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Tour de France stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 12: Cugnaux to Luz-Ardiden, 211km

In his ‘home’ territory of the Pyrenees, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sánchez claimed victory on the summit of Luz-Ardiden on a day which provided definite pointers to the form of the leading general classification contenders without proving anything conclusive. Yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler, the darling of the French media, put in a typically battling performance on Bastille Day to limit his losses and maintain a lead of nearly two minutes which should guarantee him the race lead at least until Saturday’s monster stage to Plateau de Beille.

Thomas in the break, and in the wars

Thomas had an eventful day

On their national day, three French riders featured in the day’s six-man break. Geraint Thomas (Sky) was the best placed man, 31st overall, 5:51 behind Voeckler. Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun), Blel Kadri (AG2R) and Jérémy Roy (FDJ) figuratively flew the tricolore, and the group was completed by José Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar) and Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). For Roy and Pérez, this was the third time each had appeared in a breakaway – the latter’s previous appearance was as recent as yesterday.

The break pushed their lead out to nine minutes, with Mangel winning the intermediate sprint at Sarrancolin after 119km. When the peloton arrived, HTC-Highroad set up Mark Cavendish to scoop up the nine points available for seventh place, with teammate Tony Martin denying José Joaquín Rojas eighth. Philippe Gilbert was 13th as Cavendish extended his lead in the green jersey competition to 18 points.

Mangel again led over the summit of the day’s first climb, the first category Hourquette d’Ancizan, with the peloton still 5½ minutes adrift. Thomas had barely followed him over the crest when he appeared to slide on a right-hand bend and had to dive off his bike to ensure he didn’t fly over the precipice, the first of two crashes he would endure in quick succession. As the front of the peloton followed minutes later, Voeckler had a huge wobble in the same spot and was unseated, and several other riders including Andreas Klöden immediately behind him also came down.

The middle of the day’s three climbs was the Col du Tourmalet, which had been the final hors catégorie climb of the 2010 Tour and was the first of this year’s. Close to the top of the mountain, Thomas broke free of the lead group and was eventually joined by Roy. The Frenchman easily outpaced the Sky rider over the summit to claim 20 mountains points.

Leopard-Trek force the final selection

Behind them, Leopard-Trek moved to the front of the peloton with the familiar hang-dog expression of Jens Voigt setting a punishing tempo which soon saw some big names shelled out of the back, including white jersey leader Robert Gesink, Christian Vande Velde, Tejay Van Garderen and Ryder Hesjedal. Voigt would again drive the pace on the lower slopes of Luz-Ardiden in pursuit of the two leaders, who were now being pursued by Kadri and a small group containing both Sánchez and Gilbert, which had popped off the front of the peloton on the descent from the Tourmalet.

One by one on the final climb the pretenders fell away. The injured Klöden was one of the first. So too three-time Vuelta King of the Mountains David Moncoutié, who opted to save his energy for another day. With 10km to go the select group of favourites – which included both Schleck brothers, Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso, Cadel Evans, Damiano Cunego, Nicolas Roche and the yellow jersey of Voeckler – was 1:43 behind the leaders. As the pace picked up, they took back 30 seconds in the next kilometre, and by 8km the leaders were almost within sight, just 35 seconds up the road.

Sanchez won ten years after Roberto Laiseka, another Euskaltel rider, also triumphed at Luz-Ardiden

By now Sánchez and Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert had broken free of their little group, and caught and passed the leaders, and the pair would continue untouched all the way to the finish. Olympic champion Sánchez kicked hard with around 250 metres to go and pulled well clear of the tiring Vanendert to claim his first Tour stage.

But the real battle – or at least the initial exploratory feints and parries – was unfolding behind the front two. Andy Schleck launched an initial attack 4km from home to draw his rivals out and set up brother Fränk for a second, more concerted attack. Basso attacked, then Fränk again. Each time the remainder of their eight-strong group was forced to respond, sapping their legs. It was Fränk Schleck’s third attack with 2.5km remaining that proved decisive. He kicked hard, and nobody went with him as he pulled out 20 seconds on the others and nearly caught Vanendert at the finish to finish ten seconds behind the winner.

This final attack was finally enough to dislodge Voeckler who, supported by teammate Pierre Rolland, was able to minimise his loss to 50 seconds. Of the other favourites, Basso and Evans looked the most willing and able to lead the chase with Andy Schleck hanging off their coat-tails as they crossed the line 30 seconds after Sánchez. Cunego lost touch just before the line, finishing five seconds further back, while Contador was another eight seconds adrift, conceding 43 seconds to Sánchez, 33 to Fränk Schleck and 13 to Basso, Evans and Andy Schleck.

The net result was that Voeckler remained in yellow by 1:49, with Fränk Schleck in second place in a dramatically revised top ten. Cadel Evans and brother Andy are both within 28 seconds, with Contador now seventh, exactly four minutes behind. Key names dropping out of contention included Klöden (now 10:19 behind), Vande Velde (14:23) and Gesink (20:55). Gesink’s collapse promoted FDJ’s Arnold Jeannesson into the white jersey, while stage winner Sánchez displaced Johnny Hoogerland in the polka dot jersey.

