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By Andrew Hood
The third week of the Tour de France often becomes many races within one. Thursday’s 189km stage 18 from Albi to Mende was one of those days. Riders desperate for a stage victory to “save” their Tours were off the front attacking over the hilly, five-climb course through France’s Massif Central. And the overall contenders were cooling their jets until the day’s final climb, anxious to either drop rivals ahead of them on the GC, make up time they’ve lost on previous days or, at least in the case of Ivan Basso, take one last swing for the fences. Marcos Serrano, a Spanish journeyman on the Liberty Seguros team, was listed as the stage’s winner, but Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Cadel Evans each won something as well. Armstrong took one more step toward a seventh Tour crown while Ullrich clawed ever closer to a place on the final podium by staying with the attacking Basso and cutting the gap to third-place Michael Rasmussen by 37 seconds. And Aussie rider Evans showed yet more panache by audaciously following the three riders who’ll likely stand on the final podium. For the rest of the 155 riders in the Tour peloton, Thursday’s rough stage was one long, hard, hot day in the saddle.
Harder than it looks
Temperatures were stinking hot in Albi for the morning sign-in. All remaining riders took the start, but the Tour was already taking its toll.
“All the riders are tired, everything hurts,” said Discovery Channel team boss Johan Bruyneel. “It’s more mental suffering now at this point of the Tour. Everyone has their job to do, but everyone is glad the suffering is almost over.” The course was one of the most difficult of this year’s Tour. Driving east across the hilly Massif Central, the day’s five climbs were capped by the Côte de la Croix-Neuve, where Laurent Jalabert won a dramatic stage in 1995. The final pitch averaged 10.1 percent, by far the steepest climb in this year’s Tour, though over a short, sharp 3.1km. The climb has since been named “montée Laurent Jalabert” for the conquering hero of a decade ago. Despite the heat, it didn’t take long for the attacks to begin. Frédéric Bessy (Cofidis) was the first to try, soon followed by Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile), stage 6 winner Lorenzo Bernucci (Fassa Bortolo) and Santiago Botero (Phonak). A flurry of other attacks went away until Carlos Da Cruz (Française des Jeux) jumped clear at 39km. Mattias Kessler (T-Mobile), Luke Roberts (CSC), Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), Cédric Vasseur (Cofidis), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Télécom), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel) and Serrano chugged away with him. “I’ve been trying to get into some breaks during this Tour, so it was fun to be out there,” said Roberts, an Olympic gold medalist on the track. “I knew I didn’t have much of a chance against all the climbers, but this Tour has been good for me.” Under the stifling conditions, the peloton was content to let the leading 10 enjoy their day in the sun. By the 100km point, where they passed beneath the world newest and highest viaduct, the spectacular1225-foot high Viaduc de Millau, the gap was 12 minutes; over the Côte de Boyne at 122km, the gap was 12:30. “The team has been working hard at the front the entire Tour, so when the break went away, it wasn’t our responsibility to bring it back,” said Bruyneel. “Maybe Lance could have won the stage, but the breakaway had too much time. It was more important to save the legs for the final.” Serrano on the go
The leading 10 had 15:20 on the main bunch when Da Cruz opened hostilities on the penultimate climb, the Cat. 3 Côte de Chabrits with 9km to go. An inspired Merckx, whose wife gave birth to the couple’s second child just two days beforethe Tour started, gave chase. Bridging out were Voeckler, Vasseur, Zandio and Serrano. The quintet hit the base of the final climb and Merckx gave it the first run, but Serrano counterattacked and soon passed the son of cycling legend Eddy Merckx. The Spanish rider put everything into the move, topping out 20 seconds ahead of the chasing Merckx and Vasseur. He drove it home over the final 1.5km to the finishing straight on an airport landing strip high above Mende. “It’s unbelievable. You try hard, you work hard all year and all of a sudden, it works out,” said Serrano, who’s scored top 10s in all three grand tours.
