When this Tour de France’s top favorites were playing out a tactical pas-de-deux on the upper slopes of Luz-Ardiden Thursday afternoon, several of their erstwhile challengers were either fighting to stay within contention lower down the 13.3km climb or doing all they could to just finish the stage.
Team RadioShack’s Andreas Klöden, who was already uncertain how his injured back would hold up on this first stage in the Pyrénées, was battling more pain from a crash on a greasy sharp-right hairpin descending from the Hourquette d’Ancizan a couple hours earlier. He fell hard onto the road, banging up his right shoulder and elbow.
But those injuries on top of his battered back saw Klöden drop off the group of leaders near the top of the cloud-covered Col du Tourmalet, leaving just one teammate, the multiple-crashed Levi Leipheimer, to fly the RadioShack colors for the rest of the day. Klöden lost eight minutes on the final climb to Luz-Ardiden and fell from eighth to 24th overall (or sixth to 16th on the virtual GC of Tour favorites).
Virtual GC, after stage 12:
1. Fränk Schleck, 2,127.5km in 51:54:44
2. Cadel Evans, at 0:17
3. Andy Schleck, at 0:28
4. Ivan Basso, at 1:27
5. Damiano Cunego, at 1:33
6. Alberto Contador, at 2:11
7. Samuel Sanchez, at 2:22
8. Tom Danielson, at 2:46
9. Nicolas Roche, at 3:08
10. Peter Velits, at 4:14
11. Rein Taaramae, at 5:38
12. Levi Leipheimer, at 6:02
13. Rigoberto Uran, at 6:06
14. Jean-Christophe Peraud, at 6:31
15. Jérôme Coppel, at 7:02
16. Andreas Klöden, at 8:30
17. Tony Martin, at 9:02
18. Christian Vande Velde, at 12:34
19. Ryder Hesjedal, at 16:50
20. Robert Gesink, at 19:06
Before the start of stage 13 in Pau, team boss Johan Bruyneel told VeloNews: “He’s hurting … just another hit on old bruises.” But once on his bike, Klöden could barely push the pedals and once the pace picked up in the peloton, the German veteran reluctantly stopped and hobbled to his team car to quit.
Another rider suffering on Thursday was the man universally tipped to win this year’s white jersey of best young rider, Robert Gesink of Rabobank. The Dutch climber thought that his injured back from a first-week crash was healing, but just 8km into the 17km-long Tourmalet, when world time trial champ Fabian Cancellara was pulling the peloton for the Schleck brothers of Leopard-Trek, Gesink simply drifted off the back.
At the stage finish, where Gesink finished 77th alongside his teammates Grischa Niermann and Carlos Barredo 17:44 back, he simply donned a rain jacket, declined to comment and rode back down the mountain to his team bus; but his team director Adri Van Houwelingen said, “He again suffered with his back. He’s very down.”
The young Dutch hope fell from 15th to 39th overall (from 11th to 20th on the virtual GC), and his remaining hope is to recover by the Alps and maybe shoot for a stage win at L’Alpe d’Huez, the so-called Dutch mountain.
Before this stage 12, HTC-Highroad team director Brian Holm said this about his highest placed rider Tony Martin, another who’d been involved in the crashes at the end of last week: “I think he can be with the pace. … It’s been one week since he went down and he’s had time to recover, so I think he’ll be fine.”
But the 165-pound, 6-foot-1 Martin couldn’t hold the pace and dropped back on the Tourmalet 2km after Gesink. It was a big blow to the talented young German, who was so dedicated to doing well in his third Tour that he had been getting out the wind trainer after stages to keep his legs loose before sitting on the team bus for the transfer to each night’s hotel. Martin would arrive at Luz-Ardiden in 48th place, nine minutes back, dropping from sixth to 26th overall (fourth to 17th on the virtual standings). He now has to recover his morale and focus on winning the penultimate day’s time trial in Grenoble.
Meanwhile, Martin’s teammate Peter Velits, who had been seventh overall (fifth on virtual GC), managed to salvage some of his gains thanks to the sterling climbing support of his U.S. teammate Tejay Van Garderen up the Tourmalet. At the stage end, the Slovak rider came in four minutes down in 31st, to drop to 14th overall (conserving 10th on virtual GC).
Garmin-Cervélo’s Christian Vande Velde was another who had high hopes of a good Tour, perhaps even repeating his fourth overall of 2008; but that started to unravel on stage 1, when he was caught up in that day’s big pileup, and it continued when he fell in the nasty crash last Sunday on the Puy Mary descent, smashing his chin.
Even so, he began Thursday’s stage 12 in 19th overall (15th virtual) only a half-minute back of Alberto Contador; but Vande Velde too fell off the pace 6km from the Tourmalet summit and came into the finish 10 minutes back and fell to 34th overall (18th virtual). But there was encouragement for Garmin with the improving form of Ryder Hesjedal (29th on the stage and 38th overall) and the ongoing help that he and Vande Velde can now give to fellow American Tom Danielson (ninth overall) in the mountain stages to come.
As it is, Leopard’s Fränk Schleck is now in pole position among the favorites, with 17 seconds’ lead on BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans and 28 seconds on younger brother Andy Schleck. The other favorites who held or improved their hopes on stage 12 were the quietly confident Italian Ivan Basso of Liquigas-Cannondale and Damiano Cunego of Lampre-ISD. And while top favorite Contador of Saxo Bank-SunGard suffered from his injured knee he conceded only 13 seconds to Evans and the younger Schleck.
Summing up the contenders’ tactics atop Luz-Ardiden, Evans said before the start of stage 13 in Pau on Friday: “First uphill finish you get an idea of how everyone’s going, who’s really climbing good, who’s climbing okay, who’s going bad and where I fit in amongst it all.” The jury is still out, but what we do know is that the unfortunate Klöden, Gesink, Martin and Vande Velde no longer fit into the mix of favorites.