Halfway through the 2006 Tour de France, this was already a race to remember. Before the start, it lost favourites Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso and Francisco Mancebo due to blood-doping allegations; the same allegations forced the team of Kazakh favourite, Alexandre Vinokourov, to withdraw. Within the first few days, the Tour lost another possible race winner in Alejandro Valverde in a crash, while Bobby Julich, a former podium-placed rider, also ended his participation injured in the gutter.
Of the remaining favourites, the Team Discovery trio of George Hincapie, Paolo Savoldelli and Yaroslav Popovych had struggled in the time trial and in the Pyrenees. Levi Leipheimer of America had also lost large amounts of time. As the race left the first range of mountains, American Floyd Landis led the race by eight seconds from Frenchman Cyril Dessel. The overall top ten standings were as follows1:
- Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 49 hours, 18 minutes and 7 seconds
- Cyril Dessel (Fra) AG2R +8"
- Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank +1'01"
- Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto +1'17"
- Carlos Sastre (Spa) Team CSC +1'52"
- Andreas Klöden (Ger) T-Mobile +2'29"
- Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile +3'22"
- Juan Miguel Mercado (Spa) Agritubel +3'33"
- Christophe Moreau (Fra) AG2R +3'44"
- Markus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner +4'17"
Meanwhile in the competition for the green jersey for most consistent finisher2, everything was falling apart for World Champion Tom Boonen. He constantly mistimed his sprints and had been beaten time and again by Spain's Óscar Freire and Australia's Robbie McEwen. McEwen held the green jersey.
For once the French were not having a bad tour; they had taken a stage win with Jimmy Casper, and Cyril Dessel had held yellow after a long break on the first Pyrenees stage. The Basques weren't doing so well, as their great hope, Iban Mayo, had again flopped in the mountains. While it would be possible to claim that the two Brits were underperforming (Bradley Wiggins was over an hour behind the leaders as the race left the Pyrenees), it was a great achievement that both were still there considering it was Wiggins' first Tour, and David Millar hadn't raced for two years.
Week Two, Continued
There were three transition stages to take the race between France's major mountain chains. These are long, hot drags through the sun-baked roads of Provence. The rolling hills and intense heat make it ideal territory for breakaways, as the main field is generally too hot to chase anybody down. The Tour's leading contenders are usually not too bothered to control breaks here that do not contain threats, as they will likely fade away in the Alps.
Stage 12 - 211.5km Luchon to Carcassonne
With just one big climb to tackle before they finally left the weather-beaten hills of the Pyrenees, the Tour set off towards the walled city of Carcassonne. Stage 12 fell on 14 July, Bastille Day. It was traditional for a French rider to try, and fail, to win the stage on this date. Discovery's Tour went from bad to worse as they lost two riders including Savoldelli.
As expected, a group broke away; it contained Yaroslav Popovych, Frenchman Christophe Le Mével and sprinters Alessandro Ballan and Óscar Freire. Coming into the closing stages it was obvious that the main field - containing an irate Robbie McEwen who spent ages trying to convince somebody to help him chase down his rival Freire - were not going to catch them. Le Mével was first to be dropped, so there would be no French win today. Popovych knew that against two sprinters he couldn't win the stage if it came down to a sprint so he launched attack after attack. Just once, the other two hesitated and Popovych got a much needed win for his team. Ballan beat Freire for second a few seconds back. Le Mével was over half a minute behind, with the main field coming in over four minutes back. At last Tom Boonen led the main field in; it was just a shame that it was a sprint for the minor places.
Stage 13 - 230km Béziers to Montélimar
This was another tough day in the baking heat (over 40°C) of Southern France. Although the stage consisted of only five fourth-category climbs3, the nature of the rolling hills was also going to be draining.
Tradition dictates that it is the responsibility of the team of the yellow-jersey holder to control the race. Every other team looks to them to start chasing down the attacks. If there is no rider in a breakaway who poses a threat to the overall lead, then the chances are that, especially on a hot day, the breakaway will succeed.
