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Lance Armstrong may be part of Tour de France history now, but the chances on the yellow jersey remaining in American hands for an eighth consecutive season were massively improved on Thursday's Pyrenean stage to Pla de Beret. Denis Menchov proved the quickest of an elite leading trio that fought out the finish at the Spanish resort, beating American duo Levi Leipheimer and Landis into second and third place respectively.
This was no more than Rabobank deserved for a concerted piece of pace-making by first Michael Rasmussen and then Michael Boogerd that set Menchov up for the stage victory, and also moved the Russian right into contention for the yellow jersey. For the moment, though, that trophy passed to Phonak's Landis, who had an agonising wait at the finish before race leader Cyril Dessel crossed the line. The Frenchman came in 4-45 down on Landis, exactly the gap between them coming into the stage, and making the eight-second bonus Landis earned for third place on the day decisive.
What has so far been 'the Tour of anarchy' finally took on a more coherent look on what was the first really big day in the mountains, culminating with a tough final climb that couldn't really be classed a summit finish given the final two k were mostly downhill or flat. However, the final ascent was more than enough to scatter the field and leave us with perhaps half a dozen clear contenders for the title.
The stage really got going with a break by Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Iker Cama¤o (Euskaltel), with the former pair battling each other for King of the Mountains points over the Tourmalet, Aspin and Peyresourde. De La Fuente then pressed on alone over the penultimate climb of the Portillon, as the rest were caught by a chase group driven by T-Mobile's Patrik Sinkewitz and Matthias Kessler.
De La Fuente was overhauled in the valley heading for the final climb, where Rasmussen kissed goodbye to his KoM chances with an unselfish piece of pace-making that saw off the weaker members of a group that had already distanced the plucky Dessel on the Portillon. When Rasmussen pulled aside, Boogerd took over and the damage to the size of the group continued. All of Discovery Channel's hopefuls fell away, while T-Mobile leader Klden was suddenly isolated.
With 7km left, Menchov sped past Boogerd and the Russian's pace immediately saw off Klden. Only Landis, Leipheimer, Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) and Carlos Sastre (CSC) were left at the front now, and for the next few kilometres none of them seemed to know what to do exactly. Landis, with the yellow jersey a real prospect, did most of the pace-making, but there was a lot of looking around and gesturing.
Just before the top of the climb, a couple of kilometres from the finish Leipheimer attacked the group, and only Landis and Menchov could follow, the three of them cooperating down to the finish line. Menchov led through the chicane 300 metres out and then started his sprint, which was good enough to see off the two Americans.
It was slightly disappointing to see a fantastic effort by Dessel and his team-mates not rewarded with another day in the yellow jersey, but the Frenchman may look for another chance to take it back before the Alps. At that point, the race should become a straight fight between Landis, Menchov, Evans, Sastre and Klden, who look pretty evenly matched over the terrain to come.
Stage 11, Tarbes-Pla de Beret
1 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 208km in 6.06.25 (33.81kph)
2 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner
3 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 0.17
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC
6 Michael Boogerd (Hol) Rabobank 1.04
7 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel 1.31
8 Frank Schleck (Lux) CSC
9 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile
10 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 2.29
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 49.18.07
2 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 0.08
3 Menchov 1.01
4 Evans 1.17
5 Sastre 1.52
6 Klden 2.29
7 Rogers 3.22
8 Juan Miguel Mercado (Spa) Agritubel 3.33
9 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 3.44
10 Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner 4.17
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 217
2 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step 188
3 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 181
1 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 80
2 Dessel 62
3 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner 61
Best young rider: Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
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