Tour de France stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable
July 9, 2011 25 Comments
The first mountain stage of the Tour, even one of only moderate difficulty such as today’s, always results in a moment of revelation as the yellow jersey contenders are forced to reveal their hands, while the sprinters who traditionally dominate the general classification in the opening week tumble down the order faster than a skier down the slopes of Super-Besse. Movistar’s Rui Costa, the last survivor of the day’s breakaway, clung on to win the stage by just 12 seconds, as behind him defending champion Alberto Contador showed more of the vulnerability which his rivals had already glimpsed on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on Tuesday.
Van Garderen shows his potential
A nine-man break – including Rui Costa, AG2R’s Christophe Riblon, Europcar’s Cyril Gautier and promising HTC-Highroad youngster Tejay Van Garderen - formed early in the day, building a lead of 6:10. Julien El Fares (Cofidis) and Aleksandr Kolobnev (Katusha) claimed the single points on offer over the two fourth-category climbs after 65.5km and 119.5km, while the intermediate sprint in between was won by Riblon. When the peloton arrived at the sprint point, Philippe Gilbert claimed the six points for tenth place ahead of José Joaquín Rojas, with Mark Cavendish content to soft-pedal across the line in 13th to minimise his losses.
With the break’s lead reduced to two minutes at the start of the penultimate climb of the day with 31km remaining, the 6.2km, 6.2% second-category Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, Van Garderen ignited the race with a strong attack at the base of the mountain, immediately reducing the lead group to six, then three and finally just himself and Costa.
Behind them, the peloton was also subjected to attack as the main contenders remained happy just to ride tempo. One group of three went off the front, and then the polka dot jersey of Johnny Hoogerland, followed by Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha, also attacked in search of mountains points.
Costa hangs on to win as Vinokourov fails in a bid for yellow
Nearer the summit, one of the race’s big guns finally tried a serious move with designs on the yellow jersey, and it would have surprised no one that it was Alexandre Vinokourov who made it. The Kazakh veteran’s trademark solo attack quickly carried him clear of the peloton and soon saw him starting to sweep up the other attackers and the initial break’s cast-offs. Despite two previous top five finishes and four stage wins, Vino has never actually spent a day in the leader’s colours at the Tour, and a desire to do so in what is likely to be his final attempt at the race helped drive him on far enough ahead of the BMC-driven maillot jaune group to become the virtual yellow jersey on the road.
Up ahead, the two leaders were rejoined on the descent from the Saint-Robert by Gautier and Riblon, and as the quartet approached the final Super-Besse climb they started to attack each other repeatedly. It was not until Costa made a decisive kick on the early part of the climb with just under 6km to go that the group disintegrated, and the Portuguese rider kept going on his own until the finish to claim the biggest win of his career.
Behind him, Vinokourov had continued to close but the other leading contenders also upped their pace on the final part of the climb as they jockeyed for position. Gilbert accelerated on the front under the 1km banner in a late attempt to snatch the win. However, he had a problem trying to shift gears and was forced to drop back momentarily. Contador had a small but quickly aborted dig, and then tried a second time after Gilbert, who this time had successfully managed to shift into the big ring, powered over the top of him. But, not helped by a stiff headwind, the defending champion’s move lacked the explosiveness we normally expect from him. Cadel Evans was easily able to catch and overtake him, to which Contador was unable to respond. With only a few hundred metres to go to the finish, nobody decided to press the advantage further, and in the end virtually all the main contenders finished in a bunch fifteen seconds after Costa and three behind Gilbert, who was closing rapidly at the end but ran out of road.
Second place was enough to reclaim the green jersey for the Belgian champion while Van Garderen, in claiming maximum points over the top of the Saint-Robert, became the new leader of the mountains classification.
Surprisingly, Thor Hushovd finished with the leading group to retain the yellow jersey. His cause was helped by the headwinds, the steady pace and lack of full-on attacking from the main contenders, but this was nonetheless a Herculean effort from the big Norwegian, who is now guaranteed a full week in the most coveted jersey of all. Levi Leipheimer added another 14 seconds to his losses of the previous two days, while an out-of-sorts Robert Gesink, hampered by back pains after crashing on stage five, lost 1:08 on the other favourites.
Costa was both exhilarated and relieved to have held on for the victory:
Winning a stage of the Tour de France is a dream for me. I can’t believe it. Since the start of the race I’ve felt very fit. I am confident, but you never know what can be done exactly. A stage win is amazing.
Throughout the day the break worked well. When I attacked I felt that was the right time, and I was the strongest.
Then Vinokourov was right behind me, and I thought he would catch me. But I gave everything, and I managed to keep my lead. It’s great.
Hushovd was delighted to have held on to the yellow jersey for one more day against expectations:
I didn’t think I could stay in yellow after this stage, even if deep inside I had plans to try. But you know I have good form – the best form I’ve ever had – and that allows me to go really deep and get everything out of my body and of course that’s what I did again today. It gives me motivation again to keep the yellow jersey on my back.
And Contador claimed that he was feeling strong, despite the evidence on the road suggesting otherwise:
I felt really good going up the climb. I managed to follow Gilbert. But what counts most for me is to know I’ve got good legs. If there is any battle to come, I don’t think it will start till the Pyrenees.
As a neutral, it is hard to feel anything but great joy to see a Movistar rider succeed at the Tour, after a traumatic two months in which first Xavier Tondó was killed when a garage door fell on his head and then Mauricio Soler spent three weeks in an induced coma with serious head injuries suffered in a crash at the Tour de Suisse. His prognosis remains uncertain, with the spectre of long-term brain damage still a distinct possibility.
What can we conclude from this stage? For sure, Contador looked extremely vulnerable in the final kilometre, and was fortunate that the Schleck brothers remained passive and did not back up Evans’s late acceleration. They might only have gained a handful of seconds in doing so, but the psychological impact of seeing Contador dropped at the end of a week in which he has been on the back foot throughout could have been enormous.
It is possible we may look back on this as the day when the other contenders started to genuinely believe they can beat Contador in the mountains. However, it should also be remembered that on stage eight last year Andy Schleck dropped the Spaniard by ten seconds in the final kilometre of the climb to Morzine-Avoriaz, which was perceived as a sign of the champion’s weakness and yet proved to be something of a false dawn.
Stage 9 preview
The peloton must tackle eight categorised climbs on a profile which is constantly up and down after the first 40km. The toughest ascents come in the middle of the stage with a trio of second-category mountains, including the first-ever visit to the Col de Perthus (4.4km at an average of 7.9%). The cumulative effect of these climbs will test the yellow jersey contenders and break many legs in a peloton facing its ninth consecutive day of racing at the end of a tougher-than-expected opening week. If a decisive breakaway has not already escaped. the final slopes of the Saint-Fluor climb (1.6km at 6.1%) will be a perfect springboard for a late attack. It is a finish perfectly suited to an explosive climber or a classics specialist. Expect a constant succession of breaks and counter-attacks throughout the final 100km, as this will be an impossible stage for any team to control.
Stage 8 result:
1. Rui Costa (Movistar) 4:36:46
2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:12
3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:15
4. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:15
5. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:15
1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 33:06:28
2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:01
3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:04
4. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:10
5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:12
6. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:12
7. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +0:13
8. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:13
9. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:19
10. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:30
1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 187 pts
2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 172 pts
3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 153
4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 130
5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 120
1. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 5 pts
2. Rui Costa (Movistar) 5
3. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4
4. Anthony Roux (FDJ) 3
5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 2
Tour de France preview