CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '07
Stage 16 - July 25th, Orthez to Gourette / Col d'Aubisque, 218.5 km
Seal of Approval
Ever since the 2007 Tour route was announced, Stage 16 stood out as something special. It passes over roads steeped in Tour history and is remembered by many as the ‘circle of death' because so many great Tour champions have seen their hopes die on these murderous Pyrenean climbs. Until yesterday morning the race had developed into a fabulous duel between race leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and the phenomenal Spanish climber Alberto Contador (Discovery). After yesterday's rest day, fans everywhere expected a classic and potentially historic showdown in the final mountain stage of this Tour.
But even before the Stage started it seemed that the ‘circle of death' had already imposed its curse on the Tour. While the peloton was doing its best to recuperate during the Rest Day, the shocking news of Alexander Vinokourov's positive test result for homologous blood transfusion ripped through the Tour village. It would seem that in one swift blow his racing career is dead and possibly it is also the end of his Astana team. Both Vinokourov and his entire team were ejected from the race.
An unidentified man waves goodbye to Team Astana [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
With his courageous and aggressive riding, Vinokourov was greatly loved by his racing colleagues and fans alike. His disgusting actions are nothing less than a huge insult to everyone who believed so deeply in him. How he, or anyone else, believes that they can escape detection under today's testing processes is a moron. We are led to believe that the sport is working very hard to rid itself of the old drug cultures. For many it takes a lot to continue believing when an icon like Vinokourov proves to be the lowest of the low.
However the Vinokourov case does clearly prove that there are still those in the peloton who believe that they can cheat the system. The fact that he was caught should give us all great hope that perhaps the tide is turning and that the detection processes are somewhat effective.
Unfortunately Michael Rasmussen is himself currently under suspicion having missed several out-of-competition drug controls. He has received warnings of his unacceptable actions and this behavior only adds to the suspicions. The Vinokourov affair now greatly amplifies the focus on Rasmussen. His only defense right now is that he has never returned questionable drug tests.
The Tour organizers stated yesterday that canceling the Tour was never an option. As they so rightly stated, ‘to do so would simply be a victory for the cheats'. The war against drugs must go on. The race will continue. In this spirit we continue to focus on the race.
The Pyrenees are notorious for wild weather blown in from the Atlantic Ocean . Wind, rain and clouds routinely blanket the great peaks even in the middle of summer. Had today dawned like that then it would only have added to the already somber atmosphere at today's start line. Instead it seemed that Mother Nature agreed with the Tour Director's opinion that the war against drugs and cheats must go on, as must the Tour. Pristine weather, with a deep blue cloudless sky, displayed the sheer beauty of the rugged Pyrenean Mountains . The glorious scene almost seemed to be Mother Nature's “Seal of Approval” for our wonderful sport.
Five climbs and 218.5kms awaited the now trimmed down peloton (following the removal of the Astana team). In order these were:
- Km 79, Port de Larrau, hors categorie (14.7 kms at an average of 8.1%)
- Km 93, Alto Laza, category 3 (3.5 kms at 6.8%)
- Km 131, Col de la Pierre-Saint-Martin, category 1 (14.2 kms at 5.2%)
- Km 180.5, Col de Marie-Blanque, category 1 (9.3 kms at 7.4%)
- Km 218.5, Col dAubisque, hors categorie (16.6 kms at 7%)
By anyone's standards this was one terror of a route custom made for the expected showdown. On its own the mighty Aubisque strikes fear into anyone deciding to ride a bike up it. But to also have to deal with the four climbs before it seems almost impossible.
A confusing rider protest on the start line saw half the peloton roll away as the other half remained motionless in protest. However after a couple of minutes everyone was on their way and 8kms later a four man break had formed. Adding to the general nervousness of the early race was the news that the Basque Separatists (ETA) had threatened some action. Apparently two bombs were detonated near the road but these went off long before the riders arrived and happily nobody was hurt.
When the race hit the Hors Categorie Port de Larrau, Carlos Sastre (CSC), Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval) and Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) left the field and started to chase the break. Soler was after the Polka Dot jersey, Mayo was after the stage win and Sastre was apparently making a bid for Yellow. By the time these riders got on to the Marie-Blanc climb, which included some very nasty steep pitches, only Sastre, Mayo and Soler were left in the lead to chase their dreams. The Yellow Jersey peloton of just 12 riders crested the climb 2m 20s down behind the leaders.
Juan Mauricio Soler earns the Polka Dot Jersey [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
From the very start of the day Rasmussen's Rabobank team had been driving the peloton and for a while they could not make an impression on the Sastre group. In fact at one point Sastre became the ‘virtual race leader' on the road. But the hard working Rabo boys kept up their dedicated effort and by the time they hit the base of the Aubisque they were only one minute behind the Sastre group. At this point Soler attacked hoping for a stage win and to sew up the Polka Dot Jersey (which was now his unless Rasmussen gained significantly at the finish of the Aubisque).
Rasmussen in control [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
With 11kms still to go to the summit Michael Boogerd was the last of Rasmussen's valiant domestiques to finally crack after yet another day of incredible riding. This left Rasmussen surrounded by the Discovery jerseys of Popovych, Leipheimer and Contador with Cadel Evans ‘enjoying' the ride amongst this elite group. Popovych set a torrid pace which quickly spelt doom for the leaders just ahead. With just 9kms to go the top four riders on GC were now alone in the lead. Contador needed to distance Rasmussen if he wanted the Yellow Jersey and Leipheimer needed to put time into Evans to give himself a better chance to get on the podium in Paris.
Contador attacks [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
Rasmussen answers [ Images ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
Contador and Leipheimer took it in turns delivering attack after attack. Rasmussen calmly pulled every effort back while Evans finally surrendered. As the kilometers slowly ticked away to the summit finish it was clear that Contador was not having as good a day as that two days ago on the Peyresourde. Rasmussen on the other hand looked confident and in control. And so it proved when he rid himself of the pesky Disco duo inside the final kilometer. On the line Rasmussen achieved a great victory and (together with his stage bonus) added another 46 seconds to his lead over Contador. Levi was second, Contador third and Evans, riding on nothing other than courage, was fourth.
Stage winner Michael Rasmussen [ Images ©: AFP ]
Assuming that Rasmussen does not meet with some catastrophe, his 3m 10s advantage over Contador should see him comfortably defend his Yellow Jersey in Saturday's 55km time trial. The real needle match will be between Evans and Leipheimer where Evans only has a 56 second buffer to lean on.
While the race was in progress further drug related news arrived from the testing laboratory in Paris . Christian Moreni (Cofidis) had tested positive for elevated testosterone following a Stage 11 test. Another rider caught and now ejected from the Tour. Yet another sign that the cheats will ultimately lose.
Considering the news of the last 24 hours it was a pleasant surprise to see huge enthusiastic crowds spread all over the big climbs today. Together with the spectacular scenery and racing they experienced the true beauty of our great sport. We can only hope that the sport continues to focus on eliminating cheaters in what is certainly not an easy battle. In return the sponsors and fans will respond, as they did today, with their “seal of approval”.
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