Jurgen Van Den Broeck’s exit from this year’s Tour de France has allowed another Belgian sensation – Jelle Vanendert – to take centre stage on the world’s biggest stage and win his first ever professional race atop Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees.
After lots of attacking and counter-attacking by Andy Schleck and the other overall contenders on the climb to the finish, it was the relatively unheralded Omega Pharma-Lotto rider who edged away with seven kilometers remaining in the stage. He was seemingly unnoticed by the big-name favourites and dug deep to stay away and beat Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez by 21 seconds. Andy Schleck brought home the favourites at 46 seconds.
The 26-year-old Belgian showed his climbing ability like Van Den Broeck did two years ago, albeit in more spectacular fashion, by winning ahead of the overall contenders in this year’s Tour after a tense day of racing that saw Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler do enough to hold onto his yellow jersey. He survived the numerous attacks from Schleck in the final 10km to take the race lead into tomorrow’s stage, openly celebrating on the finish line amongst men considered more likely to be in his position than the plucky Frenchman.
Voeckler has surely become a podium contender after successfully going with all the attacks on the toughest finish of this year’s Tour de France.
“I would be lying if I said that I expected to stay with the best climbers today,” he admitted.
“The yellow jersey has given me great confidence but I’m really surprised to keep it. We’ll try and keep it as long as possible well. But as I’ve said, we’ll take things one day at a time. We’ll have to be careful even on the stage to Montpellier because it can be windy down there.”
That Voeckler held onto yellow for a sixth consecutive day means he must now be a serious contender for the overall win
Whilst the winners atop Plateau de Beille in 1998 (Marco Pantani), 2002 (Lance Armstrong), 2004 (Armstrong again) and 2007 (Alberto Contador) all went on to win the overall title in those years, Vanendert is not expected to do the same, but it was an impressive first professional victory.
“This is really amazing. Taking my first win as a pro at the Tour de France is a nice surprise,” he said.
“After staying with Andy Schleck’s attacks, I thought I didn’t have anything to lose because I’m not a threat in the GC. I decided to go before the favourites made their moves and get a gap, thinking that if they came back, I’d have recovered. But nobody came back to me.”
A categorised quintet ahead of the GC test
With five categorised climbs on the menu before the hors categorie ascent to Plateau de Beille, it was always going to be a tough day in the saddle. Not surprisingly, the day’s break formed before the category two Col de Portet d'Aspet, with Leopard Trek veteran Jens Voigt and teammate Linus Gerdemann taking their place in the move, plus stage nine winner Luis León Sánchez and Rabobank teammate Bauke Mollema.
Gorka Izagirre Insausti (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Millar of Garmin-Cervélo, Liquigas-Cannondale rider Kristjian Koren, Quickstep man Sylvain Chavanel and Astana’s mercurial Frenchman Rémy Di Grégorio were also present. They had AG2R La Mondiale duo Maxime Bouet and Christophe Riblon, former Tour stage winner Sandy Casar of FDJ and his teammates Mickael Delage and Arthur Vichot for company, plus last year’s mountains classification winner Anthony Charteau of Europcar, Manuel Quinziato (BMC Racing), Julien El Farès (Cofidis), Katusha’s Egor Silin, Marco Marcato of Vacansoleil-DCM and Xabier Zandio of Sky.
Joining them a little later were Movistar man Rui Alberto Costa, Lampre – ISD’s Adriano Malori, Chavanel’s Quickstep teammate Jérôme Pineau plus another Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Ruben Perez. Movistar’s José Ivan Gutierrez and Maxim Iglinskiy of Astana gave chase in an attempt to get with the leaders but it was a doomed endeavour for the pair and they sat up.
The break takes up the slack
El Fares and Casar went it alone on the descent of the Col de la Core and were joined in the town of Seix by Millar. The trio established a lead of a minute over the remnants of the break with 88km and four peaks remaining in the stage, while behind them, Voeckler’s Europcar crew continued to tap out a steady rhythm at the head of the peloton.
With a little under 80 clicks for the break until the finish, Casar had done enough to earn the maillot jaune virtuel, an honour not destined to last until day’s end but a special moment for the Frenchman. On the opening slopes of the first category Col d’Agnet, Millar faded and went backwards, whilst Casar and El Fares were joined by Silin, Riblon, Di Grégorio, Voigt, Charteau, Zandio, Izagirre, Gerdemann and Chavanel.
Meanwhile Leopard-Trek was testing the peloton’s resolve with some pace setting that slowly disintegrated the field. The likes of Stuart O’Grady, Fabian Cancellara and Maxime Monfort were doing their job to perfection and keeping the tempo high to prevent those with GC aspirations making any moves.
