Lot was expected from Stage 12 and its two monster climbs, who as always rose to the occasion (pun intended) and helped clear the mist surrounding the GC contenders. By the end of the day Cadel Evans and Schleck Sr came out as the strongest men on the Tour this year, while Andy and Alberto failed to make an impression.
Defending champion Contador in particular looked in trouble and was dropped by the other leaders in the final kilometer of the day. The Spaniard is not used to such reversals on his own ground – the mountains – and is more accustomed to leaving broken riders in his wake. But even as he finished a lowly eighth behind compatriot and stage winner Samuel Sanchez, many around the world will be eager to see if and how he bounces back.
After a long drawn game of cat and mouse the Schleck brothers finally made their attack with 4km left to go on the last climb of the day. In their trademark “one-two” attacks, the duo from Luxembourg tested Contador, Evans, Basso and maillot jaune Voeckler. These short attacks were enough to filter the peloton to just about 15 riders, but fell short of seriously breaking any top contender.
Finally Frank made an attack stick couple of kilometers short of the line and with the GC contenders behind him in no mood to chase, embarked on a solo effort to catch the leading duo of Sanchez and Vanendert. Schleck did come tantalizing close to taking the lead, but the reigning Olympic champion had just enough in him to sprint ahead and take a deserved victory.
Despite all this man of the hour was Thomas Voeckler, who on Fête Nationale brought joy to the locals by fighting hard to keep his leader’s jersey. L’Équipe called him “The Lion” praising him for the pride and spirit shown on a day where no one was particularly confident of him staying in touch with the big names.
Voeckler had team-mate and compatriot Pierre Roland to thank, who stayed with him all the way till the end. Though he did lose a few seconds towards the finish as Evans chased Frank Schleck, but was safe by then to make sure the maillot jaune stayed under French possession on Bastille day. Quatorze Juillet is one of the main holiday in France and ensured there were in excess of a hundred thousand spectators lining the roads of Tourmalet and Luz-Ardiden.
They were treated to some wonderful display of high tempo pedalling and did their best to spur on the beleaguered riders. Its near impossible to find a parallel for spectator interaction in any modern sport compared to a mountain top finish at the Tour de France. BBQ’s and parties on the side of the road, the Gendarmerie trying to control thousands of fans who don’t take them seriously, helicopters buzzing overhead, the roar of the crowd getting louder as the riders approach - it’s all surreal.
Fans have access to run along with their heroes and many times get into their faces – literally. Its also mesmerizing to see in today’s hi-tech world of sport for top professionals to borrow newspapers from road side fans to use as wind protection during the chilly descent of the mountain. I would strongly suggest for anyone reading this to add “attending a mountain stage of Le Tour” on his/her bucket list. Take my word for it, you will fall in love (if still in doubt, see the gallery below).
Sanchez’s move on the day was definitely premeditated; speaking to the official website before the start he declared his intentions to, “follow them [GC contenders] and try to win the stage win, this is the main objective of the team.” Tour newbie Jelle Vanendert of Belgium however did not make it easy for the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider and pushed him right till the end. The reward for the duo’s tenacious performance was the best stage finish of their careers.
There were memorable performances also from Jérémy Roy and Geraint Thomas who were the two riders to scale the Tourmalet before anyone. While Roy won the Prix Jacques Goddet for being the first over the top, Thomas earned himself the award for the most aggressive rider on the day. He later expressed his ignorance about the €5,000 on offer to the first man over Tourmalet, “Five thousand euros? No wonder he [Roy] went for it. You can buy a lot of beer with that.”
The Brit rider from team Sky had his brush with disaster yet again as he slid while taking a tight right hand bend during the first descent seeming to have lost the back wheel. He chose to tumble over the grass rather than drop over the edge and the timely reaction saved him from a lot of pain. He remounted only to hit the grass again a couple of corners later, but such is the perseverance of these riders that he brushed himself up and moved on to lead the next climb.
The peloton behind also struggled on exactly the same corner as Thomas had, and while Voeckler managed to escape with a wobble, Andréas Klöden took a rough fall that pretty much killed any hopes he might have had to attack on the Hors catégorie (HC) climbs.
Team Leopard Trek of the Schleck brothers turned the screws almost from the beginning of the second climb of the day. With their pace bordering on the brutal, riders kept dropping off the main bunch as dead leaves off a tree. The intention was to break as many teams as possible, but in the process the Schlecks lost all of their team except the perennial workhorse Jens Voigt.
If climbing in the Pyrenees is tough physically, the descent is equally taxing on skill. Leading duo of Roy and Thomas were recorded descending at a speed of 97km/h! Maintaining these manic speeds downhill on tricky hair pin infested roads requires immense concentration, bike handling skill and loads of luck. A little flinch, misjudged apex or technical snag could lead to horrifying accidents, but thankfully we saw none of that yesterday.
Despite their heroics both leaders were caught on the last climb and passed by the eventual winners and all GC contenders. The shadow boxing by the top men definitely caused ripples in the standings but could not prompt the tectonic shifts one would have hoped for. Voeckler probably fought the hardest just to stay in touch and that should have taken a lot out of him. Despite his exertions today’s stage should not trouble him enough to lose the leadership of the Tour.
Not that the Col d’Aubisque (today’s only serious climb) is easy, but the finish is some distance from the summit, all 30km of it downhill. Hence we should not see any major attacks, and any rider losing time on the climb will have opportunity to limit his damage on the descent (especially as no GC contender will risk too much going down). It is a relative – repeat relative – break because stage 14 is another sapping day in the mountains. Expect a specialist breakaway to win the stage, similar to what Sanchez did yesterday; someone who is not high in the standings yet has the ability to climb. So till tomorrow then…
ps: for anyone who missed out yesterday, check out the wonderful gallery of Col du Tourmalet over its 101 years of association with the Tour.
Jersey holders: General Classification:
Maillot Jaune – Thomas Voeckler Thomas Voeckler – 51h 54’ 44” Maillot Vert – Mark Cavendish Frank Schleck – 51h 56’ 33” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Samuel Sanchez Cadel Evans – 51h 56’ 50” Maillot Blanc – Arnold Jeannesson