Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tour de France: Stage 9

Val-d'Isère to Briançon 159.5 km

How was your rest day? GNB Sports. Welcome back.

The lone leader Igor Astarloza (Euskaltel) crosses over the top of the Col du Telegraph, about 21 seconds ahead of the Popovych group of four, 3 min on the peloton.

Vinokourov has dropped to the rear of the peloton and called for the Tour doctor. We have to wonder if he's trying to pull a Lance Armstrong. We know he's hurt from his crash, what, four days ago now? But we can't help remembering Lance intentionally faking everyone out back in 2001, 2002 before a brutal climb, dropping to the back, looking upset, and then freezing Jan Ulrich with "the look", then climbing straight up to glory. Hmm...

All the favorites are over the top and back down in the small town between the massive climbs. They will all hit the Galibier together. Astarloza (the leader) has now been caught, giving us a lead group of four on the initial slope of the Galibier, then several small chase groups, followed by the Tour leader's peloton at 3:05 back which includes the Yellow Jersey.

171 riders remain in the Tour. A note about our sources: We are appreciative for both the Versus broadcast feed and the internet live feed from Versus and VeloNews without which we could not write these reports. Just so people are clear as to where much of this is cribbed from. We really can't say enough good things about Versus and VeloNews. First rate reporting and the nice bit about VeloNews if you're into cycling is it's available year round.

Barloworld's Colombian Mauricio Soler has just blown past the lead of the race sprinting past everyone. He's all alone in front having destroyed the leading group. What a ride he's giving. This is only his second year as a pro.

The peloton only 2 minutes back off the lead and the lead group now down to three riders. Stunning how fast these riders race up these climbs. They go up climbs at altitude faster than some of us can ride in the flats. Bastards. And don't get started about drugs. Really, don't even start. (Yes, we will do a drug story; not today. Probably on the second rest day.)

The crowds are getting bigger and bigger on the Galibier. All the favorites are starting to test each other. We've got a split in the peloton. Vino wasn't faking. He's in the rear of the split, call it Vino's group. Up front is the Yellow Jersey group 2:20 back, Evans, Leipheimer, Kloden, Mayo, all of the big names, everyone is in this group except Vinokourov. There ae 110 kilometers of time trialing left in this race and the riders know Vino can ride himself back into form; they want to get as much time on Vino as possible today.

The leaders are 2:35 off the lead, Vino is only 30 seconds off the leaders. No one dares drag them self into the red zone because if they do they will not recover. If you get in trouble you slow down just below red, climb within your limits and ride your way back up till you can rejoin and hope that the pace kicks their ass as well. It works most of the time. Witness 1: Vino is only 30 seconds behind the favorites and they'd really hoped to have 2-3 minutes into him right now.Vino'll make up 30 seconds on the 39 kilometers of descent to the finish, no problem.

The attacks are coming right and left. Cadel Evans had a successful attack and got 30 seconds ahead for a little but now he's cracked and is trying to recover as the leaders come up behind him. Every bit of the road is packed with spectators on the sides screaming cheers just inches from these riders as they approach the summit. All the leaders are back together except Vino (behind) and Evans (ahead) as they approach the summit. Soler crosses over the top and starts descending, making a left-hand turn (a right-hand turn would be to the Alp de huez, and oh Gods, wouldn't that just kill the riders today.) The chase from the summit down to Briancon is a very dangerous decent, windy, twisty, narrow, steep.

Here go the leaders over the top. The cyclists are actually faster on the descent than the motorbikes with the TV cameras; the bicycles can cut corners faster. Speaking of cutting corners, Levi Leipheimer was fined yesterday for being a bit too sneaky on Stage 8 with his team manager giving him a pull back towards the peloton after his mechanical. It's called a bidon (bottle) pull after the water bottle Levi was being handed as his manager punched the accelerator while Levi held on to the water bottle -- hence the name, bidon pull -- and got a slingshot ride back towards the group. While traditional, it isn't allowed. The money wasn't much but the fine also cost Levi 10 seconds in time and that could hurt him down the road towards Paris.

This isn't Lance Armstrong's Tour de France. There isn't one team with a 90% chance of winning and all strategy and tactics go towards beating that one team. There are four to five teams with people who could win and perhaps another three or four teams waiting to jump into the gap given a chance. The race is in flux daily and we may well not know who will win the Tour till near the end. This is difficult for Americans perhaps. We like to have our games black and white with clear heroes and bad guys. That isn't this Tour.

