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Stage 18: The course for this stage is neither mountainous nor flat. With the big climbs behind them, the peloton will likely fly through this rolling stage that has seven categorized climbs, none them as difficult as what the riders have seen over the last two days. The climbs on the day are as follows:
- 41km: Cote des Bois de Serves - Cat 3 (3.3 km @ 3.3%)
- 57.5 km: Cote de Marlioz - Cat 4 (3.0 km @ 5.3%)
- 74 km: Cote de la Semine - Cat 4 (4.1 km @ 5.3%)
- 96 km: Col de Richemont - Cat 1 (12.8 km @ 5.4%)
- 115 km: Col de la Cheminee - Cat 3 (3.5 km @ 3.3 %)
- 137 km: Cote de Giriat - Cat 4 (2.8 km @ 5.1%)
- 147.5 km: Col du Berthiand - Cat 2 (4.7 km @ 6.0%)
Though these certainly aren't the toughest climbs of the Tour, this will be an extremely difficult stage for the riders at this point in the race. The race should be impossible to control too much. There will likely be several breakaways up the road, and it is unlikely the U.S. Postal will try to chase them down. The sprinters teams,
for their part, have shown neither the legs or the interest to control any of the stages over the last two weeks of the race, so the winner of the stage likely will come in a breakaway. This will be the last hard stage for Armstrong's Postal boys, as the extremely undulating terrain and the fatigue of being on the front for the last week will start to take its toll. If he makes it through today
unscathed, it will be an easy roll to Paris afterwards. Look for the real action to come in the battle for the rest of the top ten places, as Beloki, Rumsas, Botero, and the rest of the GC contenders will sort out their final positions today heading into tomorrow's all-important time trial.
06:30 PDT. We start today's stage in progress: There is a group of riders nearing the 115km point, the top of the Cat 3 Col de la Cheminee. The group of riders has over 8' on the Postal-led peloton.
The riders are: Sorenson (CST), Loder (AG2), Mengin (FDJ), Piil (CST), Jaksche (ONE), Van Bon (DFF), Hushovd (CA), Fagnini (TEL), Loda (FAS), Dekker (RAB). The latest check is 7' 55" to the peloton.
At this point, Armstrong's team looks like they have avoided having a difficult day. The right break has gone up the road, and they are just setting a nice tempo on the back. None of the riders off the front are anywhere near the top ten on GC.
For his part, the extremely popular, tough, and just plain cool Laurent Jalabert (CST) clinched his second consecutive victory in the King of the Mountains competition yesterday. Today, he's taking it easy in the peloton. A well-deserved day of rest for the great Frenchman in his last Tour, as he watches his teammates have a go in the break.
Early in the stage there was a crash involving riders Pineau (BJR) and Pradera (ONE); fortunately the riders were okay and got back on with no problem.
The break went away after only four kilometers today, so it really has been an easy day after yesterday's complete free-for-all, where there were literally dozens of attacks going all day starting from the first climb.
06:43 PDT. The breakaway has taken all the points on the stage so far, so no change in the points competition between McEwen (LOT) and Zabel (TEL), who are currently tied for first.
The ten breakaways are now on the descent of the Cheminee. Earlier in the day, first Lotto and then Bonjour came to the head of the peloton to try to pull back they escapees, as their teams had missed the boat. Each came to the front for a while, pulled, didn't close the gap much, and then gave up. It looks like the break will stay free until the end unless there is a serious change in the
attitude of the peloton.
The breakaways are working well, taking their turns pulling through. Dekker looks good as he pulls through. Amazing the ride he has had so far given his leg injury, and Odessa Gunn's attempts to sabotage him with pom-poms in the mountains.
Dekker took the pom-poms away from his teammate Leipheimer's wife after she got them tangled in his back wheel while trying to push him up a hill. He had to stop and get a mechanic to fix the situation. After the stage, he claimed them from her in the name of safety. With a good laugh all around, of course.
U.S. Postal, Rabobank, Telekom, Jean Delatour, and iBanesto.com are the only teams left with all nine riders. Another powerful showing from the Posties, who have been dominant over the last week, and over the last four years now in the Tour.
The Big Rig, "Gorgeous" George Hincapie is near the front of the race. He had to change his bike twice earlier in the stage, but appears to have his rig in order now and is doing his work in the Postie train at the front.
