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By Andrew Hood
Less than 48 hours after taking second to George Hincapie atop the hardest mountaintop finish of the 92nd Tour de France, Spanish rider Oscar Pereiro replaced the bitterness of that loss with the biggest victory of his career by winning a four-up sprint into Pau at the end of Tuesday’s 180.5km stage 16. “It’s a spine that I’ve taken out of my back,” Pereiro said after edging Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears) to claim Phonak’s first stage win of the Tour after two second places. “I’m happy with the big win today. It makes me forget the disappointment of Sunday.” Tuesday’s four-climb race across the western Pyrénées featured the last high mountains in this year’s Tour. Lance Armstrong watched as the podium contenders swapped punches up the Col d’Aubisque and coasted across the line 36th, 3:24 behind Pereiro to retain the yellow jersey. Results
“Today was my best day, I don’t know why,” said the Discovery Channel captain, who retained his 2:46 overall lead on Ivan Basso. “I didn’t expect the attacks today, but I think T-Mobile was trying to get some time on [Michael] Rasmussen for the podium. The team was strong today. It was perfect.” For Armstrong, this Tour is almost over. Five stages remain in his cycling career while the real dogfight is still to come in the hunt for the final podium. “It’s always nice to get out of the mountains. We know the big difficulties are done,” Armstrong said. “I have to avoid an accident or a freak illness, the odds are better every day. This is bike racing. The road is open. I have to stay with my boys and stay out of trouble.” An inspired Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) — riding in the name of the victims in a fatal accident involving the women’s Australian national team in Germany the day before — shot into the top 10 after he made a brave solo escape over the Aubisque. Evans was part of the day’s early breakaway, and then dropped his fellow escapees on the Tour’s final steep climb. But Pereiro, who had first bridged to the break, along with Eddy Mazzoleni (Lampre-Caffita) and Zandio (Illes Balears) caught him on the final 70km run into Pau. Evans then drove the foursome home to maximize his time gain. “This morning I thought today might be an opportunity for an early break,” said Evans, who started the day 11th at 12:57. “I didn’t know if the GC guys would let me go. Give me an inch, I’ll take a mile.” Evans, a former World Cup mountain bike champion making his Tour debut, jumped to seventh, now 9:29 back, after he took the leading quartet to the line 3:24 ahead of the 50-strong yellow jersey group. “I have to choose my moments carefully. I can’t remember my middle name right now,” Evans said, fourth on the stage. “The other mountain stages were for the big GC guys and I’m not there yet. This is just my first Tour, but I wanted to make up some time today if I could. It worked out great.” Early break
Cooler weather welcomed the peloton for stage 16 from Mourenx to Pau. Two riders, Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Gianluca Bortolami (Lampre-Caffita), didn’t take the start, to leave 158 riders from the original 189. The day’s four categorized climbs in this final push through the Pyrénées were the Cat. 3 Col d’Ichère at 50.5km; the Cat. 1 Col de Marie-Blanque (9.3km at 7.7 percent); the Tour’s final hors-catégorie climb, the Col d’Aubisque (16.5km at 7 percent) at 108.5km, and the Cat. 4 Côte de Pardiés-Piétat with 19.5km to go. The stage was ideal for a breakaway and the action was animated from the gun. Vladimir Karpets (Illes Balears), last year’s best young rider, crashed in the neutral start and would later have trouble hanging on under the early accelerations.
Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile) was then involved with a pileup at 13km. Later, team doctors transported him to a local hospital where X-rays identified a small fracture in his left wrist. A decision on his continuing in the Tour will be made Wednesday morning. A fatal accident in Germany involving the Australian women’s team seemed to motivate the Aussie contingent at the Tour. Evans told Aussie journalist Rob Arnold he wanted to go on the attack. “The least I can do is to get in a break and try and dedicate the stage win to the entire Australian national team,” said Evans. “Words are never enough to express the sadness I felt after hearing the news of the accident.” Evans lived up to his promise, initiating the day’s main break at 25km. Following his wheel were two Americans, Fred Rodriguez and Chris Horner, along with Cédric Vasseur (Cofidis), Jorg Ludewig (Domina Vacanze), Zandio, Ludovic Turpin (Ag2r), Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Jérôme Pineau and Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Télécom) and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux). The leaders built a gap of 5:10 over the Col d’Ichère at 50.5km. No cease fire
The steep Cat. 1 Col de Marie-Blanque really blew open the race, showing there was no armistice among the favorites. Discovery Channel massed at the front, about 6:30 off the pace of the leaders, when none other than Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile) threw down the gauntlet about 4km from the summit. Giving chase were Pereiro, Carlos Sastre (CSC), Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) and Andrey Kashechkin (Crédit Agricole), their move sending a ripple through the peloton. The chase upped the tempo, sending scores of riders out of the back of the lead bunch. Among the bigger names not equaling the pace were Georg Totschnig (winner at Ax-3 Domaines), Paolo Savoldelli and José Luis Rubiera (Discovery) and Iban Mayo, the struggling Basque rider. Suddenly, Kashechkin was at the side of the road and then turning downhill, evidently chasing the medical car after a fan inadvertently hit him in the face. “He received a punch to the face,” said Crédit Agricole director Roger Legeay. “He’s stunned. It’s unbelievable.” Pereiro kept going alone as the others fell back into the yellow jersey group, with Armstrong’s armada dwindling under the attacks. Basso gave it a stab, too, but Armstrong was able to fend off the attacks. Pereiro topped over the summit 2:51 behind the leaders while Hincapie led the yellow-jersey group at 3:13. “We talked about going on the attack today because we knew the big favorites would be watching each other,” Pereiro said. “It was hard to try to bridge out to the front group, I had to go really hard.” Up the Aubisque
The Aubisque is one of the Tour’s legendary climbs, the scene of the famous quip from Octave Lapize, who in 1910 called race organizers “assassins” because the climb was considered so difficult.
