PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (AP) — French cyclist Thomas Voeckler retained the lead of the Tour de France on Saturday after the last stage in the Pyrenees, which was won by Jelle Vanendert of Belgium and failed to be as significant as expected for the main contenders.
Vanendert clinched the 14th stage — the first Tour stage win of his career — after finishing 21 seconds ahead of Samuel Sanchez of Spain and 46 seconds in front of third-place Andy Schleck of Luxembourg.
“I never imagined this would happen to me on my first Tour de France,” Vanendert said. “I have been feeling good in the mountains.”
The contenders were expected to launch attacks in the most grueling stage of the Pyrenees so far — which featured a 10-mile climb to Plateau de Beille — but Schleck only gained 2 seconds on defending champion Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans despite several attempts from the two-time runner-up.
Evans crossed the line fourth ahead of Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran and Contador. They all were 48 seconds behind Vanendert.
“It wasn’t possible to make a big difference, I need a steeper stage than this,” said Schleck, who rides for the Leopard Trek team with his older brother Frank. “We worked hard, we climbed well. But when you attacked today, you could only get 50 meters ahead because there was a bit of wind. But still, I got a few seconds at the end.”
Voeckler is 1 minute, 49 seconds ahead of Frank Schleck, 2:06 clear of Evans, 2:15 ahead of Andy Schleck and 4:00 in front of Contador, who is seventh behind Sanchez and Italy’s Ivan Basso.
“I’m not interested who is stronger than who,” Voeckler said. “My objective was to keep the jersey.”
Voeckler keeps predicting he will lose the yellow jersey and is stunned by his impressive form.
“It’s hard for me to believe that I’m in yellow after the Pyrenees,” he said. “It’s like a dream.”
Contador praised Voeckler, but does not expect him to keep going at this rate for much longer.
“We know he’s a great rider, but if he ever cracks one day he will really lose a lot of time,” Contador said.
The 105-mile trek from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille finished with a famed and tortuous ascent.
Schleck kept shooting glances at Contador when next to the three-time champion early in the last climb, looking to see if the Spaniard was struggling. Contador beat Schleck to win the Tour the past two years.
With about 6 miles remaining, Schleck, Contador and Evans accelerated ahead of the main pack.
“I tried to keep things under control,” Evans said. “It was a long, but not a steep climb. It’s at this point in the race that the contenders are pretty evenly matched, so it’s really hard to make a big difference.”
Schleck launched another attack soon after, with Contador struggling to follow until he sat on Frank Schleck’s wheel and caught up a few seconds later.
“I am satisfied because I didn’t lose any time today,” Contador said. “I can’t say I was good, because good means winning.”
Contador banged his knee twice in crashes on stages 5 and 9, but feels he can hit top form when the race reaches the high Alps on Wednesday.
“I hope that I can recover between now and then to get some time back,” Contador said. “I hope to be even better over the next few days.”
When Andy Schleck attacked for the third time with 5 miles left, he could not get away from Contador and Evans, who was Tour runner-up in 2007 and ‘08.
Having waited for his moment, Vanendert timed his attack perfectly with 4 miles left, and Sanchez left it too late to reel him in.
“The favorites had already attacked several times,” said Vanendert, who won in 5 hours, 13 minutes, 25 seconds. “I thought they might already be on the limit and it was the perfect time to attack.”
As the small group of contenders and outsiders jostled for position, Basso and Voeckler tried to slip away from the Schleck brothers and Contador, but their attacks kept petering out.
It was Sanchez’s turn to attack about 2 miles from the top, and they all let him go as he is not a Tour contender.
The 15th stage Sunday to Montpellier is a flat route for sprinters. A rest day follows on Monday before the riders head to the Italian and French Alps for three more days of climbing, before a time trial on the next-to-last stage.
“I just wanted to win a stage on the Tour ... We’ll see what I can do in the Alps,” said Vanendert, who rides for Omega Pharma-Lotto. “The team really gave me the chance to prepare myself 100 percent for the Tour.”
British rider David Millar, and French riders Sandy Casar and Julien El Fares went ahead early on over three climbs up Portet d’Aspet, Col de la Core and Col de Latrape.
The peloton — led by Leopard-Trek — closed the gap to under eight minutes as they reached the foot of the category 1 Col d’Agnes, the day’s first testing ascent.
Millar was caught, Christophe Riblon joined Casar and El Fares, while behind them Contador sat on Voeckler’s wheel.
On the descent from Col d’Agnes, Laurens ten Dam had a spectacular tumble when he went too wide on a turn and flew over his handlebars. The Dutch rider bloodied his face but rejoined the race.
Jens Voigt crashed soon after coming down Port de Lers, cutting his left arm. Bt the veteran German rider got up and pedaled furiously to rejoin his Leopard-Trek teammates. The 39-year-old Voigt then fell after breaking too heavily but continued again.