Tour de France 16: Voeckler wins in Luchon

Wiggins, Froome, Nibali cement top three on GC

This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.

French favouriteThomas Voeckler (Europcar) added a second stage win to his 2012 Tour de France account with a masterful performance in stage 16, 197km from Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon. The 33-year-old Frenchman emerged from a massive 38-rider early break to solo to victory on a legendary Pyrenean parcours, taking in the Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin and Col de Peyresourde, and arrived at the finish with a 1:40 lead over former breakaway companion Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).

Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi) outsprinted Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) for third, 3:22 behind Voeckler.

In addition to the stage victory, Voeckler swept up top honours at each of the day's four summits to unseat Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) as mountains classification leader, 107 points to 104 at the stage conclusion.

"I can't really figure out what I've done," said Voeckler. "It's the kind of thing I watched on television as a kid, and today it was me who did it."

"For me I had four races in my head today, each climb was a separate race. I know every metre of the climbs from training here in this region. There were 197 kilometers of racing here, and I knew all 197 kilometres by heart."

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Tour de France stage 16 highlights

The top three riders on general classification, maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) finished together, leaving the top of the overall standings unchanged. Nibali led Wiggins and Froome across the finish line in 11th place, 7:09 behind Voeckler and the first riders not part of the early break to arrive at the finish. As a result, Wiggins continues to lead Froome by 2:05 and Nibali by 2:23.

"I'm just glad that one's out of the way, the team were incredible today," said Wiggins. "It was hot out there, and everyone reacts differently to it. Everyone's going through different things with their body. The day after a rest day is always difficult, and I'm just pleased we passed the test as a team. I'm glad we got through it ok, it was tough going out there."

Less than a minute later Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) led the next group on the road across the finish line for 14th place, ahead of white jersey holder Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol), Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Nissan), Alejandro Valverde and Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar), plus Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan).

Evans lost time and Hincapie lost skin on the stage

Cadel Evans (BMC) was the big general classification loser on the day as was dropped on the final climb and conceded four minutes to the maillot jaune group. Van den Broeck now holds fourth overall (@5:46) followed by Zubeldia (@7:13) and Van Garderen (@7:55). Evans dropped from fourth to seventh overall, 8:06 back.

"I think now it's sort of a co-leadership, he's only one place behind me," said Van Garderen, in reference to his teammate Evans. "He could easily bounce back the next day, or I could crack."

Mass exodus on classic Pyrenean parcours

The legendary "Circle of Death", comprised of the Col d'Aubisque, Col du Tourmalet, Col d'Aspin and Col de Peyresourde ascents, awaited the peloton today as the Tour de France kicked back into gear after its second rest day. With the knowledge that the general classification contenders would likely keep their powder dry until the latter portion of the stage, seemingly every rider with an inkling of early aggression was given the freedom to form the early break in advance of the stage's first climb, the 16.4km, HC-rated Aubisque.

When the early break finally consolidated 25 kilometres into the stage, 38 riders formed the massive escape group: Steven Cummings and George Hincapie (both BMC Racing Team), Yaroslav Popovych and Jens Voigt (both RadioShack-Nissan), Thomas Voeckler and Yukiya Arashiro (both Europcar), Jorge Azanza, Egoi Martinez and Gorka Izaguirre (all Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danilo Hondo, Marco Marzano and Simone Stortoni (all Lampre-ISD), Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) Maxime Bouet and Sebastien Minard (both AG2R La Mondiale), Rein Taaramae and Samuel Dumoulin (both Cofidis), Brice Feillu, Guillaume Levarlet and Jean Marc Marino (all Saur-Sojasun), Johnny Hoogerland and Rafael Valls Ferri (both Vacansoleil-DCM), Gianpaolo Caruso, Yury Trofimov and Eduard Vorganov (all Katusha), Sandy Casar, Pierrick Fedrigo and Matthiew Ladagnous (all FDJ-Big Mat), Steven Kruiswijk and Laurens Ten Dam (both Rabobank), Rui Costa, Vladimir Karpets, and Vasili Kiryienka (all Movistar), Sergio Paulinho and Chris Anker Sorensen (both Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Fredrik Kessiakoff and Alexandre Vinokourov (both Astana) and Matthieu Sprick (Argos-Shimano).

Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was the best-placed rider on general classification, 18th overall at 18:04, but perhaps the most intriguing contest, in addition to vying for stage honours on the Pyrenean parcours, was the battle for the polka-dot jersey, held by Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) at the start of the day. Kessiakoff had amassed 69 points thus far, but the three riders closest to him on the mountains classification also made the initial selection: Rolland (55 pts), Sorensen (39 pts) and Voeckler (37 pts).

The peloton climb the Aubisque

The first two climbs of the day, the HC-rated Col d'Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet, each offered 25 points for the first rider across the summit. The latter two climbs of the stage, the Col d'Aspin and Col de Peyresourde, are each category 1-rated and would reward the first rider across with 10 points. Totalled together, a maximum of 70 points were up for grabs, very much a potential game changer for the mountains classification.

The breakaway group knocked out a steady tempo up the Aubisque with the only ripple in the proceedings occurring at the summit with the day's first KOM points up for grabs. Arashiro played the perfect teammate for Voeckler as he led-out the Frenchman in the climb's finale. Voeckler crested the summit first with Kessiakoff on his wheel for second place. Arashiro took third at the summit, followed by Sorensen for fourth.

Tourmalet takes its toll

While there was a slight splintering of the break in the Aubisque, the 38-rider group re-formed in advance of the Tourmalet and hit the base of the monstrous ascent more than five minutes up on the Sky-led peloton. Unlike the day's first ascent, negotiated at a steady tempo, the climbers in the break opted to flex their muscles and attacks soon splintered the group for good.