Today's big break consisted of five riders: Germany's big powerhouse from Team CSC, Jens Voigt, Óscar Pereiro from Spain, France's Sylvain Chavanel, Italy's Manuel Quinziato and Andriy Grivko from Ukraine. The best-placed rider in the overall standings was Óscar Pereiro from the Caisse d'Épargne team and he was nearly half an hour down. Caisse d'Épargne, who had lost their main rider, Alejandro Valverde, early in the first week, have an illustrious history with Miguel Indurain and Pedro Delgado, but have been waiting over a decade for a worthy successor.
Floyd Landis's team, Phonak, were well aware that Pereiro had lost vast amounts of time in the Pyrenees and were not too worried about his challenge, so happily sat back and let him go. The other teams of the main contenders didn't want to take up the chase so the breakaway's advantage stretched to more than 30 minutes. Nobody was too concerned that Pereiro had finished tenth in the previous two Tours, or that the nature of the Alps meant that some riders who fail in the Pyrenees may not crack in the Alps.
Grivko was dropped first from the breakaway, leaving four riders from the four major countries of European cycling. Quinziato and Chavanel were dropped near to the finish and Jens Voigt out-sprinted Pereiro for the win. This gave Team CSC a much-needed stage win and few people would begrudge Voigt, a man who regularly features in attacks, a win.
Robbie McEwen led the main field in, just three seconds short of half an hour after Voigt. According to the rules, this meant that all but six of the riders finished outside the official time limit and should have been disqualified. This would obviously have been silly so the rules were not enforced.
Pereiro had claimed the yellow jersey by 1 minute 29 seconds. The French press were outraged that Landis had effectively given away the yellow jersey because he didn't want the pressure. But it wasn't just his team that were responsible. Klöden was now almost four minutes behind the leader after T-Mobile had also refused to chase. He was obviously hoping that Pereiro would drop another 30 minutes in the Alps, but the yellow jersey does strange things to riders.
Stage 14 - 180.5km Montélimar to Gap
After the previous day's break, it was pretty much guaranteed that there would not be anything to match it today. The main race favourites would not want to lose another 30 minutes to anybody and Pereiro would want to keep his paws on the yellow jersey as long as possible.
This stage sits in between a hilly transition stage, and a full-on mountain stage and it would take the race into the heart of the Alps. There were two second-category climbs and two third-categories. The killer was going to be the Col de la Sentinelle, a second-category climb less than ten kilometres from the finish. In theory the descent would allow lone riders and small groups to maintain their gap ahead of the bunch because they can use the entire road to descend and not have to worry about the other 170 riders buzzing about their back wheels.
It was hardly a surprise that a breakaway of six riders formed off the front of the race. The riders were David Canada, Rik Verbrugghe, Matthias Kessler, Mario Aerts, Pierrick Fédrigo and Salvatore Commesso. They were making decent headway on the roads of the South of France, many melted by the incessant sun of the European heat wave.
With about 40km to go, the break was dramatically halved. Verbrugghe and Canada had almost simultaneous and identical accidents. Their back tyres broke away on the apex of a corner, they were forced to the outside of the road and both tumbled over the barrier into bushes below. Verbrugghe broke a thigh bone and Canada his collarbone. Kessler, following immediately behind Canada, had no choice but to try and avoid him, riding his bike straight into the barrier and vaulting over head first. He was able to continue in the race, but dropped back to the main group rapidly, exhausted, bruised and rather shaken.
Aerts could not take the pace too much longer and dropped back leaving France's Fédrigo and Italy's Commesso to try to hold on to their rapidly dwindling lead. They were first over the Sentinelle as the main group charged in pursuit, shedding many riders out of the back door. Commesso has the reputation as a decent sprinter, but Fédrigo refused to take the lead, forcing the Italian to use up his energy bringing the pair to the finish ahead of the bunch. Fédrigo won the sprint, outsmarting one of the best tacticians in the race, but it was a close call.
Just three seconds behind them was American Christian Vande Velde who rode off the front of the field on the drop into Gap. Four seconds later the main group of favourites, led in by Christophe Moreau and Georg Totschnig, crossed the line. The Sentinelle had blown the race apart with riders coming in eight or ten minutes back.
