The second week of the Tour may have been a damp squib but third has been one explosion after another and so it was again on Stage 17. Astana blew the race apart on the final two climbs aided and abetted by the Schleck brothers – their reward was a stage win for big brother Frank, oh and both brothers moved up to 2nd and 3rd on general classification knocking Lance Armstrong off _ surely that wasn't in the plan? BradleyWiggins finished 3:09 down. Sastre was nearly 8 minutes back and Cadel Evans was out of sight.
When the smoke finally cleared on another day of high drama the Tour it was apparent that despite a superb display of aggressive bike riding by Lance Armstrong that in the race for the yellow jersey the day belonged to the Tour's younger generation – youth didn't get its head in the battle for green, but more on that later.
Today's stage through the High Alps always looked to be a pivotal one with five big climbs with the last four being successively steeper: the Côte d'Arâches (6.3 km at 7 percent), followed by the Col de Romme (8.8 km at 8.9 percent) and the Col de la Colombière (7.5 km at 8.5 percent). The first two, both first category, the Cormet de Roselend (18 km at 6.1 percent) and the Col des Saisies (15.1 km at 6 percent) were no walk in the park either.
Given the nature of the final week with a time trial in between the mountain stages Astana will certainly have wanted to test Wiggins on this stage for fear of any advantage he could get in the time trial – let's not forget that with Kloden in fourth place Astana had the prospect of a clean sweep on the podium. For their part if Saxo Band were going to get Andy Schleck on to the podium Wiggins would have to go.
As the race hit the day's penultimate climb, the Col de Romme the testing of Wiggins began with Contador and the Schlecks attacking. They established a lead group comprising both Schleck's, Contador, and Andreas Kloden – the latter 31 seconds back on Wiggins in the overall. The Brit rider tried to respond but either couldn't, or decided to save his strength. Instead he settled into t group with Armstrong, Vande Velde, Nibali and and Van den Broeck.
As the race hit the Col de Romme the testing of Wiggins began with Contador and the Schlecks attacking. They established a lead group comprising both Schlecks A & F, Contador, and Andreas Kloden – the latter 31 seconds back on Wiggins in the overall. The Brit rider tried to respond but either couldn't, or decided to save his strength. Instead he settled into t group with Armstrong, Vande Velde, Nibali and and Van den Broeck.
On the steep slopes of the Col de Romme Kloden was in virtual third place overall with the gap building to nearly a minute between the lead group and Wiggins, Armstrong. and co. With a kilometre to go Armstrong attacked – taking Wiggins with him. At the top the gap between them and the leaders was 0:1:03.
The aggressive riding of Contador and the Schlecks had already done for Carlos Sastre who was spat out of the back and reached the summit over two minutes down on the lead group. Things went from bad to worse for Sastre when he promptly punctured.
A fast descent on drying roads was followed all too quickly by the Colombiere while the Schlecks and the two Astana riders climbed steadily, Wiggins paced by team mate Vande Velde looked to limit his losses. This was looking like a good day for Andreas Kloden and Astana.
Then at 17Km Contador made a tactical error he attacked and Kloden cracked – that wasn't in the plan and Contador eased up, which only let the Schlecks back in and then then there was two of them and one of him with Kloden stuck 10 seconds back and going nowhere in terms of closing the gap – in fact he started to slip back towards Wiggins and Armstrong.
A kilometre from the summit Kloden had already lost 45 seconds on Contador and the Schlecks within a few hundred metres that gap had gone out to over a minute it was 0:1:15 to the summit. Behind him Armstrong attacked mindful of protecting his second place from both Kloden and Wiggins and protect Astana's chances of having three riders on the podium. With Vande Velde cracking before the summit Wiggins was on his own and was forced to slog on in Armstrong's wake with Nibali jumping away to try and bridge to Armstrong.
Up ahead the Schlecks momentarily slowed up to have a word with Contador whether to ask him to do some work (fat chance lads) or to a deal for the stage win Tour etiquette meant he should have given it to one of the Schlecks anyway – maybe they just wanted to check.
Armstrong and Nibali then both gave fantastic displays of descending with Nibali's nothing short of awesome as he reached Armstrong and the pair then caught and passed Kloden to make Lance's day, for a little while at least, because up ahead the youngsters were also putting the hammer down on road to the finish. With 2:06 on Armstrong at the summit the Schlecks were well in with a sniff of a place on the podium and they were mindful too that with a time trial coming up tomorrow they would need to put as much time as possible in to the likes of Armstrong, Kloden and Wiggins if they were going to keep it.
