Saturday 19 July
Stage 14: Nîmes–Digne-les-Bains: 182km
Rabobank’s Oscar “The Cat” Freire won stage 14 in a tight sprint finish in Dignes les Bains, in the foothills of the Alps. The Spaniard once again proved that he’s the best of the sprinters over the hills and was fresher than those of his rivals who’d made it over the final climb of the Col de l’Orme with less than 10km to go. Notably missing from the front group was four-time stage winner Mark Cavendish (THR) and Robbie McEwen (SIL), but others like stage 2 winner Thor Hushovd (C.A) and German veteran Erik Zabel (MIL) were present for the final rush.
“Today was a different sprint,” said the former three-time World champion Freire. “Everybody was tired and also there was no Cavendish in the final so it was a very good chance to win a race. In the last kilometer I was in a good position but the speed wasn’t all that high. I didn’t want to get surprised by somebody and we started the sprint just 250 meters before the finish and it was a little close but in the last 100 metres I believed I had it won. I did a good sprint.”
Oscarito’s fourth career Tour stage win further strengthens his hold on the Maillot Vert points classification, increasing his lead to an impressive 47 points over second placed Hushovd, which makes the Rabobank rider the favorite to carry the sprint jersey all the way to Paris. Freire explained “The green jersey competition is so complicated. It would be strange to be challenging for it and not to win a stage. Yesterday I said how frustrated I was becoming but now there’s a sense of relief. Okay, you don’t have to win a stage to win the points category but it is better to do it that way.”
Maillot Jaune Cadel Evans once again enjoyed a relatively relaxed fourth day in the Tour lead, as the action only really started in the final part of the stage, as his rivals put in some late attacks. “Over the last climb I just wanted to be safe,” the Australian said, “because I saw Bernhard Kohl having a go and I had to keep an eye on him because he’s still ranked fourth in the general classification. My team had to do a lot of work at the start of today’s stage and I’d just rather let them stay rested and be there tomorrow. Today was a good little test for me as well.”
“As for tomorrow,” continued Evans, as the race heads towards the Alpes, “I’ve done the climbs before and the one at the finish is quiet harsh. On paper it looks reasonably difficult but I think we may arrive in a larger group than what many are expecting; I’d say there’ll be 20 or 30 riders at the finish, maybe a few more depending on how the race is played out. It depends on if someone tries to make a real selection. What can I expect from CSC tommorrow? Lots of attacks: from the left and right, from one climb to the other.”
How it Happened
In the very first kilometres of Stage 14, a group of 21 riders broke clear of the peloton, consisting of: Stijn Devolder (QST), Stuart O’Grady (CSC), Juan Jose Oroz and Amets Txurruka (both EUS), Vincente Garcia Acosta both Jose Ivan Gutierrez (both GCE), Bernhard Eisel (THR), Manuel Quinziato (LIQ), Matteo Bono (LAM), William Bonnet (C.A), Christophe Riblon (ALM), Heinrich Haussler (GST), Eduardo Gonzalo Ramirez and David Lelay (AGR), Bram Tankink (RAB), Matthieu Sprick and Thomas Voeckler (BTL), Marco Velo (MIL), Sandy Casar and Sébastien Chavanel (FDJ), and Will Frischkorn (TSL).
The group was too big for the peloton to swallow, with the presence of Stijn Devolder (13’ 51” back on GC) meant that the escape was doomed to fail. Just before they were absorbed by the main field, four riders counterattacked (Sandy Casar, William Bonnet, Bram Tankink and Iván Gutiérrez) and were allowed to build a lead.
After 97km in the Luberon Valley, the four escapees had carved out a lead of 6'38" and it looked like the predicted breakaway stage was to happen, until the sprinters teams had other ideas and Liquigas and Milram came to the front for Filippo Pozzato and Erik Zabel respectively. The gap then came down quickly to around 3 minutes where it hovered for some time.
Then Bouyges Telecom joined the chase to make it three teams at the front and the gap began to come down once again. The four fugitives’ lead was below 2'30” with 50km to go in Oraison, and at 40 to go it was just over a minute.
As the finished approached in Digne-les-Bains with just over 25km near Estobloun, the gap was 45” and Gutiérrez decided to set off on a solo bid for glory. Tankink and Casar continued to pursue the lone Spaniard, while Bonnet slipped back immediately. The two chasers were soon pulled back though, leaving the Caisse d’Epargne rider alone in the lead.
As the final climb began with just over 10km to go, Gutiérrez was finally caught as the attacks started. Former French champion Thomas Voeckler (BTL) attacked immediately on the climb, but was quickly overtaken by Paolo Tiralongo (Lampre), who was in turn caught by Amets Txurruka (EUS), then Carlos Barredo (QST).
None of these attacks were successful, but it did have the effect of dropping a number of riders off the back of the peloton including Mark Cavendish (THR) and Robbie McEwen (SIL).
Over the top of the climb with 9.5km to race, there were still more attacks, but an attentive Cadel Evans (SIL) stuck to anything that appeared at all dangerous. Finally, Sylvain Chavanel (COF) managed to break the elastic with 5.5km to go and set off alone on the descent towards the finish.
As the road levelled out in the closing kilometres, Milram and Columbia, working for Gerard Ciolek in the absence of Cavendish, steadily reeled in the rampant Frenchman with with 2km to go. The Milram and Columbia train approached the line with Zabel nicely tucked in at third wheel but, as the pace seemed to drop with about 500 metres remaining, first week maillot JAune Romain Feillu (AGR) went for a long one.
At first it looked like Feillu’s audacious jump might add a stage win to his Yellow Jersey, but the young Frenchman was swamped in the last 100 metres and faded quickly. Coming through strongly, it looked like maybe the 38 year-old legs of Zabel might just make it, but Freire, dressed all in green, proved strongest and swept by to take the win by more than a bike length, while Colombian Leonardo Duque (COF) came past to take second place from the German veteran Zabel.
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Sunday 20 July / Stage 15: Embrun–Prato Nevoso—185kmOriginally slated as a 215km stage, Tour officials changed the start of Stage 15 to Embrun because of unstable geology on the Col de Larche. The stage will head northeast through Guillestre through the Combe de Queras valley, then scale the 21km ascent of the Col d’Agnel (2744 meters) into Italy before the final mountaintop finish at the ski resort of Prato Nevoso, a 11.1km climb at a 7.1-percent gradient.