By Brecht Decaluwé in Super Besse
Riccardo Riccó came to the Tour de France hunting for a stage win, and on the climb up the extinct volcano at Super Besse, the Saunier Duval-Scott rider achieved his goal. Riccó, who at 24 already has three Giro d'Italia stage wins and a second place overall in the Italian Grand Tour, lost time on stage three into Nantes as well as the time trial in Cholet, and discounted any notion that he would contend for the yellow jersey in Paris.
"I'm not chasing the general classification in the Tour de France," said Riccó. "I had enough stress in the Giro d'Italia in which I battled for the general classification. My goals in the Tour are to gain experience and to win a stage.
"Now that I achieved that goal, I'll watch from day to day. If the occasion arises, I'll certainly try to win another stage," he said. "My victory gives me confidence for the Pyrenees and the Alps. It will be different over there, as much will depend on my form; a lot of riders specifically prepared to be good in the Tour de France."
Despite being an Italian, Riccó figured a stage win in the Tour de France had more value than all his previous performances in the Giro d'Italia. "The Tour de France is the most important race in the world. A victory in the Tour receives recognition everywhere. Winning a stage in the Giro as an Italian is most rewarding as well, but the Tour is more prestigious."
As preparation for the Giro d'Italia, the 24 year-old Riccó had aimed to be in good form for the Wallonian Spring Classics like Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the Giro d'Italia, Riccó witnessed an incredible performance by last year's Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Astana). The Spaniard had come straight from the beach to the Giro with few expectations, but he took the overall win.
In a way, Riccó has adopted Contador's easygoing Giro approach at the Tour. "It's true that I'm totally relaxed over here. After the Giro I rested for a week before I started going out on training rides again. Maybe it works," Riccò said.
The finish up Super Besse was a tumultuous one, but Riccó seemed in control. He kept watch on his rivals on the long 10km climb toward the finish as he followed the wheel of Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). He didn't panic when Christian Vande Velde (Team Garmin-Chipotle) accelerated; instead, team-mate Leonardo Piepoli covered the American's effort.
Riccó timed his sprint perfectly: Valverde had been forced to the front and was waiting to go, which forced Fränk Schleck (Team CSC - Saxo Bank) to start the sprint as yellow jersey Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) laid on the pavement after his crash - all of which unfolded 300m from the finish line. While Schleck struggled with the headwind at the right side of the road, Riccó powered away on the left towards victory. Afterward, Riccó explained how Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne team had done a great job in controlling the breakaway, setting up the battle for the stage victory.
"I was happy to see that Valverde's team started pulling to keep the breakaway group under control with 45 kilometres to go to the finish line. His team did a perfect lead-out, but when [Oscar] Pereiro dropped with 300 metres to go, I noticed that Valverde hesitated to start the sprint, probably because of the headwind.
"I decided this was the moment to go," Riccó said before crediting his team-mate's efforts. "I have to thank Piepoli for all the work he did to help me."