|Jambon Awards and Report: Tour Stage 15
Another great day in the mountains of the Tour, as Santiago Botero (KEL) stormed away from his breakaway companions to win another stage! As reported live here on DP, Botero was part of a long breakaway that included Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta (BAN), Axel Merckx (DFF), Mario Aerts (LOT), Emmanuel Magnien (BJR), Martin Hvastija (ALS), and Sandy Casar (FDJ). Botero attacked early, was brought back, and then put in another attack--successful this time-- with Aerts over the first climb. The duo was to stay ahead of the peloton for the rest of the day, which included a total of seven categorized climbs. They were joined by the other five riders after the second climb, and the U.S. Postal-led peloton was happy to let the group go at that point. Back in the pack riders were crashing left and right, with Christophe Moreau of Credit Agricole going down yet again. Unfortunately, Moreau was really banged up and called it a race in the aftermath of the crash. The great French hope was a favorite coming in, but his many falls contributed to huge time losses; he will have to wait for next year to challenge again for the podium.
Postal let the breakaway get a lead of 10' 50" with 91km to go before starting to close it down a bit. But Postal didn't chase too hard, and were still largely intact and riding eight strong at the front heading into the final climb. Over the penultimate climb, the breakaways started to attack one another with Merckx flying off down the descent. The move didn't succeed, and with 10km left up the final climb the breakaways were still all together. Back in the pack, ONCE had come to the front to set a hard tempo in order to defend their GC positions: Botero could climb over ONCE riders if he held his time gap until the end. Armstrong sat just behind the ONCE train keeping an eye on things with a couple of his teammates. At this point in the race, though, it seemed as if ONCE was intent on simply defending their positions, not on attacking Armstrong. With 8km left, Merckx attacked; when he was pulled back, Aerts attacked the group but was counter-attacked by Botero. The Colombian got a smart gap, riding in his characteristic hunchback position with his head slightly turned to the right. Merckx was alone chasing in 2nd with Aerts back a bit further in 3rd. This proved to be the winning move, as Botero finished his splended charge with his hands joined in prayer before raising his arms in victory. Aerts eventually climbed past Merckx for 2nd at 1' 51" behind Botero, with Axel finally coming across in 3rd at 2' 30".
Back in the pack, the attacks of the riders with GC aspirations were on in earnest. Riders such as Miguel Martinez (MAP), Francisco Mancebo (BAN), and Carlos Sastre (CST) began to launch counter-attacks from the peloton; Postal sat on and let ONCE do the chasing work, as Armstrong's position wasn't seriously threatened by the attacks. The ONCEs succeeded in fending off the attacks, and raised the pace to the point where riders began to fall from the Yellow Jersey group in droves. Beloki finally launched a strong attack with under a kilometer to go, but it was really just a show of defiance to try to snatch a few seconds against his rivals. Armstrong marked the move easily, and Rumsas (LAM) actually countered and won the sprint ahead of Beloki for 7th at 6' 41". Beloki came in 8th and Armstrong crossed in 9th, both in the same time as Rumsas. With the top three GC riders finishing together, there was no change at the top of the race. There were some time shifts further down, with Botero leaping up into 7th on GC at 11' 31" behind Armstrong. Heras (USP) fell to 8th on GC at 11' 46", and Leipheimer (RAB) remained in 9th at 13' 05". Basso, the brilliant young Italian from Fassa Bortolo, climbed to 10th at 14' 07".
Crowd rating for the day: 9.0. There was one incident where Joachim (USP) had to swerve to miss an overzealous fan--his second such encounter, as the same thing happened to him on Stage 1-- and his swerve led him across the wheel of Chavanel (BJR). Chavanel went down, but still finished well (40th @ 8' 36"), indicating that the incident was relatively minor. Aside from that, the fans were their usual enthusiastic, crazed, blissful selves, cheering every rider that came by. Despite recent criticism, the fans kept their distance from the riders for the most part and once again showed why they are one of the most endearing and interesting aspects of the sport.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Oscar Sevilla, Kelme-Costa Blanca. He lost over a minute to some of his key rivals and slipped from 8th to 11th on GC at 14' 10", only three seconds behind Basso. Tomorrow's steeper climbs should favor the pure climbers like Sevilla and Heras, so look for these riders to rebound and try to take some time before the final time trial.
- Richard Virenque, Domo-Farm Frites. He is over his head these days when trying to ride up the climbs with the leaders of the race: he finished the stage in 46th at 9' 27", and slipped from 10th to 13th on GC at 15' 58". If he wants to challenge for the King of the Mountains, the GC, and the stage win tomorrow he will have to launch another early attack and hold on.
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. Once again, no rider in the big break on a mountain stage. Tomorrow is their last day to salvage what has been a truly disastrous Tour for them so far.
Grazed Hams of the Day:
- Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca. He rebounded strong after his big blow-up on Mont Ventoux: in one bold swoop he put himself within 37" of the top five. If he can hang with the leaders tomorrow he will have a great chance to pull himself into the top five in the final time trial. If either Beloki or Rumsas bonks, he could even climb onto the podium in Paris. Truly a great ride for the popular and talented Colombian.
- Mario Aerts, Lotto-Adecco; Axel Merckx, Domo-Farm Frites. Who says Belgians can't climb? Aerts answered his many critics today with a stellar ride to finish 2nd on the stage. He will move to Telekom next year where he will likely ride without the pressure he has faced this year with the Lotto team. For his part, Merckx not only finished 3rd on the stage but jumped up to 23rd on GC at 21' 36". Merckx has had a great ride so far and finally gained some recognition for it today.
Pretty much anyone left in the race by this point. Today saw a number of crashes, but everyone (save the unlucky Moreau) still finished the stage within the time cut. The accumulating fatigue of the riders contributed to the high number of crashes, and this will likely be worse tomorrow. Stage 16 is the last nasty day for most riders, as the three HC climbs and the wicked, twisting descents will once again make a dangerous combination this late in the race. Here's hoping that all of the riders stay rubber-side down tomorrow and fight through to the finish in Paris.
Finally, I'd like to give a Humorously Unnecessary Professionalism award today to the "Belgian Battler," Ludo Dierckxsens of Lampre-Daikin. The tough and lovable rider who attacked so much in the flats came across at the front of the Bus today at 23' 42" behind Botero. Still, as the riders in the Bus rolled up to the line, Dierckxsens took the time to zip us his race jersey to look snappy for the photographers at the finish. Never mind that he came in 99th place today: Dierckxsens is a true professional who never wants to look shabby and shame his sponsers in front of the cameras! Good show, Ludo!!
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