis), who had bridged from the peloton to the leaders with 14km remaining.

Throughout the looping run-in through the streets of Montpellier, the pair held a precarious lead over a hard-chasing field that was driven by Davitamon-Lotto and the Discovery Channel team of race leader Lance Armstrong. As the duo built up a maximum lead of 22 seconds, it appeared they might just stay away, but instead Horner made up one-half of one of those “tragic breakaways” the Tour produces every year, caught by the field in the dying seconds.

“I’ve seen it happen to many other riders and I knew it was going to happen to me sooner or later,” Horner said, still smiling about the day’s dramatic outcome. “Too bad it had to come at the Tour. Still, it was a spectacular day. I thought we were going to get caught 30km from the finish, so to make it that close to the finish, it’s a little disappointing, but I’ll take it. It was a fantastic chance to be a part of the Tour.”

Off to a hot start

Horner makes it into a break

Horner makes it into a break

Photo: Graham Watson

Though the flat 173.5km stage from Miramas to Montpellier, not far from the Mediterranean, there was no sea breeze to cool off the peloton. As temperatures climbed into the mid-90s, and with two big mountain days ahead in the Pyrénées, there was little likelihood of a change in general classification.

Before the day’s start, Rodriguez predicted a breakaway would take it to the line. “These stages between the climbing days almost always end up with a breakaway,” the American said. “We’ll be looking to see if we can set up Robbie, but I don’t think it will come to that.”

Voeckler makes it, too

Voeckler makes it, too

Photo: Graham Watson

Rodriguez had reason to doubt he’d be leading out McEwen in a field sprint. As reported on the Tour’s Web site, since the beginning of the “Armstrong Era” (dating back to when the American won his first Tour de France in 1999) none of the intermediate stages between the Alps and the Pyrénées (or vice-versa) have concluded with a bunch sprint. And at just 17km into the day, five riders looked likely to repeat history.

Initiated by Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), four other riders joined him: Frenchmen Ludovic Turpin (AG2R), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Télécom) and Carlos Da Cruz (Française des Jeux), and Horner. It was a surprise to see the American in the group, as at the stage start he’d sworn he was still smarting from his participation in the early move on the mountainous stage 11, which was eventually won by breakaway companion Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile).

Horner workin' it

Horner workin’ it

Photo: Graham Watson

“Today was supposed to be a rest day, and even at the team meeting [team directors] said not to do anything, just relax, recover, wait for Saturday and Sunday,” Horner said. “But Flecha went, and I was right there, so I had to go with him. Saunier Duval had to have someone in the break, and I was the only one there, so I had to just go ahead and follow it, and then there I was, in the break.”

By the top of the day’s only climb, the Cat. 4 Col de la Vayede out of Les-Baux-de-Provence at 26.5km, the group’s gap had grown to two minutes. With Horner the highest ranked on general classification, starting the day in 29th, 15:22 behind race leader Armstrong, the field was content to let the gap stretch to 9:20 at the 50km mark.

Adios, Alejandro

One of the big stories of the stage came 78km into the stage, when Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears), the winner atop the Tour’s most decisive stage yet — the Courchevel climb on stage 10 — abandoned due to tendonitis in his knee.

The 25-year-old Spanish sensation, racing in his first Tour, injured the knee when he banged it against his handlebars during the stage 4 team time trial. After outsprinting Armstrong at Courchevel, Valverde’s pain intensified at the start of stage 11 on the climb to the Col de la Madeleine.

“It’s better for me to stop now. The way my knee is it’s just not possible,” Valverde said. “I’m sorry to be pulling out. The positive thing is I’ve won a stage, which has been enormous for me.”

Valverde had been the wearer of the white jersey, awarded to the best rider age 25 or under. With his abandonment, the jersey falls to Armstrong’s Discovery teammate Yaroslav Popovych. The Ukrainian now leads Kazakhstan’s Andrey Kashechkin (Crédit Agricole) by just seven seconds in that competition.

Valverde’s abandonment marked the second jersey leader to leave the Tour in two days; Thursday’s departure of points leader Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) saw the green jersey land on the shoulders of Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole).

In a press release, Quick Step team officials announced that Boonen was diagnosed with lesions to the lateral area of his right kneecap, with internal bleeding. His knee suffered no functional damage, however, and after a three-day rest period he will begin physical rehabilitation. He is expected to resume competition in 10 days, with his season’s race program otherwise unchanged.

With Boonen out of the race, the fight for the points jersey has become a fight between Hushovd, McEwen and O’Grady. Following today’s stage, Hushovd leads O’Grady 164 points to 150, while McEwen — who finished second across the finish line on stage 3 but was disqualified and lost 30 precious points — sits third with 142 points.

