Friday, July 14, 2006

Stage 11 - Thursday, July 13: Tarbes - Val d'Aran/Pla-de-Beret (Spain), 208 km

It was supposed to be the stage where the contenders would put time between themselves and the rest of the peloton. It was the day we were supposed to find out which team was the strongest. All pre-race predictions had been thrown out the window with the whole doping affair. Except, of course, for that of Discovery. They'd lost no riders and were expected (and talked up) to be just as good now that Armstrong was gone.

What happened was not at all what was expected.

Though some people picked Landis, many had not. But he proved that he has the legs. He was not, as certain commentators expected, the dominate cyclist that Armstrong was. But of course that was not unexpected. Instead, he kept pace with a few of the other contenders and a former one (unless there is a miracle, Leipheimer won't contend).

The stage started with a breakaway, consisting of four riders (two started and then they were caught by two more). The break was on a mission to get KOM points and oh, did they get them. What was really impressive was the young riders, David De La Fuente. He set his heart on the king of the mountains and won them all – except the final, of course.

Thomas Voeckler tried to join the four riders, but that wasn't to be. He worked hard, but the peloton decided they were having none of it and caught Voeckler and three of the original escape riders. It was De La Fuente alone and then T-Mobile stepped up the power on the front. He was caught and the "real race" began. Which I think is crap, but there you go.

T-Mobile on the front after Ag2R did everything in their power to keep the yellow jersey. Dessel couldn't handle it and eventually slipped out of the peloton. And that's when trouble really started. Riders began dropping from the front group, a few every kilometer until there were 18 riders. And then Rabobank sent Boogerd and Rasmussen (who was also trying to get KOM points) to the front to work for Menchov, and work they did. They pushed until there was nothing left for either of them. Rasmussen went first, shortly followed by Boogerd (who still had enough energy to finish sixth). What had dwindled to seven riders, shrunk even further. The contenders (and former) were fighting it out. Sastre and Evans were the next to crack, leaving just three riders. Leipheimer, Menchov and Landis.

Yeah, note the lack of Discovery riders. In face, note the lack of T-Mobile riders as well. I'll write about that later, though. So, it was left to Leipheimer, Menchov and Landis to battle it out for the stage win. And that's when we realized that Landis also had the chance of getting the yellow jersey.

From all reports, it seemed that Landis would not contest the sprint – not good for his hip. But it looked like all three were going to try for the win. Leipheimer, having nothing to gain but a bit of time and a win, wanted it perhaps the most. He's mostly out of contention for the yellow, after a crap day at the TT. But it was Menchov who was the strongest. As in so many years previously, it was the rider with the most teammates who usually managed a win. And, in this case, it was Denis Menchov. Rasmussen and Boogred did their job and Menchov outsprinted Leipheimer, with Landis coming in third.

It was a really good stage, from the moment the live coverage started at 6:50 (ignoring the pre-race crap) until it ended around 11:30 or so. The break, the mountains and Dessel. Speaking of Dessel, a lot of people thought we were going to see a repeat of Voeckler's '04 performances in the mountains. Sadly, it was not to be. But to his credit, Dessel is in second by only eight seconds.

Of course, this might all change once we reach the Alps. That's the best thing about this year's tour. Anything can happen – and it does. Oh, and I wrote the Stage 11 report for Bicirace. You can read it here.

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