CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '08
Stage 16 - (Tuesday) July 22nd, Cuneo (Ita) to Jausiers, 157 km Mountain Stage
Eagles and Angels
Although tomorrow has three HC (beyond category) climbs finishing on the mythical Alpe d'Huez, many observers believe that today's stage is harder. In fact it is reckoned to be the hardest Tour stage since World War II.
Two HC climbs dominate the day. Starting at 50kms into the stage the Col de la Lombarde (which is making it's first ever Tour appearance), is a narrow 21km twisting climb of 7% (steepest 13%). It's summit marks the border between Italy and France . Over the top a fearsome 20km drop leads the race to a brief 5km respite before heading straight uphill again. The second monster climb is the Cime de la Bonnette-Restefond, the highest point of this year's Tour, which at 2802 metres is also the highest paved road in the Alps . This 26.7km ascent averages at 6.2% with the final 9kms at 9%, with 1km rearing up to 10.2%. The 22km plunge downhill is treacherous but incredibly fast and ends with just 1.5km of valley road to the finish.
Col de la Lombarde
Cima de la Bonnette-Restefond
The Eagle and the Angel
The Cime de la Bonnette-Restefond has only once been travelled by the Tour in the same direction as today. That year (1962) the “Eagle of the Mountains” Federico Bahamontes was first over the top. He is generally considered to have been the best Tour climber of all time. Many may dispute this (with some justification) as they would anoint Luxembourg 's Charly Gaul, The “Angel of the Mountains” with that accolade. It actually matters little as to who of the two was best because both were charismatic climbers in a class by themselves. To see the two of them battling together (see our photo) would have been a rare and treasured privilege.
Federico "the Eagle of Toledo" Bahamontes and Charly "the Angel of the Mountains" Gaul
climbing in 1959 [Image from Archive]
These Guys are Nuts!
I well remember starting races in Belgium and France where it was eyeballs out from the gun. But these were puny little one-day races, not a three week Tour. Today the peloton faced one of the most fearsome stages of any Tour in history yet they treated it like some town center criterium. The first hour was raced at close to 50kmph. Salvo's of attacks and counter-attacks stretched the peloton into one long line. Had nobody read the race manual?
Up, Up and Away
A group of five established a 20 second lead over a 20-strong following group on the early slopes of the Col de la Lombarde. The five leaders were Samuel Demoulin (Cofidis), Christophe Le Mevel (Credit Agricole), Stefan Shumacher (Gerolsteiner), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues) and Sebastien Rosseler (Quick Step). Behind them three separate chase groups formed with the main (Yellow Jersey) peloton riding much further back and maintaining a sensible tempo.
Most noticeable were the two dignitaries in the breaks. Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) was in the front group protecting his team mate Bernhard Kohl who lies second on GC and also holds the Mountain Points Jersey. In the second group on the road was Jens Voight poised to support CSC interests in Frank Schleck's Yellow Jersey campaign.
About half way up the Lombarde Schumacher left his break companions and seemed to ride effortlessly to the summit where he had established a lead of almost 8 minutes. Behind him the composition of the chase groups and main peloton continually changed as riders slipped painfully backwards.
Deep Down in the Valley
‘Schumi' was obviously on a mission to claim the stage today. He plummeted down the mountain as the first chase group struggled to get on terms with him. Deep down in the valley he had over 6 minutes on his nearest pursuers and 12 minutes on the peloton. A stage win looked to be a realistic prospect for the Gerolsteiner man. Nobody was forgetting that this talented rider had already won Stage 4 and held the Yellow Jersey for two days.
A Strange Way to Rest!
For the GC contenders the Cime de la Bonnette-Restefond held an interesting challenge. With the long descent to the finish, an attempt to create a Tour winning break would almost certainly get snuffed out. On the other hand it could be a place to lose the Tour if a rider was not at their very best.
On the way up terrible attrition decimated the entire race. Schumacher cracked and slipped back to his chasers. Each chasing group fell apart and the peloton melted like the spring snow until all that was left were the GC contenders together with a couple of noted climbers. The GC men were being very cautious and in spite of a high pace they were apparently “resting” for tomorrow's “Queen Stage”.
With 10kms of climbing left, two groups were ahead of the Yellow Jersey group. The front group was now just over 5 minutes ahead of the GC group which was now being terrorised by CSC's Brother's Schleck and Carlos Sastre. Obviously orchestrated by Bjarne Riis from back in the team car, Jens Voight was given the signal to join his mates. He slipped back from the lead group, picking up a bunch of water bottles on the way. Having served ‘drinkies', Voight got to the front and set about doing what he does best. Everyone was grimacing almost as much as big Jens himself. The CSC express only managed to dislodge Christian Vande Velde (third on GC) who eventually lost about 2m 30s to the Yellow Jersey by the end of the day.
Fly like an Eagle
With about 1km to the summit, the lead group was approximately 1'40" ahead of the Yellow Jersey group. Suddenly the youngest rider in the Tour, John-Lee Augustyn (Barloworld) leapt from the leaders and claimed the highly prestigious prime. He was quickly re-absorbed shortly over the top. He showed that although he can climb like an eagle, he cannot fly like an eagle!
About five minutes into the descent he misjudged a right hand curve and catapulted over a six inch bank of loose gravel and stones. Unfortunately the other side of this little barrier was a steep scree field. Augustyn rapidly tumbled down the slope while his bike built up even more momentum and was last seen heading for the valley way below! Augustyn needed help to clamber back up to the road where he had a long wait for a replacement bike (his original was nowhere to be seen).
Surprisingly the next major victim of the descent was Denis Menchov who could not hold the dare devil speed of the race. The Yellow Jersey group was descending at about 90kmph which is the type of speed to scare the living daylights out of anybody on a delicate racing bike. On the line Menchov finished about 30 seconds behind GC leader Frank Schleck and therefore put a serious dent in his efforts to claim this Tour. It would seem that Russian bears also cannot imitate flying like an eagle!
And Then There were Four
Frank Schleck, Bernhard Kohl, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre (in that order) now occupy the top four GC slots. Only 49 seconds separates them. Menchov is 5th at 1'13" and Vande Velde is now 6th at 3'15". Tomorrow the CSC and the Gerolsteiner teams need to find a way to lose Evans on the road to Alpe d'Huez. If nobody puts in some serious time to the Australian then he is almost guaranteed to outgun them all in next Saturday's 53km time trial. Naturally the whole of Australia is hoping that their man is going to come home as their first ever Tour champion.
As an example to everyone, Stephan Schumacher demonstrated today what it takes to be a great champion. Having led the race up the Lombarde and for much of the Restefond, he stayed close to the lead group once caught. On the line he was only about one minute behind stage winner Cyril Dessel (ag2r) and still almost 30 seconds ahead of the Yellow Jersey group. Having ridden over the roads that the peloton rode today, most of us mere mortals would have collapsed with exhaustion when our escape was over. Not ‘Schumi', he showed that he has a heart of Eagles and Angels.
Stage winner Cyril Dessel [ Image ©: Eurosprot TV/AP]
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