97th Tour de France
Stage 8 - Station des Rousses to Morzine-Avoriaz - 189.0 km (117.2 mi)
11 July 2010
Rare are the occasions when a sports fan really sits back and gasps at what he or she has just witnessed. Unfortunately for me, I had to race out the door after the end of Stage 8 or I would've been able to pen this sooner. But then, I also got a day to reflect upon what had just unfolded -- albeit a day that was also filled with listening to every minute of the FIFA World Cup final on the radio -- as the Tour de France took another inexplicable twist on an unpredictable 2010 edition.
It was the first summit finish of the race, the entry into the Alps and the first real test of this year's race. It was a day that saw a changing of the guard completing itself, a legend fading into obsolescence as one of the brightest young faces of the sport in years ascended toward a stage victory and a prime spot in the general classification. While other riders -- most notably Cadel Evans (BMC), who would trade his rainbow-striped jersey of the current world champion for the maillot jaune of the race leader after finishing amongst the leaders on the final climb -- would play a role, this day truly belong to two men: Lance and Andy.
A similar scenario was playing out five years ago. Then, Armstrong was racing his final Tour with Discovery Channel, the last of his seventh consecutive overall victories in the event, and it looked as they headed into the Alps as though his team might be showing some cracks in its seemingly-impenetrable armor. The ride into Mulhouse had seemed to expose their weaknesses defending their front-runner status; but then, the next stage revealed the first summit finish at Courcheval and all was righted in the world. Lance took second on that stage to reclaim the yellow jersey he has worn for 83 days at the Tour, second only to Eddy Merckx on the all-time leaderboard -- and the one man who would defeat him that day as he overtook the lead, Alejandro Valverde, would be anointed as a potential heir apparent to his mantle as the top dog in the grand tours for years to come.
Of course, nothing is ever as it seems. Valverde is now sidelined due to his involvement in the Operacion Puerto scandal, irrefutable DNA evidence leading to his belated suspension nearly four years after the doping ring was first exposed in Madrid. Another Spaniard, Alberto Contador, has appropriated the top pedestal for himself in the peloton when it comes to the biggest events over the past three years after emerging from Valverde's long-cast shadow. And over the past few years, a young man from Luxembourg has emerged as the next great threat in the grand tours.
Andy Schleck, the 25-year-old Saxo Bank rider who once again leads the white jersey competition to determine the best young rider, would bound up the mountain to Morzine-Avoriaz to take the stage win in a two-up sprint at the summit -- just like that stage back in 2005, half a decade ago and light years away in terms of what has happened since. The main difference this time around? Armstrong was nowhere in sight, well down the mountainside in a day that reaped nothing but brimstone. Schleck, along with an elite group that contained world champion Evans, defending Tour champion Contador, Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso, and Giro/Vuelta winner Denis Menchov, used Lance's misfortune -- three crashes en route would derail any plans he had of utilizing the combined strengths of his teammates and nullify any tactical edge he might have brought to the proceedings -- to their benefit as they pulled themselves nearly twelve minutes clear of the American.
The big winner today, naturally, was Schleck. Not only did he win the stage but he pulled himself up to second place in the general classification ahead of more mountain stages, just twenty seconds behind new leader Cadel Evans. A better pure climber than the Australian, Schleck will be without the services of his older brother Frank going forward in the mountains (he broke his collarbone in a crash on the cobblestones of Stage 3) but still looks to have a team well-suited to everything he needs to get to that last launching platform to glory. He still is growing into his prime years as a cyclist, and we might just be watching the chrysalis of one of the highest-flying mountaineers of the peloton in the tradition of his compatriot (and former Tour winner) Charly Gaul.
Of course, Contador will still have something to say about that going forward. The Alps were never really his type of climbs, yet he still hung resolutely in there to limit his losses against Schleck. As Andy burst out of the elite front group on the mountain, the Spaniard tried to bridge up to his wheel. Instead, it was his countryman Samuel Sanchez who made the connection instead. After realizing he was beaten on this day for the acceleration up to the stage win, Contador smartly sat back and worked with Evans and Basso and Menchov to keep within a safe distance of the two leaders of the race.
Astana, long derided as nowhere stronger than last year's edition after Armstrong left with director Johan Bruyneel and lieutenants like Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner and Yaroslav Popovych, now look like they just might be the strongest team in the bunch again this year. Alexander Vinokourov, long a right-hand man for Jan Ullrich and wild-card animator for the old T-Mobile squads, has subjugated his own personal ambitions for the yellow jersey to lead the assistance for Alberto.
But while Saxo Bank and Astana will be looking to derail Evans and his BMC team in the next two weeks, don't forget to look out for the top team at this year's Giro. Liquigas, with leader Ivan Basso sitting in 13th at 2:41 behind the maillot jaune, also has Roman Kreuziger among its animators; he trails Schleck in the white jersey competition by 1:25 and sits above Basso in 7th overall. We might just see the Italian side put in a surprise... ultimately the Tour represents the best in international sport. Where else can you find a Spanish-led Kazakh squad dueling with an Italian outfit, an Aussie at the head of an American side a Danish team featuring a guy from Luxembourg?
Among the top ten sides heading into the first rest day, there are eight nationalities represented... in fact, the only thing lacking after the first day in the Alps is the Frenchmen. After Sylvain Chavanel finished just ahead of Armstrong, 11:40 behind Schleck's winning pace, he plummeted right out of the hunt for yellow. It was always a pipe dream for the French; it has been ever since Laurent Fignon retired, Laurent Jalabert encountered harder fields on home soil than further south in Spain, and Richard Virenque was entangled in L'Affaire Festina. At least they still have Jerome Pineau bedecked in the polka-dots, a complete domestic shutout prevented through the first week...
RESULTS - STAGE 8
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 5:37:42
- Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
- Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +0:10
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas)
- Alberto Contador (Astana)
- Cadel Evans (BMC)
- Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma)
- Levi Leipheimer (Radio Shack)
- Ivan Basso (Liquigas)
- Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
- Cadel Evans (BMC) 37:57:09
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) +0:20
- Alberto Contador (Astana) +1:01
- Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega) +1:03
- Denis Menchov (Rabobank) +1:10
- Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin) +1:11
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) +1:45
- Levi Leipheimer (Radio Shack) +2:14
- Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +2:15
- Michael Rogers (Columbia) +2:31
- Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) 118
- Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre) 114
- Robbie McEwen (Katusha) 105
- Jose Joaquin Rojas (Caisse d'Epargne) 92
- Mark Cavendish (Columbia) 85
- Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) 82
- Sebastien Turgot (Bbox-Bouygues) 79
- Geraint Thomas (Sky) 74
- Gerald Ciolek (Milram) 71
- Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 69
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS
- Jerome Pineau (Quick Step) 44
- Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 36
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 30
- Mathieu Perget (Caisse d'Epargne) 28
- Rafael Valls (Footon-Servetto) 27
- Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 26
- Robert Gesink (Rabobank) 22
- Thomas Voeckler (Bbox-Bouygues) 21
- Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) 20
- Mario Aerts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 19
BEST YOUNG RIDER
- Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) 37:59:29
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) +1:25
- Robert Gesink (Rabobank) +2:17
- Rafael Valls (Footon-Servetto) +4:07
- Pierre Rolland (Bbox-Bouygues) +10:54
- Julien El Fares (Cofidis) +17:10
- Cyril Gautier (Bbox-Bouygues) +23:57
- Jakob Fuglsang (Saxo Bank) +24:28
- Arkaitz Duran (Footon-Servetto) +24:57
- Eros Capecchi (Footon-Servetto) +29:09
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