CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '07
Stage 14 - July 22nd, Mazamet to Plateau-de-Beille, 197 km
Things to Do Before You Die
Having descended from the Hors Categorie (above category) Port de Pailhères (17km at 7.2 percent) and then zipping down the Ariège valley for 16km in the big ring, the legs can never be ready for the finishing climb on the Hors Categorie Plateau de Beille (16km at almost 8 percent). The transition on to the final climb is brutal and immediate. From the nice fast valley road, the sharp left turn onto the climb is a major physical jolt. No early slopes to warm up on, the narrow road rears up instantly and the shock to your legs is excruciating. Somehow you have to maintain momentum through about 1km of this torture until the road curves left through the forest. Here the gradient does not get much easier on the rough paved road but with around 15kms still to go you either acclimate or get dropped. All the way to the summit, unlike most Alpine climbs, there is not a moment of respite. This is Hors Categorie at its hoariest!
Being near to the Spanish border, the Basque fans head in droves to these temples of Tour de France climbs. Everywhere the climbs are bathed in the orange garb of fans who are easily the raucous equal of the Flemish fans of the northern classics. Many camp for days on the mountain slopes waiting for the Tour. By the time the race arrives the huge crowds erupt in unbelievable support for the riders in a sea of euphoria fueled in many cases by liberal quantities of alcohol. To prepare everyone for the great moment of the race arrival (as if that was needed!) the pre-race advertising caravan wends its way slowly up the mountain slopes with attractive young ‘babes' throwing out advertising swag to the eager masses. In addition to tons of useless plastic stuff and candies, there is usually plenty of small samples of spa drinking water thrown out to the delight of everyone. Over the years the rogues amongst the Basque fans have come prepared for this great circus. With water bottles and even water cannons they return water in liberal quantities back to the advertising floats. The poor girls working diligently to promote their products typically arrive at the top of the mountain drenched through with their mascara, hair and cloths ruined.
Basque Fans on the Plateau de Bielle [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
Cameraman in the sea of Orange [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
To be on these mountains on Tour day is an experience not to be missed. Every cycling fan should experience the unique, electric atmosphere at least once in their life. Unlike the flatlands where the race passes you in a flash, there are hundreds of places where you can watch the riders work their painful way up to you and then pass you just inches away almost in slow motion.
American fans support Levi Leipheimer [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
After yesterday's time trial the battle for the overall GC came into sharper focus. Vinokourov, Evans, Valverde, Contador, Sastre and a few others have race leader Rasmussen in their cross-hairs. But today there will probably be two races. A Spanish rider (preferably a Basque) will want to win the stage. So long as this rider is not a GC threat then behind them we should see a fascinating struggle between the pretenders to the GC podium.
This is Rasmussen territory and if his team can support him well he should have a good crack at retaining his jersey. Evans is solid but unspectacular and his team is mostly suspect. The biggest threats will probably come from Vinokourov, and his powerhouse team, and Contador and the highly experienced Discovery team. Yesterday Contador evoked memories of Armstrong's TT style. In 2004 Armstrong won the stage to the Plateau de Beille. At his press conference yesterday, Contador now third on GC, said “I want more”. These are the words of a confident champion in the mould of Armstrong. Johan Bruyneel, who steered Armstrong to all of his Tour victories, will be in the team car behind Contador and the Disco boys to help turn Contador's words into reality.
"I want more". Today Alberto Contador got just that! [ Images ©: Rafael Gomez ]
The early Category 2 Cote de St-Sarraille, which summited at just 9kms, was enough to provide the raw material for a break of six riders to pull away; Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel), Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Carlos Barredo (Quick Step), Antonio Colom (Astana). Five of these riders were Spanish! They reached the Port de Pailhères together about 9 minutes ahead of the bunch and on the climb they got rid of the non-Spanish rider Kuschynski. Meanwhile, and as expected, the first salvos were fired off early in the peloton. David Millar set a blistering pace on the early slopes for his man Mayo. Ironically before Millar blew himself apart, Mayo slipped out of the back of the bunch. But of more note was that Vinokourov cracked and he too slipped back. He was obviously paying the price for yesterdays fabulous time trial win. When news of the struggling Vino reached Rabobank the team moved to the front to up the pace for Rasmussen.
At the summit Guitierrez, Perez, Txurruka and Colom had 50 seconds on Barredo and 2m 37s on the peloton. Mauricio Solor (Barloworld) accelerated away from the bunch just before the summit to take enough points to relieve Rasmussen of his Polka Dot jersey by 10 points.
It would have been nice to see George Hincapie one day be rewarded with a Tour podium finish after his seven years of totally selfless work for Armstrong. Unfortunately this will not be that year for big George. He was dropped on the climb up the Pailhères but, as he did so often during his Armstrong years, he was able to get back with the peloton in the valley. Also, as he did during the Armstrong years, this most super of super-domestiques, went straight to the front to set a torrid pace for Leipheimer and Contador.
As they swung onto the Plateau de Beille climb George swung off and the break was about 2m 35s ahead of the peloton. It did not take long before Mayo (who had managed to get back on) and then Valverde, to be shelled out. In short order others were also popped out of the back and by about half way up the climb a group of about eight elite riders had formed. All the while Yaroslav Popovych was driving this group at an incredible pace.
Fans on the Plateau de Bielle [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
About 9kms to go and attacks started in earnest. Sastre and Contador faded but then managed to rejoin the elite group. Eight kilometers to go and Rasmussen attacks, Contador counters and Evans struggles but manages to hold them. Fantastic attacking racing was now the order of the day with Rasmussen, Contador and Soler the prime culprits. Something had to give and at 5kms to the duel between Rasmussen and Contador finished off Evans and the rest.
The final lone leader Colom was swallowed up and dropped by the Rasmussen/Contador express about 3kms from the top. It was clear that there was no love lost between these two as they parried their way to the line. Driven by the Spanish fans, and wanting to repeat Armstrong's 2004 victory here, Contador won the day for Discovery as Rasmussen brilliantly defended his Yellow Jersey.
Stage winner Alberto Contador [ Photo: AP ]
Assuming that Rasmussen and Contador have not exhausted themselves, the rest of the field can forget the Yellow Jersey for the next two mountainous days. An interesting fact is that on the two previous occasions that the Tour finished here the stage winners (Pantani and Armstrong) both went on to win the Tour. If either Rasmussen or Contador are superstitious then this fact will weigh heavily on them.
In my opinion the only person left to challenge Rasmussen for Yellow is Contador (now 2:23 back). He is willing and capable of distancing himself from Rasmussen. Evans 3rd at 3:04, Leipheimer 4 th at 4:25 and Kloeden 5 th at 4:38 can, on most occasions stay with Rasmussen and Contador, but they cannot drop them. Sadly the ever valiant Vinokourov lost a huge amount of time today and is now completely out of the GC picture.
Today was truly one of the great days of Tour racing. Rarely do we get to see such gritty and aggressive racing between those at the top of the GC table. It was a huge day for Discovery and, just like the old Armstrong days, it was their domestiques that orchestrated the difference. George Hincapie in the valley and Popovych's incredible ride up the Plateau de Beille should be recognized as superlative rides that most hopefully are repaid with handsome bonuses.
The Tour in the high mountains rarely disappoints and to witness a day like today is one of those things to do before you die!
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