Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador finally fought their duel on the Col du Tourmalet, and while the Saxo Bank rider won stage 17 of the 2010 Tour de France, the Astana man confirmed his hold on the yellow jersey, crossing right alongside his rival for second on the day.
Schleck waited until his Saxo Bank team had decimated the yellow-jersey group before launching his first attack with 10km to go in the 174km stage. But Contador easily matched him on the grind to the summit of the fog-shrouded Tourmalet, trying a move of his own en route, before settling in to ride his rival’s wheel to the finish.
“I am very happy to win this stage. I tried to take the yellow jersey today, I tried to attack him, but Contador was too strong today,” Schleck said. “I know that Alberto is stronger than me in the time trial. Who knows what will happen? I will keep fighting.”
Contador, meanwhile, praised his adversary for a job well done.
“It was very difficult today. Andy was really strong. I knew if I could stay with him, I could get through the day. The truth is I had good legs,” Contador said.
“It was important to defend the jersey today. I attacked him once, but I could see he was strong. Everyone always asks if the Tour is over. It’s never over until Paris.”
Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam), sitting 15th overall at 9:02, also made a race of it on Thursday, following an attack by teammate Ignatas Konovalovas at 18km and nearly bridging to a seven-man break that had gone away 15km earlier.
But the gritty Spaniard never got there, riding a soggy, foggy individual time trial over two rain-soaked Category 1 climbs — the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor — only to be retrieved at the 140km mark as the yellow-jersey group prepared to settle accounts on the final obstacle of the day, the Col du Tourmalet.
Peaks, precipitation and pain
The race from Pau to the Col du Tourmalet took in four increasingly difficult climbs, starting with the Category 4 Côte de Renoir, which started at 11.3km and summited at 13.5km.
Next up was the Cat. 1 Col de Marie-Blanque at 47.2km, a 9.3km climb averaging 7.6 percent. After grabbing a bite on the fly in the valley that follows the Marie-Blanque the peloton began the approach to the Col du Soulor, an 11.9km climb that began at 105.6km and summited 56.5km from the finish.
After a long descent to the day’s second intermediate sprint in Adast, at 141.5km, the terrain tipped upward again for the 18.6km climb up the western slopes of the Tourmalet, a climb averaging 7.5 percent, with some portions reaching 9 percent.
It was the tough side of the mountain and the first time that the Tour has featured a summit finish atop the climb (an earlier finish atop the Tourmalet came in 1974 and ended after riders climbed the easier eastern side). Adding insult to injury, it was raining atop the mountain.
All 172 riders remaining in the Tour de France made the sign-in, sporting arm warmers with wind vests and rain capes at the ready.
An early break
Liquigas’ Kristjan Koren got the ball rolling early, moving up the road at 3.25km. The Slovenian was joined by six others — Marcus Burghardt (BMC); Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha); Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky); Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky); Remi Pauriol (Cofidis); and Ruben Perez (Euskaltel) — and at 12.5km, the gap was already up to 2:10.
Kolobnev led Pauriol and Flecha over the Côte de Renoir. The peloton followed at 3:27.
Ignatas Konovalovas (Cervélo TestTeam) attacked at the 18km mark as behind, Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) crashed on the wet roads. His teammates dropped back to pace him forward as the peloton soft-pedaled — Sanchez began the day third overall, at 2:00 — and then Sastre rolled off the front, hooking up with his teammate in search of some time on GC and perhaps a stage win.
Sastre tries his luck
Sastre and Konovalovas closed to within three minutes of the break as they approached the Col de Marie-Blanque. Konovalovas delivered the 2008 Tour champion to the base of the climb and then left him to work his way up the road on his own.
Ahead, Flecha led over the Marie-Blancque, with Koren second and Perez Moreno third. Sastre crossed eighth at 1:20 while the peloton summited at 7:50.
He would get no closer. With 85km to go, in the trough between the Marie-Blancque and the Col du Soulor, Sastre had fallen to three minutes behind the break as Astana, Saxo Bank and Omega Pharma-Lotto drove the peloton eight minutes in arrears.
With 72km to race the break’s advantage had slipped under the eight-minute mark, while Sastre hovered four minutes behind. He had lost another minute as the leaders began the ascent of the Col du Soulor and was just three minutes ahead of the yellow-jersey group.
On the Col du Soulor
The contenders were all in the bunch as it started up the Soulor, seven minutes behind the break.
With 65km to go Sastre was reclaiming some ground, closing to 4:22 behind the break as they raced up the Soulor. Behind him, KOM contender Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) punctured on the ascent and teammate José Joaquin Rojas stopped to lend a hand, towing up back to the bunch.
The gaps kept coming down as the race worked its way up the climb — Sastre was less than four minutes behind the break with the peloton a further two minutes down.
Five kilometers from the summit of the Soulor the break had five and a half minutes on the yellow-jersey group as the seven leaders drove into the mist. Sastre remained two minutes in front of the field, which was setting a moderate tempo, so much so that non-climbers like Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara and Stuart O’Grady remained in the bunch.
The chase was briefly disrupted as a flock of sheep erupted from the grass at roadside just ahead of the bunch. Ahead, Burghardt led the break over the fog-shrouded summit, with Koren and Perez crossing second and third. Sastre crossed at 2:51 with the peloton at 4:22.
