Result: Samuel Sanchez won the first high mountain stage of this year’s Tour beating Jelle Vanendert into second place. Frank Schleck was the best of the G.C. contenders finishing in third place as Thomas Voeckler held on to the yellow jersey.
Here’s how it happened: Nine riders broke clear of the peloton at various stages before and during the first climb of the day. One of whom, incredibly, was Johnny Hoogerland who was catapulted into a barbed wire fence by a car only four days ago.
Another rider who broke clear, perhaps predictably as it’s Bastille Day, was the current French champion Sylvain Chavanel.
But the Leopard-Trek team of the Schleck brothers pulled on the front of the peloton up the penultimate climb of the Col du Tourmalet to ensure the escapees advantage was controlled.
Geraint Thomas and Jeremy Roy remained out front as they reached the start of the final 13km climb to Luz-Ardiden with a two-minute lead over the group containing the main G.C. contenders.
There was a flurry of attacks out of the bunch including Phillipe Gilbert once again, but two riders combined to catch and pass the leading duo, Jelle Vanendert and Samuel Sanchez. This pairing worked together all the way to the finish where they fought it out between themselves for the stage win, a battle ultimately won by Sanchez.
But the real focus of the day was on the contest between the main G.C. contenders in the group behind. It was all very stagnant with everybody marking each other for the first 9km of the final climb.
With 4km to go Frank Schleck put in a couple of half-hearted attacks which forced Contador to chase him down. The man-marking resumed once more. But with 2.5km to the finish, Frank finally stopped gazing at his brother Andy and attacked properly.
He almost caught Sanchez and Vanendert on the line but had to settle for third as he finished 20 seconds ahead of Andy who was accompanied across the line by Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso.
The Big Winner: Thomas Voeckler. The Frenchman keeps the yellow jersey which will keep the entire country happy on their national holiday. He owes a huge degree of thanks to his team-mate Pierre Rolland who paced him up the entire final climb. Voeckler’s performance was marvellous as he is not renowned as a climbing specialist and he finished just 40 seconds behind Frank Schleck.
The Big Losers: Many riders who had hopes for a high G.C. place before this year’s Tour saw those hopes go up in smoke today as the first real mountains revealed who just doesn’t have the form.
Andreas Kloden, who suffered a crash early on in the day lost nearly nine minutes. Christian Vande Velde lost 10. And Robert Gesink, one of the favourites for a podium place, lost a whopping 17 minutes.
Also, Alberto Contador seemed to crack in the final few hundred metres as he was distanced slightly by Evans, Basso and Andy Schleck. He only ended up losing 13 seconds to them on the stage but it is a sign that he is fatigued and most certainly beatable in this year’s Tour de France.
What about the Irish? It was a tough day in the saddle for Nicolas Roche as he began to lose contact with the group of favourites with about 7.5km to go. He had two team-mates around him to pace him up to Luz-Ardiden. He ended up finishing in 17th place, 2’02″ behind the stage winner.
Despite this time loss, Roche moved up into 10th place overall, 4’57″ down on Voeckler. Many of his rivals for a top 10 place have crashed or capitulated so far in this Tour. As long as he keeps plugging away, a final top 10 place in Paris should be well within his sights.
So what happens tomorrow then? The Tour remains in the Pyrenées as it travels 152.5km from Pau to Lourdes. It will be a slightly easier day in the saddle as there is only one Hors Categorie climb on the menu, the Col d’Aubisque.
Unlike today, the summit of the final climb comes over 40km from the end of the stage, after which the route is mostly downhill. With another murderous mountain stage coming up the following day, the G.C. favourites will be happy to see a breakaway make it all the way to the finish.
Although, it also provides the expert descenders in the peloton with an opportunity to take back some time over the more timid riders. Watch out for Samuel Sanchez once more as he is one of the best in the business at going downhill.