The riders were lucky to be able to use their race radios on today's 13th stage of the Tour. Today was scheduled to be the second day of the race where the no radio experiment would take place.
Organizers hoped that without the team directors giving riders constant information, riders would take risks to escape the peloton and build up enourmous advantages that would not otherwise be possible under the tight reign of communication.
However, on stage 10, the first of two such stages, riders staged a protest by riding slowly and not making for much exciting television. On a completely flat stage with a tailwind, riders barely averaged 40 kph, rather than 50. Not wanting yet another stage neutralized, organizers allowed radios today.
Today's 13th stage was a big test for the peloton. With three big climbs, including the monstrous category-one Platzerwassel near German territory and heavy rain on the menu, the peloton experienced major difficulties.
Team Astana suffered a big blow today when their irreplaceable lieutenant Levi Leipheimer had to abandon the race. With two kilometers remaining on yesterday's stage, Leipheimer fell and hurt his wrist. He still finished the stage and felt fine afterwards, but x-rays revealed that he broke the wrist and had to leave the Tour.
Rain made it slow-going for the peloton, but in the hard conditions, three riders managed to break free. Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), and Sylvain Chavanel (QuickStep) left the peloton and built up a lead over over nine minutes at its maximum.
The terrain began to take its toll, and on the climb of the Platzerwassel, Perez was dropped, leaving Haussler and Chavanel on the front alone with a seven minute gap.
Astana took over pacing the peloton as race leader Rinaldo Nocentini's AG2R team began to fizzle out. Astana prevented any attacks from the race favourites.
At the top of the Platzerwassel, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) shot out of the peloton to grab some valuable mountain points. He grabbed just enough points to overtake previous mountains leader Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
Also, stage seven winner Brice Feillu (Agritrubel) escaped the peloton along with Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) in the hopes of gathering mountain points and closing some of his four-minute deficit on the overall classification.
Up ahead, no one could touch the pair of Haussler and Chavanel. The duo had more than four minutes on the chasing pair of Feillu and Txurruka and more than seven minutes on the peloton with only one climb left. Astana decided that they did not need to waste their energy chasing a breakaway that did not affect the overall classification.
On the descent of the Platzerwassel, Haussler attempted a very bold move and attacked Chavanel. Normally, two riders are better than one if riders want to outpace the peloton, and with the 8.4-kilometer climb of the Col de FirstPlan still on the menu and 35 kilometers of racing to go, Haussler laid all his cards on the table as he chased a stage victory.
It looked like the right move. Chavanel had blown up on the climb, probably due to a hunger bonk in which his body had used up all its glycogen stores and left him with no energy.
Haussler, known more for his sprinting, kept a huge advantage over the FirstPlan and soloed in to grab his first Tour stage win over four minutes ahead of Txurruka and Feillu. Chavanel had lost several minutes on the road and came in behind the chasing pair.
Six minutes later, the peloton arrived. All the main contenders arrived in that group, including Nocentini, who keeps yellow for another day. Thanks to the race radio, contender Andy Schleck (Saxobank) was able to warn his director that he suffered a puncture on the last climb and quickly received a spare bike, along with the help of teammates to chase back to the group. The lack of radio communication on today's stage could have spelled the end to Schleck's GC hopes.
Also, sprinter Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) managed to get himself over the climbs in the main peloton and grabbed 15 points on the line to add to his green jersey standings. He once again took the green points jersey away from Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC), who finished almost half an hour behind in the "grupetto."
Rather shockingly today, two riders, Julian Dean (Garmin) and Oscar Friere (Rabobank) were shot at by the spectators. Three shots of lead pellets were fired at the peloton roughly 165 kilometers into the stage. Friere was hit in the femur and Dean in the finger. The third shot did not hit anyone. Both riders will start tomorrow's stage, but this sickening episode is a reminder that bad people exist on the open roads of the Tour.
Tomorrow's 14th stage is mostly flat, and could see a sprint showdown between Cavendish, Hushovd, and Tyler Farrar (Garmin). It seems unlikely that the sprinters' teams will let another breakaway steal the stage glory before the riders take on the Alps, but if Team Columbia does not want to chase, the chase may not form at all.