Pereiro kept his race lead and there was little change at the top of the standings. Although Robbie McEwen had finished well down, he should be satisfied. With only two flat stages left, barring headbutting or crashes, his green jersey was safe. But nothing would be decided in the 2006 Tour until everybody had safely passed the finish line.
The Tour had put Monday down as a rest day, so everybody could spend the whole day staring out of their hotels at the great rock challenges to come in the next three days.
Stage 15 - 187km Gap to Alpe d'Huez
In the Tour de France there is no greater prize than a victory at the top of 'The Alpe'. The history books record wins of past champions and courageous outsiders as they tackle the 21 hairpins and 13.9km, rising over a kilometre above the town of Bourg d'Oisans to the ski centre at the top.
If that wasn't enough, the riders also had to contend with another hors catégorie climb, the Col d'Izoard which rises to a height of 2,360m above sea level. From the top of the Izoard it would be another 100km and the category-two Col du Lautaret, another mountain that rises above 2,000m, before the finish. Although the Lautaret was not a long climb, its altitude could easily cause problems. Race cycling 2km above sea level in the intense sun of July in the South of France is not an easy thing, and you are only ever a pedal stroke away from cracking and losing vast amounts of time.
A 16-man breakaway had gone off the front early, obviously ignoring the fact that only three people had ever won on The Alpe from long breaks. After a series of attacks on the final climb by the young Italian climber Damiano Cunego, the group was splintered along the mountain road with only Frank Schleck of Luxembourg about to keep up.
Behind, the pace was equally devilish. Riders with big reputations were falling backwards from the remaining favourites. The big losers were Australia's Cadel Evans and Russia's Denis Menchov who effectively saw their chances go on this stage. Landis, Klöden and Italy's Stefano Garzelli maintained a relentless pace. Eddy Mazzoleni, Klöden's team-mate who had spent the day out front, dropped back to help out Klöden for a bit before succumbing to the gradient.
One notable thing about the stage was the comparative lack of spectators. The Alpe is infamous for being home to hundreds of thousands of cheering fans, but while there were lots of people, it was nowhere near as packed as normal.
As the leading pair reached the chalets of the ski village, Schleck kicked again, breaking Cunego's heart as he crossed the line 11 seconds ahead. Schleck became the first citizen of the Grand Duchy to win on the Alpe and drew comparisons with his fellow countryman, the Angel of the Mountains, Charly Gaul. Cunego did his challenge for the white jersey of best young rider no harm at all.
Garzelli crossed the line one minute, ten seconds behind, followed by Landis and Klöden. Ruben Lobato was a few seconds behind them, and a few seconds ahead of Sylvain Chavanel. Mazzoleni finished 18 seconds behind his team-mate Klöden. Spanish climber Carlos Sastre finished ninth with Levi Leipheimer looking almost like the pre-race favourite he was touted to be in tenth, 1:49 behind.
Pereiro finished well, fighting for every second, but lost his jersey to Landis by a mere ten seconds. Landis's lack of attacking in the stage led to the French press again branding him a mouse.
David Millar had a surprisingly good stage, finishing only nine minutes behind. Bradley Wiggins lost over half an hour. Boonen, on the other hand, bowed out of the race after failing to win a single stage. Even though he wore the yellow jersey for a few days, his Tour could fairly be described as a failure.
Stage 16 - 182km Bourg d'Oisans to La Toussuire
It would be a fair bet that all of the remaining sprinters who woke up and looked at the day's route map over breakfast would have burst into uncontrollable floods of tears. This was a nasty recreation of Dante's Inferno - a spiral route over the mountains to the ski resort of La Toussuire.
The race started at Bourg d'Oisans, the town at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez, and almost immediately hit the 42km climb of the Col du Galibier. At 2,645 metres above sea level, the Galibier is the high spot of this year's Tour, an hors catégorie climb that rises 1,900 metres from the start of the stage. On the way down the other side, the descent is interrupted by the Col du Telegraph, a four kilometre climb that on any other stage would merit a fair few points in the King of the Mountains, but today was just an added torture.
