Stage 16 – Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux – Gap – 162.5 km
Today was a crazy stage! What should have been a slower, even predictably uneventful stage, turned into another surprising stage. Again, Thor Hushovd – a sprinter – wins a mountain stage (his tenth overall Tour de France stage); and a battle erupted amongst the GC riders. Where did that come from?! What can I say? It was exciting! 😛
The race was 162.5km with the intermediate sprint at Veynes (117.5km) and the only categorized climb of the day coming 11.5km from the finish, the col de Manse (category-two). There were 170 riders at the sign in.
It was a transitional stage of sorts – not flat lands or high mountain, but a medium mountain stage – and an escape was expected to succeed. It took 100 kilometers before the peloton allowed the breakaway any room to move, but when they did that’s just what happened. They would reach a maximum gain of six minutes and it was this margin that allowed three men to race ahead of seven other escape companions and contest the sprint for the win in stage 16. Thor Hushovd proved that he was not just a sprinter but a powerhouse, and he claimed his 10th Tour stage win in Gap just ahead of his compatiot Edvald Boasson Hagen and team-mate Ryder Hesjedal. This was one story of the day, the other involved the GC riders.
Alberto Contador attacked the final climb and began to taunt his overall rivals who initially matched his acceleration but then they came again and again… the third time it was enough to shake Voeckler from his group as well as Andy and Frank Schleck. But the Australian who was in third overall moved up to second by the end of the day with Cadel Evans not only matching Contador but speeding ahead of him on the wet descent to Gap.
Ignatiev started to attack the escape group, and he made his first surge 25km from the finish but Hushovd chased him down. At the base of the 9.5km long climb, the Russian attacked again and led under the 20km to go sign by 15 seconds while the peloton was at 5 minutes and 55seconds.
While a battle between overall title contenders was going on behind, the race for stage honours became a three-man race with Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal aggressive on the climb and also the final descent. The leading trio included two compatriots but, more importantly, two team-mates. And it was the helping hand that Ryder Hesjedal could give Thor Hushovd that gave the world champion a winning advantage. Hushovd followed his two escape companions under the ‘Flamme Rouge’ and then timed his sprint to perfection to claim his 10th stage victory in the Tour de France and his second for the 2011 edition.
With 7km to climb there was an attack from Alberto Contador. He opened up a decent lead but Cancellara paced an elite group across to the Spaniard and there were six in the lead of the peloton. Voeckler (EUC), Evans (BMC), Frank and Andy Schleck (LEO) were all able to respond. But then the defending champion attacked again several times. Only Evans and Sanchez (EUS) could respond. Voeckler lost time in the stage because he couldn’t follow every move, although he did try. Meanwhile the Schleck brothers both suffered time losses to their main rivals in the race for GC honours. Voeckler retained the yellow jersey with an advantage of 1 minute and 45 seconds to Evans.