In today's ninth stage of the Tour, the final day of the stages in the Pyrenees, the riders faced a 160 kilometer route, taking on the monstrous, successive climbs of the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet.
Both of these climbs in the past have been used as race-deciders. Poised right near the finish, they could have easily laid the foundation for attack after attack from the race favourites to assert their dominance and gain precious seconds or minutes over each other in the general classification.
However, both climbs today were in the middle of the route. The top of the Tourmalet was a full 70 kilometers from the finish. In essence, the climbs were neutralized because any attacks from the overall contenders would have been meaningless as the long stretch of downhill and flat roads would have brought the group back together.
It did make it a good day for riders hoping to make a breakaway, though.
Four riders were the first to escape and assume their places at the head of the race. Jens Voigt (SaxoBank), Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), and Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) made the move while climbing the Aspin but never gained an advantage of more than four minutes.
Behind them, a second breakaway of ten riders formed to bridge the gap, featuring strong riders like Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Sergio Paulinho (Astana), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto), and Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi).
Martinez gathered several key mountain points as he crested the Aspin and again as he crested the Tourmalet. He gained enough points to overtake the polka-dot jersey wearer Christophe Kern (Cofidis).
Up ahead, Pellizotti and Fedrigo had shed Voigt and Duque from their group over the top of the Tourmalet and faced 70 kilometers of downhill and flat roads to the finish.
Back in the peloton, thanks to the very far proximity of the climbs from the finish, none of the overall contenders tried to attack the group. Race leader Rinaldo Nocentini's AG2R team controlled proceedings well and other than setting a quick tempo up the climbs, it was a manageable and uneventful day for the GC riders.
The secondary chase group was slowly been swallowed up as the peloton roared its way down the Tourmalet. Despite this being a high mountain day, it was starting to look like some sort of bunch sprint could make it to the line.
Pellizotti and Fedrigo made the most of their three-minute advantage, though. They worked well together, taking strong pulls, and into the finishing line, it was Fedrigo who took the stage win over Pellizotti.
Fedrigo won a mountain stage in this year's Dauphine-Libere, the preamble to the Tour, and also a stage in the 2006 Tour de France out of a breakaway.
The peloton was very close. Rolling in only 34 seconds later, sprinter Oscar Friere (Rabobank) made it in for third.
Tomorrow, the riders get their first of two rest days during the Tour. No racing will occur tomorrow. The riders will get the chance to sleep in, recover from their fatigue, and go on an easy ride to keep their muscles turning.
Racing will resume on Tuesday with Stage 10. It will be an extremely interesting stage. Even though it is mostly flat and has bunch sprint written all over it, it is one of two stages this year where the Tour organizers decided to ban the use of race radios during the stage.
Team directors following the peloton in cars can communicate directly to their riders the race situation while racing. For example, who gets into the breakaways dictates if the peloton should chase or not (a dangerous GC rider cannot escape because he would take the yellow jersey as a result). Riders are also told when to start chasing the breakaway and at what speed to do it to catch the breakaway at the perfect time.
Those who see it this way say the riders should read the race situation themselves and not have to rely on team directors from cars. Directors, though, say that they warn the riders about impending safety dangers up the road, such as narrow roads, bridges, large concentrations of fans, roundabouts, etc, so the riders can prepare for situations on the open road that could cause massive pileups of the riders, and also without direct communication, they cannot do their jobs effectively.
Despite the direct protest of 14 of the 20 teams at the race, it looks at this point like the Tour organizers will go ahead with their decision to ban radios for the day. Expect some very interesting things to happen when the riders' safety net is removed.
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