95th Tour de France
Stage 15 - Embrun to Prato Nevoso - 183.0 km (113.5 mi)
20 July 2008
Cadel Evans could not hold onto his razor-thin lead on the yellow jersey as the Tour entered its first day in the Alps and finished a stage in Italy for the first time since 1999. The last time a stage finished on a summit in Italy, it was at Sestriere, with an American named Lance Armstrong taking his first mountaintop Tour stage of his career en route to the first win that sprung a recordbreaking string of victories. This time, the breakaway up the road contained another strong American, but this time he would have to settle for third place in the end...
The general classification is tighter in the third week than we have seen in ages. The top six riders in the general classification are separated by less than fifty seconds; and while the absence of time bonuses might seem to be contributing to this, the reality is that time bonuses would have played a marginal role at best among these racers. The action is so close precisely because every one of the GC leaders are marking each other to the point that everyone of the favorites rides DEFENSIVELY rather than AGGRESSIVELY. That is why what Team CSC did to put Frank Schleck in yellow today was refreshing...
One thing that was not refreshing about the 2008 Tour as it lined up in Embrun for the rerouted start -- due to rockslides on the original road -- was that Mark Cavendish, the winner of four stages already in the first two weeks, bowed out of the race before the first Alpine stage. Cavendish has announced that, content with his haul of stage wins, he is forgoing the Alps and his chance to win on the Champs-Elysses to train for the Olympic Games in Beijing. Cavendish could still have taken two more stages for Columbia... to pull one of the brightest stars of the Tour from the race was a curious move at best... but we'll be sure to see more of him in Tours yet to come...
So the peloton was 156 strong as it headed northeast out of Embrun toward the 9000-foot pass over the Alps into Italy via the Col Agnel (Agnello on the Italian side). The weather was chilly, the skies were grey, and there was talk of rain in the high-mountain passes. The peloton had little to look forward to on this slog of a stage. Under such conditions, three riders -- Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danny Pate (Garmin Chipotle) and Jose Luis Arrieta (AG2R La Mondiale) -- took off to try their chances at the twelfth kilometer. The peloton freed the reins and the breakaway was off. The sprint point in Guillestre was taken by Arrieta, the peloton coasting through shortly thereafter as Simon Gerrans (Credit Agricole) bridged up to make the lead group four strong.
After twenty-five kilometers the gap had grown to five minutes. The peloton continued to putter about as the Col Agnel loomed on the horizon. Originally the race was to have routed out of Guillestre to the Col de Larche via Digne-les-Bains; rockslides on the final four kilometers of the Larche forced the Tour to relocate the start of the stage to Embrun and over the much steeper Col Agnel into Italy. 20.5 kilometers long, an average gradient of 6.6% with pitches of over twelve percent, the Col Agnel would come too far away to decide the race... but the breakaway could gain valuable time over the peloton with a diligent climb.
The rain on the climb made the roads treacherous. The peloton took care and caution up the climb, yet two riders -- Mark Renshaw and Stijn Devolder (both Quick Step) -- were dropped by the peloton and abandoned the race, their numbers unceremoniously clipped off their jerseys. With the main bunch lazing along the route up the mountain, the lead group had gained over thirteen minutes as they neared the summit. Martinez took the summit ahead of Arrieta as Gerrans and Pate put on rain gear oblivious to their positioning. The peloton crested the summit 11:37 later, with Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) ekeing out the fifth-place points from Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner). Voeckler used the acceleration to head off ahead on his own, stringing out forty-five seconds ahead of the peloton.
The descent was less slick near the top of the climb, where the roads became slippery and precarious. 2006 champion Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) crashed over a guardrail right before a right-bending switchback, tumbling over the edge and ending his Tour. The Spaniard was taken to the hospital, where it was revealed that he had broken his arm in the crash. Coming down the climb, the breakaway had grown its advantage to over seventeen minutes with seventy kilometers remaining. The peloton, having waited for Pereiro to return for a while, began to increase its pace. Voeckler was soon back in the main bunch. The second sprint point in Rossana was taken by Gerrans ahead of Pate, and the lead began to come down.
With fifty kilometers left, the gap had decreased to fourteen minutes -- still a formidable lead despite the summit finish. Another crash, though, arrested the peloton's momentum. Both white jersey Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) and polka-dot jersey Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) hit the tarmac. Because of the crash, the lead was still at 14:40 when the leaders started the third-category Colle del Morte. At the top the lead was still around thirteen minutes as Arrieta took the summit first. Soon after the short descent off the Colle del Morte, the leaders were beginning the final climb up to the Italian ski resort at Prato Nevoso. The final eight kilometers would feature eight-percent pitches all the way, and as the gradient continued to increase Martinez put in several accelerations. Arrieta dropped back, but Pate and Gerrans followed, still ten minutes ahead of the peloton.
Behind, Team CSC were working their magic. The steepness of the rise to the summit at Prato Nevoso had quickly thinned the leading chase group to only ten riders -- Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin Chipotle), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Carlos Sastre, Frank Schleck and Andy Schleck (Team CSC), Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Sanchez attempted to attack but was soon brought back. Andy Schleck was setting a blistering pace at the front for his brother and Sastre. Menchov attempted to bolt free and gained some distance when he slipped coming into a left-hand bend and crashed. The group passed and eased up to allow Menchov back on.
