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Stage 11

Frankie’s Diary: Tour of the cramped hotels

                   This report filed July 15, 1999

                   By Frankie Andreu
                   U.S. Postal Service rider

                   The hotel we stayed at Wednesday night was a Club Med at the top of l’Alpe d’Huez. Normally the hotel is closed for the summer, but because of the race they opened it for three days.  Tomorrow they close the hotel again. Peter Meinert-Neilsen’s dad, who is visiting the Tour, inquired how much it would be to stay for the night. It was almost $200. If you saw the rooms and the hotel you would realize you would have to be crazy to pay that for this place.

                   The room was so small George and I couldn't open either of our suitcases. The shower was a small stall in a closet and I couldn't even close the door where the toilet was. The room was so small that when I sat on the toilet my knees would hit the door in front of me. Hell, I couldn't even use the phone. I had to bug the rent-a-receptionist to let me use the phone line from the fax machine to send yesterday's article.  I wrote the article right after the race while waiting for massage. I was going to go re-read it but when the lady told me they were leaving in five minutes and I decided to send it mistakes and all. I figured anything is better than nothing.

                   Tyler was the man yesterday! He pulled, pulled, and pulled on the mountain. He rode a great race for Lance leading half way up l’Alpe d’Huez till the Banesto's started attacking. Our climbers are doing a great job protecting Lance in the mountains. Kevin was feeling a little under the weather after crashing on Tuesday. Normally Tyler would work first, then Kevin, but they switched yesterday because Kevin was not 100%. This is something that is important with any team, communication.

                   Yesterday going up Croix de Fer we had a mishap on the team. About four kilometers from the top when the road gets narrow our team car died. It stopped dead in its tracks blocking all the team cars behind it. Johan shit, he couldn't believe this was happening. He tried turning the key four or five times and nothing. Not even the little lights on the dashboard were lighting up.  After a few more tries the car finally turned over.   Who knows why, but then again the cars are Fiat's.

                   After two days of riding in the mountains the guys were attacking today like it was the first day. They are crazy. We started at the bottom of Alp d'Huez and the first 40 kilometers are a false flat downhill. Maybe everyone thought they had good legs. It took two hours of attacks before finally a break went. That was what we were waiting for.

                   We had to wait for the right combination of guys to go up the road. We figure no Banesto, ONCE, or Telekom. Banesto and ONCE was because when we ride slow if the break gets too much time they will have to protect their second and third place on G.C. Telekom was in case they decided to go for the stage win in a sprint.  They would have to chase because they would not have a rider up the road. What ended up in the break were two Festina's, two Mercatone, a Lampre, a Casino, and a Lotto.

                   It was good for us. Our job was now to ride tempo, slowly! I needed a rest day and this was probably the closest thing I could have asked for. The break went up the road to 20 minutes.  Obviously everyone else in the pack did not mind a little rest also. The Lampre guy won the race, that's a pretty big flick. Two teams with two guys and the solo rider wins. I'm sure the directors won't be happy.

                   You’ve read about our hotel last night and tonight we are staying in a clone of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I'm sleeping in the bottom part of a bunk bed. I can't even sit up to type this, I have to lie down or I'll hit my head. I guess the bonus is that we can at least open one suitcase and go to the bathroom in private. Oh, the luxuries of the Tour.

                   Another car story. Willy, our chef, usually drives part of the course on his way to the team's hotel. He likes to wave at all the people and honk the horn at all the Americans standing on the side of the road. Our soigneurs passed Willy as they were going from the start to the feed zone, and when they saw him they pointed at his front car tire motioning that there might be a problem. Willy, a nervous guy to begin with, got all panicky and drove straight to a garage to find out what the problem was.

                   Willy told the mechanic to check everything, tires, oil, water, coolant, everything. The guy told him nothing was wrong. Willy took off, headed back on the course, and started waving again. That’s when our souigneers saw Willy again, as they headed from the feed zone to the finish hotel. Again they motioned to the front wheel. Willy started freaking, trying to yell at them through the car window and waving his hands all over the place to find out what was wrong. Finally the soigneurs broke down and started laughing.

                   They were messing with Willy, because they know his nervous nature and, sure enough, he got hooked. At breakfast all Willy could talk about was what bastards those soigneurs. He still hasn’t forgiven them.

