In what was the most action-packed day of the Tour so far, the Schleck brothers of Team Saxobank obliterated the field on the mountainous day.
The 169-kilometer stage featured a whopping four category-one climbs, with a double hit of the Col de Romme immediately followed by the Col de Columbiere right before the fast descent to the finish in Le Grand Bournand.
Even before the overall classification riders unleashed their cards, excitement was on the road.
Yesterday, Team Columbia sprinter Mark Cavendish, known well for his fast-running mouth as well as fast sprint, said to the press that when current green jersey Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) got Cavendish disqualified on the stage 14 bunch sprint for pushing him into the barriers, he did it to consolidate his points the easy way rather than facing Cavendish one-on-one in the sprints.
His green jersey would be "tarnished" because he got it by disqualification rather than by earning it.
That message must have been resonating in Hushovd's ears today. Of all people to go on a breakaway on a five-climb day, the big 180-pound Norweigan sprinter managed to break free of the 20 escapees over the second category-one climb of the Saisies Pass. There were six valuable sprint points to be had after its descent.
Not content to only get those six points, he held off a chasing breakaway that included mountains leader Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) over the third climb of the day, the category-two Araches and picked up six more points after its descent.
Satisfied with gaining 12 points, putting him at 230 points over Cavendish's 200, a nearly unassailable margin, Hushovd began the slow drift back to the peloton.
For Hushovd to lose the green jersey now with no more sprint stages until the final stage on the Champs-Elysses in Paris, Hushovd would have to either abandon the Tour or Cavendish would have to win the Paris sprint to gain 35 points and hold on to the nonexistent hope that Hushovd wouldn't finish anywhere in the top 20.
Pellizotti also managed to gain an additional 37 mountain points for his work in the breakaways for several days so far. He now leads Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) by an impossible margin of 198-118. There are not enough mountains left in the Tour for Martinez to claw back that margin.
Once those fuses were burned, Saxobank started its dirty work. Although race leader Alberto Contador (Astana) looks nearly unflappable in yellow, the Schlecks needed a big attack today if they wanted to move up on the overall classification.
On the penultimate climb of the Romme, Saxobank's lieutenants Chris and Nikki Sorensen lifted the pace dramatically, waiting for the big attack.
Then, Frank and Andy Schleck launched their move. Contador followed and his teamamte Andreas Kloden clawed his way up to his team captain. Bradley Wiggins (Garmin), Lance Armstrong (Astana), and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) were all distanced.
As the Schleck group started to push its lead over the Armstrong group to over a minute, even more interesting things happened. Contador put in his trademark attack on the Romme and tried to distance the Schlecks. When the attack didn't work and the Schlecks managed to reach back on, the only thing that happened is Contador dropped his teammate Kloden, who was sitting in fourth place on the GC and a threat to the Schlecks.
This created a big controversy. Contador said after the stage that Kloden told him to go for it, but team manager Johan Bruyneel said it was completely unnecessary and it only hurt their own team.
Contador has had a tough time during the Tour with the presence of Armstrong, not only because the media has made a big deal of it, but also because he has been trying these attacks that only hurt the team.
On stage seven to Arcalis, it was unnecessary for him to attack the peloton on the mountaintop finish, and today it was unnecessary for him to distance Kloden, but he has been pressured to show that he is the dominant rider of the Tour.
With Contador and the Schlecks alone up the final climb of the Colombiere, Kloden and Armstrong could not catch back on, not even on the fast descent to the finish.
In some sort of agreement or gift, Contador did not contest the sprint, and Frank Schleck took the stage win for his hard work ahead of Contador and brother Andy.
Nibali, Armstrong, and Kloden were the next ones in, but they lost over two minutes to the leading trio.
Because of the devastation of the day, Contador remains in yellow, but on the podium he is now flanked by the Schlecks. Andy moves up into second at 2:26 and Frank moves up into third at 3:25.
Armstrong was bumped to fourth at 3:55 back and Kloden drops to fifth at 4:44 behind. Track star Wiggins could not handle the accelerations and dropped to sixth at 4:53 behind.
How hard has this Tour been for everyone else? Last year's winner, Carlos Sastre (Cervelo), is 11:39 behind. Last year's runner-up, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), apparently gave up today, finished half an hour behind and is now 37:06 off the pace.
Last year's third-place and current Tour of Italy champion, Denis Menchov (Rabobank), is 48:35 behind.
Frank Schleck and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin) are the only two of last year's top-10 to be in the top-10 right now.
Tomorrow's 40-kilometer time trial will surely be just as decisive. While the Schlecks may have had the last laugh today by placing themselves up into second and third, they are notoriously horrible time-triallists. Armstrong and Kloden, accomplished against the clock, may well time-trial their way back onto the podium spots.
Frank looks almost certain to get booted off the podium, while Andy, with an extra minute's advantage, might hang on, but Armstrong should find his way back on the podium tomorrow.
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