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It is fair to say not much has gone Discovery Channel's way since the Tour started with team leader George Hincapie missing out on a prologue victory in Strasbourg by less than a second. Although they did keep several riders in overall contention going into yesterday's first key mountain stage, all of them fell away from the leading contenders on the road to Pla de Beret, and led team manager Johan Bruyneel to declare that the yellow jersey was beyond them and their focus must now be on stage wins.
Bruyneel may well have put that message across rather more forcefully last night, as the day started with Hincapie among the most aggressive riders on a high-speed Bastille Day stage. However, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because Bouygues Telecom and Davitamon-Lotto had missed out, no group managed to get a decent advantage until the stage was almost halfway run. By that point, there was more bad news for the usually reliable Discovery team as Paolo Savoldelli and Benjamin Noval both packed, leaving them with just seven riders to chase some elusive glory.
There was a sign of their luck change, however, when Popovych escaped after 98km with Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Christophe Le Mevel (Crdit Agricole). Points leader Robbie McEwen went to the front frantically trying to get on terms with sprint rival Freire, or at least encourage some of his team-mates to chase, but after a word from team-mate Cadel Evans, who is right in contention for the yellow jersey, McEwen backed off, and the break edged away.
Their advantage pushed out to four minutes or so, mainly thanks to Popovych's powerful pace-setting, but there were never given more leeway than that. The problem was that no one was willing to chase hard. Phonak were happy to keep the gap at a respectable level, but fatigue from the Pyrenees seemed to catch up with everyone else.
With 10km to go, the gap was still more than four minutes, and the stage winner was certain to come from the four breakaways. Sprinters Freire and Ballan would clearly prefer to wait for the final run-in before making a move, which put the onus on the other two to try something before that. With 9km to go, Popovych did just that, but only succeeded in shedding the slowest finisher in the group - and the only Frenchman on Bastille Day - Le Mevel.
The leading trio then started to attack each other, Ballan and Popovych clearly wanting to get away from double stage-winner Freire, the Spaniard attacking for a harder-to-fathom reason. Ultimately, though, Popovych's persistence and power paid off, as it deserved to considering he had done most of the pace-making in the break. With 3km left, he got away and stayed away to claim his first Tour de France stage victory and, intriguingly, to move himself up to 10th overall and back on the edge of the overall battle.
Ballan took second place ahead of Freire, who moved up to second in the points competition behind a frustrated McEwen. The Australian leads by 25 points, but wasn't happy to have 11 points trimmed off his substantial lead by the Spaniard.
"When Freire went, I had just closed a gap myself and I had no team-mates left and that was it: the four were away. It wasn't such a good thing for the points competition," McEwen explained later. "It was a question of bad timing when the escape group formed. Freire and Landis were in the front group and I chased it down but when I got there, I couldn't do anything more and that was the moment that Freire jumped away again. Suddenly, everybody decided that it was time to stop for a piss. I thought, 'Well, Freire is third in the points classification. I'm not stopping for anybody.' Some guys were critical of my tactics to keep going but you can compare it like this: if Cadel Evans goes away in a breakaway, Floyd Landis isn't exactly going to pull over and take a piss and say, 'Oh, don't worry about it.' In the end, we couldn't catch Freire. Fortunately for me, he was only third and I was sixth in the stage so it wasn't a complete disaster."
No doubt Bruyneel will be thinking a similar thought tonight with a stage win in the bag and an obvious team leader to get his remaining riders behind.
Stage 12, Luchon-Carcassone
1 Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr) Discovery Channel 211km in 4.34.58 (46.15kph)
2 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre 0.27
3 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 0.29
4 Christophe Le Mevel (Fra) Crdit Agricole 0.35
5 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step 4.25
6 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
7 Francisco Ventoso (Spa) Saunier Duval
8 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
9 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Lampre
10 Thor Hushovd (Nor) Crdit Agricole
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 53.57.30
2 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 0.08
3 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 1.01
4 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 1.17
5 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 1.52
6 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile 2.29
7 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 3.22
8 Juan Miguel Mercado (Spa) Agritubel 3.33
9 Christophe Moreau (Fra) Ag2r 3.44
10 Popovych 4.15
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 232
2 Freire 207
3 Boonen 204
1 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval-Prodir 80
2 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 62
3 Fabian Wegmann (Ger) Gerolsteiner 61
Best young rider: Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
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