By Brecht Decaluwé in Bagnères-de-Bigorre
The big guns established a sort of cease fire during the first mountains stage, number nine, in the Pyrenees. They raced knowing that tougher times will follow on Monday in stage 10, which will scale the 2,115 metres high Col du Tourmalet and then finish at the Hautacam ski resort after almost 16 kilometres of climbing at an average gradient of 6.8 percent.
After analyzing the first mountain stage, Quick Step Director Sportif Dirk Demol predicted fireworks for Monday.
"The race stayed [in stage nine Sunday] - as was to be expected - closed," said Demol. "Euskaltel was very active early on in the race, but then they missed out in the breakaway of three riders. Euskaltel took responsibility so that they would be able to fight for the stage win, and too bad for them, it didn't work out, but you don't know that beforehand"
"It was good that at least Euskaltel started chasing. We're riding in the Pyrenees, and that's where that team is always trying its best. The team has a lot of fans here," Demol explained Euskaltel's hard-working tactics.
About fifty riders finished in the first peloton after winner Riccardo Riccò. "It was predictable that a big group would stay together," said Demol. "Tomorrow it will be all split up. I didn't expect that Riccò would keep his lead - even though he jumped away unbelievably fast - since the last ten kilometres were really tough.
"It's clear that the favourites were saving their energy. I expected more from teams like Euskaltel, CSC and possibly Caisse d'Epargne, who might have, for instance, sent a guy like José Ivan Gutierrez up the road," said Demol. "Clearly everybody fears tomorrow."
Erik Breukink, Rabobank's Director Sportif, shared Demol's opinion. "You can't compare the combination Peyresourde and Aspin with the Tourmalet and Hautacam," said Breukink. "It's going to be a stage where you can make the difference if you're good. That final climb is so tough that gaps will be created."
According to Breukink, Sunday's winner Riccò was able to sneak away because he was behind on the GC by nearly four minutes. "Riccò had the advantage that the general classification riders didn't react because it was still a while to go, and because he's far away in the general classification," said Breukink, "then again, he didn't lose time in the descent which means he was very strong."
Team Columbia's Director Sportif Rolf Aldag didn't order his team to defend Kim Kirchen's yellow jersey in Sunday's stage. He said he didn't have the team to do so, especially as most teams were saving their energy for Monday's stage.
"Other teams defended our jersey today," said Aldag. "We didn't ride [for it] at all, and Euskaltel took over and kept the gap. [Sebastian] Lang did a good job and really deserved the stage win today; he was caught so close to the top of the Aspin.
"Several teams stepped in and we found the limits of our climbing capabilities today," said Aldag. "We had only two riders in a group of about forty riders. We can't set a pace with our team that guarantees that there are no attacks, nor can we get back to the favourites who do attack.
"Everybody got stuck with the attack from Riccò," said Aldag. "If a team wanted to win, they had to ride. Many favourites probably hoped that somebody would lose his nerves by attacking like crazy. Ideally that would been brought back at one kilometre from the finish, and the rider would be dead for tomorrow. It was a little bit of gambling, and I don't think the teams played all their cards today."