No matter many how many mountains you've seen, no matter how well travelled you think you are, there's nothing which quite prepares you for the majesty and the magnitude of the Alps on a day like today.
Today's ninth stage to Briançon was a journey among giants, foremost among them the Col d'Iséran, the first climb on the route and at 2770 m one of the highest main road passes in the Alps. The Tour has only visited the Iséran six times, partly because its altitude leaves it vulnerable to snowfall even in the summer months. Today there was the odd white fleck on the upper slopes, but the defining characteristic of the Iséran is the emptiness which lives on either side of the summit. The south flank, in particular, feeds into one of those rare Alpine valleys with not a single ugly ski-chalet or factory unit. I could only think of one word to describe the setting and that was "humbling".
Put a bike race on that backdrop and you can't go wrong. Sure enough, today's was another action-packed, intricate stage, just the latest of what I'm sure will be some great afternoons of sport before we reach Paris. Gone, thank heavens, are the days when a single team could grab hold of the race and squeeze out ever droplet of imagination and suspense. I'm beginning to come round to the idea that "transitional tours" are far superior to instalments of a dynasty.
The smart money now might well be on Andreas Klöden, but not mine. That would go on Alberto Contador (now fifth on GC at 3'08" from Rasmussen). I don't care much for his past association with Manolo Saiz, and there are other minus marks which I'll keep to myself, but I just adore the way Contador climbs. Someone in the press room today says that he looks like a cross between Armstrong and Pantani. For me it's the latter rather than the former, but I can see resemblance with Big Tex in the killer cadence and the rolling shoulders. They might start looking even more alike when Contador pulls on the yellow jersey. My guess is that'll be at Plateau de Beille on stage 14.
Incidentally, on Contador and his team's outstanding performance today, Discovery team manager Bruyneel said this:
"Alberto saw the others struggling on the Galibier and put in a really big attack. It was smart move, but unfortunately two things happened: one, Soler proved stronger than we imagined and he managed to hold on for the stage win; two, the riders behind Contador and Popovych started working well together and brought them back. Still, I felt really good about the team today. Alberto and Popo were strong and Levi [Leipheimer] had no trouble following the leaders. It would have been better if [Cadel] Evans had been with Alberto and Popovych in the valley after the Galibier, but I'm happy all the same... What Evans did show today is that he is now of the favourites for the Tour".
All interesting stuff, but not on patch on leader Michael Rasmussen's late entry for quote of the day. Rasmussen's verdict on his team-mate and Rabobank co-leader's performance today? "It's a shame that Menchov couldn't get his ass over the Galibier."
Tonight Denis Menchov lies 18th general classification at 7'10". Now he's one rider whose quotes we're never likely to miss...