Sanchez wins 12th Tour stage in Pyrenees
Updated: July 14, 2011, 12:24
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LUZ ARDIDEN, France (AP) Spanish climbing specialist Samuel Sanchez won the 12th stage of the Tour de France on Thursday and Thomas Voeckler retained the overall lead as the race entered the high mountains for the first time.
After a string of setbacks in earlier stages, defending champion Alberto Contador struggled up the main climb and lost crucial seconds to other prerace favorites for overall victory.
The 131.1-mile ride from Cugnaux to the Luz-Ardiden ski station featured three tough climbs in the Pyrenees - including two that are among the hardest in pro cycling.
Sanchez and Jelle Vanendert of Belgium overtook a group of breakaway riders in the final climb and the Spaniard then won their two-man sprint in the last several hundred yards, crossing 7 seconds in front of Vanendert.
"It's incredible,'' Sanchez said of his first Tour stage win, after finishing fourth overall last year.
Frank Schleck of Luxembourg made a string of attacks on the other prerace favorites before surging away to finish third - 10 seconds back - and vault into second place overall.
Italy's Ivan Basso was fourth, Cadel Evans of Australia was fifth, and Schleck's younger brother Andy was sixth, each 30 seconds behind Sanchez. Contador placed eighth, 43 seconds back.
Voeckler gave the home crowd a delight on France's national Bastille Day holiday, clinging to the yellow jersey that he had expected to lose in the punishing climbs.
"I'm glad I was wrong,'' Voeckler said. "It clearly wasn't expected. Keeping the jersey was far from expected as the stage started today.
"You have to believe that the yellow jersey gives you a bit of added inspiration on the Bastille Day.''
Voeckler leads Frank Schleck by 1 minute, 49 seconds overall, and Evans is third, 2:06 back. Contador is seventh overall, 4 minutes behind.
"I was a bit careful,'' the three-time Tour champion said. "I saw the Schlecks were discussing together and that they were going to play their cards. Frank was the stronger - and both of them attacked.''
"But I'm nevertheless happy with this first mountain stage,'' Contador said. "Each day, I feel better. ... I still don't have my best legs. I'm not riding with the same rhythm, but it's encouraging.''