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"I was feeling good on Tourmalet, and it was a very hard pace at the bottom. I was looking forward to the Hautacam, but then I really did not eat and drink enough and had a sugar flat."

Photo: Sirotti

FRANK SCHLECK

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HAIMAR ZUBELDIA

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TOUR DE FRANCE

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TREK - SEGAFREDO

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24.07.2014 @ 20:46 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After his brave breakaway performance yesterday, Frank Schleck was hoping to gain more time in today's final mountain stage of the Tour de France but the Luxembourgish champion went hunger flat on the final climb. Things were better for his teammate Haimar Zubeldia who moved into the overall top 10.

 

The last mountain stage of this year’s Tour de France included the two iconic climbs of Tourmalet and Hautacam, and was the penultimate opportunity ahead of the 54-kilometer time trial Saturday to sort out the final standings.

 

The two famed mountains came in succession in the latter part of the 145-kilometer race, and while the Tourmalet quickly pared down the peloton to its best climbers, the final mountain, the 13-kilometer ramp to Hautacam, decided the strongest: Vincenzo Nibali finally tossed caution aside, bolted clear with 10 kilometers still to climb, and  - without incident in the final three days - pasted the yellow jersey permanently to his back with an impressive stage win. He increased his lead to his nearest rival to a crushing seven minutes and ten seconds.

 

Haimar Zubeldia and Fränk Schleck spent much of the 18th stage in the select yellow jersey group before everything detonated on the Hautacam. With an untouchable Nibali up the road the battle for the last two podium steps raged, and the attacks quickly sorted out two key units: Thibault Pinot (FDJ) and Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R) together in a group of four, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) towing five others - including Zubeldia- just behind.  

 

“There was a big fight all day," Zubeldia said. "It was a big breakaway that went, but Nibali wanted to win today. [Astana] pulled fast on the Tourmalet and made the selection, and it was full gas in the valley - also because Valverde had made the attack in the downhill.

 

"After, in the middle of the last climb I lost it a bit, but then I saw the group of Valverde so I went a bit faster to catch them. This was a good group for me - a good tempo.

 

"You can see today that there were a lot of tired riders. This is the Tour and we are in the last week and the power is not in the legs anymore – everyone can only hope for the best.”

 

Zubeldia finished just ahead of Valverde for ninth place on the stage, and leapt into 10th place overall. After all the grueling uphills of this year’s Tour the last mountain was the perfect ending for Trek Factory Racing: Zubeldia reached the team’s goal of finishing within the top 10 GC.  

 

However, the long time trial on Saturday will be the final confirmation, and Zubeldia will have to put in one more punishing effort to solidify the overall standing. For Zubeldia, he is not looking behind, but ahead, and with a good ride in the time trial on Saturday he will try and jump one spot higher in the overall.

 

“There is more than two minutes to König [in ninth]," he said. "But it is a long TT, we are in the last week, and if I still have some power in the legs…I have nothing to lose and will do all my best on Saturday.”

 

One and a half minutes after Haimar, Fränk Schleck rode across the line for 12th place; he, too, ascended one spot up the GC ladder and now has claim to 12th overall.  After the exertion of riding yesterday’s breakaway to finish seventh, the repercussions were felt by Schleck on the final climb today.

 

“I did what I could today," he said. "It was fast all day. Of course I still had some feeling from yesterday which was a long day, a hard day. But overall I had good sensations today, I just did not eat enough and I missed a bit of fight at the end.

 

"I was feeling good on Tourmalet, and it was a very hard pace at the bottom. I was looking forward to the Hautacam, but then I really did not eat and drink enough and had a sugar flat. You feel empty in your legs, and even if you eat at this point, it’s too late.”

 

First place may be sewn, but the battle for the final podium is far from hemmed. Valverde dropped out of second to fourth place as Pinot and Peraud nudged ahead. With only 15 seconds separating the three men all will be decided in the race of truth on Saturday.

 

Tomorrow's stage 19 is a day for the sprinters, and a day, hopefully, to recharge the batteries of the overall challengers for the last looming and hugely pivotal battle left.

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