The first mountain stage of the Tour was also the first when a rider who had been in the main break of the day held on until the finish. That man was Movistar's Rui Costa, who had joined eight others on the attack after only 8km of racing and hung to win by just 12 seconds ahead of Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who had jumped away from the yellow jersey group that was rapidly closing in behind the 24-year-old Portuguese rider.
Going through the village of Besse, with six mostly uphill kilometres to the finish, Costa was in the company of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad), Cyril Gautier (Europcar) and Christophe Riblon (Ag2r La Mondiale), with Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) chasing frantically less than a minute behind having attacked from the peloton 25km from the finish.
As the road ramped up, Gautier produced the first acceleration, which quickly saw Riblon drop out of contention. Costa chased, caught and then attacked the Frenchman, as Van Garderen vainly tried to get back on terms. From that point, Costa's main threat came from Vinokourov, who dropped Flecha soon after Besse in desperate pursuit of his much-stated dream to take the yellow jersey.
Two kilometres out, the Kazakh veteran was 18 seconds down and appeared to be closing as the road rose ramped up again towards the finish. But, rather than Vinokourov, it was the youngster Costa who produced the stronger finish, staying clear on his own as the Astana leader was engulfed by the yellow jersey group.
"This is the most important victory I've ever had. I still can't believe I've won a stage on the Tour de France," said Costa. "Obviously it's always been a dream to win a stage like this. It's incredible! I attacked at a crucial moment when I saw that my breakaway companions were starting to flag. That gave me a bit of a cushion and worked to my advantage.
"To be honest, when I saw Vinokourov coming I thought he was going to catch me, but at the end I gave it everything that I possibly could. To win is great for me and it's great for my team, who have had some difficulties this year, and I know this victory is going to help us."
Thor Hushovd had to dig deep to retain yellow
While Costa's was undoubtedly the ride of the day, not far behind was Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), who went into the stage one second ahead of Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) on GC and came out of it with the same advantage. Although the Australian finished very strongly to take third place, 15 seconds down on Costa, the Norwegian sprinter was one of just 22 riders who were in that group with Evans.
"Today I surprised myself again, although I did not have a good day," Hushovd confessed. "But I just hung on, hung on, hung on, and it's just incredible that I'm still here in yellow. Cadel was the only rider I was looking for today, but I couldn't follow his move with 1k to go. I just did my tempo and managed to close a little gap at the end with a little sprint to get into his group. Tomorrow is another hard day and I'll just have to see what happens. Of course I would love to have yellow tomorrow night as well, but it's going to be really hard to control the race tomorrow."
Gesink is the major loser
While Costa was riding away to the best win of his career, the overall contenders used the final 2km of the stage to test each other out – or at least most of them did. Surprisingly, Rabobank's Robert Gesink had been dropped from that elite group with 5km remaining and was being paced by a number of his teammates into the finish. Although the Dutchman still managed to hang on to the white jersey as best young rider, he lost more than a minute on all his rivals for the yellow jersey.
Up ahead of the Dutchman, several of the likely contenders for the overall title made tentative attacks in the final 2km. After Gilbert had attacked going under the kilometre banner, Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank Sungard) countered, but was immediately closed down by Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Evans. The Spaniard had another dig 500m out, but once again failed to get clear. In the end, Gilbert's explosive power enabled him to get clear, as the overall contenders cancelled each other out. Gilbert's second place moved him back into the green jersey at the expense of Costa's Movistar teammate José Joaquín Rojas.
Defending champion Contador said he had felt good on the final climb, but explained: "The final wasn't hard in terms of the gradient and it was extremely difficult to get clear. But it's another day over and another day closer to the Pyrenees. I couldn't do much else on a stage like today. The best thing is that I got through it without falling."
Vinokourov was caught during that flurry of action and admitted at the finish he was very disappointed to have missed out. "I thought I had good legs today. I thought to myself. ‘I'm going to go for it,'" he said. "But in the very final kilometre it was just too much for me to bridge the gap. But I'll live to fight another day. I thought I was going to get up to Costa when I attacked, but he was just too strong today. Maybe next time..."
Riblon makes the first move
Flecha leads the breakaway
After several previous attempts had been neutralised, Christophe Riblon instigated the break of the day when he jumped clear after 8km. The Frenchman was quickly joined by Costa, Xabier Zandio (Sky), Addy Engels (Quick Step), Van Garderen, Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Gautier, Alexandr Kolobnev (Katusha) and Julien El Farès (Cofidis).
At the top of the first climb, the 4th-category Côte d'Evaux-les-Bains – where El Farès took the KOM point on offer – their advantage reached almost six minutes, making Costa, who was 4:02 down on GC, the leader on the road as BMC set the pace in the bunch behind. The intermediate sprint followed at Auzances. Riblon clipped off the front of the break to take 20 points for the first man through it, ahead of Costa and Kolobnev.
That left the green jersey contenders in the bunch sprinting for 10th place. Gilbert took advantage of the rise up to the line to outkick Rojas. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), who had jumped to third in the standings on stage 7, was beaten for 12th place by Rojas's teammate Francisco Ventoso.
The sprint offered just a brief respite from the climbing that was the main order of the day. The break was soon onto the 4th category Côte du Rocher des Trois Tourtes, where Kolobnev took the single point on offer. In the peloton, Astana had joined BMC in pace-setting duties and these two teams had trimmed the break's lead back to 3:45 at this summit.
Van Garderen takes the KoM jersey
When Omega Pharma-Lotto added their weight to the peloton's pace-making, the gap to the break began to tumble rapidly, dropping below three minutes with 32km remaining. Up ahead, the break reached the first slopes of the penultimate climb, the 2nd-category Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, where Van Garderen produced two accelerations that split the group.
Only Costa and Gautier were able to stay with him, although the Frenchman dropped back before the summit, where Van Garderen bagged five points as first man over. This was enough to earn the young American the lead in the King of the Mountains competition at the end of the stage, although he later admitted his day might have gone even better if he'd held back a bit more before the final climb.
"I think I paid for my aggression a little earlier on because I think the others felt that I was a strong rider so whenever anyone attacked they would like to me to shut it down. So I think it probably would have been better to stay calm earlier on, and I just lacked a little bit at the end. But the Tour's been incredible. I'm having a lot of fun."
Van Garderen's strength showed when he chased down Riblon twice on the approach to Besse, but those efforts rebounded on the 22-year-old HTC climber when the slightly more experienced Costa made what proved to be the winning move on the other side of the town.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com