There have plenty of great stage 17’s at the Tour de France in recent times. Often it contains the final mountain top finish of the race so has the potential for plenty of drama. So I had to choose two stages for today:
Stage 17 of the 2008 Tour de France had all the ingredients to turn it into a classic. It was was one of the closes races in years, only 8 seconds separated Frank Schleck in 1st and Cadel Evans in 3rd and the top five were all within 1 minute 13 seconds of each other. It was also the final mountain stage with its finale taking part on Alpe d’Huez. Perfect.
The battle to win the Tour that day was going to be between the climbers and the time trialists. Frank Schleck, his CSC teammate Carlos Sastre and Bernhard Kohl knew they needed to put time into Evans and Denis Menchov as the penultimate stage that year was going to a 53 km test against the clock. It was reckoned 2 minutes would have done the trick.
Schleck and Sastre had the advantage of having the strongest team. They had been aided well in the mountains by Frank’s younger brother. Andy Schleck was taking part in his first Tour and held the white jersey. There is a little mentioned story that tells of Frank Schleck proclaiming to some journalists: “If you think I am good then wait till you see my brother”. Andy was living up to his hype. Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team by contrast had been letting him down every time the road went up.
As the big group of favourites approached the bottom of the Alpe the breakaway, which had once had an advantage of nearly 6 minutes, were now less than 1 minute up the climb. The fireworks started the moment the bunch hit the slopes. Sastre took off straight away and the bunch exploded as his rivals reacted. It was a bold move by the Spaniard, he would have to climb over 13 km on his own but he had the Schlecks behind him to disrupt the chase and if he faltered then Frank Schleck could launch a counter attack.
With 10 km to go Sastre’s advantage was only half a minute, but with 8 km left that had risen to 55 seconds. His teammates behind him were playing a blinder. They kept attacking from the bunch then slowing down, knocking the momentum out of the chase.
Sastre was now in yellow and now his mission was to add more time on Evans to give himself a cushion in the time trial. He was managing to do just that as his lead grew to 1 minute 27 with 6.5 km to go, 1 minute 50 inside the last 5 km and over 2 minutes with 3.5 km left of the stage. Behind him on the climb it was becoming obvious that it wasn’t just his CSC pals that were knocking the stuffing out of Evans, his countrymen Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez were playing heir parts too.
Finally at the finish Carlos Sastre crossed the line 1st, 2 minutes 13 seconds ahead of Frank Schleck with another 2 seconds back to Evans, Kohl and Menchov. That gave him a 1 minute 34 second advantage over Cadel Evans in the overall. The Tour battle was still on a knife edge and I had just witnessed my favourite ever stage.
Looking back over the stage a few years later I began to wonder about the Schleck’s role that day. Had it been a tactical masterclass or were they just unsure of what they should do. Frank was in yellow that day, probably wanted to stay there, but didn’t know how.
The 2006 was a crazy, topsy turvy affair. The prologue had been won by Thor Hushovd. He wore the yellow jersey in the first stage before lending it to George Hincapie, getting it back off him, then giving it to Tom Boonen. Tom then passed it to Serhiy Honchar who handed it to Cyril Dessel. Finally, he let Floyd Landis and Oscar Pereiro have a game of pass the jersey with it until the end of the race.
Landis got it on stage 11. On stage 13 Pereiro gained 30 minutes to take it off him. He passed it back to Landis after two days before the American lost it, and 8 minutes on stage 16. The chunks of time that Landis had ceded to the Spaniard were nothing short of incredible and so was his recovery on the final mountain stage to attempt to get the yellow jersey back.
After his capitulation the previous day the Phonak rider sat in 11th place, 8 minutes 8 seconds behind Pereiro. He was surely out of the reckoning and would face another tough day which included climbs over the Col des Saisies, the Col des Aravis, the Col de la Colombière and the Col de Joux-Plane before the downhill finish into Morzine.
I thought I was about to watch a duel between Pereiro, Carlos Sastre, Andreas Kloden and Cadel Evans. With about 130 km though Landis made a bold move and the rest of the stage was simply jaw dropping. Landis put on a display which was straight from the black and white era, Fausto Coppi and Charly Gaul came to my mind but at the same time my brain thought something wasn’t quite right.
Landis attacked on the first climb and was followed briefly by a group of riders including Kloden, Sastre and Evans before they dropped back to the peloton after another Landis attack. After he caught up with the days break his gap to the yellow jersey kept growing as his pace saw the breakaway group shrink. At the bottom of the Colombière he was 5 minutes 30 ahead of Pereiro and by the time he reached the top the gap had risen to 8 minutes 35 seconds. The American was in the virtual yellow jersey now but only had one rider for company, Partick Sinkewitz. The T-Mobile man wasn’t much use as he was on the same team as Andreas Kloden but back in the peloton Oscar Pereiro was down to one teammate.
T-Mobile and CSC saw the potential of putting Pereiro under pressure so started driving at the front of the group of favorites. Landis’ advantage started to decrease then hovered around the 6 minute mark. If he kept it there he knew if he kept it there he could clinch the Tour title in the final time trial.
He finished the stage a massive 5 minutes 42 seconds ahead of the next best rider Carlos Sastre and Pereiro came in 8th at 7 minutes 8. That left Landis only 30 seconds behind the Spaniard and as he headed to doping control he would have known the title was his for the taking.