Tour de France stage 16: Norwegian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

Stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux to Gap, 162.5km

As expected, a breakaway provided the day’s winner in Gap, with Thor Hushovd underlining his all-round ability by outsprinting fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen. But the major action occurred behind them at the head of the peloton, as attacks by Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans on the Col de Manse sent the yellow jersey  group into a state of panic and resulted in Andy Schleck losing over a minute to three of his biggest rivals.

(Left to right) Contador, Sánchez and Evans attack, putting significant time into Andy Schleck (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Peloton in a hurry

Reinvigorated by the rest day – and perhaps keen to spend as little time as possible racing on a wet and miserable afternoon – the peloton set off at a rapid pace, averaging 51.4kph for the first hour on an almost constantly uphill and repeatedly shutting down a series of escape attempts. Indeed, not until nearly 100km had been raced – more than halfway through the stage – did a ten-man breakaway finally establish itself. Hushovd and Garmin teammate Ryder Hesjedal were joined by Sky’s Boasson Hagen, Dries Devenyns (Quick Step), Jérémy Roy (FDJ), Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Mikhal Ignatiev (Katusha), Marco Marcato (Vacansoieil-DCM) and Alan Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Hushovd and Roy had a prior history in this year’s race, as Roy had been beaten by Hushovd in the closing kilometres in Lourdes on stage 13.

Cavendish will have been glad to see that Gilbert did not make it into the break

Significantly for the green jersey competition, neither Philippe Gilbert nor José Joaquín Rojas were in the break on a day which certainly suited the former. Rojas had attempted to join one of the escapes, but he was rapidly closed down.

The break built a six-minute lead in advance of the day’s intermediate sprint, just 45km from the finish. Devenyns crossed the line first as the bonus was not contested.

Ignatiev made the first serious move, attacking his fellow escapees near the foot of the day’s one categorised climb, the second category Col de Manse which, at 9.5km in length and with an average gradient of 5.2%, offered opportunities for a committed attacker. He pulled out a small advantage, but was caught and passed by Hesjedal half-way up the climb. Hesjedal in turn was pursued by Boasson Hagen, with Hushovd sitting in his wheel as his fellow Norwegian chased his teammate.

Contador lights the blue touch paper

Still nearly six minutes behind, the peloton arrived at the Col de Manse with BMC setting the tempo on the front. A third of the way up the climb Alberto Contador suddenly leapt forward out of the pack and was immediately pursued by the Schleck brothers, towed by their Leopard-Trek teammate Fabian Cancellara, and Cadel Evans. They were joined by the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler and Samuel Sánchez, forming an impressive seven-strong break containing six of the top seven riders on general classification. (Only fifth-placed Ivan Basso was missing.)

A second mountain win for the world champion

They were slowly reeled back in by the peloton, which had been reduced to around 25 by the attack. Contador’s Saxo Bank-Sungard teammate Jesús Hernández then moved to the front, setting up the defending champion for another attack, which this time Voeckler and Andy Schleck were the first to respond to, with Evans leading the others across the gap. And when he attacked for a third time, only Evans and Sánchez were able to respond, as the trio put daylight between themselves and their pursuers. This may not have been Contador at his imperious best, but it was enough to crack several of his top rivals in a way the Schlecks’ attacks in the Pyrenees had singularly failed to do.

Ahead of them, Hesjedal went over the summit alone with 11.5km remaining, but Boasson Hagen and Hushovd soon caught him on the treacherously wet descent and the three of them raced down to the finish in Gap. Hesjedal led while teammate Hushovd sat behind Boasson Hagen and then surprised the Sky rider by jumping early, easily holding on to claim his tenth career Tour stage and second this year. Boasson Hagen had to settle for being the second half of a Norwegian one-two.

Behind the three leaders, the remains of the ten-man break dribbled home in ones and twos, but the real action was taking place nearly five minutes back up the road in the battle for 11th. Having ridden over the summit together with Contador and Sánchez, Evans took the lead on the descent, using his skills as a former mountain biker to pilot the trio around the tricky corners. With every twist and turn, a clearly uncomfortable Andy Schleck lost more and more ground, dropping back into and then off the back of the lead peloton.

Sensing his opportunity to put some serious time into his stricken rival, Evans went solo towards the bottom of the descent, driving hard along the flat finish with the two Spaniards three seconds in arrears, the lead peloton containing Voeckler and Fränk Schleck 21 seconds behind, and Basso and Andy Schleck 54 and 69 seconds adrift of the Australian respectively.

Rojas and Gilbert finished 14th and 15th to snatch three and two points respectively, meaning Cavendish’s substantial advantage in the green jersey competition was barely dented. Overall, Evans has closed to within 1:45 of Voeckler – a margin he will be confident of pulling back in Saturday’s time trial alone – while Sánchez and Contador also edged closer to the top. Andy Schleck is now 1:14 behind his brother and 1:18 behind Evans, who is a vastly superior time trialist. He will need to take at least three minutes out of the Aussie and a minute from Contador in the remaining mountain stages if he is to have a realistic chance of wearing yellow in Paris. The brothers’ conservative approach in the Pyrenees has come back to bite them, and far sooner than most people could possibly have expected.

Stage winner Hushovd was delighted with his second stage win:

This year everything seems to be working 100% for me at the Tour. I chose my good days, where I can win, and today I really got the reward again so you could not believe how pleased and happy I am.

It’s always difficult to get in the good breakaway but I felt strong and then, when it came to the sprint, I think I did a perfect sprint thanks to the good help I got from Hesjedal. To beat Edvald Boasson Hagen in a sprint like this is not easy.

