July 11, 2010 13 Comments
Stage 8: Station des Rousses > Morzine-Avoriaz (189 km)
If he was going to go down at all, he would probably have preferred it had been in wheel-to-wheel combat rather than in a crumpled, ungainly heap on the tarmac, but when the time came Lance Armstrong discovered that Lady Luck doesn’t believe in a soft landing, both literally and figuratively. As the Texan hauled his bruised body and ego up the final climb to the finish at Avoriaz, Andy Schleck was celebrating his first career Tour stage win, while Australia’s Cadel Evans was swapping his world champion’s rainbow jersey for the yellow jersey of the Tour’s race leader.
The end of Armstrong’s long and winding road
Armstrong was involved in three crashes in all, but it was the second accident, with 51 km to go, which was the critical one, as he explained later:
I clipped a pedal [in the roundabout] and next thing I knew I was rolling on the ground at 65 kph. I didn’t make it back on until la Ramaz and I was pegged.
The effort he expended racing to rejoin the peloton meant he was unable to respond when Sky and Saxo Bank suddenly picked up the pace on the first category climb of the Col de la Ramaz. And by the time he got caught up in a bizarre accident near the summit of the next, short climb of Les Gets, when Egoi Martinez and Matti Breschel inexplicably tangled in front of him, any realistic hope of reattaching himself to the lead group had already gone.
He cut a forlorn figure on the final climb to Avoriaz, suddenly looking every one of his nearly 39 years as he soft-pedalled uphill on autopilot and other riders caught and passed him almost apologetically. Despite having RadioShack teammates for company, it would have been a lonely and unfamiliar experience as he finally rolled in 11:45 down. By the time he gave his post-stage interviews, he was ready to accept his chances of an eighth win were gone with good grace:
This is just a bad day. I’ve had a lot of good days here. I’ve had a lot of good Tours; a lot of good memories, so I’m not going to complain. It wasn’t my day.
My Tour is finished but now I’m going to hang in there and I want to enjoy my last Tour de France.
Where now for Lance? Even in defeat, he will regroup and strategise during the rest day tomorrow and decide how best he can leave his mark on this, his final Tour de France. A swashbuckling mountain stage win before the final reckoning on the Tourmalet is one option. Or doing everything he can to support his friend and teammate Levi Leipheimer‘s tilt at the yellow jersey would be another. The one thing we can be sure of is that Lance Armstrong will not go quietly – it is simply not in his nature.
Schleck wins as Astana dynamite the peloton
Armstrong wasn’t the only rider put into difficulties by the surprisingly high tempo on the Ramaz. Polka dot jersey Jérôme Pineau, Tony Martin and Cadel Evans’ senior lieutenant George Hincapie, among others, were also cut adrift, as was yellow jersey Sylvain Chavanel.
Astana reinforced Sky and Saxo Bank to keep the pressure on at the front, reducing the elite group to around 30 riders. As they passed through Morzine at the foot of the final climb, they took on the initiative themselves. First Alexandre Vinokourov, very much playing for the team today, put in a punishing stint on the lower slopes, before handing over to Daniel Navarro, with their leader Alberto Contador sitting comfortably on his wheel.
The remnants of the day’s break were brushed aside as the relentless pace continued to take casualties, one by one, in the leaders’ group: Luis-Léon Sánchez, Nicolas Roche and finally Britain’s big hope Bradley Wiggins, who cracked 4 km from the summit:
I felt pretty good for most of the day, especially on the second-to-last climb. But just as we went up the last climb I just couldn’t hold on at the end.
There came a point where I just had to back off because otherwise I would have completely exploded. It just became a damage limitation exercise from that point in.
I did my best and that’s all you can do in that situation. I’m happy to admit that I wasn’t quite good enough today, but there’s still a lot of the race left so we’ll see what happens.
At last, in the closing two kilometres, the attrition ended and the attacks began. First Roman Kreuziger had a go, but Contador jumped onto his wheel instantly. Then Robert Gesink – who nearly won the Tour de Suisse last month with a win on the race’s big climbing stage – attacked. For a hundred metres or so, it looked like he might make his attack stick. But Samuel Sánchez leapt forward out of the pack, forcing a reaction from the defending champion. Finally, with about 900 metres to go, Andy Schleck put the hammer down and this time there was no response from Contador. Only Sánchez was able to follow, and Schleck beat him comfortably in the sprint to the line to claim the stage. Contador came in ten seconds behind; not a big time gap, but hugely significant because of his inability to respond to the final attack.
