“The ideal Tour would be a Tour in which only one rider survives the ordeal.”
Henri Desgrange (father of the TdF)

  July 2006


By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian


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CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '06

Stage 11, July 13th, Tarbes to Val d'Aran/Pla de Beret (Spa), 208 km

Circle of Death

Since the 2006 race route was announced, today's classic stage along with the Alpine stage up to Alpe d'Huez (Stage 15) has been the most highly anticipated. The ‘Circle of Death' is a somewhat morbid description but since this region of the Pyrenees was first introduced to the Tour in 1910 its reputation for destroying the hopes of many has grown into legend.

While leading the race on the Col du Tourmalet in 1913 Eugene Christophe had his forks break near the summit. Forbidden help of any sort, Christophe was forced to run back down the mountain to a small village at the base (St. Marie de Campan) he found a blacksmiths forge and set about to repair his machine. Hours later, and in the interests of his team, he rode back up the mountain and finished many hours after the winner. The heartless race organization promptly added insult to injury by imposing a time penalty because a race official had seen the blacksmiths young son pump the forge bellows. Such is power of this legendary story that the French government turned the forge into a National Monument.

In modern times a much greater tragedy befell the race in 1995 when Fabio Casartelli crashed on the descent of Col de Portet d'Aspet and was tragically killed. This year that climb is not on the race route but the nearby climbs being used are steeped in Tour history.

First to be tackled today was the ‘hors categorie' Col du Tourmalet (2115m) where, from the summit, the race plunged down to the valley past St. Marie de Campan where the road again turned up to the Cat 1 Col d'Aspin (1489m). Next came the Cat 1 Col de Peyresourde (1569m), a rapid descent and then straight up the Cat 1 Col du Portillon (1293m). Thereafter the race crossed over the Spanish border for about 35km of uphill riding to the mountain top finish at Pla de Beret (1830m).

Close encounters on the way up the Pyrenean climbs.

It was a shame that this legendary mountain was the first to be climbed today. The Tourmalet is linked to many epic rides by the greatest names of our sport. Today a break containing Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval) and Iker Camano (Euskaltel-Euskadi climbed the Tourmalet about 4:30 minutes ahead of the bunch. Behind them race leader Cyril Dessel's AG2R team set the chase tempo. No drama up front but at the back it was a different story. The first big name to crack was Iban Mayo then as the bunch started to disintegrate out went Simoni and Savoldelli (two former Giro d'Italia winners). At the top of the Tourmalet Michael Rasmussen popped off the front to sweep up the remaining mountain points but little Thomas Voeckler pipped him on the line.

Voeckler maintained his effort and on the descent set off to attempt to catch the break. Two years ago he held the Yellow Jersey for ten days and now on the eve of Bastille Day he wanted to win over French hearts again. As the race sped through St. Marie de Campan at the base of the Tourmalet the gap between the four leaders and the bunch had not changed but Voeckler was making some headway in closing the gap. Up and over the Aspin the status quo was maintained except for more riders being shelled out of the bunch.

On to the Peyresourde and the break split with just Wegmann and De La Fuente now in the lead. Voeckler got within an agonizing 10 seconds of them but the effort of the chase had killed his legs. Suddenly he rapidly dropped back to the peloton like a concrete parachute. At about the same time Discovery's big hope, Popovych slipped off of the tail of the bunch which was still holding the leaders at 4 minutes or so.

Crunch time as the bunch hit the very difficult Portillon climb. T-Mobile took control from AG2R and set a torrid pace. The first major casualty was race leader Dessel. Landis, Hincapie, Evans, Moreau and even Leipheimer were riding well as the T-Mobile storm troopers worked to put their man Kloden in to a winning position. For the first time today the gap to the leader was closing quickly as the first very serious hostilities of this Tour played out. It was now Hincapie's turn to lose contact and he dropped back to the Yellow Jersey group. Azevedo was the last Discovery man standing. Finally the real race was beginning to happen.

The bunch was now down to about 16 riders (amazingly Simoni had made his way back to the group) as De La Fuente worked to stay clear. He still had a 3'44” minutes advantage as he topped the climb and headed into his home country. A hectic chase ensued with Landis racing for the Yellow Jersey as he got to the front of the mini-bunch and descended at warp speed.

Along the valley road to the final climb Damiano Cunego and David Arroyo bridged up to De La Fuente. Shortly after that the Landis group latched on with Rabobank's Boogerd and Rasmussen driving the pace for their GC contender Menchov (2005 Vuelta a Espana winner). Now, everyone was riding with caution towards the final horrendous 13kms. Behind them Dessel was riding courageously to defend his Yellow Jersey along with his chase group and they were closing back in on the leaders.

As the leaders powered up the early slopes of the final climb riders started to lose contact; Simoni, Schleck, Azevedo, Moreau. Ten kilometers to go and Boogerd was killing himself for Menchov as Landis, Evans, Leipheimer, Sastre and Kloden made up the remnants of the race. The gap back to Dessel was opening up again as we witnessed a terrific race. Menchov attacked with 7.6km of climbing to go. Kloden snapped; Leipheimer hit the front. And then there were five (Boogerd dropped back after doing his work for Menchov). Landis took control as everyone started to look at each other. With nearly three kms to go Leipheimer attacked. Menchov counter attacked and Landis contained them both. Three leaders now raced for the line. Menchov took it with Leipheimer and Landis glued to him.

Desperately Dessel gave it full gas as his team manager screamed at him through his earpiece. He missed the target by eight seconds. Floyd was finally in Yellow. There is no question that today was a classic and memorable event. The big names of recent years may have been absent but the ‘new' peloton delivered a performance worthy of the hallowed Pyrenean climbs.

Expectations met. Floyd Landis became race leader today. [Photo: Stephen Cheung]

Today's climbs “put paid” on many Tour dreams. Race leader Dessel, two former Giro champions (Savoldelli, Garzelli), Hincapie, Popovych, Karpets, Mercado and many others. CSC's woes continued with the abandonment of Giovanni Lombardi and Discovery totally disintegrated. Finally the Tour had taken shape and the ‘Circle of Death' had once again wreaked havoc.

Special Note: As the race headed into its final phase we learned that the Tour organization had decided to weigh the bikes of the first five finishers. Echo's of their treatment of the luckless Christophe on the Tourmalet in 1913 struck disbelief to many.

Tomorrow: Bastille Day! The roads from Luchon to Carcassonne are very lumpy and far from easy, but easier than the leg breaking climbs of stage 11. Luchon to Carcassonne, 211 km. Come back to CyclingRevealed.com for our daily impression.


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