Stage 18: Albi-Mende, 189 km
Well, today should be interesting. It's a "medium" mountain stage, where the riders must face a Cat 4 climb, two Cat 3 climbs, and two Cat 2 climbs in the 189 km between Albi and Mende. The finish should see some more attacks by the GC men, as a Cat 3 is followed by a Cat 2 climb where the race ends. So it's sort of an uphill finish… there is just a small downhill section right at the very end, but any gaps gained on the climb should stick to the finish. You can bet those guys racing for the lower spots in the top ten on GC will be attacking each other like crazy there. Ullrich and Basso will also likely take a dig at Armstrong there.
At about 45 km into the race, the big break of the day finally went. With 68 km left, the ten attackers have over 12' on the peloton. The men in the break are Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom), Axel Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto), Cedric Vasseur (Cofidis), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), Carlos Da Cruz (FDJeux.com), Marcos Serrano (Liberty Seguros-Würth), Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears), and Luke Roberts (CSC). The riders are now on the Cat 2 Cote de Boyne, a 9.2 km climb with an average gradient of 5.3%.
In one of those early breaks, Vinokourov picked up a 4" time bonus for 2nd at an intermediate sprint and Moreau picked up a 2" bonus for 3rd. It might not be much, but these riders are both being chased by a few men just a handful of seconds behind on GC, so these seconds could be important by the time we hit Paris.
Noval is leading the peloton for Discovery Channel on this Cat 2 climb. No moves by the GC men, though Rasmussen, Basso, and Ullrich are visible behind the Discovery train.
1526 CEST - 58 km left. The gap for the break is now up to 13'. The peloton isn't really going that hard yet, so this break could stay away. I'd have to say that Merckx and Pellizotti are the two men in the break who are the strongest climbers, so they'd have to be my picks to attack over the next two climbs and win the stage. Serrano is also a good climber, as is Xandio. All the riders in this break are strong, though.
Well, it looks like Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) is off the back of the peloton with Erik Dekker (Rabobank) and Inaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi). They seem to be starting the grupetto. You can bet more men will get dropped as the GC men have a go at each other in the peloton over the last two climbs.
Da Cruz leads the break over the top of the climb. Now it's not a descent, unfortunately for the riders... it's just some bumpy roads for about 25 km, then a descent before the ramp up to the final climbs. I hate climbs that don't have descents right away, personally.
Roberts is having some sort of problem at the back of the break. Could be a cramp, or a slipped chain... he's struggling about 10 meters off the back right now.
I was very happy to have the opposite experience at last year's Tour trip with Yellow Jersey Tours... on a stage similar to this one, there were a few climbs and descents, and then after the last climb there was a descent that went on for about a half hour. It was a blast, too.
I started to get worried... I kept thinking, "After all this descending, there's got to be a real monster climb at the other end," but it was only a Cat 3 climb, and our support van had picked out a good spot to watch the race about 2/3 of the way up, so I didn't even have to do that whole climb. Then it was food, drinks, and a leg massage while waiting for the Tour to come by. Yeah, that was cool.
Yeah, when the staff comes up and says, "Want a massage? we brought the massage tables..." what can I say?
That's Yellow Jersey Tours, folks.
Of course, we'd had to climb a very hard Cat 2 climb (I think it should have been a Cat 1) in an absolute downpour to start that ride... animals were pairing up it was raining so hard.
"You can choose between 6 ft 5" Gunther and the lovely, blonde-haired Maria..."
Actually, all three massage staff were good... all had their own style... the Basque guy was really rough, but good, one of the women was very gentle but relaxing, and then there was a woman in between those extremes. I tried them all, I was a slut that way.
1541 CEST - 48.5 km left. Another exciting day of watching riders in a ten man break roll through the middle of nowhere (there are some trees, a few fans...) with a lead of about 13' over the peloton still. Makes me wish for some crazy, thong-wearing nutters like on the big climbs. Well, almost.
The Illes Balears team car pulls alongside their breakaway man Xabier Zandio - the Spaniard has been one of the pleasant surprises of the Tour, able to support his leaders in the mountains while still flying the coop in breakaways.
1550 CEST - 40km to go - 13'42" to the peloton; no way back now.
There are several men who can do well from this breakaway - Serrano, Vasseur, Martinez, Kessler, Xandio, Merckx and Pellizotti are all talented climbers, particularly the latter.
Pellizotti's blonde perm has attracted many - mainly unattractive - nicknames: "Mad Scientist" and "Barbra Streisand" top the list.
In the peloton, Armstrong tells the cameraman that he's feeling good "for an old man." He says that he thinks Merckx will win the stage. Of course, Armstrong was teammates with Merckx back on the old Motorola squad. He's also quite good friends with Axel's dad, Eddie. Whenever Armstrong does Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he actually eats dinner at the Merckx house.
