Stage win for Piepoli while Valverde and Cunego lose time
Cadel Evans today became the first Australian rider since Robbie McEwen in 2004 to wear the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, taking over from Kim Kirchen on the tough mountain stage to Hautacam. Leonardo Piepoli and Juan Jose Cobo followed up team-mate Riccardo Riccò's victory yesterday by taking first and second on the stage, hitting the line 28 seconds ahead of Frank Schleck (Team CSC – Saxo Bank).
The two Saunier Duval riders approached the line together, and had no disagreement in who should finish first. "Cobo was really thinking more in the overall [now eighth - ed.]," said Piepoli. "He has already gotten fifth or sixth at Plateau de Beille. I was a tad stronger today. I dreamt of this victory. But this is more than a dream!"
The day was also a dream for Cadel Evans, whose nightmarish stage nine crash had him starting the stage in bandages. After finishing the day with a superb ride, the Australian was all smiles at the finish. "Yesterday was terrible. I suffered a lot. My entire left side is damaged, my helmet was destroyed. I thought my Tour was over. Now, I only think of the general classification."
Despite being wrapped up like a mummy and clearly a bit stiff from his fall, Evans still managed to put in a few attacks and did a large portion of the work to keep Schleck from getting too much time. His reward was the yellow jersey by a slim one second margin. "Just like the others I hoped for yellow at Hautacam," said Evans. "To get it by a few seconds [is great], but there are still many kilometres left."
Evans was well aware that his countrymen were staying up late to watch today's stage, and was proud to deliver the yellow jersey for the fans back home. "It has been many years [to get yellow] for Australia. This is great for us."
Fränk Schleck, the Luxembourg national champion, had gone clear with the other two on the final climb after his team drove the pace for much of the finale, but lost contact in the closing kilometres, losing out on yellow by just one second. He had mixed feelings after finishing just out of the overall lead. "One second is not a lot. Maybe a turn that I could have taken differently... But I did a great stage today. It is not over yet!"
Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale) took fourth and fifth, with Riccò leading home a group 2'17 after his victorious team-mates. Carlos Sastre (Team CSC – Saxo Bank), Evans (Silence Lotto), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and an impressive Christian Vande Velde (Team Garmin-Chipotle) were also there, with the latter holding on to third place overall and confirming that he is the dark horse of this Tour de France.
Previous yellow jersey Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia) cracked on the final climb and dropped to seventh, 1'56 back. Others who lost time included Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre), both losing contact on the Tourmalet and then failing to get back on before the final climb. They finished almost six minutes behind Piepoli and Cobo and, clearly, will have a very difficult time getting back into contention.
The significant break of the day was a seven-man move which went clear from a larger escape. Those present included Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank), Hubert Dupont (AG2R La Mondiale), Markus Fothen, Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Rémy Di Gregorio, Jérémy Roy (both Française des Jeux) and Leonardo Duque (Cofidis).
Di Gregorio attacked on the Tourmalet and reached the top well clear of closest-chasers Roy, Dupont and Duque. Behind, Valverde, Cunego and several others were in trouble, with relentless driving by Jens Voigt (Team CSC – Saxo Bank) doing much of the damage. Cancellara was caught by this group and he joined with Voigt, the duo driving hard for the Schleck brothers and Carlos Sastre in order to stop Cunego and Valverde getting back on.
Freire's efforts saw him mop up the two intermediate sprints and take over from Kim Kirchen in the green jersey competition. Riccò succeeded team-mate David De La Fuente in the mountains classification, and also took over from Andy Schleck in the best young rider ranking.
Last breakaway rider to be caught, Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), revealed his weapon of today. "I used a 39x25 today. Usually, I use a 23, but Hautacam is really difficult. Also, there was a headwind today."
How it unfolded
Finally there was pleasant sunshine for the remaining 170 riders who took the start in Pau at 13:06 local time. The riders didn't enjoy it for long, though, as a large group of 24 took off before the 10-kilometre mark.
The group consisted of Yaroslav Popovych (Silence-Lotto), Iñaki Isasi (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Iván Gutiérrez (Caisse d'Epargne) Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank), Marcus Burghardt (Columbia), John-Lee Augustyn and Giampaolo Cheula (Barloworld), Hubert Dupont (AG2R La Mondiale), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Christophe Le Mevel (Crédit Agricole), Matteo Tosatto (Quick Step), Markus Fothen, Sebastian Lang and Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Romain Feillu and Nicolas Vogondy (Agritubel), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom), Sébastien Chavanel and Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), Rubens Bertogliati and David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott), Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux)
After 16 kilometres Danny Pate (Garmin Chipotle - H30) and double stage winner Mark Cavendish (Columbia) hit the deck. The latter required a bit of treatment to his left side, while Pate was back up and riding quickly.
