By Shane Stokes
Proving that his performance on Stage 8 to Tignes was not a fluke, former Alpe d'Huez stage victor Iban Mayo (Saunier-Duval) showed that he is one of the contenders for final Tour victory this year when he finished fifth into Briançon and protected his third place overall. Mayo was part of a leading group of favourites which went clear on the hors categorie Galibier climb, and fought it out in the sprint for second place at the end of the tough stage.
He crossed the line 42 seconds behind stage victor Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), and four seconds behind fellow GC contenders Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto). Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) was just ahead of him in fourth place.
Mayo was in followed home by race leader Michael Rasmussen and remained 2'39 behind the Danish rider in third overall. Linus Gerdemann, who had started the day second in the general classification, dropped back to 16th. Valverde took over as closest challenger to Rasmussen, and is four seconds ahead of Mayo thanks to the time bonus he picked up at the line.
Mayo was assisted by team-mate Juan Jose Cobo on and after the Galibier and said that he was happy with how things went. "I'm satisfied with this stage, taking into account that I've been feeling cramping pains since I began to climb the Col du Galibier," he said. "I even thought of stopping to stretch it out, as I couldn't stand on my bike. But then I decided against this and chose to ride on, without joining in the changes of pace in the last part of the ascent. It turned out to be the right decision.
"With a big help from Cobo, I managed to finish among the favourites," continued Mayo. "Having a teammate assisting me was crucial, since we all knew that victory was out of the question and thus chased Contador and Evans. In the final climb to Briançon, I forgot about the cramps and gave it the full gas. The final stretch showed that we were all equally strong."
The ninth stage continued the process of elimination, with Alexandre Vinokourov and Astana team-mate Andrey Kashechkin amongst those to lose serious time and, perhaps, their chance at overall Tour glory. Mayo has himself been in this position before and said that he was happy with his consistency thus far.
"As I've already said, you can fail in any stage during the Tour," he stated. "Today we saw how big guns like Moreau, Schleck, or Kashechkin were not in the same shape as in Tignes. In my case, I didn't expect to be in one of the leading spots after the Alpine stages, so I'm very glad. The next decisive stage is the time-trial in Albi (stage 13), but I don't think it will change much. Except for Klöden, there are no big time-trialists in the leading positions. So then it will be the Pyrenees that will decide who'll win this Tour de France."