On the biggest, nastiest mountain stage of the Tour, Rabobank's Michael Boogerd launched an amazing solo attack that landed him an impressive stage win. The stage began with the climb up the HC Col du Galibier after only .2km of riding. There were no attacks until the last few kilometers of the Galibier, when Santiago Botero (KEL) went over the top 1st and Laurent Jalabert (CST) 3rd in their battle for the King of the Mountains Jersey. By the end of the descent of the Galibier, U.S. Postal had brought things all back together. Then there was a small uncategorized climb called the Col du Telegraph...normally, this is a vicious mountain, but the way the race approached it today it was merely a bump in the road. However, it provided the opportunity for Boogerd to launch himself on his solo trek for glory.
On the long descent of the Telegraph there were several counter-attacks. At the front of the race, Boogerd was joined by sprinters Stuart O'Grady (CA), Gian Matteo Fagnini (TEL), and Robbie Hunter (MAP). These four worked well to extend their lead over the peloton to several minutes. There was also a medium-sized chase group that included Jalabert, Merckx (DFF), Mayo (EUS), Turpin (AG2), Gutierrez (KEL), Dierckxsens (LAM), Serrano (ONE), and Martinez (MAP). Despite their superior numbers, this chase group lost time to the lead group while putting time into the peloton. O'Grady took the first intermediate sprint, which came right before the climb of the monstrous HC Col de la Madeleine. On the climb itself, Boogerd wasted no time in dropping his companions and going it alone. Up the climb, the remaining breakaways sorted themselves into a new chase group consisting of Jalabert, Merckx, Turpin, and Mayo. Jalabert took 2nd over the climb (behind Boogerd) to stretch his lead in the King of the Mountains competition. On the descent of the Madeleine, O'Grady put in another daredevil ride to catch the first chase group and took 2nd (behind Boogerd) in the final intermediate sprint of the day.
On the final climb of the HC La Plagne, O'Grady defiantly attacked the chase group to no avail. At the bottom of the climb, the Posties had closed the gap to just over seven minutes behind Boogerd, with the first chase group over three minutes behind the Dutchman. Boogerd was having an inspired day, and though the leaders attacked each other up the final climb, they never came close to the Golden Rabobank rider with the million dollar smile. Boogerd won the stage decisively, crossing the line 1' 25" up on the next rider.
At the bottom of La Plagne, U.S. Postal's "Gorgeous" George Hincapie once again set a brutal pace to thin the field. Then Rubiera came to the front and set a montrous pace that eventually thinned the Yellow Jersey group to a mere 8 riders:
Rubiera, Armstrong, Heras (USP), Beloki (ONE), Azevedo (ONE), Rumsas (LAM), Basso (FAS), and Leipheimer (RAB). Botero (KEL) and Mancebo (BAN) weren't far behind. Somehow, Carlos Sastre (CST) had managed to launch an attack and make time on the Armstrong group up the climb. With under 7km to go on the climb, Heras came to the front to take over the pacemaking from the heroic Rubiera. Not long after, Armstrong jumped from second wheel and left the rest of the group in the dust as he went off in pursuit of Sastre and Boogerd. No one even attempted to follow him, as the riders left in the group were now jockeying for the lower steps of the podium with one another.
Armstrong caught Sastre, but the Spaniard was able to latch on to Armstrong's wheel as he flew by. Once it became clear that they weren't going to catch Boogerd, Armstrong slowed a bit and Sastre took a turn at the front. As they came to the line, Armstrong let Sastre cross the line in 2nd while the Texan claimed 3rd on the stage; both riders came in 1' 25" behind the flying Dutchman. Behind, Beloki and Rumsas attacked to drop the rest and they crossed the line together at 2' 02". Leipheimer had a great ride to finish in 6th at 2' 10". He was followed by Basso (7th) and Azevedo (8th) at 2' 14", Botero (9th) at 2' 23", and Heras (10th) at 2' 25".
At the end of the day, Armstrong had consolidated his GC lead over his rivals. Beloki now stands in 2nd at 5' 06", with Rumsas 3rd at 7' 24". The battle between Beloki and Rumsas should be interesting over the next few days. Also interesting will be how the rest of the top ten sorts out. Currently, the riders in places 4 through 8 are separated by only 46": Azevedo 4th at 12' 08", Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONE) 5th at 12' 12", Mancebo 6th at 12' 28", Botero 7th at 12' 37", and Heras 8th at 12' 54". Leipheimer might also climb in the next few days, as he now stands in 9th at 13' 58"
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE-Eroski. He finished 12th on the stage at 4' 39", and lost a couple of minutes to several key rivals. He's now slipped to 5th on GC, and if he rides like this again in the days to come, he may slip quickly from the top ten. He may climb back up the standings in the final time trial, however, a course that will suit his talents.
- Bonjour and Tacconi Sport. Respectively, their best placed riders were Sylvain Chavanel in 32nd at 9' 54" and Eddy Mazzoleni in 33rd at 10' 26". There were teams that finished worse, but Bonjour and Tacconi Sport did not manage to get a guy up the road all day like these other teams did. These guys will be looking forward to the relatively easy mountain stages over the next two days.
- Michael Boogerd, Rabobank. Who says the Dutch can't climb? His brilliant win also raised him into 12th on GC at 17' 32". Like Virenque in the stage to Mont Ventoux, Boogerd was able to hold off the charge of Armstrong to take his win. Boogerd's ride was even more impressive in that he had been alone since the second climb of the day. A great win for a great champion.
- Carlos Sastre, CSC-Tiscali. He pulled away from the Armstrong group at a time when the greatest climbers in the world were either on the rivet or off the back from the pace set by Rubiera. When Armstrong charged, Sastre was able to raise the tempo enough to stay with the Texan. His 2nd place finish on the stage raised him into 11th on GC at 16' 27", and showed how talented a rider he really is.
- Stuart O'Grady, Credit Agricole. What the hell was Stuey doing off the front in the "Queen's Stage" in the mountains? What was he doing attacking on a stage with three HC climbs? He was chasing points, and raised himself to within 49 points of Zabel and McEwen in the race for the Green Jersey. If he can do this again tomorrow or (more likely) on Friday, he could actually make this a three-horse race again. O'Grady won't give up without a fight, and his ride today is a testament to the mental toughness and tactical intelligence of the great Aussie.
- Jose Luis Rubiera, U.S. Postal. While Heras and Landis have struggled at times, "The Punisher" has been there for Armstrong every time the road has turned upwards. For the fifth time, he went to the front on the final climb of a stage and put the serious hurt on everyone. Every time he's done this, he has taken a very long turn and eliminated all but a handful of riders. He truly punishes the other riders on the climbs for Armstrong. He and teammate "Gorgeous" George Hincapie are the greatest unsung heroes of the Tour so far.