When Cyclingnews spotted Luis Leon Sanchez at the start of stage eight in Andorra La Vella, he was circling around the team bus, warming up his muscles for the 23km-long climb that was the starter of the second Pyrenean day's menu. The Spaniard was then 4:10 minutes back on the overall classification - a good bet for today's breakaway?
"Yes, today is a beautiful day," said Sanchez when asked if he planned to attack on a stage that suited his abilities. "But I suppose a lot of guys want to get in the break, so it will be complicated. Still, I'll try to be up there and go for the stage victory."
And so he did. After joining the day's escape group which formed after the first climb, the Caisse d'Epargne rider not only let his legs do the talking, but also rode with his head to take victory in a three-man sprint in front of Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel).
Together with Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R La Mondiale), the three riders formed as the remnants of the break day's break formed on the descent down to Saint-Girons.
Efimkin attacked and held an advantage of a handful of seconds for the last three kilometres, but it didn’t last. "I knew that Efimkin had no other choice than to attack," said Sanchez.
"I know him well because he used to be one of my teammates. He's not very fast [in a sprint], so I knew he was going to attack from a long way. I told Astarloza and Casar that we had to get him back. I needed a bit of luck but I know I’ve got a good sprint so I was able to take the win."
The Spaniard rode onto Casar's wheel as the latter went for the line with 300 metres to go but the Frenchman misjudged his effort, and Sanchez was able to come through in the last few metres. "It's never easy to control a sprint," he said. "But I kept a cool head because I already had the experience from last year. It wasn't easy - it's never easy, especially in the Tour."
It was Sanchez’s second stage win after the Spaniard won stage seven of the 2008 Tour.
Moreover, the 26-year-old had targeted this particular stage when he first saw its profile in the road book. Before racing the Route du Sud, Sanchez reconnoitred the course. "I knew it was a stage that suited me. I also lost some time yesterday so I knew I was going to have a bit more freedom," he said.
This win gives Caisse d'Epargne something to cheer about, after their leader, Oscar Pereiro, pulled out of the race today.
After Alejandro Valverde was refused a place in the race, Pereiro’s departure is the second setback for the squad. Valverde's ban in Italy shook up the whole team's order before the start of the event in Monaco.
"It was a hard moment to overcome, because we established our race programme in November and I was supposed to concentrate on the first part of the season - as I did, with the Tour Med, Paris-Nice and Basque Country - whereas he was supposed to give everything for the Tour.
“As he couldn't participate, we really lost the centrepiece of our team. It wasn't easy to reorganise," said Sanchez, who had an excellent start to the season, adding both the Tour Mediterranéen and Paris-Nice to his growing palmarès.
The 25-year-old will now become the Caisse d'Epargne leader, sitting in 11th place on general classification, 2:16 minutes back - a perfect position to attempt a good overall placing in Paris two weeks from now.
"It's going to be difficult to reach the top five, but we will fight. With Oscar abandoning today, there is one rider less but I'm sure my teammates will support me now," he said.
"Last year, I felt great in the first week, less great in the second and I really suffered during the third week. This is why we changed my preparation, making me race less before the Tour to see how I was going to be the third week. In the future, I would like to find out if I can win the Tour one day."
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