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Armstrong’s last hurrah is a Pau-faced sprint

Stage 16: Bagnères-de-Luchon > Pau (199.5 km)

On a day which packed in four of the Pyrenees’ most legendary climbs – the Peyresourde, the Aspin, the Tourmalet (for the first of two ascents) and finally the Aubisque – Pierrick Rodrigo made it a memorable day for his country, registering the sixth win by a French rider in this year’s Tour de France, the most since 1997. And Lance Armstrong emerged from his slumber in the peloton to treat the town of Pau to one final flourish as he contested a finishing sprint for surely the last time in his illustrious Tour career.

The peloton climbing the Col du Tourmalet (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Indeed, Pau holds a special significance for Armstrong, even though he has never won a stage here. It was in the town that he and the rest of the Motorola team rolled across the line together ahead of the peloton the day after teammate Fabio Casartelli‘s fatal crash in 1995. And now it is also the town in which he made one final attempt to win a road stage to add to his tally of 22 individual victories at the Tour.

Alas, it was not to be. Having joined the breakaway group of the day, he attempted unsuccessfully to distance himself from the faster sprinters in the escape on the final climbs. Four or five years ago, he would have been capable of doing this, probably with some ease, but today his 39-year old legs lacked that explosive kick on which so many of his Tour triumphs were built. With 15 km to go on the long descent into Pau, as the group were attempting to chase down Carlos Barredo who had sprinted off the front of the break some 30 km before, he admitted to RadioShack directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel that he was feeling tired. And although he did summon up the energy to make a fist of the sprint once Barredo had been caught with just 1,100 metres remaining, he knew with over 100 metres to go that he simply no longer had the legs to even get close, sitting up to roll over the line in sixth position well behind an exultant Fedrigo.

Lance Armstrong - one final attack (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Nonetheless, it had been a brave, attacking performance by the seven-time champion. At times there were obvious flickers of the fire which has always raged within him. And he went out with his head held high, knowing that he had succumbed in a proper battle, with no quarter given. Pas de cadeaux (‘no gifts’), as he once famously growled.

With the ascent of the category-one Peyresourde beginning at kilometre zero, the attacks had begun as soon as the flag dropped, with just about every climber in the peloton and many others all desperate to establish themselves in a successful break. A group of 18 including Armstrong and several other big climbers soon broke clear. This had thinned out to just 11 by the summit of the day’s second climb, the first-category Aspin, and with riders yo-yoing on and off both the front and back of the yellow jersey group, it all made for a couple of hours of tense and watchful riding by the teams of race leaders Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

In the escape group, Sandy Casar made a bold solo attack on the descent of the Aspin, only to be caught and passed by Armstrong on the slopes of the Tourmalet, who in turn was hauled back by Fedrigo and Damiano Cunego and then rejoined by the rest of the group as they caught up. Armstrong then attacked again on the Aubisque, reducing the group once more without ever completely breaking free. It was thrilling stuff from the American, defiant to the end in his refusal to accept defeat. But the effort he had expended on the two hors catégorie climbs sapped his reserves too much to be able to compete seriously in the final sprint – not that this was something he had attempted with much success in the latter stages of his career:

It’s been a while since I sprinted. We knew Fedrigo was the fastest guy [in the sprint]. We tried to catch his wheel, but we were just not quick enough. We tried to win the stage.

He then admitted openly how close he now is to bringing down the curtain on his Tour de France career, and possibly his entire racing career:

Lance Armstrong is over with in about four or five days.

If nothing else, he will hopefully provide us with one or two more killer soundbites before he rides off into the sunset. A Tour without Lance Armstrong is a less lively and entertaining place, and even in adversity this year he has come out with some crackers, perhaps most notably after his disappointing result over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles on stage three:

Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. Today I was the nail.

Fedrigo collected his third Tour win, summing up his delight on the podium:

It was a very, very beautiful day, one of the best. I can’t say much more.

Stage 16 winner Pierrick Fedrigo

His victory added further garnish to a hugely successful Tour for his Bbox Bouygues Telecom team, with Thomas Voeckler having won yesterday and Anthony Charteau still leading the King of the Mountains classification. However, Charteau’s lead is now under threat from Caisse d’Epargne veteran Christophe Moreau – the oldest man in the race – who was first over both HC climbs to move to within 15 points of the leader. The competition will be decided on Thursday, with the last climb of the entire race being the summit finish on the Tourmalet, so we can expect both riders to be involved in the mix there, with grandstand seats of what may prove to be the decisive Contador v Schleck showdown.

Ultimately, it proved to be a quiet day for the two favourites, who rolled in 6:45 behind the winner as part of a large group headed by Thor Hushovd, who managed to survive over the big climbs to claim six invaluable points at the finish which moves his back ahead of Alessandro Petacchi in the points competition.

Contador and Schleck, meanwhile were reunited on French TV after the podium presentations for a public reconciliation, with both expressing a desire to move on.

Schleck said:

We did speak to each other today. What we all saw yesterday was not something that you want to see in a race, but sometimes things like that do happen. Alberto said to me that it was simply something that’s part of racing. I told him that it’s all fine now. The Tour de France is going to be won by the rider with the best legs, and there is certainly going to be a great battle between the two of us the day after tomorrow.

When asked about whether he had apologised to Schleck, Contador responded:

Yes. I didn’t need to. But we’ve got a very strong friendship and it was for that reason that I wanted to apologise yesterday evening.

And Schleck concluded with the following, before personally requesting for people to stop booing Contador:

I realise that after what happened at Spa the race could already have been over for me. That day the peloton waited for me. Yesterday the situation wasn’t the same, and I realised that I shouldn’t fret about it too much.