Sánchez said the win was important to improve his position in the general classification, and it had added significance coming in front of so many Basque fans in the Pyrenees:

It’s a day full of emotion, as I rode in the ‘orange wave’ with the cheers of ‘our’ audience – it was very impressive! And here we are celebrating the anniversary of the victory of [Roberto] Laiseka [the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider who won at Luz-Ardiden ten years ago], so it’s a very special victory.

Andy Schleck pronounced himself more than satisfied on a day when he and his brother had combined to put the other contenders under real pressure:

It was a good day for us. I could see they were looking at us and then Fränk and me kept on attacking left and right. He went away and got some time and for the first mountain stage we’re pretty happy. Levi Leipheimer and Alberto both lost time. I’m happy when any GC rival loses times in the mountains. It shows that we’re on the right way but we’ve seen a really strong ride from Basso, Evans. You’ve got to watch out for them.

Contador admitted that he was not at his best, but improving day by day:

I didn’t feel great today. I’m actually feeling better than I have been in the past days. I am improving. Tomorrow, I should feel better. On balance, it’s been a good day.

And Voeckler was surprised but delighted to maintain his overall lead:

The favourites never attacked seriously. Every time somebody tried, it would all come back together and then the tempo slowed, so that allowed me to stay in touch. I said yesterday I would lose the yellow jersey and I really thought that would happen. But I also said I would give it my best to keep it.

For me, it’s a surprise but a nice surprise. When the favourites attack, I don’t usually manage to follow them.

We are still in the preliminary stages of what promises to be a week-long war of attrition in the high mountains, but the first round goes to the Schlecks, who looked strong and benefitted from Voigt’s incredible stamina in burning off so many riders. Contador will be worried at both his own form and his team’s inability to provide support at key moments. Basso and Evans (and to an extent Cunego) will also be pleased with their strong showing, although it remains to be seen whether they have the legs to attack decisively at critical moments. For now, the shadow boxing has begun, but the knockout punch is still some way away.

Stage 13 preview

As Pyrenean stages go this one is relatively easy, although it does feature the hors catégorie Col d’Aubisque (16.4km, 7.1%) two-thirds of the way through. However, with a long 40km descent to the finish we will probably not see any major attacks from the top GC men and climbers, who will keep their powder dry for the summit finish at Plateau de Beille on Saturday. This may be a day for breakaway specialists who can climb or second-tier riders in the general classification – those seeking a top 20 finish – to make their mark on a day when the overall contenders will be happy not to chase them down.

Stage 12 result:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 6:01:15

2. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:07

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:10

4. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:30

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:30

General classification:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 51:54:44

2. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:49

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +2:06

4. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:17

5. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:16

6. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +3:22

7. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +4:00

8. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:11

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +4:35

10. Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) +4:57

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 260 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 242

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 234

4. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 164

5. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 163

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 40 pts

2. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 32

3. Jérémy Roy (FDJ) 24

4. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 24

5. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) 22

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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Tour de France analysis: Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Today sees the Tour de France enter the Pyrenees for the first of four big summit finishes – two in the Pyrenees, two in the Alps – which will shape both the general classification (yellow jersey) and the King of the Mountains competition (polka dot jersey). The rules for the latter have been tweaked significantly this year, so let’s have a look at what is new, why the changes have been made, and what the overall impact is likely to be in terms of who will win the polka dot jersey.

Out with the old, in with the new

The revised points system for the categorised hills and mountains is as follows:

Compared to the old points system, this alters the nature of the scoring in three key ways.

Firstly, it emphasises the importance of the hors catégorie climbs. In previous years, 20 (for an HC mountain), 15, 10, 4 and 3 points (for a fourth category hill) were awarded to the first rider to the summit. This meant that a rider could gain as many points in winning two second category climbs (20) as they could for being first to the top of the Col du Tourmalet. Under the new rules, an HC climb is now worth four times what a rider would earn for a second category ascent.

Secondly, the number of riders to whom points are awarded has been reduced, with a much steeper sliding scale. For instance, only the top six on an HC climb now receive points (previously it was ten). And whereas before the winner would only receive two points more than the second-placed man and four more than third, this differential has widened to eight and 12. It is now more important than ever to be at or near the front of the race on the big climbs, not just there or thereabouts.

Finally, the scoring is now skewed even more heavily towards the four big summit finishes on stages 12, 14, 18 and 19. Only these four receive double points – 40 for the winner. In previous years, all the final climbs of a day – if second category or higher – received double points, even if they were followed by a long descent. To do well in the mountains classification, a rider must perform consistently well in the biggest climbing stages – in reality the jersey winner will probably have to win one of these stages and score heavily in at least one or two of the others.

Why change?

In recent years, the polka dot jersey has become little more than a consolation prize for climbers who lack the all-round consistency to contend for the overall. Certainly it has had a much lesser stature than either the yellow or green jerseys.

