Tour de France 18: Andy Schleck takes key Galibier stage

Frank Schleck second; Voeckler just keeps yellow

The Tour de France celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the Galibier in the race with a stunning stage. Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) turned the Tour around, attacking on the slopes of the Col d'Izoard and soloing his way to take the stage win atop the Galibier and moving up into second place overall. His brother and teammate Fränk sprinted to second place with Cadel Evans (BMC) third.

Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) continued his miracle Tour, hanging on to his yellow jersey, albeit by a mere 15 seconds. Andy Schleck is second, with Fränk third at 1:08. Evans is the only other rider who still has a realistic shot at the final podium, in fourth place at 1:12. From there, Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD) is nearly four minutes down in fifth place.

The loser of the day was Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard), who failed to repeat his strong performance of the previous day. He consistently hung near the back of his group, and finally had to fall off the back with only a few kilometers left to go on the brutal final climb. He finished the day 3:50 down on the stage and is now at 4:44 and seventh place in the GC.

Schleck had attacked out of the favourites' group with 60km to go, and no one followed him. He steadily rode his way up the Izoard, joining up with teammate Joost Posthuma, and then carefully down again, accompanied by teammate Maxime Monfort, who had been in the breakaway, before rolling up the Galibier.

Behind him, the yellow jersey group squabbled over who would lead the chase - and could only watch as he pulled away.

"This is a dream come true," said Andy Schleck. "I am very proud of this win."

"I like to have a plan and I like even more when it works out like that. The team has worked incredibly so far in this Tour. I said this morning 'no guts no glory'. I took the race by the horns and went all in.

"I just tried to concentrate on the pain I had in my legs, and believe me I had a lot. Without Maxime this wouldn't be possible. We've been working a lot to get a win like this. Without these guys, it would not have been possible. Now I'm in second overall and it's a perfect position for tomorrow."

"Everything went perfect today. I'm very proud - this is a big thanks to this new Leopard Trek team," said elder brother Fränk. "All the guys put a lot of effort into building this, and this is a message about our team and its spirit. I'm very proud of the team, my brother and myself."

Voeckler fights for yellow

More than half the peloton, 89 of 168 riders, didn't make it to the top within the time limit.  They could have been eliminated, but the race jury exercised its option of keeping them in the race.  Each rider in the group lost 20 points in the points ranking, including green jersey Mark Cavendish.  He now has 300 points, with Joaquin Jose Rojas (Movistar), who finished within the time limit and thus lost no points, in second place in the ranking with 285 points.

Jelle Vanendert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) continues to wear the polka-dot jersey, leading Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) by two points and Andy Schleck by four points. Rein Taaramae of Cofidis is now the best young rider, as Rigoberto Uran of Sky had to pay tribute to the final climb.

Three major climbs to conquer

169 riders took to 200.5km long course before noon. They must have wanted to get the misery over quickly, as they set a blistering pace: over 50km/h in the first hour.

The sprinters were delighted that the day's intermediate sprint came so early, at 40km, but they never got a chance to contest it. HTC-Highroad, with Mark Cavendish in green, and Movistar, with Joaquin Jose Rojas right behind him in second place, led the way towards the line.

It was all to no avail, as with less than 1km to go before the sprint, a group got away. Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Joost Posthuma (Leopard Trek), Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun), Dries Devenyns (Quick Step), Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Brent Bookwalter (BMC), Markel Irizar (RadioShack), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Danilo Hondo (Lampre-ISD), Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Cervélo), Ruben Perez Moreno (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Pablo Urtasun Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Maxim Ignlinsky (Astana), Maxime Monfort (Leopard Trek), Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil) and Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale) turned out to be the breakaway of the day.

With about 83km to go, just before the climb up the Col Agnel started, they were joined by Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Mickael Delage (FDJ) and Egor Silin (Katusha). The large group took a nearly nine-minute lead up the first of three hors categorie climbs of the day.

