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92nd Tour de France - GT
France, July 2-24, 2005
Rest Day - Monday, July 18: Pau
Looking good for Armstrong
By Shane Stokes
Fifteen down, six to go: This year's Tour de France is entering its crucial final stage and at this point it looks likely that Lance Armstrong will ride off into the sunset with a historic seventh consecutive win in his pocket. Team CSC's Ivan Basso is the only rider within shouting distance of Big Tex; with a long time trial coming on Saturday, he'll need to get serious time back before then.
The past few days have seen some excellent racing, tough, hot stages which have had a real impact on the general classification. 3 hours 33 minutes now separates first and last on GC, a spread which shows just what the Alps and the Pyrenees have done to the field. It's been an exciting second week to the Tour; here's hoping that the days ahead will have even more thrills and surprises on offer.
Stage 10 - Tuesday, July 12: Grenoble - Courchevel, 192.5 km
The smack went down on the first real mountain stage of the race, a five hour battle over the category one climbs of Cormet de Roselend and Courchevel. Many riders seemed a little off-form after the rest day, but Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel), and the Illes Balears pairing of Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo had no such problems, racing clear of the rest on the climb up to the finish.
Armstrong kicked at the top in search of the stage win but a determined Valverde stayed in touch and then came by for his first ever Tour victory. The 25 year old has lifted a lot of trophies in his time but he was nevertheless ecstatic at this one, saying it was by far his biggest. "I would like to find a word to express what I'm feeling inside, but it's just impossible," he said. "It's just the greatest thing that's happened in my life."
Armstrong was complimentary, saying that "a guy like him - and I'm not blowing smoke - could be the future of cycling, because he's a complete rider and he's always been good." He also praised the ride of KOM leader Michael Rasmussen, who took third on the stage and moved to second overall, just 0'38 down. That was far closer than other GC contenders such as Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Jan Ullrich and Alexandre Vinokourov, who all lost between 1'15 and 5'18 on a disappointing first Alpine day for them.
Stage 11 - Wednesday, July 13: Courchevel - Briançon, 173 km
Alexandre Vinokourov had the horrors on yesterday's stage, losing over five minutes to Armstrong and with it any realistic hope of winning the race. The Kazakhstan national champion put the failing down to training to little on the rest day, insisting that his form was good and that he would do better on stage 11. He certainly proved that point on the way to Briançon, attacking with several others on the Col de la Madeleine, some 140 km from the finish, and opening up a considerable lead on le groupe maillot jaune. He and Phonak's Santi Botero persisted over the Telegraphe and the Galibier, swooping down to the finish where Vino took his second ever Tour stage win.
One minute and 15 seconds later the Discovery Channel-led chase raced in, Lance Armstrong going for the sprint bonus but being denied by Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole), who moved up to third overall.
Vinokourov, 12th after the stage, said he would continue to ride aggressively. "It was a beautiful stage win for me, and also good motivation for the team to keep on attacking in the Pyrenées."
For his part, Armstrong played down the significance of the result, saying that "he (Vinokourov) was not on our list of priorities, so we let him out there and controlled the pace. If his objective was to win a stage - mission accomplished. If his objective was to blow up the Discovery team - mission not accomplished."
Stage 12 - Thursday, July 14: Briançon - Digne-les-Bains, 187 km
The previous day's arrest of Dario Frigo (Fassa Bortolo) over suspected drug possession dominated the headlines, but by the end of stage 12 there was a real good news story for cycling. David Moncoutié, the Cofidis rider who is seen as strongly anti-doping, delighted French fans when he raced to a Bastille Day victory in Digne-les-Bains.
"It is great to win on the national holiday...it is a very important day for the French," he said. "Last year's victory was so emotional for me, and today I wanted to feel the same emotions again. I was feeling very bad in the Alps, but I thought today could be my stage."
Moncoutié was part of a 11 man move which went clear approximately 70 kilometres into the lumpy 187 kilometre stage, opening up a lead of over seven minutes. Axel Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto) lit the fuse when he attacked with 38 kilometres remaining, but it was Moncoutié who chose the right moment to go and then held on all the way to the finish.
