Tour de France race leader Andy Schleck of Team Saxo bank has said is happy with managing to limit his time losses to defending Tour de France champion Alberto Contador to just 10 seconds on yesterday’s Stage 12 to Mendes.
The Spaniard attacked on the day’s final climb, the short yet unrelenting Montée Laurent Jalabert – named after ‘Jaja,’ the local hero who scored a famous breakaway win here in the 1995 edition of the race – and Schleck, who had started the day 42 seconds ahead of the Astana rider, immediately appeared to be in real trouble.
As the road levelled out approaching the finish, and with Contador perhaps distracted by the presence of Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez waiting patiently behind to make his move to take the stage, which he duly did, it was somewhat of a surprise to see Schleck’s group cross the line only 10 seconds behind the winner.
"This morning I counted on losing a couple of seconds to Alberto today because I really don’t like this climb,” explained Schleck to the Tourr de France website, adding, “It’s on my black list. It’s really short and you cannot really find a rhythm so my plan was to just stay on his wheel but he never came past me. I tried to play it a little bit cool at the bottom but he just stayed behind me.”
The Team Saxo Bank rider continued: “Then he attacked at just the right moment and I was not able to follow. I just kept calm and I told myself, ‘Right, on the steep part I’ll hold my rhythm,’ then at the top I wanted to speed up. And at the end he only gained 10 seconds, and that’s like what I took out of him at Morzine-Avoriaz.”
He added: “There’s no real lesson from today’s stage. I could not have done anything differently.”
An 18-strong breakaway group had got away early in the day’s stage and Team Saxo Bank had forced the pace at the front of the peloton to keep any potential threat to the yellow jersey in check.
But with 40km to go, four riders from that escape broke off the front, and quickly built a gap of four minutes over the main bunch, although an apparent error on the chalkboard meant it was some minutes before Schleck and his team mates realised the extent of the threat from the escapees, a select quartet comprising Vasil Kiryienka of Caisse d’Epargne, Andreas Kloden of RadioShack, Ryder Hejsedal of Garmin-Transitions and Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, who would eventually finish third.
Cervélo TestTeam quickly joined Schelck’s team in chasing down the escapees, who with the exception of Vinokourov were caught on the Montée de Jalabert, and afterwards the Luxembourg riders had nothing but praise for his colleagues, although he added that he did not believe it would have been critical had he lost the maillot jaune.
“The team did a really great job today. The race went really fast right from the start this morning and, after a while, there was a group out there with riders who were quite close in the classification but I said to the team, ‘Right, we ride and we keep them at a certain limit, but the riders who are out there are ones who I’ll gain time on in the Pyrenees… so even if I lost the yellow jersey, it’s okay’. If one of them took the lead, I would not really have cared because I am still only aiming to have the yellow jersey in Paris.”
With Contador likely to take back significant time from Schleck in the 52km Stage 19 time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac a week today, the feeling is that he will have to put in a commanding performance in the Pyrenees, which the race heads into tomorrow, to stand any chance of the overall victory.
Stage winner Rodriguez, who rises to 8th overall, said he was on track to achieve his objectives for the Tour and tipped his compatriot for the overall win, although he insisted that there was no question of he or the Astana rider looking to do each other favours on yesterday’s run-in.
“My relationship with Alberto is very good,” said the Katusha rider. “We’ve known each other since we raced together for the ONCE team in 2003, and he also raced with my little brother. But at the end of today’s stage, there was no agreement possible, especially since I was very confident because I know that my top speed is greater than his.”
Rodriguez continued: “I was very clear at the start of the Tour: I wanted to win a stage and get the best possible position in the general classification. I’m glad to see that today, the two objectives have come good at the same time. I find myself with a stage victory and a very good place on GC.”
The Spaniard added: “Regarding the fight for the title between Contador and Schleck, I feel that the stages that are coming up are more favorable for Alberto. I also think Andy Schleck has already spent a lot of energy in the first part of the Tour. In my opinion, Alberto has biggest chance for the final victory.”
