Mission accomplished for CSC, now who’s the boss?
Team CSC-Saxo Bank once again executed near-perfect tactics in Sunday’s 15th stage and this time they got the big prize: the yellow jersey. CSC did just about everything right in the three-climb stage to Prato Nevoso and turned a one-second deficit into a seven-second lead to Bernhard Kohl. With a four-man breakaway staying clear to take the day’s flowers, CSC had its plan ready to fire up.
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By Andrew Hood
Team CSC-Saxo Bank once again executed near-perfect tactics in Sunday’s 15th stage and this time they got the big prize: the yellow jersey.
CSC did just about everything right in the three-climb stage to Prato Nevoso and turned a one-second deficit into a seven-second lead to Bernhard Kohl. With a four-man breakaway staying clear to take the day’s flowers, CSC had its plan ready to fire up.
First, it put Stuart O’Grady and Nicki Sorensen on the front across the flats driving toward the final climb. Then world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt and Volodymir Gustov each took pulls on the lower half of the climb to thin the field.
Then Andy Schleck set a brutal pace on the middle section of the climb to put race leader Cadel Evans and the others under intense pressure.
“Frank is in yellow now and that’s the only thing that matters,” said the younger Schleck. “Our Tour is just beginning. Menchov is riding well and he’s one of the favorites. There are still two hard stages, but that’s better for us. Now we have two cards to play, Carlos and Frank. For me, I am feeling good again, so why not think about winning a stage?”
With the younger Schleck lighting up the roads, his older brother was able to stay with Evans. That allowed his Spanish teammate Sastre to jump with three kilometers to go. Trailing after Sastre were Denis Menchov, Alejandro Valverde and Bernhard Kohl.
“It was a great tactic with Carlos. If I would have attacked, Evans would have come with me, so Carlos went and he really put Evans under pressure. (Evans) had to work and I could sit on his wheel,” Schleck said. “Carlos did a great job. Once we got close to the summit with 500 meters to go, then I could attack Evans and take the jersey. It was a dream day.”
After the dust settled, Schleck became the second Luxembourger to wear the yellow jersey in this Tour. Sastre, meanwhile, stayed in sixth overall but pulled within 48 seconds of his teammate.
It’s the first time CSC has held the yellow jersey so deep into the Tour. They’ve held it early on with riders like Jens Voigt, but never with a GC contender in the third week of the Tour.
Team manager Bjarne Riis said the team will continue to play its aggressive card in the Alps.
“We have a plan and we will stick to it. Of course, we need more time and we have to attack in the Alps,” said Riis. “Everyone knows we are at a disadvantage in the time trial, so we need more time if we want to win this Tour. We’ll see if we can get it.”
With Schleck first and Sastre sixth at less than a minute back, many are already wondering if there will be a split of loyalties within the team. Sastre entered the Tour as the team’s outright captain, but with Schleck in yellow, the team will ride to defend it as long as possible.
And then there’s the question of Andy Schleck. The brothers are extremely close and some are wondering out loud if the team might lean more toward Schleck than Sastre.
Sastre, however, shot down notion that there might be divisions within the team.
“We worked together in cohesion today and that’s what we will keep doing. Harmony is the best tactic for us right now,” Sastre said. “Frank is aware that I will work for him, and if he struggles in the yellow jersey, then they will work for me. That’s the way we do it on this team.”
So far, the team’s strategy has been flawless. It’s hard to imagine it will come apart at the seams in the final week.
Schleck recoiled when a reporter queried about how much time he would need if he expects to win the Tour.
“Why do you have to kick me when I am up?” he asked with a laugh. “I know I have to gain time on these guys. Just let me enjoy this moment now. Can’t you just leave me alone?”
CSC on GC
1. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 63:57min21sec
6. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 0:49
17. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 9:01
41. Jens Voigt (GER), CSC at 42:25
48. Vlodomyr Gustov (UKR), CSC at 46:25
68. Fabian Cancellara (SUI), CSC at 1:12:05
70. Kurt Asle Arvesen (NOR), CSC at 1:13:13
114. Stuart O’Grady (AUS), CSC at 1:58:29
120. Nicki Sorensen (DEN), CSC at 2:03:52
At second overall and firmly in the polka-dot jersey, Bernhard Kohl is one of the revelations of this year’s Tour.
The 26-year-old Austrian came within seven seconds of becoming the first Austrian ever to hold the Tour’s yellow jersey.
“This Tour has been going great for me so far. My legs are responding in the right moments,” Kohl said. “I saw that Evans was under pressure from CSC, so I thought that I would try to take advantage of that situation and make a stab at the yellow jersey. I almost got it. Rather than being sad, I am very, very happy.”
Kohl flew into everyone’s radar screen at Hautacam, where he climbed to fourth in both the stage and the GC. He proved Sunday it was no fluke when he darted away from the Evans group to take the initiative with 3km to go.
With a stage victory and a run at the yellow jersey still in play, perhaps it’s not surprising that defending the polka-dot jersey isn’t his top priority.
“I won’t ride just to defend the polka-dot jersey. If I can win a stage or take yellow, that’s more important,” he said. “At this point of the race, the polka-dot jersey will come if I am riding in good position at the front in the mountain stages. If I can pick up points along the way, I will.”
Can Kohl dream of more in this Tour? Third in the 2006 Dauphiné Libéré, Kohl is an outsider for the podium.
But even he admits his handicap is the final, long-distance time trial. For now, he’s not letting his success go to his head.
“Right now, I am still hoping of finishing in the top 10,” he said. “This Tour is far from over. You can have a bad moment at any day. Time trials are not my specialty.
As good as things are going for Kohl, it might have been even better. Kohl was right behind teammate Stefan Schumacher when he crashed 250m from the line at Super-Besse in stage 6 and lost 31 seconds to Evans.
If Kohl could take back those seconds, he might be in yellow right now.
Menchov hanging around
Denis Menchov isn’t known for making many daring solo attacks. In when he finally opened it up in Sunday’s dramatic summit finish to Prato Nevoso, it lasted about 20 seconds.
Just as the Russian was powering out of the saddle, his front tire slipped out on wet roads and he crashed hard on his left side in an uphill crash. He quickly remounted, but lost his chain, not to mention his momentum. The leaders eased their pace to allow him to regain contact.
Later, he followed accelerations from Bernhard Kohl, Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Sastre to finish eighth at 4:23 back.
“It was really slippery. Who knows what would have happened?” Menchov said briefly at the line. “My legs are feeling good. I’m close to the yellow jersey. That’s the most important thing. There are five or six candidates now who can. We all have to attack because the mountains are all we have.”
The two-time Vuelta champion keeps hovering around and many are still calling him the most dangerous rival for the overall classification. A strong time trialist, Menchov is the only pre-race favorites still within striking distance who has the experience of winning a grand tour.
Rabobank officials are still cautiously optimistic they can at least earn the podium with their prodigy, if not more.
“It’s true it’s bad luck, because he attacked at full force and it cost him when he crashed. It’s too bad, because he lost time to Sastre, but it wasn’t so bad in the end,” said Rabobank sport director Erik Breukink. “I don’t know if his attack would have done any good, we will never know. Evans had the pressure of the yellow jersey and that cost him some energy. Now it’s too early to speak about who will win the Tour. We’re not in the jersey; it’s another team that has to control the race. Everything is still possible. Denis is in a good position; he’s less than 40 seconds back.”