CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '06
Stage 15, July 18th, Gap to Alpe d'Huez, 187 km
The Angel Returns
If you think that this has been a great Tour so far, then you are in for a real treat as we head for Paris . The next three days of Alpine torture are going to wreak havoc with the race. On its current trajectory, this Tour will be worthy of a place in CyclingRevealed's list of Top 25 Tours of all time. That however will be a discussion for later!
Today the festivities begin with three climbs that are steeped in Tour history and legend. Most eyes have been focusing on the final climb to the finish today, the Alpe d'Huez (average 7.9%). But before reaching this temple of the Tour, the race has to cross the mighty (hors catagorie) Col d'Izoard (average 7%) and the fearsome Col du Lauteret (cat 2, average 4.4%).
Leaving Gap the race covered about 54kms of gentle rolling countryside before entering the small town of Guillestre where the peloton had to squeeze through some very narrow, twisting roads. From here on the road progressed mainly upwards to the summit of the Col d'Izoard 32km distant. The first 17km were valley roads with a deceptive but very shallow gradient. Fields gave way to a spectacular steep walled gorge with the fast running Guil River cascading back down the valley. Eventually the gorge opened up and after a steep climb spilt out in to high mountain pastures. Clean air and classic Alpine meadows led up along a very long and deceptively hard drag through the small village of Arvieux .
When I rode this section in 2004 it seemed endless and my legs started to seriously buckle under the hot sun as I realized that the steep wooded mountain at the far end of this ‘plateau' was masking the steep road ahead. I thought that I was cooked but amazingly the change in gradient (7 to 8%) and the shade from the forest seemed to revitalize me and the dozen or so hairpins seemed easier than the modest incline leading through Arvieux. Suddenly the forest gave way to what looked like the summit. Indeed the road dipped down for just over half a kilometer as I sped into the famous Casse Déserte which is devoid of vegetation. Just before the road reared up again I passed a memorial to Fausto Coppi and Louisan Bobet on my left which reminded me that I was on a road immortalised by legends of our sport. This timely reminder provides the motivation to tackle the final challenge of seven more hair pins up to the summit at a dizzying 2360m.
The Coppi/Bobet memorial on the Col d'Izoard [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
Usually the 20km descent down to the city of Briançon heralds the finish of many a Tour stages. Today the race snaked its way down the sinuous wooded descent and then at the base headed straight back up again. About 30kms of climbing now took the riders up to the summit of the Cat 2 Col du Lauteret. At first the road was a long, leg sapping drag that after about 12kms opened out on to a high glaciated valley. From here the Galibier was clearly visible ahead of the race and was a cruel reminder of what's in store for the Tour peloton tomorrow. But this never ending climb gave no mercy. Long sweeping stretches and the prevailing headwinds were amplified by the bleak high mountain landscape. Finally a long snow tunnel led the riders to the raw spectacle of the summit.
A wild descent of about 34km finally brought the race into the cozy little mountain town of Bourg d'Oisans. With 172km in their legs the Tour riders now faced the ‘piece de la resistance' for the day, the Alpe d'Huez. Unlike the Col d'Izoard and the Col du Lauteret the Alpe has no long ‘warm up' slopes. Just after leaving Bourg d'Oisans an innocuos looking left turn took the race straight on to the mountain road. Almost immediately the road reared up to 10% for about 1km before it reached the first of the famous 21 hairpin turns (with a plaque at each hair pin numbered in reverse order and bearing the name of a Tour stage winner).
Every one of the 21 hair pin curves on the Alpe has a commemorative plaque to every Alpe d'Huez winner. [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
The gradient stayed this way for the next 16 hairpins where the road eased a little as it passed the church at La Garde. It was here that Lance Armstrong gave Ullrich the famous “ look ”, sprinted away from him and basically sewed the Tour up right there. From turn 13 the gradient steepened again until turn 7. Due to the dense forest here it has been a favorite section to launch attacks and get quickly out of sight. Turns 6 and 5 took the riders through the actual village of Huez . Out of the village the vegetation started to get sparse indicating that the race was heading in to snow country. To the unsuspecting it would be assumed that turn #1 is close to the summit. This final wide sweeping curve rapidly narrows and after a surprisingly steep 50m or so led into the ski resort of Alpe d'Huez. The race passed right through town and out to the ski lift area which was still 1.3km away.