Soler remains all alone out front. He's made an amazing ride today this rider from Columbia. The Yellow Jersey and the main leaders are 2:30 behind, Vino a minute plus behind them.

Ten kilometers to go and the leaders peloton is split in two with a 15 second gap. This is precisely the kind of stupid mistake that costs big-time down the road. Soler is going for it, just racing full-out with 8 km to go. Discovery has two riders only 1 min behind and closing fast. Vino's boys are closing on the peloton now 2 minutes behind the Yellow Jersey which is 1:15 behind the race lead. It's not quite an all-out sprint yet to the finish yet but we're going awfully fast with 8 km to go, Tour racing at its best. No one can give a second; this race might be won in Paris by seconds.

The final climb up to the finish line is one and a half kilometers. And nasty. Everyone coming together behind the leader. Soler remains ahead by about 30 seconds and he's got to dig deep. There's a nasty left-hand bend and it goes up, up, up to finish today, almost as brutal as the Galibier itself. But Soler's lost only one second in the last 5 km. The leaders are all coming back together with 4 km to go (and 3 km to go for Soler.) Vino remains back behind a few minutes. Soler's race to lose but the leaders behind are coming hard and hope to take him from behind on the final climb, going straight, straight up, climbing into the heavens like a wall straight up. Surely no one can be expected to climb this. It needs an elevator. Or a helicopter.

Soler is racing, racing for Colombia, for Team Barloworld, his legs ticking over, 400 meters to go, no one else even exists for him, but here come the leaders behind him; they can't catch him and here comes Soler they will not catch him riding down the final finishing straight the crowd screaming for him riding faster and faster the pain going away up the final climb like an angel saluting the crowd, over the line, over the line, Soler wins the stage!

Behind him the leaders racing for the line, Valverde, Cadel Evans in third, then Contador and Mayo. Here comes Rasmussen in the Yellow Jersey, then Leipheimer and what a ride Discovery had done today. Now more riders crossing behind them and more and more. And not too far behind here they come swinging up to the finish, having limited his losses and lost about three minutes to the leaders, Vinokourov crosses the line at 3:24 and that clearly takes him out of his favorite status although he still has the time trials ahead where he has the chance to pull back time on his rivals.

Levi Leipheimer just did a television interview and he said what we've been saying all day: No one knows who the favorite is anymore including the riders.

Tomorrow we're back down in the flats for a fast stage. An opportunity for riders tired or injured to ride themselves back to health. Expect a long breakaway which might even succeed. Till then, thanks for being here on GNB Sports.

Stage 10 LIVE in the U.S. on Versus: Wednesday, July 18, 8:30 - 11:30 AM ET/5:30 - 8:30 AM PT.

Today's video highlights -- Great Tour coverage at VeloNews

A Feast on Wheels: Behind the scenes Tour coverage by correspondent Bonnie DeSimone of ESPN, Boston Globe and the Oregonian.

TDF Stage 9 Results -- Top 10:
The results for the ninth stage of the 2007 Tour de France is:
1. Juan Mauricio Soler (COL) BAR 159.5km in 4h14'24" (37.617km/h)
2. Alejandro Valverde (ESP) GCE - at 38"
3. Cadel Evans (AUS) PRL - at 38"
4. Alberto Contador (ESP) DSC - at 40"
5. Iban Mayo (ESP) SDV - at 42"
6. Michael Rasmussen (DEN) RAB - at 42"
7. Levi Leipheimer (USA) DSC - at 42"
8. Kim Kirchen (LUX) TMO - at 46"
9. Andreas Kloden (GER) AST - at 47"
10. Carlos Sastre (ESP) CSC - at 47"

TDF: Standings after Stage 9

1 058 RASMUSSEN, Michael DEN RAB 43:52:48.000 00:00:00.000
2 018 VALVERDE, Alejandro ESP GCE 43:55:23.000 00:02:35.000
3 207 MAYO, Iban ESP SDV 43:55:27.000 00:02:39.000
4 041 EVANS, Cadel AUS PRL 43:55:29.000 00:02:41.000
5 112 CONTADOR, Alberto ESP DSC 43:55:56.000 00:03:08.000
6 061 MOREAU, Christophe FRA A2R 43:56:06.000 00:03:18.000
7 031 SASTRE, Carlos ESP CSC 43:56:27.000 00:03:39.000
8 196 KLÖDEN, Andréas GER AST 43:56:38.000 00:03:50.000
9 111 LEIPHEIMER, Levi USA DSC 43:56:41.000 00:03:53.000
TMO 43:57:54.000 00:05:06.000