July 22, 2010
It was billed as the possibly the most decisive stage in this year’s Tour de France. So much was at stake, with the two Tour leaders looking to best one another on the final climb up the peak of the col du Tourmalet.
Andy Schleck was looking to take back the Yellow Jersey he lost two stages ago, and a deficit of 8 seconds to Alberto Contador.
But Contador matched each and every acceleration that Schleck made up the steep 9 percent grade sections, only allowing his rival to take the line on the summit. The two were so closely matched that at one point it looked like neither one wanted to get ahead for the sake of enjoying the joust too much. When they exchanged friendly pats after the finish, it almost seemed they were saying, "Hmm, good joust today, looking forward to the next."
The finish leaves Contador in the Yellow Jersey with no gain by Schleck. With only two stages to go, the flat stage from Salies de Bearn to Bordeaux tomorrow, and the individual time trial on Saturday from Bordeaux to Pauillac, that will be difficult, as Schleck does not excel in the time trial and could easily lose any chance for first on that day.
The third place finish went to Joaquin Rodriguez, followed by Ryder Hesjedal, then Sammy Sanchez, who had crashed earlier in the stage.
That puts Sanchez in third place with a narrow 20 second lead over Denis Menchov for the podium place.
The final day of racing in the mountains had four climbs, the first a category-4 cote de Renoir (at 13.5km), followed by the category-one col de Marie-Blanque, a 9.3km long ascent with an average gradient of 7.6 per cent. Then came the category-one col du Soulor - 11.9km long at 7.8 percent, and then the mother of them all, the col du Tourmalet - 18.6km long with an average gradient of 7.5 per cent.
At the start of the stage was pouring rain. The col du Tourmalet was first breached in the Tour de France in 1910, when it was only a dirt road. Since then of course it’s been paved, but the grade and difficulty of this portion of the stage hasn’t changed.
But at the start of the race Kristjian Koren of the Liquigas team made the first attempt to break from the peloton, taking seven riders with him including Juan Antonio Flecha (SKY), Edvald Boasson Hagen (SKY), Aleksandre Kolobnev (KAT), Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Remi Pauriol (COF), and Ruben Perez Moreno (EUS).
Sastre moved ahead of the Astana team and appeared ready to attack, then hesitated when teammate Daniel Lloyd launched a move with Cofidis rider, Auge, and Gutierrez all four in pursuit of the seven stage leaders.
Then there was a counter-attack at the 18 km mark by Ignatas Konovalovas in pursuit of the lead group of seven.
When Konovalovas was 2 minutes and 15 seconds behind Flecha’s break group and the peloton at 3’10", Sammy Sanchez of Eukaltel crashed in the peloton. Contador neutralized the gruppo and everyone but Sastre listened, riding ahead as the peloton waited.
At the time of the crash, the peloton was 3’25" behind the seven stage leaders. Sastre caught up with Konovalovas around the 27km mark and both the seven stage leaders.
The GC contenders continued to ride at a regular pace while Sanchez chased to get back to the peloton after his crash: The delay has increased the advantage for the break to 3 minutes and 50 seconds.
The gap between the leaders and the peloton has increased to 6 minutes and 25 seconds at the intermediate sprint at 33km mark.
Soon Sastre was riding alone, in the no man’s land between the leaders and the peloton, as Konovalovas (CTT) slipped back and was caught by the chase in the final kilometer of the second climb over col de Marie Blanque.
The seven riders in the break began the ascent of the col du Soulor, a 11.9km long ascent with an average gradient of 7.8 per cent with 4 minutes and 55 seconds ahead of Sastre.
Noval from Astana,
Sorensen from Saxo Bank and Roelandts of Omega Pharma-Lotto pulled the peloton to the base of the Soulor with a deficit of 7’25" to the lead group.
But that lead narrowed as the groups covered Soulor.
But behind him the peloton with Lars Bloom and Matti Breschel pushing the pace on the front, had narrowed their distance to the lead to 5 minutes and 35 seconds, and were gaining time on the Cervelo Test Team rider.
Although the average grade is 7.5 percent on the Tourmalet, the actual climb progresses from four percent, to five and then carries the riders 19 km at 9 percent, giving the climb its reputation for difficulty. So it was only a matter of time before they brought Sastre back into the fold.
At 25 km to go, the lead group had been in front for 125 km, and the gap to the peloton had narrowed to 4 minutes and 53 seconds. As they started up the 19.6 km to the summit of Tourmalet, they began to drop riders. First the two Sky riders, then Remi Pauriol.
Behind them in the peloton, Saxo Bank was pushing the pace for their teammate Schleck, including Matti Breschel, and Fabian Cancellara. Behind them were Contador and 20 other riders like Lance Armstrong and Chris Horner of RadioShack, and Joaquim Rodriguez.
The peloton behind them was being ripped to shreds: riders like Ivan Basso and broken-elbow, World Champion Cadel Evans were dropped like flat pancakes. Eventually even Vinokourov was holding onto the back by a string.
Now only two leaders off the front were left, Marcus Burghardt and Russian Alexander Kolobnev, but their advantage had narrowed to two and a half minutes. Burghardt attacked at about 13 km to the top of the climb, then Kolobnev took off and went off the front, leaving Burghardt in the dust.
The question was when would Andy Schleck attack? Saxo Bank was trying to crush Team Astana at 12 km to the summit. Also up front in the lead peloton group with Contador and Schleck were Denis Menchov, Vasili Kuriyenka (Caisse D’Epargne), Joaquim Rodriguez, Luis Leon Sanchez, and five riders from Team RadioShack.
In the town of Barrege at 11 km to go Kolobnev was still ahead of the GC group by a minute and 39 seconds. Burghardt was behind him at about 20 seconds.
Then came Andy Schleck’s move, which Contador followed and matched.
Behind them Rodriguez, Menchov, and Sanchez—still bleeding from his early crash, tried to match their acceleration.
At 9 km to the summit Schleck was still riding ahead, then accelerated, as they made their way up to the coattails of Kolobnev, and passed him like a steaming freight train. The two looked like mountain goats scrambling up a mountain at a speed not known to normal men.
Levi Leipheimer slipped from the chase group, but Ryder Hesjedal had gotten into this nine man group consisting of Sanchez, slated for third, and Menchov, who could do better in the time trial in Bordeaux, Chris Horner, Robert Gesink, Ryder Hesjedal and Jurgen van den Broeck.
At 7.2km to the top, or 4.5 miles, the two top riders shrouded in the mist of the mountain, continued to match one another.
At 5 km to the finish, Schleck continued to push the pace up front as they came upon the steep and twisting roads to the summit, increasing his tempo to 97 rpm on the pedal stroke.
At 4 km to go, and unable to shake Contador and as the road steepened, he slowed. Contador was looking for his opportunity to attack, and was allowing the Luxemburger to tire out.
Contador did attack at 3.9 km, with a sudden acceleration, but Schleck followed, and as he caught him he looked him in the eye. It almost seemed like these two had gotten used to being together and didn’t want to lose one another.
At 1 km to the summit, as the road steepend the two leaders were still together with no let up by either. Every acceleration by Schleck has been matched by Contador. Schleck’s strategy to try and tire the Spaniard out had not worked. Contador for his part looked ready and able to take the win at half a kilometer from the finish but he didn’t.
At 150 meters to the finish, the two were neck to neck but Schleck took the win.