Conventional wisdom told us that stage 9 of the 97th Tour de France wouldn’t change much at the top of the leader board. The riders were saying that after some terribly hard days of racing they were conserving their energy for the tougher stages awaiting them in the Pyrénées next week.
So it seemed that the yellow jersey was firmly on the shoulders of Cadel Evans, who could sit back and follow his leading rivals, headed by Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, while keeping a watchful eye on the dozen others who were within three minutes of the Australian on overall time.
That was the theory. But the accumulated fatigue and injuries from the opening week had weakened the peloton more than anyone realized. The hardest pill, of course, was the one swallowed by Evans, whose BMC Racing team didn’t reveal he had broken a bone in his left elbow when he crashed early in Sunday’s stage 8.
Even so, the Aussie’s teammates did an amazing job to protect their leader from attacks by pulling the peloton over four of the Tuesday’s climbs and partway up the fifth, the Col de la Madeleine. The BMC riders’ steady tempo nullified early attempts to destabilize the race by Team Astana (an attack by Alexander Vinokourov) and RadioShack (counterattacks by Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Sergio Paulinho), and kept the day’s 12-man break (containing the dangerous Luis León Sanchez of Caisse d’Épargne) on a tight rein.
Their efforts were largely responsible for the day’s high average speed of more than 36 kph. Historically, the average for a rugged mountain stage that contains, as this one did, a total elevation gain of 14,300 feet, would be between 32 and 34 kph.
The high speeds, combined with all that climbing and temperatures that were again in the 80s and 90s, were at the heart of the destruction that took place on the final 18km of the Madeleine climb. After the BMC boys finally ceded the tempo-making role, Schleck’s Saxo Bank teammates Chris Anker Sørensen and Jakob Fuglsang ratcheted up the pace, causing dozens of riders, including outsiders Michael Rogers and Brad Wiggins, to go backwards.
A solo attack by Vinokourov caused more panic, but the real damage came from the Kazakh’s Spanish teammate Dani Navarro. When he went to the front of the leaders’ group 10km from the summit with Astana leader Contador on his wheel, Evans was dropped, the pain from his broken elbow just too much to bear. (He’d lose eight minutes and drop out of the top 10.)
And as they began a 2km stretch that shot up at almost 10 percent, the steepest gradients of the day, Navarro went even harder. RadioShack’s new team leader Levi Leipheimer sprinted to stay on his wheel, but it proved a mistaken move, because when Contador and Schleck came by to follow another Navarro acceleration, the American had to ease back and ride with Katusha’s Joachin Rodriguez and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink.
Meanwhile, Navarro kept his surge going until the end of the steepest pitch and then he just pulled to the side and eased back, totally exhausted; he would lose eight minutes before the end of the stage. But Navarro’s effort doomed all the other favorites except for Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez, who briefly joined Contador and Schleck, but had no reply when Schleck made a series of accelerations to test Contador.
The end result was a pact by the two strongest climbers to work together to gain as much time as possible over Evans and the rest. Saxo’s Jens Voigt, who had dropped back from the all-day break, gave his team leader Schleck some strong pulls in the climb’s final kilometers before the big German, like Navarro earlier, went into the red and almost stopped before going into survival mode.
Perhaps the most telling phase of the day’s shocking story was the effort made by Schleck and Contador on the 19km descent and subsequent 13km of flat roads to the finish in St. Jean de Maurienne. With each of them taking turns at the front, they completely closed a 2:10 deficit at the summit to catch the remnants of the day’s break.
At the same time, they held off a valiant pursuit from deadly descender Samuel Sanchez, who closed to within 18 seconds before finally conceding 50 seconds, and they increased their advantage over the Leipheimer-Menchov quartet from 1:14 at the mountaintop to 2:05 at the line.
To watch Sanchez eventually struggle to the finish line and take minutes to recover, and see others fighting off leg cramps; to watch Leipheimer wipe the dirt and sweat of a brutal day from his weary face; and to witness Evans emotionally collapse into the arms of his teammate and training partner Mauro Santambrogio after losing his yellow jersey were confirmation of just how brutal this stage had been.
New race leader Schleck and runner-up Contador now have a two-minute cushion on Samuel Sanchez and Menchov, and more than three minutes on Omega-Lotto’s Jurgen Van den Broeck and Leipheimer; but in a Tour that continues to surprise, who can predict what will happen next.
With the continuing heat wave and more climbs in the Alps on Wednesday, albeit on a shorter stage of 179km from Chambéry to Gap, this race of attrition will likely continue. Interestingly, after putting on the yellow jersey in St Jean de Maurienne, Schleck had some words of advice for his rivals, telling them that in their position he would make an all-out attack on this next stage. They may well take him up on it!