CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '07
Stage 15 - July 23rd, Foix to Loudenvielle / Le Louron, 196 km
It did not seem possible that after yesterday's epic stage we would see yet another equally fascinating day today. Surely five grizzly Pyrenean climbs including two Cat 2's, two Cat 1's and the brand new Hors Categorie monster of the Port de Balès (which was only opened as a surfaced road last year) would be too much for race weary legs. For the Tour, and most of the riders, very little was known of the Port de Balès with its narrow, twisting 19kms with the last 10kms having an average grade of almost 10 percent and a maximum pitch of 14 percent. This climb preceded the legendary Cat 1 Tour climb of the Col de Peyresourde (10.5km) which came just before the last, fast downhill to the finish.
Sympathetic observers were not surprised to see an early break of 25 riders form while the peloton nursed its reserves for future battles. Amongst the notables in the lead group were Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel), George Hincapie (Discovery), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and the never-say-die Alexander Vinokourov. Vino of course had won the TT in Albi a couple of days ago but then yesterday died a thousand deaths on the road to the Plateau de Beille. He no longer dreams of a high GC place, but stage wins are another matter.
Even though there was some excellent aggressive riding amongst the 25 leaders, their sometimes erratic pace did not diminish their advantage on the peloton. Instead the big group fractured and by the summit of the feared Port de Balès, which was blanketed in low clouds, Kim Kirchen took the mountain points from Johann Tschopp. Behind them the peloton was at 6m 44s with the rest of the original 25 spread out in small groups between the two.
With the Port de Balès conquered, only the Col de Peyresourde lay between the race and the finish. What ensued over this relatively short stretch of about 40kms was totally unexpected and created sheer carnage. Up front Vinokourov attacked his companions, worked his way up to the two leaders (now Kirchen and Zubeldia) and then 6kms from the summit put in another brutal attack to dispose of the two leaders. Still resplendent in bandages covering his Stage 5 crash wounds, the Kazakh warrior was taking no prisoners. He blasted over the summit of the Peyresourde barely visible in the middle of huge crowds that had spilled onto the road. If you are in the middle of such situations it is extremely disconcerting but this is Tour mania at its best!
Vinokourov attacks solo up the Peyresourde [ Photo: AFP ]
Vino's victims dragged themselves over the mountain and the closest harbored hopes of reaching the Astana rider before Loudenvielle . Vino had no intention of seeing anyone else again this side of the finish line. He rolled into town in magnificent lone splendor to the roar of a highly appreciative crowd 51 seconds ahead of Kim Kirchen (T-Mobile) and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel).
While Vino was engineering his victory on the way up the Peyresourde the now elite Yellow Jersey peloton of about 15 riders was riding hard, but conservatively, about 6m 30s behind him. Suddenly about 3kms from the summit Alberto Contador exploded from the front and his other-worldly acceleration caught everyone else by surprise. Most of them, including Michael Rasmussen, were probably thinking of simply making it over the climb before cruising down to the finish and then their well earned rest day.
Contador's attack caused instant carnage but at least Rasmussen had been attentive and, not without considerable effort, managed to rejoin Contador. As for Evans, Leipheimer, Kloeden and the rest, they were dead meat! Contador and Rasmussen, now alone, started a duel that evoked memories of the great mano-a-mano battles in the 1960's between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. On one famous occasion Poulidor repeatedly attacked the Yellow Jersey'ed Anquetil on the Puy de Dome in an effort to finally rid himself of his great nemesis.
Contador and Rasmussen do not have the love-hate relationship that Anquetil and Poulidor had but Contador treated Rasmussen to a salvo Puolidor type attacks. No less than six times in short order Contador brutally attacked Rasmussen. Each time Rasmussen answered but increasingly his style and pedaling became ever more labored. Up the final kilometer to the summit this incredible spectacle started to look like a track sprint match with Rasmussen in front of Contador almost coming to a track stand and not daring to take his eyes off Contador.
Anquetil-Poulidor battle on the Puy de Dome in 1964
Contador-Rasmussen battle on the Peyresourde on Stage 15
Luckily for Rasmussen, who had run out of teammates, the full frontal assault did not start until the final few kilometers of the summit. We may wonder why Contador, who had Popovych with him, did not attack much lower down the mountain. The simple answer may be that after yesterday's epic ride he did not have the legs to handle a long range attack. In fact seeing the carnage that ensued after Contador's first attack it is clear that exhaustion is rife amongst all of the (former) GC contenders.
Just as they reached the summit of the Peyresourde, Rasmussen and Contador, caught George Hincapie who had been with the original big break. George wasted no time in hitting the front and driving the pace for all that he is worth for his now illustrious teammate Contador. Shortly before coming into town a nasty hill saw George bid adieu and left the other two to finish the job off. Contador beat Rasmussen to the line 5m 31s after Vinokourov. Evans, Leipheimer, Kloeden and co. arrived about a minute after these two.
All through his career, Vinokourov has been the terror of the peloton. On his good days he throws all caution to the wind and sows massive destruction amongst the peloton. In this Tour he has fluctuated from brilliant, like today, to catastrophic, like yesterday. Considering that he won last year's Vuelta a Espana it is fair to assume that he has the ability to win the Tour and that his erratic riding is the direct result of his Stage 5 crash. Without that he would almost certainly be battling with Rasmussen and Contador for the top step on the podium.
Stage winner Alexandre Vinokourov [ Photo: Reuters ]
For anyone not believing after yesterday that Michael Rasmussen and Alberto Contador were the only two riders left to fight it out for the Yellow Jersey, then today emphatically forged their claim that nobody else in this race matters. One more day in the Pyrenees awaits the riders after tomorrow's rest day. Stage 16 covers roads that are steeped in Tour legend and are often known as the “Circle of Death”. Unless either Rasmussen or Contador succumb to the forces that created the legend, then we should see an incredible showdown between these two great mountain men. After that two relatively flat stages lead to the last realistic opportunity to secure a podium place in the 55km time trial. Based on what we have seen thus far we can anticipate a truly worthy 2007 Tour winner. But we are getting ahead of ourselves because the day after tomorrow we are promised yet another day of magnificent carnage!
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