By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
The 92nd Tour de France was given an inspiring display Sunday of the panache, courage and desire needed to challenge Lance Armstrong in his bid to win the race for a seventh year in succession.
First, brave Dane Michael Rasmussen, a one-time world mountain bike champion who launched many an attack in the mountains last year, grabbed his first elusive win on stage 9 from Gérardmer to Mulhouse after a 167km-long breakaway. His victory not only extended his lead in the King of the Mountains competition he took on Saturday, but also gave his Dutch team, Rabobank, its second stage victory in a row — coming after Peter Weening’s bold win at Gérardmer.
“I went out to get points for the mountains jersey, to put some distance between myself and the other contenders,” Rasmussen said, explaining why he attacked solo after only 4km of the 171km stage through the Vosges mountains.
Sunday’s stage, which again saw massive crowds line the mostly forested roads, also brought unexpected profit to two riders: Germany’s Jens Voigt (CSC) and Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole).
The two veterans, who finished third and second respectively at 3:04, didn’t come close to catching Rasmussen. That fact greatly added luster to the Dane’s feat.
But with the peloton, containing Armstrong and all the big hitters for the overall classification, coming in another three minutes back, their chase of Rasmussen was not in vain. In fact, it paid dividends in another and just as satisfying way.
Voigt, who started the stage placed second overall only a minute behind Armstrong, rode himself into the yellow jersey. And while he is expected to lose it in the Alps on Tuesday, for the present he has a 2:18 advantage on the Texan, who dropped to third overall.Results are posted
The American, whose team was nowhere to be seen on Saturday’s climbing stage when Vinokourov attacked, conceded he had been sad to lose the jersey, but noted “it wasn’t a priority for us to defend it today.”
“I felt like today would be the day the jersey would be given away and it turned out that it was,” Armstrong said.Armstrong, contrary to Saturday, was assured of his teammates’ presence throughout the day.
“We spoke to each other last night, asked a few questions and sorted a few things out,” Armstrong said of his teammates. “We did better today.”
Team director Johan Bruyneel agreed. Though he said he remained baffled by the team’s poor performance on Saturday, he told Reuters on Sunday: “I don’t think there’s any need to panic or start to shout or be angry. The team rode well together, had control of things on the climbs and the flat and that’s important for their confidence.
“We have to understand that this is going to be a hard race and the competition is going to be very tough. The Tour has always been hard and it could be harder this year.”
For Voigt, who last took the yellow jersey in 2001 on a similar stage through the Vosges into Colmar — where Frenchman Laurent Jalabert won the stage — it was the perfect payback to his CSC directeur sportif Bjarne Rijs who only told him at this morning’s team meeting that he could finally be unleashed on the attack.”Today we had a meeting in the team bus and (team manager) Bjarne (Riis) said, ‘Jens can go.’ I was really pleased because every day I was asking him if I could go on an attack and he would say the same thing, ‘No.’ Finally today he said I could go, and that’s what I did.”
Voigt said he was pleased to win the jersey and that keeping it should “easy.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem defending the jersey tomorrow,” he said with a grin, referring to Monday’s rest day.
Perhaps more significantly, Moreau, a more serious contender for a top finish in Paris on July 24, moved up from 17th overall at 2:48 into second place, 1:50 behind Voigt.There were also some gains by riders in the peloton, foremost by Australian sprinter Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) who, knowing the other sprinters had been dropped in the mountains, took out the mass dash to the line for fourth place. That gave O’Grady a handy 18 points for the green jersey competition. And while he has an outside chance to win it after three times placing second, it keeps him in contention in third place with 109 points against the 133 points of Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step) who is the leader, followed by Norway’s Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) at 128.
Another tough day
The day really did belong to Rasmussen, the skinny Dane who spent almost the entire stage off the front and amazingly said later that “as the day progressed I just felt better and better. Well, it lasted all the way to the line.”
While he rode off the front for four hours of punishing effort into winds that were for mostly from the side, the Tour also became a nightmare for the five riders who abandoned, reducing the field to 175.
The most notable rider to leave the race was the Tour’s first yellow jersey, the battered and bruised American David Zabriskie (CSC). His decision to stop was alerted to all via Radio Tour at 11.28 a.m., just 20 minutes into the stage.
His decision to abandon was due to his inability to fully recover from the heavy injuries he sustained in his team time trial crash on stage 4 which cost him the yellow jersey.
Before the stage start in Gérardmer, Zabriskie told reporters. “I hope I’m better today; it’s been a real big roller coaster for me this past week. I finished yesterday, and we’ll see what happens today.”
News of Zabriskie’s withdrawal shocked Voigt who was only told of it by a journalist in his stage winner’s press conference. “I am really surprised,” said the German rider. “Yesterday, he rode about 120 of the 228km by himself. I guess he has never had time to recover [from his injuries]. I really feel for him.“Whatever happens he is still my hero. Hey, he beat Lance Armstrong [in the time trial] and that doesn’t happen often.”
Crashes left their mark on Sunday’s stage, too. One, before the first climb where Rasmussen attacked involved Spaniard Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano (Liberty-Seguros) whose injuries forced him to pull out.
