What is it about that little piece of yellow cloth that riders wear on Le Tour. It has almost made it into myths and legends, the way riders turn out superhuman performances to either win it or keep it for one more day. And that exactly was what Thor Hushovd did on Saturday. In a stage where no one – including yours truly and Hushovd himself – gave the Norwegian any chance of defending his slender one second lead, he went out and rode his heart out.
Stage 8 featured the first testing climbs of this year (though nothing of like what is to come) and was a nasty one for the sprinters. So it turned out, when you consider that the bunch of sprinters finished a huge twenty minutes behind the stage winner Rui Costa of Portugal. Only one big name sprinter was missing from that group, Thor Hushovd and that I think is the starkest proof of what a phenomenal effort he put in on the day.
“I really didn’t believe that I could keep this yellow jersey. I knew that the final was very hard but I’ve got incredible form right now and also the motivation to keep the lead, so I’m very happy with the result today. ” he said adding, “Today was a really big surprise. I’m tired after this week. It takes a lot of energy out of you to always be up there and defending the jersey so I really did not believe I could manage this today.”
Another big performer was the hero of the day, Rui Costa. He was the last survivour of nine riders who had escaped the main bunch right at the start. Just goes on to show why these men go through the effort of a breakaway, most times it does not work, but when it does the rewards are there for all to see.
“We have gone through very difficult times in the team this year, so I’m happy to bring a little happiness with the win. I dedicate it to everyone who supported me, but especially to Xavier Tondo who died, and Mauricio Soler, who is currently in hospital,” he said remembering his late team-mate Xavier Tondo, who died in a freak accident at his home in late May, and another team-mate, Juan Mauricio Soler, victim of a severe crash in the Tour of Switzerland, which left him with severe head injuries and lung trauma.
The day began with a further two withdrawals, Benat Intxausti (Movistar) and Chris Horner (Radioshack), the latter pulling out despite having finished stage 7 after crashing with Bradley Wiggins a day before. Remaining 189 riders looked ahead to tackling the four categorised climbs in the day, including the first category 2 climb in this edition of the Tour.
Team Sky had on Friday declared their modified intentions of going for broke after the withdrawal of Wiggins. While not put exactly in the same words, they did make clear that the team would be involved in more breakaways and give the riders increased freedom to add-on the solo stage win they have won till date. Duly Xabier Zondo was part of the first breakaway, who was later joined by Juan-Antonio Flecha.
Another competitor seemingly with a point to prove was Alexandre Vinokourov. He recently announced that this would be his last Tour, where after he moves on to managing the Astana team he helped create and currently is a part of. He has a bit of a tainted history and has never worn yellow. On Saturday, he could not have made his intentions clearer to try to add yellow to his CV as Team Astana did all the hard work leading the peloton up the climbs.
Vino made his move close to the summit of the third climb of the day with 25km to go in the stage. Kicking in a huge gear he pulled in the pack ahead, having team-mate Paolo Tiralongo for company. As he chased the leading duo of Van Garderen and Rui Costa, he looked to gain the 32 seconds he was behind Hushovd to snatch the maillot jaune.
Sadly the Portuguese had just a little too much for the Kazakh on the given day, and Vino in order to try to catch the leader at any cost, ran himself into the red, hitting the wall with under 2km to go. As his challenge withered, so maybe did his will and in the end he crossed the line in 22nd place, with the same time as the Tour leaders.
Alberto Contador kicked a few times on the final ascent testing his main rivals Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans. Both however were intensely focussed on the Spaniard’s wheel and were not to be shaken off. As the helicopter cam caught the three riders in a single frame, it seemed as a screenshot of the podium in Paris in a couple of weeks time, though in what order time will tell.
Right before the finish Philippe Gilbert attacked and while not being able to catch the eventual winner, did finish three seconds ahead of the main pack, gaining a moral victory over the rest. Evans too surged ahead meters before line, making a last bid to finish a second ahead of Hushovd. But what had not happened in the earlier 188km was not happening in the last either, and the leader comfortably managed to finish in the pack, thus earning the same time as the Australian.
From a publicity perspective, it seems a huge return for 25min of effort Garmin-Cervelo put in the team trial that earned Hushovd the leader’s jersey. The attention they have garnered in the ensuing days is more than they could ask for, considering they would not have expected Thor to stay in yellow, and certainly not for so long. But on Sunday they will have to find the energy to steer him through the three second-category climbs through Cantal’s heart-warming greenery and scenic extinct volcanos.
The last stage before the first rest day is an absolute leg breaker with hardly any flats to talk about. There would be the usual breakaway, consisting of riders interested in the polka dot jersey, and they do have lots of points on offer with seven categorised climbs on the day. And with the main contenders shadow boxing behind, the breakaway might succeed again. Though if any major team attacks, it could throw the stage wide open and spread chaos among the peloton. So till tomorrow then…
Jersey holders: General Classification:
Maillot Jaune – Thor Hushovd Thor Hushovd – 33h 06’ 28” Maillot Vert – Philippe Gilbert Cadel Evans – 33h 06’ 29” Maillot à Pois Rouges – Tejay Van Garderen Frank Schleck – 33h 06’ 32” Maillot Blanc – Robert Gesink