By Andrew Hood
Christian Vande Velde’s miracle Tour de France ride took a dive in Tuesday’s hard-fought 157km, two-climb 16th stage when he crashed coming down the beyond-category descent off the Col de la Bonette.
Vande Velde, who started the day fifth overall at 39 seconds back, lost contact with the yellow jersey group about midway up the long, exposed 25.5km climb as CSC-Saxo Bank’s Andy Schleck set a menacing pace.
The Garmin-Chipotle leader clawed closer to the leaders, however, thanks to help from teammate Ryder Hesjedal coming over the Bonnette summit, Europe’s highest continuously paved road. Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters instructed Hesjedal to drop back from the lead chase group to pace Vande Velde, and the pair held their gap to the GC rivals at 35 seconds over the top of the Bonette.
Vande Velde was making headway on the descent to limit his losses when he crashed on a corner on the upper reaches of the narrow and technical 23.5km descent.
“In the final climb I was in difficulty, but I was only 35 seconds behind,” Vande Velde said. “I crashed on one of the top turns, and the Cofidis guy [Maxime Monfort] crashed too. It was a stupid crash. I just hit a tight corner and fell. It was my own fault. We completely lost our rhythm and it took us a while to get going again.”
Vande Velde finished 26th at 4:04 behind race winner Cyril Dessel (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and lost 2:36 to race leader Frank Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank). The Chicago native slipped from fifth to sixth overall, at 3:15 back, putting a major dent into his hopes of winning the 2008 Tour. Yet he was quick to point out that the race doesn’t end until the final lap around the Champs-Élyseés in Paris on Sunday.
“Anything can happen tomorrow,” Vande Velde said. “It’s not over by any means. There are a lot of guys who are suffering. I wasn’t too far off over the climb, just 35 seconds before I crashed.”
Schleck retained his seven-second lead to Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), but podium contender Denis Menchov (Rabobank) lost 35 seconds after losing contact with the yellow-jersey group on the downhill portion. Menchov, who collapsed at the finish line with cramps, fell from fourth to fifth, now 1:13 back.
Vaughters was philosophical about Vande Velde’s ride. “He’s disappointed, but hey, if losing two and a half minutes is the worst thing that happens to us, we’ll take it. It’s important for people to remember we came into this Tour optimistic about a top-10 finish, and he’s still sixth with one more mountain stage before the time trial. He’ll just need to tread water for one more day and try to save what he can for the time trial.” — Senior writer Neal Rogers contributed to this report