Contador admitted that he had always intended to attack today, as he could not afford to wait for the big mountain finishes on Thursday and Friday:

I was very clear that I wanted to attack and I did not care who stuck to my wheel. I knew that some would not be able to and in the end it was better than expected.

This result is not spectacular, but more important is that my legs responded better and that always motivates the team and myself. There are still three more days of mountains and we will be attempting to exploit them. I was already motivated, but this motivates me more.

Yellow jersey Voeckler admitted he had perhaps chosen the wrong times when to follow and when to let others do the chasing:

It’s a little bit scary when Contador attacks. I probably should have left the others to chase but it’s not my style.

We didn’t expect him to attack today, rather in the next few days and I must admit I got stuck, but most of the others struggled too. I should have stayed in Evans’s wheel.

Evans admitted he felt much more comfortable here than on the same descent last year:

I wasn’t expecting so much on the climb. I was more prepared for things on the downhill because it’s a little bit dangerous. Last year I had a broken arm when we had the finish here and it scared me. This year I got in front alone and followed the moves. It was a good little move and a good day.

Sour grapes from Andy Schleck?

On the Leopard-Trek website, Fränk Schleck admitted to being surprised by Contador’s attack, but conceded that the Spaniard would have known the cold, wet conditions did not favour either him or his brother:

We were a bit surprised that Contador went on the climb. We had anticipated he would wait for the Alps.

Contador knows all too well that the Schlecks don’t perform at their best in the cold and rainy conditions. It’s all part of the game – knowing your opponents and knowing their weaknesses. He knows the conditions today, coupled with the dangerous descent, were not our strong point.

It was an astonishing admission to make, and with Thursday’s stage finishing atop the Galibier, which is currently under six inches of snow, they are unlikely to find the conditions on that climb any more hospitable. Contador and Evans will be positively rubbing their hands with glee, particularly after hearing Andy’s petulant post-stage response:

It was a dangerous finale. I don’t think people want to see a race decided on the downhill. We don’t want to see riders’ crashes. A finish like that shouldn’t be allowed.

That sounds very much like sour grapes. While he is a great climber, Andy’s weaknesses – time-trialling and descending – are nonetheless important skills in a cyclist’s armoury. His dislike for them does not mean they should be excluded, any more than Mark Cavendish or André Greipel would expect to be allowed to bypass the high mountains. The wet conditions were unfortunate – and in the back of his mind I am sure he would have been thinking of Joseba Beloki‘s horrific 2003 crash on the same final descent – but they were the same for everybody.

For sure, most fans would prefer to see the Tour decided in a dramatic tête-à-tête finish on one of the Tour’s legendary mountains, but if a rider is capable of building a winning advantage in the time trials (as Miguel Indurain did) or by means of daredevil descending, then there is nothing wrong with that. More than anything, fans want to see the Tour won by a brave rider who commits everything to the pursuit of victory. Contador and Evans did that today. Andy and Fränk failed to exhibit that same courage in the Pyrenees, and they are reaping the consequences of that now.

Of course, nothing was decided today. One crushing attack in the Alps could yet swing the Tour towards one of the brothers, but it will require a level of persistence and a willingness to risk everything which we have yet to see, certainly from Andy. The way forward is now clear. Decide who the team leader is – Fränk or Andy – and build an aggressive plan around them. If one brother is to win this Tour, the other must absolutely bury himself for the cause and risk finishing outside the top ten as a result. With the time trial still to come – where both Evans and Contador will surely take a large chunk out of both brothers – it is now the only way one can win. They certainly have the physical capability to give such a plan a chance of success. Whether the Schlecks and their team management have the courage to execute it, however, is another matter. That decision is likely to have a significant bearing on the final outcome of this Tour.

Whatever happens, I suspect we will look back on this apparently innocuous stage as a major turning point in this year’s race. It was certainly the moment at which the race for the yellow jersey suddenly exploded into life – a proper five-star stage. More, please.

Stage 17 preview

The race leaves France for the only time this year, with a short hop across the Italian border to the finish in Pinerolo, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the country’s unification. The road rises gently towards the intermediate sprint after 81.5km, although a short but sharp third category climb with a 7.4% gradient 10km before the sprint will cause some pain, with Gilbert’s Omega Pharma and Rojas’s Movistar team likely to force the pace to eliminate Mark Cavendish. After that, the Col de Montgenèvre leads straight into the first category Sestrières climb, before a long descent into the final Côte de Pramartino, which summits 8km from the end with a rapid descent to the finish.

None of the final three climbs is especially punishing – each averages around 6% gradient – and with two long descents in the final 60km we would normally be unlikely to see any serious moves from the leaders as they conserve their energies for the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. But that’s what we said about today’s stage. Will Contador dare to attack again? For sure, a breakaway will again have a good chance of success.

Stage 16 result:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 3:31:38

2. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) same time

3. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:02

4. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +0:38

5. Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) +0:52

General classification:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 69:00:56

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +1:45

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:49

4. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +3:03

5. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +3:26

6. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:42

7. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +3:49

8. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +4:01

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +6:04

10. Rigoberto Urán (Sky) +7:55

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 319 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 285

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 250

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 235

5. André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 170

Mountains classification:

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

Links: Tour de France official

Race analysis

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Week 1 winners & losers

Who will win the polka dot jersey?

Week 2 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

Stage 12: Sánchez storms to Bastille Day victory

Stage 13: Thor thunders to victory, leaving Roy tilting at windmills

Stage 14: Vanendert wins as main contenders are happy to man-mark

Stage 15: HTC-Highroad express train delivers 4×4 Cavendish to victory

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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