For those of you who remember those old Hanna-Barbara cartoons from the early 70s, Pellizotti looks like a refugee from the "Hair Bear Bunch."
A piece of commentary in the Spanish press says that now that Discovery Channel leads the team classification, we can expect one or two Discos in any break - hmm...
Well, Discovery doesn't really care about that competition... their top priority is the Yellow Jersey, and their second priority is the White Jersey with Popovych.
1600 CEST - 35 km left. Well the peloton is still apathetic as the gap is up to 14' 30". This break will stay away, and as Armstrong's comments clearly indicate, they have no interest in chasing it down.
The break is still about 19 km from the final two climbs of the day. The peloton will likely liven up then, just like they did yesterday when Ullrich attacked and all hell broke loose. That was cool.
I wonder if that has taken anything out of any of the contenders. Now, you'd have to concede that it's a race for the podium spots rather than yellow jersey. In retrospect, pulling out 20 seconds on a Cat 3 climb isn't half bad.
Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com) attacked hard a couple of times early in the stage before this big break got away. He's finally healing up after injuring his hamstring in a crash early in the Tour. McGee reckons that the wins by Savoldelli and Hincapie show what life will be like in Discovery after Armstrong. He also thinks that it is part of an effective recruiting campaign by the team: we're winners, we'll let you go on for stage wins, really, come join us.
McGee had been hoping to show his credentials as a GT top-ten challenger, but instead he's had to settle for ignominy after that crash.
In the peloton Mancebo, Basso, Leipheimer, and Ullrich are being diligent behind the Discovery train. This last climb is supposed to be a real bear.
1610 CEST - 30km to go - The break's advantage is still increasing, now up to 15'03". They are still working well together, though one feels that level of cohesion will soon drop when things get serious.
Some of the riders up front may not wait for that sharp Cat 2 Cote de la Croix-Neuve to attack - the Cote de Chabrits - 1.7km at 7.1% - comes just before it.
That final climb is 3.1 km with an average gradient (quite steep) of 10.1%. It gets much steeper than that in sections. For you old timers, Laurent Jalabert won a stage of the Tour here about ten years ago.
Do you think these climbs are comparable to those in the Ardennes Classics? Short but very sharp; perhaps Kessler and Merckx, both of whom spring to mind as men who have fared well in April in the past, could be protagonists.
Do those climbs have cobbles, or are those only the earlier classics? My memory is failing me...
Some do, but mainly the earlier classics.
Sounds to me like they are comparable...
1617 CEST - 22 km left. The leaders are about 6 km from the early part of the final climbs.
The men in the break are still working well in a double paceline. That likely won't last for long. The final climbs will make sure of that. Men like Roberts, Voeckler and Da Cruz should be distanced easily in the finale. (But prove me wrong, guys.)
Considering the relative parity in quality of the men away today, it's possible a well-timed attack will take the stage, rather than the strongest man winning.
Egoi Martinez is a bit of a mystery... he won the Tour de l'Avenir a couple of years back, and he certainly has some talent, but the young Basque has yet to really distinguish himself at the highest level of the pro peloton. He's a nice guy for sure... I got a picture with him last year.
Yaroslav Popovych, the best young rider, drops to the back of the peloton to get some bottles, ever the dutiful domestique.
The breakaway, just about to start the Cat 3 Chabrits, goes under a level crossing barrier. If that closes in the peloton...
McGee said yesterday that he barely made it through that train crossing... he almost got taken out by the warning gate too. With 14km to go, the climbing is about to commence and they're looking around now. Da Cruz is the first to attack.
Da Cruz has been attacking in every break so far, it seems like... he was out yesterday too. He isn't a good climber... this is his only chance.
He's been very aggressive, it's true. But you're right - on paper, he doesn't stand a chance against some of these guys. Still, give him his due, he's pulled out a good gap initially.
Merckx and Serrano are marking each other in the break... they seem to be waiting to see who will counter-attack.
The two Spaniards just injected a bit of pace before resuming the vigil on their break companions behind. Kessler, Xandio, Merckx all take pulls now.
Da Cruz is toiling now, but he has 20 seconds lead on the rest. Martinez now setting the tempo at the front... oh great, a bare-assed nutter is running next to Da Cruz. CSC is now setting up something in the peloton. They are driving it to string out the pack.
In the break ahead, Da Cruz is still off the front of the break with Martinez and Merckx and Xandio and Serrano working to chase him down. The Danish squad has six men in a row, tapping out a pace. Now Xandio goes, Martinez tries to follow. The Francaise des Jeux rider still has 16 seconds; plucky stuff.
