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Tour de France stage 19: Rolland wins at Alpe d’Huez on a day of true champions

Stage 19: Modane Valfréjus to Alpe-d’Huez, 109.5km

For the past ten days, France has been celebrating the maillot jaune sitting on the shoulders of Thomas Voeckler while bemoaning the lack of French stage winners. How fitting then that on the day Voeckler’s grip on the yellow jersey was finally loosened that Pierre Rolland, the man who has shepherded him all the way through the Pyrenees and Alps, became the first French winner this year. Meanwhile, on a day when three of the four prize jerseys changed hands, Andy Schleck assumed the overall lead, setting up a nail-biting individual time trial tomorrow in which he will go head-to-head with Cadel Evans for the right to wear the final yellow jersey in Paris on Sunday.

Déjà vu? Cadel Evans (right) leads the chase up the Col du Galibier for the second day running (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

It’s déjà vu all over again as Evans is forced to chase over the Galibier

Whoever designed today’s stage deserves a hearty slap on the back (although the sprinters may not thank him). Coming after the three hors catégorie climbs of yesterday’s marathon stage to the Galibier, today’s parcours was a veritable sprint at 109.5km. It was planned specifically to encourage early attacks from strong climbers and create chaotic, exciting racing. It certainly succeeded, producing three hours of compelling ebb-and-flow, where the advantage swung first one way and the other until it was impossible to predict a winner. After three consecutive days of thrilling racing, this was arguably the best of the lot. Chapeau to race organisers ASO.

Contador launched an audacious all-or-nothing attack to animate the stage

The action started immediately, as a 14-man break formed on the opening descent. But no sooner had it formed than it began to break up on the 11.9km climb of the Col du Télégraphe. Barely 2km into the ascent, Alberto Contador attacked, with Andy Schleck immediately responding. As the defending champion pulled clear and linked up with two Saxo Bank-Sungard teammates, Cadel Evans, Fränk Schleck and the yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler also jumped across.

The early attack, echoing the younger Schleck’s stage-winning move yesterday, made sense. Andy, Evans and Voeckler had given everything on the Galibier, and Contador’s acceleration immediately isolated them from virtually their entire teams, forcing them to commit to a mano a mano battle.

The Spaniard continued to press hard on the front. Fränk Schleck drifted back to the peloton, a tactical decision to set him up as plan B in the event the break was unsuccessful.

Contador attacked repeatedly. Voeckler soon lost contact, and then Evans stopped to examine a problem with a rubbing rear wheel. He remounted, then stopped a second and then a third time before finally changing his bike. Stranded in no man’s land Voeckler, typically, decided to struggle on, while Evans opted to drop back to the peloton.

Gorka Izagirre, who had been in the original break and had latched on to the back of the Contador group, sprinted ahead to take maximum points over the Télégraphe, incurring the wrath of Andy Schleck in doing so. Nonetheless, the leaders held a lead of 1:36 over the peloton over the summit and set off on the short 5km descent which led straight into the 16.7km climb of the Galibier – approached today from the ‘easier’ north side. Voeckler continued to pursue behind them, looking for all the world like he was on the point of keeling over and yet holding his deficit steady at 30 seconds. It has ceased being a surprise seeing the plucky Voeckler defying defeat, but it never stops being a pleasure to watch – if watching a rider’s face contorted in agony as he struggles to churn a big gear can ever be pleasurable.

Evans was compelled to lead a chase over the Galibier for the second day running

Izagirre was dropped halfway up the climb, leaving four men – Contador, Schleck, Rui Costa and Christophe Riblon – in the lead of the stage, with a dwindling but organised peloton holding station at around 1:30 behind. However, on the toughest part of the ascent near the summit, Voeckler cracked, almost coming to a standstill and sitting up to wait for the peloton. At the same time, with big names such as Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer and white jersey Rein Taaramae all starting to struggle, it was once again left to Evans to pick up the pace single-handed at the front, just as he had had to do on the climb on the other side of the Galibier yesterday.

Samuel Sánchez leapt off the peloton near the summit as Evans allowed Voeckler’s Europcar team to pick up pace-setting for a spell. But, unsatisfied with their tempo, the Australian also attacked off the front, taking Pierre Rolland and the watchful Fränk Schleck with him. Brother Andy led over the summit, as the lead group started the long descent to the valley below – down the road which they climbed yesterday – with a 34-second lead over the six-strong Evans group and Sánchez sandwiched in between. Sánchez latched on to the Contador group with 46km left, but it was not until the 25km mark that Evans’ group finally caught them, soon followed by a second chasing pack which included the reinvigorated Voeckler to create a lead group of around 20 riders.

