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Totschnig solos to stage win as T-Mobile tests Armstrong

Under a glaring sun and searing summer heat the 92nd Tour de France entered the Pyrénées of southern France Saturday, and though the general classification didn’t quite blow apart, a handful of the race’s central characters certainly melted from the pressure. After the hors-catégorie ascent of the Port de Pailhères, the 220.5km stage ended atop the Cat. 1 climb to the ski resort at Ax-3 Domaines with six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) holding an even firmer grip on the race leader’s jersey. He’s now 1:41 ahead of Dane Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank),while CSC’s Italian

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By Neal Rogers

Totschnig wins his first Tour stage

Totschnig wins his first Tour stage

Photo: AFP

Under a glaring sun and searing summer heat the 92nd Tour de France entered the Pyrénées of southern France Saturday, and though the general classification didn’t quite blow apart, a handful of the race’s central characters certainly melted from the pressure.

After the hors-catégorie ascent of the Port de Pailhères, the 220.5km stage ended atop the Cat. 1 climb to the ski resort at Ax-3 Domaines with six-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) holding an even firmer grip on the race leader’s jersey. He’s now 1:41 ahead of Dane Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank),while CSC’s Italian Ivan Basso and T-Mobile’s Jan Ullrich , who are both stronger time trialists than Rasmussen, are shaping up to be Armstrong’s biggest threats. Basso now sits in third, 2:46 in arrears, while Ullrich is in fourth a further 1:48 back.

The day’s biggest winner, however, was Austrian Georg Totschnig (Gerolsteiner), who crossed the line 56 seconds ahead of Armstrong as the last man standing from the day’s original 10-man breakaway.

The first win for both Totschnig and his Gerolsteiner squad at the Tour de France, it came as a redemption for the 34-year-old Austrian, who finished seventh at last year’s Tour but watched his hopes for a higher placing ride away from him on the first significant climb of this year’s Tour, losing six-and-a-half minutes in Courchevel. After today’s win, Totschnig moved from 22nd to 14th overall.

“Now I’ve finally won a stage,” beamed Totschnig, who didn’t hold back his tears on the podium. “I had a terrible start to the Tour. I was sick with a bad fever before it and it took me until the Alps to start to feel better. Today I felt good and told my team I wanted to go out and attack. I managed to get into the good breakaway and finally I pulled it off.”

If Totschnig left Ax-3 Domaines as the day’s big winner, several other riders left the mountain needing to reassess their Tour ambitions. Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Crédit Agricole) saw his hopes of a podium finish disappear as he dropped from third to 10th on GC, while Phonak’s Santiago Botero finished 29:08 behind the stage winner, plummeting from fifth overall to 28th.

Moreau got his doors blown off

Moreau got his doors blown off

Photo: Graham Watson

T-Mobile’s Alex Vinokourov, the stage winner in a two-man sprint with Botero in Briançon on Wednesday, was aggressive again today, attacking on both of the closing climbs before dropping off the pace some 6km from the finish. He moved from 11th overall to ninth. With a stage win already under his belt, Vinokourov showed he was willing to sacrifice his GC position to benefit teammate Ullrich, Armstrong’s longtime rival.

“I think I paid for the big efforts I put into winning the stage in Briançon a few days ago,” said Vinokourov. “Lance was strong today, but we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

After much speculation on who would lead the team – and if it would in fact race aggressively – the T-Mobile squad proved it had come to fight at this year’s Tour. It launched a premeditated attack on the slopes of the Port de Pailhères, 40km and two major climbs from the finish. It was the decisive moment of the stage, and for the second time in this year’s Tour, Armstrong found himself isolated, without teammates.

Once again Armstrong kept his cool, as Basso, Ullrich and Vinokourov were all aggressive on the Port de Pailhères while the American had no teammates around to cover moves. “The Discovery team] is not made to do those all-out sprints,” Armstrong said when asked about his isolation. “T-Mobile was all-out sprinting. The Discovery team was made to ride a medium-fast tempo for a long time, to take [the lead group from 50 to 30 to 15 guys.] That disrupted our plan.

“Their tactics were fine; I was left alone, but when you ride like that, no one stays around long. You not only eliminate your rivals, you eliminate your teammates as well.”

On the early slopes of the final Ax-3 Domaines climb, the Texan was surrounded by the T-Mobile trio of Ullrich, Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden, as well as Basso, Rasmussen, Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears), Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Americans Floyd Landis (Phonak) and Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner). But the pace steadily shed the Tour champ’s rivals until, in the final kilometer, he attacked and left behind Ullrich, and later Basso, to take second place on the day.

Permission granted

With the general classification having already taken some shape in the Alps, climbers low down on the standings and looking for a stage win were sure to break away. Just 7km into the day a group of 15 riders slipped off the front, and after a brief sit-in by Discovery’s Yaroslav Popovych and Phonak’s Oscar Pereiro, it was trimmed down to 10 riders: Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile); Alexandre Moos (Phonak); Juan Manuel Garate (Saunier Duval); Stefano Garzelli (Liquigas-Bianchi); Walter Beneteau (Bouygues Télécom); Totschnig; Carlos Da Cruz and Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux); Andriy Grivko (Domina Vacanze); and Yuriy Krivtsov (AG2R).

Garzelli and Beneteau

Garzelli and Beneteau

Photo: Graham Watson

Totschnig was the break’s highest-ranked rider, sitting 22nd, 11:43 behind Armstrong; in Garzelli and Totschnig, the break held a pair of respectable climbers that were capable of holding on to the finish.