After 23 kilometres the gap was already at almost two minutes. Fifteen kilometres later De La Fuente took the maximum four points over the top of the Côte de Benejacq. Despite being just four points behind, Sebastian Lang didn't contest the KOM, apparently thinking that the real points would be given out on the cat one climbs towards the end of the stage. Pozzato, Duque and Fédrigo took the remaining points while the peloton passed the top 1'15 back.
Freire had the clever idea of being in the early move, and added more points to his green jersey after 44 kilometres in Lamarque-Pontacq. Feillu contested the sprint and Freire slightly closed in to the right, leaving Feillu with nowhere to go. The Frenchman was slightly upset and made his feelings known to Friere while Pozzato followed in third.
After Lourdes, where some riders may have hoped for a miracle today, the front group split up and seven riders remained clear: Cancellara, Dupont, Fothen, Freire, Di Gregorio, Roy and Duque.
At kilometre 67, the break hit the Côte de Loucrup. Duque went over the top ahead of Di Gregorio, Fothen and Roy. Hushovd started to get nervous and went clear on the climb. His goal was to catch up with Freire before the next sprint, but the big Norwegian soon realised his waste of energy and sat up.
Freire on the other hand added six more points to his tally in Pouzac (km 74.5). Duque crossed the sprint line in second, ahead of Roy. Freddy Bichot was now on a counter move to catch up with the leaders.
With the two sprints over, Freire was changing shoes. Was he now using a lighter pair for the upcoming climbs?
At kilometre 95, on the climb up the infamous Tourmalet, Di Gregorio accelerated and quickly gained a minute on the others. He had a comforting eight minutes on the main bunch. Bichot came to within half a minute after his chase efforts, but when the road tilted upwards, he lost ground again.
Saunier Duval tried to make the pace hard at the back, but it was CSC that controlled the main bunch on the less steep part of the climb, sending mountains leader David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott) into difficulty and out the back.
With less than five kilometres to the top, the tempo cranked up and one by one the main group was losing riders. After his performance in previous stages, Cunego wasn't necessarily expected to hold on, but that sight of Alejandro Valverde getting dropped was certainly a surprise.
Back at the front Di Gregorio continued to rule and crested the top of the sunny Tourmalet two minutes ahead of three chasers - Roy, Dupont and Duque while the others escapees had dropped back. Fothen followed three minutes after Di Gregorio, Cancellara was another 30 seconds further back. Freire was at 4'30, while the first big chase came over the top six minutes later. Once CSC gobbled up Cancellara, they really had the numbers, with Voigt, Sastre, and the Schleck brothers all together in the group maillot jaune. Riccò and Piepoli were there for Saunier Duval, while Menchov, Vande Velde and Evans also formed part of the move.
The Valverde group was 40 seconds behind at the summit, with the Spaniard's Tour de France ambitions, and his reputation as a Grand Tour rider, gradually going up in smoke.
After a furious descent, which saw a TV camera motobike have a spectacular crash, it was Voigt and Cancellara who set the pace in the valley. With their tremendous work, the gap to the front shrunk dramatically, while the Valverde-Cunego group behind had no answer to the CSC power.
Di Gregorio had 3'19 over the yellow jersey group with a little more than 20 kilometres to go while Valverde and Co were 1'35 behind the maillot jaune group.
With 20 kilometres to go, the three chasers Roy, Duque and Dupont sat up and joined the CSC-led chasers. Di Gregorio was trying to hold on but the gap melted like snow in the mountain sun, and only two minutes now separated him from the favourites.
Di Gregorio attacked the final climb of Hautacam with only 40 seconds. Not a comfortable advantage on the final 14 steep kilometres. Sure enough, he was passed by the group of favourites soon afterwards.
Fränk Schleck was the first to put in a serious attack, knowing his compatriot Kirchen was in trouble. Piepoli joined him along with Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner), Cobo, Piepoli and Efimkin. There were now eight kilometres left to the top as the Evans group, with Riccò, Menchov, Sastre, Vande Velde and Nibali, quickly fell back to a half-minute deficit. Both Evans and Riccò tried to attack, but neither could get away.
With six kilometres to go the fun and games began. Cobo went off the front, but Schleck, with Piepoli in tow, reeled him back in. With five kilometres to go Kirchen was over two minutes back from the leaders as Evans, sensing he was close to yellow, did much of the pulling behind.
Inside the three kilometre banner and Schleck finally cracked and had to let the Saunier Duval duo ride away for the stage win. Evans continued working hard behind and crossed the line to take the yellow jersey by a single second.