Well, Merckx has countered and is alone in pursuit of Da Cruz. And Zandio is wrestling with his bike in an effort to get across. Kessler and Martinez have not responded.
So it's Da Cruz, with Merckx about 10" back, and now Voeckler and Serrano are trying to bridge up to Axel.
Voeckler is up to Merckx at the top of the climb! 9 km left. Behind, it's Serrano, Vassuer and Zandio. Da Cruz is solo off the front still, chased by Merckx and Voeckler. Great work by "Titi" Voeckler, who became the fresh-faced hope of France in last year's race.
Locutus with Egoi Martinez left, and Iker Flores on the right.
Now they are screaming downstairs into the town of Mende - the finish is actually at the airfield outside of the town. Zandio, Vasseur and Serrano are on the cusp of bridging the gap to Merckx and Voeckler. The men are flying on the descent... not that technical of a descent, just downhill is all. Merckx and Voeckler have about 30 meters on the men chasing them, but Da Cruz is still solo off the front.
So the French producers are sticking with the breakaway action, so no idea what has become of that big CSC leadout of the peloton behind yet.
Discovery Channel are now in front, with Rubiera and Savodelli stringing the peloton out. Wait, Da Cruz has been passed... it's Voeckler and Merckx off the front...The five are now together.
So at the front of the race it's Voeckler, Merckx, Zandio, Serrano, and Vasseur. It's Vasseur, Voeckler, Merckx, Serrano and Zandio on the Cote de la Croix-Neuve - 3.1km at 10.1%
Pellizotti has caught them, so it's six men off the front. Pain, pain, pain is on the menu - and I don't mean bread. These men would be marking each other, if they weren't in so much pain.
4 km left. Voeckler tries a couple of accelerations. Voeckler accelerates on the left under the 4km banner, but Merckx brings him back calmly.
All of the five are labouring out of the saddle! Merckx is now setting the tempo. He attacks... this is a steep steep climb... sheesh! Merckx is pushing the pace out in front - he towers over tiny Voeckler.
Merckx goes again! Voeckler has his wheel, then Pellizotti. Voeckler is dying to catch him, but he does it. Pellizotti bonks!
Four men now, and this gradient is unrelenting! Merckx looks a bit ropey. Serrano now attacks. Merckx responds, but Voeckler is toast! So it's Merckx, Serrano, and Vasseur now. The rest are gone.
They're all men with a wealth of experience, but only Vasseur has won a Tour stage before (1997). Serrano tries an attack... Vasseur follows, and Merckx is in trouble. Merckx is struggling to turn the pedals fast enough to stay in contact...
3 km left. So Serrano attacks and finally drops Vasseur. Merckx is recovering now. Merckx is back up to Vasseur, and Serrano is edging painstakingly away! In the peloton, the pace is really up and Popovych leads Armstrong up the climb while a Credit Agricole rider attacks.
Serrano has about 20 meters. Still 1.1km to the top of this horrid climb - I want to see how the peloton deals with this! Merckx is laboring to catch back on, but he's dragging Vasseur along. The Belgian is not giving up, but he's giving the Cofidis road captain a free ride. The peloton is still on the Cat 3 climb. On the finishing Cat 2 climb, Serrano is now looking good for the win... He's got a good gap.
Serrano is over the top of the climb, and now is going downhill into the Aerodrome... Merckx and Vasseur go over the top, 18 seconds behind Serrano. As long as he stays sunny side up, it's victory for the Liberty Seguros domestique! Serrano is flying along.
He pumps his arms in victory - Serrano wins!
Merckx is now coming up, leading out Vasseur...Vasseur 2nd, Merckx 3rd. Merckx is not happy, making a hand gesture. He clearly thinks Vasseur shouldn't have come round him having done so little work. Zandio 4th, Pellizotti 5th.
@27" for Vasseur. Behind, CSC is driving it... Sastre is on the point, and the peloton is blown to bits. Popovych is holding his wheel, with Armstrong just behind his young teammate.
Moreau has been dropped! Now Hincapie sets the pace up this final climb. He's a master of these types of hills. He and Popovych come through, out of the saddle, to set the pace.
Armstrong is third wheel, flanked by Ullrich and Basso.
Ivan Basso tests the water! Armstrong is on his wheel. The whip is down, the peloton is exploded, and the big boys are going at each other once again. Hincapie and Popovych are trying to set a fierce pace to ward off attacks. Behind, it's Cadel Evans, then Ullrich and Vinokourov. Rasmussen is not there! He is in the group behind with Mancebo, Leipheimer and Co. Vinokourov has been dropped - just four men now.
