Rest day: Verbier
After a week featuring breakaways, some rainy days, a bit of heat in the points kitchen and another clash between America's two teams, the first day in the Alps may have provided a few answers for those wondering who will rise to the ascendency in this year's Tour de France.
Records were equalled, tears were shed - for all the right reasons - a couple of old stagers managed to reap the rewards for years of toil and one of the brightest lights in the sport came to the fore with a sizzling display over the final five kilometres ahead of the peloton's second rest day. At the end of the Tour's second week, the complexion of this year's race took on a distinctly blue hue, with the first five riders on general classification after the finish in Verbiers donning a blue uniform, albeit in varying shades.
Like it has done throughout the past fortnight, Astana continues to dominate proceedings at the head of the leader board with three riders in the top five - Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden - while Garmin-Slipstream's Bradley Wiggins and Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck have obstinately placed themselves as roadblocks to an Astana sweep of the overall classification.
There's also plenty to play for in the three other classifications - points, mountains and best young rider - and while the next week will be about the overall contenders, the past seven days have seen heat on those harbouring ambitions of wearing a different jersey come the race's arrival in Paris. Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd have been battling in earnest for the maillot vert while Euskaltel-Euskadi's Egoi Martinez and Liquigas rider Franco Pellizotti have gone toe-to-toe for the right to wear polka dots.
Let's take a look at highlights of the second week of racing in this year's Tour de France.
Cav can do no wrong - stage 10: Limoges - Issoudun
With Columbia-HTC's hopes of a strong overall showing fading rapidly after the first week, the team's full attention turned to getting its sprinter into the green jersey for good. How best to do that? Win more stages!
The 194.5km journey from Limoges to Issoudun provided the perfect opportunity to do just that and like clockwork the yellow train did what it does best: deliver Cavendish to the line. Cavendish did what he excels at and won the sprint, another superb performance relegating Hushovd to also-ran again, although the big Norwegian retained the green fleece for another day.
The lack of race radios was the big talking point of the day. Bob Stapleton's squad proved it doesn't need them to organise another sensational win, the teamwork apparent so far from his riders seemingly a wonder of Extra Sensory Perception (acronym on the back of a postcard, please).
Cavendish equals Hoban's record en route to green - stage 11: Vatan - Saint-Fargeau
Cavendish came into this year's Tour de France sporting an ambition and the weight of expectation of a British cycling public craving success on the road. There had been three occasions for them to cheer about thus far in the race and Cavendish provided a fourth with victory in Saint-Fargeau.
In the process he equalled Barry Hoban's record for a British rider, although the 24-year-old wasn't too fussed about it, preferring instead to focus on the race for green. He had succeeded in moving ahead on that front, despite the uphill finish that appeared to favour his rivals.
Sørensen secures long-service bonus - stage 12: Tonnerre - Vittel
Hailing from the same town as Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis, Nicki Sørensen is riding his seventh Tour de France in his usual role of domestique. He has a job, he does it well... and the road to Vittel was Nicki's time to shine on a brilliantly sunny day.
Having endured a nervous stage the day before, most of the peloton was content to let the break amass a solid lead, which it did, leaving the win to be fought out amongst seven riders who managed to get clear after 80km.
The Dane proved the power of the workers, with a stunning attack late in the stage and unlike the majority of occasions, this time Sørensen's efforts were for himself. "It's a thing I'm going to carry with me forever," he said after his maiden Tour win. "I was in good shape and mentally, I was on top of things today. The tactical part, I did myself."
Haussler's big day out - stage 13: Vittel - Colmar
A pair of second-places during the Spring - in Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders - indicated that Heinrich Haussler has the appetite for tough days in the saddle. A stage win in the Vuelta a España proved he has the pedigree in Grand Tours. On a wet, cold day to Colmar, the Australian-born German combined these to secure an emotional victory.
His head in his hands at the finish, tears of joy mixing with the rain on his face, Haussler soloed in more than four minutes ahead of the peloton after spending the final 40km alone in the tough conditions. There was no doubt it suited him, though. "I knew because it was so cold and it was raining, he [Chavanel] would get weaker towards the end, because this is my type of weather and I just love it," he said.
Might and power from Russia's finest - stage 14: Colmar - Besançon
During the earlier part of this decade there was an Australian racehorse renowned for its staying power and brilliant finishing kick named 'Might and Power'. It was a hit with racing aficionados and the average punter alike thanks to its combination of strength, smarts and dare.
On the road to Besançon, Russian rider Serguei Ivanov displayed those same attributes when he kicked with less than a dozen kilometres remaining to outgun an illustrious break. Katusha's experienced campaigner added to his Aix-les-Bains victory in the 2001 Tour with victory in the beautiful French town to go with his Amstel Gold win and Russian national road title won earlier in the season.
Behind him, Columbia-HTC’s George Hincapie, who had ridden in the break, was fighting hard to remain in contention for the yellow jersey, eventually missing out by a mere five seconds, the deficit apparently caused by Garmin-Slipstream's chase in the closing kilometres, which effectively set off another war of words between the two American outfits. A little backstage drama from the home of Hollywood.
Sensational six-shooter - stage 15: Pontarlier - Verbier
We've seen the celebration before - Alberto Contador forms a pistol with thumb and forefinger and fires off an imaginary shot. In the Swiss skiing town of Verbier however, the Spaniard emptied the chamber with added vigour, his win an exclamation mark on the well-worn phrase, 'I'm the man!'
He's the man for the Tour de France title, thanks to an attack in the last five kilometres of the 207.5km journey from Pontarlier to Verbier, reminiscent of the moves that effected his lead in the 2007 Tour. Having maintained his composure and focus in the face of intra-team intrigue, Contador's lightness on the pedals belied the power of his attack and the severity with which it punished the field.
With a lead in excess of 90 seconds and a day's rest in his legs, he's certainly the man to beat.
The long and winding road...which mainly heads uphill
Contador's lead has to survive a punishing final week that includes two more Alpine stages scattered with first-category climbs, a time trial and Mont Ventoux. It's a daunting prospect for any rider with hopes of performing well, and to borrow a well-worn cliche, 'Only the strongest will survive'.
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