Today the assassin was an inspired Evans, who attacked out of the lead bunch and rode alone up the twisting, grinding climb, quickly gapping the breakaway riders. In the yellow-jersey group, things were getting interesting when Vinokourov shot away again on the short run before the Aubisque. Also chasing was Roberto Heras, the proud Spanish rider trying to salvage something from his second consecutive Tour disappointment. “I finally felt good at the head of the peloton. I know it’s a bit late, but at least I’ve demonstrated I can be there,” said Heras, who finished with the Armstrong group. “I decided to attack on the Aubisque to catch Vinokourov. I thought the two of us together can head up the road, but they reacted behind and caught us on the climb.” Although he finished in the Armstrong group at 53rd, the Spanish mountain goat took something positive out of the stage after struggling in the decisive mountain stages in the Alps and Pyrénées. “Today is a good sign for the last week, but more than anything it lets me leave the Tour with a good taste in my mouth,” he said. “I know the Tour didn’t go well for me, but at least I am recovered. I don’t know what happened to me in this race, but I’ve shown that not to be strong in just one race doesn’t mean you don’t exist.” T-Mobile continued to play its cards, putting three riders on the front of the bunch with Kessler, Klöden and Ullrich. The acceleration soon splintered the yellow-jersey group, with CSC then sending Carlos Sastre up the road. Midway up the climb, the only remaining riders were Armstrong, Hincapie, Rasmussen, Ullrich, Basso, Kashechkin, Francisco Mancebo, Landis and Leipheimer.
Ullrich wasn’t done yet and he shoved his meaty legs into the pedals as the course pushed high above the trees. The acceleration reeled in Heras and Vinokourov and spit Mancebo out the back. “I tried today again and I showed that I haven’t given up,” said Ullrich, who is fourth overall at 5:58. “Lance has beaten me again, but the podium motivates me now. I didn’t like finishing fourth last year, and to be on the podium again is important to me.” Up ahead, the inspired Evans topped the misty summit of the Aubisque 46 seconds before Pereiro, with Mazzoleni and Zabio chasing hard another 14 seconds back. More stragglers from the day’s earlier break crested the summit until Rasmussen led the pack at 4:08 (with Horner getting caught right on the top). Hincapie, Sastre, Klöden and Kashechkin came through 5:14 back, and then Popovych topped the pass another 15 seconds slower, giving Armstrong some help on the run into Pau. Rasmussen’s points closed the race for the King of the Mountains jersey competition, meaning the former world mountain bike champion will win the illustrious polka-dot jersey if he survives to Paris.
“Pereiro wasn’t a threat for the jersey,” said Rasmussen, who remains third overall, 3:09 back. “I defended myself well under the attacks all day, but I was never under any danger. I found the T-Mobile attacks were desperate and stupid because they only ended up isolating Ullrich.”
Sweet win for Pereiro
On the descent, Mazzoleni and Pereiro dropped like rocks to catch Evans. Pereiro shot right past Evans and continued on his own. Bad luck struck when Pereiro suffered a puncture, leaving Evans and Mazzoleni alone at the front, but the Spaniard was able to chase back on. Groups settled in for the final run to Pau. Mazzoleni, Evans, Pereiro and Zandio rode together over the day’s final climb holding a 1:50 gap on the eight-man Vasseur chase group and 5:05 on the peloton. There were enough riders interested in limiting Evans’s growing advantage to collaborate on the chase into Pau, trimming the difference to 3:24 across the line. Pereiro made easy work of his fellow escapees to win just the sixth win of his pro career. “The first week I could tell I didn’t have the legs to fight for the GC,” said Pereiro, 10th overall last year. “Floyd and Botero were better than me for the GC, so I put my energy into trying to win a big stage; today’s win is very satisfying.” For passionate Spanish cycling fans, Pereiro’s win is the second at this Tour by a Spanish rider (Alejandro Valverde won at Courchevel) in a year when the big guns such as Mayo and Heras were never a factor. “We’ve become accustomed to winning the Tour with Induráin, but we’ve had some bad luck the past few years,” Pereiro said. “Perhaps we haven’t lived up to the expectations of the fans back home, but we’ve been able to deliver a few big days.”
1. Oscar Pereiro (sp), Phonak
2. Xabier Zandio (Sp), Illes Balears, same time
3. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Lampre, s.t.
4. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, s.t.
5. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, at 2:25
6. Anthony Geslin (F), Bouygues Telecom, s.t.
7. Jorg Ludewig (G), Domina Vacanze, s.t.
8. Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), Fassa Bortolo, s.t.
9. Ludovic Turpin (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, s.t.
10. Cedric Vasseur (F), Cofidis, s.t.
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 2:46
3. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, at 3:09
4. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, at 5:58
5. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, at 6:31
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 7:35
7. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 9:29
8. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 9:33
9. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 9:38
10. Christophe Moreau (F), Crédit Agricole, at 11:47
To see how the stage developed, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window.