It may be Bastille Day, but this evening it's the Basque ikurrina rather than the French tricouleur being waved in triumph after Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez won Stage 12 of the Tour de France in Luz-Ardiden from Omega Pharma Lotto's Jelle Vandenert and Leopard Trek's Frank Schleck. Thomas Voeckler retains the race lead, but defending champion Alberto Contador lost more precious seconds as he was tailed off in the final kilometre.
The highlight of the day from a British point of view was Team Sky's Geraint Thomas getting into an early break and cresting the Tourmalet alongisde FDJ's Jeremy Roy. The pair would be caught on the final climb but Thomas, who had earlier gone off the road twice, had the consolation of winning the day's combativity prize.
Thomas and fellow escapee Jeremy Roy of FDJ hit the final climb to Luz-Ardiden and the dozen hairpins that awaited with a 3 minute advantage over the peloton. In between, a chasing group had formed including Sanchez and, surprisingly, Omega Pharma Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert, although he would fade on the ascent.
With 10 kilometres left to ride, the leading pair’s advantage over the yellow jersey group had been slashed to 1 minute 45 seconds. It didn’t look like it would be enough and so it proved as Sanchez and Gilbert’s team mate Vanendert became the first to bridge across and passed them.
In the group containing most of the main GC contenders including Cadel Evans, both Schleck brothers and defending champion Alberto Contador, Liquigas Cannondale showed themselves for the first time in this year’s race, Silvester Szmyd putting a huge turn in on behalf of team leader Ivan Basso.
That group, and the battle for the overall win in the 98th edition of the Tour, exploded into life as both Andy and Frank Schleck put in a succession of attacks inside the final 5 kilometres of the 211 kilometre stage from Cugneaux aimed at putting their rivals into trouble, especially Contador who is said to be struggling with knee problems.
The third time the senior Schleck brother attacked, the elastic snapped and he headed off on the tracks of Vanendert and Sanchez, the latter cheered by legions of orange-clad Basque fans, many waving the red, white and green ikurrina flag.
A kick from Evans saw Voeckler, who held on to the maillot jaune thanks to the unstinting efforts of Europcar team mate Pierre Roland finally drop off the back of that group, now reduced to five riders, only Basso, Andy Schleck, Damiano Cunego and Contador able to go with him.
Inside the final kilometre, however, Contador lost contact and with it another 8 seconds and it’s looking increasingly likely that the Spaniard will struggle to defend his title and win the Tour for the fourth time.
After losing Bradley Wiggins to a broken collarbone last Friday, Team Sky had promised to go on the attack and today it was Geraint Thomas who got an early six-man break, and what’s more he was the best placed rider of the group in the overall standings.
Joining the Welshman in that break were three French riders – Roy, Laurent Mangel of Saur-Sojasun, and AG2R’s Biel Kadri – plus Jose Gutierrez of Movistar and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Ruben Perez.
Thomas had lost a little over 3 minutes, and the best young rider’s white jersey, on Friday’s stage as he waited to see if his team leader could remount. Today, however, with the break building a lead of more than 7 minutes before the day’s first big climb, he found himself as the virtual maillot jaune of the race.
Coming over the top of the climb in fifth place, however, Thomas endured a couple of heart-stopping moments as he began the ascent, twice sliding off the road, though thankfully the road was flanked by a soft grass verge rather than a vertiginous drop.
On the way to the foot of the next climb, the Tourmalet, Thomas and Gutierrez, who had earlier been dropped from the breakaway group, rode hard and managed to bridge back to the other four escapees ahead of the ascent.
Initial impressions were that Thomas’s rim may have locked, but behind him a number of riders came down on a section of road made slippery either by oil or a wet patch on the surface.
Voeckler in the maillot jaune just about managed to keep his bike upright, although he clipped a parked car as he did so, necessitating a change of bikes at the foot of the climb.
