Brilliance. That's the only way to describe the fantastic stage win by Sylvain Chavanel and the retaking of the maillot jaune. Additionally, Jerome Pineau also added more points to his king of the mountain jersey and as they're both on the same Quick Step team, this was fantastic riding by both them and the team.
Pineau had gone out early (inside the first kilometre) and was in a long break away for most of the day, while Chavanel attacked on the penultimate climb quickly bridging up to the leading breakaway. Of course, behind the ‘big-guns' who are fancied for winning the Tour overall sat tight and waited. They pretty much all came in together, which isn't to say they were taking it easy).
While there were six categorised climbs today, none of them were as long or as steep as the riders will have to face in the Alps and Pyrenees. It's possible to estimate the power the riders were working at during the climbs, but as all the main contenders came in together it is unlikely there was a 'superhuman' performance amongst them today. It was also extremely hot today and this is likely going to reduce the power output that most people can produce.
So, given that there was no shake out of the main GC hopes it's probable that the main riders were climbing at about 5.5 W/kg or just under. That's still a huge amount of power and well beyond the scope of Joe Average 3rd category racer, who can probably sustain that power for about 3 to 5-minutes...
For the long time breakaway rider Jerome Pineau, he'd have been riding the climbs at a lower power compared to the GC contenders. This can also be seen by the fact that in the latter stages he was with Danilo Hondo who isn't a climber. Of course, when you go for such a long breakaway and have to ride at a hard tempo the whole day, this reduces what you can do if you were only working hard for part of the stage, e.g. at the end.
During the stages, the main contenders are safely cushioned within the peloton, and this allows them to save energy as the air drag they have to overcome is much reduced in a group. So, when the time comes to attack they can ride hard and generate large amounts of power. If you've been stuck on the front of the peloton riding as a domestique or been in a small breakaway group all-day then you'll have been putting out more energy and power than if you'd been sheltering in the peloton. This reduces the amount of effort you can put out on say the climbs, as power is inversely related to how long you ride for. In the peloton, sheltered riders will be cruising and often not pedalling for long periods of time.
From the breakaway group, newcomer to the Tour Rafael Valls Ferri made a storming attack towards the end of the stage, and at one point I thought he may catch Sylvain Chavanel. However, he possibly accelerated too hard at the beginning of the attack, as after taking some time back on Chavanel he started to fade and lose time on him. While it's important to push on hard in a race and attack hard, it's also important to know your limits and not significantly overshoot them as this can lead to trouble. I think we'll see more of him in the mountain stages.
Of course, tomorrow is the first big day in the mountains in this years Tour and it's highly likely results from today and riders will be turned upside down and that there will be a new GC leader in town!
Ric Stern (www.cyclecoach.com) is a full time British ABCC coach. During this year's Tour de France, he will be providing a physiological insight into the challenges that face the riders in each stage.