A low-key presence at the Tour de France to date, Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) finally showed himself on stage 10 to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, infiltrating the break of the day and then taking second place, falling just shy of catching winner Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) on the line.
Caught up in the tumult just past the finish area, Scarponi was left to ponder the whys and wherefores of a tactical finale, and he admitted that he may have erred in focusing on Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) rather than Voeckler in the closing kilometres. After closing the gap to a scant three seconds on the final drag to the line, Scarponi could be forgiven for feeling a degree of frustration at how things panned out.
"When you're in a situation like that and you don't manage to finish it off, you always end up biting your hands and asking yourself what else you could have done," Scarponi said. "In the end, maybe I watched Luis León Sánchez a bit too much. We're at the Tour and it's not easy, my breakaway companions were very strong. I waited a bit because I was the slowest sprinter in the break, and I was hoping that Luis León would bring me back up to Voeckler."
The trio were joined in the winning break by Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan), after they had all been part of a strong 25-man group that had gone clear in the opening hour of racing.
Scarponi, who is due to meet with the Italian Olympic Committee after the Tour to discuss allegations that he was trained by the controversial Dr. Michele Ferrari, has insisted from the off that his overall ambitions were limited. The Italian began the day over 10 minutes off the yellow jersey and entered the original break almost by chance.
"It was my intention to do a nice stage but, to be honest, I was thinking more of tomorrow's stage to La Toussuire really," Scarponi explained. "But I got into a nice break early on. It was a long stage, but when you're in the break it passes quickly."
The day's major obstacle was the mighty Col du Grand Colombier, the hors categorie climb which made its first-ever appearance at the Tour. With the finish line 43 kilometres from the summit of the climb, Scarponi realised that it was not a race to the top, but as the four strongmen (later joined by Voigt) pulled clear on the way up, he hoped the testing slopes would tip the scales in his favour later on.
"I knew the finish wasn't at the summit of the Grand Colombier, and that it was really a finish made for Sánchez and Voeckler," he said. "Still, I was hoping that after a long break like that, endurance would play a part too."
Voeckler himself decried that he was a marked man in the closing kilometres of the stage, and Scarponi admitted that he hoped that the deck of tactical manoeuvres would ultimately fall in his favour.
"I was hoping that the rivalry between Voeckler and Sánchez would give me a chance in the sprint, but it didn't work out like that," he said. "But in any case, Voeckler was the cleverest and the strongest today."
Scarponi's efforts see him move him up to 15th place, 7:14 off the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins. Although impressed by the strength of his Sky team to date, he warned that there is still plenty of racing to come.
"It's not just Wiggins and Froome, it's an entire team that gives an impression of strength and cohesion. They're almost unattackable," he said. "But there's still a long way to go. Right now they might seem invincible but the Grand Tours teach you that stage after stage you can invent something."