Laurent Jalabert (CST) was the star once again in today's stage, as he broke away early and won points on the first four climbs to take a huge lead in the King of the Mountains competition. Jalabert's companions in the long breakaway were Laurent Dufaux (ALS) and Isidro Nozal (ONE). The latter rider was a mere passenger in the break riding in defense of his leader Beloki's high GC position, leaving Dufaux and Jalabert to do all of the work. Originally part of a larger breakaway, the three riders broke clear of their companions by the top of the Cat 2 Col de Portet-d'Aspet at 71.5 km into the race. They stayed away until the final climb of the day, the monstrous hors categorie Plateau-de-Beille. Despite their capture, the ride by veterans Jalabert and Dufaux was truly remarkable, and they received loud applause for their efforts from the fans when they eventually crossed the line.
Meanwhile, back in the peloton, the U.S. Postal team of Yellow Jersey wearer Lance Armstrong was hammering away at the front of the peloton, limiting the time gap to under 5' and keeping the counter-attacks in check. All nine Postal riders were still at the front of the race heading into the final climb of the day, an amazing show of strength considering that they had traversed two Cat 2 and two Cat 1 climbs by that point. Floyd Landis was also having a much better day today, helping at the front regularly on the climbs.
Earlier in the day at the first intermediate sprint, Lotto-Adecco's Robbie McEwen took first ahead of Telekom's Erik Zabel. This moved McEwen to within one point of Zabel for the Green Jersey, with the German leading the Aussie by 217pts to 216pts. This extremely tight race will be a major factor in tomorrow's relatively flat stage which hits its last climb 122km before the finish.
The race finally broke open up the early slopes of the Plateau-de-Beille, as U.S. Postal repeated its strategy from yesterday to raise the pace and destroy the peloton on the final climb. The Posties took turns riding "au bloc" until they blew, with Postal's new Mountain Lion "Gorgeous" George Hincapie doing a big turn on the lower slopes. He turned it over to the resurgent Landis, who pulled for awhile to further cull the weak from the herd. Then it was time for Postal's Spaniards to put on the big hurt once again, as Jose Luis Rubiera came to the front and made a number of fierce accelerations over the course of several kilometers in an amazing display of climbing prowess. In his wake big names were dropping like flies, including Frigo (TAC), Belli (FAS), Basso (FAS), Moreau (CA), Hamilton (CST), Leipheimer (RAB), Mancebo (BAN) and Sevilla (KEL). By the end of his big pull only about ten riders were left with him in the group, including teammates Armstrong and Heras. The other men who hung on this far were Beloki (ONE), Serrano (ONE), Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONE), Rumsas (LAM), Botero (KEL), Sastre (CST), Kivilev (COF), and a surprising Stephane Goubert (DEL).
At the end of his final pull, Rubiera once again got out of the saddle and raised the pace to a blistering level. This put several riders in difficulty, with Kivilev and Goubert losing contact. Before the others could catch their breath, Heras came around and attacked just like he did yesterday. Again, only Armstrong and Beloki could hold his wheel. Then, unlike yesterday, Armstrong attacked not long after Heras' acceleration, and flew away up the mountain. The gap was small to start with, and Beloki struggled to bridge with Heras on his wheel. With under 5km left Armstrong's lead was around 15", and Heras attacked Beloki. Heras rode hard and Armstrong seemed to slack his pace a bit to wait. After the stage, Armstrong said that the plan was for his attack to set up a stage win for Heras.
Beloki foiled those plans, however, sprinting ahead on a flatter section of the climb with 4km left to try to bridge the gap. He made enough inroads by the 3km banner that Heras was ordered to sit up by Postal DS Johan Bruyneel. Heras jumped back onto Beloki's wheel when caught, and this bit of psychological warfare (plus Beloki's exertions to bridge the gap) seemed to take their toll in the final 2.5km. Armstrong pulled away during this section, finishing with both fists in the air as he crossed the finish in 6h 00' 29". Heras jumped Beloki in the final 500 meters to take 2nd place, with it's critical time bonus. Beloki finished in the same time as Heras, 1' 04" behind Armstrong.
