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By Andrew Hood
David Moncoutié gave the French something to cheer about on Bastille Day while Lance Armstrong kept a low profile on the Tour de France’s hilly 187km stage on Thursday.
Moncoutié tore away from a 13-strong break late on the day’s second to last climb to score the first French win of the 2005 Tour while Armstrong coasted and roasted through a hot day as the Tour rolled south from the Alps into sunny Provence.
“It was a stage for a bold man, not for the best man in the Tour,” said Moncoutié, who also won a stage last year. “I was not the best rider in the Tour, but the strongest in the break. The real big stars had a day off today.”
Moncoutié was once touted as a French hope for the overall after peaking with 13th in 2002, but even he admits he’s not the man to end France’s 20-year winless streak in the Tour.
“The Tour is just too hard and too fast for me,” Moncoutié said. “Yesterday, I could have hung on with the best over the Galibier, then I would have been cooked today. So I just found a group and saved my legs for today. You have to make your choices.”
The overall standings didn’t change on a day when most of the riders were adjusting to a sudden increase in temperatures after two mountain stages over the high-altitude passes of the Alps.
“It’s welcome,” Armstrong said of the sweaty day. “We had a first week that was rainy, cool, so the heat is here now.”
With a breakaway up the road, none of the major contenders flexed their muscles. Despite the loss of Manuel Beltran to a crash, Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team drilled it at the front to keep a lid on attacks.
Michael Rasmussen remains in second overall, 38 seconds back, while Ivan Basso, the third-place rider last year, cooled his jets to remain fourth at 2:40.
“We knew the French riders would be on the attack, they all want to win on Bastille Day,” Basso said. “We are confident now looking ahead to the Pyrénées. I am not so tired after the Alps. I think I am getting stronger for the important climbing stages to come. I don’t know if I will be able to follow Lance, he is so strong now.”
Rocky start on Bastille Day
Stage 12 from Briançon to Digne-les-Bains was a hilly, five-climb race that pushed out of the heart of the French Alps into the balmy Haute Provence region of southern France. Thousands of cheery French fans were lining the route for a festive Bastille Day celebration with all hopes on a French victory. Seventeen French riders have now won on France’s big party since World War II, with Richard Virenque the last one to pull it off just last year into St. Flour.
The race for the green points jersey took a turn after leader Tom Boonen (Quick Step) didn’t take the start. The Flanders-Roubaix champion had won two stages and was leading the points standings, but crashed on the descent from Courchevel Wednesday.
Boonen said medics drained fluid from the knee Thursday morning, but it continued to hurt. The young Belgian phenom tried to warm up on a turbo trainer, but he said he could not ride and could hardly walk. Boonen’s withdrawal left Norway’s Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) as the leader of the sprint competition.
“I tried to carry on, but it’s just not possible,” Boonen told Belgian reporters before the stage. “It’s not the end of the world. I’m still alive. I can come back next year.”
Hushovd started the day with a tally of 128 points, 19 more than Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and 32 more than the dual-stage winner, Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto).
“I have to reassess the plan (for the green jersey). Everything is still possible in the Tour. I’m more interested in trying to win another stage,” said McEwen. “I will try not to lose any points, but at the same time, I don’t want to waste a lot of energy chasing the intermediate sprints. If I can win another stage, then I will be right back in the points hunt.”
The Tour was also rocked by news that French customs officials checked team vehicles a day after police arrested Italian racer Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) on allegations of holding banned doping substances.
Reporters spotted team buses being checked by officials while they made the trip from Briançon to Digne-les-Bains. A French customs official confirmed the checks had taken place and said nothing suspicious had been found, Reuters reported.
Vehicles from the Phonak, Liberty Seguros, Bouygues Télécom, Ag2r and Davitamon-Lotto teams were stopped and searched before being allowed to resume their journey.
“They got a job to do and they’re just doing their job,” Armstrong said.
Frigo was placed under investigation on Wednesday after French customs found performance-enhancing drugs in a car driven by his wife.
