Today's seventh stage, the second day out of three in the Pyrenees, took riders over three very large climbs, the Port d'Envalira right from the start, the Col de Port, and the Col d'Agnès, topping out 40 kilometers from the finish.
The 176-kilometer stage, with the run into the finish comprised of the long descent of the Agnes followed by a flat stretch of road, had breakaway success written all over it, and many riders took part in the festivities.
Interestingly, and rather dangerously, race-favourite Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) tried his hand only 15 kilometers in the stage, when the riders were still climbing the d'Envalira.
Evans managed to gap the Astana contingent nestled in the peloton, but before the summit, they had worked to get him back. Evans, a marked man in the race, having come runner-up in the past two years, was given a very short leash.
The breakaway that managed to stick formed just before the summit of the first climb. They picked up speed on the long descent and built up their advantage.
Christophe Kern (Cofidis), Vladimir Efimkin (AG2R), Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux), Fabian Cancellara (SaxoBank), Thor Hushovd (Cervélo), Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank), George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC), Luis León Sánchez (Caisse d'Epargne), and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) eventually made it clear and began to outpace the peloton.
Hushovd, a sprinter and the winner of stage six, was a very unusual inclusion in the break on a mountain stage. He had one goal, however, which was the green jersey. He was only one point behind leader Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) in that competition, and on the descent of the d'Envalira, there were two intermediate sprint checkpoints worth valuable points to grab the green jersey.
Hushovd won the sprints, picked up 12 points, and slowly drifted back to the peloton, happy that he took the green jersey from Cavendish.
Up ahead, the breakaway riders had the goal of making it to the finish. On the final climb, only four riders survived: Astarloza, Efimkin, Sanchez, and Casar. Kern had picked up valuable mountain points, enough to grab the polka-dot jersey off the back of yesterday's stage winner, Brice Feillu (Agritrubel).
Behind in the peloton, Andy Schleck (Saxobank) attacked the Astana-controlled peloton. Fabian Cancellara had even drifted back from the breakaway in order to help in the pacemaking for the attack. The strength of the Astana team was not to be thwarted, however, and the entire team was on Schleck's wheel immediately.
It was enough to spit overnight race leader Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) out the back. It looked like Alberto Contador (Astana) would inherit the jersey, being only six seconds behind the Italian leader.
The breakaway sped down the descent of the final mountain, and it was apparent that, for the third stage already this Tour, the breakaway would survive to fight for the stage win.
With the pace high, Astarloza was the first to jump, but the three caught him, and immediately Efimkin counterattacked with 4.5 kilometers remaining. He opened up a big gap, and the other three did not look like they responded promptly enough to reel him in.
However, only a few hundred meters from the line, Sanchez took the responsibility to catch Efimkin. Casar jumped next, Sanchez positioned himself right behind Casar's wheel, and came around him only a hundred meters to go to take the stage. Casar came in second and Astarloza third.
Sanchez also won a stage of the Tour last year from a breakaway.
Behind in the peloton, Astana was confident in the advantage that the breakaway had and the pace slowed a fraction. Nocentini was able to make his way back to the main group and kept his yellow jersey for another day.
Tomorrow's ninth stage, the last of three days in the Pyrenees, could prove even more difficult. With the infamous Col du Tourmalet on the menu, the race favourites will have a steep platform with which to attack each other.
However, just like today, the roads up to the finish are flat, as the summit of the Tourmalet comes 70 kilometers from the finish line. A breakaway has just as good of a chance of surviving tomorrow as it has for the past two days.