With four minor categorized climbs leading into the day’s two major ascents – the 15km, hors-catégorie 8-percent Port de Pailhères and the 9km, 7.3-percent climb to the Ax-3-Domaines summit finish – the group had its work cut out ahead. But a disinterested peloton, headed by Euskaltel and Discovery Channel, allowed the break a lead of nearly 10 minutes at the town of Gesse on the lower slopes of the Port de Pailhères.

As attacks began in the breakaway – first initiated by Moos and covered by Totschnig, Garzelli and Beneteau – T-Mobile massed at the front of the peloton. The always-aggressive Vinokourov was first to attack, drawing out Basso, Rasmussen, Mancebo, Ullrich, Klöden, Evans, Andrey Kasheschkin (Crédit Agricole), Haimar Zubeldia Euskaltel), Landis and Leipheimer. With no teammates left, Armstrong was forced to jump across alone, followed by Mancebo. Behind Spanish climbers Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) and Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) found the pace too much and dropped off.

“It’s scary when you see, 5km before the bottom an entire team, go to the front and start riding as fast as they can,” Armstrong said. “You see what’s going to happen, the order they’re in. You see what they’re setting up for. So in that situation you either fight back, or you run away.

“I was motivated at the time to not be necessarily put down by such strong tactics. But I have to say, I think it was the right thing to do. They did a good job. If I was the director, that would have been my call too.”

As the splintered lead group made its way up the Pailhères, Basso was first to make a move, followed by Vinokourov and Ullrich. But as his rivals continually jumped up the road, the Tour champion valiantly covered every move.

At the top, Totschnig held a 52-second lead over Garzelli, almost four minutes ahead of the yellow jersey, who was flanked by Ullrich, Basso, Landis and Leipheimer. Another minute behind were Klöden, Rasmussen, Mancebo, Evans and Zubeldia. Vinokourov trailed just 10 seconds off the back of the Klöden group, but caught on by the bottom of the descent, and the two groups came together.

Armstrong, Basso and Landis marking one another

Armstrong, Basso and Landis marking one another

Photo: Graham Watson

Eleven men led into the day’s final climb, and with three T-Mobile riders in the group, Vinokourov was again first to attack, opening a small gap. Oddly, it was Klöden at the front pulling Ullrich to their teammate, who found himself deep in the red and quickly spat out the back. From there, with less than 10km remaining under intense heat, the attrition began.

First to leave the bunch was Evans, followed by Zubeldia, Rasmussen, Mancebo and Klöden. As Armstrong began to show signs of fatigue, Ullrich and Basso pushed the pace, shedding Leipheimer and then Landis.

“You just saw bodies everywhere,” Leipheimer said. “Floyd was kind of dragging me along. It was all I could do to follow.”

And then there were three

Ullrich, Basso and Armstrong test each other

Ullrich, Basso and Armstrong test each other

Photo: AFP

With just 4km remaining, Armstrong, Ullrich and Basso caught and passed Garzelli while Totschnig sailed on to his biggest career win yet. For the remaining kilometers a temporary truce seemed to have been struck, with all three knowing a big day, with six categorized climbs, awaited them Sunday.

Then, in the final kilometer, Armstrong upped the pace, leaving Ullrich behind before Basso cracked in the final run-in to the line. At day’s end, Armstrong gained just two seconds on Basso, but beat the German by 20 seconds.

Basso felt better in the Pyrenees than in the Alps - but not Ullrich

Basso felt better in the Pyrenees than in the Alps – but not Ullrich

Photo: Graham Watson

“When Armstrong went I had nothing left,” Ullrich told Eurosport. “We had to go on the attack, but it just didn’t work out. Armstrong matched everything we did.”

However he refused to concede he had no hope of winning, promising: “As I have said all along we will fight the whole way to Paris.”

It was a reversal of fortunes for the Discovery rider, who cast aside demons from a bad day on a nearly identical stage two years ago, when Ullrich and Basso put time into him at the summit. Asked if it had crossed his mind, the Tour champ answered, “Yeah, for sure, but I kept trying to remember my training day here six weeks ago versus the 2003 Tour, because I felt better then. It’s a similar situation, again with Ivan and Jan, same as 2003. Similar also with the heat, it was incredibly hot.

“[Ullrich and Basso] were both stronger than we saw on the Alps. I can’t lie, I kind of expected that. Ivan seemed to be the stronger of the two, working more. When he was on the front he was riding fast. He was doing most of the attacking. But at the same time, Jan was there also. He’s a tough dude. He kept following the attacks and kept following regardless. He was immediately on the wheel, which is an indication that he’s strong too.”

Sunday’s 205km stage, from Lezat-sur-Leze to St-Lary-Soulan, should promise more of the same from the Tour’s top riders.

Stage results

1. Georg Totschnig (A), Gerolsteiner
2. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, at 0:56
3. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, at 0:58
4. Jan Ullrich (G), T-Mobile, at 1:16
5. Levi Leipheimer (USA), Gerolsteiner, at 1:31
6. Floyd Landis (USA), Phonak, at 1:31
7. Francisco Mancebo (Sp), Illes Balears, at 1:47
8. Mickael Rasmussen (Dk), Rabobank, same time
9. Andréas Klöden (G), T-Mobile, at 2:06
10. Haimar Zubeldia (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 2:20

Results are posted


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