One of the riders who slipped into yesterday’s break was Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd, who bagged some intermediate sprint points to move back ahead of Lampre-Farnese Vini’s Alessandro Petacchi. Today’s Stage 13 into Revel is the last chance of a sprint finish until Bordeaux next Friday.
While HTC-Columbia’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his fourth win of this year’s Tour to keep his hopes of the green jersey alive, the Manxman is likely to suffer from the absence of his leadout man, Mark Renshaw, thrown out of the Tour on Thursday for headbutting Garmin-Transitions Julian Dean then changing his line to force the same team’s Tyler Farrar towards the barriers.
Robbie McEwen of Katusha is also still in the mix – the Australian, a three-time winner of the green jersey, lies third in the points classification, six points ahead of Cavendish but 23 behind Petacchi with Hushovd a further six points clear – and the latter believes that the competition will go all the way to Paris.
He acknowledges, however, that Petacchi is his biggest threat, and with the Italian placing higher than Hushovd in the sprint finishes to date, the Norwegian is looking to intermediate sprints to consolidate his position, as he did yesterday.
“The biggest threat to the green jersey is Petacchi, because he’s the closest on points but of course Cavendish is really fast now – I would say the fastest of us all – but he’s still a few points behind,” explained Hushovd.
“Still, I expect it to be a big battle until Paris,” he continued. “I felt good this morning when they started to go fast. Then, when they attacked for a while there on the climbs, I thought to move up and monitor the important attacks. I was strong enough to follow the right one – at the top of the second climb – and that put me in the escape group.”
He added: “I just tried to fight for every point. I’m happy with my 10 points, that’s more than what I dreamed of last night.”
One of the other big pieces of news yesterday was the abandonment, with a little more than 20km to go, of Garmin-Transitions sprinter Tyler Farrar who had been struggling with the pain of a broken wrist ever since Stage 2 and who was involved in the controversial incident on Thursday that saw Renshaw’s race come to an end.
“I am devastated to leave the Tour and my teammates,” said Farrar afterwards. “You never want to leave any race but especially the Tour. It’s the event we work for all year. I’ve been suffering since my crash on Stage 2 and today, the pain was just too much. I couldn’t push through.”
He continued: “I wanted to get to Paris more than anything. Instead, I’ll be watching my teammates from home. That’s not where I want to be. But I know they’ll continue to make us proud, and I’ll be cheering louder than anyone. I want to thank them again now for everything they’ve done for me.”
Matt White, the team’s director sportif, said that the lack of a sprint finish yesterday had made the stage a particularly brutal one for Farrar. “Sprints are easier for Tyler to get through because the adrenaline in that situation helps mask the pain,” he explained. “Today was the hardest day of the race yet and the kind of climbing and descending these guys did is incredibly painful for an injury like Tyler’s. Having to brake on the descents is probably the most painful thing to do with a broken wrist,” he added.
CEO of team owner Slipstream Sports, Jonathan Vaughters, praised Farrar’s efforts of riding through the pain barrier during a Tour in which injuries have exacted a very heavy toll on Garmin-Transitions, with Christian Vande Velde abandoning after suffering broken ribs on Stage 2 and Robbie Hunter pulling out after breaking a bone in his elbow on Stage 10. Britain’s David Millar continues to ride on, despite himself having a broken rib.
“We’ve had four guys with broken bones at this Tour,” said Vaughters, “ With Tyler’s departure from the race, we now have three at home,” he continued, although the American wasn’t using misfortune as an excuse, instead focusing on what his team had managed to achieve.
“Sure, we’ve had bad luck,” he said, “but look at what these guys have gone through to get this far into the race. Even with a broken wrist and sprained elbow, Tyler has run second and third in sprints. He rode Stage Three – kilometer after kilometer of cobbles – almost entirely with one hand. He has persevered to get to this stage of the race. That shows his own strength and the strength of this team.”
Vaughters added: “Ryder [Hesjedal] has been having the ride of his life here, with another incredible day today. We may not have luck on our side at the moment, but we have a team of great, tough riders who will continue to be competitive here.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.