In what was considered the last day for a sprint showdown before the final day on the Champs-Elysses in Paris, the peloton was once again foiled by riders in the breakaway. This Tour has been unusually filled with many days in which breakaways have succeeded, and the riders in the breakaway today meant business.
On the 199-kilometer run into Besancon, the route was fairly flat, save for a couple small category-three hills to climb in the middle.
The flat ground should have proved helpful for the peloton to chase down the breakaway and set up a sprint finish, but several factors prevented that from happening.
Today's breakaway established itself after 14 kilometers of racing and included a massive and powerful group. Thirteen riders managed to form a group, featuring Hayden Roulston (Cervélo), Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank), Martijn Maaskant (Garmin), George Hincapie (Columbia HTC), Nicholas Roche (AG2R), Daniele Bennati, Frederik Willems (Liquigas), Christophe Le Mevel (Française des Jeux), Sebastian Minard (Cofidis), Daniele Righi (Lampre), Serguei Ivanov (Katusha), Gerard Ciolek (Milram) and Albert Timmer (Skil Shimano).
Hincapie was fairly high up in the overall classification, starting the day only 5:25 behind race leader Rinaldo Nocenini (AG2R). A relatively small gap like that made Hincapie a very dangerous threat to take the yellow jersey at the end of the day.
The strong breakaway soon developed a lead of over eight minutes. That easily put Hincapie in the virtual yellow jersey by almost three minutes.
Unfortunately for perennial breakaway artist Jens Voigt, he suffered a punctured tire and then a very slow wheel change. It put him well out of range to rejoin the breakaway and had to settle for returning to the peloton.
The peloton, interestingly, was being policed by Astana. Astana includes team director Johan Bruyneel and rider Lance Armstrong, who were long-time teammates with Hincapie on the US Postal Service team during Armstrong's Tour run. It seemed back-stabbing that that team would be chasing down Hincapie's hopes of getting yellow.
The AG2R team of Nocentini should have been doing the pace work to protect their yellow jersey, but the team was showing its relative weakness after trying to defend its yellow jersey since last weekend.
A real chase, though, never really formed. Usually, Columbia-HTC would set a devastating tempo to reel in the breakaway to set things up for their sprinter Mark Cavendish, but they did not want to harm Hincapie's standing.
Neither did the Cervelo team of Thor Hushovd because they had their rider Hayden Roulston in the break.
With only 20 kilometers to go, the breakaway still had a 6:30 lead over the main peloton, and Hincapie was still in virtual yellow by a full minute.
With the breakaway riders knowing that stage victory was theirs, attacks started coming. With 10 kilometers remaining, Ivanov picked the perfect moment to attack. He leaped out of the breakaway and used his skills as the multiple Russian national time-trial champion to power ahead to win the stage.
The rest of the breakaway became a bit disorganized in their desperate effort to chase Ivanov. Roulston and Timmer crossed about half of the gap, but they slowed towards the end, and Roche overtook them near the line for second place. Roulston held on for third.
Hincapie finished in the chasing pack, 16 seconds behind Ivanov, but the important margin was to be found as the peloton roared its way into Besancon.
Garmin was driving the peloton ferociously to the line, setting up their man Tyler Farrar for a showdown with Cavendish. Although stage glory was out of the question, valuable points for the green jersey were on the line, and Cavendish and Hushovd wanted to take full advantage of them.
Columbia-HTC set up Cavendish in the last few hundred meters. Tony Martin led Columbia in, peeled off, and then lead-out man Mark Renshaw brought his teammate Cavendish to the line in perfect fashion.
Cavendish, though, left a lot to be desired. Although he set up a textbook sprint to the line, as he was sprinting he blocked Hushovd into the barriers and the Norwegian had to hit the brakes to avoid crashing. Hushovd came in second in the bunch sprint to Cavendish.
The rules are clear, however. Hushovd filed a protest saying that Cavendish forced him into the barrier, and after video review, the Tour committee agreed and sanctioned Cavendish. He was relegated to the back of the main peloton rather than the front, disqualifying him from picking up any green jersey points.
"I was able to pass him, but when he saw me coming he tried to push me into the barriers. It is not a fair game," said Hushovd after the stage. Part of mass sprinting is following the rules, and Cavendish, by forcing Hushovd off the road, clearly violated them.
With the sprint finish over, the times were tallied. The group came in 5:20 behind Hincapie. Hincapie missed the yellow jersey by only five seconds after a long day in the breakaway. He now slots into second place, five seconds adrift. Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong get bumped down one place each, to third and fourth, respectively.
Hincapie, like Hushovd, was fuming at the finish line after a hard day. He was mad that his former US Postal teammates now on the Astana squad did the chasing to prevent him from taking yellow, as that responsibility fell on AG2R because they had the yellow jersey.
Astana, though, as a professional team, was managing the gap to protect their interests in the upcoming stages in the Alps, not specifically hurting Hincapie.
He also cited Garmin because they set a brutal tempo with 10 kilometers remaining to set up a bunch sprint that they did not even win, which cost Hincape those final few seconds.
He should realize, though, that that is the way of bike racing. Teams race for professional interests, and sentimental values aside, it is not smart to let a member of another team go on a run for the yellow jersey when it is within your power to bring it back.
The overall classification shakes up slightly after today's stage. Nocentini keeps yellow while Hincapie slots up into second place. With all the attention on the American, most forgot that Christophe Le Mevel, a member of the breakaway, used the advantage to quietly slot all the way up into fifth place, 43 seconds behind Nocentini.
There is no more waiting, no more biding time. Tomorrow, the riders hit the Alps in full force on a stage that starts the bloodbath of the final week. Two-hundred-seven kilometers of mountains, with a mountaintop finish on the Verbier will make it a crucial stage for overall contenders such as Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Andy Schleck (Saxobank), and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), who need to gain back time on Contador and Armstrong.