Gap is a good place for riders who like to toil off the front of the bunch and once again the day's break produced the stage winner, with Thor Hushovd prevailing in the city at the base of the Alps. It was his second victory in this year's Tour and came after a massive effort in the day's escape group.
The Garmin-Cervélo rider managed to take his place in the much-anticipated move off the front of the peloton – which was at a premium today – and benefited from the presence of his teammate Ryder Hesjedal in the finale to overcome countryman Edvald Boasson Hagen, with the Canadian in third.
It was also the second time the two Norwegians finished in the top three on a stage, after Boasson Hagen's stage win in Lisieux 12 days ago, when Hushovd finished third.
"It's unreal," said Hushovd after the finish. "It started well with the team time trial and seven days in the yellow jersey, then I won the stage alone and now I've won the stage today against my countryman and with my teammate Hesjedal behind me.
"I was thinking that it was a bit like a national championships, which is incredible. We're the only two Norwegians in the race and we're fighting it out for the win."
Hesjedal was a vital support in the final 10km and in particular the last three kilometres, where he made life very difficult for Boasson Hagen.
"It wasn't that complicated in the finale; it was two against one and Thor and Edvald are a lot faster than me," said Hesjedal after the stage. "I just had to keep the pace high and it was up to me to ensure Thor had the best chance at the finish.
"It was an unreal day – so hard from the start – but we showed that there's no better team than Garmin-Cervélo in terms of teamwork. Four stage wins and it keeps getting better," he added.
It was also the day Cadel Evans showed what he's got in terms of the general classification, joining Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez in a late-stage move that netted the Australian time over his closest rivals – Ivan Basso, Andy and Frank Schleck plus Thomas Voeckler – ahead of the next few days in the Alps, where the overall title fight will become intensify.
Evans is well poised overall and now sits 1:45 behind Thomas Voeckler, with the elder Schleck a further four seconds back and his younger brother facing a deficit of 3:03 to the race leader and a massive task ahead of him in the coming days.
Better late than never
After two weeks of hectic racing the peloton was hesitant to end its rest day as it took over 100km for the day's break to finally flee the bunch. Despite numerous attempts there was no consensus on who should be in the move until finally a group got away with about 60km remaining in the stage.
The chosen few were: Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil-DCM), Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), Andriy Grivko (Astana), Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Alan Perez Lezaun (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo), Dries Devenyns (Quickstep), Mikhail Ignatiev (Katusha) and Jérémy Roy (FDJ).
With the cord finally broken, the break had an advantage of 1:03 with 56km remaining; a nature break allowed the escapees to gain a more comprehensive gap on the peloton and a kilometre later it had grown by 50 seconds. And with 52 clicks to the finish that had blown out to 3:17, continuing to grow rapidly.
Consequently, the gap hit six minutes with 45km before the finish in Gap until Ignatiev, tried his luck flying solo with 20km to go before the day's final climb, similar to his effort in stage 15, although with so much quality on his tail the move wasn't going to reap rewards. Devenyns ensured that would be the case.
Hesjedal picked up where Ignatiev and Devenyns left off, maintaining the electric tempo at the head of the break and eyeing the teams fourth stage win in what has been a productive run for Garmin-Cervélo at this year's Tour.
Once, twice, three times the champion
With 15km to go and with the focus on the break, defending champion Alberto Contador took the opportunity to attack the bunch as it hit the day's final climb. It forced the big names from BMC Racing and Leopard-Trek plus maillot jaune Voeckler into action.
And with Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck, Samuel Sanchez and Voeckler keeping Contador company the move didn't achieve what the Spaniard had maybe hoped, although in reality it was never going to be a killer blow with so many rivals keeping themselves so close to the Saxo Bank-Sungard captain.
Not content with the result of his previous sortie, several kilometres later Contador was at it again, forcing Evans, Schleck, Sanchez and Voeckler to chase hard for a second time. The attack had more venom to it this time and consequently only the Australian and Euskaltel-Euskadi captain could follow. The former took over the pace making in an attempt to drop the race leader and Leopard-Trek's Luxembourger brothers.
Ahead of the theatrics, Hesjedal continued his lone run to the line in the atrocious conditions, although Boasson Hagen, keen to grab another stage win, and his countryman Hushovd – also with a victory under his belt this Tour – were hot on his heels and caught the Canadian on the descent with nine kilometres remaining.
Showing all of the climbing prowess and daring that have netted him six grand tour victories, Contador hit Sanchez and Evans with another attack – his third of the afternoon – to make life just a little more difficult for the pair, although they demonstrated they were up to the task and stayed with the defending champion.
Stand up, Mr Evans…
On the descent of the Col de Manse it was Evans looking more suited to the title of champion elect however, pushing hard downhill to gain more than 30 seconds on the likes of Fränk Schleck and Voeckler. Brother Andy was timid on the descent and finished 48sec behind Fränk and 1'09 behind Evans.
"I wasn't expecting so much [splitting] on the climb; I was prepared for everything on the downhill because it was a little bit dangerous and so on," said Evans after the finish. "Last year when we came here I had a broken arm and that downhill really scared me.
"This year I was up front, alone, followed the moves and the guys – George [Hincapie] and Burghy [Marcus Burghardt] got me in the right position at the bottom of the second last climb. From there I just had to play my cards right… It's all a bit of a blur right now but I think it was a good move and a good day."
At the head of proceedings, Hushovd was torn; he had to counter the threat of young countryman and friend Boasson Hagen whilst trying to protect his own interests and those of teammate Hesjedal. The younger Norwegian tried his luck with 2.5km remaining and entering the final kilometre the trio remained together.
After Hesjedal had opened the sprint in the final 500 metres it was always going to be the two Norwegians fighting for line honours and it was the more experienced, reigning world champion, who took the prize, his second of the 2011 Tour de France.
About three minutes later, and approaching the final three kilometres, Evans decided it was time to further stamp his authority on this year's Tour by going alone and attacking on the flat, leaving Contador and Sanchez scratching their heads and forcing Leopard-Trek to its panic station in an attempt to minimise the losses for both Schlecks.
Whilst he maintained his rage until the line and gained only three seconds over Contador, it was a clear message that he'll be a solid force in the coming days as the Tour de France reaches a crescendo with stern Alpine tests and the Grenoble time trial before the final day in Paris.
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.