21 hairpins on the climb to hell

A brief lull then occurred while the riders took on water and caught their breath before turning on to Alpe d’Huez – 13.8km long, with its 21 famed hairpin bends each carrying the name of either one or two previous stage winners – with the favourites all together for the race-defining climb of this year’s Tour.

Voeckler's brave defence of the yellow jersey finally ended on Alpe d'Huez

There was no preamble. The attacks started almost immediately. The Schlecks’ teammate Jakob Fuglsang made the first move, prompting immediate counter-attacks by first Evans and then Contador. With the defending champion over three minutes behind overall, the others were happy to let him have his head, and he surged away, catching and dropping Rolland and Ryder Hesjedal who had slipped away before the climb started. Under the 10km banner, Contador was powering away at the front on his own, 35 seconds ahead of Evans’ group, and 1:21 ahead of a struggling yellow jersey peloton.

Fränk tried to dislodge Evans, but the Australian was easily able to match him. He was content to let Peter Velits, Sánchez and Thomas De Gendt go, however, as he focussed on controlling the Schlecks, who seemed uncertain what to do next and managed to present the impression that Evans was somehow outnumbering them as Contador continued to ride away from all of them, stretching his advantage over the six-man group to 1:42. This forced the Schlecks to pick up the pace as Contador began to represent a genuine threat to them while Evans, safe in the knowledge that he is a better time trialist than both brothers, was content to sit back and let them do the hard work for a change.

Rolland claimed France's first stage win of the 2011 Tour

At 5km, their deficit was back down to a minute as Contador started to look uncomfortable. Two pursuing pairs – Rolland and Sánchez, Velits and De Gendt – were sandwiched in between, while Voeckler’s group was by now over 2½ minutes down, with the yellow jersey still giving absolutely everything but finally reaching the point where he was running only on fumes. With Rolland and Sánchez visibly closing, Contador finally began to crack, grimacing with pain in a way we have never seen from him before. The pair caught him on a hairpin at 2.5km to go, and after a few moments of cat-and-mouse Rolland accelerated smoothly away from the two Spaniards to claim the first French win of this year’s Tour unopposed.

The final 2km saw Contador’s advantage over his rivals dwindle rapidly. Led primarily by the impressively strong Evans, they homed in on the defending champion, who lost Sánchez’s wheel and eventually finished just 34 seconds ahead of Velits, Evans, De Gendt, Damiano Cunego and the Schlecks.

Voeckler rolled in to tumultuous cheers, exhausted and 3:22 behind his winning teammate, giving us one final sight of him in yellow before he turned the jersey over to Andy Schleck. The new race leader has an advantage of 53 seconds over his brother, and 57 over Evans, with Voeckler dropping to fourth, 2:10 behind. It is a perilously slim advantage. Andy, though much improved as a time-trialist, is markedly inferior to Evans, who must be considered the marginal favourite to finally seize yellow tomorrow.

Rolland received a triple reward for his efforts: the stage win, the white jersey and the privilege of having his name attached to bend 16 of the climb – an honour he shares with a certain Bernard Hinault. There can be no higher accolade for a French rider, and it was a rich reward for the back-breaking effort he had put in to helping his leader defend the maillot jaune.

Sánchez’s second place not only put him back into the polka dot jersey but ensured he will win the competition, barring withdrawal. It is just reward for the most consistent rider in the high mountains, having recorded a win and two seconds on the race’s four big summit finishes. He said that he was pleased to win the mountains classification as compensation for not making the top three overall:

I just had a bonk yesterday and had nothing in my legs. Today I felt better and I was hoping to win the stage. Rolland was impressive, so hats off to him. The polka-dot jersey is a nice prize and it helps take off the edge of not being able to reach the podium.

Finally, Mark Cavendish again finished in a large gruppetto which missed the time limit, although this time by just 18 seconds. He was again docked 20 points, but crucially so too was José Joaquín Rojas, maintaining the Manxman’s 15-point advantage and making him the only jersey wearer to successfully defend his position today.

A day of true champions

This was a day on which a number of riders showed true champion qualities. Contador showed the heart of a Tour winner with his audacious attack, and so nearly pulled off an improbable win. Chapeau, Alberto. He told the press that he had decided to risk everything today:

I decided to just go for it today. Once the GC option was gone yesterday, I decided to risk everything.