Over the hills and far away
Riders were anxious to sneak away in breaks on this transition stage, so there was plenty of action early on. Brad McGee (Française des Jeux) tried his luck before the day’s first points sprint at 17.5km. Despite opening up a short gap, the animated group reeled in the Aussie as 50.7km were covered in then opening hour.
More riders tried to get away, including Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears) but they were quickly reeled in. Nine others, including head-banger José Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) tried in vain only to be checked at 58km.
Discovery Channel lost its first rider when Beltran crashed on the Col des Demoiselles Coiffées. According to teammate José Luis Rubiera, Oscar Sevilla (Phonak) swiped Beltran’s front wheel by accident, sending Beltran face-first to the pavement.
The skinny Spanish veteran tried to carry on, but pulled out about 15km later and was taken to a hospital in Gap for brain scans. He is being held overnight, but the early diagnosis indicate there’s no serious injury.
“It could be very critical, with two tough days in the Pyrénées. Triki is one of our pure climbers,” Armstrong said. “What’s happened, happened; we have [the others] to pick up the slack, I feel very confident that with those seven guys we can manage it.”
The 34-year-old Beltran is a specialist climber and Armstrong will miss him when the race returns to the mountains on Saturday. He has been part of Armstrong’s Tour-winning team since 2003.
“There is nobody who can pick up what he was doing,” said Discovery Channel team boss Johan Bruyneel. “Everyone knows his role, he and Chechu were working in the early mountains. It’s going to be tougher on the team, one guy less and his job will have to share. It’s the race, always can happen, the most important thing is that he’s safe and he’s okay. I think the other guys will be strong enough.”
Beltran is the first Armstrong teammate to abandon the Tour since 2001. In a testament to the team’s fortitude, all nine members have finished the Tour in 2000 and 2002-04. In 2001, American racer Christian Vande Velde broke his arm in a crash while in 1999, two riders — Jonathan Vaugthers and Peter Meinert — were forced out with injuries.
The day’s big break
The day’s decisive breakaway took hold on the hilly road leading toward the first of the day’s two Cat. 2 climbs. Eleven riders extracted themselves from the bunch: Stephan Schreck (T-Mobile), Giovanni Lombardi (CSC), José Luis Arrieta (Illes Balears), Axel Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto), Massimo Giunti (Fassa Bortolo), Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval), Angel Vicioso (Liberty Seguros), Patrice Halgand (Crédit Agricole), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), David Moncoutié (Cofidis) and Sandy Casar (FDJeux). Green jersey contenders Thor Hushovd and Stuart O’Grady crossed the growing gap to make the group of 13 at the foot of the next climb.
Three of the breakaways – Moncoutié, Casar and Halgand – were French.
With so many teams represented, the pace quieted in the main bunch and the leaders quickly widened their gap from 1:05 at 88km to 4:45 at the day’s feed zone at 95.5km.
A winner last year at Figeac, Moncoutié tried his luck at the Cat. 2 Col du Corobin and dug deep to pull away. He had a half-minute gap for most of the final 30km to hold off seven chasers and win by 57 seconds. Casar gave the French a one-two on the day, with Vicioso taking third.
Moncoutié’s heroics gave something for the French fans to cheer about. After all, a French rider hasn’t won a Tour in 20 years.
To see how the stage developed, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window. Then check back for a full report, complete results and photos from the VeloNews crew at the Tour.
1. David Moncoutie (F), Cofidis
2. Sandy Casar (F), Française des Jeux, at 0:57
3. Angel Vicioso (Sp), Liberty Seguros, same time
4. Patrice Halgand (F), Crédit Agricole, s.t.
5. Jose Luis Arrieta (Sp), Illes Balears, s.t.
6. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, s.t.
7. Axel Merckx (B), Davitamon-Lotto, s.t.
8. Juan Manuel Garate (Sp), Saunier Duval, s.t.
9. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole, at 3:15