Italian Riccardo Ricco recovered from a heavy crash on the race's eighth stage to win the Tour de France ninth stage in spectacular fashion here on Sunday. Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen overcame a difficult first day in the Pyrenees to keep the yellow jersey and his six-second lead on Australia's Cadel Evans, who, worryingly for his team, suffered a crash earlier in the stage.
The first of three days in the Pyrenees, a mammoth 224km hike over two of the race's first category one-rated climbs, had been lit up by an audacious three-man breakaway which left Germany's Sebastien Lang all on his own.
However the Gerolsteiner rider was soon upstaged by Ricco, who attacked a chasing but disintegrating peloton on the climb to the summit of the Col d'Aspin, the second big climb of the day. He overtook the tiring Lang with 1.1km to the summit, and the German started his descent with a 35-sec deficit to the 24-year-old Ricco.
The Italian, best known for the climbing prowess which helped him to a runner-up place on the Giro d'Italia in June, engaged in a brave descent towards Bagneres where he came over the finish more than a minute ahead of chasing Russian Vladimir Efimkin.
His win comes only four days after he beat Evans and Spanish favourite Alejandro Valverde to the uphill finish line at Super-Besse in the Massif Central. But despite moving him up the overall standings Ricco said it would not change his objectives.
"I'm riding day to day. I hope tomorrow will be a different scenario. I'd like to work for Piepoli and hopefully help him win the stage," said Ricco, who was quick to share some of the glory with climbing lieutenant Leonardo Piepoli.
"It was a great stage for me. Piepoli did a great job on the Aspin where he set a good rhythm. All the big contenders were looking at each other so I kept on going. It's the mountains, and that's what I'm good at."
While Ricco savoured his second big stage win, the big news concerned Evans.
The leading contender for the yellow jersey crashed heavily on a bend before the peloton hit any of the big climbs and got back on - albeit bruised and battered - to finish with all his big rivals.
However the extent of his injuries remains to be seen.
Evans came over the finish line flanked by his bodyguard and crying out, "Make sure nobody touches my left shoulder!"
When asked for his reaction to the incident, Evans gave his helmet - split open at the front left hand corner from his crash - to a waiting reporter. "There's your interview," he said.
The fact he managed to finish the stage will be a boost to his team, but Evans, who suffered scrapes on his hip, elbow, thigh and shoulder, will be worried about Monday's monster stage in the Pyrenees.
His team manager Marc Sergeant admits that Tuesday's rest day can not come soon enough.
"It would have been better for us if the rest day was tomorrow (Monday)," he said. "At the moment I'm not too worried. Cadel told me after the crash that it was nothing serious, just to keep going. Now we will get the doctor to check him over. He did hurt his collarbone but I believe it is not serious."
It is the first major incident of this year's race for Evans, who finished runner-up last year to the absent champion Spaniard Alberto Contador. It could motivate some of his rivals to strike while the iron is hot on Monday, but Sergeant said they were not unduly concerned over attacks and alliances between some of his rivals.
"We won't be too worried about tomorrow's stage, although it is sure to be an important one," added the Belgian.
Kirchen meanwhile found the yellow jersey weighing heavily on his shoulders for the first time since he took it from German Stefan Schumacher on stage six.
With the Euskaltel team leading the chase of the three-man breakaway once their lead had topped 15 minutes, and then numerous other attacks forcing the pace, the Luxemburger just scraped through.
"I hope this was my only off day," said Kirchen. "But I'm glad to still have the yellow jersey. Ricco attacked when there was a headwind, and in the end I was just happy to follow. I hope tomorrow I'll be better."
© BikeRadar & AFP 2008