Good morning Cyclingnews readers, welcome to what should be an exciting ninth stage of the Tour de France! We are heading into the Pyrenees today, with the high mountains certain to give more of an insight into who are the riders in top form in this year's race.
While we've already had an individual time trial and the summit finish of Super Besse, the next two days will entice the big guns to play their cards and try to gain time on each other. The first week of the race is ending; time to start thinning out the list of contenders!
20km remaining from 224km
There was already a flurry of activities, right from the start. A first escape group contained David Moncouti
32km remaining from 224km
Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner) and Nicolas Jalabert (Agritubel) are clear, having attacked at km 22. They have quickly opened a gap, gaining 1'20 on the peloton in ten kilometres.
Breakaways are often given a bit more leeway in the mountains, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the big riders are often focussing on each other and gaining time in the fight for yellow, rather than necessarily thinking of the stage win. In addition to that, the best climbers can rapidly close gaps towards the end of the stage. Even if a break has a lead of several minutes starting these big climbs, it doesn't mean they will stay clear.
Of course, those up the road won't be thinking that way. They know that they are clocking up valuable TV time for their sponsors, and will also keep their fingers crossed that they will be given enough leeway to build a big buffer before the fireworks start behind.
The first bonus sprint took place 29.5 kilometres after the start in Toulouse. Aleksandr Kuschynski took the six points there, leading Nicolas Jalabert and Sebastian Lang across the prime line.
40km remaining from 224km
At the last time check, the bunch was 1'40 back. Many riders were taking the opportunity to water the roadside plants (or mark their territory, depending on how you look at things), so that will help the trio up front gain time.
The gap has shot up over the last few kilometres, due largely to the go-slow in the bunch. The leaders now have 5'40 on the peloton.
42 kilometres into the stage comes the fourth-category C
45km remaining from 224km
None of the three riders in the break had KOM points before the start of the stage. However, with a lead of 7'30, they are going to change that for sure...
Kuschynski and Jalabert were second and third on the C
Lang was once again first to the top, taking the maximum points at the summit of the Cote de St-Quitterie. Jalabert was next, ahead of Kuschynski. The trio's efforts had seen them cover 45.7 km/h in the first hour of racing. The peloton was a considerable 9'50 behind at this point.
50km remaining from 224km
The roads are relatively flat now, with the next categorised climb 41 kilometres away. This is the Cote de Mane, another fourth category hill. The day's feed station and second intermediate sprint then follow before the fourth category Col de Buret, coming 113.5 km into the race.
59km remaining from 224km
Things will get tougher in the second half of the stage. The riders scale the third category Col de Ares (123.5km), then the first cat duo of the Col du Peyresourde (166.5km) and the Col d'Aspin (198km). The latter comes 26 fast, downhill kilometres from the end, making a good ride on those slopes very important.
It'll be possible for some riders to make up time on the descent but any large time gaps may well persist until the finish.
Right now, the three leaders are 14'20 ahead.
Lang was best-placed of the trio overall this morning, but the Columbia team of race leader Kim Kirchen will not be too worried. He was 79th overall, 22'21 back. His odds of taking yellow are pretty slim, to say the least.
69km remaining from 224km
The Euskaltel team have moved to the front of the peloton and the gap has dropped slightly. Lang, Kuschynski and Jalabert are 13'40 ahead.
Manuel from Germany writes to ask how many points are up for grabs on the various climbs of the Tour. He's keen to see if Lang could possibly take over from David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval) as the mountains leader.
Well, the points are as follows:
Lang has already picked up three points on each of the two climbs crossed thus far. If he managed to do the same on the remaining climbs (two category four, one category three and two category one ascents) today, he'd have a total of 46.
De la Fuente started the stage with 34 points, seven ahead of Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis - Le Cr
82km remaining from 224km
There's no guarantee the break will stay away for all those climbs; the gap has dropped to 11'20 now due to the efforts of the Euskaltel riders.
89km remaining from 224km
The trio are now on the C
Looking at Lang's SRM data (again, it's accessible at the top right hand corner of this page), he's right now putting out over 500 watts on the climb and has a heart-rate of over 170 bpm.
This will then drop after the summit, of course.
Lang was again first over the summit, taking top points ahead of Jalabert and Kuschynski. There's a slight descent but the profile generally continues uphill along lumpy roads.
99km remaining from 224km
With nearly 100 kilometres covered, the gap is 10'50. The leaders are plugging away on open roads, with blue skies overhead. They can see the mountains ahead of them. Euskaltel continues to lead the chase, stretching things out. The team is motivated to do something today as it's likely it will have a very big support in the Pyrenees.
The three leaders are working well together, and have passed through the feed zone. The skies are clouding over a little, with the temperatures in the mid-teens.
Crash in the peloton! Gorka Verdugo (Euskaltel-Euskadi) goes down hard. It looks as if this was not a feed zone crash, but happened right after it.
