by Justin Davis
LUZ ARDIDEN, France, July 14, 2011 (AFP) – The last time Samuel Sanchez fought so hard to hold back his emotions on a major podium was at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
On Thursday, the tears were almost in full flow again after the Spaniard’s maiden stage win on the Tour de France 12th stage helped him achieve another lifetime dream.
In the process, Sanchez ended the Euskaltel team’s long wait to bring joy to the thousands of orange-clad Basque fans who converge on the Pyrenees every time the race passes.
“Today was a very important day for us, we’re in the Pyrenees and we had a lot of fans coming from the Basque country to support us,” said Sanchez, who started the stage over five minutes behind leader Thomas Voeckler.
“So for me it was crucial to have a real dig, to at least try. The fact I’m far behind in the GC (general classification) gave me a chance to escape.”
Sanchez’s win came almost 10 years to the day that former Euskaltel rider Robert Laiseka handed the team their maiden stage win on the race, also at Luz Ardiden.
It also helped Sanchez — who had been hoping for a podium place this year after finishing fourth in 2010 — make amends for a disappointing race so far.
“I don’t know what the rest of the race has in store for me. Right now I still can’t believe I won a stage,” he added.
“It’s so important for me to win here in Luz Ardiden in front of all my fans, especially as it was ten years ago that Roberto Laiseka won.”
Welshman Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Frenchman Jeremy Roy (FDJ) had started the climb to Luz Ardiden with a two-minute lead on a small chase group which included Sanchez and Belgian Jelle Vandendert.
But as the effort at being in a day-long breakaway began to tell, the chasing pair closed the gap with around 8km remaining.
Behind them, the yellow jersey battle would ensue with reigning champion Alberto Contador notably coming under attack from the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank.
However Sanchez and Vanendert were allowed to race ahead almost unhindered, helped by the fact that neither the Schlecks nor Contador produced incisive attacks.
Asked what he and Vanendert had been discussing as they rode up the climb together, Sanchez replied: “We just agreed to keep relaying each other for as long as possible, and not attack for the victory until the finale.”
Inside the final 600 meters when Sanchez caught sight of Frank Schleck, shortly after the Luxemburger had flown out of the chase group with around 3km to race, he knew it was time to go.
Sanchez took one look back before pulling in front of his Belgian companion and attacking to come solo over the finish line.
Despite his pride at being an Olympic champion, winning a stage on the world’s most prestigious race was just as special.
“They are both special in their own ways. In the Olympics it was particular because it was very far from Europe and a completely different atmosphere,” he added.
“But as a cyclist, to win a stage on the France is something else. Cycling is such a hard sport that you suffer so much more than you rejoice.
“That’s why a win like today is so important.”