CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '08
Stage 15 - (Sunday) July 20th, Embrun to Prato Nevoso (Ita), 183 km Mountain Finish
A Seven Mile Race
The Tour organisers have been very smart in designing this year's route. After the long slog from the Pyrenees the peloton faces just today in the Alps before a rest day tomorrow. Part of the strategy behind this is related to the war on drugs.
Including today, the riders will have completed five hard stages since the last rest day. Giving the race a day to recuperate tomorrow will give the riders time to rest and prepare for the incredibly hard stages through the Alps and on to Paris . Strategic rest and shorter stages are one way that the Tour organisers are trying to ease the pressure on the peloton and thus, most hopefully, reduce the temptation for riders to use drugs.
Slippery roads and torrential rain caused problems in the peloton
[ Image ©: Eurosprot TV]
With an HC climb early in the stage and a Category 1 mountain top finish, this was going to be one hell of a day in the saddle. The battle for GC places would be in full fury.
Just 15kms into the stage the 20.5km ascent up the HC Col Agnel took the riders up to 2744m and over the border into Italy . From there, an extremely technical descent took the field on a rapid 50km plunge down to the valley. Another 45kms or so of basically flat riding lead the field over the tiny Category 3 Colle del Morte. From there the the road reared up (average 8%) for 11kms to the summit finish.
Justifiably there was great fear in the bunch. Not many believed that the Tour would be won today but many believed that it could be lost. In particular many were concerned for the treacherous descent from the Col Agnel. The climb up to the finish was also the perfect launch pad for a Tour winning assault.
Unhappily the fears about the Agnel descent were justified. Many riders hit the deck as the road twisted like a serpent with endless tight U-bends. The worst crash involved Oscar Periero (2006 Tour Champion) who hit a guard rail, flipped over the top and slid down on to the road below! He was taken to hospital with a suspected fracture of the collar bone and broken leg. When news of this crash reached the main peloton a mutually imposed ‘neutral zone' was obeyed by all to give the crash victims time to regain the peloton.
Bad crash for Oscar Pereiro [ Image ©: www.gazzetta.it/AP ]
Strangely it was along the flat roads leading to Prato Nevoso that the most surreal crash took place. A series of very large roundabouts gave us the usual spectacular image of the peloton neatly dividing itself in half as one bunch swept around the left of the circle and the other half of the bunch swept around the other side. On one of these roundabouts, and as the string of riders were just about to swing back to the straight road, a big pile up occurred in the left half of the bunch. Almost simultaneously the bunch on the right produced a mirror image crash. While not raining, the roads were a little damp from earlier showers and no doubt created a slick surface. Happily all the riders from both crashes suffered little more than minor cuts, bruises and some messed up racing clothes.
Little Break, Big Hopes
About 9kms into the stage four riders slipped away from the peloton. Three noted climbers (Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale) and Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole)) and flat lander Danny Pate (Garmin Chipotle) presented no real threat to the main GC contenders. The best of these four was over 50 minutes back on GC.
Quickly the four built up a substantial lead as they raced up the Col Agnel. At the top they had about a quarter of an hour! Behind them the peloton cruised up the climb with not a single rider showing any interest in raising the pace of the steady tempo.
The four leaders maintained their huge lead practically all the way to the base of the final climb. For Garmin-Chipotle this was a brilliant strategic move as their man Pate was playing a pivotal role in protecting Christian Vandevelde's third place on GC. With Pate up front the Garmin-Chipotle team were not obliged to help with any chases.
CSC's Very Public Secret
Just about everybody expected CSC to launch a big offensive today. Their secret team meetings may have hidden precise tactical details but when the peloton hit the Category 3 Colle del Morte it was game on. CSC formed ‘line astern' in classic team time trial fashion and for everyone else it suddenly became a game of survival. Arveson, O'Grady, Cancellara, Voight, each took their turn riding ‘eyeballs out' before tailing off exhausted.
By the time that they were well into the final climb CSC still had the Brothers Schleck and Carlos Sastre with the very small Yellow Jersey Group. Behind them the peloton was in tatters spread out over very many minutes, and losing more time with each kilometer.
Don't give up on the Tour!
Many readers have stated their disgust at the latest round of drug scandals. However we firmly believe that these are the last death throes of the ‘drug culture'. Today we saw what was one of the best days racing in a Tour in many years. Now is not the time to give up on the Tour.
In the break (which retained over 4 minutes of its lead to the finish) we saw three climbers matched by a flat lander (Pate). On the line Simon Gerrans took a clear victory from Martinez and Pate. Can we believe that Pate's ride is proving that perhaps without drugs we are now seeing a level playing field?
Stage winner Simon Gerrans [ Image ©: www.gazzetta.it/AFP ]
Lower down the mountain the remains of the peloton comprised the GC elite. Almost all of them took their turn in launching devastating attacks. Menchov looked formidable while Evans looked vulnerable. Frank Schleck seemed cautious and Sastre looked his usual ‘can I, can't I' self.
Valverde was right their in the thick of the action but he is over 4 minutes back on GC and therefore not a great threat. It was Menchov who took what looked like a GC grabbing flyer. His brutal acceleration quickly gave him some big air but as he swung around a sharp left hand bend he slid out. He quickly got back up but the Evans group passed him. Ominously for the others, he was able to rejoin with little trouble.
Approaching the summit finish it was Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) who made the decisive attack. He took Sastre with him and the two of them stretched out the previously cohesive Yellow Jersey group such that their was almost 1 minute between them and Evans on the line.
Seven Miles of Sheer Quality
We had witnessed a battle the likes of which have been rare in the last decade or so of Tours . It was brilliant racing and it leaves us with great anticipation for more. The top six on GC are separated by a mere 49 seconds. And all of the riders in the top ten can still realistically dream of winning this Tour. Today Frank Schleck (CSC) now leads the Tour ahead of Kohl and Evans. These three are separated by only 8 seconds.
That final climb up to Prato Nevoso was the start of the real race for Yellow. With Schleck in Yellow and Sastre only 49 seconds back many would believe that the CSC juggernaut has the race by the throat. If that turns out to be the case then we will all long remembers today's seven mile race!
New race leader Frank Schleck [ Image ©: Eurosprot TV/AP]
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