What we learned at La Planche des Belles Filles

Hit your rivals when they don’t expect it, and hit them hard.

So much for a tentative first nosey in the mountains. Team Sky wasted no time in stamping their authority over the Tour de France – on a medium mountain stage in the Vosges.

The relentlessly-high pace set on the final climb, reducing the lead group to a handful, had one journalist in the press room likening it to US Postal and Armstrong’s mountain men.

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But it wasn’t subtle – it was never going to be. This was an impressive extension of the model Sky have adhered to for the rest of Wiggins’s stage race wins this season.

La Planche des Belles Filles is a tough first significant climb of the race too, going up in steep steps. But at six kilometres, it was thought too short to cause major ruptures.

It was the ferocious pace set by Team Sky that did the damage – and the attrional process started on the false flat before the climb.

When they rocketed past us, standing outside the press room, with eight kilometres to go, the bunch was already split and the poker faces had already tumbled.

Here’s what we can learned from the Tour’s seventh stage:

Team Sky have by far the most strength in depth.
Would other teams bring the fight – or more resistance – after Sky’s Dauphine dominance? Not today.

The Sky leadout heading into the climb wouldn’t have been out of place on a flat stage for Mark Cavendish.

But having compromised the world champion’s Tour, this was what they were waiting for. Edvald Boasson Hagen almost single-handedly brought the break back from a minute’s freedom, then Michael Rogers took over at the foot of the climb.

As riders started to go out the back, Richie Porte did the real damage. In him and Froome, Sky have moulded riders to Bradley Wiggins’s strengths: at a steady, searing pace. Get used to that combination over the next few weeks.

No other team compared today. Rivals Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali were isolated early on, as key domestiques Van Garderen and Ivan Basso went backwards.

The fact that Sky engineered this coup so early was also surprising. Make no mistake, Team Sky wanted the yellow jersey today. They must feel capable of defending it all the way to Paris, if they have to.

Emerging with a British stage win – seeing “helper” Chris Froome drop back then accelerate past must have been a psychological blow for Cadel Evans – made it a plan executed more perfectly than Sky had perhaps dared to dream.

This was one of the most memorable performances in British cycling’s history. Just how fondly it will be remembered depends on the final classification in fifteen days time.

Opportunistic racing is back.
With the time-trial 48 hours away, we wouldn’t have blamed Sky and Wiggins for riding passively this weekend.

But this was the perfect opportunity to distance rivals reeling from a week of crashes in northern France and force the strongest riders to show themselves.

The riders made the race today. It was refreshing to see Sky riding so opportunistically, roughly hammering this medium mountain stage into the shape they wanted.

Credit must go to ASO for serving up a tough stage. The 25-degree heat and heavy, coiling Alsatian roads made it a deceptively wearing day.

We may well have glimpsed the final Tour podium today.
We’re only a week in, but will  the pre-race Big Three – Wiggins, Evans and Nibali – be the podium in Paris?

In the latest act of arbitrary misfortune to befall a leader, Lotto Belisol man Jurgen Vandenbroeck likely lost his shot at the Tour victory through a puncture, eleven kilometres from the finish, just as Sky reached warp speed on the front of the bunch. It seemed to take an age to get going again.

Then his head fell off. Rather than waiting for teamates, Vandenbroeck embarked on a panicked weave through backmarkers and onto an already-fractured tail of the peloton.

He was out of gas on the climb’s first stretch and rolled across the line with Cancellara, who had conversely dosed his effort adroitly.

As for Denis Menchov? The violence of his bonk was revealing. The Katusha captain lost 50 seconds to the leaders in the final 1,800 metres. He’s a strong time-triallist, but he may prove steady but limited in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Rein Taaramae can be the race revelation.
It looks like France will be cheering for an Estonian for the next two weeks.

Taarmae had the most impressive ride of the front group, given his turbulent season. The 25 year old was diagnosed with mononucleosis in March. Five weeks later, he broke his elbow.

He’s not just a climber either: Taaramae was ninth in the long, race-deciding Grenoble time-trial at last year’s Tour on the way to 11th overall, when his strongest rides interestingly came in the third and final week.

He’s come a long way from this memorable bonk at the 2009 Vuelta, his first Grand Tour.

It’s all looking rather unfortunate for me, seeing as Cycle Sport deputy editor Ed Pickering bet me pre-race that Taaramae would finish in the top ten.

Garmin aren’t licked yet.
With crashes galore and the focus of the Tour’s media over co-operation with USADA in the Armstrong case, could the first week of the race have gone any worse for cycling’s Crazy Gang?

If yesterday, where GC option Ryder Hesjedal crashed out, was their nadir, their response today was brave and suggests more is to come.

They had a pair – their least wounded riders, probably – on the front coming into the final climb, working for Daniel Martin.

The Birmingham-born Irishman could yet be the team’s Tour salvager in the high mountains. They need something to smile about, after all.

Related links

Wiggins takes yellow as Froome wins stage