CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '06
Stage 16, July 19th, Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire, 182 km
The Spirit of Desgrange
When journalists are writing about the Tour, superlatives like monumental, legendary, historic and majestic pepper their work. Riders who have etched their names into Tour history have grandiose nicknames like “The Eagle of Toledo ” (Bahamontes) and “The Angel of the Mountains” (Gaul). Such prose was impregnated into ‘Tour language' right from the very beginning by its founder Henri Desgrange who was also an accomplished journalist.
Monument to Henri Desgrange at the top of the Galibier
Today the first climb of the stage is the mighty Galibier. At 2646m this Tour legend was first introduced to the race in 1911. Desgrange was excited by the success of the previous year with the first attempt for the race to scale what were considered impossible Pyrenean peaks. So in 1911 he expanded the Tour's horizons and ventured into the Alps for the first time. For Desgrange such never before attempted challenges presented fantastic editorial material for his newspaper l'Auto.
In his flowery Victorian style he exploded with almost religious joy the day after the race had passed over the Galibier with these words published in l'Auto :
"Today, my brothers, we gather here in common celebration of the divine bicycle. Not only do we owe it our most pious gratitude for the precious and ineffable love that it has given us, but also for the host of memories sown over our whole sports life and which today has made concrete.
In my own case I love it for its having given me a soul capable of appreciating it; I love it for having taken my heart within its spokes, for having encircled a part of my life within its harmonious frame, and for having constantly illuminated me with the victorious sparkle of its nickel plates.
In the history of humanity, does it not constitute the first successful effort of intelligent life to triumph over the laws of weights?"
The first Tour rider to make it to the top of the Galibier was Emile Georget. But for him and those other brave pioneers, the road was not of the smooth asphalt that our peloton will experience today. It was July 12th and the mountain was still snow swept. The road, if you can call it that, was a quagmire of mud and gravel used normally by loggers and others travelling from one valley to the next. Yet this was just one obstacle in the 366km stage! Under such conditions it is no wonder that the l'Auto readership was mesmerized by the exploits elevated to other-worldly proportions by Desgrange's articles.
Georget and his fellow competitors would be amazed to see the modern version of the Tour ascending the very same roads that they alternately walked and then rode on bikes equiped with just a freewheel and one gear. Today at the summit a large stone memorial reminds everyone who passes of Henri Desgrange the founder and pioneer of Le Tour.
As Desgrange did with his early incursions into the Alps , today's stage provides much more than one monster mountain. The climb up the Galibier starts just a few kms after the start of todays stage. About 42kms of climbing with gradients between 4.5% and 6.7% will be a severe test of rider recuperation after yesterday's epic stage. Over the top (which is the highest point of this Tour) an 18km descent leads on to a short sharp 5km ascent to the top of the Col du Telegraphe. From here a 38km descent leads the race to the foot of the nearly 23km climb up the 7% average Col de la Croix-de-Fer. Like the Galibier, this mountain is also rated ‘hors categorie'. Once over the top a 14km plunge down the other side brings the peloton to the nearly 6km climb up the Cat 2 Col du Mollard. Seventeen kms of swooping downhill then deliver the riders to the final challenge of the day; the La Toussuire climb is rated Cat 1 and for it's 18.4kms to the finish line is graded at 6% average.
It did not take long. About 15km into the race Tadej Valjavec (Lampre-Fondital), Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and Sandy Casar (FDJ) had established a good lead. Behind them a group of 14 riders counter attacked and amongst them was Popovych and Rubiera for Discovery. When they finally reached the summit of the Galibier the lead group had 4:30 seconds over the peloton. Rasmussen took the mountain points while the current Mountain Jersey leader, De La Fuente, struggled off the back along with McEwen.
On the long descent it looked as though Discovery was launching a stage win plan for the day when Popovych left the chase group. For a while he made headway and then he ran out of steam. Meanwhile Rasmussen's obvious onslaught for the Mountains Jersey really started to solidify as they started the very difficult climb up the Col de la Croix-de-Fer. Sandy Casar was dropped and behind him the first chase group was breaking up as the peloton started to inch closer.
Stefano Garzelli (3rd yesterday) slipped out of the back of the bunch as Popovych was suddenly seen to be hanging on where Garzelli had been moments earlier. Minutes later Valjavec left Rasmussen to his own devices. This awful climb was turning into a race of attrition as Landis took everything in his stride and powered away amongst the first few riders of the bunch. For the moment this was a comfortable scenario for the Yellow Jersey. Rasmussen was no threat on GC so letting this gifted climber have his day of glory was just fine as Landis kept everyone else that counted under a watchful eye.