The next climb is the Col de la Croix de Fer, another hors catégorie that is in fact two climbs in one: the riders climb the whole of the Col du Glandon before turning left and on to the final few kilometres of the Croix de Fer. Then the riders take another drop down the valley before six kilometres of the second-category Col du Mollard. The last climb of the day would be the climb to the ski station at La Toussuire, a first-category climb. Half the day's route was uphill, the total climbs rising over five kilometres.
The story of the day was looking to be written by Denmark's Michael Rasmussen. The climber had been on the leash up until now, looking after his team leader Denis Menchov on the climbs, his energy used up in pace making long before he could make an attack. But with Menchov's failure the day before, Michael Rasmussen was allowed to be his own man and go after the King of the Mountains jersey. He set out on a break with Sandy Casar and Tadej Valjavec after only ten kilometres.
Breakaway rides in the mountains are a completely different prospect from on the flat. If the riders, like the three in this break, are far enough down in the overall classification, then there is no major chase from the main field. The sprinters aren't looking to win, they are looking to survive, and most of the riders normally drafted in to chase are thinking the same thing. The key to surviving at the front is pacing yourself and not using up all your energy before the final climb.
Rasmussen led over the Galibier, before kicking on and dropping his companions on the Croix de Fer. He was looking to ride to the finish alone and reclaim the King Of The Mountains jersey that he had won the previous year. David de la Fuente still held the lead in that competition.
No matter how well you prepare for a race, no matter how well your team has prepared, there is always something you forget. Floyd Landis forgot to drink enough. When this happens, you can suddenly crack and lose almost all your energy. One would think that with a fair shot at winning the race, somebody on the team would be keeping an eye on what fluids Floyd was taking and when, but on the final climb he cracked in spectacular fashion. He had been hanging on to the back of the lead group for most of the race, but it was generally assumed that he was doing the same trick as his former team-mate, Lance Armstrong, watching for weaknesses in his rivals. But as T-Mobile raised the pace and Carlos Sastre powered off the front in pursuit of Rasmussen, Landis dropped off the tail of the lead group and into the history books, under the heading, 'Those who Threw it Away in the Mountains'. It also showed how stretched his Phonak team was; they had no rider around him to help Floyd in his hour of need.
Sastre was proving a very able climber, and without Basso to support, he was the revelation of the race. It was looking like Team CSC's manager Bjarne Riis had unearthed another gem. The other surprise of the race, thriving without his team leader, was Óscar Pereiro. Try as they might - and it could be argued that Klöden wasn't trying hard enough - there was no way for the other leaders to drop Pereiro in the Alps like they had in the Pyrenees.
Rasmussen won the stage, arriving at the finish after a brilliant ride that proved what a classy rider he is. Sastre took second, 1:41 behind. Pereiro sprinted away to finish at 1:54, two seconds ahead of Cadel Evans and Andreas Klöden. Landis lost over ten minutes on one mountain.
Pereiro had reclaimed the yellow jersey with Sastre nearly two minutes behind. Andreas Klöden was at two and a half minutes. Cyril Dessel and Cadel Evans made up the top five; both of them were less than three minutes away from the leader. Landis was now in 11th place, eight minutes and eight seconds off the pace.
There were only two stages left before the final time trial. One of these was a mountain stage, the other was relatively flat. After the time trial there was just the run into Paris and overall positions were not likely to change. Compared with the two Spaniards, Klöden was a much stronger time trialist. It was doubtful, however, if he could make up the deficit on Pereiro in the 57km against the clock. He would have to attack and gain back time, and the final mountain stage would be the only place he could do it.
Stage 17 - 200.5km St Jean de Maurienne to Morzine
There were only four big climbs left in this year's Tour. The stage starts with a long flat run until it hits the Col des Saisies around the 70km mark. This first-category climb is followed quickly by the second-category Col des Aravis. There is little rest as they drop on to the first-category Col de la Colombière. The descent of the Colombière takes the race through Cluses, home of the French rider and one-time contender Charlie Mottet. After a little third-category 'bump', the riders take on the last major climb, the hors catégorie Col de Joux-plane. From the top it is a 12km drop to the resort of Morzine.
