Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) won the first mountain stage of the 2011 Tour de France on Thursday, on a day when a view of the top of general classification finally became clear.
Frank Schleck easily pulled away from the top contenders in the final 3k of the 211km ride from Cugnaux
to Luz Ardiden. Schleck took third on the stage, while rivals Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso chased strongly and Andy Schleck followed the pair.
Most shockingly, Alberto Contador looked weak and came unglued from that elite chase group in the final 2 kilometers, losing 13 seconds to Andy Schleck, Basso and Evans.
The Spaniard, however, played down the deficit.
“I was trying just to be vigilant throughout the final climb. I saw the two brothers speaking between themselves so I knew one of them was going to attack,” said Contador.
“Finally it was Frank who went, he must have been the stronger of the two.
“But I’m still satisfied with the first high mountain stage.”
Andy Schleck was more than satisfied.
“It was a perfect day for us. It was a first test, and not the last,” said the Luxemburger.
“Obviously today wasn’t decisive but we showed our strengths. Contador isn’t unbeatable, he lost more time today.”
Voeckler outlasted many top climbers to come in just 50 seconds behind Sanchez; he now leads Frank Schleck by 1:50.
“The favorites never attacked seriously,” Voeckler said. “Every time somebody tried, it would all come back together and then the tempo slowed, so that allowed me to stay in touch,” said Voeckler.
“I said yesterday I would lose the yellow jersey and I really thought that would happen. But I also said I would give it my best to keep it.”
The early break
Sky’s Geraint Thomas was the surprisingly well-placed rider who managed to infiltrate the day’s early breakaway. In 31st and 5:51 back on GC, the Welshman was joined by José Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar), Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun), Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Jérémy Roy (Fdj).
Gutierrez lost contact on the first major climb, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, but the remaining five topped out with nearly a six-minute gap ahead of the Europcar-led peloton. Over the summit, Thomas struggled on the descent, locking up his rear wheel and going off the road into the grass twice.
In the main pack, Chavanel and Hoogerland attacked in an unsuccessful attempt to bridge to the leaders. Voeckler locked up a wheel on the first tight turn of the descent, bouncing off a car without much apparent injury. The big victim, however, was RadioShack’s Kloden, who came down harder on his right shoulder, but continued.
After his troubles on the previous descent, Geraint Thomas was a determined man on the Tourmalet, dropping his remaining breakaway companions and going it alone for the second half of the foggy climb, with Roy valiantly trying to catch him before the summit. Roy finally made contact a kilometer from the top and took the KOM points and a cash prize.
Under pressure from Leopard-Trek’s Jens Voigt, the elite group of GC riders was whittled down to about 25 riders by halfway up the Tourmalet. Missing were Christian Vande Velde, Tejay Van Garderen, Robert Gesink and Tony Martin. Ryder Hesjedal lost contact near the summit. The Schlecks, Contador, Voeckler, Evans, Tom Danielson, Levi Leipheimer and Gilbert were all there.
About 5km from the top, Andy Schleck suffered a front flat. He got a quick wheel change and his team reduced its efforts at the front briefly (while Rabobank’s Laurens Ten Dam rode off the front of the pack) until Schleck regained contact. Then Voigt took over the front again and led Voeckler over the summit three minutes behind Roy and Thomas.
On to Luz-Ardiden
On the descent, Gilbert and Sammy Sanchez joined Ten Dam and hit the base of the final climb with a 20-second gap. As the climb steepened, Gilbert and Ten Dam lost contact but Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) caught and dropped Thomas and Roy. The pair looked fresh and traded paces steadily and built a gap of over a minute ahead of the yellow jersey group.
Voeckler and his team took over the front at the base, as the lead group dwindled to nine or 10 riders. In the final 3k, it was the Schlecks, Cunego, Contador, Evans, Voeckler and Basso and Basso’s teammate Sylvester Szmyd. After at least four attacks, Frank Schleck finally got free. Evans and Basso took up the chase, with Andy Schleck, Cunego and Contador following and Voeckler finally losing contact — his impressive teammate Pierre Rolland helped keep him moving. Leipheimer and Danielson were close behind.
Frank Schleck quickly closed on Sanchez and Vanendert, coming within sight in the last 500 meters. Sanchez, however, would not be denied and powered the final 300 meters to take 7 seconds out of Vanendert.
Basso and Evans looked strong as they took up the chase, but could not close on Schleck. Contador, however, never took the front and came unglued in the last kilometer.
Sanchez said he had been targeting the stage.
“I really wanted this stage, I was determined,” said Sanchez, who gestured wildly as he crossed the finish line.
“I lost a lot of time in the first week, so this has helped me make amends.”
Sanchez’ ride earned him the KOM jersey and brought him back into the top 10; he’s now eighth at 4:11 behind Voeckler.
Friday’s stage 13 is 153km (95 miles) from Pau to Lourdes. It’s a mountain stage to be sure, but the easiest of the three days in the Pyrenees. The route crosses the hors categorie Col d’Aubisque, with only the long descent and 13km of flat separating the summit from the finish in Lourdes. With the GC picture somewhat clarified after stage 12, Friday is a day for a breakaway before Saturday’s more difficult stage.