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With Stage 16 of the 2012 Tour de France about to begin, news broke of yet another doping scandal in cycling. RadioShack-Nissan leader Frank Schleck had tested positive for the banned substance Xipamide; although the drug was not on the list of ‘performance enhancing stimulants’ the UCI rigorously clamps down on anything not on the authorised list. Although free to race today, the team withdrew Schleck to prepare a defence. The rider himself claims no knowledge of how the drug ended up in his system. If you’ll allow a little journalistic license, I highly doubt that Schleck took the drug willingly for two reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t help performance; he has nothing to gain from ingesting Xipamide. Secondly, Schleck can hardly be accused of doping for performance gain this year, his worst for a considerable amount of time. In short, he’s been well below his usual standards so if Schleck has been doping, the effect has been to lower his levels of cycling ability.
Back in the Tour itself, Wednesday saw probably the hottest day of the entire race, something that the riders with less climbing ability would not have been looking forward to. The course itself spanned 197km from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon, encompassing 4 huge mountains. The pattern for the first hour of racing was surely the establishment of a breakaway group, with a plethora of riders attempting to be part of that exclusive bunch. Eventually, after forays by Sandy Casar among other a group of 38 riders formed at the head of the field, the largest breakaway this year so far with nearly a quarter of the remaining peloton in the group. With the peloton now relatively settled Team Sky moved to the head of the bunch as they began to set a pace for Bradley Wiggins; Bernhard Eisel and Mark Cavendish leading the way as the first climb beckoned. The gap moved out quickly to 3’33’’ as RadioShack-Nissan’s Chris Horner fell off the side of the road and down a grassy ravine before quickly scrambling up and moving off again on his merry way. After yesterday’s plethora of withdrawals, Stage 16 commenced with no new rider pulling out of the Tour. The King of the Mountains jersey was well and truly up for grabs, with Fredrik Kessiakoff (SWE, Astana), Thomas Voeckler (FRA, Europcar) and Chris Anker Sorensen (DEN, Saxobank) all in the early moves up front. The full list was as follows; Steve Cummings and George Hincapie (GBR, USA, BMC Racing Team), Yaroslav Popovych and Jens Voigt (BEL, GER, RadioShack-Nissan), Thomas Voeckler and Yukiya Arashiro FRA, JAP, Europcar), Jorge Azanza, Egoi Martinez and Gorka Izaquirre (SPA, Euskaltel-Euskadi), Danilo Hondo, Simone Stortoni and Marco Manzano (GER, ITA, ITA, Lampre), Daniel Martin (IRL, Garmin-Sharp), Maxime Bouet and Sebastien Minard (FRA, Ag2r-La Mondiale), Rein Taaramae and Samuel Dumoulin (EST, FRA, Cofidis), Brice Feillu, Guillaume Lavarlet and Jean Marc Marino (FRA, Saur-Sojasun), Johnny Hoogerland and Rafael Valls Ferri (NED, SPA, Vacansoleil-DCM), Gianpaolo Caruso, Yuriy Trofonov and Eduard Vorganov (ITA, UKR, RUS, Katusha), Sandy Casar, Pierrick Federigo and Mathieu Ladagnous (FRA, FDJ), Steven Kruiswijk and Laurens Ten Dam (NED, Rabobank), Rui Costa, Vladimir Karpets and Vasili Kiryienka (POR, RUS, BEL, Movistar), Sergio Paulinho and Chris Anker Sorensen (POR, DEN, Saxobank), Fredrik Kessiakoff and Alexandre Vinokourov (SWE, KAZ, Saxobank) and Matthieu Sprick (FRA, Argos-Shimano).
