Stage 12: Castelsarrasin-La Mongie

07-16-04.stage12 profile

This is one of the stages I've been waiting for: great setup by the various teams to drive the tempo followed by one-on-one war of attrition to show who really is a contender this year.

The battles started at the foot of the Col d'Aspin, as several teams, including Telekom, worked forward to drive the tempo and to put their rider in position for the second-to-last climb. Really bad weather hit at the same time, with the driving rain taking out the Tour's helicopter coverage. US Postal eventually took over the pace making and was already blowing up the peloton with one more big climb to go. Ullrich, Voeckler, and Mayo managed to get away on the descent -- Ullrich's presence was surprising as he isn't exactly known for his bike handling on the descent, and the roads were particularly dangerous from the rain.

The breakaway didn't last long as US Postal brought everything back together, then drove the pace up the last climb where everything absolutely blew apart. In typical US Postal fashion, one US Postal rider after another set a hard tempo at front then pulled off when they could do no more. US Postal's Landis, then Hincapie, then Chechu, then Azevedo all burned themselves and riders from the other teams were falling back left and right. Ullrich, Hamilton, and Heras all fell back, leaving just Mayo as the only major contender there with Armstrong. Hamilton, who had been hanging on the back of the pack for the earlier part of the climbs, looked terrible.

Bjarne Riis of CSC started part one of his great strategy by sending Carlos Sastre ahead on the attack. Part two began when Mancebo attacked and CSC's Ivan Basso stuck to his wheel, pulling him forward towards Sastre. Armstrong, now alone as Azevedo was used up, counter-attacked Mancebo and Basso, and Basso jumped ahead to stick on Armstrong's wheel instead. Armstrong, aware that Hamilton, Ullrich, and Heras were all absolutely suffering far behind, picked up the pace even more, quickly catching Sastre, which reunited the two CSC teammates. Mayo, the final overall contender to Armstrong fell back on this attack.

From there on out, it was just Armstrong and Basso, and at the finish it was Basso, who looked better rested than Lance, and with Lance not really contesting the finish. The rest of the riders came straggling in, including the Voeckler, still in the yellow jersey after today, weaving back and forth across the full length of the road to get every last ounce of energy out of his body.

A big surprise (in addition to the big contenders being so far behind) was that neither Hamilton or Ullrich put in the strongest showings for their teams. Kl�den finished where Ullrich should have at only 20" back, and Oscar Pereiro and Santos Gonzalez of Phonak both put in top ten finishes.

The Damage:
- Mayo: 1'03"
- Ullrich: 2'30"
- Heras: 2'57"
- Hamilton: 3'27"

related articles: Tour de France 2004

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