Team Columbia-HTC's top sprinter, Mark Cavendish, managed to take a surprise win today on the stage before the final overall classification decider of Mont Ventoux.
The 19th stage was once again another unusual stage in this year's Tour. In a Tour that has allowed for many more breakaway wins than normal, this stage traditionally suits a breakaway because the peloton is tired from its exertions in the mountains and is preparing for the final battle the following day.
This year, though, many of the lesser teams in the Tour were very antsy. A very large breakaway featuring 20 riders, including some big names like Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Yaroslav Popovych (Astana), David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream), Kim Kirchen (Columbia-HTC), Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) made it clear.
Team Columbia was content to let the breakaway go, as was Team Astana of race leader Alberto Contador.
Rabobank, however, seeing the stage as an ideal sprint win for their sprinter Oscar Friere, had other plans and went to the front of the peloton to chase the break down.
The breakaway never attained more than a two minute advantage as Rabobank was ravenously leading the chase, and the breakaway was caught a full 30-kilometers from the line.
The day's course featured a steep, category-two climb close to the finish line, with a fast 16-kilometer descent to the line, similar to other mountain stages in this year's race.
On the climb, Rabobank had a second mission for the day, to set a quick pace on the climb to get rid of Cavendish. As the peloton knows well, if Cavendish can get to the line ready to sprint, he'll probably win, but he doesn't climb that well.
Laurent Lefevre (Bouygues Telecom) and world champion Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), who finally got out of his shell and showed off his rainbow jersey, escaped on the climb, roughly five kilometers from the top.
The pair barely built up a 10-second lead and were caught on the descent, but not after a last-minute attempt by Ballan to leave the peloton. He was caught a rather close 1.3 kilometers from the line.
By this time, Columbia-HTC was chasing in full force, benefitting from the work done by Rabobank and setting up their nearly indestructible sprint lead-out train.
Leading up to the finish, Cavendish's leadout man Mark Renshaw delivered Cavendish perfectly to the line. Cavendish opened up his sprint with a rather long 275 meters to go on a slightly uphill stretch, but he held his advantage to take his fifth stage win this year.
He beat green jersey Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) and Gerald Ciolek (Milram) to the line.
For all of Rabobank's work, Friere could only manage fifth in the fast sprint.
Saturday's stage will be the final test for those seeking overall classification glory. Alberto Contador has still looked unbeatable in yellow, but Frank and Andy Schleck (Saxobank) will almost certainly try another do-or-die attack to keep Andy's second place as well as get Frank to leapfrog Lance Armstrong for the third podium spot.