This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
For the second time in three years, Pierrick Fédrigo (FDJ-BigMat) has won a Tour de France stage finishing in Pau. This go round in 2012 the cagey Frenchman triumphed in a two-man sprint from Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp) as the duo left their four breakaway companions behind 6.5km from the finish.
Twelve seconds in arrears, stage 10 winner Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) outkicked Nicki Sörensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) for third. Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) crossed the line in fourth, 21 seconds back, while Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) was the sixth and final member of the break to finish in Pau, 1:08 behind Fedrigo.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), on his 30th birthday, led in the peloton for seventh place nearly 12 minutes behind the break. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) finished comfortably in the peloton and remains in the yellow jersey as the Tour de France heads into its second rest day. The top of the general classification remains unchanged as Wiggins's teammate Chris Froome holds second overall at 2:05, followed by Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) in third at 2:23.
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Christian Vande Velde on his second-place finish
The six-man escape formed with approximately 98km remaining after a very spirited opening two hours of racing in which numerous attacks were neutralised. Fédrigo, Vande Velde, Dumoulin, Voeckler and Devenyns were the original attackers in the race-winning move, while Sörensen joined after a lengthy pursuit. The peloton seemed keen to finally let off the gas and the escape's lead quickly escalated.
After a couple of hours of smooth rotations in the break, cooperation finally came to a halt at the head of affairs with 10.5km remaining as Sörensen launched the first salvo. His attack was quickly chased down, but the Dane punched the accelerator yet again two kilometres later only to be shut down immediately, with Dumoulin leading the pursuit.
The cat-and-mouse tactics continued with Voeckler the next to make a dig, but the Europcar Frenchman was heavily marked by his break-mates and brought back into the fold.
It would be Fédrigo, very familiar with the streets of Pau and the run-in to the finish from his victory three years prior from a break, who finally split the escape permanently with 6.5km remaining. An attentive Vande Velde quickly bridged across while none of the remaining four wanted to be initiate the chase. Voeckler and Sörensen would eventually band together in pursuit, but the stage had been lost.
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Tour de France stage 15 highlights (courtesy ASO)
Already a three-time Tour de France stage winner, Fédrigo added a fourth to his palmares as he handily dispatched Vande Velde in the two-man sprint at the stage conclusion. It was an emotional win for the 33-year-old Frenchman as he was unable to compete in last year's Tour due to health issues that threatened his career. The 2011 season was a dismal one for Fédrigo as he contracted Lyme disease in the spring but didn't have it diagnosed until late July. After a course of antibiotics, he bounced back in the fall months and set his sights on returning to the Tour once again.
When will the early break form?
The classic transition stage between Samatan and Pau, covering a lumpy 158.5km with a trio of minor categorised climbs in the latter portion, started furiously as competition was intense regarding who would get the blessing of the peloton for the early escape.
It appeared that a break containing Bert Grabsch (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), David Millar (Garmin-Sharp), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Rui Costa (Movistar) and Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar) had the requisite composition and horsepower to make its mark on stage 15, but despite a concerted effort their advantage was pegged at a tenuous 15 to 20 seconds for kilometre after painful kilometre. Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank's Juan Jose Haedo and Karsten Kroon attempted to bridge and soon the lead group more than doubled in size as more riders bridged the gap. All cohesion at the front disappeared, however, leading to the escape's demise.
Finally, not long after gruppo compatto at 98km to go, a five-man escape formed which would ultimately snap the elastic of the peloton. The break was comprised of Thomas Voeckler (Team Europcar), Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp), Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne), Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ-Big Mat) and Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-Quickstep).
Sky kept Wiggins at the front and out of trouble
Not wanting to miss the opportunity to vie for stage honours, Nicki Sörensen (Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) attacked the peloton and began a lengthy chase to make contact with the leaders before they rode off into the sunset. While a truce was called in the peloton and the break's lead ballooned rapidly, Sörensen seemingly was making no progress to bridge across the gap with his deficit pegged at 30 seconds. After approximately 20km of chasing, however, the Dane finally reached the leading quintet and slotted into the rotation.
Lotto Belisol put some riders on the front of the peloton for a short while, perhaps thinking about an opportunity for Andre Greipel to add a fourth win to his 2012 Tour de France palmares on his birthday, but the teams of the sprinters soon conceded the day to the break. Sky resumed its place at the head of the peloton content to let the escapees speed onwards to Pau unfettered.
As Thomas Voeckler led the lead group over the day's third and final categorised climb, the category 4 Côte de Monassut-Audiracq with 28.5km to go, the sextet's advantage over the peloton topped 10 minutes and continued to grow. A fatigued peloton, smarting after an opening two hours raced at full-gas and the cumulative exhaustion of two weeks of racing, had already lost several riders, unable to hold the wheels and subsequently abandoning, and simply tapped out the kilometres at a moderate tempo on one of the Tour's hotter days thus far.
It was now a battle of wits, nerve and tactical savvy amongst the six leaders as to who would rule the day and the former French champion Fédrigo ultimately delivered his FDJ-BigMat squad its second victory of the 2012 Tour.
Fedrigo celebrates his winning effort on the podium