If today was considered the first true test for the overall contenders, LEOPARD TREK passed with flying colors. Using the entire team to set a blistering pace up the Col du Tourmalet, Joost Posthuma, Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady, Linus Gerdemann, Maxime Monfort and Jens Voigt forced a selection on the hors categorie climb to set up the Schleck brothers to assert their authority on Luz Ardiden.
Authority asserted. Fränk Schleck finished third on the stage behind stage winner Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto). Twenty seconds behind his brother, Andy Schleck came across the line with Cadel Evans (BMC) and Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) to take sixth on the stage. Their efforts propelled Fränk into second overall behind race leader Thomas Voeckler. Evans is now the filling in a Schleck sandwich, currently seven seconds behind Fränk and 11 seconds ahead of Andy who has been bumped up to fourth overall.
“The plan was to make the whole race very hard beginning on the Tourmalet,” said Fränk. “The whole team was on the front pulling like hell. They did incredible work today."
The Tour headed high into the Pyrenees today with a 212 kilometer stage from Cugnaux to the mountaintop finish in Luz Ardiden, and it was on this stage that LEOPARD TREK knew their real work would begin. The relatively flat roads at the start kicked up after the intermediate sprint. The peloton tackled three categorized climbs -- the category one Hourquette d’Ancizan and hors categoires Col du Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden.
An early break of six escaped from the bunch within the first ten kilometers. They would go on to gain a maximum advantage of nine minutes during the first half of the race. Europcar initially assumed responsibility for setting tempo. Following the intermediate sprint, polka-dot jersey wearer Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) attacked in pursuit of mountain points. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Roman Kreuziger (Astana) followed suit. With nine riders out front, the bunch hit the first climb of the day.
A slippery descent of the Hourquette d’Ancizan proved the biggest challenge of the first climb on the menu. Several riders went down including Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) and Voeckler. Both managed to rejoin the field on the fast descent.
As the field reached the base of the Tourmalet, LEOPARD TREK lined up at the front of the field to lift the tempo and see what kind of damage they could do to the riders behind. Their work forced a selection, reabsorbed Hoogerland and halved the advantage to the race leaders.
“We had a plan to make the race as hard as possible,” said Andy. “We would see what happened with the general classification contenders and see what kind of selection we could make.”
Jakob Fuglsang did not make the selection LEOPARD TREK created.
“I didn’t have the best day today,” said Fuglsang, who started the day in tenth overall. “I felt a bit blocked, and the legs didn’t feel good. This sometimes happen when we shift from the big gears to the small gears. I pulled back before I got myself in any trouble. I could not go too deep or I would risk hurting myself for the rest of the Tour. It is important to temporize so that I can help the Schlecks as much as possible in later stages.”
While Fuglsang backed off, Jens Voigt applied pressure. He led the bunch over the top of the Tourmalet and down the long, technical descent that would lead to the base of the Luz Ardiden. Several riders freewheeled away on the descent including Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) while others, including Sanchez and Vanendert, escaped on the lowers slopes of the final climb.
Voigt put in a massive effort on the front of the yellow jersey group as they blasted to the foot of the Luz Ardiden. When he peeled off, work complete, Andy took over at the front.
“If I were the boss, I would make Jens sign for four more years,” said Fränk, with a smile. “He is so incredibly strong.”
Voigt’s efforts reduced the front group to around 20 riders that included most of the overall contenders. As the favorites marked one another, Andy launched the first move. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) closed the gap. Fränk attacked next, and this time Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) followed. Contador put in the next dig. Andy countered. Cadel Evans (BMC) sat comfortably behind as he watched the action unfold. Basso and Contador put in additional attacks. No one got away.
Fränk kicked again. Contador bridged up with Evans on his wheel. The move reduced the size of the group from 20 to eight. Pierre Rolland (Europcar) took to the front to protect the interests of Voeckler. From behind, Fränk attacked again. The slow response from the group allowed Fränk to finally slip away.
“Fränk was super strong,” noted Andy. “His attack was perfectly time. We knew that if we attackled left, right, left, right, they would eventually have to let one of us get away. That was the plan, and it's exactly what happened.”
Evans led the chase and took Andy, Basso, Contador and Cunego with him. Voeckler was not able to match the acceleration and fell back with Rolland. Less than a kilometer from the finish, Fränk had the two race leaders, the only two from early moves to survive the increase in pace from the onslaught of attacks behind, in sight. He narrowly missed catching them before the line.
“It’s too bad that I didn’t reach the two guys out front,” said Fränk. “They sprinted when they knew I was coming. I wanted to win the stage, but there will be other opportunities.”
Sanchez bested Vanendert in a two-up sprint while Fränk crossed the line ten seconds behind. Twenty seconds later, Andy’s group of four made it to the finish. Contador finished 13 seconds back adding to the time he has lost since stage one.
“The time Contador lost today won’t make a difference in Paris,” predicted Andy. “He is a great champion, and he knows tomorrow is another day. He could come back and have a super strong day to put time into his rivals.”
The race favorites may take a back seat to the break tomorrow. The second day in the Pyrenees, 156 kilometers between Pau and Lourdes, includes the climb of the Aubisque. Stage 13 lacks a summit finish and includes only one big climb, the Col d’Aubisque, that sits 50 kilometers from the stage finish.