Tour de France stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 17: Gap to Pinerolo, 179km

For the third time in five days – and the fourth in all – a Norwegian rode to victory as the Tour ventured beyond the French borders for the only time in this year’s race. Having had to settle for second behind compatriot Thor Hushovd yesterday, today it was the turn of Edvald Boasson Hagen to claim his second win as he soloed clear of the day’s break to take victory in Pinerolo after a daredevil descent from the Côte de Pramartino which Andy Schleck had condemned as “mortally dangerous”.

The peloton crosses the Lac de Serre-Ponçon in pursuit of the day's breakaway (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Going up

The day’s breakaway finally formed after 58km as an initial attack comprising ten riders was joined by four counter-attackers. The group included Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), French champion Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Jonathan Hivert (Saur-Sojasun) and Movistar’s Costa Rican rider Andrey Amador – the lanterne rouge, the last-ranked rider remaining in the race.

Casar beat Boasson Hagen to claim maximum points at the intermediate sprint nearly halfway through the stage. Mark Cavendish was unopposed as he swept up the final remaining point for 15th place when the peloton arrived nearly six minutes later.

Pérez launched a solo attack on the Sestrières climb

Other than a doomed attempt by Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Kevin De Weert (QuickStep) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) to bridge the gap from the front of the peloton, the real action did not begin until the fourth and penultimate 11km climb to Sestrières. 2km from the summit Pérez, in a breakaway for the fifth time in this Tour, went clear and built a lead of over a minute as he started the long descent to the valley floor below, with the peloton’s deficit reaching its highest point of eight minutes.

Slowly but surely though, his advantage began to fall as he approached the final climb of the Côte de Pramartino at 15km to go, as his pursuers closed in. It was Chavanel who made the catch, springing forward from the chasing group about a third of the way up the mountain and riding straight over the top of the tiring Spaniard. In turn, however, he was pulled in by Boasson Hagen, who rode with him for a short while until the others started to close in. He then kicked hard and decisively, powering impressively away from the group and towards the summit.

Behind the battle for the lead, the yellow jersey group was led on to the Pramartino by BMC’s George Hincapie, with his leader Cadel Evans on his shoulder, the watchful Andy and Fränk Schleck on his wheel and a spry-looking Alberto Contador a little further back.

Coming down

With an average gradient of 6%, the Pramartino is not an especially steep climb. The descent, however, is narrow, twist and steep, with a 3km stretch where the slope varies between 10% and 14%. As if this isn’t difficult enough, the riders also have to contend with changing light as they alternate between heavy tree cover and direct sunlight, which makes bumps in the road surface difficult to spot.

At his press conference during Monday’s rest day, Andy Schleck called the descent “mortally dangerous”, saying:

That’s ridiculous. It looks like a bike path across a wood. I trained three times in the descent and I already felt it too risky.

However, AG2R’s sportif Julien Jurdie described it as “more technical than dangerous”, and Tour race director Jean-Francois Pescheux was even more dismissive, saying:

The finish is not dangerous. It is part of the race anyway. The winner must be an all-rounder.

Shall we cancel the Poggio in Milan-San Remo? Shall we draw the Tour’s route on a motorway between Paris and Marseille? If so, those who complain could lose the race because of an echelon.

While Schleck’s concerns have a degree of validity in a year which has seen Wouter Weylandt killed on a similarly technical descent at the Giro and Juan Mauricio Soler put into a coma after another crash, cycling is inherently a dangerous sport in which modern road furniture presents as great a threat to riders as a difficult descent does.

At least today’s finish was dry.

Boasson Hagen attacked on the final climb and descended brilliantly to take an easy win

Boasson Hagen dealt with the challenging descent brilliantly, carrying huge amounts of speed into the corners and using the full width of the road without mishap. He reached the finish alone, having stretched his advantage to 40 seconds. His second victory matched Hushovd’s total and meant the two Norwegians have now combined for four wins. Only Britain (or more specifically the Isle of Man) can boast a similar total, with Belgium and Spain (two each) the only other countries with multiple wins.

Behind today’s winner, the rest of the leading riders showed how difficult the descent could be when attacked at full speed. Hivert and Mollema had accelerated off the chasing pack behind Boasson Hagen, but the former quickly lost touch as he overran one bend, slid into the trees on another and then flew off the road into someone’s driveway. Mollema continued alone to finish 40 seconds behind Boasson Hagen.

The real drama, however, was again taking place on the front of the peloton both before and after the summit of the final climb. Alberto Contador had shown his attacking intent on the ascent with a couple of exploratory bursts, countered by one from Fränk Schleck. Then over the summit Contador fired off again, taking Samuel Sánchez and Thomas Voeckler with him. But the yellow jersey, one of the better descenders in the peloton, ran wide on a bend and then in his haste to regain lost ground flew off into the same driveway as Hivert.

That left the two Spaniards to attempt to press home their advantage as they flew down the descent and along the relatively flat last 3km, with a chase group including the Schlecks, Cadel Evans, Damiano Cunego and the polka dot jersey of Jelle Vanendert in hot pursuit. They looked to have done enough to eke out a few seconds’ gap, only for their pursuers to haul them back in the final 250 metres to ensure they would all finish together. It had been a brave effort and a thrilling finale, but the only leading casualties on the day were Voeckler and Ivan Basso (a notoriously poor descender) who rolled home together in a small group 27 seconds later. As a result, the latter dropped a place to eighth.