There were splits on both ends of the chasing peloton on the climb. Numerous riders tried to attack off the front, while the non-climbers starting falling off the back. The difficult climb with the stunning scenery also diminished the lead group, with only 11 of them still together at the end. Iglinsky jumped to claim the 20 points at the top, with former KOM Hoogerland second. The field crested the mountain 5:30 after Iglinsky him before heading on its careful way down.

The lead group of 11 headed up the Col d'Izoard almost immediately upon finishing the first descent. Leopard Trek took control of the race, leading both the break group and the peloton, driving up the pace in each.

A reduced group of six at the front approached the top of the Col d'Izoard, with once again Iglinsky jumping for the lead.

Schleck goes solo

Andy Schleck broke out on the climb up - alone. No one followed, although he had been in a small group which contained the favourites. That was enough, though, to send Daniel Navarro (Saxo Bank) to the head of the field ahead of Contador, with Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) moving up to help.

Schleck powered his way up, as first he, and then the peloton, passed the riders who had dropped out of the lead group. The Luxembourger had said he would attack on this stage, and he lived up to his word, quickly building up a lead of a minute. Navarro and Contador had moved out of the lead, leaving open the question of whether they were not up to the challenge or expected Schleck's attack to ultimately fail.

Further forward, Iglinsky also built up an impressive lead on the equally impressive landscape. He crossed the top less than two minutes ahead of Schleck.

Navarro finally moved back to lead the chase, with Cadel Evans (BMC) right behind him. The group crossed the top at about four minutes, with yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler leading the way down.

Schleck is known as a poor descender, but he had the advantage of teammate Maxime Monfort, who had been in the lead group. His performance in this descent, however, was in total contrast to that in the Pyrenees as he went all out.

Even on the descent, the yellow jersey group had long since stopped any concerted chase effort, effectively conceding to Schleck.

Contador changed bikes near the bottom of the descent, perhaps simply changing to a special bike for the final climb. Still it cost him time and effort to get back to the group and then to face the challenge of chasing Schleck.

Schleck moved into the virtual lead as the gap to Iglinsky went under a minute between the final two climbs. He and Monfort had joined forces with Roche, Devenyns and Silin, and they caught Iglinsky with 30km to go. Behind them, Euskaltel finally moved in to lead the chase.

The yellow jersey group got larger as the stage went on. The gap had gotten smaller, but then moved back up to three and a half minutes, as Euskaltel moved out of the lead. The reason for that became clear later, when Samuel Sanchez became one of the first of the favourites to fall out of the group.

Monfort sacrificed himself for his captain, doing the majority of the lead work in the breakaway, before burning out and dropping back with about 17km to go. The group had become a trio of Schleck, Iglinsky and Roche at the 15km marker, with a lead of nearly four minutes.

Evans takes the lead

That was enough for Contador, who finally moved to the head of his group, sharing the work with Evans. The Spaniard soon dropped back into the group though, leaving Evans at the front. Further up the mountain, Schleck was naturally at the head of his group as well, as the other two saw no reason to help him win the stage and possibly the Tour.

There was much discussion - not always a happy one - within the chase group, as no one appeared willing to take on the responsibility of chasing. Meanwhile, the gap extended beyond four minutes.

Evans tried an attack, but the others climbed on to his wheel. He continued to grind away at the head of the chase.

Schleck led Iglinsky up the final climb, as he turned to go up the final 8km with a 3:50 lead. And on one of the first curves, Schleck turned on the power and took off alone on the fan-filled road.

The chase finally started bearing fruit, as the gap came down under Evans' hard work. The group got smaller and smaller, with even Contador eventually having trouble hanging on. He finally gave up the fight and fell back, burying his chances of repeating his victory in this year's Tour.

Andy Schleck suffered up the final kilometres but hung on for the win. Behind him, brother Fränk sprinted for second place, and finally Voeckler, suffering terribly, crossed the line in ecstasy at retaining his yellow jersey for another day.

This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.

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