On a day that was supposed to be a fairly innocuous run into the city of La Grande Motte, Team Columbia-HTC used their collective strength and wit to make the most of the windy conditions and put serious time into their rivals.
On paper, the day's 196-kilometer, mainly flat stage looked to be set up for a sprint, and in the end it was, but before that, major damage occurred to the times of many of the overall contenders.
A breakaway of four riders comprising Samuel Dumoulin (Cofidis), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Koen de Kort (Skil-Shimano), and Maxime Bouet (Agritrubel) escaped the bunch, but faced stiff crosswinds throughout the entire stage.
As Team Columbia-HTC started to reel in the breakaway to set up their man Mark Cavendish for the sprint win, those winds came into play.
As the main peloton rounded a particular corner around 30 kilometers from the finish, the winds picked up and shifted to a direct crosswind on the riders. Columbia-HTC had enough of not receiving any help from the other sprinters' teams to help reel in the breakaway, so they immediately put the hammer down.
Eight of the nine Columbia riders worked in formation, drove up the speed through the crosswinds, and the peloton split.
The split had some devastating results for several contenders with overall ambitions. As the 28-man move led by Columbia started to move away, riders like Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden (Astana), Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Frank and Andy Schleck (Saxobank), and Denis Menchov (Rabobank) were left behind.
Among notable riders who were attentive and made the split were race leader Fabian Cancellara (Saxobank) and Lance Armstrong (Astana).
Knowing that they were dropping the entire peloton, the Columbia team swallowed up the early breakaway and continued pounding to the finish. Their efforts were helping their overall contenders Kim Kirchen and Michael Rogers to move up considerably in the general classification.
Leading up to the flat, straight run into the final, Columbia finished off the day by setting up their sprinter Mark Cavendish perfectly. The Manxman took his second stage in a row and further cemented his lead in the green points jersey.
He beat Thor Hushovd (Cervelo TestTeam) and Cyril Lemoine (Skil-Shimano) to the line.
The rest of the peloton came in 40 seconds behind, and several GC contenders now face that much extra deficit to the overall lead.
Fabian Cancellara retains the overall lead after the stage. Tony Martin (Columbia) moves up into second, and thanks to his quick thinking, Lance Armstrong moves up into third.
Behind them, Alberto Contador now sits in fourth place at 59 seconds behind Cancellara, Cadel Evans sits eighth, and Leipheimer tenth.
The fact that Armstrong is currently the best-placed rider on the Astana team will no doubt send many critics into a frenzy on just who is the leader of the Astana team, as media tension has been building between Armstrong and Contador despite reports from the team that triple-Grand Tour-winner Contador is the leader.
Tomorrow is a very decisive Team Time Trial. Teams will be battling around the city of Montpelier over 38 kilometers. As previously stated, the rules have changed since Armstrong's Discovery Channel team won the last edition of the Tour TTT in 2005.
The rules used to have the final margin between consecutive placings limited to 20 seconds, regardless of the actual margins, to prevent strong GC riders within weak teams from losing too much time before the mountains.
This year, however, no such luxuries will be awarded; the time the team gets is what it gets. Overall contenders such as Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov, who do not have particularly strong teams, could potentially face severe time deficits before the race even hits the mountains.
The course will favour a strong team, such as Astana and Columbia-HTC. If Astana can win the day and overtake the lead of Cancellara, that would mean that Armstrong, the best placed Astana rider, would inherit the yellow jersey.
The media outlets would explode.
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