Alberto Contador climbed into a wall of sound, legs ticking out a quick rhythm, face calm in the midst of a frenzied crowd. When his pace dropped, he stood up and accelerated. Pressing fans roared their support, clanging cowbells, banging sticks together, and screaming at top volume – often blocking the road ahead and moving clear just at the last second to reveal the pavement ahead. When they came too close, he threw two warning punches into the air – one to the left, and one to the right.
In the midst of the mountain-top chaos, the Spaniard pedaled smoothly away from his competition, winning the Tour’s first stage of the Alps 42 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Andy Schleck (Saxo-Bank).
It was a performance that put an end to any doubt about who will lead the Astana squad (Armstrong is now second overall, but at 1’37” off the pace, it would be a tall order for him to overtake his teammate in the coming stages) and also established that he is the man to beat in this year’s Tour de France.
Three in the top fifteen for Columbia-HTC
Kim Kirchen, Tony Martin and Maxime Monfort all finished in the top 15 today (10th, 12th and 14th respectively) preserving their top-20 positions in the overall classification. Don’t be surprised if you see one of the three Columbia climbers find their way into a break in the coming days.
Kirchen looked solid on the steep slopes of Verbier and we should continue to see strong performances from him over the coming mountains. He has managed to increase his standing in the overall classification almost every day since the beginning of the Tour – if he can dig deep and deliver the ride of his life over one of the next four stages, we may be in for a sweet surprise.
Though Astana’s performance blew the lid off the team competition today, Columbia-HTC has managed to hang on to 5th place, just 8 seconds behind Team Milram.
How the race unfolded
With 137 kilometers to go, a break of 10 riders went clear of the main field, but were never allowed to open a significant gap, their lead topping out at around 4 minutes and 30 seconds. On the front of the peloton, Saxo-Bank and Astana controlled the pace, keeping the lead group within easy striking distance.
It was clear that both teams were intent on a showdown on the final climb.
The fireworks started at 12k to go. A few members of the breakaway had attacked their companions in a desperate bid for a solo stage win, but every move was eventually pulled back by the crushing pace of a chase group that contained all of the GC contenders (and many of the world’s best climbers).
Saxo-Bank put in a string of accelerations in an attempt to launch Andy Schleck off the front of the select group that included Contador, Armstrong, Wiggins, Sastre and Evans, among others.
In the end, however, it was Contador who delivered the first major blow and at 5.6k to the finish the Spaniard stood up on his pedals and accelerated to open up and immediate gap. Andy Schleck responded, but hesitated a bit too long and was not able to grab Contador’s wheel. Schleck chased for the remainder of the climb but was unable to catch the flying Astana rider.
Back in the chase group, Armstrong rode steadily up the climb on teammate Andreas Kloden’s wheel, while Andy Schleck’s brother and teammate, Frank, attacked in an unsuccessful attempt to bridge up to his brother to help him up the remainder of the climb. Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream) also hit the gas, shooting up the mountain to join Frank Schleck and claim a 5th place finish for the day, with Sastre and Evans finishing not far behind.
It was the kind of explosive, guts-out day that we’ve been waiting for – the first big shakeout among the GC riders and an all-out effort by every man on the road.
Now the question is – with even bigger mountains to come, will anyone be able to drop Contador to contest the overall lead?
Looking ahead: Another rest day and Stage Sixteen
Tomorrow, the peloton will take a much needed rest day to prepare for the final stages of the tour. (Speaking of which, your Columbia-HTC Tour reporter will also be taking a rest day, in order to be fresh and energized for the exciting finale to this race!)
After a day of easy spinning, leg massages and general recovery, the race will resume with Stage Sixteen – a 159 kilometer mountain stage from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurienne that will serve up another tough day in the Alps, with a screaming descent into the finish.
Two major mountains with little recovery in between will make this a merciless stage: the uncategorized Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (24.4 km at 6.2 percent) and the Category 1 Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (22.6 km at 5.1 percent). After the second climb, the race will follow a steep downhill into Bourg-Saint-Maurienne.
Will a breakaway survive over the long climbs and daredevil descent? Or will a GC contender with strong handling skills ride away with the day? We’ll have to wait and see.
Stage 15 Results: Top Five Individuals
1. CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 5h 03' 58"
2. SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 00' 43"
3. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS + 01' 03"
4. SCHLECK Frank TEAM SAXO BANK + 01' 06"
5. WIGGINS Bradley GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 01' 06"
Top Ten Individual Standings (GC) after Stage 15
1. CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 63h 17' 56"
2. ARMSTRONG Lance ASTANA + 01' 37"
3. WIGGINS Bradley GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 01' 46"
4. KLÖDEN Andréas ASTANA + 02' 17"
5. SCHLECK Andy TEAM SAXO BANK + 02' 26"
6. NOCENTINI Rinaldo AG2R LA MONDIALE + 02' 30"
7. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS + 02' 51"
8. MARTIN Tony TEAM COLUMBIA - HTC + 03' 07"
9. LE MEVEL Christophe FRANCAISE DES JEUX + 03' 09"
10. SCHLECK Frank TEAM SAXO BANK + 03' 25"
Columbia-HTC Individual Standings after Stage 15
8. MARTIN Tony 139. CAVENDISH Mark
13. HINCAPIE George 131. GRABSCH Bert
15. MONFORT Maxime 150. RENSHAW Mark
17. KIRCHEN Kim 151. EISEL Bernhard
113. ROGERS Michael