He is quickly back up and riding, though. No major damage, there.
Cadel Evans crashes, too, just moments later!
The entire Silence team drops back, while Euskaltel is still pulling on the front.
Evans' jersey is torn on the back. His shorts are also ripped on the left, over his thighs. He is bleeding on his left elbow, too.
Ok, the entire team Silence has brought Evans back. He did indeed crash in the same incident as Verdugo. He changed bikes a little later.
Apart from some scrapes and torn clothing, Evans doesn't appear too badly hurt. What was noticeable was the smoothness of his pedaling - in contrast to the rest of the Silence Lotto team who were helping him back, he appeared to be gliding on the bike. We conclude therefore that he's in very good form... Today - and particularly tomorrow's - stage will show if this is indeed the case.
Race leader Kim Kirchen sits approximately 15 riders back in the peloton. He had the race lead in the Tour de Suisse and is once again in yellow. He's having a great season thus far and will hope to ride well in the high mountains. Evans and Valverde remain on most lists as race favourites, but Kirchen must also be considered a chance for a top three placing in Paris.
What about the overall victory? Cyclingnews asked his team-mate Thomas L
123km remaining from 224km
The leaders are on the climb of the Col des Ares, nearing the summit. They are 10'53 ahead of the peloton. Mountains leader David de la Fuente is moving up here, getting ready for the sprint to the top. As this is a third category climb there will be a point up for grabs there.
Lang again leads over the top, with Kuschynski second and mini-Ja Ja third.
Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluw
Chris from the UK got in touch with his thoughts: "I'm expecting Kreuziger to join up with Kuschynski,and Sam Sanchez to attack on the descent. What do you think of Kreuziger's chances for a podium finish?"
Well, we watched him win the Tour de Suisse and he was certainly very impressive there. He's been riding strongly in the Tour de France thus far, and started the day 20th overall. His climbing and time trialing suggest a podium finish is possible, but we are inclined to think that he may be a little young this year, as he's 22.
That said, second in the Tour de Romandie and first in the Tour de Suisse point to a major talent. Sticking our necks out, let's say that a top ten overall this year is possible, and would be a very good debut in the race.
Heinrich Haussler (Gerolsteiner) told Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown before the start about his plans. "It depends on the way the bunch is going to ride: if they attack or let a group go that is down on the GC. I hope the weather stays good and it does not rain."
Did he hope to get into an escape? "Yes, if we get a good group together, with guys that are well enough back in the GC. Otherwise I will just get into the gruppetto and try to save energy."
140.4km remaining from 224km
Roman Feillu (Agritubel) and Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis) had gone clear at the top of the last climb but were recaptured soon afterwards. The peloton is exactly ten minutes back now.
Robbie McEwen went back to the doctor's car for a chat. He didn't appear too distressed, so perhaps he's got stomach trouble or an ache somewhere.
Meanwhile Silence Lotto team-mate Cadel Evans also drops back to the doctor. He's having his wounds looked at.
It doesn't look too serious - the doctor is putting liquid on the cuts. He also checks out his shoulder.
Evans will certainly need a new jersey...it's pretty shredded around the right shoulder.
Euskaltel continues its long lonely slog at the front of the peloton. They are not really making much inroads into the break, which remains ten minutes clear.
Evans returns to the peloton and sets about moving back up the bunch.
One of the pre-race favourites, Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank), analysed the stage ahead. "It is an important day," he told Gregor Brown. "It is the first day in the mountains and a big expectation for everyone because it is a big chance compared to the last days
The Columbia team of race leader Kim Kirchen sit behind the orange train the bunch. It's a big day for them today; if he can defend his lead in the Pyrenees, that will boost his confidence.
Gerard Porte is a busy doctor today; Alejandro Valverde drops back. His right leg is bandaged, presumably due to his crash on stage five, and he is getting something sprayed on it.
He doesn't look uncomfortable, and rides back into the peloton.
Carlos Sastre also wants to ride well today. He started the stage 12th overall, 1'34 back, and knows he must start moving up the GC.
He's pedaling smoothly in the bunch, using distinctly non-round chainrings. We guess they are the same ones that team-mate Bobby Julich uses, but are not certain.
152.5km remaining from 224km
Australian Simon Gerrans (Cr
Bernhard Eisel also chatted to Cyclingnews at the start, telling Brecht Decaluw
153.6km remaining from 224km
The three leaders have started the Col de Peyresourde. The peloton is 9'48 back, and is bunching up.
156.8km remaining from 224km
The autobus is getting ready to drive; Eisel, Mark Cavendish (Team Columbia) and McEwen have all been dropped. Another sprinter, Jimmy Casper (Agritubel) is also living on borrowed time..
Funny...a roadside speed detector kindly informs the leaders that they are travelling at 16 km/h. Lang leads, and appears to be the strongest. He has done most of the work thus far.