Sunday, July 17, 2005

Stage 15 - Sunday, July 17: Lezat-sur-Leze - Saint-Lary Soulan (Pla d'Adet), 205.5 km

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This was the hardest stage of the tour this year. But looking at the winner (pictures below) you wouldn't think so. Why? Because for the first time in ten tours, George Hincapie won a stage. He's not normally the kind of cyclist to win stages of the tour or even climb away from everyone. And yet he did it. But, more on that in a bit.

The stage was like all mountain stages. A break got started, but unlike most breaks in the tour, this one had one of the Discovery boys, none other than George Hincapie. The break rode away and was never really caught, at least not in the complete catch sense. They were broken apart as they rode up the mountains. And as the peloton chased after them, they too split apart. But before that happened, the break had at least 20 minutes on the rest of the peloton. It was crazy.

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But, of course, it didn't last. The attacks on the yellow jersey were not quite as put together as yesterday's, but there were strong. And they definitely kept coming. The peloton was splitting just as the break was losing cyclists. As the yellow jersey group kept dropping riders, they'd momentarily pick up one or two strays from the break, then drop them as well.

Unlike yesterday, though, Discovery managed to stick around with a few riders until they finally ran out of steam. Luckily for Armstrong, he was prepared and managed to do everything just right. Ullrich didn't stay with Basso and Armstrong, but he did manage to move into fourth place. And although Armstrong didn't win the stage, he did put time on everyone that mattered (and even those who didn't). The GC looked like this after stage 15:

1 Lance Armstrong (USA) Discovery Channel 62.09.59 (42.309 km/h)
2 Ivan Basso (Ita) Team CSC 2.46
3 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 3.09
4 Jan Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile Team 5.58
5 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears-Caisse d'Epargne 6.31
6 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner 7.35
7 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems 9.33
8 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile Team 9.38
9 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Credit Agricole 11.47
10 Andreas Kloden (Ger) T-Mobile Team 12.01

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But, of course, the stage wasn't just about putting time on the rest of the peloton. Stage 15, called the 'queen stage' of the '05 tour, went up the same mountain that claimed the life of Armstrong's teammate, Fabio Casartelli ten years ago tomorrow. His family were at the stage today.

Rumor had it that Armstrong would do anything to win this stage, but watching it, I didn't think that was the case. The peloton wore armbands in memory of Casartelli, but it wasn't Armstrong who won the stage. It was, instead, another former teammate of Casartelli, George Hincapie.

Hincapie ended up in the break to help Armstrong, but ended up doing something even more extraordinary. He won the stage.

"I kind of decided on my own to go on my own in one of these breaks, get a gap, and be there when Lance needed me," said Hincapie on his earlier motives. "But we ended up getting 18 minutes and once Johan saw that, he said: 'Listen George, you're probably not going to come back here now, you can do your own race.' From then on, I started thinking about the win and thinking it was possible, and for it to work out is a dream come true." (cyclingnews)

It was, as Paul and Phil would say, quite unbelievable.

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But, of course, my cheering was focused elsewhere. I was fighting a futile battle with Vino. I cheered for him, but of course he spent most of the day helping T-Mobile or struggling to keep up. He did manage to keep in the top ten, but didn't gain any more time. It seems, much to my chagrin, that Vino's chances to be on the podium, much less win the tour, have all but vanished.

But all was not, in fact, lost. The rest of the time I spent cheering on Michael Rasmussen. I know he couldn't hear me, but I was yelling at my TV all over again. I really didn't want him to lose second, but seeing that he couldn't keep up with Ullrich, Basso and Armstrong, I realized that third was going to be his best bet. And so I shouted, sitting on the edge of my bed, and held my breath.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Ullrich had been dropped, eventually to be picked up by his teammate Sevilla, and as they were approaching the finish, the camera pulled back a bit. And who was there, closing in on Ullrich and Sevilla? Michael Rasmussen. He'd ridden with Vino, then past him. Then he'd slowly picked up the pace and there was no way he wasn't going to be in third at the end of today's stage.

"I wanted to stay in the race for the podium, but at first, it was a matter of controlling at not letting any dangerous people get away as far as the [mountains] jersey goes," Rasmussen said after the stage. "It's almost practically impossible that I lose the jersey right now, so yes, I can focus 100 percent on the podium. I'm very happy with the way things are going." (cyclingnews)

I do really hope he can pull it out.

But now all was happiness today. And I'm not talking about all the cyclists who had to suffer through the attacks and road the stage out at the back of the peloton. Instead, I'm talking about the rider who wanted to win the stage almost as badly (or maybe even moreso) than Hincapie. That would be Oscar Pereiro, who Hincapie battled it out with (or, rather, sprinted past) to win. Perhaps it should have been Pereiro who won, as he did almost all the work after the rest of the break faltered around the two of them.

Said a rather pissed Pereiro at the finish line: "I asked him [Hincapie] to work, as we had to collaborate to battle it out in a sprint - but he didn't. Sometimes it's not the strongest that wins. I think I showed I was one the guys that wanted this stage the most. I thought there was victory in it for me, but that's life... I'll continue trying and one day I hope to be rewarded. Now, I'll continue to help Floyd [Landis] get on the podium." (cyclingnews)

I'd be pissed, too. It was obvious what Hincapie was doing, but then again, would Pereiro have done the same thing if he were in Hincapie's position? Probably. As he said, that's life. And, well, it is. I hope that he finds a stage win soon, if only to ease the irritations of this one.

Well. It was a wild stage, not nearly as exciting as yesterday, but just as interesting. Tomorrow is the rest day, then only six more days of racing. I can't wait.

One last thing, probably one of the coolest pictures I've ever found. And so I thought I'd share.

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