On the first HC climb the break hadn’t been given a great deal of freedom, being only 3’50’’ ahead. At the top of the first climb, Voeckler took 25 points to Kessiakoff’s 20, highlight the fact that the Frenchman felt he could still make significant gains in the polka dot competition. On the descent, with Eisel still setting the pace, Vladimir Gusev crashed and hurtled in to a barbed wire fence, ending his Tour with a broken collarbone in a nasty reminder of Johnny Hoogerland’s crash in 2011. With 100km to go, the dreaded Tourmalet appeared on the horizon. With Christian Knees taking over for Sky on the front of the peloton, Daniel Martin cranked up the pace rapidly in the breakaway group, only matched seemingly by Laurens Ten Dam and Fredrik Kessiakoff, with George Hincapie, Thomas Voeckler, Chris Anker Sorensen and Brice Feillu latching on to the tail of the leading trio. Christophe Kern attacked from the peloton as riders began dropping like flies, Edvald Boasson-Hagen taking his turn to set the pace. Out front, Voeckler, Feillu and Dan Martin rode clear before the Irishman was eventually dropped as the summit of the Tourmalet grew near, leaving the 2 Frenchmen in charge of the stage. With 1km to the winding, twisting summit, Voeckler and Feillu held a 1’16’’ over the Kessiakoff group and a 9’33’’ lead over the peloton, with Daniel Martin somewhere around 40’ behind the leading duo. Voeckler took the 25 points available, with Kessiakoff coming over 4th to bring the gap down to 16 points in the race for the mountains classification. George Hincapie crashed on the descent, ripping his jersey to shreds and bloodying his arm although he was up and riding again in no time at all. With Voeckler and Feillu in the lead, a pattern emerged on the ascent of the Col D’Aspin, the French duo chased by Voigt, Vinokourov, Sorensen and Izaquirre. In the peloton, Liquigas-Cannondale moved to the front and tore the pack to pieces, churning it down to around 15 men, although 4 wore the colours of Team Sky. With 41km to go, Cadel Evans cracked completely, dropping off the Groupe Maillot Jaune while his young teammate Van Garderen remained firmly entrenched behind Wiggins and Nibali. Evans was stuck with Maxime Monfort, Andreas Kloden and Levi Leipheimer, not where he wanted to be with lots of riding still to be done. At the base of the next climb, Evans has returned to the contender’s peloton with a little help from his teammates while Vinokourov and Sorensen were clear and only 30’’ at the shortest point behind Voeckler, who had broken Feillu’s back with his efforts up the Peyresoude, the final tough climb of the day. As the peloton began to climb, Voeckler was chased by Sorensen, with the Frenchman and the Dane seemingly the only two riders who could win on the day. Basso still lead the way for Liquigas as Evans was once again dropped, although this time there would be no return for the defending champion.
Richie Porte (AUS, Team Sky) tried to come to the front but Basso was having none of it. With the peloton disintegrating Voeckler neared the final summit, destined to wear polka dots at day’s end. Evans was losing ground rapidly while Janez Brajkovic was dropped. More pressure saw Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland fall away as Basso gave his best performance of the Tour thus far. With Basso beginning to fade Nibali attacked. Porte fell back with Froome and Wiggins chasing Nibali down. Everyone else simply melted in the heat and couldn’t continue on the Kenyan born rider’s wheel. Froome bridged the gap with ease and Nibali jumped again. However, the Team Sky riders weren’t going to let the enigmatic Italian escape and yet again chased him down with little difficulty. In the final kilometre of the climb the Liquigas rider tried once more but this time Wiggins took charge, his diesel like engine of a pair of lungs rapidly closing Nibali down as the 3 best riders in the 2012 Tour passed over the summit together. The descent was expected to suit Nibali but the fight had seemingly gone out of the Italian, Wiggins and Froome marking him to the finish. Jurgen Van den Broeck crossed the summit with Nicolas Roche, Tejay Van Garderen and Haimar Zubeldia a further minute behind while the group of the reigning champion trudged over nearly 5 minutes down on Bradley Wiggins and 12 minutes down on Voeckler. At the finish, TV Tommy took his time to bask in the public’s glory as he came over the line well clear of Sorensen in second. The leading GC trio came over together, Wiggins not giving Nibali a second with Froome a further wheel length back. Van den Broeck’s group came home a further minute down with Evans trailing home with teammate Hincapie, 5 minutes down on Wiggins and his title well and truly gone, slipping down to 8th place in the general classification. A fantastic day for France, Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins with the podium looking reasonably settled before the final mountain stage tomorrow.
Stage 17 Preview-
After a supreme day of climbing on Stage 16, encompassing the iconic Tourmalet among other excruciatingly difficult mountains, Stage 17 is a relatively short 143.5km ride from Bagneres-de-Luchon to Peyragudes. After Bradley Wiggins saw off the challenge of Vincenzo Nibali and extended his gap over the remainder of his rivals (aside from teammate Froome) this will be the Italian’s last chance to break Wiggins before 2 flat stages and a 55km individual time trial on Saturday. Wiggins will be delighted to get a tough day out of the way on Wednesday as he seeks to become the first Briton ever to win the Tour de France. The final Pyrenean stage, while lacking in length, boasts 3 final tough climbs, 2 Category 1’s, an HC as well as a Cat 2 and Cat 3, including a summit finish. The Col de Mente is first up as a Cat.1, followed immediately by a Cat.2 Col des Ares and Cat.3 Cote de Burs. The intermediate sprint follows the Cote de Burs before the penultimate HC climb up the Port de Bales. The finish is on the summit of the final climb, the Cat.1 Peyragudes. Again, it is almost impossible to predict who is going to be in the break as it is likely that they will stay away as Sky will presumably ignore the escapees as they set their own pace for Wiggins. Nibali will definitely try again to attack but up front I will take a pop at Thibaut Pinot, who may be inclined to increase the already impressive number of French stage wins in the 2012 Tour.