Sanchez wins 12th Tour stage in Pyrenees

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LUZ-ARDIDEN, France (AP) - Spain's Samuel Sanchez thrilled fans of his Basque-based team with the stage win Thursday and France's Thomas Voeckler surprised himself by keeping the yellow jersey on Bastille Day as the Tour de France finally hit the mountains.

Defending champion Alberto Contador ran into more, if modest, trouble in the 12th stage by losing ground to other race favorites on the day's final climb in the Pyrenees.

The 131-mile run from Cugnaux to the Luz-Ardiden ski station featured three tough ascents - including two that are among the hardest in pro cycling.

After 11 stages on wind-swept flats and hills that favored sprinters and breakaway riders, Thursday's mountains began to separate the overall race contenders from the rest of the pack.

The day's toughest climbs - the Col du Tourmalet and the uphill finish in Luz-Ardiden - gave the favorites a chance to gauge each other's stamina and look for signs of weakness.

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 victory. The Euskaltel-Euskadi rider, who finished fourth overall last year, said he got extra inspiration from spectators waving the red, green and white flag of the Basque country - a nearby region along the border between France and Spain.

"I can't believe I won this in front of all our fans," he said.

Frank Schleck of Luxembourg made a string of attacks on other prerace favorites before surging away to finish third - 10 seconds back - and vault into second place overall.

Italy's Ivan Basso was fourth, Australia's Cadel Evans 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 holiday, clinging to the yellow jersey that he 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. 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."

Andy Schleck, the Leopard Trek team leader who was runner-up to Contador last year and in 2009, said he and his brother gave the Spaniard a preview of what's to come.

"I think today was a perfect day for us. ... For sure, this is not a decisive stage, but we showed we are here," he said. "Contador is not unbeatable - he lost more time today.

"We had a discussion with Frank and we decided to attack. I attacked, Frank attacked, we played it like this. Then it was time for him to go all out," he added. "If we keep going like this, we can win."

On the 10.6-mile climb up to the Col du Tourmalet, a string of top riders - including some potential title contenders - dropped behind the pack. Among them were Dutch rider Robert Gesink, Germany's Tony Martin, and Spain's Luis Leon Sanchez, who was second overall as the day began.

A few crashes marred the ride, including some on a harrowing downhill from the day's first climb up the Hourquette d'Ancizan, an ascent making its debut on the route of cycling's showcase race.

Speeding downhill, Olympic pursuit gold medalist Geraint Thomas of Wales crashed right after he passed his national flag hoisted by one of the thousands of roadside fans.Moments later, the Team Sky rider again lost control and skidded off the road. But in a show of grit, Thomas battled back to rejoin the breakaway group, and by midway up the Tourmalet he had briefly taken the lead alone.

By the end, however, the Welshman sputtered up the Luz-Ardiden climb and finished 36th - 5:20 behind Sanchez. He's 25th overall, 10:21 back of the French race leader.

RadioShack's Andreas Kloeden of Germany, who was already nursing back pain from a mass pileup in Sunday's stage in central France, fell again Thursday and was treated by a race doctor on both elbows during the stage. Kloeden finished 8:26 back of Sanchez, all but ending any title hopes that he might have had. He's 10:19 behind Voeckler in 24th place.

Two more grueling Pyrenean stages loom Friday and Saturday, starting with the 95-mile ride from Pau to Lourdes in the 13th stage that features the Col d'Aubisque climb.

After veering into more punishment in the Alps in Week Three and an individual time trial in the next-to-last stage, the race ends on July 24 on Paris' Champs-Elysees.


AP Sports Writer Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.


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