Behind the leaders, a great battle was taking place for the remaining high GC positions, as Botero outsprinted Gonzalez de Galdeano for 4th place as they crossed the line 1' 11" behind Armstrong. Botero had a great recovery today after his unfortunate flat on the final climb yesterday, as he consolidated his 5th spot in the GC at 5' 44" behind the Yellow Jersey. Gonzalez de Galdeano remained in 3rd on GC @ 3' 19". The next across the line was Rumsas @ 1' 23", good enough to keep his 4th on GC @ 5' 15". In 7th was the impressive Sastre @ 1' 33"; he leaped up to 11th on GC with his performance and now stands 9' 32" behind Armstrong.
For more complete results of today's stage, the GC, and the mountains and points competitions, see the Live Report of today's stage here.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. On their home turf in the Pyranees, they've been nowhere to be seen. Except for a couple of small attacks by David Etxebarria early in the stage, the boys in orange are still riding like they have lead in their shorts. They lost two riders today when Samuel Sanchez and Gorka Gonzalez missed the time cut. Their best placed rider is Haimar Zubeldia; the promising young man was 20th on the stage at 4' 21", and is now 21st in the GC at 13' 49". No wonder the Basque fans have been screaming so much for Armstrong and Heras: their favorites from Euskaltel haven't given them anything to cheer for in the race so far.
- Dario Frigo, Tacconi Sport (Stage: 17th @ 13' 32", GC: 19th @ 13' 34"); Tyler Hamilton, CSC-Tiscali (Stage: 38th @ 8' 06", GC: 22nd @ 14' 04"); David Millar, Cofidis (Stage: 142nd at 40' 32", GC: 74th @ 50' 20"). This award is directed at myself, as I picked these three riders to go well in the mountains and finish in the top ten just three days ago. Stupid me. Frigo has been riding respectably, but hasn't done well enough to become a factor in the race. Hamilton cracked big-time on the last climb today, and will likely ride now in support of teammates Sastre, currently in 11th @ 9' 32", and Polka-Dot Jersey wearer Jalabert. Millar blew up big-time today too and finished way back in the "bus" with the sprinters. This doesn't seem to be the year for these three riders. Maybe next year will be kinder to these talented men.
Grazed Hams of the Day:
- Lance Armstrong, Roberto Heras, Jose Luis Rubiera, U.S. Postal. Once again they dominated the last climb, and their teammates dominated the rest of the day. Yesterday they got out the can opener, and today they finally opened up the big can of Texas Whupass on the rest of the field. More is sure to come in the Alps.
- Laurent Jalabert, CSC-Tiscali. He's had horrible luck in this race, but he keeps on attacking. He's made the last two stages with brilliant breakaways, and he now has a commanding lead in the King of the Mountains competition. The Frenchman is a popular and exciting rider who has great all-around abilities and more class than half the field put together. He will be sorely missed when he retires.
- Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca; Carlos Sastre, CSC-Tiscali. They were the biggest winners on the day in the battle for the top ten. Others who gained were Rumsas (LAM), Leipheimer (RAB, 12th on GC @ 10' 21"), Heras (USP, 7th on GC @ 8' 01"), and Sevilla (KEL, 9th on GC @ 9' 05"). As the race turns towards the Alps, these climbers look set to continue their battle up every mountain left between here and Paris.
- Jens Voigt, Credit Agricole. He finished today 95th, 29' 07" back, after suffering a serious crash yesterday. He rode today with several stitches in one of his knees, a truly remarkable performance from the tough German powerhouse.
AND FINALLY, I'd like to add a few new members to the "Belli Club," so named from the Fassa Bortolo rider who punched a fan and was expelled from last year's Giro. In the last two days there have been two incidents with punches thrown. As reported yesterday by DP's Anita van Crey here, the first involved Karsten Kroon (RAB), who after a fall had remounted and was then hit by a team car. Ironically, the team car belonged to Belli's Fassa Bortolo team. Kroon was understandably angry, and reportedly took a couple of pokes at the driver. Today, Christophe "don't call me Francis" Moreau (CA) seemed to start a fight with Carlos Sastre (CST) while riding at the front. There was swerving, shirt-pulling, and a few punches thrown as they rode along. Several days ago, Robbie Hunter (MAP) called Moreau a "dumb ass" who swerved around like he owned the road, taking no care for the others around him. This attitude now seems to have landed the Frenchman in a fight, so he and these other riders are now the newest members inducted into the "Belli Club"...lets hope they are the last to join the club this year.