They have pedalled 1,730 miles and spent 16 days in the saddle and still the tension remains at boiling point in the Tour de France after yesterday's gruelling mountain stage saw the five race favourites expend a lot of effort to little long-term effect. Never before have so many riders been in with a chance of winning one of the world's great sporting events, which is the ultimate test of a cyclist's endurance.
The day's win went to local rider Cyril Dessel, part of a huge early breakaway that shrunk to four after two massive Alpine climbs, the Lombard and the Bonette-Restefond. In the fast downhill finish at Jausiers, Dessel shot across the line for a victory which will keep the French fans satisfied – but of no consequence whatsoever in an increasingly fraught five- way battle for overall victory at the end of 2,210 miles of torture in Paris on Sunday.
"Everybody was at the limit of their strength," claimed race leader Frank Schleck of Luxembourg. "It wasn't a day when anybody could really attack."
Instead, Schleck and the remainder of the favourites remained glued together as they inched their way up the arid 25km Restefond, Europe's second highest mountain pass at a funereal pace. The gloomy semi-silence with which the Tour tackled the climb was not due to a sudden attack of the mountain blues, though. Rather, the Bonette-Restefond is home to some of France's dwindling population of groundhogs and out of respect for the four-footed indigenous residents, organisers placed a ban on car horns and the tunes blasted out by the publicity caravan.
It was Groundhog Day on the Tour in other ways as well as Schleck's CSC-Saxo Bank team produced a carbon copy of their strategy on the Prato Nevoso climb on Sunday, tightening the screws at the front of the bunch. Rather than any attacks splitting the race, rider after rider fell behind exhausted. Some waved and grinned mirthlessly at the TV cameras as they fell back, others weaved aimlessly. By the summit just 10 riders remained.
"Once again, we made everybody suffer," Schleck said. But whereas Sunday's team effort netted Schleck his first ever yellow jersey, yesterday the only major victim was outsider Christian Van de Velde. Two and a half minutes down on Schleck at the finish, the American's chance of a first place in Paris evaporated when he was dropped on the scree-slopes of La Bonette.
Never one to avoid awkward questions, Schleck admitted that a part of the CSC masterplan had failed miserably. "We wanted to go for it three kilometres from the summit, but the headwinds were too strong. It was an opportunity lost." A poor time triallist and just seven seconds ahead of his closest rival, Bernhard Kohl, Schleck's one real chance of final victory rests on making an all-out attack on the infamous Alpe-d'Huez climb today. "Too many of my rivals are too close," he recognised. "I will have to make sure they all lose tomorrow." The only minor morale boost for Schleck came on the perilous final descent down the Bonette. Time-trial specialist Denis Menchov could not – or would not – follow the ferocious high speed pace set by Spaniard Samuel Sanchez, and trailed across the line 35 seconds behind the yellow jersey group.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
Riding high: The five contenders, each from a different nation, battling for glory in Paris
Team: CSC-Saxo Bank
Overall position: Race leader
Previous Tour best: 10th in 2006
Strengths: Climbs very fast. Strongest team in the race, particularly for mountain stages. The only contender with a team-mate (Sastre) also looking for yellow in Paris.
Weak points: Awful at time-trialling. Erratic performances in the past. Lacks self-confidence.
Our bet for Paris? Third
Overall position: Second, +8 seconds
Previous Tour best: 31st in 2007 Strengths: Talented climber – probably the best of the contenders. Quick to seize initiative in the mountains. The least well-known of the top five – a real advantage in a wide-open race.
Weak points: Inexperience, not a good time-trialler. Little team support. Three weeks may be too long for him.
Our bet for Paris? Fourth.
Overall position: Third, +8sec
Previous Tour best: 2nd in 2007
Strengths: Time-trialling and sticking to his rivals' back wheels like a limpet on the hills. Experienced.
Weak points: Very limited team support in the mountains. Does not react fast to changes in the race. Very conservative on climbs. Nursing injuries from the Pyrenees.
Our bet for Paris? First
Team: CSC-Saxo Bank
Overall position: Fourth, +49sec
Previous Tour best: 3rd in 2006
Strengths: Has finished in the Tour's top 10 every year since 2002. Has Frank Schleck alongside him as a team-mate.
Weak points: At 33, getting a bit long in the tooth for this game. Poor time-triallist and an ultra-conservative climber.
Our bet for Paris? Fifth
Overall position: Fifth +73sec
Previous Tour best: 5th in 2006
Strengths: The only contender to have previously won a three-week stage race – twice. Strong, unspectacular time-triallist and climber. Very tough.
Weak points: Always has one bad day in a major Tour – it has not happened yet this race. Poor descender.
Our bet for Paris? Second.
Taking the direct route down
South African rider John-Lee Augustyn suffered a spectacular tumble yesterday. Part of the early attack group, Augustyn was the first rider to reach the summit of the Bonette-Restefond at the head of the Tour. But he had little time to savour the €2,000 (£1,585) prize for doing so. After misjudging a bend, the Barloworld rider and his bike went spinning over the barriers and down the near-vertical screeslopes. He was assisted by a spectator back up to the roadside, but his bike proved impossible to reach and the South African could only stand and watch as the race favourites flashed past. Badly bruised but otherwise unhurt, Augustyn finally finished 35th on the stage – on a bike borrowed from a team-mate.
Stage results 16th stage (157km, Cuneo to Jausiers)
1 C Dessel (Fr) AG2R 4hr 31min 27sec; 2 S Casar (Fr) Française des Jeux; 3 D Arroyo (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne both same time; 4 Y Popovych (Ukr) Silence-Lotto +3sec; 5 G Hincapie (US) Columbia +24; 6 N Portal (Fr) Caisse d'Epargne; 7 T Valjavec (Sloven) AG2R both s/t; 8 S Schumacher (Ger) Gerolsteiner ) +1min 03sec; 9 A Schleck (Lux) Team CSC +1:28; 10 B Kohl (Aut) Gerolsteiner; 11 C Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto; 12 F Schleck (Lux) Team CSC; 13 A Valverde (Sp) Caisse d'Epargne; 14 D Cunego (It) Lampre; 15 C Sastre (Sp) Team CSC all s/t. Leading overall: 1 F Schleck 68hr 30min 16sec; 2 Kohl +7sec; 3 Evans +8; 4 Sastre +49; 5 D Menchov (Rus) Rabobank +1min 13sec; 6 C Vandevelde (US) Garmin-Chipotle +3:15; 7 K Kirchen (Lux) Columbia +3:23; 8 Valverde +4:11; 9 S Sanchez (Sp) Euskaltel +4:38; 10 Valjavec +5:23; 11 V Efimkine (Rus) AG2R +6:38; 12 Cunego +7:34. Sprinter standings: 1 O Freire (Sp) Rabobank 219pts; 2 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 172; 3 E Zabel (Ger) Milram 167; 4 Kirchen 145. King of the Mountain standings: 1 Kohl 85pts; 2 S Lang (Ger) Gerolsteiner 60; 3 T Vöckler (Fr) Bouygues Telecom 55; 4 J-L Augustyn (SA) Barloworld 53.Reuse content