Alberto Contador (Astana) was all smiles on the winner’s podium after winning atop Alpe d’Huez in the Critérium du Dauphiné, but they came after some serious suffering on the bike.
Strong, gusty winds stifled Contador’s repeated attacks to shake stubborn leader Janez Brajkovic (RadioShack), who rode the Spanish climber’s coattails up the 21 switchbacks to widen his lead with just one stage to go.
Contador won in his first crack at one of cycling’s most famous climbs and Brajkovic all but secured overall victory.
“I am really happy to win here today. I still have some ways to go to be in my best shape, but the team worked really hard and I was able to win the stage,” Contador said. “I was thinking more about winning the stage today than the GC. My physical level right now didn’t allow me to win alone like I would like to, there was also a lot of wind and Brajkovic was also very strong.”
Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) suffered through nearly half of the final 13.8km climb all alone when he got dropped with about 9km to go. Chris Horner (RadioShack) and four others finally bridged up to him with 2km to go and helped him defend his podium spot against a threat from Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto).
Contador and Van Garderen switched spots in GC, but the young American looks poised to finish on the Dauphiné podium if he can get through Sunday’s potentially explosive final stage over the former worlds circuit in Sallanches.
Contador slotted into second at 1:41 back and Van Garderen kept alive his podium hopes, now third at 2:41 back. Van den Broeck climbed from eighth to fourth at 3:46 back.
Up the Alpe
Remnants of the day’s 20-man breakaway hit the base of the Alpe nursing a 1:10 lead on the Astana-led bunch.
Remy Di Gregorio (FDJeux), Oscar Pujol and Stephan Denifl (both Cervélo) hit the first of 21 switchbacks in the lead, with Pujol trying his hand, but the real action came from behind.
Astana had five men to carry Contador to the base of the climb, with Jesús Hernández and Dani Navarro setting the pace on the lower switchbacks to quickly trim the group from almost 40 riders to about a dozen. Brajkovic was glued to Contador’s wheel, with Horner the last man standing for RadioShack.
Van Garderen was riding well on the lower, steep switchbacks, riding in the slipstream of Van den Broeck. The pace put the hurt on Denis Menchov (Rabobank), who was popped with about 11.5km to go.
The brutal pace also dislodged Horner, leaving Brajkovic to fend for himself against Contador and his Astana crew. With 10km to go, Pujol was reeled in to set up the battle for the stage and the leader’s jersey.
Van Garderen lost contact when Hernández turned the screws with 9km to go. Contador didn’t wait very long, slinging out with 8.7km to go. Brajkovic did well to mark the first move.
Brajkovic hangs on
And he marked the next, and the next, and the next — Contador couldn’t shake the stubborn Brajkovic, who was looking smoother and more comfortable than the two-time Tour winner.
Chasing were Van Den Broeck with Sylvester Szmyd (Liquigas) and Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun). Van Garderen was trying to limit the damage, but unfortunately working alone.
Szmyd bridged to Contador and Brajkovic with 6km to go, complicating things for Contador. Smyzd started with a series of sharp accelerations, which prompted Contador to counter.
Van Den Broeck and Coppel also bridged, but Szmyd put down two attacks to just as quickly gap them. Contador counter-attacked, but strong headwinds stifled his efforts. Brajkovic calmly covered each move, knowing that all he had to do was mark Contador’s wheel.
With 4.2km to go, as the switchback turned the corner onto a tailwind section, Contador attacked again to drop Szmyd. Strong headwinds again put the brakes on Contador’s attacks as they turned back into the wind, allowing Szmyd to claw back on. Coppel also rejoined the leaders with 3km to go.
Van Garderen, meanwhile, was stuck in no-man’s land, riding alone until about 2.5km when five riders, including Horner, Sammy Sánchez (Euskaltel) and Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne), came up to him. Horner was incredibly generous, helping tow the suffering Van Garderen to the line to help him conserve third place.
Contador attacked again with 2km to go to gap Szmyd and Coppel, but Brajkovic was able to mark his wheel. Contador came through a winner, but it wasn’t easy.
Pate breaks away again
The attacks came early in the four-climb, 151.5km sixth stage ending atop L’Alpe d’Huez.
Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was once again one of the early agitators, driving a move that pulled clear in the day’s first hurdle at the Cat. 3 Cote des Fontaines (2.5km at 6 percent).
More riders bridged out heading toward the Cat. 2 Col du Grand Cucheron (18.5km at 4 percent). The breakaway included 20 riders from 13 teams with nine Frenchman, including the French national champion (Dimitry Champion) and the Spanish champ (Ruben Plaza). Danny Pate and Johan Van Summeren also made the selection for Garmin-Transitions.
Missing the move was King of the Mountains Eros Capecchi (Footon-Servetto), opening the door for Martínez to scoop up points on the day’s first three climbs to all but secure the jersey.
With such a big group up the road, Astana was forced to work to help RadioShack keep the break under control. Even though Astana had Fofonov in the breakaway, the Kazakh team put two men on the front to keep the gap at 2:30 with 80km to go, with Benjamin Noval and Anthony Zeits taking some big turns.
Up the Glandon
RadioShack put Ben Hermans and Geoffry Lequatre on the front as the long Glandon climb (19.5km at 7.2 percent) slowly put the hurt on everyone. Van Garderen stayed nicely tucked in with the GC favorites as the gap hovered around 2:20 to the stage-hunters.
With the Alpe looming, the pack was in no hurry to make it up the long, grinding climb. Pate lost contact with the front group on the upper reaches of the narrow, twisting Glandon.
Astana put its entire team on the front with 4km to go on the climb, with David de la Fuente setting a hard enough place to split the front group, splitting out such riders as Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) and David Millar (Garmin-Transitions).
The breakaway group began to fracture under the grueling steeps, with Van Summeren and Plaza losing contract as Stephan Denifl (Cervélo) drove it over the top of the Glandon. De la Fuente led the GC group over at 1:25 with 50km to go.
Speeds were hitting 75kph on the descent as everyone roared toward the Alpe. Denifl, Bouet and Di Gregorio sprang clear on the downhill run to get as much of a head start as possible heading up the 21 switchbacks.
The 62nd Critérium du Dauphiné concludes Sunday with an interesting and potentially explosive route that traces the course in Sallanches featured in the 1964 and 1980 world championships.
The 148km seventh stage starts in Allevard-les-Bains and rolls north toward Albertville before climbing the Cat. 2 Cote des Rafforts at 62km. The route drops to Sallanches and climbs the Cat. 3 Cote de Domancy (2.4km at 9.2 percent) five times as part of a 13.5km finishing circuit.
Waiting on the winner’s podium will be Bernard Hinault, who won the 1980 world title 30 years ago.
Top 10 stage
- 1. Alberto Contador (ESP), Astana),151.5km in 4:31:01 (33.540 km/h)
- 2. Janez Brajkovic (SLO), RadioShack, same time
- 3. Sylwester Szmyd (POL), Liquigas-Doimo, at 0:17
- 4. Jérôme Coppel (FRA), Saur-Sojasun, at 0:24
- 5. Jurgen Van den Broeck (BEL), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 0:40
- 6. Christophe Moreau (FRA), Caisse d’Epargne, at 1:17
- 7. Christophe Riblon (FRA), Ag2r, at 1:18
- 8. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 1:18
- 9. Nicolas Vogondy (FRA) Bbox Bouygues Telecom, s.t.
- 10. Chris Horner (USA), RadioShack, at 1:26
Top 10 overall