Saturday, 9 July 2011

Tour de France: Stage 8 Debrief

The first day in the mountains is always one of the highlights of any Tour de France, and today was no different as the 189 remaining riders - Chris Horner having abandoned overnight - fought their way up the first serious climb of this year's event, the 1451m Col-de-la-Croix-Saint-Robert, tackling thunderstorms and rain to get there and slippery roads on the way back down.

Col-de-la-Croix-Saint-Robert, the first big climb of the 2011 Tour de France
The race began at 12:26 and almost immediately hopefuls began attacking, trying to sense if a breakaway would be feasible on a tricky stage. It took a little while to happen, but eventually AG2R's Christophe Riblon managed to break through, taking another eight riders with him. It looked as though it wasn't going to last, however, as the peloton were moving along at a good whack and after several kilometres the advantage was only 35". This encouraged three riders from the pack to attempt to bridge the gap and pull them back in, but it wasn't to be - the lead group simply turned up the power a notch or two and before long the counter attack was reabsorbed. By 32km, the gap had been increased to 2'40" and not much longer to 4'10", meaning that leader Rui Costa - who started 4'02" behind Cadel Evans - meaning that had the race have ended there he'd have been the new leader in the overall General Classification.

It couldn't last, though, not with the peloton speeding along like they were. Could it?

By 13:48 the escapees had reached the foot of the stage's first climb, Category 4 Côte d'Évaux-les-Bains, and a few minutes later had reached the top. Confidis' Julian El Fares was the first one up - as it was a Cat 4 there was only one point on offer, but every point is worth having. By the time the BMC riders leading the peloton reached the summit the breakaway had lengthened the gap even further, stretching it out to 5'30".

Surely it couldn't last much longer, though, not with all the top drawer sprinters eyeing the points waiting at the sprint section?

Christophe Riblon was first through the intermediate sprint
31 minutes later and they'd passed the sprint; Riblon taking the 20, Costa taking 17 and Katusha's Alexandr Kolobnev 15. Omega-Pharma Lotto had taken over from BMC at the front of the peloton and had obviously had more than enough of the nine tearaways, picking up the pace even more in an effort to reduce the advantage. Philippe Gilbert was the first of the bunch through the sprint taking 6 points while Mark Cavendish was content to sit back and let it happen, apparently content for the time being with his 17th stage win yesterday. At 14:34 Romain Kreuziger dropped back to the medical car and spent some time talking to the doctor, leading to worries that he might be considering abandoning the race after he was involved in the same crash that saw Bradley Wiggins stretchered off yesterday. Europcar's Pierre Rolland was forced to stop and call for mechanical assistance after his waterproof became entangled in his rear wheel, losing quite a bit of time as they faffed about trying to free it. Minutes later, due to high average speeds, the race was already into its final 90km. The nine escapees were still ahead at the feeding station with a gap reduced to 5'10" from a maximum of a full minute longer.

Their time in the limelight was nearly up. There was no way it could last now they were approaching another Category 4 climb at Côte du Rocher des Trois Tourtes. No way at all.

El Fares had a puncture, but the team car was with him quickly and the mechanic changed his wheel in the customary few seconds so he was soon on his way and catching up with the gang. Back in the peloton, Samuel Dumoulin had one too just as the BMC riders at the front reached the climb, 4'55" behind the lead group who were just reaching the top. Kolobnev was there first and took a point.

Sky's Xabier Zandio led the race for a while.

Back in the peloton, Astana and Garmin were working together in an effort to squeeze out a bit more speed, eventually falling back and letting Omega-Pharma have another go in the driving seat. Power outputs had risen dramatically with some riders now producing over 500 watts as they powered their way upwards, reducing the gap to a shade over 2' by the time the breakaway - now led by Sky rider Xabier Zandio - began the long climb up Category 2 Col-de-la-Croix-Saint-Robert. The peloton was soon doing the same with Tejay van Garderen getting the escapees in his sights and locking on, applying sufficient pressure for three members to fall back. He soon caught Costa and Gautier too, getting ahead of them for a while - but it turned out these two were made of sterner stuff and immediately attacked him back, managing to make their way back to the frontline once again. Meanwhile, Johnny Hoogerland, Juan-Antonio Flecha and a trio of riders from Euskatel, Europcar and Astana were also attacking van Garderen who was now at the head of the race with Costa.

