Serrano follows in Jalabert's wheeltracks

Ten years after Laurent Jalabert won a famous victory at Mende, his former ONCE team-mate Marcos Ser

Ten years after Laurent Jalabert won a famous victory at Mende, his former ONCE team-mate Marcos Ser

PIC BY TDWSPORT.COM

Ten years after Laurent Jalabert enjoyed one of his finest moments in ONCE colours when he took a tremendous victory at Mende and almost snatched the Tour itself from a stuttering Miguel Indurain's grasp, fortune once again shone on former ONCE boss Manolo Saiz at the same finish as his Liberty Seguros team took their first ever Tour victory thanks to Marcos Serrano.

The 32-year-old Spaniard, who rode with Jalabert at ONCE in 1999 and 2000, has been one of Saiz's most dependable riders over the last seven seasons, when he has often acted as the team's captain on the road. Today he was one of the team's riders assigned the job of getting into breaks, with Saiz no doubt figuring that Serrano would thrive on the closing three kilometres up to the airfield at Mende, where the gradient averages a touch more than 10 per cent.

What became the winning move was started by Carlos Da Cruz at the 39km mark. The Francaise des Jeux picked up company in the shape of Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile), Luke Roberts (CSC), Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears), Axel Merckx (Davitamon-Lotto), Serrano, Oscar Pellizotti (Liquigas-Bianchi), Cdric Vasseur (Cofidis), Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) and Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel).

Allowed their freedom by the peloton, this group worked together until the penultimate climb, a third-cat 10km from the finish, when sprinter Da Cruz jumped clear. All eyes were on Merckx in the group behind, and with good reason as the Belgian eventually attacked and only Voeckler could follow him past the struggling Da Cruz. This pair went over the climb with a small gap on Vasseur, Serrano and Zandio.

The three caught the two at the bottom of the final 2nd-cat hill, where Pellizotti also joined them. That all the others were most concerned about Merckx was clear as they all sat on his wheel. But they couldn't all follow when the Davitamon climber opened up as they reached the steepest sections of the hill. Zandio fell back, then Pellizotti, then, unhappily for the huge crowds, French favourite Voeckler.

By now the gradient was so steep that the action seemed to be taking place in slow motion. When Serrano made what proved to be his decisive effort, it didn't initially appear to amount to much. He gained a metre, then two, then four and just kept edging slowly away. Merckx clearly wanted Vasseur to come through, but the Frenchman either wouldn't or couldn't.

Serrano had 20 seconds in hand at the summit of the climb and from there it was flat for the last kilometre to the line, allowing him plenty of time to celebrate a career-best win and one much deserved for this loyal servant of Saiz's team. Vasseur sprinted past a very unhappy and gesturing Merckx for second place.

The difficulty of the climb above Mende to the airport was underlined when the yellow jersey group tackled it. Discovery and CSC set a fierce pace in, and Ivan Basso launched himself away as the gradient ramped up. Lance Armstrong was quick to respond, so too were Cadel Evans and Jan Ullrich, and these four rode away from rest.

The gaps they gained at the line were enough to see Ullrich close in on Michael Rasmussen, who remains in third place, and for Evans to move back up to the seventh place he lost yesterday. The final sort-out in the top 10 will come in Saturday's time trial at St Etienne.

Stage 18, Albi-Mende

1 Marcos Serrano (Spa) Liberty Seguros-Wrth 189km in 4.37.36 (40.85kph)
2 Cdric Vasseur (Fra) Cofidis 0.27
3 Axel Merckx (Bel) Davitamon-Lotto
4 Xabier Zandio (Spa) Illes Balears 1.08
5 Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Liquigas-Bianchi
6 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Bouygues Telecom1.28
7 Luke Roberts (Aus) CSC
8 Matthias Kessler (Ger) T-Mobile 1.44
9 Egoi Martinez (Spa) Euskaltel 2.03
10 Carlos Da Cruz (Fra) Franaise des Jeux 2.38
11 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 11.18
12 Lance Armstrong (USA) Discovery Channel
13 Ivan Basso (Ita) CSC
14 Jan Ullrich (Ger) T-Mobile
15 Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz) T-Mobile 11.55
16 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank
17 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner
18 Francisco Mancebo (Spa) Illes Balears
19 Leonardo Piepoli (Ita) Saunier Duval 12.01
20 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 12.07

22 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Crdit Agricole 12.28
28 Bobby Julich (USA) CSC 12.58
29 George Hincapie (USA) Discovery Channel
65 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 18.18
88 Allan Davis (Aus) Liberty Seguros 21.03
89 Baden Cooke (Aus) Franaise des Jeux
100 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Ag2r
112 Michael Rogers (Aus) Quick Step
121 Chris Horner (USA) Saunier Duval
145 Matt White (Aus) Cofidis
146 Stuart O'Grady (Aus) Cofidis
149 Brad McGee (Aus) Franaise des Jeux 22.07
154 Fred Rodriguez (USA) Davitamon-Lotto

Overall standings

1 Lance Armstrong (USA) Discovery Channel 77.44.44 (41.66kph)
2 Basso 2.46
3 Rasmussen 3.46
4 Ullrich 5.58
5 Mancebo 7.08
6 Leipheimer 8.12
7 Evans 9.49
8 Vinokourov 10.11
9 Landis 10.42
10 Moreau 13.15

17 Hincapie 21.15
18 Julich 22.35
34 Horner 1.03.12
42 Rogers 1.19.14
76 O'Grady 2.18.35
84 Davis 2.25.45
104 McGee 2.49.09
105 Roberts 2.50.25
121 White 3.10.37
124 Gerrans 3.13.36
132 Rodriguez 3.28.08
136 McEwen 3.30.29
142 Cooke 3.37.42

Points

1 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole 164
2 O'Grady 150
3 McEwen 142
4 Vinokourov 107
5 Davis 101
6 Rasmussen 84

King of the Mountains

1 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 185
2 Pereiro 135
3 Armstrong 92
4 Boogerd 90
5 Moreau 89
6 Botero 88

Young rider: Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Discovery Channel
Team: T-Mobile

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