Last year's polka dot jersey winner, Anthony Charteau. Remember him?

To demonstrate this, consider these three questions. Who was last year’s yellow jersey? Alberto Contador, obviously. Who was the green jersey? This might take a couple of moments to recall, but most fans will eventually name Alessandro Petacchi. Now tell me, who won the polka dot jersey? If you said Anthony Charteau, well done – you’re probably in a minority.

What did Charteau do to win the jersey? A very good question. He finished only two stages in the top 20 – 20th on stage eight, fifth the following day – and indeed had just one other top 40 finish, a mediocre 27th on the Tour’s queen stage finishing atop the Col du Tourmalet. He finished 44th overall in the general classification, nearly 1½ hours behind Contador.

Not very impressive is it?

Which begs the question of how Charteau managed to win the jersey, and this strikes at the heart of why the rules needed to change. In the past, the King of the Mountains competition has frequently pivoted around one key stage which contains a large number of medium to high climbs. In the case of Charteau last year, he laid the foundations for his win by claiming nearly half his total points – 71 out of 143 – on stage nine to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne:

2010 stage 9 profile

With a long descent at its end, this was a relatively unimportant stage in terms of the battle for the yellow jersey, but with 83 points available it was critical to the polka dot jersey. Charteau was third on each of the first four climbs, but then claimed the maximum 40 points over the Col de la Madeleine, before rolling in fifth at the finish.

Incidentally, under this year’s rules this stage would have offered only 46 points rather than 83, significantly reducing its impact on the final standings. This year’s equivalent was also the ninth stage. Under the old rules a day such as this with three second, three third and two fourth category climbs would have presented the opportunity to grab up to 48 points in one go – more than a concluding HC climb – as opposed to just 23 points this year.

2011 stage 9 profile

We have seen this pattern of medium-difficulty stages having a disproportionate effect on the polka dot jersey in many previous years as well. The King of the Mountains often triumphs without winning a mountain stage, and certainly not one of the big ones where all the serious climbers come out to play. Indeed, the polka dot jersey wearer rarely finishes high up the GC. Only twice in the last decade has the competition winner also finished in the top ten (Michael Rasmussen was fifth in 2005, and the subsequently banned Bernhard Kohl third in 2008). Charteau finished 44th last year and 2009 winner Franco Pellizotti 37th (until he too was banned) – although both were worthy champions in the sense that they played the tactical game perfectly, neither could reasonably claim to be among even the top five climbers overall.

And that’s why the competition had to change. Whereas the green jersey generally goes to the best (or at least the most consistent) sprinter, this was emphatically not the case in the climbing competition, where a rider such as Charteau could effectively win the jersey by stealth.

Who do the new rules favour?

Johnny Hoogerland currently leads the competition on 22 points but he is a strong rider rather than a strong climber and will undoubtedly relinquish the jersey today, where there are 70 points on offer.

In reality, we can expect the strongest climbers among the top GC contenders – those who can attack and lead on the steepest climbs, rather than just follow – to be the leading candidates for the jersey. That means Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck in particular, although Samuel Sánchez, Ivan Basso and a more attack-minded Cadel Evans will also be in contention. Wheel-suckers such as Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer need not apply.

Could Moncoutié add the mountains crown at the Tour to his three at the Vuelta? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There is also the possibility that a strong climber who is currently a long way down the general classification could also fare well by sweeping to victory in a breakaway while the yellow jersey men focus on watching each other. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) is 23 minutes down, but is also a three-time winner of the mountains classification at the Vuelta a España. Or perhaps David Arroyo (Movistar), runner-up at last year’s Giro, who trails by 30 minutes. If a non-GC rider is to win the jersey, however, a big performance on a single stage is unlikely to be sufficient to win the polka dot jersey. They will need to supplement their total with big points elsewhere, if not on one of the four big stages then certainly on the other Pyrenean and Alpine days which do not end in a summit finish.

Whichever way it ends up, a combination of consistent strength and big performances on the most important mountain stages will be critical to winning the polka dot jersey. The climbing champion will have to attack where it really matters.

Is the new system the ‘right’ solution? I have my doubts. While I applaud the greater focus on rewarding the best climbers on the toughest climbs, I fear two things. Firstly, that the final order at the top of the King of the Mountains competition will bear a striking resemblance to the top of the general classification. And secondly, the eventual winner may come out on top almost by accident, earning the polka dot jersey as a by-product of the fight for its yellow cousin. We could end up with a worthy winner who was never interested in the jersey, rather than a winner of questionable worth who really does covet the prize.

But are the new rules at least an improvement on what has gone before? Definitely, for all the reasons outlined above the jersey will be won by one of the very strongest climbers, and they will have to do it in a visible way over a number of days. It is definitely a step in the right direction.

For more information on the four key mountain stages, check out my Six key stages post.

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Week 1 winners & losers

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 9: Voeckler leads Tour of attrition as peloton licks its wounds

Stage 10: Greipel the Gorilla gets the monkey off his back

Stage 11: No raining on Cavendish’s parade

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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