World champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) took his ninth Tour stage win and described it as the "best moment ever in my career" when he rode alone into Lourdes after an epic 30km pursuit of plucky Jérémy Roy (FDJ). "Winning alone on a hard day like this when we went over the Col d'Aubisque and doing it wearing the rainbow jersey is, I think, incredible. I'm just so happy now," said Hushovd.
After making the initial attack from a breakaway group of 10 riders on the opening ramps of the Aubisque, the Norwegian sprinter was dropped by the Frenchman and by David Moncoutié (Cofidis) further up the famous HC-category climb. Two minutes in arrears going over the summit, Hushovd steadily chipped away at the FDJ rider's advantage heading towards the finish.
He caught Moncoutié on the descent off the Soulor, and the pair set about chasing down the lone leader, Roy. At 15km to go, the two chasers had cut Roy's lead to just 31 seconds, with Hushovd doing the bulk of the pace-setting. They continued to close, but for a time Roy held them at 15-20 seconds as the fading Moncoutié was either unable or unwilling to contribute to the chase, knowing all too well that Hushovd was sure to beat him if the finish came down to a sprint.
With 3km left, Hushovd kicked away from Moncoutié and was quickly up to Roy. The Norwegian didn't wait to take on the FDJ rider in the sprint, jumping past him straight away and stomping clear to win with a comfortable gap over Moncoutié.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever done," admitted Hushovd. "I was happy to be in the break. I was obviously strong. I went on the attack on the Aubisque so that I could ride at my own pace. My goal was to come back on the descent, which I finally managed to do. It's incredible how quickly things have turned for me. Yesterday and the few days before I was feeling tired, but I did the right thing yesterday by taking it easy and losing quite a lot of time. I think that saved my legs and that's why I won today."
It was impossible not to have sympathy for Roy, who has been one of the revelations of the race. Already on the attack yesterday with Geraint Thomas on the road to Luz-Ardiden, Roy rolled in an almost tearful third. His reward for a fifth attack in 13 stages was the stage's combativity prize and the King of the Mountains jersey, which he took from Samuel Sánchez after adding his conquest of the Aubisque to yesterday's on the Tourmalet.
"Perhaps one day I will look back on this stage as a great effort, but at the moment I feel too disappointed to see it that way," Roy confessed.
There was little change in the overall standings, with Thomas Voeckler finishing towards the front of the peloton to hold the yellow jersey for another day, although Philippe Gilbert did jump up to ninth overall thanks to an attack coming off the Soulor, which earned him 10th place on the stage almost a minute ahead of the yellow jersey group.
Looking ahead to tomorrow's stage to Plâteau de Beille, where he famously held the yellow jersey against most predictions in 2004, Voeckler said: "I've got good memories of Plâteau de Beille and we'll see what happens. What I know is that Luz-Ardiden was very, very hard and I think tomorrow it will be harder. I'm very proud of the way my team has ridden and if I do lose the jersey tomorrow I won't be blaming my team because they've done a great job up to now."
Asked about the fact that every previous winner at Plâteau de Beille has gone on to win the Tour in Paris, BMC team leader Cadel Evans commented: "Plâteau de Beille is a long climb after a hard day. But if I don't win tomorrow I'm not going to give up trying to win, let's put it that way. But it is certainly going to be one of the race's most important days."
A frantic start
The stage started without Quick Step's Gert Steegmans, who was involved in a crash on stage five, but only found out yesterday he had fractured the scaphoid bone in his wrist. Katusha sprinter Denis Galimzyanov was also a non-starter having finished outside the time limit on stage 12.
The profile of the stage suggested it was ideal for a breakaway to go away and stay away. Right from the off it was clear that dozens of riders were determined to be part of that break. The racing was frantic, with groups going away, being chased down and others countering. The pace proved too much for RadioShack's Andreas Klöden, who was soon off the back and struggling with back problems that had been exacerbated by a crash yesterday. The German quit with 25km covered, leaving his team with just five riders in the race.
Gilbert was once again one of the animators, but in the end he had to yield to the pull of the main pack, who were determined to allow him no room for manoeuvre. FDJ's Roy, however, got a bit more leeway. Despite being on the attack for most of yesterday with Thomas, the Frenchman pressed on and was eventually joined by nine riders: Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Dmitriy Fofonov (Astana), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), David Moncoutié (Cofidis), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) and Vladimir Gusev (Katusha).
As Tjallingii was joining the action at the front of the race, teammate Lars Boom was the latest to struggle off the back. With 50-odd kilometres covered, the Dutchman became the 25th rider to leave the race.
The breakaway riders didn't contest the intermediate sprint, Boasson Hagen leading the 10 escapees through. Five minutes later, the battle for 11th place was much more hard fought. HTC-Highroad committed several riders to lead out Mark Cavendish, but he was outwitted by Movistar's José Joaquín Rojas, who accelerated early and held on to edge it as the Briton gesticulated furiously.
Attacks on the Aubisque
Thor Hushovd on the Aubisque
Soon after the breakaway riders began the ascent of the Aubisque, world champion Hushovd attacked from the back of the group. Initially, no one followed. Roy then made a move behind the Norwegian, and joined him just above the spa town of Eaux-Bonnes. Behind this pair, Moncoutié moved clear of the remaining eight and was for a short time joined by Boasson Hagen.
Nine kilometres from the summit, Roy kicked away from Hushovd, who was soon caught and dropped by Moncoutié. The Cofidis climbing specialist closed to within 100 metres of Roy at one point, but the irrepressible FDJ rider steadily eased away again to lead by 53 seconds going over the summit, with Hushovd at 2:03. The peloton came over more than eight minutes down.
Jeremy Roy alone
Roy gained a few more seconds on the uncategorised ascent over the Soulor pass, from where he had 33 mostly downhill kilometres into the finish. Hushovd, renowned as one of the best descenders in the sport, caught Moncoutié coming off the Soulor, and the pair quickly began to trim back Roy's advantage. At the 20km banner his lead was 1:05. At 15km it was less than half that, at 10km it was just 18 seconds.
For a few minutes, it looked as if Roy might just hang on as the road kicked up a couple of times on the approaches to Lourdes. Sadly for him, though, Hushovd had a little bit left in the tank thanks to his decision to hold back yesterday. In the end, that may well have been the difference between them.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.