The crowds on the Alpe await the Tour [ Image ©: CyclingRevealed.com ]
It would be a huge insult to these majestic and legendary climbs if the race stayed intact and timidly awaited the final showdown up the Alp d'Huez. Had Armstrong been riding then his Discovery team would have maintained strict control of the bunch while letting a small group of ‘no names' flail themselves to exhaustion up front.
But this is a very different Tour and as the bunch headed for the Col d'Izoard a break of 25 riders pulled away. David Arroyo and Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d'Epargne-Illes Balears) were there for their race leader, Pereiro. Two former Giro winners (Garzelli and Cunego) were there for the stage win. Hincapie was there for his Discovery teammate Popovych and/or the stage win. David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval) was there to consolidate his lead in the mountains competition. Axel Merckx was there for his man Landis. The CSC trio of Frank Schleck, Jens Voigt and David Zabriskie were there hunting for the stage win with Zabriskie and Voigt doing all of the work while Schleck waited quietly at the back.
Through the Alpine pastures of Avrieux Stefano Garzelli rode away and after a terrific climb topped the Izoard over a minute ahead of the break. Meanwhile Avrieux witnessed the World RR Champion Tom Boonen finally throw in the towel as the bunch was fragmenting all over the mountain.
Down into Briançon and on to the big-ring power climb of the Lauteret and Garzelli was brought to heel. De La Fuente won the mountain points at the summit accompanied by Patxi Villa. The bunch held the break at about 4 minutes but the pace was shredding more riders off the back.
After riding through a mountain storm on the long descent from the Lauteret the race sped through Bourg d'Oisans. First on to the Alpe was Voigt and then almost immediately the attacks started. About 3mins 18secs later the bunch arrived at the foot of the climb and all hell broke loose. The shake out at the front saw Schleck, Cunego and Mazzoleni pull away. Drama ensued behind as Landis, Menchov, Kloden, Evans and Leipheimer created the new chase group and dropped Pereiro. This formation kept changing as thrust and counter thrust unhitched riders with the exception of Landis and Kloden. On cue, Axel Merckx dropped back from the remnants of the break and waited for Landis. Advantage Phonak as Pereiro slipped slowly away from the race lead.
A little further up it was now two against two as Schleck and Cuego led by about one minute over the Kloden, Landis tandem who started to scoop up riders from the break. Most importantly Mazzoleni arrived to support Kloden just after Landis lost Merckx.
Schleck now sprouted angel's wings as he emulated the legendary Charly Gaul (“The Angel of the Mountains”) and earned himself a majestic win by 11 seconds from Cunego.
Schleck! [ Image ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
Amazingly Garzelli who had been on the attack all day came in for third with Landis (4th) and Kloden (5th). All three were timed at 1'10" behind Schleck. Pereiro bravely fought to retain his Yellow Jersey but missed out by 10 seconds as Floyd Landis once more assumed race leadership.
Landis Back in Yellow [Photo: Stephen Cheung]
The much discussed, and often criticized, Phonak strategy to relinquish the race lead a couple of day's ago looks to be paying off. For about half of the race Pereiro's team worked very hard to keep the break in check. While this was going on Landis and his team simply sat back and ‘enjoyed' the ride. On the way up the Alpe Landis looked to have moments of weakness. The truth is that he was rationing his effort in preparation for the next two killer days in the Alps . Pereiro is now 10 seconds down on the race leader with (in order) Dessel, Menchov, Sastre, Kloden and Evans all within three minutes.
Although history shows that most riders to finish on the Alp d'Huez in Yellow are the same rider to finish victoriously in Paris , there are no guarantees this time. In this wide open, attacking race a moment of weakness will lose Landis the Tour. A big issue is the Phonak team and whether they have the reserves to control the race from here on.
Luxembourg 's Gaul has a worthy successor in Schleck. He won in the style of Gaul on a day where the entire race was a classic contest and quite possibly the best race ever up the Alpe d'Huez. It was fitting that under these circumstances we saw the Angel return in heavenly style.
Tomorrow: a climbing day as the race tackles more Alpine giants on the road from Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire, 182 km. Come back to CyclingRevealed.com for our daily impression.
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