Today's drama wasn't just limited to the race for yellow either the other competitions saw some big moves too courtesy of an earlier break. With so much to play for on the stage in all the competitions it was not surprise that the break went early and that when it did there were plenty of riders in it – 21 to be exact including serial escape artists like Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavenel.
Given that the first category climbs of the Cornet de Roseland and the Col de Saisies were near the start it was no surprise to see Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas and his main rival in the mountains competition, Egoi Martinez, both there too.
And who was that large figure in green? Bless me it's Thor Hushovd out to mop the points in the day's intermediate sprint and with them shut the door even more firmly on Mark Cavendish in the points competition.
That break in full then, urgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), David Zabriskie (Garmin), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Sandy Casar (FDJeux), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Geoffroy Lequatre (Agritubel), Rigoberto Uran (Caisse d'Epargne), Jose Luis Arrieta (AG2R), Thor Hushovd (Cervelo), Marzio Bruseghin (Lampre), Linus Gerdemann (Milram), George Hincapie and Maxime Monfort (Columbia-HTC), Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues), Christophe Kern and Remy Pauriol (Cofidis), Egoi Martinez, Amets Txurruka, Gorka Verdugo, Ruben Perez (all Euskaltel).
None of the teams of the main players in the fight for the yellow jersey were represented on a day as potentially pivotal as this they wanted all their men about them in the bunch.
Pellizotti bagged the points at the top of the Cornet de Roseland to consolidate his lead and Thor Hushovd jumped off the front on the descent, building up a lead enough of a lead to take the points on the top of the Col de Saisies with Pellizotti outsprinting Christophe Kern from a six man group that jumped off the main escape to follow Hushovd. Hushovd nearly came a cropper on the rainy descent and Denis Menchov did (twice), but Hushovd won't have let that worry him as he duly picked up the points on the first intermediate sprint and continued on his way – first part of his day's work done.
Nearing the top of the category two Cote dAraches Hushovd still had 0:1:35 on the chasers who had all reformed as one group with the main peloton a further 0:2:20 back and barring accidents the points for the second sprint at the bottom were his too – and so it proved job done he sat up.
Afterwards he had this to say about his day: "Like I've been saying for the last few days, I feel really good and I'm comfortable on the climbs. And today everything just felt perfect. I attacked over the first climb, did a good descent and then had an amazing day in the front. I think this is the best day I've ever had on the bike."
"Maybe I was making a statement but at least I've got more points in case something happens in the coming days and I win the jersey by just 10 points, at least I can say that I built a sufficient buffer on this stage to Le Grand Bornand. That's not the issue. That wasn't the only reason to attack."
"I wanted to have fun up there, get some points along the way and be prepared for the Champs-Elysées. I did that and it was an amazing day for me."
Back in the main group first Saxo Bank and then Astana were on the front keeping the pace high – making sure that when the examaination came on the final two climbs there would be very few candidates left to take it.
1) Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 4:53:54 2) Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana) 3) Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 4) Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 0:02:18 5) Lance Armstrong (Astana) 6) Andreas Klöden (Astana) 0:02:27 7) Bradley Wiggins (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:03:07 8) Christophe Moreau (Agritubel) 0:04:09 9) Christian Vande Velde (Garmin - Slipstream) 10)Rémi Pauriol (Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne) 0:06:10
1) Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana) 72:27:09 2) Andy Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:02:26 3) Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 0:03:25 4) Lance Armstrong (Astana) 0:03:55 5) Andreas Klöden (Astana) 0:04:44 6) Bradley Wiggins (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:04:53 7) Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) 0:05:09 8) Christian Vande Velde (Garmin - Slipstream) 0:08:08 9) Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux) 0:09:19 10)Mikel Astarloza Chaurreau (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 0:10:50
1) Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team) 230 pts 2) Mark Cavendish (Team Columbia - HTC) 200 3) Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Caisse d'Epargne) 126 4) Gerald Ciolek (Team Milram) 122 5) Tyler Farrar (Garmin - Slipstream) 110 6) Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) 100 7) Oscar Freire Gomez (Rabobank) 97 8) Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) 96 9) Andreas Klöden (Astana) 77 10) Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondial 74
1) Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) 196 pts
2) Egoi Martinez De Esteban (Euskaltel - Euskadi) 118
3) Pierrick Fedrigo (BBOX Bouygues Telecom) 97
4) Christophe Kern (Cofidis, Le Credit en Ligne) 89
5) Mikel Astarloza Chaurreau (Euskaltel - Euskadi) 86
6) Alberto Contador Velasco (Astana) 85
7) Sandy Casar (Française des Jeux) 84
8) Jurgen Van Den Broeck ( Silence - Lotto) 76
9) Fränk Schleck (Team Saxo Bank) 68
10) Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 67
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.