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A couple of days ago, Bernard Hinault complained to procycling about the lack of aggressiveness being shown towards Lance Armstrong and his Discovery Channel team. Alexandre Vinokourov's late attack on stage six into Nancy was too little too late in the stage, said the five-time Tour winner, adding that T-Mobile's trio of leaders should attack in turn to put Armstrong and his apparently impregnable Discovery guard on the back foot. Two days on from what has become Hinault's perennial moan, the Frenchman must be a happier man having seen T-Mobile's leaders do exactly what he had demanded and shaken the race up in totally unexpected fashion.
The result may have gone Rabobank's way with a victory for 24-year-old Pieter Weening by a matter of millimetres in a thrilling two-up sprint against T-Mobile's Andreas Kloeden, but the German team's compensation for that loss was considerable, having isolated Armstrong totally from his team-mates on the final climb, the second-cat col de la Schlucht.
Another high-speed day began with the now usual flurry of attacks, with a number of riders clearly eyeing the four third-cat climbs in the first 50km. An interesting group of five led the way over them, Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen taking maximum points and setting himself on the way to the mountains jersey, while Discovery's George Hincapie and CSC's Jens Voigt shadowed each other as they have done all week.
The attack, which also contained Andrei Kashechkin (Crdit Agricole) and Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux), petered out after Hincapie won the first intermediate sprint. Another break, also containing Casar as well as Thor Hushovd, then went away, with Hushovd winning six points at the next sprint, where that break petered out.
CSC's Nicki Sorensen, like Casar had earlier, persisted with his effort and was joined by six others - Pieter Weening (Rabobank), Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Caffita), Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak), Ronny Scholz (Gerolsteiner) and Cdric Vasseur (Cofidis) - and this group led by almost three minutes as they started up the 14km ascent of the Schlucht. Almost immediately, Weening, a winner in Alsace during his Rabobank espoirs team days, attacked and dropped the other six.
Illes Balears led the peloton onto the climb, with the aim of setting up Alejandro Valverde for the stage win, and Armstrong's Discovery guard looked comfortable behind them. Five kilometres from the 1100-metre summit, Vinokourov attacked and almost instantly the guard was gone. Paolo Savoldelli led Armstrong up to the Kazakh, who had eased up and was looking back to see what damage he'd done.
Then Christophe Moreau, who has his eye on the mountains title, attacked and Vinokourov went after him. This time Armstrong had to do the chasing himself, with Jan Ullrich just behind him. It settled again for a moment, then Valverde made an effort, which Vinokourov chased and Armstrong followed. Just as it settled again, Kloeden darted away and this time there was no chase of the rider lying 24th overall.
Kloeden ate up the gap between himself and Weening, snatching maximum points from the unlucky Dutchman right at the top of the Schlucht. The gap to the yellow jersey group was just 17 seconds, and the leading pair could soon see the chasers closing in them as they descended into the finish at Grardmer.
The lead dropped to six seconds with 6km to go, but a series of start-stop attacks from the chasing group slowed the pursuit down, and the leading pair's advantage opened up again. 2004 Tour runner-up Kloeden led into the final kilometre and pretty much all the way to the line as he endeavoured to gain as many seconds as possible.
A hundred metres out, Kloeden began his sprint from the front and Weening edged up alongside him. The final 'throw' at the live gave the Dutchman the biggest win of his career by just 0.0002 of a second and sealed a fine day for his heavily criticised team. Kloeden took a 12-second time bonus for second place, and another 27 as a 32-rider yellow jersey group was led in by Valverde.
Armstrong, of course, was among them, but worryingly for the yellow jersey none of his team-mates were. As CSC's Ivan Basso pointed out afterwards when asked about the last climb, "it was only four per cent, nothing much really." Asked about Discovery's performance, the Italian shrugged and said: "I don't know what to say."
No doubt plenty will be said over the next few hours, though. Clearly, this Tour is far from over, and Armstrong's overtaking of Ullrich last Saturday now seems a very long time ago.
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T-Mobile put Discovery on back footClose
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