07:01 PDT. The breakaways hit the top of the penultimate climb of the day at the 137km point. A couple of riders, namely Jaksche and Fagnini, struggled a bit on the climb, but it was short enough for the group to stay intact. Piil went to the front to put the hammer down, clearly softening up the others for an attack from his teammate. With two men in the break, CSC has the clear advantage.
07:06 PDT. With 36km left, the group has an advantage of 8' 03". With only one Cat 2 climb left, they will surely stay away to the finish now.
The riders in the peloton look to be having a day off. They are likely exhausted from the harsh mountain stages they've just gone through, especially the leg-breaker yesterday with all of the attacks. The GC contenders may mix it up a bit on the final climb; otherwise, they'll have to sort out the lower placings in the final time trial.
Lance Armstrong is looking good in yellow. Truly, he is the greatest athlete in the world, surrounded by a team of brilliant athletes. They have put on an incredible display of strength, stamina, skill, and team strategy this year.
Correction, Sorensen is the CSC man in the front group. Piil is sitting behind Dekker in the chase group.
Peloton News Flash: Stephano Garzelli, who tested positive for probenicid, a diruetic sometimes used as a masking agent, (though the amount found in Garzelli's blood was too small to mask anything) has been handed a 9 month suspension today. He will be allowed to return to racing April 23, 2003, and he was also fined 68 thousand Euros. The Swiss Olympic committee originally banned him for 2 years, but reduced his sentence to 9 months for good behavior and because his ingestion of the drug was "unintentional."
07:21 PDT. Fagnini is a sprinter, but he's still hanging in on the Cat 2 climb. The others won't want to take him to the finish. So there is a group of five in the lead on the climb: Mengin, Sorensen, Fagnini, Jaksche, Loder. They go over the top only 6" ahead of Dekker, Piil, Van Bon, and Hushovd. They will likely regroup on the descent.
Loda is 52" back, the peloton over 9' 30" back of the leaders. There are 25km left to the finish.
The peloton now rolls up the final climb. The Posties are setting the tempo through the appreciative crowds. The riders are going slowly, so the fans are getting a good long look. There are four Posties in front of the Yellow Jersey, with some ONCE boys just behind.
The leading nine riders are together with 22km left. They are still flying downhill. Loda is still stuck off the back. NOW DEKKER HAS ATTACKED!! Sorensen is chasing.
Dekker sits up, having been countered effectively. They are starting to sit up and play games already. Loda will rejoin them at this rate.
Sorenson, Jaksche, and Mengin are off the front on a small uncategorized climb. They have a good gap now, with Mengin of the front. The chasers look in a lot of pain. Hushovd and Dekker are doing the work to try to chase. Mengin ON the front...
07:31 PDT. 19km left and the three riders off the front are being chased down effectively by the six left behind. The section is slightly downhill right now. The gap is not that large. The peloton could care less: they are 10' 30" back.
Mengin sets the pace on the front of the leading trio, frightening some French cows who gallop away in an adjacent field. Seven Posties lead the peloton under the 25km banner.
The six chasers have caught the leading trio with 17km to go. They are flying now on a slight descent.
Another attack has gone in the lead group!! Hushovd and Piil are off the front, and Mengin now joins him. So we have a Frenchman and two Scandinavians off the front. Dekker is chasing with Van Bon on the front of the second group, but things look good for the Vikings today.
Big George Hincapie leads the peloton up an incline with his teammates on his wheel. George has become quite the fashion plate these days. His white-rimmed racing glasses are very distinctive, and he has a number of "fashion-plate" shots on his website.
07:43 PDT. With 11km to go Hushovd, Piil, and Mengin have a 27" gap to the chasers. It looks good for them right now. Hushovd attacks! Mengin bridges the gap with Piil on his wheel.
The lead trio flies under the 10km to go banner. It seems that there are no flat sections today...the road either goes up or down. The leaders are sweeping on a down-slope corner right now.
Hincapie still leads the peloton. His powerful rides in the mountains have astonished everyone, as he has outclimbed many of the race's climbers this year in his defense of Armstrong's position. He has developed into one of the world's elite riders for both the Classics and the Grand Tours.
07:50 PDT. With 5km to go, the lead of Hushovd, Piil, and Mengin is 40". They look like they will stay away for the victory now. Hushovd has a mean sprint, so Piil and Mengin will likely attack soon.
