In a day of drama, we saw a former winner crash out of the race, an Australian escapee win the stage and the yellow jersey go to a sixth rider this year. The stage winning move was set up in the first 15km and they would gain over 17 minutes over the peloton that was controlled by the CSC team for most of the day. Oscar Pereiroâs dramatic crash on the descent of the Col Agnel prompted the peloton to ease up for the rest of the downhill before hearing that heâd sustained a broken shoulder and no more. This gave Simon Gerrans and his escape companions an opportunity to build on their lead before contesting the sprint for stage honors a little over four minutes ahead of an epic battle for the yellow jersey where Frank Schleck was triumphant.
The Progress Report
The 183km 15th stage of the 2008 Tour de France began at 12.59pm with 156 riders signing on to contest the race from Embrum to Prato Nevoso in Italy. The non-starter was March Cavendish (COL). There were three climbs on the itinerary including the âhors categorieâ Col Agnel, a 20.5km ascent rising to 2,744m at 58km which was also the point of the border crossing from France to Italy. Then came the category-three Colle del Morte (at 157km) and the final climb to the 1,440m high ski station at the end of the stage. The two intermediate sprints were in Guillestre (at 14.5km) and in Rossana (114.5km). The conditions were rainy at the start with a temperature of about 18 degrees Celsius.
Four Reach Col Agnel Summit With 12 Minute Lead
Attacks began as soon as the flag fell at the wet start but the first escape to gain any time on the peloton was instigated by Egoi Martinez (EUS). He was followed by Pate (GAR) and Arrieta at the 12km mark. They claimed the points at the first sprint and were joined by Gerrans (C.A) at the 16km mark. The peloton was content with the selection and allowed the quartet to build their advantage: 5â00â at 25km; 9â10â at 30km; 13â00â at 41km. Mark Renshaw retired on the Agnel climb. Riders who were dropped by the peloton on the climb included: Brandt and McEwen (SIL) and Devolder, the Quickstep team leader who quit the Tour before the summit. First place points went to Martinez who had a 11â50â advantage over Voeckler who surged forward to add 12 points to his tally and lead the bunch to the line. The yellow jersey was led by Popovych and Vansummeren (SIL) who set the pace for the peloton most of the way up the Agnel climb.
Pereiro Victim Of Nasty Crash
On the descent of the Agnel pass, Pereiro (GCE) hit a guardrail on the right side of the road and tumbled down onto a stretch of tarmac that looped back after a sharp right hairpin turn at the 80km mark. The peloton eased their pace out of respect for the 2006 champion. Upon hearing the news that he was conscious all along â despite suspected fractures of a shoulder and femur â they began pedaling again.
The advantage of the escapees when the bunch started riding again had blown out from 12 minutes to 16â40â. Lampre and Silence-Lotto then took responsibility of the pacesetting. At the feedzone (102km), the deficit was 17â10â â this was the maximum gain of the escape. Lampre riders then started swapping off and, at 110km, the bunch was 16â15â behind Martinezâs quartet. CSC then took charge of the chase with OâGrady and Sorensen swapping off ahead of Silence-Lotto riders. Those two blew on the 2nd climb but were replaced by the rest of the CSC squad. The peloton was at 12â50â at the climb of death â Colle del Morte.
Gerrans Claims The Stage Win
At the start of the final climb, the four escapees had a lead of 9â16â. Martinez attacked the lead group and dropped Arrieta early but with 5km to go, Gerrans and Pate fought back to the lead. They would ride together, slowing dramatically in the final kilometer and, out of the final turn, Gerrans attacked never to look back. He claimed the stage three-seconds ahead of Martinez.
Frank Schleck Into The LeadâŚ!
The CSC team had the weight of numbers and their pace thinned the yellow jerseyâs group to 10: Evans, Frank and Andy, Sastre, Menchov, Vande Velde, Valverde, Kohl, Samuel Sanchez and Kreuziger. This was the selection and almost everyone from this group attacked at one stage or another but it was the CSC team that was most animated. Menchov made one big surge but crashed on the slippery road 8km from the finish. The road was wet but the others in his group waited for him to rejoin them before attacking began again. With 3km to go Sastre and Kohl surged and were followed by Valverde. Evans marked Frank Schleck but the Luxembourger was able to gain an advantage in the final 500m and push his way into the yellow jersey by seven seconds. He is the second rider from Luxembourg to lead the Tour this year. Evans dropped to third, one second behind Kohl and eight seconds behind Frank.
To some he was the surprise package in the Pyrenees but Bernhard Kohl has confirmed his status as one of the finest climbers in the Tour de France by claiming the polka-dot jersey in Italy and moving up the rankings to second place overallâŚ
âDuring the race, you donât think about time you just do the work but in the last kilometers I did allow a thought about the yellow jersey to come into my head. âOh maybe itâs possibleâŚâ but Frank Schleck is very strong and the whole team of CSC is impressive. Iâm very happy with the second place now and, with the mountains jersey, itâs perfect.
