By Brecht Decaluwé in Montpellier
What should have been a transitional stage, one for the break to succeed or the sprinters to come to the fore, turned into a fierce battle for the riders in the green and yellow jersey classifications thanks to the Astana team tactics on the day. As the riders headed northwest around the Mediterranean sea from Marseille to Montpellier, they were buffeted by strong cross winds, and the winds proved to be decisive when the Astana team surprised the peloton just after the feed zone in the Camargue with an eight man team time trial effort to split the bunch.
The move put overall classification contender Christophe Moreau (Ag2r) into a bad situation along with green jersey contenders Erik Zabel (Milram) and Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole), who had to battle the winds for more than 70 kilometres, ultimately conceding more than three minutes at the line.
While the move would have been significant for Astana if more overall contenders had been caught out, moving up one step didn't seem worthy of that sort of an effort. Astana directeur sportif Mario Kummer told Cyclingnews why he decided to start the move. "First of all, I have to tell you that the initial decision came from the riders," Kummer pointed out. "Today was a very difficult day with the crosswinds, but nobody knew where the crosswinds were strong until our soigneurs said that the crosswinds after the feed zone were very strong. So I told the riders to be attentive and stay in the front over there but then 'Vino' made the decision to try something.
"He was [riding] much better than during the other days and he gave us the sign that he wanted to try something. We translated that to the other riders, and when they were together, they started the work," Kummer explained step-by-step how team Astana ended up pulling en masse up front.
It was an impressive move, but it came at the time when Moreau, who had crashed earlier on, was receiving attention from the race doctor, leading to some criticism of the team's tactics. "We didn't work because [Christophe] Moreau was behind, although we did expect that we could drop somebody. After a while we watched who was dropped and when we found out that he was dropped we continued," Kummer explained.
It took a while for Moreau to move back up, and at first, it didn't seem like his team was too concerned, but they ended up having to burn plenty of matches on what should have been a peaceful stage. Kummer didn't mind that some GC contenders, like Moreau and [Tadej] Valjavec, lost more than three minutes today, but he said that was a minor point.
"The most important thing in this situation today was that Vino got his morale back. We saw that he's back, but now we have again three strong riders for the GC," Kummer said. Kummer didn't hesitate to talk about the Kazakh's chances for the overall. "Our captain is still Vino but we will give Andreas [Klöden] a free role, with all the support from the team so he has every possibility for the GC. Yet, the man who decides within the team is still Vino."