Costa had to drop at any second, hadn't he? He'd been leading since the 4th kilometre, on a mountain stage - General Classification contenders are hard-pressed to do that, never mind outside hopefuls in the Youth classification. Hadn't he?

As van Garderen and Costa entered the final kilometre of the climb, still slugging it out on the way to the high finish at Super-Besse, a new challenger in the shape of Alexander Vinokourov emerged from the peloton and began chasing them down. Vino may be 37 but he can most certainly still climb and just seconds later he flashed past those few riders who had managed to stay a little way ahead of the main group after dropping from the lead, seconds after van Garderen led Costa over the summit.

Oh come on, this was the end for Costa, wasn't it? He'd been working like a dog for 160km now. Wasn't it?


The two riders entered the final 20km a mere 10" ahead of Gautier and Riblon who were still attacking. Vinokourov was still on the go too, now just 1'25" behind and showing no sign of slowing. Many people began to believe he was going to catch them and take the stage as he caught Zandio. Van Garderen launched another attack, but Costa, Riblon and Gautier remained with him until he eventually managed a small lead, but he couldn't increase it. Then, somehow, Costa passed him once again. Riblon and Gautier decided enough was enough and gave up the chase, being caught by Vino two minutes later. Then, Vino caught van Garderen too.

With 4km to go, Costa led by 20", retaining this advantage a kilometre later and news came through that van Garderen was top of the running to be awarded the Combativity award for his efforts just as the peloton - a minute behind Costa - caught him. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Alberto Contador was finding the climb much to his liking and had begun accelerating. However, he had company: Cadel Evans was following and so was Andy Schleck who sat in his usual place right on the Spaniard's rear wheel, grinning back at him every time he turned round to see if his rival was still there. For all Andy's nice-guy image, this has to be incredibly unnerving - and the Luxembourger is an intelligent enough rider to understand the value of psychological warfare. Perhaps that's why he didn't react when Evans dropped the pair of them.

So that's three of the very best riders in the world jousting with one another in the peloton? That must have upped the pace to a speed Costa wouldn't be able to beat. Mustn't it?

An amazing win for Costa.
Nope. He was already over the line, taking his first ever Tour de France stage win and the first for his Movistar team in this year's event. Since any sports report must by convention feature cliche, it's safe to say that a new star has been born.

Stage 8 results:

1. FARIA DA COSTA Rui Alberto 4h 36' 46"  
2. GILBERT Philippe + 00' 12"
3. EVANS Cadel + 00' 15"
4. SANCHEZ Samuel + 00' 15"
5. VELITS Peter + 00' 15"
6. DEVENYNS Dries + 00' 15"
7. CUNEGO Damiano + 00' 15"
8. CONTADOR Alberto + 00' 15"
9. SCHLECK Andy + 00' 15"

Overall General Classification after Stage 8:

1. HUSHOVD Thor 33h 06' 28"  
2. EVANS Cadel + 00' 01"
3. SCHLECK Frank + 00' 04"
4. KLÖDEN Andréas + 00' 10"
5. FUGLSANG Jakob + 00' 12"
6. SCHLECK Andy + 00' 12"
7. MARTIN Tony + 00' 13"
8. VELITS Peter + 00' 13"
9. MILLAR David + 00' 19"
10. GILBERT Philippe + 00' 30"

White jersey: Robert Gesink; Polka dot jersey: TeJay van Garderen; Green jersey: Philippe Gilbert; Team: Garmin-Cervelo; Combativity: TeJay van Garderen (not yet confirmed).

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