I came to this Tour hoping to pull off the Giro-Tour double, but I knew it would be difficult. I am leaving the Tour with a good sensation. I am content. I didn’t have the legs to win the Tour after racing the Giro, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Rolland rode his way into his nation’s hearts, providing a beautiful symmetry in winning the stage as his teammate finally lost the yellow jersey. Chapeau, Pierre. After the stage, he said it was Voeckler himself who had told him to chase the win and the white jersey:

As long as Thomas wore the maillot jaune, I was working for him and absolutely not thinking of myself. On the Galibier he told me to go, that it was my day if I wanted the white jersey. It’s proof that Thomas is a very big champion because many other riders in his situation would have asked their teammate to stay with them, even if they were 10 minutes behind.

This is a climb that I know very well one that I’ve reconnoitred more than a dozen times last year. I told myself that I would not finish second, it was win or nothing. This is a stage that I’ve watched dozens of times on video, with [Lance] Armstrong, [Marco] Pantani. I studied their cadence. And now it’s me who has won! It will take me a little time before I realise what I’ve done.

Voeckler himself yet again displayed the never-say-die attitude which saw him claw his way back into contention repeatedly throughout the day. Chapeau, Thomas. He was genuinely delighted for his teammate after the stage:

I only got to know once I crossed the finishing line that Pierre had won today’s stage. I’m super happy for him. He deserves one hundred times to get this win. He has helped me so much. It’s a legitimate reward.

But the ride of the day was that of Evans, who overcame a mechanical mishap, made the right tactical decisions, and took some massive pulls on the front leading the chase for the second day in a row. Chapeau, Cadel. After the stage, he played down claims he was now the favourite and explained that his tactics tomorrow would be straightforward enough:

It’s simple, start as fast possible in the time trial and finish as fast as possible. Hope it’s fast enough.

However, race leader Andy Schleck remained outwardly confident that his 57-second advantage over Evans would be enough, particularly with the motivation of wearing the yellow jersey:

I believe I can keep the jersey. I’m in great form, and this time trial route is not one for the real specialists of the discipline. It will be much more about who still has the most energy left – and I still do.

I’ll start last tomorrow, and my motivation is great, my legs are super so I’m confident I can actually keep this jersey until Paris. 57 seconds is a lot, and when you have the yellow jersey it gives you wings.

On paper, Evans should now win the Tour tomorrow in the Grenoble time trial. However, the Tour de France is not won on paper and this year’s edition has taught us to take nothing for granted. However, the contest is now set up perfectly. Andy Schleck has a barely defensible advantage over Evans, and both will need to produce tomorrow under the highest pressure. Four of the last five Tours have been decided by less than a minute. Could this one be too? It would certainly be no more than this incredible race deserves.

Once again I say: chapeau!

Stage 20 preview

The decisive stage of the 2011 Tour de France takes place on the same course used for the individual time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. It requires a little bit of everything: power, climbing ability, and a combination of descending skills and bike handling on the return run down to Grenoble, which features a series of difficult, tight corners at the start of the descent. Most of all, it will reward those riders who gauge their effort most evenly, and punish those who do not.

Large chunks of time can be won or lost throughout this stage. Although exacerbated by the wet conditions, two minutes separated first from tenth at the Dauphiné, with several contenders losing closer to four minutes. HTC-Highroad’s Tony Martin won that day, and the German is likely to be the biggest threat to the pre-eminence of Fabian Cancellara. But expect Cadel Evans to also challenge for the win, while the hilly nature of the course will also favour Alberto Contador and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

It will be a day of high tension, with the overall leader at the end of the day being crowned champion in Paris the following afternoon.

Stage 19 result:

1. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) 3:13:25

2. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:14

3. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +0:23

4. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:57

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:57

General classification:

1. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 82:48:43

2. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:53

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:57

4. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) +2:10

5. Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) +3:31

6. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +3:55

7. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +4:22

8. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) +4:40

9. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervélo) +7:11

10. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) +8:57

Points classification:

1. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 280 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 265

3. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 230

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 195

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 191

Mountains classification:

1. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 108 pts

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 98

3. Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 74

4. Cadel Evans (BMC) 58

5. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) 56

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?

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

Stage 17: Boasson Hagen wins again, Schleck complains again

Stage 18: Schleck one-two knocks out Contador, Evans and Voeckler battle on

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

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