Before the Tour hit the Alps, most commentators were predicting an easy ride before a real showdown in the Pyreness. Now, it will be a miracle if any of the Tour contenders have anything left in the tank by the Tourmalet.
The day started with a well-marshalled break featuring Luis LÃ©on SanchÃ¨z, JosÃ© Ivan Gutierrez and Christophe Moreau of Caisse d’Epargne, alongside Jens Voigt (SAX) and others, a break which built up a solid lead of five minutes and more. For much of the day SanchÃ¨z was in the virtual yellow jersey until, on the lower slopes of the Madeleine, Chris Anker SÃ¸renson of Saxo Bank turned the screw on the peloton and all hell broke loose.
Riders of all shapes and sizes started disappearing unceremoniously off the back – except, that is, Alexandre Vinokourov who rode off the front like a man possessed. Then, a surprise: with 8km of the climb left and 40km to the finish Evans, in the yellow jersey, cracked into pieces, and fell away – for the rest of the stage. Cue an attack by Contador, who, with his lieutenant Daniel Navarro, distanced the pack but could not shake Andy Schleck. Soon, it was just the two big GC contenders, who must, form now says, contest the overall Tour win between them.
Shleck looked the more comfortable, with Contador shirking any work, and was helped by Jens Voigt, who dropped back from the break to do an epic turn helping Shleck up the mountain. Voigt blew up before the summit and the other two descended, chased by Samuel Sanchez, and, miraculously, caught the break in the final kilometre.
A small bunch sprint followed, in which Sandy Casar (FDJ) in particular looked chagrined that they’d let themselves be caught. Nevertheless, Casar added to an impressive roster of French stage victories, ahead of Luis LÃ©on SanchÃ¨z and Damiano Cunego in third.
Contador and Schleck were two seconds back, in sixth and seventh respectively, while Levi Leipheimer, reflecting his status as RadioShack’s new focus, came in 10th. Later, BMC Racing and Cadel Evans revealed the Australian had been suffering from the effects of yesterday’s crash: a fractured elbow, which they had hoped to keep quiet. TIn retrospect Evans’s performance was heroic, and it is to be hoped that the World Champion can find it within himself to carry on.
So much action so early in the Tour. Though it’s early days, some things seem clear: with Evans injured and losing eight minutes to Contador and Schleck, his GC hopes are now destroyed, alongside those of Bradley Wiggins and, probably, Ivan Basso.Â Contador need seriously fear Schleck, but, equally, the Luxembourger must continue to ride out of his skin if he is to dig out enough of a lead to make up for his deficiencies against the clock, which the Spaniard will ruthlessly expose in the final time trial.
GC after 9 stages:
1. Andy Schleck (SAX)
2.Â Alberto Contador (AST) +41″
3.Â Samuel SanchÃ¨z (EUS) +2’45”
4.Â Denis Menchov (RAB) +2’58”
5. Jurgen van den Broeck (OLO) 3’31”