07:52 PDT. The leaders are under 4km to go. It looks like the chase has turned off the gas behind. They are pulling through, but without much gusto.
Hushovd, Piil, and Mengin are still working together as they enter the traffic circles leading into the city. They are within the barriers now, with about 1.5km to go.
O'Grady has attacked from the peloton, looking for points.
Hushovd is on the front, looking over his shoulder...the games have begun... Mengin is second wheel, Piil in the back.
Piil loses his clip! Hushovd leads out, Mengin tries to come around, but Hushovd is strong, and Hushovd WINS IT! Poor Piil pulled his foot out of the clip, and comes across in 3rd.
A great victory for the Norwegian. Hei hei Norge! Flot! Herlig! Veldig veldig bra for den fin normann!!
Hushovd really wasn't in a good position, being forced to the front for the sprint. Mengin was best positioned for the sprint, but the young Norwegian was too strong and took it by about 6 inches. A close sprint, but a victory for the Viking from the frozen north!
O'Grady (CA), Hushovd's teammate, pushes alone off the front to try to get more points. He has about 100 meters on the peloton. He rides under the 5km banner, so it looks like he'll be brought back. The Posties are still putting the hammer down on the front, as they wind around another annoying traffic circle. They are certainly very happy about that.
08:03 PDT. The race is on for the Green Points Jersey. Zabel (TEL) and McEwen (LOT) will go at it again at the finish. They are currently tied, so the man who finishes in front today takes the Jersey. McEwen currently wears it by virtue of his better stage placings.
Hushovd was in a breakaway early in the race, but had horrible cramps that nearly ended his Tour. He fought through to the finish despite having to stop for massages several times along the way. Now his perserverence has paid off!!
Posties lead out to the sprint now. Ludo "The Belgian Battler" Dierckxsens mixes it up to help his man Svorada (LAM).
Hondo (TEL) takes the front. Here come the other Telekom boys. Here comes McEwen! He nicks Zabel on the line...they banged elbows and Zabel sat up towards the end, very unhappy. McEwen will be happy with his new advantage, however.
There were a few men right there with them, including O'Grady and Svorada, and Cooke (FDJ). O'Grady might have nicked Zabel as well.
Hushovd says in an interview that he was feeling strong and made his own decisions to attack towards the end. His attacks broke up the group, and he finished it off in the sprint.
Stage 18 Results:
1. Thor Hushovd, Credit Agricole @ 4h 28' 28"
2. Christophe Mengin, FDJeux.com @ ST
3. Jakob Piil, CSC-Tiscali @ 5"
4. Leon Van Bon, Domo-Farm Frites @ 33"
5. Jorg Jaksche, ONCE-Eroski @ 33"
6. Nicki Sorensen, CSC-Tiscali @ 33"
7. Gian Matteo Fagnini, Team Telekom @ 40"
8. Erik Dekker, Rabobank @ 40"
9. Thierry Loder, AG2r @ 40"
10. Nicola Loda, Fassa Bortolo @ 6' 59"
11. Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Adecco @ 11' 42"
12. Erik Zabel, Team Telekom @ 11' 42"
13. Stuart O'Grady, Credit Agricole @ 11' 42"
14. Jan Svorada, Lampre-Daikin @ 11' 42"
15. Nicolas Vogondy, FDJeux.com @ 11' 42"
22. Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski @ ST
24. Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal @ ST
GC After Stage 18:
1. Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal @ 77h 30' 35"
2. Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski @ 5' 06"
3. Raimondas Rumsas, Lampre-Daikin @ 7' 24"
4. Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca @ 10' 59"
5. Jose Azevedo, ONCE-Eroski @ 12' 08"
6. Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE-Eroski @ 12' 12"
7. Francisco Mancebo, iBanesto.com @ 12' 28"
King of the Mountains Competition:
1. Laurent Jalabert, CSC-Tiscali 262pts
2. Mario Aerts, Lotto-Adecco 178pts
3. Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca 162pts
4. Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal Service 152pts
NOTE: Jalabert has won this competition. All he has to do now is cross the line in Paris.
1. Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Adecco 239pts
2. Erik Zabel, Team Telekom 238pts
3. Stuart O'Grady, Credit Agricole 188pts
4. Baden Cooke, FDJeux.com 168pts
Thanks for joining us today. Don't miss the time trial tomorrow!