Cycling-Vanendert wins stage, Voeckler keeps Tour lead

Reuters

Sat, 16 Jul 18:15:00 2011

* Voeckler retains yellow jersey

* Favourites play waiting game

* Vanendert first Belgian to win mountain stage in 30 years (Adds detail, quotes)

Frenchman Thomas Voeckler kept the overall lead in the Tour de France on Saturday after an expected battle on the flanks of Plateau de Beille turned into a disappointing no-contest between the favourites.

Belgian Jelle Vanendert took advantage of the waiting game in the Pyrenees by the main contenders to snatch victory in the 168.5-km 14th stage from St Gaudens and avenge his second place to Spain's Samuel Sanchez in Luz-Ardiden two days earlier.

Sanchez finished 21 seconds behind the Omega Pharma Lotto rider, who attacked seven km from the line to become the first Belgian since Lucien Van Impe 30 years ago to win a major mountain stage on the Tour.

Luxembourg's Andy Schleck sprinted to the line in the final stretch to take third place, 46 seconds off the pace but only two seconds ahead of the other big names who all finished together.

"It's a pity. It reminds me of 2009 when only Andy and me were trying. This time it was only us and (Italy's Ivan) Basso and the others looked at each other," summed up Andy's brother Frank, who kept his second place overall, 1:49 behind Voeckler.

"I'm not at all surprised by what Voeckler is doing. He's a great champion, he's in great shape. And the yellow jersey gives extra-motivation," he added.

Voeckler emerged as the strong man of the Pyrenees and looks set to retain the yellow jersey at least until the Alps.

"I really don't know what to say. I'm really surprised. I went to my limits but I had the impression the others were at their limits too," said the Frenchman, whose best result in nine previous Tours was 18th in 2004.

The 32-year-old was never considered a pure climber but he looked one of the most at ease in the final climb in a group including the Schlecks, Australian Cadel Evans, Basso and three times Tour champion Alberto Contador.

"I was just hoping to save my jersey by a matter of seconds but I certainly did not expect to remain with the favourites," said Voeckler.

OVER CAUTIOUS

It was unclear whether the Frenchman's performance reflected more his current strength or the overcautious approach of the pre-Tour favourites.

The action in what had been seen as a decisive stage started only in the last 10 km when Andy Schleck launched several attacks, all of them so predictable that they were almost immediately reeled in.

Basso also tried to raise the pace in the final five km, to no effect.

At that point, Vanendert realised it might be his day.

"My attack was not extraordinary. I was just lucky that the favourites were watching each other," he said.

Voeckler does not look realistically capable of winning the Tour but Evans, third overall and 2:06 behind the Frenchman, emerged as possibly the best-placed contender.

His BMC team director explained the day's strategy: "We saw that all the favourites were at the same level. They stayed cautious to avoid being surprised by a counter-attack. But it's an ideal position for us."

Contador's position was far less ideal.

He finished with his main rivals but appeared unable to raise the tempo and attack to make up for the four minutes relinquished in the beginning of the race.

"I recover better and better. It would have been better to be able to win. I don't like to race like that, it's not my style. I will try to gain some time in the Alps," said the Spaniard, hampered by a knee injury for the past week.

Another race against the clock was taking place at the back of the race.

Briton Mark Cavendish, the winner of three stages and the green jersey holder, suffered a lot in the climbs and finished 27 minutes behind, just inside the time limit.

 

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