Schleck was happy with the result, even though he might have extracted further gains by attacking earlier:
I really felt good. My legs were turning well, and the team was great. On the last climb I had no problem. I thought about attacking earlier but I have a plan for this Tour and I’m going to stick to it.
As well as my first stage win at the Tour de France, it’s also my first real victory of the season. I wanted to attack on the climb. I was just waiting to see what the other riders’ tactics were but I took a lot of confidence from my tactics today.
Maybe it was possible to take the yellow jersey today but I want to have it in Paris, so I want to take it step by step.
There are still a lot of very hard days, but I am pretty relaxed for the moment. I’ve done my thing, and I hope I can do a great race.
At the end of a very hot and draining day, only 54 other riders finished within 11 minutes of Schleck. The stragglers were still trickling in 32 minutes later, long after the podium ceremonies had been completed.
Evans adds the yellow jersey to the rainbow jersey
Schleck moves up to second, just 20 seconds behind the new leader of the race, Cadel Evans. The Australian was unable to cope with Schleck’s final acceleration, but clung on to finish with Contador’s group, restricting his losses to just 10 seconds.
It completes an impressive full house for Evans, who won the road race at the World Championships last autumn, and has worn the leader’s jersey in each of the last three Grand Tours: the 2009 Vuelta a España, 2010 Giro d’Italia and now the Tour de France.
Evans had crashed just six kilometres into the stage in an incident which took down several riders. He ripped his jersey and lost a layer of skin from his arm, but thankfully did not suffer any more serious injuries:
I went down pretty hard on my left side. Fortunately, my legs didn’t take it. I took it all in my left arm, which is pretty sore.
He hinted that he may not seek to defend the yellow jersey too actively after tomorrow’s rest day:
We’ll think about it and come up with a plan but the Pyrenees are very hard. Andy [Schleck] is going well, [Alberto] Contador and Astana [are] really strong, so we’ll have to see and decide how to approach the mountains.
Should he still hold the race lead after Tuesday’s climb and descent of the Col de la Madeleine, the stage to Gap the following day is tailor-made for Evans to relinquish the yellow jersey to relieve his BMC team – which is some way from being the strongest in the peloton – of the burden of working to defend it. Armstrong, on the other hand, would dearly love even one more day in the jersey which for seven years he considered his by right. How long ago those days must seem to him now.
Stage 8 result:
1. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 4:54:11
2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) same time
3. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +0:10
4. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) s/t
5. Alberto Contador (Astana) s/t
General classification (yellow jersey):
1. Cadel Evans (BMC) 37:57:09
2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:20
3. Alberto Contador (Astana) +1:01
4. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +1:03
5. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +1:10
6. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +1:11
7. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo) +1:45
8. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +2:14
9. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:15
10. Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia) +2:31
12. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) +2:40
13. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Doimo) +2:41
14. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +2:45
15. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +3:05
32. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) +0:05
39. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +13:26
Points classification (green jersey):
1. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 118 pts
2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 114
3. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 105
4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 92
5. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 85
Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):
1. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 44 pts
2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 36
3. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 30
4. Mathieu Perget (Caisse d’Epargne) 28
5. Rafael Valls Ferri (Footon-Servetto) 27
Stage 9 preview:
Start & finish: Morzine-Avoriaz > Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
Distance & type: 204.5 km, high mountains
Prediction: The Madeleine is the first hors catégorie climb of the year and will undoubtedly put some GC contenders into severe trouble, but they will have an opportunity to recover lost time on the fast 32km descent to the finish, which makes an attack from one of the big guns less likely. Indeed, the rapid descent may present as many challenges as the climb. Relatively poor descenders such as Ivan Basso may struggle to keep contact, particularly if it is wet – he will be relying on Roman Kreuziger to lend a helping hand and pilot him downhill.
A group of climbers will undoubtedly escape early on in search of today’s treasure trove of King of the Mountains points – as the last climb of the day, the Madeleine counts double – and they will probably stay away to the finish. The stage may be set for an exceptionally brave descender to launch a solo attack on the run down to the finish. Linus Gerdemann won a similar stage with a long descent into Le Grand-Bornand in 2007, memorable for his distinctive descending style where he crouched forward over the frame of his bike to create a more streamlined profile.
For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs: