Riders were greeted with eight categorized climbs over the 208 kilometers from Issoire to Saint-Flour today. The stage had breakaway written all over it from the moment it was presented in Paris last fall, and sure enough, it was a break that dominated the stage.
This wasn’t any break though – this was a break of hardmen, riders who fear not the lash of a long, terrible day ahead of an ambling peloton. The attempts were many in the opening hour, continual and relentless, but there was nothing doing. Over and over they went, but each move came back. That is, until one Mr. Thomas Voeckler took top points on the day’s first categorized climb at the 43.5 kilometer marker. Voeckler went over the top first and never looked back.
That’s one steamrolling engine up the road. Who would join him? Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland – he who never, ever, ever shies from a day out front – followed Voeckler. Then came Juan Antonio Flecha…and Sandy Casar…and Luis Leon Sanchez…and Niki Terpstra. Could you dream of a breakaway populated by better bit chewers? I can’t. Ok, if Jens Voigt was there, it might have been the ultimate hard man breakaway, but he’s on shepherd duty this Tour. Boo.
While the break was busy putting their collective head down and plowing their way to Saint-Flour, the peloton was busy falling down and abandoning.
Before the halfway point in the stage four unhappy riders had already abandoned. Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate didn’t take the start, Pavel Brutt (Katusha) and Wout Poels (Vacansoleil) called it a day on the road, and Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel) looked to have suffered a broken collarbone.
And it just got worse.
Following a practice fall by Alberto Contador, which just reacquainted the Grand Tour dominator with pavement, a bunch of riders went down in a frightening spill on a wet descent. The names weren’t small either: Alexandre Vinokourov broke his pelvis and Jurgen Van Den Broeck looked to have broken his collarbone. David Zabriskie also left the Tour as a result of that crash, same as well with what seemed to be Frederik Willems.
That crash slowed the chasing impetus at the head of the field in a big way, and the break, which had earlier (despite its awesome firepower) looked doomed, suddenly put on big time. They were off to the races, and Thomas Voeckler was staring at a very, very good chance at donning yellow at the end of the day.
You remember the last time Voeckler wore yellow, don’t you? It was 2004, and the little engine that could refused to give up the Maillot Jaune for ELEVEN stages.
It’s not like Voeckler needs any extra motivation at any point, but when he got a whiff of yellow, it was game on.
His breakmates gamely played along, but the urgency was only in the pedalstrokes of Voeckler. With that said, it’s not like they were soft pedaling, it was just that Voeckler was going nutty on the front.
The time gap pushed out and out and out, and despite the earnest efforts of Omega Pharma and Garmin-Cervelo, there was nothing doing. It just wasn’t coming down.
Luis Leon Sanchez was a happy winner in Saint-Fleur.
The only thing coming down, however, was the break. And by down, I mean falling down. A France TV car made an absolutely egregious error in driving and hit Juan Antonio Flecha while trying to pass. Flecha hit the ground like he’d been tackled by an NFL linebacker, whilst Johnny Hoogerland went cartwheeling into a field…and into a barbed wire fence. It goes without saying that the two did not regain contact with the break, but fortunately, they did finish. That’s about the only plus that can be taken from that, and that’s only a plus because…oh, we’ll just let it sit with that. That driver will get his due pay for his driving.
And so the pursuit continued: Garmin/Omega versus the trio out front with Voeckler doing the work of three riders. In other words, the field didn’t stand a chance, and finally, as the kilometers ticked down and the gap stayed steady at almost five minutes, Garmin gave up the ghost and gave up Thor’s Maillot Jaune.
The field was without a leading team for a moment before Leopard Trek and BMC came to the fore, but the message was clear. Yellow was Voeckler’s.
And so the former French champion dug ever deeper and his tongue hung ever longer.
Philippe Gilbert could only put up a hand in frustration – had the break been taken care of in the last two stages, he’d be two stage wins richer. Such is racing. Hard to feel too bad for the man who just can’t seem to stop winning in 2011.
There was speculation that perhaps Voeckler could pull out a victory at the top of the category four climb to Saint-Flour to take yellow and the day, but when Luis Leon Sanchez opened up the sprint, he let it be known that absolutely no one was going to get in his way of stage victory. Sanchez left his two former breakmates far, far behind as he exploded to the win and some sort of reference to a baby – either already here or coming. At least that’s what I think the thumb sucking and pointing to the belly means.
Behind, BMC had hit the gas heading into Saint-Flour, and then Omega Pharma took it over on the slopes heading to the finish to set Philippe Gilbert up for a bunch more green jersey points. The Maillot Vert-clad Belgian champion pulled a Sanchez and left the collective sum of the world’s best far in his wake to take fourth place points on the line and further pad his lead over Jose Joaquin Rojas and Mark Cavendish.
Thomas Voeckler was what some would describe as elated following his ascension to the number one spot at the Tour de France.
It was all minor news though – Voeckler was in yellow, and by a fair bit – 2:26 over Evans. Sure, he won’t win the Tour, but the next big question (besides who else is going to crash out of the 2011 Tour de France) is: how long can Voeckler hold on?
Sobering quote of the day from Hoogerland, as he tearfully accepted his Maillot Pois jersey on the podium following his wreck: “No one did this on purpose. It was a horrible crash, but we’re alive. Weylandt died.”
A tearful Johnny Hoogerland dons the polka dot jersey.
Stage 9 Results
1 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team 5:27:09
2 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 0:00:05
3 Sandy Casar (Fra) FDJ 0:00:13
4 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:03:59
5 Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Highroad
6 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team
7 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
8 Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad
9 Frдnk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek
10 Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD
General Classification Going Into First Rest Day
1 Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar 38:35:11
2 Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (Spa) Rabobank Cycling Team 0:01:49
3 Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team 0:02:26
4 Frдnk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:02:29
5 Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek 0:02:37
6 Tony Martin (Ger) HTC-Highroad 0:02:38
7 Peter Velits (Svk) HTC-Highroad
8 Andreas Klцden (Ger) Team RadioShack 0:02:43
9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto 0:02:55
10 Jakob Fuglsang (Den) Leopard Trek 0:03:08