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Estonian up to 4th overall after first mountain stage
The first summit finish of the Tour de France is the formal introduction to the leading actors who will grace the grandest of stages over the coming two weeks, and while the anticipated main players of Wiggins, Evans and Nibali were duly marked present and correct at La Planche des Belles Filles, there was also a curtain call for potential breakout star Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis).
Long touted as a coming force at the highest level, the promising Estonian trod the boards with hitherto unseen assurance on stage 7 on Saturday afternoon, as he formed part of an elite group with Sky pair Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, Cadel Evans (BMC) and Vinenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale).
While a tired Taaramäe ultimately gave best to the marquee names within sight of the summit, he came across the line just 19 seconds down in 5th place, and now lies 4th overall, 32 seconds off the yellow jersey of Wiggins.
Taaramäe also took command of the young rider classification, and when he descended from the podium in the white jersey, he told Cyclingnews that he was not surprised to have shared the stage with Wiggins, Evans et al.
"No, it wasn't a surprise for me," Taaramäe said. "I already have plenty of results on my CV, in races like Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, Pays Basque and Romandie. Up to now, I've never really repeated that in the Tour. But this year, I'm in better condition than last year and I could sense that in the build-up to the race."
While Sky's already familiar roll-call of pacemakers at the front on the final climb ran according to the anticipated script, the ferocity of their effort was something of an ad lib. The consensus beforehand was that a sizable group would be in contention entering the final 500 metres, but instead contender after contender exited stage left far earlier than anticipated.
"I expected Sky to put the pressure on like that, but to be honest, I did expect more riders to be in that group at the finish," Taaramäe said. "I thought guys like Menchov, Pierre Rolland and Samuel Sanchez would be up there too, but it's just one day and it's certainly not over yet."
A professional since 2008, Taaramäe's first starring roles came the following year, when he finished 3rd at the Tour de Romandie and 8th at the Tour de Suisse. That progress continued with 3rd at the Volta a Catalunya the following year, before 2011 saw him finish 4th at Paris-Nice and win a stage of Vuelta a España.
Taaramäe also finished 11th in last year's Tour de France, just missing out on the white jersey to Pierre Rolland (Europcar). Now 25 years of age, this is the Estonian's last chance to be the leading player in that particular category. "My dream is to wear it on the podium in Paris and, well, this year is the right time," he said.
Of course, the confident Taaramäe is in no mood to limit himself to a best supporting actor role at this Tour. His display at La Planche des Belles Filles has elevated him into another level, and he will hope to conjure up a repeat performance in the intriguing medium mountain stage to Porrentruy on Sunday.
"It will be hard to win that stage tomorrow, though, I'm not a real sprinter and guys like Nibali and Evans are a lot faster than me," Taaramäe said. "But one thing in my favour is that I like descents."
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Taaramäe will be back in a very familiar theatre as the Tour traverses the mighty Col du Grand Colombier for the first time. The Estonian's first big stage race win as professional came on the slopes of that very climb in at the 2009 Tour de l'Ain. Not lacking in confidence, he will hope to repeat that performance before the biggest audience of them all.