Unsurprisingly, Cadel Evans’ BMC Racing crew was tucked in safely behind the Schleck brothers and the Leopard-Trek outfit; the Australian had said at the start of the day that the stage was, “not a long day, but a hard day. It's going to be a pretty important day for sure. One of the key important days, as well as a couple of others in the Alps."
A man who took advantage of the hard parcours was Izagirre. The Basque climber shot off the front of the break on the descent of the Col d’Agnes and then pushed hard on the lower slopes of the Port de Lers. With 50km to the finish, the men at the head of proceedings still had in excess of five minutes over maillot jaune Voeckler in the peloton, but it would not be enough.
Izagirre crested the Port de Lers alone as Jens Voigt took a little solo trip off the road on the descent. The German had more bad luck when he crashed again whilst trying to make it back to the break. The second incident was an eerie reminder of his gruesome crash on stage 16 of the 2009 Tour, when he landed heavily on his head taking another descent, the Col du Petit Saint Bernard, which ended his race prematurely. Fortunately it wasn’t to be a repeat of that however, and he returned to the peloton to help his teammates.
As if by magic, when the break hit 30km to go, the attacks began. Sanchez and Marcato hit the men in pursuit of Izagirre, stringing out the front group when in reality it should have continued working together to stay ahead of a peloton driven by Leopard-Trek. And the attacks were coming thick and fast from the break. Before long Izagirre was caught – with 24km remaining – bringing the brave Basque’s move to an end. Soon after it was Chavanel’s turn to take to the front, and dragging Sanchez and Perez with him, he set off for home. Behind them the pace had increased in the bunch, although with 20km remaining the gap between the two main groups on the road hovered around three minutes.
After Chavanel sat up and allowing the remnants of the break to catch them, it was time for Perez to hit the front again, albeit solo, in a lone dash towards Plateau de Beille. The only hurdle: 16km of punishment up one of the Tour’s most iconic climbs.
Here comes the cavalry!
The peloton, still led by Leopard-Trek, hit the base of the final climb 2:14 behind the leaders and it was a case of diminishing returns for the brave souls at the head of proceedings as Charteau, Di Gregorio and Gerdemann were swept up. With Perez out of the picture, it was time for Casar to show his hand as a lone ranger; pursued by Xandio and Riblon. He amassed a lead of 25 seconds with 12km until the finish.
Voeckler was holding on to his yellow jersey for dear life as the first attack by Andy Schleck came with 10.5km remaining. Though unsuccessful, only 700 metres later he tried again, followed by Vanendert and pursued by Evans, Voeckler, Contador and older brother Frank. Damiano Cunego, Ivan Basso and Riblon also made it up to the hotspot of hostilities. Another kilometre up the road last year’s Tour de France runner up made another surge and again it was Voeckler on his wheel, throwing everything he could through the pedals to hold onto his race lead.
With the action heating up behind him, Casar continued to push on to the finish, holding a lead of just 50 seconds with eight kilometres of purgatory remaining on the slopes of Plateau de Beille. It wouldn’t be enough to see him home however, as behind him the younger Schleck was at it again, going with seven kilometres to go and forcing the illustrious names he had for company to chase.
They all passed the lone Frenchman as Vanendert, who had slipped past Schleck during the latest of his attacks, quickly amassed a 17-second lead. Hardly a safety buffer, although it was nevertheless a stoic effort as the young Belgian suddenly took on Omega Pharma-Lotto’s general classification leadership.
That advantage grew to 29 seconds as Basso backed his ability to create a split and put his head down into the final five kilometres. With Voeckler glued to his wheel the Italian continued to up the pace, forcing his countryman Cunego into difficulty and putting his fellow favourites on notice that he was back at the year’s biggest bike race after a long absence.
Ivan Basso was one of the main attackers on the final climb, but was unable to find an opening
Stage 12 winner Sanchez then surged hard with 3.5km remaining in an attempt to catch Vanendert, who had accumulated a further nine seconds to sit 38 ahead of the elite selection. It was also no surprise that Voeckler was still amongst them, the plucky French contender winning more hearts with another gutsy ride.
As the two-to-go banner approached for the lone Belgian, Basso decided it was time to take things to another level – the move was closed down by Evans, Schleck and the rest, although it served as further proof of his Tour credentials. In front of the poker game Sanchez continued his pursuit of Vanendert but it seemed increasingly unlikely he was going to add another stage win to his victory two days ago.
Vanendert's first Tour win was also his first pro win
And so it was. At the finish Vanendert prevailed and celebrated and was understandably ecstatic with his victory, the biggest of his career and one which may have indicated the advent of another potential Belgian general classification rider at the Tour de France.
The battle for overall victory was not so clear. For that we will have to wait until the Alps later next week.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.