Tour de France stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark
July 17, 2011 18 Comments
Despite being reduced to six riders, Omega Pharma-Lotto are proving to be arguably the most productive overall team at this year’s Tour. In his first appearance at the race, Belgian climber Jelle Vanendert rode solo for the final seven kilometres to win arguably the toughest mountain stage at Plateau de Beille, and move into the polka dot jersey. In so doing he became the third Omega Pharma rider (after Philippe Gilbert and André Greipel) to win a stage at this year’s race. Gilbert and Greipel are respectively third and fifth in the points competition, and Gilbert has also spent time in each of the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys. That is a fantastic performance by any team, let alone one which lost its main general classification contender when Jurgen Van Den Broeck crashed out of the race in the opening week. The 2011 edition is now finished in the Pyrenees after three days during which the top end of the GC remained virtually unchanged, as most of the main contenders seemed happy to do little more than cover each other’s every move.
Breaks, breaks and more breaks
A large breakaway of 20 riders representing 16 of the 22 teams went away early in the stage, including such notable names as Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), 2010 King of the Mountains Anthony Charteau (Europcar) and the FDJ trio of Sandy Casar, Mickaël Delage and Arthur Vichot. Missing, however, were Philippe Gilbert and José Joaquín Rojas, which was a major relief to Mark Cavendish as none of his main green jersey rivals scored any points at the intermediate sprint. Delage took maximum points there, and also over the summit of the first two climbs, the Col de Portet-d’Aspet and the Col de la Core, to protect the lead of Jérémy Roy in the mountains classification.
Casar, one of Roy’s other teammates in the group, subsequently took the major points on the third climb of the day, the Col de Latrape. By the Col d’Agnes 11 riders had formed a new lead group, and Chavanel led the way across the summit six minutes ahead of the main field, while Gorka Izagirre took over on the short drop and subsequent climb of Port de Lers.
Rabobank’s Laurens Ten Dam suffered the most spectacular crash of the day when he ran wide onto the grass verge around a corner and was catapulted over his handlebars face-first into a ditch. However, he did eventually get up and continue to the finish with his bleeding face wrapped in gauze. Ahead in the break, the vastly experienced Voigt also crashed twice in quick succession, forcing him to dust himself off, drop back to the peloton and join his teammates at the front to drive the pace towards the climactic climb to Plateau de Beille.
The race sets up for a big finish – but delivers little more than sparring
By the base of the final climb, Casar had forced his way to the front on his own, with an advantage of 2:11 over the main peloton containing the leaders, with the rest of his breakaway companions scattered in between. Leopard-Trek, with Maxime Monfort and Voigt setting an aggressive pace at the bottom, quickly split the peloton as gaps started to form. Several significant names were soon dropped off the back, while at the front they quickly started to follow the remnants of the earlier break, reducing the group containing most of the heads of state to around 20 riders.
Thee times on the steep lower part of the climb, Andy Schleck made brief exploratory attacks – not enough to seriously discomfort Alberto Contador or most of the others, but enough to cause several other riders to yo-yo off the back of the dwindling elite group and then struggle to get back on. Both Schleck brothers took further turns to attack, but on each occasion at least one of their rivals would immediately respond and they would back off instantly. Neither seemed willing to risk enough t0 make these temporary splits permanent as the stragglers would always regain the back of the group as it slowed down again after each attack. While it was good to see the Schlecks attack, their unwillingness to make their moves properly stick was disappointing, particularly given the difficulty with which Contador struggled to respond on more than one occasion. They had every chance to distance him by a significant margin here, but each time they let the fish off the hook.
While it was not surprising Cadel Evans looking particularly strong in covering every important move, it was more of a shock to see the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler a constant presence near the front. He seemed comfortable and was quick to cover every move when needed. Ivan Basso, too, looked to have good climbing legs, while Damiano Cunego fell away later on.
As it transpired, arguably the strongest and certainly the most ambitious riders in the lead group were Jelle Vanendert and Samuel Sánchez. The Belgian accelerated off the front of the contenders’ group with 7km remaining, quickly passing Casar and continuing onwards to put nearly 50 seconds into most of the favourites. He was able to savour a huge victory at the top of the mountain as he ran the gauntlet of the crowds lining both sides of the road in their tens of thousands and waving Basque fags. Sánchez left his move until a flatter section at 4km, and although he never looked like catching Vanendert he was able to pull out nearly 30 seconds on those around him.
