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Team Columbia ushered its sprint captain Mark Cavendish over the rain-soaked roads of Toulouse and...
Damiano Cunego (Lampre) rolls to the finish.
Team Columbia ushered its sprint captain Mark Cavendish over the rain-soaked roads of Toulouse and to a second stage win in the 95th Tour de France. German team-mate Gerald Ciolek powered on after his lead-out to claim second over Frenchman Jimmy Casper.
"For Ciolek to finish second was beautiful," described Cavendish, 23 years old from the Isle of Man.
Not only did 'The Manx Express' have the help of Ciolek, but also team-mate and race leader Kim Kirchen. The 30 year-old Luxemburger pulled double-duty leading to Boulevard Lascrosses by helping Cavendish and keeping safe in the race leader's top.
With the last two of the four escapees hanging on by seconds, the day into France's southwestern département of Haute-Garonne was destined for a sprint win. Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale) and Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) were left for the peloton's picking with 13 kilometres remaining and only nine seconds separated Spaniard Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Frenchman Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) with five kilometres to go in the 172.5-kilometre stage.
"When I am away it always comes back," said Pineau. "I thought the escape could work until the last four kilometres. ... I will continue to attack every chance I can."
Liquigas and Crédit Agricole turned the screws on Pineau and company in the final 20 kilometres for its captains Francesco Chicchi and Thor Hushovd. The reins changed hands in the final four kilometres to Quick Step and Columbia. Led by Marcus Burghardt, Columbia finished off the escape at 3500 metres out. Belgian's Quick Step followed with a brief surge for Gert Steegmans.
"We did a lead-out for Mark by taking over at five kilometres before the finish. Everyone did their job really well. It is amazing with two stage wins and the yellow jersey," described Burghardt, the 2007 winner of Gent-Wevelgem. His lead-out was followed by Thomas Lövkvist, George Hincapie, Kirchen and Gerald Ciolek.
Lövkvist took over from Burghardt at 2200 metres, along the Rue de Lyon. Havoc plagued the Columbia train entering a right-hand turn and the final kilometre. Quick Step took control with Jimmy Casper (Agritubel) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) moving into third and fourth slot
"It was a really tight corner to the right," said Cavendish of the turn that started the last 1000 metres. "I did not panic, although I lost the wheel of Ciolek. He was three places ahead of me, but it was not a problem. I could move up and when he accelerated I had a perfect lead-out."
Freire held on for fourth over Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner), Erik Zabel (Team Milram), Steegmans, Sébastien Chavanel (Française des Jeux), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Robert Hunter (Barloworld).
"The last corner I lost seven metres and then I was no good for the sprint. I tried but it was impossible," said Spain's Freire, who took over the lead of the maillot vert from Kirchen.
Norwegian Hushovd, winner of the stage to Saint Brieuc, slipped ahead of his lead-out Mark Renshaw during the final kilometre. "It was a very fast sprint on slippery roads," Hushovd described. "I felt good throughout stage, but eventually I lacked the force to launch the sprint."
170 riders started the day after stage seven brought a few DNFs, one rider not making the time cut and one arrested on suspicion of doping. Unlike the previous days there was no intermittent rain or showers; instead, it rained from start to finish.
The action started quickly although Will Frischkorn (Team Garmin-Chipotle) was again denied to be in the move of the day. With the first climb, the côte de Loupiac, after only nine kilometres, Saunier Duval-Scott wanted to make sure that David De La Fuente would get the mountain points and he managed to do just that ahead of Simon Gerrans (Crédit Agricole) and Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
While De La Fuente sat up, Gerrans and Martínez continued off the front. But they were soon caught too and further attempts to go clear were kept in check by an attentive peloton. It wasn't until after more than 35 kilometres when Stéphane Goubert (AG2R La Mondiale) and Laurent Lefèvre (Bouygues Telecom) got ahead in a promising move. Soon it was Lefèvre by himself, and he crossed the côte de Macarou solo. Behind, De La Fuente added more points to his mountains tally, with Yoann Le Boulanger (Française des Jeux) taking third over the top.
