Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) bounced back from the disappointment of his second-place finish at Gap on Tuesday to take victory on stage 17 of the Tour de France at Pinerolo. Race leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) conceded more ground to his overall rivals on the sinuous final descent of the Pramartino after Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) had created panic in the yellow jersey group.
Already a sprint winner at Redon in the opening week, Boasson Hagen showcased his considerable climbing talents by clinically disposing of his breakaway companions on the stage's final climb, and then holding his nerve on the sharp plunge into Pinerolo to finish 40 seconds clear of Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), while Sandy Casar (FDJ) took the sprint for third place.
"I wanted to win this stage because I was so close yesterday," a delighted Boasson Hagen said after the finish. "I'm really happy. Yesterday's stage is almost forgotten now."
While Boasson Hagen's victory was straightforward in its execution, it was another day of panic and confusion among the overall contenders. A second consecutive sharp climb and treacherous descent combination just before the finish saw Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard) again on the offensive.
The Spaniard softened up his rivals with two jabs on the way up the Pramartino, and then he went for the jugular by throwing himself into the descent in the company of Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). At one point, the pair threatened to repeat their gains of yesterday over the Fränk and Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek), but Cadel Evans (BMC) led a measured chase to bring the bulk of the contenders, including the Schlecks, back together inside the finishing straight.
The Schlecks, Evans, Contador, Cunego and Vanendert all gained time on Voeckler
Indeed, it was a good day all around for Evans: not only did he break even with Contador, he narrowed his deficit to yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to 1:18 after the Frenchman misjudged a bend on the descent and was unable to chase back on.
Afterwards, the Australian explained that he was on Andy Schleck's (Leopard Trek) wheel when Contador launched his move over the top of the climb. "I think Voeckler put in the first attack and then Contador went," Evans said. I got caught behind Andy and I just couldn't get around him. They [Contador and Sanchez] had a bit of a gap, but fortunately we were able to close it on the flat."
Boasson Hagen picks his moment
Casar drives the break
Boasson Hagen was part of a 14-man break that formed 60km into the day's stage, after a number of moves had been snuffed out. He jumped clear with Mollema, Casar, Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM), Borut Bozic (Vacansoleil-DCM), Julien El Farès (Cofidis), Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Dmitriy Fofonov (Astana), Andrei Amadaro (Movistar), Maciej Paterski (Liquigas-Cannondale), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Jonathan Hivert (Saur-Sojasun) and Dmitriy Muravyev (RadioShack) on the Côte de Sainte-Marguerite.
The leading 14 quickly established a sizeable advantage over the ascent of Sestrières, where a trio of chasers Kevin De Weert (Quick Step), Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) launched a doomed attempt to bridge across. Although Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi) jumped clear 4km from the summit of Sestrières and led by 43 seconds at the foot of the Pramartino, he was caught by his erstwhile companions as the road pitched upwards.
Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) launched the first telling attack with 4.5km to go on the final ascent, but when he looked around, he saw that Boasson Hagen was inexorably stalking him up the climb. Less than a kilometre later, the Norwegian put in a wholehearted acceleration of his own and instantly opened a decisive gap. Thereafter, the 24-year-old retained a solid tempo to the summit and enjoyed a seamless descent to secure a victory that underlined his precocious class.
"I don't like a lot of attacks, it's better with one pace," Boasson Hagen said of his decision to punch his way clear of his companions. "I saw Chavanel attack so I had to close that down. I didn't want to stop because the attacks would start again, so I just kept going and nobody followed. On the downhill, I did it in training and I knew it, I knew I could go quite fast and nobody could catch me."
Contador puts the cat amongst the pigeons
Contador and Schleck at the front
Though a richly evocative name in cycling history, Pinerolo was never likely to witness an epic victory in the mould of Fausto Coppi's swashbuckling triumph there during the 1949 Giro d'Italia. Instead, the overall contenders of the 2011 Tour de France allowed the early break to build its advantage up to over 8 minutes. They then stayed together on the day's main obstacle, the first category climb to Sestrières, all too aware that the subsequent 40km-long descent would almost certainly nullify any gains.
The détente was to end on the second category Pramartino, however. Although just 6.7km in length and 6% in gradient, its positioning just ahead of the final plunge to Pinerolo offered it a strategic value on a par with Tuesday's final climb of the Col de Manse. And as was the case on Tuesday, it was Alberto Contador who seized the initiative on the way up the climb. The Spaniard, all too aware that time is running out if he is to win this Tour, launched the first of two testing accelerations 3km from the summit, but on each occasion Andy Schleck succeeded in leading the rest of yellow jersey group back up to the Spaniard.
Schleck and his brother Fränk even took over the forcing themselves on a number of occasions, but it was fascinating to view the contrast in styles with Contador. While the Spaniard was fiercely committed to his attacks, the Schlecks' moves were tentative at best, with the brothers looking over their shoulders to examine the state of play behind rather than continuing their accelerations.
Contador took over once again as the road pitched downwards, as fresh from exposing the Schlecks' cautious descending on Tuesday, he looked to repeat the dose on the Pramartino, surging clear in the company of Samuel Sanchez. Thomas Voeckler misjudged a corner as he scrambled for their wheels, and suddenly the Spanish tandem had a gap over the rest of the contenders.
After a frantic plunge down the tree-lined descent, Evans and the Schlecks succeeded in reeling in Contador and Sanchez just as the race entered the finishing straight. Behind, Voeckler had ridden off the road and into the front yard of a house on the descent, precisely as breakaway Jonathan Hivert (Saur-Sojasun) had down moments earlier.
Although uninjured, the Voeckler rolled in alongside Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) 27 seconds down on Evans, and his grip on the maillot jaune has been loosened for the second day in succession. "I had a lot of luck," Voeckler said of his travails on the descent. "If there had been a wall, I wouldn't have been able to stop."
The race now moves on to two successive summit finishes in the Alps, where more sizeable gaps should finally begin to develop between the overall contenders. Seemingly down and out in the Pyrenees, Alberto Contador has emerged from the second rest day in resurgent form, but the Spaniard knows that he needs to get far more purchase on his attacks on the Galibier and Alpe d'Huez. Voeckler may continue to wear yellow, but Evans is the man he desperately needs to overhaul.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.