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.
I became a fan of professional cycling in the early 90’s and being from Britain this meant watching Tour de France highlights on Channel 4 at home or occasionally Eurosport if I was at a sports club. The Tour was the gateway drug and it was only later that I hit the harder stuff like the Giro or the classics. So watching cycling in this restricted manner at that particular time meant witnessing Miguel Indurain’s dominance. It was very impressive and as I enjoyed a Time Trial I didn’t find the era as boring as others. There were also more flamboyant riders such as Claudio Chiappucci to add some colour to the race but when his team mate Marco Pantani came on the scene my enjoyment of the sport reached a new level. He was different from everyone else, everything about him was striking from his looks to his climbing style, out of his saddle but still in the drops. He quickly became my favourite rider. I was so fond of him I even liked his Carrera Jeans kit with the denim cycling shorts.
He turned pro in 1992 and completed his first Grand Tours in 19994, he was 2nd at the Giro and finished 3rd and won the White Jersy in his Tour debut. During that Tour he had beat the record for the ascent of Alpe d’Huez but missed out on the stage victory as Roberto Conti had triumphed from a break. The climb was to be used again in 1995 and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a stage win slip him by again.
Approaching the mountain there was a break just like the previous year but Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team were racing well and keeping those ahead at a manageable gap. The riders in the break were of a good caliber (Richard Virenque and Ivan Gotti among others) but it looked like they would be caught. On the lower slopes of the Alpe Banesto start riding hard but Gerard Rue tells them to slow down, has he concerns about the form of his leader Indurain? Pantani decides to find out and flies off. He passes by members of the break one by one and after passing Gotti he has the lead. After that his victory is never in doubt and the top riders of a generation such as Indurain, Riis and Zuelle are left fighting for second.