Down the other side and toward the Tourmalet
It was a wet, misty descent, in and out of the clouds, and Sastre was taking some chances in the corners as he fought to catch the break with 47km to race. But he was fading, three minutes behind in the town of Arrens, while the yellow-jersey group was just two minutes back.
The break still had five and a half minutes on the Contador group as it swept through the crowds lining the narrow roads of Argeles-Gazost, 37km from the finish. Sastre soldiered along alone in no-man’s land, four minutes behind.
Boasson Hagen took the second intermediate sprint at Adast, just as he did the first, at 33km, enhancing his position in the green-jersey competition.
Rabobank was moving forward for Denis Menchov, sending Lars Boom up to join Saxo’s Matti Breschel on the front. The chase was less than a minute behind Sastre with 29km to race, and a few kilometers later he was back in the bunch. The break remained five minutes up the road.
Up the Tourmalet
Astana was sending riders forward as the yellow-jersey group approached the foot of the Tourmalet. With 20km to go the gap was just over four minutes and falling.
The break began the climb with 3:40 on the yellow-jersey group, cheered along by massive crowds lining the streets of Luz-Saint-Sauveur.
Boasson Hagen was first to lose contact with the break as Kolobnev pushed the pace with Burghardt. Pauriol and Flecha popped off, too, and the break was down to two men with 16km to go. The chase was on three minutes back.
Schleck had plenty of backup — Breschel, Cancellara, Chris Anker Sorensen, Jakob Fuglsang and O’Grady were all there for him. Dani Navarro and Alexander Vinokourov were on call for Contador.
Burghardt finally cracked, leaving Kolobnev alone off the front with 13km to race, the chase just two minutes behind.
The pace was shedding riders right and left. Cancellara blew up spectacularly and went backwards; Vinokourov also faded out of the yellow-jersey group. But Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez was gutting it out, hoping to hold onto third place overall at the end of a long, painful day. Menchov was there, too, as were RadioShack’s Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner. Omega Pharma’s Matt Lloyd and Jurgen Van den Broeck were vigilant near the front.
Kolobnev clung to an advantage of 1:41 as he pumped through the village of Barèges with 11km to race. Behind, Contador’s last teammate faded out of the yellow-jersey group, leaving the race leader on his own.
Schleck finally attacks
With 10km to go Carlos Barredo (Quick Step) had a dig out of the group. And then Schleck tried a first attack, quickly marked by Contador. The two were quickly off on their own, with Kolobnev just a minute up the road. Samuel Sanchez hesitated a moment, then began chasing, joined by a small group.
Schleck tried another acceleration with 9km to go, but couldn’t shed Contador. But the uptick in speed brought the two within striking distance of Kolobnev — they caught him and dropped him with 8.5km to go on the misty Tourmalet, which was lined three deep with cheering spectators. The Sanchez-Menchov chase was a minute behind with 7km to go.
Six kilometers from the line Schleck remained in the lead, trying to ride Contador off his wheel as screaming fans ran alongside them in the fog, brandishing placards and waving flags.
Five kilometers to go and Schleck took a glance over his right shoulder to gauge his rival’s condition, but Contador had his poker face on. The Saxo man tried another short acceleration, to no effect, and then tried once more, both men out of the saddle.
Schleck wore a look of frustration while Contador appeared grimly focused. Four kilometers to go.
Then Contador tried his luck, launching around Schleck’s right side and briefly taking a gap. But the white jersey clawed him back, gave him an appraising glare and went back in front.
Three kilometers to go. The road was a tunnel of humanity, with Spanish flags flying, and Schleck lashed out angrily at one that flew too close to him.
Two kilometers to go. The two rode side by side in heavy fog and a light rain, the chase at 1:40. They seemed absolutely matched.
One kilometer. Schleck led the way, Contador glued to his wheel. With 500 meters to go they hit a left-hand hairpin and finally left the crowds behind, penned in behind barriers. Contador remained behind Schleck.
One hundred meters to go — and there was no sprint. Contador rode across the line in second spot, letting Schleck take the honors atop the Tourmalet. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) took third with Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) fourth. The battered Samuel Sanchez hung tough for fifth.
- While Contador was confirming his grip on the yellow jersey, Bbox’s Anthony Charteau was doing likewise with the polka-dot jersey awarded to the mountains leader. “Today the big objective was to keep the jersey. The legs felt pretty good but the stage was very hard,” he said. “I am very happy with this jersey. It’s the most important thing that’s happened in my career.”
- Robbie McEwen (Katusha) was never a contender for today’s victory — Friday’s stage should be better suited to his sprinter’s legs — but that doesn’t mean he was a beaten man on the day. The irrepressible Aussie popped one of his trademark wheelies as he finally crossed the fog-shrouded finish line atop the Tourmalet.
The sprinters who survived the mountains will be set free once again in stage 18, a dead-flat affair from Salies-de-Béarn to Bordeaux. The most challenging aspect of this stage could be the weather, with heat-wave conditions common in the region this time of year.
Bordeaux is hosting a stage finish for the first time in seven years, the longest break since an eight-year absence during World War II. The last bunch finish in Bordeaux, in 1999, was won by Tom Steels ahead of Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel. More on stage 18.
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