Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Armstrong Climbs Back Into Lead: Stage 10 Courchevel

Defending champ overpowers rivals in mountains

When Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) gave up the yellow jersey following Sunday’s ninth stage of the Tour de France, he planned on getting it back. He followed through today with a textbook-perfect ride on the 10th stage, from Grenoble to Courchevel, and in so doing dispatched nearly all of his main rivals to significant time gaps.

The only racers who could ultimately hold the American’s wheel were a trio of climbers: King of the Mountains leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), and the Illes Balears duo of Alejandro Valverde and Francisco Mancebo. The four rode together up the final few kilometers of the Courchevel climb, where Valverde came around Armstrong for his first stage win, a considerable achievement given that this is his first-ever Tour de France.

“It was the first big day for our team,” said Armstrong, speaking of his team’s struggles in the eighth stage. “They’re a super team and set a great pace for me at the front of the climb. I had good legs today, but I want to say thanks to Rasmussen, Valverde, and Mancebo. Without them I might not have got the result I wanted.”

After a brief delay caused by a farmers’ protest, the race began outside Grenoble, and the attacks were launched promptly. Laurent Brochard (Bouygues Telecom) led the first salvo and was joined by six other riders: Luis Leon Sanchez (Liberty Seguros-Wurth); Joost Posthuma (Rabobank); Gianluca Bortolami (Lampre-Caffita); Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel);Yuriy Krivtsov (Ag2r Prevoyance) and Mauro Facci (Fassa Bortolo). The six quickly built a 10-minute lead over an unenthusiastic peloton.

On the day’s first climb, the category 1 Cormet de Roselend, Phonak’s Oscar Pereiro jumped clear and was accompanied by Jorg Jaksche (Liberty Seguros-Wurth). With Pereiro only some three minutes behind Armstrong on the overall, Discovery picked up the pace a bit on the chase. Over the summit of the Roselend, the leading seven still had about eight minutes to the Discovery-led bunch, with Pereiro and Jaksche hovering nearly even between the two groups.

Down into the long valley descent to the town of Moutiers, the break began to disintegrate, with some riders slipping off as Pereiro and Jaksche made contact.

At the foot of the category 1 Courchevel climb, Pereiro, and Jaksche lifted the pace, blowing the break apart. Behind, seven Discovery riders pushed the pace for Armstrong, and the pack hit the base of the climb three and a half minutes behind the leaders.

Discovery then began what has become its signature move for the first real mountain stages of the Tour: the riders lifted the pace behind Pavel Padrnos, each one taking a long pull before swinging out of line and drifting back, his work done. The pace began to whittle down the field to about 25 riders. All of the favorites were still present, but a few question marks – Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo, Liberty Seguros’ Roberto Heras, and Joseba Beloki – were already done, as was yellow jersey Jens Voigt, who settled in to a slow rhythm as it became nearly assured he would lose the race lead.

One by one, Discovery’s riders reeled off strong pulls before dropping back, but the pace was doing its damage. First to go was the breakaway Pereiro, followed by his teammate Santiago Botero. Then, Alexandre Vinokourov of T-Mobile, who had shown strong form in Saturday’s stage, dropped to the back of the group and gradually lost contact. Although he’d said before the stage that his form was good and that T-Mobile planned to attack, he was struggling to keep the pace of Discovery, now down to just Armstrong and lieutenant Yaroslav Popyvych. Keeping pace were the Rasmussen, Valverde, and Mancebo, as well as several other challengers: Jan Ullrich and Andreas Kloden of T-Mobile; Ivan Basso of CSC; Gerolsteiner’s Levi Leipheimer; and Phonak’s Floyd Landis.

With just over 11 kilometers to the finish, Armstrong rode alongside Popyvych and said something to the Ukrainian, who lifted the pace even higher. The remaining bunch exploded, with Ullrich, Kloden, Landis, and Leipheimer going out the back and leaving just six riders: Armstrong, Basso, Valverde, Mancebo, Rasmussen, and Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto). Popyvych was one of the victims of his own attack.

