Tour Watch Stage 16
Stage 17 Wednesday, July 22 2009: Bourg-Saint-Maurice - Le Grand-Bornand 169.5km | Results
Contador consolidates on 'Queen' stage, while Schleck brothers show their hand
Frank Schleck triumphed on Stage 17 in a fascinating, pulsating and multifaceted day in the Alps. Whilst Alberto Contador kept hold of the yellow jersey, it was all change behind him, with Frank Schleck, Andy Schleck and Andreas Kloden all gaining ground in a bewildering chain of events on the final two climbs of the day.
The 169.5km stage from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand was the ‘Queen stage', the longest stage of the whole race. And to add insult to injury, the stage contained four 1st category climbs and one 2nd category. The first half of the stage was conducted in persisent rain making riding conditions miserable and the descents treacherous. Every mountain stage can prove decisive but with only a time trial and a date with destiny on the exposed Provencale peak of Ventoux, time was running out for riders wishing to make a last minute impact.
Being the longest day of the tour, there was time for a full-on Ben Hur style epic, with a cast of thousands and plenty of cameo performances. Indeed the early part of the race was dominated by a lone breakaway from none other than Green Jersey holder Thor Hushovd, who decided to cement his hold on the jersey by ensuring no-one was there to contest two key intermediate sprints. The small matter of two 1st category climbs standing between him and 12 sprint points didn't seem to bother him, and at one point, he was almost 6 minutes ahead of the main field. However, once his job was done, he eased off the throttle and dropped back, the green jersey looking pretty safe of his shoulders.
Hushovd had a narrow escape during one of the descents, using every bit of road and a wee bit of ditch too on a tight, slippery left hander beneath the trees. However he recovered and managed to negotiate the rest of the descent without incident.
With the warmup act over, the stage was set for the real business of the afternoon. Astana and Saxo Bank drove the pace mercilessly as the main group approached the foot of the 2nd category Col du Romme. Hushovd was quickly reeled in and for all but the elite riders, it was simply a matter of limiting losses as the race went into overdrive.
Two groups of four quickly formed on the 2nd category climb, which had some nasty 12 percent sections with belied its categorisation. Contador was first to kick, producing an inhuman effort from first Andy Schleck, brother Frank and Andreas Kloden. Behind them another quartet had formed, containing Wiggins, Nibali, Armstrong and Vande Velde. Wiggins and Armstrong matched each other's every move, with Vande Velde digging deep to stay with Bradley and assist in whichever way he could.
The race crested the summit of the Romme and headed toward the foot of the final climb of the Colombiere. Cue some lunatic descending from Luquigas rider Nibali, who disappeared down the snaking pass in search of Kloden.
Onto the final climb and a secondary attack from Contador, which shelled out teammate Kloden who, for a while, dangled in no-mans-land between the two groups. The second quartet also shed a rider on the ascent of the Colombiere. Vande Velde had given everything and dropped away, leaving just Armstrong, Wiggins and Nibali, who had fallen back into their clutches onto the ascent.
It was a 15km downhill run for the finish and Contador sat in the wheels of the Schlecks as the race reached its final denouement. Frank Schleck was repayed by his younger brother with a fine stage win, with Contador bringing it home on Frank's wheel. Meanwhile behind, Armstrong and Nibali had attacked just prior to the summit and got away from Wiggins, joining Kloden for a sprint finish for 4th, taken by Nibali.
Wiggins rolled in 3:07 behind the winner, a supreme effort of damage limitation, given the company he kept all day. With a 40km Time Trial to come and with specialist Wiggins just 1:30 behind third placed Frank Schleck in general classification, the story isn't quite over. And then there's Ventoux...
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