Basque rider Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) did what the Basques do best today and conquered two major slopes in a bid for personal and national glory. After spending most of the day out ahead of the peloton, Astarloza successfully attacked 3 remaining breakaway companions with 2 kilometers to go, earning him the first ever victory of his 7-year professional career.
Behind the race for the stage win, GC contender Andy Schleck and his Saxo-Bank team fired several missiles in the battle for the overall classification, but were unable to shake Astana’s firm hold on the yellow jersey. Alberto Contador responded to every Saxo-Bank move with apparent ease and Lance Armstrong also showed impressive form that caught many off guard.
At the end of the day, the main group of GC contenders remained neutralized and finished together barring one notable exception – the dismal performance of Silence-Lott’s Cadel Evans. The Australian, who was second in last year’s Tour, was once considered a hopeful for the overall win in this year’s show, but lost 3 minutes on his rivals today. Now more than seven minutes back in the overall classification, it’s fairly safe to say that his chances of winning the 2009 Tour are over.
How the race unfolded
An early break of 21 riders went clear of the peloton early and opened up a 2 minute gap just 17 kilometers into the race. The group contained no serious threats to the race leaders, and their gap group to as much as five minutes over the course of the stage.
The first climb of the day shattered the large pack of leaders and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) led over the summit with a gap of 1:20 ever the rest of their breakaway companions and 2:30 over the peloton. Three groups strung out along the road between the two lone leaders and the main field.
Back in the peloton, Astana and Saxo-Bank shared the bulk of the work driving the pace to keep the gap within reasonable reach. With 75k to go, it had grown to 5:01 and the peloton began to chase in earnest.
On the slopes of the second climb, Saxo-Bank dropped a bomb, sending two riders to the front of the main field to lay down a blistering pace that blew the field apart, with riders shelled off the back left and right. When the smoke cleared, only 17 remained, and Saxo-Bank’s GC contender Andy Schleck delivered more pain with an attack that reduced the selection down to just five including Contador, Kloden, Wiggins, F. Schleck (Andy’s brother), and Nibali.
Lance Armstrong appeared to be dropped from this select group, but surprised everyone when he accelerated a few minutes later to close a 35 second gap and rejoin Contador and Kloden in the lead chase group up front.
At the front of the race, two groups of four descended the hair-raising turns of the finishing descent at almost 38 mph, a daredevil pace that saw Jens Voigt go crashing into the pavement face first (preliminary reports indicate that he has not suffered a major head injury but is being flown to hospital for treatment of probable broken bones).
Despite a hard-charging pace set by David Zabriskie at the front of the main field on the final descent, the lead groups stayed away for the duration, finishing a minute ahead of the peloton. With 2 kilometers to go, Astarloza took advantage of a lull and attacked his breakaway companions, opening up a sizable gap to take the stage victory by a margin of 6 seconds.
Columbia-HTC News: Kirchen hangs tough to finish with the main field
On a day that saw a vicious field-shattering attack from Andy Schleck on the final kilometers of the second climb, Kim Kirchen battled to keep the charging leaders within reach. Hitching a ride on Lance Armstrong’s wheel for a moment, Kirchen stayed close enough to regain contact with the main field on the following descent. He finished in the bunch and maintained his position in the general classification – he is currently in 13th place overall.
Young Tony Martin was not as lucky today and suffered over the challenging slopes, closing out the day at a disappointing 16:40 off the stage leaders. The setback takes him permanently out of contention for the Best Young Rider’s Competitions.
Beep beep! All aboard the autobus
The GC race is firing up over these grueling stages in the Alps, but what about the guys in the back of the race? Sprinters like Mark Cavendish and domestiques (helpers) can’t climb at the front of big mountain stages like today’s (and it’s not their jobs to do so), but instead of stringing out behind the lead to battle the climbs alone, they form a special group called the “autobus” or “grupetto”.
During every stage, riders must cross the finish line within a certain percentage of the stage winner’s time in order to start the next day. That percentage varies according to the difficulty of the stage and average speed of the stage winner (anywhere from 4-25%). The autobus functions as a mini-peloton and members of the group share the work of getting over the big mountains in time to beat the time-cut.
Because they share a common goal – and common suffering – this group enjoys a special kind of comaraderie, often sharing food, water, and encouragement. Occasionally, if the grupetto misses the time cut and is a large enough field of riders, officials will make an exception and extend the margin to allow them to continue on with the Tour. Exceptions are also made for riders who suffer accidents or mechanicals.
Looking ahead to Stage Seventeen
If today was hard, tomorrow will be brutal.169.5 kilometers will take the race from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand over four first category climbs and very little flat.
This stage will require everyone to be on point all day long – one wrong move or misjudgment by a GC contender could be disastrous for their hopes in Paris.
Stage seventeen is considered the “Queen Stage” or the defining stage of the race with the most grueling of mountain passes. This is the stage in which the true contenders for overall GC honors are expected to put their stamp on the race and make their big move. It’s also a stage that could see some of the leaders crack under pressure.
Stage 16 Results: Top Five Individuals
1. ASTARLOZA Mikel EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI 4h 14' 20"
2. CASAR Sandy FRANCAISE DES JEUX + 00' 06"
3. FEDRIGO Pierrick BBOX BOUYGUES TELECOM + 00' 06"
4. ROCHE Nicolas AG2R LA MONDIALE + 00' 06"
5. VAN DEN BROECK Jurgen SILENCE - LOTTO + 00' 06"
Top Ten Individual Standings (GC) after Stage 16
1. CONTADOR Alberto ASTANA 67h 33' 15"
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. NIBALI Vincenzo LIQUIGAS + 02' 51"
7. LE MEVEL Christophe FRANCAISE DES JEUX + 03' 09"
8. SCHLECK Frank TEAM SAXO BANK + 03' 25"
9. SASTRE Carlos CERVELO TEST TEAM + 03' 52"
10. VANDE VELDE Christian GARMIN - SLIPSTREAM + 03' 59"
Columbia-HTC Individual Standings after Stage 16
13. KIRCHEN Kim 135. GRABSCH Bert
26. HINCAPIE George 142. CAVENDISH Mark
34. MARTIN Tony 154. RENSHAW Mark
44. MONFORT Maxime 155. EISEL Bernhard
114. ROGERS Michael