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Stage 14 analysis: Sanchez outwits Sagan

Luis Leon Sanchez won from a break into Foix, while the GC favourites’ progress was stalled by a vandal spreading tacks on the road

Words by Edward Pickering in Foix

Sunday July 15, 2012

Somebody obviously misheard when it was said the public wanted to see attacks on the Mur de Péguère today. It’s not known who the mystery vandal who strewed nails and tacks over the summit of the climb was, but their actions caused more discord in the yellow jersey group than any tactics by the riders.

For a while, it must have sounded like bubble wrap was being popped when the riders crested the summit as Cadel Evans, a succession of BMC riders and Bradley Wiggins all punctured in quick succession. Anecdotal reports suggested at least 20 riders had flatted. Evans had to wait a long time at the top of the climb, then had to have at least three wheels replaced, costing him minutes. The consequences were far more serious for Robert Kiserlovski of Astana – he crashed and broke his collarbone as a result of his puncture.

Until this point, there had been little racing of any description among the GC favourites, who ambled up the Péguère a full quarter of an hour behind the day’s escapees. Once they realised why Evans was behind, Liquigas and Sky chased down Pierre Rolland, who according to his team-mated Cyril Gautier had not heard about the tacks, then imposed a truce on the the run-in to Foix.

It was hard to notice the difference.

Ahead, Luis-Leon Sanchez managed to do what few others have during this Tour and beat Peter Sagan to the line. The green jersey leader and race revelation had instigated the main break of the day, then astonished Tour followers by staying in touch with his more experienced rivals over the steep Péguère.

Riding to the finish with Sagan would have been suicidal, and Sanchez, plus Sandy Casar, Gorka Izaguirre and Philippe Gilbert knew it. When Sanchez attacked, nobody was minded to chase – Sagan because he would just have been delaying the inevitable, the others because they didn’t want to take Sagan to the finish.

Yesterday, Sanchez was chased down by the yellow jersey within sight of a stage win. Today he avoided a similar fate at the hands of the green.

***

It was as if the stage was run the wrong way round. While the end of the stage was one of the slowest in recent Tour history, the start was frenetic, with multiple attacks going, but not sticking. Thomas Voeckler took the points over the first climb, defending Pierre Rolland’s position in the climbers’ classification.

Then Peter Sagan attacked. The Slovak’s energy and ambition have illuminated this Tour – as if three stage wins and a virtually guaranteed green jersey weren’t enough, he was now trying to get into a break on a very hard middle mountain stage. While the bonus sprint points were going to make his lead in the points classification even more decisive, Sagan wanted another stage. His initial move drew Sanchez’s team-mate Steven Kruijswijk and Saxo Bank’s Sergio Paulinho clear.

Eight more riders joined – former stage winners Sanchez, Gilbert and Casar bridged up, along with a motley assortment of riders whose teams are beginning to worry about the slim pickings this year’s race has offered them: Euskaltel’s Izaguirre, Ag2r’s Sébastien Minard, Katusha’s Eduard Vorganov and Omega Pharma’s Martin Velits. The 11th and final rider was Europcar’s Cyril Gautier, who has evidently been given a free hand to get into the breaks following his team’s two stage wins last week.

And once they’d gone, the Tour allowed itself to settle back into the post-Bastille Day hangover under which the rest of the country was labouring. The lead ballooned well beyond 10 minutes: the break would stick.

A measure of how relaxed the peloton was today was that Sky’s climbing domestique on the first category Port de Lers was Bernhard Eisel. Even Mark Cavendish, the cycling fans’ unofficial barometer of climbing speed, was at the front.

15 minutes in front, Sagan was comfortable enough up the Lers to ride no-handed for a sustained period while he put his rain jacket on over the top. The group were not yet worried about the Slovak, but as they started the Péguère, they must have known that if they didn’t get rid of Sagan before the final kilometre in Foix, they would be competing for second place.

But as Kruijswijk toiled at the front on the early slopes to set up his team-mate Sanchez, Sagan was looking worryingly unperturbed.

The unity of the group was shattered when Sanchez attacked just as the road turned onto the narrow three-kilometre section to the summit which is so steep that the 1973 Tour peloton refused to climb it. The only riders initially able to follow him were Gilbert, Izaguirre and Casar. They quickly built a lead of 25 seconds over Sagan.

It looked like Sagan was being found out by the Mur de Péguère. He can batter shorter ascents into submission by sheer force of will and brute strength, but he looked well beaten here. His upper body co-ordination had gone, and he was pedalling as much with his back and arms as with his legs. It looked ugly, and slow. With two kilometres to go, he looked finished.

If Sanchez had looked around at that moment, he probably would have liked what he saw: three good riders on his wheel, enough to help with the run-in, but not too many to make the finish too complicated, and only one of the three really threatening in the sprint – Gilbert. And no Sagan.

But Sagan was pulling out one of the rides of the Tour. The gap closed inexorably: 20 seconds, 18, 16, 12, then eight with a kilometre to the summit. Sagan’s style still looked horribly laboured, but he was covering ground faster than anybody else on the mountain. He simply refused to acknowledge that he’s not supposed to be able to do this.

Casar looked back and realised the danger, attacking over the top. He crossed the summit 10 seconds clear of Izaguirre and Sagan, who were the same distance ahead of Gilbert and Sanchez. But the five came together off the descent, and now Sagan held the advantage. It looked like Sanchez, one of the wiliest riders in the peloton, and Gilbert, one of the most aggressive, were going to be outwitted and outfought by a 22-year old Tour debutant.

But Sagan was isolated, and the others knew it. With 11 kilometres to go, Sanchez attacked, hard. Sagan looked at the others to chase, while they shook their heads and looked back at him. Though the quartet settled into an organised but unconvincing rotation, Sanchez had flown, the stage win waiting in Foix. Sagan proved a point by sprinting in for second.

This Tour has been a story of riders trying to find ways of beating rivals who are superior in strength. So far, nobody’s found a way to crack Wiggins. But today, Sagan got worked out.

Apart from Sanchez and Sagan’s industry, the stage felt like a wasted opportunity. It’s a mark of the lack of adventure shown by the GC riders in the first Pyrenean stage that a strong wind and small hill on the run-in to the finish at Le Cap d’Agde caused more havoc and discord in the lead group than three of the hardest kilometres in the entire Tour, on the Mur de Pérguère.

Great things were hoped for from the inclusion of the Péguère, but the summit was too far from the finish to instigate aggression among Bradley Wiggins’ rivals. ASO’s decision to include a 40-kilometre run-in to the finish after the top of the climb, including a redundant 13-kilometre loop north out of Foix, was like giving the punchline before telling the joke.

Even before the tacks punctured any ambition anyone had to attack Wiggins, the stage was a GC non-event. Sky’s rivals had three opportunities left to win the Tour before Wiggins destroys them in the Chartres time trial.

Having failed to try today, they now only have two.

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