Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was the first to the finish at Luz-Ardiden to win the first mountain stage of the Tour de France; Thomas Voeckler retained his yellow jersey with an unexpectedly strong performance despite being caught up in a series of attacks by the big-name overall contenders.
Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek) was the real winner in the first exchange of blows in this year's race, while the loser was Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard).who was unable to handle the pace during the final part of the torturous Pyrenean climb.
Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) had managed to get away from the favourites on the climb to the finish and caught and passed breakaway heroes Geraint Thomas and Jeremy Roy, who had been away since the start of the 209km stage. The Beijing Olympic champion turned on his speed with about 250 metres to go to take the win ahead of Vanendert, with Schleck taking third just ten seconds behind. The overall contenders were a further 20 seconds back, although Contador had lost contact and finished a psychologically damaging13 seconds down on Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Cadel Evans (BMC)
Voeckler surprisingly held on to his yellow jersey, clutching teammate Pierre Rolland's hand in gratitude as the crossed the line 50 seconds after Sanchez. He now leads Schleck by 1:49, with Evans third at 2:06.
"It's a very emotional and exciting win for us because there was a lot of support out there for us. For me it’s a dream come true,” Sanchez said.
“It’s a very important victory. We are not a big-budget team but a modest, all-Basque team. It's our biggest victory of the season. I’ve worked very hard to be at my very best for the Tour de France and I've sacrificed more than ever before: I’ve spent time away from my family and from people who I’ve lost. But now it's worth it."
Voeckler was overjoyed to keep the yellow jersey on Bastille Day.
“Today I was surprised to be here 10km to the final,” he said. “After I saw the last km I said to myself you're still here, don't give up. Today Europcar team really helped me all day, especially Rolland in the final. Even if I crashed after the first climb, it's a good day, but it's been a hard day.”
Voeckler kept the yellow jersey but the polka-dot jersey of the best climber and the white young rider’s jersey both changed hands.
Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil-DCM put in a brave effort in the high mountains but faded and so Sanchez took the jersey thanks to his stage win atop the Hors Category Luz-Ardiden climb, his 40 points means he leads Vanendert (32) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ) at 24 points. Robert Gesink (Rabobank) lost not only his hopes for top placing but also the white jersey when he cracked on the Tourmalet. Arnold Jeannesson of FDJ took it, ahead of Rein Taaramae (Cofidis).
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) kept he green points jersey by taking the field sprint behind the six-rider breakaway.
Another early break
The weather was significantly better after several days of rain, seemingly inspiring the riders.
As always, the day's escape group got away early. Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Laurent Mangel (Saur Sojasun), Biel Kadri (Ag2R) and Jeremy Roy (FDJ) were up and gone within minutes of the start.
The Frenchmen took the intermediate sprint points on Bastille Day, as Mangel crossed the line ahead of Roy. Nine minutes behind them, things got serious for the top sprinters before they formed the gruppetto to survive in the mountains.
Movistar took the middle of the road in the sprint, HTC-Highroad the left and Omega Pharma-Lotto the right, but HTC-Highroad had things easily in hand and brought the green-clad Mark Cavendish to the line as seventh, with Mark Renshaw eighth and Goss tenth. Only Jose Joaquin Rojas of Movistar was able to get in there as ninth. That gave Cavendish another nine points, for a total of 260, 18 more than Rojas.
The lead group started up the category one Hourquette d'Ancizan with a reduced lead of seven minutes. Movistar put down a high pace on the climb, and not surprisingly the first to attack was KOM Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil-DCM, who seemed to have recovered well from his barbed wire cuts. He was almost immediately joined by French champion Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), and then by Roman Kreuziger (Astana). Their attacked didn’t last long and it was the descent that caused the big problems.
Geraint Thomas fell out of the lead group when he slipped on the damp roads. Fortunately he found a gap between parked vehicles, falling, sliding and miraculously coming to a stop only inches from the cliffside. Back on the bike, he seemed to have lost his nerve and soon shot onto the grass again on another curve, before ultimately again joining the lead group.
The peloton topped the first climb and almost immediately went down – literally. In the middle of one of the first switchbacks, a handful of riders crashed. Voeckler braked into a parked car, and Andreas Klöden of RadioShack was once again involved, as was HTC-Highroad's Peter Velits. Fortunately all of them got up and back on.
The Tourmalet was next and its most prominent victim was Robert Gesink of Rabobank. HTC-Highroad's Tony Martin also fell back, along with Jakob Fuglsang of Leopard Trek. With Velits and Klöden being thrown back by the crash, massive changes in the GC were expected.
With still five kilometres to go to the top, the lead group finally fell apart for good, with Thomas remaining alone in the lead. Behind them, Leopard Trek veteran Jens Voigt pulled the increasingly smaller group up the mountain. Roy moved back up to the front to claim the mountain points in the fog ahead of Thomas. Behind them, escape groups of various compositions formed and faded. The Tourmalet, as ever, caused attrition.
Thomas and Roy then headed to the final climb, the legendary Luz-Ardiden, with a lead of just over three minutes but it was quickly down to only 1:43 into the final 10 km.
Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) were the first to make it up to the leaders, with eight kilometres to go. The duo moved on into the lead as Thomas and Roy faded. Their suffering would be worth it. Roy took the special Souvenir Jacques Goddet for cresting the Tourmalet first and Thomas was awarded the combatif or most aggressive rider prize.
The overall contenders battle begins
The battle between the Tour de France contenders began when Sylvester Szmyd and Ivan Basso of Liquigas took over the lead work in the group which got increasingly smaller and smaller, with even Gilbert unable to hang on. The Schlecks stayed almost within touching distance of Contador as they went up the final climb, almost trying to psyche him out.
Contador dropped back at one moment, and Andy Schleck moved quickly to the front. The Spaniard went with him, but it was all a feint. Fränk Schleck shot up the other side, and although he didn't really get away, the first shot had been fired. Other surges and chases followed but it they were all jabs rather than knockout blows.
Frank Schleck’s third try was his best, and with four kilometres to go, he got away in a solo effort. He pursued Vanendert and Sanchez up the narrow fan-lined road but was just unable to catch the two leaders before the finish.
Basso and Evans led the chase and that snapped the elastic holding the big name contenders together. First Voeckler and then Contador fell off the pace and lost precious seconds. Voeckler was happy to hold into to yellow but the verdict of the first mountain finish had exposed Contador’s weaknesses and confirmed that this year’s Tour de France is going to be a fight all the way to Paris.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.