Another crash, on the decent of the first climb, saw German Tour contender and 1997 champion Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) hurt his left side, but he quickly rejoined the pack when four teammates dropped back to help him.
“I had a big crash. It was caused by a gust of wind that made the peloton suddenly shift. I did three or four summersaults,” said Ullrich, who also crashed the day before the Tour started, riding head first into the back window of a team car that suddenly stopped.
“My right side is hurting but I can breath normally,” he said. “I hope I have a good night and get back in shape. If not I will go to the hospital for a closer examination.”
Rasmussen’s move came after 4km when he charged away for KOM points on the first of six climbs, the Cat. 3 Col de Grosse Pierre that started its rise from the start line.
He was soon joined by Italian Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi), and they led the next two climbs — the Col des Feignes at 22km and Col de Brammont at 32.5km.By the start of the fourth ascent, the 22.9km-long Cat. 2 climb of the Grand Ballon at 64km, they had a lead of 2:37 on the chasers.
Rasmussen – saddled with the nickname “Chicken” in his mountain-bike days – was oblivious to what was happening in his wake, as he led the Tour over every climb.The Voigt-Moreau duo originated from an early six-man chase group that set off in pursuit of Rasmussen after about 22km and also included Swiss Alexandre Moos (Phonak), and Spaniards Angel Vicioso (Liberty-Seguros), Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears), and Iñigo Landaluze (Euskaltel-Euskadi).On the fifth climb, the 6.2km-long Cat. 3 Col du Bussang to the 98km mark, Rasmussen shed Cioni who was 1:05 down at the summit while Voigt’s group came through at three minutes and the peloton at 9:35.
With one mountain to go, the 9.1km Cat. 1 Ballon d’Alsace, and then 55km of descending and flat roads to the finish, the race basically stagnated, as the peloton showed no real signs of reeling in Rasmussen or Voigt and Moreau.If anything, Rasmussen’s position only grew stronger as he extended his lead to four minutes over Voigt and Moreau on the Ballon’s summit at 115km; whereas the rest (who had caught Cioni) crossed the top at five minutes or more.
Not that that should be interpreted as the Dane’s job being made any easier. He rode furiously, as had to, to stay in front, especially in such tough cross and head winds that prevailed once he was riding on flatter roads in the final 40km. But even Voigt was surprised that Rasmussen was able to fend of their two-up charge with such success.“I didn’t expect us to catch up to him, but then I did expect to get closer than losing time to him,” said Voigt.
The one big scare Voigt had in his yellow-jersey coup was a puncture with 30km to go. But with such a lead on the peloton and the willingness by Moreau to wait for him, those fears of wasting his efforts were quickly allayed.
‘I am very pleased he waited for me,” said Voigt who, with tomorrow being a transfer/rest day, will next wear the yellow jersey on Tuesday’s 192.5km stage 10, the first of two days in the Alps — unless he snags a rare private moment to wear it in his hotel room!
Voigt said nothing would be better than being able to pass the jersey on to his teammate and challenger to Armstrong for his Tour throne, Italian Ivan Basso. Voigt did a similar relay in 2001, when he conceded the yellow jersey to his then Crédit Agricole teammate, O’Grady.
“That would be perfect. Today was my last chance to take the jersey. Hopefully, one of my teammates will take it off me,” said Voigt.
However, rest assured, that the really perfect ending for him and his CSC teammates would be having it in Paris on July 24.
1. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank
2. Christophe Moreau (F), Crédit Agricole, 03:04
3. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, 03:04
4. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis, 06:04
5. Philippe Gilbert (B), Francaise des Jeux, 06:04
6. Anthony Geslin (F), Bouygues Telecom, 06:04
7. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner, 06:04
8. Laurent Brochard (F), Bouygues Telecom, 06:04
9. Jerome Pineau (F), Bouygues Telecom, 06:04
10. Gerrit Glomser (A), Lampre, 06:04
11. Stefano Garzelli (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, 06:04
12. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Phonak, 06:04
13. Christopher Horner (USA), Saunier Duval, 06:04
14. Christophe Brandt (B), Davitamon-Lotto, 06:04
15. Bert Grabsch (G), Phonak, 06:04
16. Arvesen Kurt-Asle (Nor), CSC, 06:04
17. Dario Frigo (I), Fassa Bortolo, 06:04
18. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, 06:04
19. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Lampre, 06:04
20. Nicolas Portal (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, 06:04
21. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, 06:04
22. Maxim Iglinskiy (Kaz), Domina Vacanze, 06:04
23. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 06:04
24. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, 06:04
25. Jorg Ludewig (G), Domina Vacanze, 06:04
26. Pierrick Fedrigo (F), Bouygues Telecom, 06:04
27. Kim Kirchen (Lux), Fassa Bortolo, 06:04
28. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, 06:04
29. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, 06:04
30. Gorazd Stangelj (SLO), Lampre, 06:04
1. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, 32:18:23
2. Christophe Moreau (F), Crédit Agricole, 01:50
3. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, 02:18
4. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, 02:43
5. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, 03:20
6. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, 03:25
7. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 03:44
8. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, 03:54
9. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC, 03:54
10. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, 04:05
To see how today’s stage unfolded, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window.