Champion of France takes breakaway stage as drama on final climb sees Alberto Contador seize the lead
Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouyges Telecom) won the fifteenth stage of the Tour de France between Pamiers and Bagnères-de-Luchon. The French champion was part of a ten-man breakaway that escaped in the mid part of the 187.5km stage; he dropped the rest of his companions on the steep slopes of the hors category Port de Balès and stayed away on the descent to take a solo victory. Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) outsprinted Aitor Perez (Footon-Servetto), both also members of the breakaway, for second place, 1’20” behind.
After a fast start to the stage a breakaway finally escaped, with the French champion holding on to take the home nation’s fifth stage of the race. Behind Voeckler, high drama on the Port de Balès saw a mechanical for yellow jersey Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) capitalised on by his rivals.
“I knew I was better than the fourth place in the stage to Station des Rousses,” said a delighted Voeckler after his stage victory.
“On this Tour I’ve really had difficult times,” he said. “The day of the stage to Gap, had it been a day in high mountains, I might be at home right now. But I’m getting experienced and, after 12 Grand Tours, I know very well that we can have terrible days and then find ourselves in great shape; that’s what I say to all young guys on the team when they are in doubt. This morning, I talked with Christophe Kern [of Cofidis], and we said that we have begun to think of Paris. But early in the stage we both tried to attack, it motivated me, and finally the legs were very good.”
“I am very proud of what I have done today,” the French champion continued. “At an emotional level, what happened at the championships of France, when I came home first, was already enormous. But then win a stage of the Tour de France with the tricolore on the shoulders is extraordinary.”
“It is true that I have a special way to ride, but I do not attack for the sake of attacking,” he said. “It’s an attack for the victory. And when you’re not the strongest in the world, you must try many times for it to work."
A speedy start but a breakaway finally makes it
Several escape attempts were made in the stage’s opening kilometres, but none was able to get more than a few seconds ahead of the peloton before being pulled back. Alberto Contador’s Astana team made a move to try to split the peloton after 26km but the gap was quickly closed by the Saxo Bank team of yellow Jersey Andy Schleck.
After 30km Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam) and green jersey wearer Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) sprinted for mountain points on the 4th category Côte de Carla-Bayle. Bizarrely, 25km later Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), second place in the polka dot mountains jersey competition, contested the sprint for green jersey points in the village of Clermont.
Finally a group of seven managed to get away after 93km; they were: Brian Vandborg (Liquigas-Doimo), Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Transitions), Serguei Ivanov (Katusha), Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing), Francesco Reda (Quick Step), Luke Roberts (Milram) and Aitor Perez Arrieta (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
The group was soon joined by three counter attacking riders: Thomas Voeckler (Bbox Bouyges Telecom), Sébastien Turgot and Lloyd Mondory (both AG2R-La Mondiale).
Once allowed to escape, the ten riders set about building a large lead over the peloton. As they crossed the summit of the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the scene of the tragic death of Italian Olympic champion Fabio Casartelli in 1995, after 105km, they lead the peloton by 7’40”.
The group’s maximum lead was 10’45” with 50km to go before the peloton began to accelerate.
Saxo Bank thins out the peloton as the climbing starts
Saxo Bank was leading the peloton, but making no effort to catch the breakaway group, the best placed of which was Vansummeren, 29’27” behind Andy Schleck in 31st place. By the time the race arrived at the base of the Port de Balès with 41km to go the lead had barely been touched and still stood at 9 minutes.
Stuart O’Grady (Saxo Bank) led onto the Port de Balès until the climb began to steepen, when he pulled off the front for teammate Jen Voigt to take over. Group up front began to thin out as the ten riders hit the steepest section; with 8km to go to the top, and with the gap down to 6 minutes, Voeckler set out alone.
With most of the other breakaway riders on their way back to the peloton, Ballan was chasing Voeckler just a few hundred metres behind him; but the 2008 World champion could make no impression on the French champion and he pulled steadily away.
Just as the peloton hit the steepest part of the climb Nicolas Roche (AG2R-La Mondiale) punctured and had to get a wheel from the neutral service motorbike. It seemed to take an age to adjust the quick release skewer and the Irishman lost a lot of time; he set off in pursuit of the peloton, ironically, just as his team car drew alongside.