“I almost quit in 2003. The results weren’t coming. I kept saying I was going to quit but at the bottom of my heart, I don’t think I really meant it.” Merckx didn’t get much collaboration from Vasseur, and the chance to win on Belgium’s National Day slipped away. Maybe that’s why he gave Vasseur some jaw at the finish line as the Frenchman squirted ahead to take second. One last mountain
Team CSC drilled it to the base of the final climb to trim the peloton to about two dozen riders. This was Basso’s last chance to drop Armstrong. Basso shot to the front, but Armstrong had the legs to answer the challenge. Also grabbing the wheel were Ullrich and Evans, and the foursome soon spit others out the back. “I knew the attacks would come,” Armstrong said. “It was the last chance for them to try to get some time. Ullrich was trying to drop Rasmussen, Basso was trying to drop Ullrich. I just had to follow.” Ullrich momentarily drifted off the pace, but was able to struggle back. Alex Vinokourov couldn’t quite follow and floated back to join Rasmussen and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner), who crossed the line 37 seconds behind the Armstrong group. “I tried to drop Armstrong, but he was on my wheel the entire time,” said Basso. “It was the last summit finish. I went 100 percent, but Armstrong is too strong this year.” Basso’s aggression helped both Evans and Ullrich. Evans erased the 20 seconds he lost over the final Cat. 3 climb on the run into Revel in Wednesday’s stage. The Tour rookie is showing incredible strength in the Tour’s final week and moved back into seventh on GC. “A climb like that was made for me,” Evans said. “After yesterday, I would have been happy to get through without losing any time, but it’s a bonus to get some back before the final time trial. The time I lost to Vino’ (Wednesday), I’ve made all that up.” The excited Evans even shot ahead of the foursome to lead the group across the line, something that Armstrong didn’t seem to like.
“Armstrong was pissed at me that I sat on and sprinted for the group,” he said. “You put a finish line in front of me and I’ve got to sprint for it, I’m sorry.” Ullrich, meanwhile, narrowed the difference to third-place Rasmussen to 2:12 going into Saturday’s decisive time trial at St. Etienne. The 1997 Tour champ is feeling stronger in the Tour’s final week and is hoping to bounce onto the podium.
“I needed to take some time off Rasmussen,” Ullrich said. “I took about two minutes off him in the opening time trial over 19 kilometers, so maybe it’s possible. I feel much better now as I have recovered from my two crashes.” Rasmussen came through 16th and officially sewed up the King of the Mountains jersey, but admitted he might have trouble holding off the big German diesel engine on Saturday’s 55km TT course. “I’m satisfied I finally won the jersey,” said Rasmussen, who was seeing a late threat from Oscar Pereiro. “It was too bad Ullrich got away, but I have no excuses. I am feeling the third week in my legs and I just couldn’t follow.” For Armstrong, it’s one more day in yellow and one day closer to a possible seventh Tour crown. Just three days stand between Armstrong and retirement.
“You enjoy yourself more when you know it’s almost over,” Armstrong said after retaining the yellow jersey Thursday. “My career is almost over, it’s a nice feeling.”
1. Marcos Serrano (Sp), Liberty Seguros
2. Cédric Vasseur (F), Cofidis, at 0:27
3. Axel Merckx (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 0:27
4. Xabier Zandio (Sp), Illes Balears, at 1:08
5. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi, same time
6. Thomas Voeckler (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 1:28
7. Luke Roberts (Aus), CSC, s.t.
8. Matthias Kessler (G), T-Mobile, at 1:44
9. Egoi Martinez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 2:03
10. Carlos Da Cruz (F), Francaise des Jeux, at 2:38
11. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 11:18
12. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, s.t.
13. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, s.t.
14. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
15. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 11:55
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel
2. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 2:46
3. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, at 3:46
4. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, at 5:58
5. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, at 7:08
6. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 8:12
7. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, at 9:49
8. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 10:11
9. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 10:42
10. Christophe Moreau (F), Credit Agricole, at 13:15
11. Eddy Mazzoleni (I), Lampre, at 15:13
12. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, at 15:53
13. Oscar Pereiro Sio (Sp), Phonak, at 17:10
14. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 17:26
15. Oscar Sevilla (Sp), T-Mobile, at 20:06
To see how the stage developed, simply CLICK HERE to bring up our Live Update window.