All eyes were on Klöden and the T-Mobile squad who had to put in at least a minute on Pereiro. The flat start allowed a big group of riders to break away, then Landis broke away at 70km. Having seen the effect that unchecked breakaways had so far had on the race, one might imagine that when the rider in yellow from the day before broke away, the pack would chase him. Wrong.
T-Mobile managed to get Patrik Sinkewitz on to Landis's back wheel, but that seemed as far they were willing to go. Unless their tactic was for Sinkewitz to spend the next 130km telling Landis how he'd blown all his chances and should just retire, one couldn't really see the point of their moves. Sastre and Pereiro's teams were equally guilty for letting Landis go.
Over the past decade, the whole peloton4 has been fitted with radios. Where in the past riders used to rely on reading timing boards and on their own race sense, today riders are told what is happening every minute by their team manager over the radio; he is listening to race radio, and most likely getting picture feeds in his car. Many followers of the sport have complained that this technology means that riders do not have to think anymore. They do not have to work out overall standings and how the time gaps on the road affect them, as they have a manager to do that for them. The manager will also tell riders when and where to attack. One could argue that in the days before radio, there would have been a response to Landis's attack.
Meanwhile Landis was at the head of the race building a massive lead and he had even made back the eight or so minutes he was behind. He dropped Sinkewitz on the Joux-plane and rode towards what should be a famous victory. The mouse had finally roared!
For the second day running, Sastre rode off the front of the leading pack on the final climb. He finished five minutes and 42 seconds behind Landis. France's Christophe Moreau was 16 seconds behind him. The Italian climber Damiano Cunego did his chances of winning the Best Young Rider jersey no harm at all as he finished six minutes and 40 seconds behind the American. Michael Boogerd finished at 7:08, heading a group containing Schleck, Pereiro, Klöden and Haimar Zubeldia of the Basque lands. Cadel Evans finished another 12 seconds further back. Klöden's attack had not come.
That ride had put Landis into third position overall, just 30 seconds behind Pereiro. Sastre was only 12 seconds back from his compatriot. Klöden was in fourth, still 2:29 behind.
While the yellow jersey was still in the balance, the other two competitions were just about over. None of Robbie McEwen's main rivals had survived the mountains, and so he was well clear of his remaining competitors for the green jersey. Rasmussen could not be caught in the King of the Mountains competition - all he had to do was cross the line in Paris.
Stage 18 - 197km Morzine to Mâcon
The race now waved goodbye to the high passes and deadly descents of the Alps, as it headed to Mâcon in the Rhone valley. Three climbs were on the route, the largest being the second-category Col de Berthiand. With the final time trial coming up the following day, there was little chance of any of the favourites wasting their energy on an attack. But while everybody was looking towards the upcoming time trial, there was still the little matter of over four hours of racing to get through.
With just three days to go in his return to the Tour de France, David Millar featured in an attack off the front with Yaroslav Popovych early in the stage. The main attack of the day featured 15 riders including former contender Levi Leipheimer. With a large group all working together there was little chance of the main field catching them. With most teams represented, the chase would be down to the teams that were left behind and few of them wanted to get involved.
With 17km to go, three riders broke off the front of the group, with Italian Matteo Tosatto beating his countryman Cristian Moreni and Germany's Ronny Scholz. They were 47 seconds ahead of Manuel Quinziato and 63 seconds in front of the rest of the group led in by Sebastien Hinault. Levi Leipheimer was 14th, a few seconds off the back of the group. The main bunch arrived eight minutes back.
