French hopes that their Tour riders would put on a special show for Bastille Day failed to be fulfilled yesterday, even though they had two riders in the stage's winning break.
While the overall favourites eased back on a stage that meandered for 179 kilometres (111.2 miles) through the southern foothills of the Alps, the day's victory was finally disputed between Sergio Paulinho, and Vasil Kiryienka, from Portugal and Belarus respectively. The best Frenchman? Fourth, at over a minute back.
When Paulinho and Kiryienka took off on the final unclassified climb of the day, local TV commentators pointed out that the latter had a home connection of sorts as his team is sponsored by a French bank, Caisse d'Epargne. That at least, would allow local honour to be saved on France's national holiday.
However, that particular vein of patriotism dried up when Paulinho claimed his country's ninth ever stage win in the Tour – and first in 21 years – by outsprinting Kiryienka by less than half a bike wheel.
An Olympic silver medallist back in 2004, the 30-year-old gained his first victory in the Tour after he and Kiryienka dropped the rest of the break, including two Frenchmen, just outside the finish in Gap. Paulinho then took the two-man sprint with a mixture of cunning and strength, darting across the road as he accelerated before edging towards the centre again – a manoeuvre that just gave him the edge on Kiryienka's counter-charge.
His strategy paid off richly, earning Lance Armstrong's RadioShack team their first stage victory, some consolation at least after Armstrong's stinging defeat in the Alps. But while the Texan's now total lack of interest in the overall classification was reflected when he lost a minute to the other favourites yesterday for no apparent reason, Bradley Wiggins' challenge for a top 10 place suffered a new blow following a late, lone move by Irishman Nicolas Roche.
The son of the 1987 Tour winner Stephen, Roche Jnr sneaked out of the bunch with 10km to go because, he said later, "they were all taking it fairly easy there, and I didn't see why I should hang around". As a result, Roche is now 13th, while Wiggins has slid to 17th.
If Wiggins had a slight setback, Mark Cavendish's chances of the green jersey increased marginally when he outsprinted the points classification's current leader, Norwegian Thor Hushovd, for ninth place. Cavendish has now closed the gap to 41 points behind Hushovd overall, but the importance of winning yesterday's sprint behind the breakaway was more in terms of boosting his morale and proving to himself, and his rivals, he has come through the Alps in good shape. Cavendish will be batting for a third stage win in today's flat 184km run to Bourg-lès-Valence, his last before the Tour tackles the Massif Central.
Meanwhile, the veteran David Millar succeeded in surviving on another day when temperatures soared into the low forties, despite suffering from a combination of fever, a stomach bug and two cracked ribs.
"I was feeling even worse this morning than I did yesterday [when he rode for over 100km alone] ," Millar said afterwards. "But the pace was finally much lower, and that suited me. In comparison to Tuesday, it was a cakewalk."Reuse content