Amets Txurruka (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Jérôme Pineau (Bouygues Telecom) countered the move, followed by Christophe Riblon (AG2R La Mondiale). After 52.5 kilometres, Lefèvre was still ahead over the top of the côte de Guioni. The trio followed 1'30 later, led by Txurruka and Riblon over the top.
The gaps and the order were the same at the sprint in Salvetat-Peyrales (km 57.5) when the bunch was already almost five minutes behind.
Over the final climb of the day, the côte du Port de la Besse (km 78.5) Lefèvre was 1'40 ahead. Txurruka was leading the break again as it crested the summit. This time, Pineau was in third, ahead of Riblon, who still got one point for the category three climb.
After 80 kilometres the break came within half a minute of Lefèvre, who had decided to wait. The junction was made at kilometre 83. The peloton kept its gap at around five minutes.
The sprint in Carmaux after 85 kilometres was taken by Riblon, ahead of Lefèvre and Txurruka. With more than 100 kilometres already raced in the rain, Riblon had had enough of his tubulars. He changed his back wheel to one with a clincher tire. Then, the peloton took the opportunity for a mass nature break, so the gap stayed fairly constant, at a good five minutes.
At 57 kilometres form the finish, Crédit Agricole decided to assist Columbia in the chase. Crédit Agricole was hoping to have Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) win the stage and stay in contention for the green jersey.
With 49 kilometres to go, a roundabout spelled trouble for some riders, who slipped when they entered into it. Jens Voigt (CSC-Saxo Bank) was one of the victims, but he calmly collected his bottles and went on. Gerald Ciolek (Columbia) also was back up quickly. However, Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott), took a long time to get going. He rode slowly for some time before picking up speed again.
The break's gap shrunk to 2'15.
Lefèvre won the last sprint in Rabastens, after 134.5 kilometres, ahead of Txurruka and Pineau.
With 33 kilometres to go and the break almost visible from the main peloton, Stéphane Augé (Cofidis) and Freddy Bichot (Agritubel) went clear, but were soon recaptured. The ever aggressive Niki Terpstra (Team Milram) was the next to give it a go. He came within 17 seconds of the break before realizing that the move wasn't going to work.
The bunch cut the gap to the quartet in front to less than a minute in the meantime, with rain still coming down hard. The break hit the 20-kilometre to go banner still some 45 seconds behind the break.
The gap didn't go down an further as of the 15-kilometre mark. The break started to believe in its chances, but also all four believed they could do better without the others, so the attacking started. Bouygues Telecom had a good shot with two riders, and under the encouragement of Didier Rous in the team car, Pineau went clear with Txurruka.
Liquigas did a lot of work in the peloton, but couldn't get much closer. With ten kilometres to go, Lefèvre and Riblon were caught. The gap to the two leaders had shrunk to 37 seconds.
When Liquigas, Crédit Agricole, Quick Step and Gerolsteiner hit the front, the gap shrunk still more and with six kilometres to it was only 21 seconds. As the duo went under the five-kilometre to go sign, the lead was just ten seconds.
With 3.5 kilometres to go Columbia took over at the front, but was then replaced by Quick Step. Despite the wet roads, the final corner more than one kilometre from the line was safely mastered by everyone. Ciolek finished the job off for Columbia by leading out Mark Cavendish to a win.
The Tour will head upwards into the high passes of the Pyrenees. Leaving the city of Toulouse, the course heads south and east over a number of small hills, until it reaches Luchon where the climbing really starts. The two first category Cols de Peyresourde and Aspin are not the toughest climbs of the Tour, but both are tough enough to punish anyone who isn't on top form. A descent to the finish should make that any gaps between the contenders small.
Bagnères-de-Bigorre features on the Tour route on a regular basis, sitting as it does at the foot of the infamous Col du Tourmalet, which the race tackles in stage 10, but has only been a start or finish town nine times before. Recently, the town has tended to feature as a start town, rather than a finish. The last time was that incredible day in 2003 when Lance Armstrong took stage victory at Luz-Ardiden. He stormed away to win alone after being brought down by a spectator's bag at the foot of the final climb, the incident leading to the "did Ullrich wait?" debate that kept internet chat rooms buzzing for years afterwards.