Less lucky, however, were riders including Andreas Kloeden who hit the deck as his run of bad luck, not to mention that of his RadioShack team, continued.
This being Bastille Day, the French fans were out in force, clearly enjoying the rare opportunity of cheering on one of their own in the maillot jaune in the shape of Voeckler, the first Frenchman to wear the leader’s jersey on the Fete Nationale since he himself had done so in 1994.
The French champion’s tricouleur jersey was also prominent, with the man who took that title off Voeckler last month, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, attacking on the Hourquette d’Ancinzan along with – almost unbelievably – Vacansoleil-DCM’s Johnny Hoogerland in the polka dot jersey, showing huge spirit despite the injuries he received when he crashed into a barbed wire fence on Sunday.
The Dutchman was unable to keep with Chavanel nor Astana’s Roman Kreuziger, who managed to get across to the pair, but the very fact he had a go amply showed the gritty attitude that has won him legions of new admirers during this race.
Chavanel, too, faltered on the ascent of the Tourmalet, leaving Kreuziger alone to chase after and join the remains of the breakaway as, incredibly given his earlier scare, Thomas rode off alone to lead the Tour de France up the Tourmalet.
Only Roy was able to keep him in sight, and the Frenchman caught the Team Sky rider inside the final kilometre of the climb and passed him to claim the €5,000 Jacques Goddet prize on offer to the first rider across.
Behind, as the peloton came onto the lower slopes of the Tourmalet, Leopard Trek were the first of the GC contenders’ teams to lay their cards on the table, moving to the front of the bunch en masse and upping the pace.
The first GC contender to crack on the Tourmalet was Rabobank’s Robert Gesink, who has had an up and down race and was clearly struggling today, proof that the game – and with it, his leadership of the best young rider’s classification – was up coming as he told team mate Carlos Barredo to ride back to the main bunch without him.
Today, as with any high mountain stage, was largely a day for the sprinters to endure and ensure they made it to the finish within the time limit.
However, the new format of the points competition saw HTC-Highroad lead out Mark Cavendish once again for the Manxman to claim the 9 points left to the first man from the peloton through the intermediate sprint point to get another point’s advantage over Movistar’s Jose Joaquin Rojas in the points competition.
Tour de France Stage 12 result 1 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI 6h 01' 15" 2 VANENDERT Jelle OMEGA PHARMA - LOTTO + 00' 07" 3 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 00' 10" 4 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 00' 30" 5 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING + 00' 30" 6 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 00' 30" 7 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD + 00' 35" 8 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 00' 43" 9 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR + 00' 50" 10 ROLLAND Pierre EUROPCAR + 00' 50" 11 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 01' 03" 12 JEANNESSON Arnold FDJ + 01' 19" 13 URAN Rigoberto SKY PROCYCLING + 01' 25" 14 LEIPHEIMER Levi RADIOSHACK + 01' 25" 15 DUPONT Hubert AG2R LA MONDIALE + 01' 56" 16 TROFIMOV Yury KATUSHA + 01' 56" 17 ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 02' 02" 18 TEN DAM Laurens RABOBANK + 02' 10" 19 DE WEERT Kevin QUICK STEP + 02' 10" 20 ZUBELDIA Haimar TEAM RADIOSHACK + 02' 53" Tour de France Overall Standings after Stage 12 1 VOECKLER Thomas EUROPCAR 51h 54' 44" 2 SCHLECK Frank LEOPARD-TREK + 01' 49" 3 EVANS Cadel BMC RACING + 02' 06" 4 SCHLECK Andy LEOPARD-TREK + 02' 17" 5 BASSO Ivan LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE + 03' 16" 6 CUNEGO Damiano LAMPRE - ISD + 03' 22" 7 CONTADOR Alberto SAXO BANK SUNGARD + 04' 00" 8 SANCHEZ Samuel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI + 04' 11" 9 DANIELSON Tom GARMIN - CERVELO + 04' 35" 10 ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 04' 57"
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.