Overall, though, the order at the top of the general classification was unaffected, but with Voeckler losing 27 seconds to his closest rivals. His advantage over Evans is now just 78 seconds, which could easily disappear in a single kilometre on the Galibier tomorrow (assuming the snow-laden road near the summit is passable). All the other jersey holders remained unchanged although Chavanel, who led the breakaway over three of the day’s five climbs, gained 18 points to jump up to fourth in the mountains classification.

Andrey Amador’s reward for his day in the break was to move up to 168th out of 169 riders and reduce his overall deficit to Voeckler to under 2 hours and 51 minutes.

Boasson Hagen has benefited from the freedom of not having to support Sky team leader Bradley Wiggins, who broke his collarbone on stage seven. He was delighted to have made up for his disappointment yesterday:

I wanted to win this stage because I came so close the day before. I wanted to get revenge. My team-mates did a good job early on to get me in the break and I felt quite strong all the way.

I don’t like to make many attacks so I made one big one and made it to the finish. The descent was quite technical but I knew it and I was alone and I didn’t find it that dangerous. It was probably more technical and dangerous if you didn’t know it and were in a big group.

It’s been an amazing Tour for Norway. There might only be the two of us but we have four stage wins and that’s really great.

With hindsight, Voeckler regretted having pushed so hard on the descent:

It’s a pity, because I saw that Contador, Evans and the Schlecks finished together. If I’d taken fewer risks, I would have finished with Evans and the others. But [losing] 27 seconds is not too bad, it could have cost me a [broken] collarbone.

However, encouraged by his performances throughout the race, he is starting to re-evaluate his potential to finish high up the order in the Grand Tours:

I never thought I’d be able to ride for GC and be at this level in the third week of the Tour de France. I’ll have to think about that in the future.

He is likely to lose the yellow jersey on the steep upper slopes of the Galibier tomorrow, but he still has every chance of finishing in the top three in Paris. It would be no more than he deserves.

How dangerous is too dangerous?

Andy Schleck was right to point out the extreme challenges inherent in arguably the most difficult descent in this year’s race. Certainly, if it had been wet we would have seen the riders tiptoeing gingerly down the road. But was the descent really too dangerous, or was it a road which sorted out the most courageous riders and the best bike handlers from the rest? Boasson Hagen, Sánchez and Contador coped well enough, and Voeckler would have too had he not by his own admission been too aggressive.

After the stage, the Schlecks unsurprisingly criticised the descent. Contador acknowledged that it was dangerous but that he had not taken any unnecessary risks. And that’s the point. The descent was only as dangerous as the riders made it for themselves. For those who went over the limit, such as Voeckler and Hivert, there was a price to pay. But for those who judged it right, the road was merely challenging. Just as a rally driver must judge how fast he can take a corner, so too must a cyclist – it is a critical component of their skill set on days like this.

Injuries can happen anywhere in a cycling race. Indeed most of this year’s crashes have occurred where the road has been flat. And sprinters accept that it is part and parcel of their trade that they are in perpetual danger of serious injury in every bunch sprint. But you don’t see Mark Cavendish or Tyler Farrar asking for sprints to be made safer, do you?

Should the sport try to avoid unnecessary dangers? Of course. But the reality is that the safer you make racing, the more risks riders will take as a result – a phenomenon we have seen over the years in Formula 1, where drivers now routinely make manoeuvres which, if incorrectly executed, could have resulted in fatalities in years gone by. It is the nature of fierce competitors that they will push boundaries. Run every race on a motorway, as Pescheux flippantly suggests, and big crashes will still happen, but without the spectacle that makes the sport so exciting to watch. It is not just a case of making cycling safer by cutting out all the steep downhills, Andy.

Stage 18 preview

The first part of an Alpine double-header brings us a stage of the utmost difficulty, as the peloton takes on three hors catégorie summits of over 2,300 metres. First the riders must negotiate the highest point of this year’s race – the Col Agnel at 2,744m, a 23.7km grind averaging 6.5% – as a prelude to the Izoard (the shortest but steepest of the day’s three climbs at 14.1km and 7.3%) and then the highest summit finish of any of the Tour’s 98 editions, a previously unused road to the finish atop the Galibier after 22.8km of torturous climbing.

This final climb is actually two-in-one – the relatively gentle Col du Lautaret leads into the final 8.5km ascent of the Galibier, which averages 6.9% but exceeds 12% at the summit. This could result in some large time gaps as riders crack under the pressure and accumulated fatigue of a long day of climbing. This is likely to be the day in which Voeckler finally gives up the yellow jersey, and others may lose all hope of achieving their own personal objectives.

Stage 17 result:

1. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) 4:18:00

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:40

3. Sandy Casar (FDJ) +0:50

4. Julien El Fares (Cofidis) same time

5. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) s/t

General classification:

1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 73:23:49

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +1:18

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +1:22

4. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +2:36

5. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:59

6. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:15

7. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +3:34

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

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

10. Rigoberto Urán (Sky) +7:36

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 320 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. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 38

5. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 28

Links: Tour de France official

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

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

Stage 16: Norewgian one-two leaves Andy Schleck minding the Gap

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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