But under the hot sun and on a wearying climb complacency is a dangerous thing. With about half the climb done CSC suddenly launched a fearsome attack. Vandevelde, Sastre and Schleck were immediately followed by Landis, Evans, Leipheimer and Kloden. Shortly afterwards Kloeden started to lose contact and Landis was isolated without teammates. Rasmussen was happily plowing on about 7 minutes ahead.
Another attack and this time it was Leipheimer as behind him Kloden regained his composure and with two teammates sat ominously on Landis's wheel. Landis was looking extremely vulnerable as there were obviously plenty of riders greedily eyeing his Yellow Jersey.
With uncharacteristic aggression Leipheimer started to put in a tremendous effort and although still not a threat to Landis, had put the cat amongst the pigeons by threatening those targeting the podium. Landis was slipping to the back of the small peloton and there were still 5km left to go to the summit. Strangely the Landis group started to go slower as Boogerd set the tempo. Was Boogerd working to help Rasmussen increase his lead or had the bunch simply ridden itself into the ground?
Rasmussen topped the summit and with it assumed ownership of the Polka Dot Jersey. Leipheimer came over about 5 minutes later and the bunch was timed at over 8 minutes. It was now looking as though the Col du Mollard and then the final climb up to La Toussuiere could well be the deciding battle ground of this Tour.
As the race ground its way up the Mollard Landis slipped ever closer to the back of his small peloton. Smelling blood, two Caisse d'Epargne riders (including Pereiro) forced the pace with three CSC riders and five T-Mobile riders waiting like vultures behind them. Axel Merckx was yo-yoing on and off the group trying valiantly to stay with his now embattled team leader. However as the summit approached Floyd moved slowly forward again. It looked very much as though he was playing Armstrong like head games with his competition by feigning weakness. Gasping like a fish out of water Merckx led Landis back to the front of his group just as they crested the Mollard.
The hairy and dangerous drop back down to the valley brought the race to the last act of the day. Rasmussen was holding Leipheimer and Valjavec at 4:30 minutes and the bunch at 6:25 minutes. Merckx incredibly got the front and set the early pace up the La Toussuiere as Landis was swamped in a sea of T-Mobile magenta jerseys. As Merckx slipped backwards Schleck, Pereiro and Kloeden came forward. Menchov attacked, Rogers, Periero and Evans latched on. Kloeden was supposed to be with Rogers who consequently eased off as Kloeden dragged himself back with Landis on his wheel. While everyone was gunning for Floyd the cards were still in his favor as the riders around him were also targeting each other!
Ten kilometers to go and CSC's Sastre attacked. This immediately blew Landis out of the back. Devoid of team support, for him it was now a race against the clock as it was for the fast moving Sastre targeting Yellow. Yet again the race was being turned inside out.
Sastre caught Leipheimer incredibly quickly and further up the road Rasmussen was starting to look frail. Even so he still had over 3 minutes advantage but these minutes looked like spring snow as Sastre left Leipheimer for dead and tore on up the mountain. The chase bunch now comprised just Pereiro, Kloden and Evans as they swept up and dropped Leipheimer. Pereiro was riding back into the Yellow Jersey.
Rasmussen, who had been up front all day, won the day and most probably the Polka Dot Jersey for the second year running.
A stage win and the Polka Dot Jersey for Rassmussen [ Image ©: www.gazzetta.it ]
Sastre came in second 1'42" later as Periero sprinted for the line just seconds behind him to claim the 3rd place time bonus. A broken Landis rolled painfully in with the loyal Merckx encouraging his team leader up the final kms of the climb. He lost over 10 minutes to the stage winner and plummeted down the GC table.
Periero now leads by 1:50 minutes over Sastre. Kloden, Dessel and Evans occupy the next places and are all within three minutes of Periero. Tomorrow is another very hard day in the mountains and if Sastre has another inspired day then we could well see another change of leadership. Unlike Landis, Sastre has the teammates who can help him do the job.
If Desgrange were with us today he would have waxed lyrical in his flowery language about today's fantastic stage. His beloved Galibier was as majestic as in his day and the racing more than respected the legacy of Le Tour. In fact as Paris gets closer to the horizon it is still impossible to predict the final outcome.
It is incredible that after more than 100 years the Tour continues to grow in popularity, has achieved world wide recognition and every year adds new stories and legends to its unique history. Locations like the Galibier take on a life of their own each time the Tour passes through. Commercial success was the prime motivator behind those early Tours and today the event is a huge commercial undertaking. It is an integration of sport and big business that is very much in the spirit of Desgrange.
The Tour is welcomed everywhere in the Alps (Tourist Board)
Tomorrow: Saint Jean de Maurienne to Morzine, 199 km. Come back to CyclingRevealed.com for our daily impression.
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