Stage eight analysis: The phoney war

Heroic performances from Thor Hushovd saw him finishing the day wearing the yellow jersey, and the stage saw the first successful long-range attack of the 2011 Tour, but the race favourites rode cagily to Super Besse.

Words by Edward Pickering

Saturday July 9, 2011

Maybe it’s the bad weather. I don’t feel much like getting out and doing things when it’s raining, either.

The favourites of the Tour de France are riding with about as much colour as the skies over the Massif Central. As the atmosphere darkened over the Col de la Croix Robert, the hardest climb of the Tour so far, and the rain teemed down on Super Besse, the GC favourites – Contador, the Schlecks and Evans – feinted and parried, but ultimately turned the stage into a staring competition, in which nobody blinked.

Ahead, Rui Costa, whose two previous claims to infamy were getting involved in a finish-line exchange of face slaps with fellow seven-stone weakling Carlos Barredo in last year’s Tour, and serving a five-month doping ban after he tested positive for methylhexanamine in June 2010, became the first survivor of a long break to win a stage. He held off a challenge from another rider who knows a thing or two about doping bans, Alexandre Vinokourov, who attacked over the Croix St Robert in pursuit before fading on the final climb.

And just behind the favourites, Thor Hushovd, whose tenure of the yellow jersey has lit up the Tour like the midnight sun, rode with courage and grit to hang onto them. He finished in a group of 22 riders who stretched like elastic from the finish line 30 metres down the road, but didn’t break, giving them all the same time.

Up the steep and wide final climb, it was as if two races were going on. Contador and Evans both made accelerations, and each time the Schlecks spot-welded themselves immediately to their back wheels. The reactions were so quick, it looked more like reflex than tactics. Meanwhile, when Philippe Gilbert and Damiano Cunego made attacks, the favourites blithely let them go, unconcerned.

But while Contador, the Schlecks and Evans (and the posse of riders following them up the climbs), wait interminably for something to happen, others performed heroics. Who, apart from the Norwegian himself, would have suspected Thor Hushovd could have stayed in the yellow jersey through the Massif Central?

Tejay Van Garderen rode himself into the polka dot jersey, while Gilbert took back the green jersey more and more people believe he can carry to Paris. It was a day that promised a great show, but in the end it was the bit part players who provided the entertainment.

The template of this Tour continued to be adhered to, with nine riders escaping in the first 10 kilometres. For once, there were some new teams represented – Sky are now on Plan B, and they joined their first attack of the race, sending Xabier Zandio into the group. The other eight riders were the move’s instigator Christophe Riblon (Ag2r), plus Costa (Movistar), Van Garderen (HTC), Julien El Fares and Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha), Addy Engels (Quick Step) and Cyril Gautier (Europcar).

Behind, BMC paced the bunch five minutes behind the escapees, but it was only when Astana moved to the front in the run-up to the Croix St Robert, that the pace really increased.

And while the lead group disintegrated on the climb, Astana took advantage of the peloton’s conservatism with the oldest trick in the book, the one-two. Paolo Tiralongo left the bunch, then Alexandre Vinokourov countered, joining forces with Tiralongo over the top. Two Sky riders, Juan Antonio Flecha and Zandio, dropped from the leaders, came along for the ride, and suddenly Vinokourov’s looked like a dangerous move, all the more so when the bunch let his lead over them expand to almost a minute.

BMC took responsibility for the chase, and as the rain started to fall again, the stage turned into a three-way pursuit. At the front, a surviving quartet of escapees – Van Garderen, Costa, Riblon and Gautier, showed what bike racing can be by repeatedly turning on each other, attacking until they were spent. Between 15 kilometres to go and six kilometres to go, Riblon attacked three times, Van Garderen twice, Costa twice and even Gautier, who looked wasted, clung on, then had a go himself.

Costa’s second, with 5.7 kilometres to go, was the killer. Van Garderen tried to close the gap, but the group had broken itself to pieces. Behind, BMC led the bunch, with Robert Gesink yo-yoing off the back. And in between, the Vinokourov group was also shedding members as the Kazakh closed in on the leaders.

Both Costa and Vinokourov had divested themselves of all their companions by the bottom of the final climb, a heartbreakingly straight stretch of one-in-10. But the bunch were close. Close enough to absorb Vinokourov.

Not Costa, however. The Portugese rider took his first Tour stage win a year to the day after his fight with Barredo in Montargis. Evans sprinted in behind Gilbert for third place, with all the favourites except Gesink in close attendance. Van Garderen was well behind by the finish, but he had the consolation of taking a popular lead in the king of the mountains classification.

And so the phoney war continues. While the lead group showed how entertaining racing can be, the blows exchanged in the GC in eight days of racing at the 2011 Tour are no more effective than those between Costa and Barredo in their finish line scrap last year.

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