                   In the race yesterday two riders switched to special bikes made for climbing. Both Virenque and Olano switched to bikes with smaller wheels. Olano's bike “climbing” bike weighs seven kilograms. Why switch? I’m not sure.  Lance says it’s to save weight, and it makes the bike stiffer. Maybe there are some other technical reasons. If Jonathan were here he would probably have some data showing the torque vs. power vs. speed all in a colored graph. He loves numbers.

Dierckxsens break succeeds; Armstrong still solidly in yellow

                   This report filed July 15, 1999

                   By Charles Pelkey
                   VeloNews technical editor

                   After a two-day stay in the mountains, the Tour de France said goodbye to the Alps … and finally said goodbye to the heartbreaking pattern of long breakaway attempts being caught a few kilometers from the line. Belgian national champion Ludo Dierckxsens broke free from a seven-man lead group today and soloed in to the Loire region city of St. Etienne. The 34-year-old Lampre-Daikin rider beat his breakaway companions to the finish by almost a minute-and-a-half and the main peloton by more than 22 minutes. Though the margin was big, Dierckxsens’s effort posed no threat to the overall Tour lead of the U.S. Postal Service’s Lance Armstrong, who maintains a 7:42 advantage over ONCE’s Abraham Olano.

                   After two hard days in the mountains and no significant threat posed to the yellow jersey, today’s 198.5-kilometer stage from Le Bourg-d'Oisans to St. Etienne simply begged for a breakaway. But this Tour has not been friendly to would-be heroes. Rider after rider, this year, has suffered the heartbreak of a long breakaway effort neutralized just a kilometers from the finish. The most recent, yesterday’s 150-kilometer effort by Stephane Heulot, ended just four kilometers from the top of L’Alpe d’Huez.

                   But that record of failed attempts didn’t keep anyone from trying. Not long after the 160 riders remaining in this Tour de France left the mountain valley village of Le Bourg-d'Oisans the day’s attacks began, each being quickly neutralized on the wide, fast, mostly downhill roads characterizing the opening third of the course. If the day’s predicted breakaway efforts were to succeed, they would likely not occur until after the day’s first intermediate sprint at the 58-kilometer mark. At stake was more than just a struggle for a stage win -- it was Telekom’s Erik Zabel and Credit Agricole’s Stuart O’Grady’s continued fight for the Tour’s green points jersey.

                   Charging toward the sprint at Veurey Voroise, the group covered 48.6 kilometers in the opening hour. Nearing the sprint, Zabel’s Telekom teammates and O’Grady’s Agricole squad jockeyed for position. But the prize – six points in the jersey contest – went to Mapei’s Tom Steels, a double-stage winner in the opening week of the Tour. Zabel and O’Grady had to settle for second and third.

                   Not content to leave the second sprint to chance, O’Grady decided to take matters into his own hands and make a try at a solo charge just before the day’s first climb, the category 2 Col de Parmenie. But with climber’s points on the line, Richard Virenque’s Polti team chased down the Australian, and as he was reeled in Lotto’s Rik Verbrugghe made a fast charge off the front. This time, the effort succeeded, with Verbrugghe building a 30-second advantage over a split peloton at the crest of the climb.

                   From that first chase group, six riders – Alex Vinokourov (Casino), Riccardo Forconi and Dmitri Konyshev (both Mercatone Uno-Bianchi), Laurent Lefevre and Vladimir Belli (both Festina) and Dierckxsens -- struggled up to join Verbrugghe in the lead. This break looked like it may very well make it. The formula for success had been achieved: The seven men at the front, each a strong all-around rider, and none posing a threat to the leaders in the contests for the yellow, green or polka-dot jerseys. Indeed, of the seven, Vinokourov at 43:37, was the closest to posing a General Classification threat. Add to that the fact that the stage-win hungry Saeco-Cannondale squad’s Mario Cipollini had crashed out of the race two days ago on the road to Sestriere and the break might just make it.

                   It soon became apparent that this time the main group would indeed let the men at front have their day. By the second intermediate sprint at 155.5 kilometers, the group had a healthy 15-minute lead.