âActually Iâve been feeling very good on the climbs. Iâll try and hold on to the mountains jersey but first I have to look at the general classification. When I can take points on the climbs, then Iâll try but I wonât ride really for the polka-dot jersey because itâs too hard with me so high up the overall rankings. I wonât be allowed much room to move. Still, when itâs possible, I will try.
âWeâve seen today that, with the Schlecks and Sastre combined with Menchov, there are many others capable of winning. If I had better legs I would have tried to achieve a little more but the thinking for me was to follow the moves until three kilometers from the line. And when I started to gain time [on Cadel Evans], well everything became different. Itâs beautiful.
âI canât believe that Iâm now second in the Tour. Itâs difficult to understand. Perhaps Iâve never had a stronger day, itâs one of those special moments. We really need to have the rest day and then see what happens in the other days in the Alps.â
After trailing Cadel Evans by one second since the Pyrenees, Frank Schleck wrestled his way into the lead of the Tour de France by seven seconds at Prato Nevoso. The obvious question was asked by virtually every journalist in the mix zone: how is it to wear yellow? âIt feels good,â said the cool customer from Luxembourg who is the second from the small nation to lead the 2008 Tour.
âIâm really happy. Itâs amazing especially after missing out following the work that my team did on the way to Hautacam, to miss out by one second was a real shame. I said to the boy, âIâm really sorry that I couldnât bring [the yellow jersey] back to the hotel.â Well, tonight I guess I can do that. This one is for all the team of CSC-Saxo Bank.
âWeâve seen the strongest rider was Andy today. The power he put on the pedals was amazing and he put everybody in the red zone. So finally we could attack. I knew that if I would attack, Cadel was just going to be right on my wheel. So I had to do it in the last kilometer. That was also the perfect thing for Carlos; he got away and he made a really good improvement in the overall classification so we now have two cards to play with.
âI always said that I would give my best in the Tour de France and I did a lot of sacrificing and went through a lot of pain for that but I didnât know how it could come. Just to wear the jersey, I said to myself, would be amazing and finally Iâve got it.
âThe strategy of the three CSC-Saxo Bank riders all attacking on the final climbâŚ that was great wasnât it? Already at Hautacam we had that plan and it was working out perfectly so we said, âHey, why not do it again?â What weâve seen today is one big show.â
The winner of the stage to Prato Nevoso was an Australian who heard opportunity knocking when most in the peloton could only hear the pitter patter of rain on their helmets. Simon Gerrans missed the initial move that established the escape but he chased down three early attackers and after the 16km mark, it was a game of wait and see whatâs possible. Victory on a mountain is the answer.
âWhen we started that final climb with such an advantage on the peloton I thought we could hang on. It was only then that I began to think it was possible to stay away but it wasnât until the last couple of hundred meters that I thought I could win. I was really in trouble but once I caught [Danny] Pate and [Egoi] Martinez again, I did what I could to hang on.
âIn the few stages leading up to today, I thought suited a breakaway and I was trying and trying and trying to get in the move. It just wasnât happening for me. A big mountain stage like today is not one in which Iâd usually back myself to go for the win but I thought, âIâve got nothing to lose, thereâs a rest day tomorrowâŚâ and I gave it everything to get in the break. Once I was there it was just a matter of racing with three other guys and not the whole peloton.
âIt was only in the last kilometer that I started believing that I could get the better of the other guys. They were climbing better than me thatâs why I wasnât giving them much support at the finish but under the red kite I realized I was in with a real crack at the win.
âItâs been my aim at every Tour de France to try and win a stage this is my fourth one and itâs taken until now to finally pull it off but itâs better late than never, huh?â
1. Frank Schleck (CSC)
2. Bernhard Kohl (GST) at 7"
3. Cadel Evans (SIL) at 8"
4. Denis Menchov (RAB) at 38"
5. Christian Vande Velde (TSL) at 39"
6. Carlos Sastre (CSC) 49"
7. Kim Kirchen (THR) 2’48"
8. Vladimir Efimkin (ALM) 3’36"
9. Alejandro Valverde (GCE) 4’11"
10. Samuel Sanchez (EUS) at 4’34"
The top 10 in the 15th stage from Embrum to Prato Nevoso is:
1. Simon Gerrans (C.A)
2. Egoi Martinez (EUS) at 3"
3. Danny Pate (USA) at 10"
4. Jose Luis Arrieta (ALM) at 55"
5. Bernhard Kohl (GST) at 4’03"
6. Carlos Sastre (CSC) at 4’03"
7. Alejandro Valverde (GCE) at 4’12"
8. Denis Menchov (RAB) at 4’23"
9. Frank Schleck (CSC) at 4’41"
10. Christian Vande Velde (TSL) at 4’43"
Evans was 13th at 4’50".
Frank Schleck will wear the yellow jersey in stage 16. He is 7" ahead of Kohl and 8" ahead of Evans after 15 stages.
He counter-attacked and joined the early escapees at the 16km mark and Simon Gerrans outwitted his escape companions at the finish to win his first stage of the Tour de France. The top 10 will follow shortly.
We await confirmation of the final result but can report that there’ll be a new race leader after stage 15.