Sylvain Chavanel has been on the attack more than any other rider in this year's Tour de France, and at last his efforts have paid off with his career's first Tour stage win. The Cofidis rider broke free from the peloton at the midpoint of the 165.5 kilometre stage with fellow Frenchman Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux). Riding his eighth Tour, Chavanel had the advantage over neophyte Roy, and out-powered his younger companion in the two-man sprint.
Chavanel briefly broke down in tears of joy after the finish for having finally been able to taste Tour success. "It's a big relief, and so emotional as you could see at the finish. I thought about my best friend who passed away one year ago, last year at the start of the Vuelta. So many things came out as the pressure disappeared..."
After crashing on the first stage, Chavanel was awarded most aggressive rider for his breakaway on stage two, and then again on stage six, where he took over the polka dot jersey. He tried to foil the sprinters with a late solo move on stage 13, and again the following day - both without success. He was back in the early break on stage 16 but once again was denied.
"This victory proves that if you don't give up, you can one day achieve your goal. Today was my day. I missed out several times at this Tour, and if I hadn't won today, I would have been frustrated, one more time. But I would have tried again!"
With the Tour's last day for a break to realistically stand a chance at succeeding, Chavanel had nearly given up hope for winning the stage. "I was frustrated when the first break got away and I wasn't in it. So I stayed within the first 15 to 20 riders when Liquigas chased them down, and jumped away when the break was caught.
"Jérémy Roy caught up with me and we just held on. And in the end, I proved to everyone that if you hold on, you can do it!," he said. "I didn't even attack and I didn't panic. I felt really good and I was saving myself. I gave it all in the sprint. And I didn't mess it up, like Barredo did yesterday."
Chavanel is now well on his way to winning the overall most aggressive rider competition after getting the red number for the third time. "I got more points. We will see what happens Sunday." After the final stage a panel will decide on the most aggressive rider of the entire Tour. With today's move, he passed Lilian Jégou (Française des Jeux) with most kilometres spent in a break, however Jégou had to abandon the race after crashing heavily in stage seven.
Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux) took up the aggressive style of his team-mate, Jégou, but said that getting into the break was difficult. "I had a flat tyre [just before the first break was caught -ed.] There was a big chase, but I came back. When I went to the front, I saw an opening, so I went after Sylvain."
The pair worked together to gain up to five minutes on the peloton, and weren't assured of staying clear until the final 10 kilometres. Unlike Thursday's battle between Carlos Barredo and Marcus Burghardt, the pair kept working smoothly together until the final few hundred metres.
"It's the third week and I am really tired. I just tried to hang on," said Roy. "I expected Chavanel to attack, and I thought in that case it would be really difficult to get second, with the peloton chasing." Roy said that he and Chavanel worked hard to establish the breakaway. "We really dug in deep to get the gap to one minute, as we knew that the bunch would sit up a bit when we had a minute's advantage. Afterwards, we got on well until the end. We both played fair, there was no problem."
When they arrived together, Roy gave himself "a 50-50 chance" to win. Roy positioned himself behind Chavanel - the preferred spot for the two man sprint, but just couldn't get around. "Sylvain was just stronger," he said. "In the end, I just didn't have enough explosiveness. I try to work it in training, but it's not enough."
He was clearly unhappy with the second place finish. "It's a big disappointment, even if finishing second is a great placing. In the Tour, only victories count. Nobody remembers who placed second afterwards."
The peloton, lagging behind by just over one minute, timed the chase too late. Gerald Ciolek (Team Columbia) led the group across the line ahead of Erik Zabel and all the general classification contenders. Oscar Freire secured the points leader's jersey with his 11th place finish, while Bernhard Kohl's polka dot jersey of best climber never came under threat.
Sastre tranquilo, unsuccessful teams quite the opposite
The maillot jaune of Carlos Sastre also never came under pressure, as his CSC-Saxo Bank team was undaunted by the day's brisk pace. "Today was another recovery day," said Sastre. "It was very fast in the beginning, but the team was working great and I had no trouble." With the decisive time trial looming and his lead over Cadel Evans at just 1'34", Sastre has started to focus on the day ahead, but was not nervous. "It is the opportunity of my life. It will be tough, but I am calm," he said.
"The last few days, since I won at Alpe d'Huez and took yellow, everything went very well. I am relaxed for tomorrow. I am healthy, I am in good physical condition and I am tranquilo." Even the Spaniard could not predict what would happen, but he knows what he has to do. "Of course I don't know what the outcome will be tomorrow. I am at a 100% and I will give it my all."
CSC-Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis is quietly confident in his riders, and was pleased with how the day went. "It was great, the other teams worked for us, really. At some point we were towards the front and the others stopped working. We took the front for a bit, but we weren't trying to reel the break in."
Even though the situation in the overall classification is tense, Riis shares his team leader's calm state of mind. "Tomorrow will be very exciting. We are ready to give it all. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. We are proud of the way we raced anyway."
