Spaniard Samuel Sanchez (pictured) won the 211km-long 12th stage of the Tour de France, outracing several leading contenders in this edition's first high-mountain stage. Frenchman Thomas Voeckler retains the race leader's yellow jersey.
AP - Spain’s Samuel Sanchez thrilled Basque fans with the stage win and France’s Thomas Voeckler surprised himself by keeping the yellow jersey on Bastille Day as the Tour de France finally hit the mountains on Thursday.
Defending champion Alberto Contador ran into more, if modest, trouble on Stage 12 by losing some seconds to other race favorites on the final climb.
The 211-kilometer (131-mile) trek from Cugnaux to the Luz-Ardiden ski station featured three tough climbs in the Pyrenees _ including two that are among the hardest in pro cycling.
After 11 stages on wind-swept flats and hills that favored sprinters and breakaway riders, Thursday’s mountains were expected to separate the overall race contenders from the rest of the pack.
The day’s toughest climbs _ the Col du Tourmalet and the uphill finish in Luz-Ardiden _ offered the favorites the chance to analyze each other’s climbing legs and look for signs of weakness among rivals.
Sanchez and Belgian rider Jelle Vanendert overtook a group of breakaway riders in the final climb and held on, with the Spaniard winning their two-man sprint in the last few hundred meters (yards). Vanendert crossed 7 seconds later.
« It’s incredible, » Sanchez said of his first Tour stage victory, after finishing fourth overall last year. The Euskaltel-Euskadi rider said he got extra inspiration from spectators waving the red, green and white flag of Basque country _ a nearby region along the French-Spanish border.
« I can’t believe I won this in front of all our fans, » he said.
After leading a string of attacks on the other favorites, Frank Schleck of Luxembourg surged away and finished third _ 10 seconds back _ to vault into second place overall.
Italy’s Ivan Basso was fourth, Australia’s Cadel Evans was fifth, and Schleck’s younger brother Andy was sixth, each 30 seconds behind Sanchez. Contador came eighth, 43 seconds back.
Voeckler gave the home crowd a delight on Bastille Day, clinging to the yellow jersey that he expected to lose in the punishing climbs.
« I’m glad I was wrong, » Voeckler said, with a smile. « It clearly wasn’t expected. Keeping the jersey was far from expected as the stage started today.
« You have to believe that the yellow jersey gives you a bit of added inspiration on the Bastille Day, » he added.
Overall, Voeckler leads Frank Schleck by 1 minute, 49 seconds, and Evans trails third, 2:06 back. Contador is seventh overall, 4 minutes behind.
« I was a bit careful, » the three-time Tour champion said. « I saw the Schlecks were discussing together and that they were going to play their cards. Frank was the stronger _ and both of them attacked.
« But I’m nevertheless happy with this first mountain stage, » Contador said. « Each day, I feel better ... I still don’t have my best legs. I’m not riding with the same rhythm, but it’s encouraging. »
Andy Schleck, the Leopard Trek team leader who finished runner-up to Contador last year and in 2009, sensed that the one-two punch that he dealt with his brother against the Spaniard exposed an opportunity to win.
« I think today was a perfect day for us. ... For sure, this is not a decisive stage, but we showed we are here, » he said. « Contador is not unbeatable _ he lost more time today.
« We had a discussion with Frank and we decided to attack. I attacked, Frank attacked, we played it like this. Then it was time for him to go all out, » he added. « If we keep going like this, we can win. »
On the 17-kilometer climb up the Col du Tourmalet, a string of better-known riders _ including some potential title contenders _ dropped behind the pack: Among them, Dutch rider Robert Gesink, Germany’s Tony Martin, and Spain’s Luis Leon Sanchez, who was second overall as the day began.
A few crashes marred the ride, including some on a harrowing downhill from the day’s first climb up the Hourquette d’Ancizan, an ascent making its debut on the route of cycling’s showcase race.
Speeding downhill, Olympic pursuit gold medalist Geraint Thomas crashed right after the Welsh rider passed his national flag hoisted by one of the thousands of roadside fans.
Moments later, the Team Sky rider again lost control and skidded off the road. But in a show of grit, Thomas battled back to rejoin the breakaway group, and by midway up the Tourmalet, had briefly taken the lead alone.
By the end, however, the Welshman sputtered up the Luz-Ardiden climb and finished 36th _ 5:20 behind Sanchez. He’s 25th overall, 10:21 back of the French race leader.
RadioShack’s Andreas Kloeden of Germany, who was already nursing back pain from a mass pileup in Sunday’s stage in central France, fell again on Thursday and was treated by a race doctor on both elbows during the stage. Kloeden finished 8:26 back of Sanchez, all but ending any title hopes that he might have had: He’s 10:19 behind Voeckler in 24th place.
Two more grueling Pyrenean stages loom on Friday and Saturday, starting with Stage 13’s 152.5-kilometer (95-mile) ride from Pau to Lourdes featuring the Col d’Aubisque climb.
After veering into more punishment in the Alps in Week Three and an individual time trial in the penultimate stage, the race ends on July 24 on Paris’ Champs-Elysees.
Date created : 2011-07-14