By Rupert Guinness, Special to VeloNews
Two-time Giro d’Italia champion Paolo Savoldelli finally left his mark on the Tour de France in his fourth start in the race by winning Wednesday’s stage 16 from Pau to Revel. Under a cloudless sky, the 32-year-old Italian and Discovery Channel teammate of race leader Lance Armstrong, won the 239.5km stage by coming from behind to outlast CSC’s Norwegian Kurt-Asle Arvesen.
In third place, eight seconds back, was Australian Tour rookie Simon Gerrans (AG2R), followed at 11 seconds by Frenchman Sébastien Hinault (Crédit Agricole).He was the last member of a four-man splinter group that was the remains of an initial 17-man attack.
Savoldelli’s win makes it three stages for Discovery Channel on this Tour, following wins in the team time trial and George Hincapie’s stage 15 victory at Pla d’Adet.
“It couldn’t be better,” said Armstrong, who still leads Italian Ivan Basso (CSC) by 2:46 and Denmark’s Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) by 3:09.
Asked to compare the winning sensation in a Tour stage to overall victories in the Giro this year and in 2002, Savoldelli diplomatically put the success in its rightful cherished place.
“It is totally different, but right now I am older,” he said. “So of course it is something that was missing in my professional career until now. It’s the biggest race in the world, not only because of organization but from a sporting point of view.
“The Tour is different to the Giro. The mountains are less hard but the level of riders at the Tour is a lot higher and a lot harder.”
For Savoldelli, the stage win — coming off his Giro success this year — helped cast aside the demons of misfortune that derailed his past few seasons. In 2003, while with T-Mobile, he was the victim of an awful collision with a motor cycle that saw him undergo emergency facial surgery. In 2004, he crashed at the Tour of Cologne, breaking his wrist and suffering from severe concussions. Finally, in January this year, he crashed again, breaking his collarbone, at the Discovery Channel’s California training camp.
However, his was a merited victory for all his tireless work in the final kilometers of Wednesday’s stage, which included a lightning attack on the last Cat.3 climb, the Côte de St Ferréol 9km from the finish.
Frenchman Hinault managed to latch onto Savoldelli’s wheel and wouldn’t budge as the pair reached the end of a fast, winding descent before a flat run into Revel. Hinault’s refusal to work certainly frustrated Savoldelli, judging by his repeated attempts to slow up, sit up and urge him to take a pull, no matter that it slowed their momentum and gave Gerrans and Arvesen time and space to catch up.
With the four together, Arvesen seized the moment to attack 1.4km out in a move only Savoldelli could challenge. He chased and chased before finally passing the Norwegian with less than 100 meters to go. It was a finishing pursuit rather than a sprint.
The leaders arrived more than 22 minutes before the main bunch that contained Armstrong and the top GC riders. But that gap did not reflect the fireworks that were about to go off in the group as it reached the foot of the final climb.
The day’s dawdle, which was initially quickened by T-Mobile 40km out, suddenly became a desperate grapple to the summit begun by Alex Vinokourov and continued by team leader Jan Ullrich, who unleashed a leg-breaking burst aimed at dropping the two riders above him overall, Basso and Rasmussen.
The move was effective, but not for Ullrich’s intended gain. It caught out three other top-10 contenders: American Floyd Landis (Phonak), Australian Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole).
Armstrong and Ullrich’s group of 10 riders came in 22:28 behind Savoldelli, and 20 seconds ahead of Landis, Evans and Moreau.
The margin was enough to reshuffle the top 10 on GC. It shifted Vinokourov from eighth at 9:38 to seventh place, while Evans and Landis dropped a place to eighth and ninth, at 9:49 and 9:53 respectively.
The late acceleration also increased Yaroslav Popovych’s lead in the white-jersey competition to 6:28 over Andrey Kashechkin (Crédit Agricole) and put Discovery Channel into the overall team lead by 37 seconds over T-Mobile.
T-Mobile doomed from the start
Before the exciting finale, it was another day of Tour woes for T-Mobile, which “lost” two star riders within 45 minutes. At 9:19 a.m., last year’s Tour runner-up, German Andreas Klöden – who sustained a fractured wrist in an early crash in Tuesday’s stage – was announced as a starter for T-Mobile for today’s stage, despite overnight doubts.
As positive as that news may have been, it soon started to turn for the worse when T-Mobile confirmed speculation that its Kazakh express Vinokourov would leave the team at the end of this season and, according to European media reports, was bound for a French squad.
Then, at 12:56 p.m., the other shoe fell when Klöden suddenly came to a halt after only 18km. He dismounted his bike, bent over to hold his painful wrist and abandoned the Tour.
Meanwhile, up front, the array of attacks continued on the approach to the day’s first Cat. 3 climb, the Cote de Baleix. Then, a kilometer after the summit, the decisive break began to form when French road champion Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Télécom) attacked.
Sixteen riders followed, coming across in ones and twos, and before long there was a big break that the peloton never saw again.
Also in the break were Savoldelli and teammate José Luis Rubiera, Oscar Sevilla (T-Mobile), Arvesen, Erik Dekker (Rabobank), Allan Davis (Liberty-Seguros), Hinault, Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi), Daniele Righi (Lampre-Caffita), Stéphane Augé (Cofidis), Bram Tankink (Quick Step), Carlos Da Cruz and Thomas Løvkvist (Française des Jeux), Andrij Grivko (Domina Vacanze), and Samuel Dumoulin and Gerrans (AG2R).
The group, made up of 14 teams and with riders from eight nationalities, quickly took a strong lead. It rose from 1:55 at the first sprint at Rabastens-de-Bigorre after 44.5km, where De Cruz won from Davis and Dekker; to 12 minutes at 102km.
And it didn’t stop there. Their lead increased to 24:15 with an hour of racing remaining.
Meanwhile, the peloton continued its steady ride into the Haute Garonne as if it were on a club ride — an impression helped by the regular sight of riders chatting, including Armstrong.
It was after 190km, nearing the second sprint at Gardouch, that the front group was awakened by the first of several attacks that would split it up before the finish. This one came from Dekker who won a Tour stage into Revel in 2000.
The Dutchman’s surge prompted a number of attacks and eventually the race-winning split. Sadly for Dekker it was a split that he was unable to make, despite being the instigator.
The eight who made it across were Tankink, Gerrans, Sevilla, Savoldelli, Hinault, Grivko, Arvesen and Righi; a group that split again to four when it hit the final climb. By then Savoldelli’s destiny was about to be realized.
Stage top 10
1. Paolo Savoldelli (I), Discovery Channel
2. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor), CSC, same time
3. Simons Gerrans (Aus), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 0:08
4. Sebastian Hinault (F), Crédit Agricole, at 0:11
5. Andriy Grivko (Ukr), Domina Vacanze, at 0:24
6. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), T-Mobile, at 0:51
7. Bram Tankink (Nl), Quick Step, s.t.
8. Daniele Righi (I), Lampre, at 0:53
9. Samuel Dumoulin (F), Ag2r Prevoyance, at 3:14
10. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros, at 3:14
Top 10 overall
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. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 9:38
8. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 9:49
9. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 9:53
10. Christophe Moreau (F), Credit Agricole, at 12:07
To see how the stage developed, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window.