Friday's casualties were Damiano Cunego, who did not start after crashing face-first into a concrete barricade on stage 18, as well as Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel), who fell behind the peloton and failed to make the time cut.
With time running out to win stages, the teams which have been unsuccessful so far in the Tour were keen to get into a breakaway, and the course from Roanne to Montluçon was tailor-made for a group to stay clear. With a long gradual climb from the start, followed by a relatively flat middle, the rolling approach to the finish would make a chase by the sprinters' teams difficult.
When four riders went clear on the La Croix-du-Sud, it should have been the move of the day. In it, Alessandro Ballan, whose Lampre team lost its leader this morning after a nasty crash on stage 18, Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom) were all motivated to get their teams' first stage. With the added firepower of Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher, it was a break that should have, but didn't succeed.
"I joined the escape, but unfortunately the some two or three teams were not wanting to let something work out," said Ballan. "Afterwards, it was one counter-attack after another," he said, but was philosophical about missing out. "The other teams are trying to do their own races and I am sorry my chance did not work out. Next year."
Schumacher, on the other hand, was a bit more frustrated. "I was sure after the first climb there would be a group and that would be it. We had four strong guys - Fédrigo, Ballan and Martínez. The group was working really well," he sighed. The winner of the stage four time trial in Cholet was annoyed at getting caught. "Sometimes cycling is so stupid. Three teams pull us back and the next thing two guys go and no one pulls. It was not easy. We were fighting for 75 kilometres at full speed and then two guys go, then the teams go full bore to try to pull back the escape in the last minute!"
Barloworld sent its entire team to the front at one point - all three of them sans sprinter Robbie Hunter. "I did not send anyone to the front and I had nothing to do with the decision," said Hunter. "I am giving my all for Paris."
How it unfolded
Another sunny day, with temperatures around 27 degrees centigrade greeted the remaining 149 riders. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) was the only rider not to start, following his bad crash yesterday. The start was at 13:30 and with the road tilting upwards from the start, the attacks started right away. Before the climb of the La Croix-du-Sud (category three) started, several riders were dropped, including Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel).
Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom) and Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) went the other way, storming out of the field. Steegmans tried to bridge up in the climb, but didn't manage. Over the top at km 17.5 Schumacher was first, ahead of Fédrigo, Ballan and Martínez.
The peloton was not far behind, and came over just 27 seconds later, but then allowed the foursome to gain one minute's advantage with the Liquigas team setting tempo. The second climb, the category four côte de la Croix-Rouge came after 42 kilometres. Schumacher was ahead again, preceding Fédrigo and Ballan. Martínez followed in fourth and didn't receive any points.
On the long, gradual descent the peloton was able to slowly reel in the quartet, and after 69 kilometres the break was over and the attacks began anew. Eventually it was Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis) who took off at kilometre 72. He was joined by Jérémy Roy (Française des Jeux) a couple of kilometres later. The bunch now sat up and let the duo get away.
At the feed zone in Saint-Pourcain-sur-Sioule, at kilometre 87, the gap was above two minutes. Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) and Romain Feillu (Agritubel) were still struggling behind. Christophe Brandt (Silence-Lotto) was even further back. The Belgian was ill and decided to end his Tour de France in the feed zone.
When the gap was above five minutes with 65 kilometres to go, the bunch got itchy and started to pick up the pace. Nonetheless, the break reached the sprint in Chantelle, 63 kilometres from the finish, still four and a half minutes clear. Chavanel preceded Roy across the line. In the bunch, Erik Zabel (Team Milram) went ahead to get the final two points, very much undisturbed by the field.
The gap dipped below the four-minute mark with a little more than 50 kilometres to go. But the bunch lost interest again and the gap started going back up. 47 kilometres from the line it was 4'20.
Another group was dropped on the unclassified climb, including Nicolas Vogondy and Freddy Bichot (Agritubel), Bernhard Eisel (Columbia), Marco Marzano (Lampre), Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux), Sven Krauss (Gerolsteiner), Niki Terpstra (Team Milram), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Dario Cioni (Silence-Lotto). They were some ten minutes behind the break.
The final intermediate sprint of the day was in Commentry with 22 kilometres to go. Roy rolled over the line ahead of Chavanel, the pair still working to hold off the peloton, which had begun chasing in earnest. All the sprinters' teams were at the front – Barloworld was pulling for Hunter, and Cheula managed to be ahead when they crossed the sprint line. He received two points that he was unlikely to care about.
The peloton was still almost four minutes behind at the sprint, ,and with 16 kilometres to go the gap was still just above three minutes. It took another five kilometres to dip below three minutes, clearly not falling quickly enough to bring back the leaders before the line.
With five kilometres to go and a lead of 2'30, the pair in front could be assured of a two man battle for the line. They continued to take even pulls, however, until the final 500 metres. Roy was able to force Chavanel to lead the sprint, but could not come around the more experienced rider. Just over a minute later, Gerald Ciolek (Columbia) lead the bunch home.