This is a good ride by Evans... if he can hold it, he'll move up another place or two on GC. Ullrich is looking for more time on Rasmussen as well - Ullrich wants to close down that almost 3' gap he has to Rasmussen on GC.
Leipheimer is driving the chase behind. Now here comes Rasmussen! He's with Leipheimer, and is up to Vinokourov. Armstrong sets the pace. Now Basso pulls through. Ullrich and Evans are just trying to hold on.
Armstrong puts the hurt on - race radio is saying Rasmussen is 40 seconds down! So it's Armstrong, Basso, Evans, and Ullrich. They are chased by Leipheimer and Rasmussen, and Vino is struggling to hold onto them. Landis and Mancebo are well back. At any rate, the wafer-thin Dane is rallying, and Vinokourov is struggling to hold his wheel. Ullrich has been dropped! The U-Boat has been sunk!
Basso is digging deep, he's grimacing and bringing the pain for sure. The German just could not keep up with the constant changes of pace; it's not his way of riding. Ullrich is coming back! The U-Boat is resurfacing!
He's back on! Whatever happened, Ullrich has gotten his second wind! He really wants to be on that final podium. "Bone Machine" Rasmussen is chasing hard. Now Armstrong accelerates over the top. Armstrong leads his three partners over.
Leipheimer is leading Rasmussen and Vino over the top well back. This is a serious time gap - they are 30-35 seconds in arrears!
Now Basso is leading out the leaders, Armstrong pulls through into the final corner. Armstrong is going for time still, leading it out. Evans sprints to finish first in that group... 11'18", the Armstrong group finishes! Rasmussen is now driving the group with Vino, Leipheimer, and Mancebo (where did he come from?).
They come through 35" behind the Armstrong group - 11'53". That will damage his podium ambitions no end. Supremely gutsy riding by Jan Ullrich there.
Landis and Mazzoleni come through about 55" back of the Armstrong group. At then, 1'25" to the Armstrong group, it's Popovych, consolidating his lead in the white jersey. A further ten seconds back, a group with Brochard, Hincapie and Zubeldia charges across the line.
Moreau loses about 21" to Mazzoleni, which will make that race for the spots 9-13 a little more interesting...
Well, the rammifications for the overall are that Ullrich has clawed back some significant time on Rasmussen, while Cadel Evans has now drawn ahead of Vinokourov into seventh overall.
So the Stage Results:
1. Serrano (Liberty Seguros-Würth)
2. Vasseur (Cofidis) @ 27"
3. Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto) @ 27"
4. Zandio (Illes Balears) @ 1' 08"
5. Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi) @ 1' 08"
6. Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) @ 1' 28"
7. Roberts (CSC) @ 1' 28"
8. Kessler (T-Mobile) @ 1' 44"
9. Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) @ 2' 03"
10. Da Cruz (FDJeux.com) @ 2' 38"
11. Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) @ 11' 18"
12. Armstrong (Discovery Channel) @ 11' 18"
13. Basso (CSC) @ 11' 18"
14. Ullrich (T-Mobile) @ 11' 18"
15. Vinokourov (T-Mobile) @ 11' 55"
16. Rasmussen (Rabobank) @ 11' 55"
17. Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) @ 11' 55"
18. Mancebo (Illes Balears) @ 11' 55"
19. Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Prodir) @ 12' 01"
20. Landis (Phonak) @ 12' 07"
21. Mazzoleni (Lampre-Caffita) @ 12' 07"
22. Moreau (Credit Agricole) @ 12' 28"
In the end, as expected, Da Cruz exploded.
The General Classification:
2. Basso @ 2' 46"
3. Rasmussen @ 3' 46"
4. Ullrich @ 5' 58"
5. Mancebo @ 7' 08"
6. Leipheimer @ 8' 12"
7. Evans @ 9' 49"
8. Vinokourov @ 10' 11"
9. Landis @ 10' 42"
10. Moreau @ 13' 15"
11. Mazzoleni @ 15' 13"
12. Popovych @ 15' 53"
Rasmussen has now taken an insurmountable lead in the King of the Mountains competition. If he finishes the race in Paris, this Polka-Dot Jersey is his. Also, Kessler's ride today put T-Mobile back on top in the Teams competition.
Tomorrow is a short 153.5 km ride that is quite bumpy: three Cat 4 climbs, a Cat 3 climb, and a Cat 2 climb. That big Cat 2 comes only 68 km into the stage, so it could come down to a sprint. More likely is another long breakaway.
Well, we are coming down to the wire here - three stages to go. Hope you will join us again tomorrow, as we edge closer to Paris, and stay tuned for all our regular Tour features later today on the Daily Peloton homepage.