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Mercado claims Stage 10; Dessel dons yellow

The first major climbs of the 93rd Tour de France served up some significant changes atop the leader board Wednesday; but the main contenders were content to keep a wary eye on each other — even when an early breakaway gained more than 10 minutes and fought for all the spoils of the three-climb, 190.5km 10th stage 10. From the original break of 15 riders, just two were left upon reaching the finishing straight in Pau after the demanding journey through the Basque part of the Pyrénées. Spanish rider Juan Miguel Mercado (Agritubel) and Frenchman Cyril Dessel (AG2R) fought out a hard sprint in

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By Andrew Hood

Mercado nipped Dessel at the line

Mercado nipped Dessel at the line

Photo: AFP

The first major climbs of the 93rd Tour de France served up some significant changes atop the leader board Wednesday; but the main contenders were content to keep a wary eye on each other — even when an early breakaway gained more than 10 minutes and fought for all the spoils of the three-climb, 190.5km 10th stage 10.

From the original break of 15 riders, just two were left upon reaching the finishing straight in Pau after the demanding journey through the Basque part of the Pyrénées. Spanish rider Juan Miguel Mercado (Agritubel) and Frenchman Cyril Dessel (AG2R) fought out a hard sprint in the final 250 meters, with Mercado taking the win.

Dessel may not have won the stage but he did enjoy a banner day, scooping up maximum mountain points to grab the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey and gaining enough time to slip into the maillot jaune.

It came down to these two.

It came down to these two.

Photo: Graham Watson

“It was a complicated finish because [Dessel] already had both jerseys yet he still wanted to try to win the stage,” said Mercado, who won a Tour stage in 2004. “It was very difficult to get into the right escape this morning because the peloton was reacting to every move.”

With the Tour’s first foray into the steep mountains, riders were jostling to get into the right combination of riders and teams to form the day’s winning breakaway. Christian Vande Velde (CSC) and Chris Horner (Davitamon-Lotto) went into one of the more dangerous moves but it was brought back just before Dessel and Mercado counterattacked with 14 others through the day’s first intermediate sprint at about 37.5km.
Complete results

Mercado and Dessel were strongest up the day’s two biggest climbs — the hors-cat Col de Soudet at 101.5km and the Cat. 1 Col de Marie Blanque at 148km — to drop the remnants of the day’s early move and spar for the stage win.

The pair rolled into Pau more than seven minutes ahead of the main pack of 74 riders to push Dessel 3:45 ahead of overnight leader Sergei Gontchar (T-Mobile) — but there was still the unfinished business of the stage.

A French leader of the Tour

A French leader of the Tour

Photo: Graham Watson

“It’s huge to get both the King of the Mountains and the maillot jaune,” said Dessel, who rides with a hearing aid. “When I started the day, I wasn’t thinking about the yellow jersey. My objective was the climber’s jersey.

“My legs felt good and it has paid off, even if I didn’t win the stage. Mercado merits his win because he collaborated well.”

Dessel started the stage in 28th only 3:50 back, and he becomes the first Frenchman to wear yellow in this Tour, and only the ninth in past decade.

With Dessel and Mercado chasing glory, the overall favorites rode through what amounted to a cease-fire over the Tour’s first giant climbs.

There was a lot of form-checking going on, but with the last climb coming 42.5km from the flat finish in Pau, no one dared waste too much energy with Thursday’s daunting five-climb march into Spain looming.

Crazy start
With the flat stages behind them, the climbers were champing at the bit to get into a breakaway. There were three aborted attempts in the first 7km before protesters momentarily stopped the race (unhappy locals with plans to build a new highway).

French star Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) was the first to extract himself, prompting a big, 17-man chase group that featured Vande Velde and Horner. But also in the break was T-Mobile’s Patrik Sinkewitz, a rider on many danger lists that the other contenders just had to chase. The peloton kept them on a 10-second leash until swallowing them and Chavanel at 35km just before the bonus sprint.

This is where 15 riders pulled clear: Mercado and Dessel got away with Jens Voigt (CSC), Joost Posthuma (Rabobank), Gert Steegmans (Davitamon-Lotto), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Cédric Vasseur (Quick Step-Innergetic), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole ), Iñaki Isasi and Iñigo Landaluze (both Euskaltel-Euskadi), Cristian Moreni (Cofidis), Christophe Rinero (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Carlos Da Cruz (Française des Jeux), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom).

“Today the plan was to try and slip away into an escape group and it eventually came together,” Dessel said. “It’s true that you have to have good legs to be in the right move but a bit of luck is also useful. That’s what happened and I really felt strong today.”

The first hour was a crisp 46.1 kph. It was going to be a hard day.

The Tour’s first climbs
After nine stages and more than 1600km of racing, the Tour finally shifted gears and turned into the steep mountain roads. Riders were anxious to test their legs after so many days in the flats.

“I’ve come to the foot of the Pyrénées in good shape, but I have to wait to see how the legs respond,” said Quick Step’s new Venezuelan climber José Rujano, making his Tour debut after finishing third in last year’s Giro d’Italia. “I hope to do something big in this Tour.”

Leipheimer stayed with the favorites on the Soudet, but struggled on the Marie Blanc

Leipheimer stayed with the favorites on the Soudet, but struggled on the Marie Blanc

Photo: Graham Watson

Rujano’s day would have to wait as the big break up the road was opening up some prime real estate. Dessel led the way over the Cat. 3 Col d’Osquich at 50km to let his intentions be known and the gap widened from two minutes over the col to more than six minutes by the day’s second sprint at 74.5km. The group was down to 13 riders as Hushovd and Steegmans lost contact over the first climb.

