Stage 17 of the 2009 Tour de France hit the French Alps with full force today, with a punishing stage that left the dreams of a few more contenders in tatters, while giving rise to the hopes of others.
The riders faced a tough 169.5 km (105 miles) stage that ran from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand and featured four Category 1 climbs with a Category 2 thrown in for good measure. That meant a long day in the saddle for most, with the majority of the Peloton giving away time to the top riders who have been waiting for the mountain stages to make their attacks.
Yesterday we saw a few attackers testing the water, only to be reeled back in by Team Astana, who have worked well together to ensure that race leader Alberto Contador hangs on to his Yellow Jersey. Today the attacks were expected to come from Saxo Bank, whose young rider Andy Scleck was amongst the pre-race contenders this year, but had been lurking back in the standings of the General Classification. With just two mountain stages to go, Schleck, who is a consummate climber, needed to make a move soon. That move came today.
But the early portions of the stage belonged to Thor Hushovd, who holds the Green Jersey as the top sprinter. Outspoken rival Mark Cavendish took shots at big Thor in the press by saying that Hushovd didn’t win the Jersey on the course, in reference to a controversial complaint filed against Cavendish that ended up costing him points in the competition and effectively ended his bid to ride into Paris in Green. Hushovd responded today with a solo attack that put him over the early mountains and collecting the sprint points for himself. It was the Norwegian rider’s way of telling Cav to shut the hell up, as Cavendish is not a climber and wouldn’t have been able to hang with Thor on those rides. In fact, Thor was so impressive today that he rode down the King of the Mountains Polka Dot Jersey, on the back of Franco Pellizotti, as well, finishing more than a minute ahead of him on the Col des Saisies.
The real action got underway later on the Col de Romme, with 37km (22 miles) left to race. Carlos Sastre, last year’s Tour winner, went out on an attack, and had to be reeled in by Contador, who was flanked by Andreas Kloden and Lance Armstrong. Sastre attempted to make another move, but was once again brought back into the fold, and while all of this was going on, Saxo Bank set up their two riders, Andy and his brother Frank Schleck, to make their move.
Andy was off like a shot, with Contador shadowing him all the way, while Frank, Brad Wiggins, Rigoberto Uran, and Armstrong gave pursuit further back. Christian Vande Velde, once considered an outside shot for the Tour win, faded away quickly, but teammate Dave Zabriskie helped him rejoin the group eventually. Frank picked up the pace, and the rest of the group were soon with Andy and Contador out in front and from there on, the Schlecks would drive the pace.
On the final climb of the day there were four riders out in front, the Schlecks, Contador and Kloden, with several riders, including Armstrong, in the first chase. With 2km to go to the finish, Contador put in an attack, which succeeded in dropping his own teammate in Kloden, but not the Schleck brothers, who hung with him every step of the way. The three raced to the finish line, with Frank getting the well earned stage win for his efforts in helping his brother move up in the GC standings. Not far behind, a group that included Armstrong, Kloden, and WIggens clawed there way to the finish.
The attacks today did scramble the top of the GC. While Contador still holds on to the Yellow Jersey, Andy Schleck is now in second, 2 minutes and 26 seconds back, and Frank is in third, nearly another minute behind. Armstrong dropped into fourth place overall, three minutes and fifty-five seconds behind. Andy also put a tighter grip on the White Jersey as the best young rider, and obviously Hushovd has the Green Jersey all but locked up. Pellizotti still looks good in the Polka Dots.
Tomorrow brings the final individual time trial which is a 40.5 km (25 miles) run through the streets of Annecy that should be interesting to watch. Contador is clearly the best time trialist at the top of the GC at the moment, and at this point it looks unlikely that he’ll be unseated. The question now is whether or not someone can crawl up and knock of the Schleck brothers. I think Armstrong can pass Frank with a good ride and get himself into a position to possibly get back on the Podium in Paris. Should be fun to watch, and the next few days are going to be great. It’s not quite over yet.
Unfortunately, it is over for Cadel Evans, who admitted that he is out of the race, at least as far as getting a podium finish. After finishing second the past two years, he was considered one of the top contenders again this year, but instead he has had the worst Tour of his five year career.
It is also over for Dutch rider Kenny van Hummel, a name that not many have heard of. van Hummel is consistently the last rider to cross the finish line, especially in the mountains, but his never-give-up attitude has endeared him to the rest of the Peloton, even as he struggled on to beat the time cut-offs each day. Yesterday for instance, he finished nearly 35 minutes behind the stage winner. He was also one of the fan favorites along the road as well, but he took a nasty fall today and was taken from the course by ambulance. Hopefully he’s okay and we’ll see him back riding again soon, as he is considered to be a promising young sprinter.
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