So the stage was set for the time trial, with the top ten overall reading:
- Óscar Pereiro (Spain) Caisse d'Épargne 84:33:04"
- Carlos Sastre (Spain) Team CSC +12"
- Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak +30"
- Andreas Klöden (Germany) T-Mobile +2'32"
- Cadel Evans (Australia) Davitamon-Lotto +3'11"
- Denis Menchov (Russia) Rabobank +4'17"
- Cyril Dessel (France) AG2R +4'27"
- Christophe Moreau (France) AG2R +5'48"
- Haimar Zubeldia (Spain) Euskaltel +8'19"
- Michael Rogers (Australia) T-Mobile +12'16"
The numbers were simple: Landis had to make up half a minute on Pereiro over 57km to win the Tour de France. He also had to claw back 18 seconds on Sastre and make sure that he didn't lose more than two minutes to Klöden.
Meanwhile the race was nearly over for the two Britons who were just trying to reach the finish. David Millar was in 61st place, just over two hours behind the leader. Bradley Wiggins was not faring as well; he was in 128th place, almost 200 minutes behind Pereiro.
Stage 19 - 57km Time Trial Le Creusot to Montceau les Mines
The chances were that nobody would actually care who won this time trial, a rather long route for the discipline. In the pre-race predictions, this would be where Jan Ullrich would confirm his victory after having recovered from a poor week in the Pyrenees by having his traditional strong third week in the Alps. The stage was the reverse of the stage where in 1998 Ullrich won the final time trial on his way to second place behind Marco Pantani. In reality, the stage winner this year would not matter - it was just the positions of the first three riders overall that mattered. It was to be a fight between three men: Lance Armstrong's former helper, literally riding with a dead hip and with seemingly superhuman levels of bounce-backability; a Spanish climber with little pedigree; and a Spanish chancer who happened to be in the right break at the right time and had fought like a madman to retain his yellow jersey.
The riders would set off at three-minute intervals, starting with the man in last place overall, and with the yellow jersey starting last. So Pereiro would receive information on how all his rivals were riding, but the question was, could he actually respond to them?
Just as in the previous time trial, the early pace was set by Sebastian Lang of Gerolsteiner. As the day progressed, it turned out that Serhiy Honchar would be the man to beat. By completing the course in a time of one hour, seven minutes and 46 seconds, 3:18 quicker than Lang, the T-Mobile rider posed the question, why hasn't this 32-year-old raced at the Tour before? His second-stage win, the team's third of the Tour, was equally as dominating as his first.
From the other early starters, there were good times from David Millar who ended up 11th just over four minutes behind; Cunego secured his white jersey with a tenth place ride, and the legendary Viatceslav Ekimov5 - riding his 15th Tour de France - came in seventh, 3:41 behind.
At the first checkpoint the times were close. Landis was setting the best pace of the leaders, with Klöden close on time. Pereiro, though, was not lying down; he was fighting for every second, like he had done for the past week.
As the miles passed, it was becoming clear that Klöden was on a mission; while others were dropping back from the Ukrainian Honchar at the time checks, Klöden was still almost in contact. He had a podium position in his sights, and now that he was without his team to support him and his manager to offer tactics and orders, it was only his to lose. Klöden's charge was obviously a nasty surprise for Cadel Evans. Evans, an able time trialist, started only a few seconds off Klöden overall and was hoping to claim fourth place for himself. Klöden caught and passed him for three minutes, a shock given that Evans was heading to a top-ten place on the stage.
Behind him on the road, Carlos Sastre had blown. Much more at home in the mountains, he could not live with the speed of the other riders and was losing more and more time at each checkpoint. He was not only losing his second place to Landis, he was losing his podium place to Klöden.
Then there were two: Floyd Landis and Óscar Pereiro. Resplendent in his yellow jersey, Pereiro was putting in the ride of his life, an achievement after having spent the previous week doing exactly the same. But however hard he rode, Landis, with his awkward style, was gaining time on him.
Landis crossed the line in third position, 30 seconds behind Klöden and one minute 11 seconds behind Honchar. All eyes were on Pereiro and the clock above the finish. He could not make it, crossing the line in fourth place; it was his best ever ride in a time trial, but he was two minutes 40 seconds behind the winner. He had lost the lead of the Tour de France by 59 seconds.