                   The recent winner of the Dauphine Libere, Vinokourov, took charge of the group at the foot of the Col de la Croix du Chabouret, hoping to power away to a solo win. Instead, his effort lit a fire under Dierckxsens who caught and counterattacked the 25-year-old from Kazakhstan. Dierckxsens charge left Lefevre and Forconi struggling to remain even with the four riders chasing the Belgian champion. Six kilometers later, Dierckxsens had built a 25-second lead. By the top of the final climb, the Lampre rider led his four pursuers by more than a minute and the main group by 21.

                   From the top of the Croix du Chabouret, it is nearly a straight downhill shot to St. Etienne, the Loire valley city that lays claim to being the home of the French bicycle industry. Dierckxsens only added to his lead on his way to the finish.  The Belgian, a pale sun shining on his shaved head, smiled and lifted his arms to celebrate a well-earned victory, finishing a minute and 26 seconds ahead of the four-man sprint for second and 22:18 ahead of the main field. No, Dierckxsens’s effort had no impact on the contest for the overall lead, little effect on the race for the green jersey – still led by O’Grady – and left the polka-dot jersey securely on the shoulders of its four-time winner, Richard Virenque. But none of that matters to a man who had the joy of celebrating his first stage win at the Tour de France.

Dierckxsen - Lampre's Stage-Winning Saviour

Ludo Dierckxsen proved today that constant attacking sooner or later pays off. A solo attack on the final climb was followed by a beautiful solo win. A brilliant smile as he crossed the line summed up the emotion-charged moment for the bald Belgian champion who was constantly aggressive in the first week of racing. His win in the first post-Alpe stage of the Tour de France was a saviour for his Lampre team which had four of their riders - Zbignew Spruch, Jan Svorada, Pavel Padranos and Raivis Belhvosciks - retire during yesterday's climbing drama to L'Alpe d'Huez.

With Lampre's 1998 stage-winner Jan Svorada gone; their team-leader Marco Serpellini almost an hour off the lead of Armstrong and only five riders remaining in the team - Dierckxsen's stage win has given them some hope.

On a day which appeared to matter little to the overall contenders of the Tour, a solo win was predicted right from the start. Still attacks which began as early as the fifth kilometer weren't able to make an indent into the rapid-riding peloton. The descent from Bourg-d'Oisans at the foot of L'Alpe d'Huez helped push the pace to 48.6kph. And it wasn't until the O'Grady/Zabel battle for the green jersey had been quelled at the first sprint (with Zabel scoring 4pts to O'Grady's 2 - behind Tom Steels) that any real attacks were allowed to happen.

And it was O'Grady himself - the leader of the green jersey competition - who instigated the attacks after claiming his ride in the 'Piano' bunch yesterday "basically sucked". His 74th kilometer attack gained only 10 seconds before he lost ground, even dropping to the back of the peloton. O'Grady's backward motion signalled the beginning of 'the' break of the day.

Lotto's Rik Verbrugge - who has already shown his form in the time trials this year - attacked on the rise to the 2nd category Col de Parmenie. He passed the summit 30" clear of a select group (Konyshev, Virenque, Vinikourov, Dufaux, Jeker & Garzelli) and soloed for a matter of kilometers before he was joined by the riders who would make up the main 7-man break.

Consisting of Verbrugge, Dierckxsen, Dmitri Konyshev & Riccardo Forconi (Mercatone Uno), Wladimir Belli & Laurent Lefevre (Festina) and, moments later, Alexandre Vinikourov (Casino), the seven men rode together to gain an advantage over 19 minutes. The Postal team of the yellow jersey rode tempo at the front of the peloton, but mainly to watch for any attempts of his main adversaries to sneak across to the leading seven. With Armstrong so ahead of Olano (7'42") and Zulle (7'47") this, naturally enough, never happened. The 7-man break soaked up the other sprint points on offer and rode together until Dierckxsen's predictable, but severe surge on the final climb.

A good, strong chase by the four remnants of the break - Vinikourov, Belli and Konyshev - couldn't indent Dierckxsen's conviction. His lone ride allowed the Belgian champion to take big risks on the rushed descent to Saint-Etienne and by the finish time was on his side.

Clenched fists and chatter with his team director 2km from the line signalled Diercksen's awareness that today's efforts had paid off.