Wow! The first truly hilly day of the 2011 Tour de France was the first one won by a breakaway, but it was close, with Rui Costa only holding off those attacking from the peloton on the steep slope to Super-Besse by a bit over 10 seconds. Let’s see what happened on the way there:
- Rui Costa and HTC’s young Tejay Van Garderen began trading attacks out of their four-person breakaway-remnant as early as the punultimate climb. Costa, with a few years’ experience on Van Garderen, let Tejay do much of the chasing when Europcar’s Jean Paul Gaultier and AG2R’s Christophe Riblon joined in the attacking. Cheers, though, to Tejay – 22 years old and riding in his first Tour de France, just to be attacking and fighting for the stage win is impressive. He was rewarded with the King of the Mountains jersey for his efforts.
- The stage win is a boon for Movistar. They’ve been beset by well-publicized difficulties – foremost among them, the death of Xavier Tondo and the terrible injuries to Juan Mauricio Soler. Costa’s win today (as well as J.J. Rojas’s commendable battle with Phillipe Gilbert for the Green Jersey) must be nice for the team.
- Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov leapt from the peloton on the Col de la Croix Saint-Robert to join Paolo Tiralongo and Juan Antonio Flecha in a committed pursuit of the breakaway up the road. Vino was in pursuit of the yellow jersey and came close, blowing through the breakaway in pursuit of Costa, but he faded on the second of the two-step climb to the finish and failed to get either. Disappointing, especially by a tactically savvy move by Astana.
- Behind Costa, fireworks went off in the peloton on the final climb. Many of the notables were at the front: Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, the Schleck brothers, Jurgen Van den Broeck. It was Phillipe Gilbert, though – Phillipe Gilbert! – who attacked in a huge gear and used his considerable power to blow a hole through the climb to finish second and reclaim the Green Jersey from J.J. Rojas. Behind, Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez, Peter Velits, Dries Devenyns, and Damiano Cunego responded for top-ten placings while Contador and the Schlecks began a staring contest that would last through the finish line. Kudos to Devenyns (he’s been close to the front on several difficult finishes this Tour and is Quick Step’s redemption this Tour) and Velits, who in a few years ago will surprise people who haven’t been paying attention to his considerable talent and potential.
- One absent notable was Rabobank’s Robert Gesink, who was dropped on the way up. Is he affected by the crashing in recent days? Certainly, being dropped this early is not part of his plan to fight for a top 5, and he’ll suffer for losing 1:23 today. One who was notably present, on the other hand, was Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, who put in an appearance at the front of the field for the first time this Tour.
- In an absolutely stunning display of power and determination (or, if you’re a bicycle sponsor, a display of the benefits of the latest aero road frame), Thor Hushovd hit the slopes of the final climb with the GC contenders and finished with the lead group, keeping the yellow jersey for one more day. It’s said that wearing Yellow gives one some extra strength with which to defend it – Thor’s incredible performance is proof.
From our point of view it was an incredible stage. Tomorrow’s Stage 9 features three Category 2 climbs, three Category 3 climbs, and two Category 4 climbs, which should help a breakaway stay away, possibly provide a late launching pad for some of the Tour’s puncheurs, and help those with serious GC intentions pry the yellow jersey from Thor’s mighty shoulders. With a rest day the following day, expect some fierce racing.