The Tour's first day in the Pyrenees saw iconoclastic climber Riccardo Ricco tear up the script and bound off on the final ascent of the day for a spectacular lone stage win – his second of the race.
A wafer-thin, almost imp-like character who weighs just 59 kilos, the red-haired Italian's attack was apparently generated as much by pure mischief as by a desire for success.
"I wanted to see what would happen," Ricco – who sports a tattoo of a goblin giving a single-fingered salute on his right side – said afterwards with a sly grin. "I was curious to see the effect of my attack."
Just 24 years old, one effect of Ricco poking fun at his elders was to send shivers down the spines of the Tour favourites – and not only because it wrecked an unwritten truce between the contenders for the yellow jersey.
Four kilometres from the summit of the Aspin climb, rather than using the classic tactic of accelerating from the rear of a group and catching his rivals by surprise, Ricco simply charged away from the front. No one could follow him.
Failing to go by the book and charging away with such breathtaking self-confidence is one of Ricco's trademarks as a rider. On this occasion, however, his attack could hardly have worked any better. As the main contenders dithered, come the Aspin's summit Ricco had a lead of over a minute. By the finish, as he crossed the line, that advantage was still 1 minute 17 seconds over the main group.
Among those who threw in the towel when Ricco attacked was race leader Kim Kirchen . "That was fine by me, we couldn't control the race any more," the Columbia leader stated baldly. "My team's worked really hard all week."
Rated an outsider for yellow in Paris, Kirchen claimed it was up to the main favourites to chase down an insolent mountain attacker like Ricco.
On paper, he was right. But neither of the two top contenders, Australian Cadel Evans and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde was willing to do so – although in Evans case this was perhaps understandable.
Just before the first of the two Pyrenean climbs, the Australian had crashed badly on the right-hand side of the road when he misjudged a corner at 40 kmh. "He badly scraped his back, left shoulder, hip and knee," Tour doctor Gerard Porte said later. "Cadel was most worried about his back, but it should be OK."
Evans is lying second overall and is the leading favourite, so it would normally have fallen to his Silence-Lotto team to do the hard work behind Ricco.
When they failed to do so, Valverde's Caisse D'Epargne laid down a leisurely chasing pace instead, presumably because they do not yet consider Ricco to be a major overall threat. Whether that attitude changes depends largely on how the Italian fares on the Tour's first key mountain-top finish today.
Hautacam's 14.4 kilometres of continuous climbing cannot fail to split the favourites – and will be another chance for Ricco to go on the rampage. Victory in Paris may still be out of Ricco's grasp – he remains 21st overall, 2min 35sec back. But as the strongest rider on the climbs, he will have a huge influence on who could win or lose this year's Tour.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.ukReuse content