Schleck forces a selection but then disaster strikes
Saxo Bank’s Jakob Fuglsang was leading the peloton, with teammate Chris Anker Sorensen behind him and Schleck in third wheel. There were still a number of Astana riders lurking behind the yellow jersey though, with the peloton still containing around 30 riders.
Sorensen, Schleck’s final teammate, took over the pacemaking, reducing the numbers further. Despite the increase in pace though, Voeckler’s lead still stood at almost 6 minutes.
Sorensen pulled off and Schleck accelerated; only Contador, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Samuel Sanchez (Euskalel-Euskadi) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (OmegaPharma-Lotto) could go with him.
A select group behind them tried to regain contact and as Schleck eased up they managed it. John Gadret (AG2R-La Mondiale) took the front. The group slowed once more and Gadret launched an attack.
Schleck attacked once more and Contador followed him, but as it almost looked as though the yellow jersey was going to escape his chain came off and he ground to a halt as Contador, Sanchez and Menchov rode by. On the narrow climb Schleck’s team car was a long way behind and with no teammates with him he was forced to dismount and replace the chain himself.
Schleck seemed to take an age to replace his chain, but he then set off in pursuit like a man possessed as he scythed his way through the rest of the group that had been dropped by Contador, Sanchez and Menchov. The yellow jersey reached the front of the chasing pack and continued to reel in the three riders; his ferocious pace dropped all but Jurgen Van Den Broeck (OmegaPharma-Lotto), who latched on to the back of the flying Luxembourger.
With 3km to the top Schleck was 40 seconds behind Contador, but with the defending champion perhaps not riding at 100%, he quickly cut this to 27 seconds.
Voeckler rode over the top alone, with Perez and Ballan 1’30” behind him. The Contador group was 4’15” back, with Schleck having closed to within 12 seconds of his rival.
The yellow jersey continued his fearless pursuit of his three rivals on the early technical part of the descent, with Van Den Broeck on his wheel. Once the road opened up he had them in his sights but couldn’t bring them back. From behind, the renowned descending skills of Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) saw him catch Schleck and Van Den Broek and the Kazakh sat on behind them.
Blue, white and red takes the applause as yellow slips away
Although Schleck was descending quickly, Contador was even quicker; the defending champion was able to follow renowned descender Sanchez all the way down. Slowly the gap began to increase, with Contador’s group steadily reeling in the remnants of the breakaway. Voeckler was way ahead by now though and only had to stay upright to take the victory.
Despite almost overcooking it on a couple of fast corners Voeckler arrived at the base of the climb in Bagnères-de-Luchon with only the matter of the final flat 2km to go. The French champion unsurprisingly milked the applause of the crowd as he took the final corners and kissed his tricolore jersey as he crossed the line to take his second career stage win.
Ballan and Perez arrived at the finish 1'20" later, with the Italian managing to outsprint the Spaniard in a close race for the line.
Behind them the Contador group was working hard on the flat run in to the line with Sanchez and Menchov also keen to take as much time as possible form Schleck. Mondory, who’d been caught on the descent, took the sprint for fourth, 2’50” behind Voeckler, with the others finishing in the same time; the wait began for Schleck.
Schleck lost 39 seconds on the line to Contador and, as he started the day just 31 seconds ahead of the defending champion, Contador took the yellow jersey from him by a slim 8 seconds.
Result stage 15 1. Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Bbox Bouyges Telecom
2. Alessandro Ballan (Ita) BMC Racing @ 1’20
3. Aitor Perez (Spa) Footon-Servetto
4. Lloyd Mondory (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale 2’50”
5. Luke Roberts (Aus) Team Milram
6. Francesco Reda (Ita) Quick Step
7. Alberto Contador (Spa) Team Astana
8. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi
9. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank
10. Brian Vanborg (Den) Liquigas-Doimo
12. Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank @ 3’29”
Standings after stage 15 1. Alberto Contador (Spa) Team Astana
2. Andy Schleck (Lux) Team Saxo Bank @ 8s
3. Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 2’00”
4. Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank @ 2’13”
5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Bel) OmegaPharma-Lotto @ 3’39”