Thor Hushovd became the first reigning world champion in nine years to claim a stage win in the Tour de France yesterday, and as his look of bemused delight as he crossed the line confirmed, of his 63 victories in his career, this was probably the least expected.
A skilled sprinter and time triallist, Hushovd took off in pursuit of lone French breakaway Jérémy Roy on anything but favourable terrain, the 17.7km climb of the Col d'Aubisque deep in the Pyrenees.
The Norwegian slowly whittled down the gap on Roy as the race descended towards Lourdes, despite having French climber David Moncoutie shadowing him all the way.
After dropping Moncoutie on the outskirts of the city on a slight rise, Hushovd blasted past Roy – on the attack and defeated almost within sight of the finish for the second time in as many days.
After one incredulous look back, Hushovd then had time to do up his jersey, and point at it repeatedly as he crossed the line: as the leader of the race for the first week and already the winner of eight Tour stages, the Garmin-Cervélo is more than used to soaking up the applause, it was clear that for Hushovd the ninth – cliches about Lourdes notwithstanding – bordered on the miraculous.
"For a heavy rider like me, to get over the Aubisque off the front and then win is something incredible, almost unbelievable," Hushovd said. "Winning with the world champion's jersey, alone at the line, make it the most beautiful of all my Tour wins. I never thought I could do it."
This was by no means the first victory for a sprinter in a high mountain stage of the Tour, although it is comparatively rare - in 1959, French fastman Andre Darrigade took a victory in the Pyrenees and in 1968, Yorkshire's Barry Hoban racked up a spectacular solo triumph in the Alps for the British national team.
While there were no doubts about Hushovd's form yesterday questions continue to swirl around Alberto Contador after Thursday's first high mountain stage, the Spaniard's first truly below-par performance in the Tour since he first won it in 2007.
Today's stage across six Pyrenean cols, culminating on the summit finish of Plateau de Beille – where Contador won in 2007 – we will know whether the Spaniard really is on the back foot as badly as he seemed at Luz Ardiden on Thursday.
Tour organisers meanwhile have vigorously denied that Britain's Mark Cavendish was hanging on to team cars to get over the race's high mountain climbs following accusations by rival sprinter José Joaquin Rojas that the Briton had held on to vehicles and been towed during ascents.
"Cavendish is a leader and he is under surveillance in the race, like all the leaders are," the Tour's racing director, Jean Francois Pescheux after stage 13. "There is absolutely no problem with him. None at all."
Pescheux had harsh words for Rojas, currently second behind Cavendish in the Tour, claiming he is "always looking for excuses."
Accused by another Movistar rider, Fran Ventoso, of tows in the Tour of Italy back in May, at the time Cavendish reacted angrily to those claims. "It's always the same, if I'm dropped but I finish inside the time limit, it means I cheat. But I challenge Ventoso to spend a day with me in the peloton on a mountain stage."
"If I stop to pee, if I crash and change a wheel, I always have a race official – as well an ice-cream truck and a marching band – all watching me. If I can cheat, then I'm David Copperfield," Cavendish added.
Stage 13 (Pau to Lourdes, 156km)
1 T Hushovd (Nor) Garmin 3hr 47min 36sec
2 D Moncoutie (Fr) Cofidis at 0.10
3 J Roy (Fr) FDJ at 0.26
4 L Ytting Bak (Den) HTC-Highroad at 5mins
5 J Pineau (Fr) Quickstep Cycling Team at 5.02
6 E Boasson Hagen (Nor) Sky at 5.03
7 V Gusev (Rus) Katusha Team at 5.08
8 A Petacchi (It) Lampre - ISD at 5.16
9 M Tjallingii (Neth) Rabobank at same time
10 P Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto at 6.48.
96 D Millar (GB) Garmin at 8min 03sec
119 B Swift (GB) Sky Procycling at 18.32
123 G Thomas (GB) Sky at same time
129 M Cavendish (GB) HTC-Highroad at 22.08
1 T Voeckler (Fr) Europcar 55hr 49min 57sec
2 F Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 1.49
3 C Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team at 2.06
4 A Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek at 2.17
5 I Basso (It) Liquigas-Cannondale at 3.16
6 D Cunego (It) Lampre - ISD at 3.22
7 A Contador (Sp) Saxo Bank at 4.00
8 S Sanchez (Sp) Euskaltel-Euskadi at 4.11
9 Gilbert at 4.35
10 T Danielson (US) Team Garmin at same time
39 Thomas at 21min 16sec
59 Millar at 38.13
130 Swift at 1hr 30min 53sec
131 Cavendish at 1:32.28
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