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The crowds may not have been quite as large or as manic as they were when the Tour last visited Alpe d'Huez two years ago, but cycling's most famous climb more than lived up to its reputation for delivering enthralling action. Glory on the day went to CSC's Frank Schleck, who was beautifully set up for victory in a long breakaway by team-mates Jens Voigt and Dave Zabriskie, but the greater glory belonged to Floyd Landis, who edged Oscar Pereiro out of the yellow jersey and edged himself more than two minutes ahead of his major rivals.
Once again, the racing was frantic from the start, but what became the decisive split was made at the first sprint of the day at Embrun (35km). Twenty-five riders made it into the group, with Schleck the best-placed overall in 20th. The group split on the long climb of the Col d'Izoard, where Stefano Garzelli led by a minute over King of the Mountains David De La Fuente, with a large chunk of the break still with the young Spaniard. The peloton was 6-30 down. Former yellow jersey Tom Boonen abandoned in the valley below the Izoard, making Robbie McEwen's regaining of the points title almost a certainty.
De La Fuente took maximum points on the subsequent climb of the Lauteret, after most of the breakaways had come together again, and now the peloton were only 4-20 as they started the long descent down the valley to Bourg d'Oisans for the final epic climb of the day.
Zabriskie and Voigt did most of the work to Bourg d'Oisans, then fell away as Damiano Cunego pushed the speed up on the Alpe's opening ramps. After a couple more digs by the diminutive Italian, only Schleck was left with him, although Cunego's former lieutenant Eddy Mazzoleni did work his way back to the pair.
Back in the yellow jersey group, a ferocious pace set by T-Mobile at the foot of the Alpe saw race leader Pereiro drop back along with many others. Andreas Klden took up the pace-making and only Landis and Cadel Evans were able to follow. A surge from Landis with 10km left was too much for Evans, who fell back towards the group Pereiro was gamely leading in a vain attempt to hang on to the yellow jersey.
Up front, another attack by Cunego put paid to Mazzoleni's chances, but 2km from the line the former Giro winner seemed to pay for his long spell of pace-making as Schleck burst away. Spurred on by the sight of the first chalets on the edge of Alpe d'Huez village, the Luxembourger hardly paused all the way to the line, only easing off slightly to zip up his billowing jersey and give a victory salute.
"I never feel good in a race. It always hurts. If you feel good, you're not going to win. that's something I've learned in the last few years," said Schleck afterwards. "I wasn't meant to go in the breakaway this morning but I just found myself there and now I'm a stage winner of the Tour de France thanks largely to my team-mates who supported me 100 per cent today. Jens and David did an amazing job for me today. It was great and the without those two guys I could never have made it."
Little more than a minute later, Landis and Klden came to the line, with several members of the early breakaway in tow and the dogged Carlos Sastre their only main rival within sight of them. "We wanted to be conservative in this stage because we don't want to control the race the entire time," said Landis, who admitted "it's unfortunate that Pereiro couldn't hang onto the yellow jersey today because he fought hard and I wouldn't mind if he kept it for another day. It did work in our favor for Caisse d'Epargne to lead for a few days.
"Our tactics on the final climb were to be conservative," Landis continued. "Again it worked in my favor that Klden was so strong today. He did most of the work and I wouldn't mind having helped him but that wouldn't have served any real purpose for me. It's now in my interest to follow my rivals and keep the time gaps that I have now and then plan for the time trial."
Stage 15, Gap-Alpe d'Huez
1 Frank Schleck (Lux) Team CSC 187km in 4.52.22 (38.38kph)
2 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre 0.11
3 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas 1.10
4 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak
5 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile
6 Ruben Lobato (Spa) Saunier Duval 1.14
7 Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Cofidis 1.18
8 Eddy Mazzoleni (Ita) T-Mobile 1.28
9 Carlos Sastre (Spa) CSC 1.35
10 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Gerolsteiner 1.49
11 Denis Menchov (Rus) Rabobank 2.21
14 Oscar Pereiro (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne 2.49
15 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile
16 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
1 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak Hearing Systems 69.00.05
2 Pereiro 0.10
3 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r 2.02
4 Menchov 2.12
5 Sastre 2.17
6 Klden 2.29
7 Evans 2.56
8 Rogers 5.01
9 Leipheimer 6.18
10 Haimar Zubeldia (Spa) Euskaltel 6.20
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 252
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 207
3 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Lampre 192
1 David De La Fuente (Spa) Saunier Duval 108
2 Schleck 74
3 Michael Rasmussen (Den) Rabobank 73
Best young rider: Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
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