In the eighth day of racing, the Tour de France hit the mountains and the overall contenders came to fore. Before Bradley Wiggins (Sky Procycling) seized yellow as his teammate Chris Froome won atop La Planche des Belles Filles, Michael Albasini spent the bulk of stage seven in a breakaway.
“These next couple of days, we have given Pieter [Weening], Simon [Gerrans] and [Michael] Albasini an open card to take their chances in the mountains,” said Sports Director Matt White. “Today was going to go one of two ways. We would either see an early break stay away because teams weren’t interested in the stage with another solid day of climbing tomorrow and the time trial on Monday or the GC teams would take charge We saw at the end that the GC teams were happy to control the race.”
Twenty kilometers into the stage, Albasini’s escape group of seven formed up the road. Albasini traded pulls with Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Christophe Riblon (AG2R – La Mondiale), Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank), Dmitriy Fofonov (Astana) and Martin Velits (Omega Pharma – QuickStep) to gain a maximum advantage of six minutes. Eventually, the breakaway settled in 5:30 ahead of the field.
“The mood of the bunch and what has happened in the previous days are two of the biggest factors of many factors that determine when a break will go and who will be allowed in it,” said White. “Sometimes the move goes at kilometer zero. Other times, it can take two hours. When we want to be in a break, we have a look at the stage profile, craft a plan and identify which rider or riders we would be happy to send up the road. The riders attempting to get in a break need to ride in the top 20 until the break is established.”
“There’s a little bit of luck as well,” added White. “Some guys can sniff out a breakaway better than others. Someone like Albasini is good at sensing the mood of the bunch and understanding which break will be allowed to go.”
The first half of the stage included the intermediate sprint, which saw Matt Goss add seven points to his tally towards the green jersey. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) won the mid-stage sprint from the bunch to take eight points for eighth place. The gentle terrain featured ahead of the sprint gave way to undulating roads in the latter half of the race.
“After the intermediate sprint, if Weening thought he wanted to give it a go in the final, the sprint train was directed to put Pieter in as good of a position as possible before taking an easy ride to the finish,” explained White. “If Pieter wasn’t going to go, they were to cruise to the finish. Today, the boys took the first bus [grupetto] that formed at 20 kilometers to go.”
With his teammates settling in for the finale, Albasini fought against a shrinking gap. Down to four minutes with 40 kilometers left to race, the advantage had been reduced to 30 seconds on the lower slopes of the first category summit finish of La Planche de Belles Filles.
The 5.9 kilometer climb, making its Tour de France debut, averaged 8.5% with a 14% grade in the final 100 meters. A front group, a fraction of the size of the field that started the stage together in Tomblaine, overtook the escape group inside the last five kilometers. Team Sky put on an impressive display of dominance to distance every overall contender except Cadel Evans (BMC) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liqugas-Cannondale) en route to the yellow jersey and stage victory.
“Today’s climb was the steepest climb of the Tour,” said White. “It wasn’t very long but it was brutally steep. We had hoped Alba’s group would have a chance to fight for the stage win amongst themselves, but the field was too close at the end. The GC teams took control, and the break didn’t have a chance.
Stage eight presents the second day in the medium mountains with seven climbs before a sweeping descent to the Porrentruy finish.