Down to the last painful second

As McEwen’s Davitamon-Lotto squad drove the chase, the leaders’ gap dwindled to 6:30 with 100km remaining, to 2:30 with 55km to go, and a doubtful one-minute lead with 35km left. Finally, with only 20km remaining and the gap down to just 35 seconds, Da Cruz attacked the bunch. Though his attack was quickly reeled in by the breakaway, it wasn’t without incident. Horner was later fined 200 Swiss francs for “incorrect behavior towards a rider” for reportedly throwing a water bottle at Da Cruz.

Said Horner, “We’re doing 50 kph and he’s pulling through at 43 and he’s just killing our speed. He was saying, ‘No, no, we don’t want any more time,’ and I was like, ‘We don’t want any more time? We’re going to need at least 12 minutes,’ and we only had nine. He started doing those cheap little pulls and he was pulling the least and pulling the slowest, and then he was the first one to attack us.”

Shortly thereafter, the attacks in the peloton began as the teams without sprinters rolled the dice on bridging across. Belgian Servais Knaven (Quick Step) was first to have a go, and after he was caught Lampre-Caffita’s David Loosli gave it a stab. Once the Swiss rider was caught, Chavanel bridged across, and with 12km to go rode straight through the tiring break, hoping to hand his Cofidis team its second stage win in as many days after David Moncoutié’s success on Thursday.

A series of attacks at the front followed, with Voeckler trying his hand, but the former French national champion was reeled in as Chavanel went off on his own again. This time only Horner could respond, and together they went on to try to reach the finish before the pack.

“With Chavanel, I figured he was fresher so he had to do the work,” Horner said. “When he first caught us and attacked, I went with the move. Then [Chavanel] just kept attacking. I was like, ‘Come on, we’re 10km out, you can’t do it by yourself!’ I told him if he attacked me again I wouldn’t pull, so he said okay.”

With only 5km remaining, Horner and Chavanel held a 26-second lead, and it looked like they might just stay away. But, behind, Davitamon shifted into its highest gear, bringing the gap down to 10 seconds in the final kilometer. With the field breathing down their necks, the cat-and-mouse games between the Frenchman and the American looked likely to cost them the stage. Chavanel pulled through in the final kilometer, and Horner decided that would be the last pull of their break for the day.

“He came through with 900 meters, and from there he was going to have to do the rest on his own,” he said. “I mean, I was in the break all day. If he can’t beat a guy that was in the break all day, it’s not my fault. Unfortunately, five seconds was all we needed and I would have had the stage win. Then here comes Robbie and the rest of the guys, [motioning] ‘Zoom, zoom, zoom.’”

With Rodriguez delivering McEwen with a hard lead-out, the ill-fated pair was passed less than 200 meters from the line. McEwen came through on the right side of the road at the last second, assuredly passing O’Grady and taking his third stage win of this Tour, and the eight of his career. The Aussie would later dedicate the victory to his teammates.

McEwen praised his team in general and Fast Freddie in particular

McEwen praised his team in general and Fast Freddie in particular

Photo: Graham Watson

“I’m sitting here in disbelief because I can’t even imagine even trying to do what they do myself,” said McEwen. “I’ve been saying since yesterday that I didn’t believe it would end in a mass sprint today. It’s been such an aggressive Tour, and my guys are really, really tired. I keep saying it, but it really is incredible. The speed they rode today was amazing.”

McEwen paid a special thanks to Rodriguez. “My last guy, Rodriguez, practically delivered me to the line. Today is really a team victory, the amount of work today is absolutely incredible. They rode their hearts out all day. It’s hard for anybody not in the race to realize how hard they worked today.” The big weekend

As the race heads into the Pyrenees, contenders hoping to unseat Armstrong in his final Tour will have two tough mountain stages to try to disrupt the American and his dominant Discovery Channel squad. Saturday’s last climb is one that American Levi Leipheimer predicts will “blow the race apart.”

Armstrong sats he is ready for another tough few days where his Spanish rivals could look to move up the overall classification. “[The Port de Pailhères] is a very tough climb, very long, very steep, very narrow at top, straight down and hardly any recovery. That 1-2 punch, makes it very hard.”

But Armstrong didn’t appear overly concerned with his list of rivals, which begins with the Dane Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), who sits 38 seconds behind the Tour champ.

“It’s closer in terms of time,” Armstrong said, “but regardless of what happens in the next few days, we still have the advantage of the final time trial. We have to watch the other riders, but we have to ride conservative. I can’t follow all the accelerations and maybe we’ll have to make it up in the end.”

Stage 13 results
1. Robbie McEwen (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto
2. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, same time
3. Fred Rodriguez (USA), Davitamon-Lotto, s.t.
4. Guido Trenti (USA), Quick Step, s.t.
5. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
6. Anthony Geslin (F), Bouygues Telecom, s.t.
7. Robert Förster (G), Gerolsteiner, s.t.
8. Magnus Bäckstedt (Swe), Liquigas-Bianchi, s.t.
9. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Lampre, s.t.
10. Christopher Horner (USA), Saunier Duval, s.t.

Results are posted


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