Irishman Dan Martin turned the screw and was joined by Kessiakoff and Ten Dam. Not wanting to let the mountains classification leader escape up the road, Voeckler led a chase containing Hincapie, Feillu and Sorensen which soon made contact with the lead trio. Approximately 7km from the Tourmalet summit Feillu launched an attack of his own and was joined by Martin and Voeckler. Kessiakoff briefly made contact but was dropped, as Martin, Voeckler and Feillu climbed to the 2,115m Tourmalet summit together.

Soon Martin, too, could no longer keep the pace leaving Voeckler and Feillu to press onwards to the day's second straight hor categorie summit.

Wiggins bombs down the Tourmalet

Voeckler would claim top honours on the Tourmalet summit, 25 points plus the Souvenir Jacques Goddet prize of 5,000 Euros for the first rider over the top, with Feillu in tow. Martin arrived third at the Tourmalet summit, more than one minute behind Voeckler and Feillu. Kessiakoff, fighting to defend his polka-dot jersey, nabbed fourth and conceded a further 11 points to Voeckler on the mountains classification. Kessiakoff now had 103 points to Voeckler's 87 on the virtual mountains classification standing.

On the high-speed descent of the Tourmalet a chasing group containing Martin, Hincapie, Ten Dam, Voigt, Kiryienka, Sorensen and Vinokourov formed behind Voeckler and Feillu. Hincapie suffered a crash on the initial portion of the Tourmalet descent, but seemed relatively unharmed as he regained contact with his fellow chasers.

Meanwhile, the maillot jaune group crested the Tourmalet summit 10:10 behind Voeckler, with Sky firmly in command at the head of the peloton.

Two summits to go...

With the pair of HC-rated climbs behind them, the lead duo of Voeckler and Feillu "only" had two category 1 climbs left to negotiate, the first being the 12.4km long Col d'Aspin, whose summit was situated 46.5km from the finish.

The French duo led their seven chasers by 1:33 at the base of the climb while the peloton was still nearly 10 minutes back. As Voeckler and Feillu were sharing the pace-making duties on the ascent, the seven-man chase group splintered with Sorensen and Vinokourov dropping their five companions. The evergreen Jens Voigt, however, rallied and rode across to the Dane and Kazakh and the three would crest the Aspin summit together approximately one minute behind Voeckler and Feillu. Once again Voeckler earned top honours on the KOM, and this time Kessiakoff earned none, having blown on the previous ascent, and the Swede's virtual KOM lead now stood at 103 to Voeckler's 97.

Meanwhile, back in the peloton, there was a change in guard at the front as Liquigas-Cannondale took over the pace-making. Super domestique Ivan Basso ramped up the tempo with team leader Vincenzo Nibali glued to his wheel. Wiggins and his helpers slotted in behind the Italians, seemingly unaffected by the tempo, but defending Tour champion Cadel Evans (BMC) cracked and began to lose time. BMC's Tejay van Garderen remained with the yellow jersey group while Amaël Moinard stayed with Evans to pace the Australian to the summit.

Evans would concede nearly a minute to the Wiggins group at the top of the Aspin, but the BMC captain would make up time on the descent and eventually rejoin his general classification rivals...just in time for the day's final ascent: the 9.5km Col de Peyresourde.

Liquigas and Nibali blew the GC group apart on the Peyresourde

Voeckler and Feillu continued to share the workload at the head of the race on the Peyresourde's lower slopes, followed by a now four-man chase group as Gorka Izaguirre made his way across to Voigt, Vinokourov and Sorensen.

Sorensen and Vinokourov soon dispatched of Voigt and Izaguirre and faced a 45-second gap to the two Frenchman leading the race.

6.5km from the Peyresourde summit, not wanting to allow Sorensen and Vinokourov to get any closer, Voeckler upped the pace and dropped Feillu. Amidst a huge cheering throng of Basque fans, Voeckler charged alone to the Peyresourde summit and a clean sweep of the day's KOMs. Sorensen dropped Vinokourov and passed Feillu to cross the summit in second, while Vinokourov and Izaguirre, too, would pass the Frenchman as they began the descent to the finish third and fourth respectively on the road.

Back in the maillot jaune group, once again Basso and Nibali moved to the front to set tempo on the Peyresourde climb with the same initial result: Evans being dropped. However, on this climb the yellow jersey group would continue to shrink precipitously until only a handful of GC contenders remained.

Paris got a day closer for Wiggins

Nibali started the day 2:23 behind Wiggins, but just 18 seconds behind Froome, and if the Italian wanted to make any move on general classification it would have to happen soon. As expected, Nibali did launch an attack which momentarily distanced Wiggins and Froome. Such was the ferocity of the tempo being set in the maillot jaune group to that point that only Wiggins and Froome were able to respond to Nibali and the British duo, with Froome setting tempo for Wiggins, methodically chipped into the Italian's advantage.

Nibali would step on the gas once again as the Sky duo neared, but this time Wiggins would lead Froome in pursuit and Nibali's escape attempt would be neutralised near the Peyresourde summit. The top three riders on general classification crossed the Peyresourde together, and would remain together through to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon

After crossing the Peyresourde summit, a lightning-fast, 15.5km descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon is all that remained in the stage. Voeckler dutifully negotiated the switchbacks at the head of the race and had plenty of time to celebrate a well-earned stage win that also netted the Frenchman the polka-dot jersey. All-in-all 10 of the original 38 members of the break finished ahead of the Wiggins, Froome, Nibali trio, who themselves put more time into their general classification rivals on a day to remember in the Pyrenees.

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