So now the jousting is over, and on Thursday we will see how things pan out on the final ascent of the Col du Tourmalet. Realistically, Contador needs only to finish alongside Schleck, who will be looking to take at least a minute and ideally more out of the defending champion. Throw in Denis Menchov and Samuel Sánchez, who are currently squabbling over the final podium step but could still move up higher, and the conclusion of the King of the Mountains competition, and the scene is set for a spectacular final day in the Pyrenees, as befits its centenary anniversary. And once Thursday’s stage has finished it will – quite literally – be all downhill from there.

Especially for Lance Armstrong. He now looks likely to depart without a valedictory stage win, but at least he gave us one final cameo to remember him by. And that’s good enough for me.

———-

Technology permitting, I will be live-blogging Thursday’s critical stage 17 from about 2pm UK time. See you here then.

———-

Stage 16 result:

1. Pierrick Fedrigo (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 5:31:43

2. Sandy Casar (FDJ) same time

3. Rubén Plaza (Caisse d’Epargne) s/t

4. Damiano Cnego (Lampre) s/t

5. Chris Horner (RadioShack) s/t

General classification (yellow jersey):

1. Alberto Contador (Astana) 78:29:10

2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:08

3. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:00

4. Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +2:13

5. Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +3:39

6. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +5:01

7. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack) +5:25

8. Joaquín Rodríquez (Katusha) +5:45

9. Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) +7:12

10. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) +7:51

Selected others:

21. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +17:44

25. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack) +33:46

Points classification (green jersey):

1. Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 191 pts

2. Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 187

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) 162

4. José Joaquín Rojas (Caisse d’Epargne) 149

5. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 138

Climbers’ classification (polka dot jersey):

1. Anthony Charteau (Bbox Bouygues Telecom) 143 pts

2. Christophe Moreau (Caisse d’Epargne) 128

3. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) 99

4. Sandy Casar (FDJ) 93

5. Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step) 92

Stage 17 preview:

Start & finish: Pau > Col du Tourmalet

Distance & type: 174 km, high mountains

This final Pyrenean stage should decide the battle for the yellow jersey. After the short, sharp shock of the Côte de Renoir (only 2,2km, but 6% gradient) to shake away the cobwebs of the rest day, the riders will face three peaks of increasing difficulty, with the first category climbs of the Col de Marie-Blanque and Col du Soulor both averaging close to 8% slope. But we shouldn’t expect attacks from any of the big guns on any of these three climbs.

The action will be saved for the final climb of the day – and indeed the entire Tour – the second ascent to the summit of the Tourmalet. From this direction, it is 18.6 km at an average gradient of 7.5%. This will be Schleck’s last chance to attack Contador and he will be looking for significant gains, so expect Saxo Bank to be on the attack relatively early. Equally, if any of the other favourites want to make a move up the order, they will have to throw caution to the wind. This final ascent should be the most spectacular hour of the entire Tour, with the elite riders throwing the kitchen sink at each other.

At the end of it, we may well know the winner of the 2010 Tour, and we will definitely know the winner of the polka dot jersey, as there are no further categorised climbs in the race. Back Schleck or Contador to win, but expect attacks from various riders all the way up the mountain as the GC and King of the Mountains shake-outs take place.

For more reviews and informed comments about the Tour de France, please read any (or all!) of the following excellent blogs:

Marc’s sports blog

Todd Kinsey’s TDF blog

SportPH

Cyclingproject365

Richard Tulloch’s Life on the Road

The social cyclist

Gonecycling

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

10 Responses to Armstrong’s last hurrah is a Pau-faced sprint

  1. Armstrong came close and it was a valiant ride yesterday. Not quite enough, though it would have been great to see him on the podium one last time. I think this was simply a Tour too far for him.

    Delighted to see Thor back in green, but for how long?

    • Tim says:

      It’s interesting to hear Thor saying that his collarbone injury forced him to do more general rather than sprint training, which served him well yesterday. It was a very impressive ride by such a big man to ride with the yellow jersey group over the big climbs and even launch a cheeky attack.

      I think Petacchi may well struggle to overhaul Thor now, although it will be tight. (And what about this doping allegation?) It all depends who still has decent legs for stages 18 & 20, and will probably come down to the Champs Elysees.

      I wonder about EBH too. Sky wanted to get him into at least one break and weren’t able to, so his legs may still be relatively fresh for the sprints.

  2. 39stonecyclist says:

    GUTTED To see Lance miss out, was preying for one last win !!!

    • Tim says:

      Yeah, it was a shame, but at least he went out swinging for the fences. Hopefully he can at least get a high placing in Saturday’s time trial.

  3. 39stonecyclist says:

    Fingers crossed , Maybe he can reconsider and try again next year 😀

    • Tim says:

      I think it’s unlikely he’ll reverse his decision – not a very Lance thing to do, is it? Plus I think he now acknowledges that age is starting to catch up to him – when he kicked on the climbs to try and shake the rest of the escape there wasn’t enough in the tank, whereas 4 or 5 years ago he would probably have flown away. It was a shame – but at least he had a go.

  4. 39stonecyclist says:

    Of course you are right, but we can all dream, I think with better prep, he could come back next year, dont think he will, but if he did and kept Radioshack as strong as it is today , AND had a better preperation than this year, I think he could nab a couple of stages. Its all IF’s and BUT’s and we all know it wont happen, Sunday will be a very sad day.

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  6. Pingback: Tour de France 2010 review: Stage-by-stage « The armchair sports fan

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