After both Basso and Evans had come to the front and pushed hard without dislodging any more of the favourites in the final 2km, Andy Schleck accelerated off the front with 300m to go, distancing everyone else and gaining the princely total of just two seconds on the line. Given his obvious reserves of energy at the top, it begged the question of why the brothers didn’t try harder further down the mountain. Although they had been the most attack-minded of the bunch, it still felt very much like a safety-first approach designed to poke and prod rather than truly crack the race open.
Victory moved Vanendert into the polka dot jersey, two points ahead of Sánchez, as the pair established a healthy lead in the King of the Mountains competition. The top of the general classification looks much as it did entering the Pyrenees, with Voeckler’s lead intact. Sánchez has 1:27 on most of his rivals over the past three days to move up to sixth. Sky’s Rigoberto Uran moved up to 11th overall and took over the white jersey. And, having spent most of the day yo-yoing off the back of the pack with only teammate Bernhard Eisel for company, Cavendish snuck in just behind the autobus about a minute inside the day’s time limit.
The 26-year old Vanendert was delighted with both the win and his overall form after an injury-plagued 2010:
It’s like a dream come true. After last year, when I didn’t race for seven or eight months because of two knee injuries, I think my career has now started.
Winning at Plateau de Beille – it’s not bad, huh Two mountain top finishes: one time second, one time first. I’ve tried two times and luckily now I have two things: a prize jersey and a stage win, so I’m very glad.
Voeckler was surprised to still be riding with the favourites at the top of the climb – he looked very comfortable and at no stage appeared to be in serious difficulties – having expected to lose the yellow jersey during the Pyrenees:
I would lie if I said that I expected to keep the jersey but I was more optimistic than I was two days before the Luz Ardiden stage. On the last climb today, I was really surprised that I was with all the favourites at the end and it was very hard for me but I understand that it was the same for them. I tried to give my all and it was okay.
The scenario in the final climb was perfect for me — the GC were attacking each other, very short accelerations. I was happy about that because I was able to come back each time.
Both Schleck brothers bemoaned a lack of attacking intent by most of the other GC riders. Fränk said:
By the end, we had all the favorites left, but most of them were just looking at one another. Only me, Andy and [Ivan] Basso cared to attack. The others were only riding wheels. This is too bad for the GC battle.
The Schlecks and their Leopard-Trek team management might be better off looking at their own tactics. With the rest of the team stripping the other contenders’ support away, Andy and Fränk were perfectly set up to repeatedly hit their rivals with one-two punches, but while both jabbed away neither seemed willing to try to land a knockout blow. With Contador riding his way through pain in search of his best form, they may come to regret their conservative approach if the defending champion can muster a strong attack in the Alps and the penultimate stage time trial. While he is clearly not firing on all cylinders right now, he is certainly not out of it either.
Ultimately, the Pyrenean stages have been largely unsatisfying – Friday’s epic win by Hushovd aside – as no one has been willing to risk a big field-splitting attack and instead everyone has been content to make exploratory advances and otherwise settle for carefully man-marking each other. The Alps will undoubtedly deliver better racing as the race approaches its climax, but for now it is all too tentative and waiting for someone to ignite the race. But who?
Stage 15 preview
A flat transition stage between the Pyrenees and the Alps, but by no means a simple one. The intermediate sprint comes less than 50km before the finish, with the last kilometre being a long, straight, uphill drag. The run-in to the finish is also difficult, with a steady climb 3km from home – which may encourage a late solo attack from a rider like David Millar - and then a final kilometre which starts with a gentle incline before levelling out. It should be a day for the sprinters, who will be aware this is their last shot before Paris, but a determined breakaway group could make life difficult for a tired peloton.
Stage 14 result:
1. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), at 5:13:25
2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:21
3. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:46
4. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:48
5. Rigoberto Urán (Sky) same time
1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 61:04:10
2. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:49
3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +2:06
4. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:15
5. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:16
6. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:44
7. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +4:00
8. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +4:01
9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +5:46
10. Kevin De Weert (Quick Step) +6:18
1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 264 pts
2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 251
3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 240
4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 192
5. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 164
1. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74 pts
2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 72
3. Jérémy Roy (FDJ) 45
4. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 28
5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 26
Tour de France preview