Evans faded off, and Armstrong made a brief acceleration that Basso couldn’t follow. Behind, the others tried to ride tempo and limit the damage. Armstrong pressed on with the other three in tow, each man taking his pull as they passed under the five-kilometer sign.

With just 1,000 meters left, Rasmussen jumped, trying to make it two stage wins in a row, but the other three were quickly on him. Armstrong then went with a few hundred meters to go and only Valverde, who has a fearsome sprint in these situations, managed to follow. Gritting his teeth and pulling on the drops, Valverde clawed back to Armstrong’s wheel and came around him in the final meters for a satisfying stage win, to Armstrong’s surprise.

“I was hoping for the stage win, but I think today we may have seen the future of cycling,” said Armstrong of Valverde. “He’s strong, intelligent, and he’s fast. Very impressive.”

Rasmussen led Mancebo home nine seconds later. Then, the big yellow numbers on the finish line clock began to toll the damage: Basso at 1:02; Leipheimer at 1:15, and Ullrich, Kloden and Landis at 2:14. Worst off was Vinokourov, who finished 24th, more than five minutes back.

As expected, the stage completely shook up the overall standings, with Rasmussen now in second behind Armstrong, Basso in third, and Valverde moving up to fifth, behind Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole).

Wednesday’s Stage:
Racers will tackle the second of back-to-back Alpine stages, a 173-kilometer ride from Courchevel to Briancon, over three mountains, the Hors Categorie Col de la Madeleine, up the hard side of the category 1 Col du Telegraphe and then to the Tour’s highest point this year, the 2,645-meter summit of the Hors Categorie Col du Galibier. With Armstrong re-asserting control and his rivals clearly not his match today, it may be something of a quiet day for the favorites. The summit of the Galibier is 43 kilometers from the finish in Briancon, so any major attacks could likely be reabsorbed on the descent. Look for Rasmussen to mark the front for mountain points, although Discovery will not let him get far. Although he didn’t ride well today, Quick Step’s Michael Rogers might try for the stage, as might other “lesser” threats like Cadel Evans or Chris Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Armstrong warned that the race is far from over.

“We’re in a good position as compared to some of the main rivals, but there’s still a lot of racing to go,” he cautioned. “We have another day in the Alps, a transition stage, then two very tough days in the Pyrenees, then the final time trial.”

-- Armstrong was clearly the strongest rider today and his Discovery team did well, but not as well as in recent years, when he’s had two or even three teammates with him on the final kilometers of mountaintop finishes. Most surprising was the form of Vinokourov, who looked much weaker today than just a few days ago when he was pushing the pace on the Col de la Schlucte.

-- Rasmussen now has a huge lead in the KoM standings, with 110 points to Christophe Moreau’s 40. Among other jerseys, Valverde now takes over the white jersey of best young rider from his teammate Vladimir Karpets, who had a disappointing day.

-- Euskaltel’s Iban Mayo is reportedly suffering from tendinitis in the knee and had a terrible day, finishing more than 21 minutes behind Valverde.

Stage 10: 179 kilometers Grenoble – Courchevel

1. Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) 4:50:35
2. Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) @ same time
3. Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) @ :09
4. Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) @ same time
5. Ivan Basso (CSC) @ 1:02
6. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) @ 1:15
7. Eddy Mazzoleni (Lampre-Caffita) @ 2:14
8. Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto)
9. Andreas Kloden (T-Mobile)
10. Andrei Kashechkin (Credit Agricole) all same time
11. Floyd Landis (Phonak)
13. Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) both same time
15. Santiago Botero (Phonak) @ 2:50
24. Alexandre Vinokourov (T-Mobile) @ 5:18
42. Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros-Wurth) @ 9:49
97. Iban Mayo (Euskaltel) @ 21:31

Overall Standings After 10 of 21 stages
1. Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) 37:11:04
2. Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) @ :38
3. Ivan Basso (CSC) @ 2:40
4. Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) @ 2:42
5. Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears) @ 3:16
6. Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) @ 3:58
7. Francisco Mancebo (Illes Balears) @ 4:00
8. Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) @ 4:02
9. Andreas Kloden (T-Mobile) @ 4:16
10. Floyd Landis (Phonak) @ same time


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