Today's 160-kilometer stage covering the large climbs of the Great and the Petit St. Bernard, the overall classification favourites threw their cards on the table once again, and fans were able to see who is still in contention for a high finish and who is not.
Astana was in firm control of proceedings as the peloton hit the first mountain of the day, the beyond-category-rated Grand St. Bernard. Their job was to maintain a consistent pace because they had to keep as much of their team together as possible to get ready for the fireworks on the second climb of the day, the first-category Petit St. Bernard.
A large group, as a result, was allowed to leave. It comprised roughly 20 riders who were intent on staying away from the peloton on today's important stage. Although the stage contained two enormous climbs, the downhill finish made it possible for a breakaway to stay intact, unlike a mountaintop finish where the overall classification riders battle right to the top.
Important riders in the breakaway included mountain points leader Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), who was looking to cement his lead by collecting points on the top of both mountains, Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), second in the mountains classification and looking for points, Fabian Cancellara, and Jens Voigt (Saxobank), who were no doubt in the breakaway so that they could drop back to the peloton later in the race to assist in the inevitable attack from their teammate and race contender Andy Schleck.
Up the first climb, Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was yet another rider to break free of Astana's grip on the peloton and went chasing the front group. This would prove to be a pivotal move on the Spaniard's day.
Meanwhile, mountains leader Pellizotti managed to break free of the breakaway along with Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) near the summit in search of 20 valuable mountains points. The Liquigas rider took the points at the summit to pad his lead in that competition.
The peloton remained status quo up the first climb, with all contenders still traveling together under the firm hand of Astana.
Leading up to the final climb of the day, the expected fireworks erupted. Cancellara and Voigt had dropped out of the breakaway and drifted back to the peloton to set a high pace for Saxobank's attack.
This set up Andy Schleck to put in a strong attack out of the peloton, but race leader Alberto Contador (Astana) marked him quickly. They were joined by Frank Schleck (Saxobank), Andreas Kloden (Astana), Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas), and Bradley Wiggins (Garmin). Lance Armstrong (Astana) failed to make this selection.
Saxobank was driving the attack hard and distanced themselves from the rest of the peloton. Not to be counted down and out, however, Armstrong put in a sharp acceleration, reminiscent of his Tour wins of the past, to join the Contador group 40 seconds up the road.
Kim Kirchen (Columbia) and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) tried to match the 37-year-old, but they could not overcome the seven-time winner's power. Armstrong made it up to the group and immediately assumed his place in front of Contador to protect his team leader.
In the breakaway, Pellizotti once again shot out of the peloton, this time dragging with him Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto) and Astarloza. He took 30 more points on the top of the Petit St. Bernard and moved into the mountain's lead by a nearly unassailable 58 points over Martinez.
The yellow jersey group soon swelled again. A large group featuring Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie (Garmin), Kirchen, and several others managed to rejoin the elite group with Contador.
Up ahead, the leading trio of Pellizotti, Astarloza, and Van den Broeck picked up Amael Moinard (Cofidis) and the quartet blasted down the descent of the Petit in search of a stage win. Another quartet of stage nine winner Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox), Nicholas Roche, Stefan Goubert (AG2R), and Sandy Casar (Francaise des Jeux) were right on their tails, only 10 seconds behind.
Risks were taken, attacks were made, and Astarloza's attack out of the leading group with 1.5 kilometers remaining put the nail in the coffins of all his rivals.
Astarloza soloed to victory only six seconds ahead of Casar and Fedrigo. It is the first road race win of the veteran Spaniard's cycling career.
The yellow jersey group came in barely one minute behind. Most of the favourites finished in that group, thereby keeping their respective GC positions. Contador maintains a lead of 1:37 over his teammate Armstrong and 1:46 over Wiggins.
However, last year's runner-up Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) once again had a nightmare. He failed to join the Contador group and lost a further two minutes. He is now a full 7:23 behind Contador on the overall classification, and his hopes of a third straight podium finish are out of the question.
If today's stage proved tough on the riders, tomorrow's stage will bring out the true champions and separate them from the pretenders. The 170-kilometer stage features a whopping four category-one climbs (similar to the Petit St. Bernard today), including two back-to-back near the finish. The finish is at the bottom of a fast descent leading into the famous town of Le Grand Bournand, the town where Armstrong took a spectacular sprint win ahead of now-teammate Andreas Kloden in 2004.
Contador and his Astana team will have to be on the ball all day, and attackers like Sastre and Schleck will need to be on the edge to find out when to pounce. Those who doubt Olympic track star Bradley Wiggins's mountain performances this year will know definitively tomorrow if the British rider really has turned himself from a sprinter and time-triallist into a Tour contender.
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