Tour de France 2009 stage 20: Garate wins, Contador wins, Wiggins... wins
It's Garate's day but Alberto's Tour. and Wiggo's still fourth!
Juan Manuel Garate of Rabobank was the man to tame the Ventoux today as he survived from an all-day break to power to the summit ahead of Tony Martin. But all eyes were forty seconds down the road as the GC contenders made their final plays. At the line Alberto Contador finished with Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong in close atendance, and Bradley Wiggins rode a heroic final climb to keep hold of fourth place by just three seconds.
The stage was effectively 145km of preamble before the main business of the day: the 22km ascent from Bedoin to the top of the legendary Ventoux, a vertical mile above the surrounding lowlands. With the winds gusting to 70mph across the top of the Giant of Provence the final stages promised to be incredibly tough for anyone climbing alone. There were four starter climbs before the main dish but nothing that looked like it would trouble or split the big players. There were an estimated 750,000 people on the slopes of the Ventoux to cheer on their heroes.
A group of sixteen riders - Roulston (Cervelo), Garate and Posthuma (Rabobank), Kuschynski (Liquigas), Dumoulin (Cofidis), Righi (Lampre), Bonnet (Bouygues), Bouet (Agritubel), Lemoine and Timmer (Skil-Shimano), Martin (Columbia), Riblon (AG2R), Geslin (FDJeux), Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Delage (Silence-Lotto) and Perez Moreno (Euskaltel) - went away early on. With the best placed of them, Tony Martin, 55 minutes back the race leaders were happy for them to get away and the lead quickly stretched. With 80km to go their advantage was ten minutes, about what they would likely need to stay away from the charge of the top climbers on the slopes of the Ventoux.
At that point it was time for Saxo Bank and Astana to put the hammer down to keep the escape in sight: Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador had both talked up their chances for today's stage, although Contador has also intimated that he may ride to help Armstrong onto the podium, depending on how things panned out on the day. Over the top of the Col de Fontaube their advantage was down to nine minutes and it had dropped to just over eight as the riders crested the penultimate climb, the Col des Abeilles where the riders had to contend with smoke from forest fires near the summit.
Ventoux is a climb in two parts and the accepted wisdom is that it's the steeper, forested, lower slopes where it's best to build a decisive advantage, but it was a bit of a surprise that the real racing started even before the road reached the hill, with Astana and Saxo Bank jostling for position on the run in to Bedoin. The peloton stretched out and the escape's lead began to shrink. A select group of about 40 riders went off the front: Astana, Saxo Bank, Garmin-Slipstream and Liquigas were very much in evidence as the race reached the lower slopes of the Ventoux. The pace of the group of the GC leaders was frightening: by the bottom of the climb they'd reduced the gap to the escape to four and a half minutes, not enough for them to stay away on the hill.
As the pacemakers started to fall of the back the pain on the faces of the riders was palpable. This one really mattered. Garmin-Slipstream and Astana took turns as the gradient increased; off the front Martin, Garate and Riblon made a break for the summit but their efforts looked doomed as further down the hill the GC group had thinned out to a very select few with Saxo Bank forcing the pace. Into the forested section, where the steepest sections hide, Contador, the Schlecks, Armstrong, Nibali and Wiggins still had men to hide behind but soon it would be down to a shoot out between the big names.
12km to run and the front of the GC group was down to six of the seven leaders in the race: only Andreas Kloden was struggling, a short way off the pace. Andy Schleck and Contador traded a few blows off the front but Contador was happy to sit on Schleck's wheel and didn't look in any trouble. Armstrong was marking Frank Schleck and Wiggins and Nibali were keeping out of trouble. With 10km left Martin and Garate had the lead of the race to share, but the advantage was down to just two minutes. The pace of the big names had slowed a bit allowing Kloden and Roman Kreuziger to re-establish contact.
Once again Andy Schleck and Contador went off up the road, with Kreuziger in pursuit. The other four GC contenders, separated by only 38 seconds, were watchful of one another. Nibali jumped off to find his teammate Kreuziger but with a two minute buffer over the Italian, Armstrong, Wiggins, Kloden and Frank Schleck let him go as they concentrated on staying close to one another. Nibali had the legs to bridge the gap to Contador and Andy Schleck: if he made a couple of minutes he'd be on the podium.
At Chalet Reynard, 6km from the summit, Contador, Andy Schleck and Nibali had passed everyone but Martin and Garate but Schleck, who had been forced to make the pace, had slowed it right down: Seeing that there was no way he'd be leaving Contador behind he'd decided to sit up and wait for his brother Frank to see if he could support him in a break for third place. Pellizotti took advantage of the slowdown to jump off the front of the GC group, he'd been patient on the climb and showed great intelligence to time his attack to the second. Time was running out for anyone to overtake Armstrong for the only podium place in any doubt.
Andy Schleck attacked again on the moonscape with 4km to go, with his brother in tow, but Contador, Armstrong and Wiggins were able to handle the pace. Again he went, and again he was unable to split the group. Franco Pellizotti chased after the two leaders as the elastic holding Wiggins to the GC group looked like it was starting to fray. The riders battled into 25mph headwinds on the upper slopes, giving the riders further back in the group an easier ride, but Wiggins was really starting to struggle as Andy Schleck kept the accelerations coming.
Garate decided at the Flamme Rouge that solo was his best chance of a win, and off he went leaving Martin in his wake. The GC group swallowed up Pelizotti; Martin had once again made contact with Garate but wasn't strong enough to hold off the Spaniard on the final hairpin and it was Garate who took the win with Martin second.
It wasn't long until Contador's group came into view: with both Schlecks, and Armstrong finishing together the only question was whether Wiggins would do enough to keep himself in fourth spot. But the big man had buried himself in the last minutes to stay in touch, and dragged himself to the summit still with a few seconds' advantage over Frank Schleck to cement fourth place and put himself in line to share a joint highest GC finish with Robert Millar.