The three at the front were beginning to mark each other, each hungry for his first Tour stage victory. Behind, all the leaders were sizing up each other as well. Andy Schleck once again accelerated, with Kreuzinger managing to latch onto his wheel. Menchov caught back up, Kohl countered, and Kreuzinger fell back. Sastre bridged up and Schleck dropped back to his brother. Evans looked to be in some bit of difficulty maintaining the pace, as Team CSC worked to alter the speed and acceleration to throw off the Australian. As Gerrans took the stage victory ahead of Martinez and Pate, the maillot jaune suffered.
Just before the finish, with the three ahead (Menchov having dropped back) already finished, Frank Schleck -- only one second behind Cadel Evans in the general classification -- sprinted away to take the finish line nine seconds before Evans and emerge atop the leaderboard. "I always said that I would give my best in the Tour de France," said the new yellow jersey after the podium presentation, "and I did a lot of sacrificing and went through a lot of pain for that but I didn't know how it could come. Just to wear the jersey, I said to myself, would be amazing and finally I've got it." There's still a lot of racing left, and the general classification is TIGHT... so this race is still VERY much up in the air...
Results - Stage 15
- Simon Gerrans (AUS) Credit Agricole -- 4.50.44 (37.77 km/h)
- Egoi Martinez (ESP) Euskaltel-Euskadi -- +0.03
- Danny Pate (USA) Garmin-Chipotle -- +0.10
- Jose Luis Arrieta (ESP) AG2R La Mondiale -- +0.55
- Bernhard Kohl (AUT) Gerolsteiner -- +4.03
- Carlos Sastre (ESP) Team CSC
- Alejandro Valverde (ESP) Caisse d'Epargne -- +4.12
- Denis Menchov (RUS) Rabobank -- +4.23
- Frank Schleck (LUX) Team CSC -- +4.41
- Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin-Chipotle -- +4.43
- Frank Schleck (LUX) Team CSC -- 63.57.21
- Bernhard Kohl (AUT) Gerolsteiner -- +0.07
- Cadel Evans (AUS) Silence-Lotto -- +0.08
- Denis Menchov (RUS) Rabobank -- +0.38
- Christian Vande Velde (USA) Garmin-Chipotle -- +0.39
- Carlos Sastre (ESP) Team CSC -- +0.49
- Kim Kirchen (LUX) Columbia -- +2.48
- Vladimir Efimkin (RUS) AG2R La Mondiale -- +3.36
- Alejandro Valverde (ESP) Caisse d'Epargne -- +4.11
- Samuel Sanchez (ESP) Euskatel-Euskadi -- +4.34
- Oscar Freire (ESP) Rabobank -- 219 pts
- Thor Hushovd (NOR) Credit Agricole -- 172
- Erik Zabel (GER) Milram -- 167
- Kim Kirchen (LUX) Columbia -- 145
- Leonardo Duque (Col) Cofidis -- 137
- Robert Hunter (RSA) Barloworld -- 110
- Alejandro Valverde (ESP) Caisse d'Epargne -- 107
- Robbie McEwen (AUS) Silence-Lotto -- 105
- Romain Feillu (FRA) Agritubel -- 94
- Julian Dean (NZL) Garmin-Chipotle -- 88
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS
- Bernhard Kohl (AUT) Gerolsteiner -- 85 pts
- Sebastian Lang (GER) Gerolsteiner -- 60
- Egoi Martinez (ESP) Euskatel-Euskadi -- 50
- Simon Gerrans (AUS) Credit Agricole -- 50
- Frank Schleck (LUX) Team CSC -- 46
- Jose Luis Arrieta (ESP) AG2R La Mondiale -- 40
- Thomas Voeckler (FRA) Bouygues Telecom -- 39
- Danny Pate (USA) Garmin-Chipotle -- 37
- Carlos Sastre (ESP) Team CSC -- 35
- Denis Menchov (RUS) Rabobank -- 34
BEST YOUNG RIDER
- Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Liquigas -- 64.02.43
- Roman Kreuziger (CZE) Liquigas -- +1.53
- Maxime Monfort (BEL) Cofidis -- +3.12
- Andy Schleck (LUX) Team CSC -- +3.39
- Eduardo Gonzalo (ESP) Agritubel -- +19.05
- Thomas Lovkvist (SWE) Columbia -- +36.16
- Remy Di Gregorio (FRA) Francaise des Jeux -- +48.45
- Luis Leon Sanchez (ESP) Caisse d'Epargne -- +50.35
- John-Lee Augustyn (RSA) Barloworld -- +57.23
- Trent Lowe (AUS) Garmin-Chipotle -- +1.07.55
Tomorrow: Rest Day
Tuesday: Stage 16 - Cuneo to Jausiers (157 km)
The Tour will be venturing into uncharted territory today as it blazes new ground on two hors-categorie climbs through the Alps -- the never-before-visited Col de la Lomberde, and the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond, which was traveled over once in the opposite direction back in 1962 when Federico Bahamontes took the summit at the beginning of a 240-kilometer, three-mountain stage. Some riders might be thinking ahead to Wednesday's stage on L'Alpe d'Huez, but everyone must remain vigilant if they are to complete this preceding stage through the Alps. With so many people bunched at the top of the classification, it is imperative for riders like Kohl and Sastre to seek the initiative here if they want to gain time before the penultimate time trial. Today's stage, with the downhill finish into Jausiers, could afford such an opportunity to gain some time and, perhaps, even don a little yellow for themselves?