Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Saint-Bernard Pass (TDF 09)

The second full day in the Alps, and the first featuring a hors categorie climb, proved a challenge to some and an opportunity to others.

Stage 16 featured only two climbs, the Grand and Petit Col du Saint Bernard, but nonetheless it broke the peloton up early.

An early breakaway, containing King of the Mountains jersey holder Franco Pellizotti of Liquigas, was able to hold off the main field for most of the day and helped Pellizotti secure more points in the King of the Mountains standings, as he was the first to crest both climbs of the day.

Astana kept control over the peloton for most of the stage as the group climbed the Grand Col du Saint Bernard and descended into Italy. However as the peloton hit the slopes of the Petit Col du Saint Bernard, lovingly called a mini-Alpe d'Huez, Team Saxo Bank moved up to the helm in the hopes of helping Andy Schleck gain some time in the GC.

With Pellizotti and a small group of riders flying up the hill, the remnants of the peloton dueled it out for positions in the overall classifications. Andy Schleck and his brother Frank consistently tried to break away from Contador but every time they moved the little Spaniard in yellow was right on their back wheel.

The group did drop Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans and Lance Armstrong on the slopes. For a while it looked like Armstrong was finally showing his age, however with 34km left he blasted away from Sastre's group, passed a hurting Frank Schleck and met up with the Contador/Schleck group only a few kilometers from the summit.

After Pellizotti cleared the summit and began the descent out of his native Italy into France, groups of riders began to take on the cols tricky descent. There was a very scary moment when Saxo Bank's workhorse, Jens Voigt, crashed at full speed on the descent.

Voigt, a tour veteran, had to retire from the race after losing consciousness on the course. Medical crews rushed him to the hospital for tests, but no news of his condition has been released yet.

"I only saw (Voigt) after the crash and he looked very, very bad...I am just concerned with Jens' health right now," said Saxo Bank's team director Bjarne Riis to AFP.

Thankfully no more major crashes occurred but a big surprise lay in store for Team Euskaltel-Euskadi's Mikel Astarloza. After breaking away from the lead group with only a few kilometers left, Astarloza was able to claim his first ever victory in a major European stage race.

Astarloza's only other professional victory came in the Tour Down Under.

With the failure of Saxo Bank to find the chinks in Astana's armor, the GC standings remain the same and the only change was that Pellizotti gained a good deal of points in the King of the Mountains.

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