Green jersey wearer Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Stuart O'Grady (Cofidis) were also up the road and they finished ninth and tenth, adding a couple of points to their total. The battle for the maillot vert was heading up, particularly as the previous leader, Tom Boonen (Quick.Step), was unable to start the stage due to a knee injury.
Stage 13 - Friday, July 15: Miramas - Montpellier, 173.5 km
The last bunch sprint in the Tour had been way back in stage 7, but the gallopers in the peloton finally had their moment in Montpellier. Double maillot vert winner Robbie McEwen clawed his way back into the reckoning for the points jersey when he outsped Stuart O'Grady, his own team-mate Fred Rodriguez and the rest of the peloton for his third win of this year's Tour.
The day's racing was dominated by a long range breakaway group of five riders, Carlos Da Cruz (Francaise des Jeux), Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Ludovic Turpin (Ag2R-Prévoyance) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo). This group opened up a maximum advantage of over nine minutes with 125 kilometres to go, but some strong riding by the Lotto-Davitamon chase took chunks out of this lead. Just before they were caught, Sylvain Chavanel (Francaise des Jeux) bridged from the bunch and then jumped the break, taking Horner for company. The American declined to pull inside the final kilometre, though, giving the fast-closing bunch all the opportunity it needed to overhaul them 200 metres from the line.
Despite the win, McEwen was not optimistic about taking a third green jersey. "I took back a couple of more points today but I am still a long way behind," he stated. "I am just over the moon to have win number three."
Stage 14 - Saturday, July 16: Agde - Ax-3 Domaines, 220.5 km
After two days of relative calm the race returned to the high mountains with a 220 kilometre race to the summit finish of Ax-3-Domaines. Armstrong appeared the strongest on a day of six categorised Pyrenean climbs, but the spoils fell to another on a good day: Gerolsteiner rider Georg Totschnig. The 34 year-old was the sole survivor of a 10 rider breakaway group which went clear just 7 kilometres after the start in Agde, the Austrian pressing on ahead alone on the Hors Categorie climb of the Port de Pailhères.
Further back, T-Mobile tried to dynamite the race and appeared for a few minutes to have Armstrong in trouble. He was left behind when a Vinokorov-Ullrich-Kloden led break went clear on the same climb, but then easily jumped across the gap. Some strange T-Mobile tactics saw an erratic Vino chased down twice, the Kazakhi going on to lose another chunk of time by the finish.
Armstrong, Basso and Ullrich went clear of the rest on the final climb to ski station of Ax-3-Domaines, where the latter cracked with two kilometres remaining. Basso also lost time to Armstrong, but the two seconds conceded in the uphill sprint to the line was negligible. With eighth-placed Rasmussen losing nearly a minute, it was looking more and more like a two-horse race.
Stage 15 - Sunday, July 17: Lézat-sur-Lèze - Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet), 205.5 km
When predicting the likely winner of the hardest stage of the race, few would have given George Hincapie any sort of chance. Lance Armstrong is the only Discovery Channel/US Postal rider to have ever won an individual stage of the Tour, and has paid tribute to his fallen Motorola team-mate Fabio Casartelli by winning on three out of the four occasions the race has passed the Col de Portet d'Aspet. This year's Tour falls on the tenth anniversary of the 1992 Olympic champion's death, so he was expected to be highly motivated to take his first stage win today.
Things worked out rather differently, though. A 14 man group went clear shortly after the start and built a lead of 19 minutes over the peloton. The Discovery Channel team have shown frailties in this year's race and so Armstrong was unwilling to commit them to an all-out chase; instead, George Hincapie was given his opportunity. He's better known as a Classics rider but improving climbing abilities combined with a relatively easy day in the break meant that he was able to match Phonak's Oscar Pereiro on the Hors Categorie climb up to Saint-Lary-Soulon, outsprinting him for the win.
Further down the mountain, Armstrong and Basso were doing their high-mountain double act once again. As was the case 24 hours earlier, they went clear with Ullrich and then dropped the German, taking time out of him all the way to the line. By the end of the day Basso was the only rider within three minutes of the yellow jersey; this race is not over, but Lance Armstrong heads into the final phase of the race knowing that it would be a major upset if he were to lose his seventh Tour.