Next up was the Tour’s first above-category climb, the 5052-foot Col du Soudet (14.7km at 7.3 percent), approached from the west. Sections of the road were steeper than the Tour road book indicated, with pitches of 15 and 16 percent on the narrow, erratic ascent that featured a number of short downhills.

Mercado took the initiative on the climb. The lanky Spaniard won a stage at the 2004 Tour, but was otherwise a bust during two years at Quick Step. Now with the UCI Continental pro team, Agritubel, Mercado was anxious to make the most of the situation.

“I felt better today than I hoped. I just went out with the group to see how things would go, then I got into the break and it turned out to be a good day to take advantage of the situation,” Mercado said.

With T-Mobile evidently prepared to let the yellow jersey ride away, none of the other big teams seemed interested in wasting too much energy to chase down the group. “They rode like champions,” Phonak’s Floyd Landis told VeloNews about T-Mobile. “They got the lead and they worked. They did their job.”

Popovych

Popovych

Photo: Graham Watson

Both the escape group and the main peloton fractured under the menacing steeps. On the upper stretches of the narrow, twisting climb rowdy Basque fans lined the course, but it wasn’t going to be a big day for their favorite, Iban Mayo.

The Euskaltel climber was quickly in difficulty, losing contact with the lead group and eventually finished in the last group alongside Tom Boonen in 153rd place, 24:24 back. Gontchar was also having trouble sticking with the lead bunch.

“I’ve had a problem with my throat for several days,” Mayo told Spanish journalists. “I quickly felt today I didn’t have the legs, so I held back and conserved energy. I think this will pass in another day or two. We still have the Alps.”

Vande Velde suffered a freak crash on the way up the col, slipping on some gravel and scraping his right leg and tearing the back of his jersey. “My back and neck is a little tight, that’s about it,” Vande Velde told VeloNews after the stage. I saw some blood come out of my leg and tried to limit my losses.

“[T-Mobile] did a great job. They rode at the front all day, but they guys [in the break] did a great job, too, because we didn’t take any time out of them and we weren’t exactly going slow.”

Dessel led the way over the Soudet summit, five seconds ahead of Mercado, with Landaluze at 30 seconds and Rinero at 50 seconds, with the peloton crossing 9:50 back. Mercado and Dessel paired up and plunged down the foggy, treacherous descent toward the Cat. 1 Col de Marie Blanque.

Final shot to victory
Landaluze, Isasi, Moreni, Rinero and Moreni all latched onto Dessel and Mercado by the foot of the serpentine descent. But when Mercado attacked up the very steep Marie Blanque, only Dessel could follow him. The Frenchman scooped up more mountains points and the pair made their bid for the stage win. Landaluze came within 10 seconds to catching back on, but couldn’t close the small gap on the last climbing section 25km from the finish — where he rolled through in third place 56 seconds back. The day’s effort lifted last year’s Dauphiné Libéré champ to seventh overall at 5:22.

Inigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi) almost bridges up to the leaders

Inigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi) almost bridges up to the leaders

Photo: Graham Watson

The 2005 Tour’s defending King of the Mountains, Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), showed his hand when he shot off the front coming up the Marie Blanque to grab 10 KOM points, and then quickly sunk back into the lead group.

Back in the main bunch, T-Mobile put five riders on the front of the main bunch to try to limit the bleeding, but Dessel had the jersey in the bag.

At one point, Gontchar was fetching water bottles and taking pulls at the front as it was obvious that the German team was already changing roles for their top men.

Mercado gets it!

Mercado gets it!

Photo: Graham Watson

“Today we lost the yellow jersey, but it’s no big thing,” said T-Mobile general manager Olaf Ludwig. “[Gontchar] understands it’s a big race. Normally he doesn’t work at the front, but he will do this and it’s not a problem for him.”

Gontchar came in with the lead bunch 7:23 back, with three more groups spinning across the line at 12:00, 16:33 and 24:24, respectively. On Thursday’s stage 11, those time gaps will be even bigger.

Top 10
1. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), Agritubel
2. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, same time
3. Inigo Landaluze (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 0:56
4. Cristian Moreni (I), Cofidis, at 2:24
5. Christophe Rinero (F), Saunier Duval, at 2:25
6. Inaki Isasi (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 5:03
7. Vasseur Cédric (F), Quick Step-Innergetic, at 5:35
8. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre, at 7:23
9. Erik Zabel (G), Milram, s.t.
10. Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, s.t.

Overall
1. Cyril Dessel (F), Ag2r Prevoyance
2. Juan Miguel Mercado (Sp), Agritubel, at 2:34
3. Sergei Gontchar (Ukr), T-Mobile, at 3:45
4. Cristian Moreni (I), Cofidis, at 3:51
5. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 4:45
6. Michael Rogers (Aus), T-Mobile, at 4:53
7. Inigo Landaluze (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 5:22
8. Patrik Sinkewitz (G), T-Mobile, at 5:30
9. Klöden Andréas (G), T-Mobile, at 5:35
10. Vladimir Karpets (Rus), Caisse d’Epargne-Illes Balears, at 5:37


To see how the Tour’s first mountain stage developed, simply CLICKHERE to open our Live Update Window.

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