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What has been dubbed the 'Tour of anarchy' by the French press took another totally unexpected turn on today's first mountain stage as riders from two of the most unfancied teams dominated proceedings and walked off with the major prizes. Having joined a break that started 38km into the stage from Cambo les Bains to Pau, Ag2r's Cyril Dessel and Agritubel's Juan Miguel Mercado steadily dropped their fellow escapees and rode into the finish together, where the Spaniard took the stage win and the Frenchman the rather considerable consolation of the yellow and polka dot jerseys.
During the Lance Armstrong era we became used to the first mountain stage being used as a show of force by the American, but this year's event is still without an obvious leader, which must have given many of the lesser lights added motivation this morning. Numerous breaks went and came back until what eventually proved to be the start of the winning one formed after the first sprint.
Fifteen riders were in it. Two were dropped on the first Pyrenean climb, the oddly-named 3rd-cat Col d'Osquich (50km), and more damage was done on the much longer Super Category climb of the Soudet (101.5km), where Dessel and Mercado forged clear in what was initially a private battle for King of the Mountains points. They were caught by Euskaltel duo I¤igo Landaluze and I¤igo Isasi and Saunier Duval's Christophe Rinero on the descent. Later Cdric Vasseur (Quick Step) and Christian Moreni (Cofidis).
At this point you'd have expected the peloton to start an urgent pursuit. But as the septet sped on towards the first-cat Col de Marie Blanque (148km), their lead grew from seven minutes to almost 11. On the Marie Blanque, Mercado and Dessel went head to head again, and even with 42km from this summit to the finish they were never caught.
With the peloton still several minutes in arrears as the lead pair came into Pau, all that remained to be decided was the stage-winner, and Mercado narrowly took that after attacking from 300 metres out, in the process justifying the Tour's decision to grant his Agritubel team a wild card entry.
"The truth is I was the strongest of the escape group today and I knew that I could improve my position in the overall standings and win a stage," said Mercado. "Dessel wanted to get the polka-dot jersey and the yellow jersey and was prepared to negotiate but I didn't want to. I preferred to take my chances.
"I think I was stronger in the last kilometre and I gave it everything in final sprint. A victory is a victory and it's difficult to compare it the stage I won in Lons le Saunier [in 2004]. It was really difficult to get into the right escape group this morning because the peloton was reacting to every move. It was great to be in the right one but it was important to push on with the effort until we knew that the bunch wouldn't chase anymore."
Dessel became the first French leader of this year's race, and finds himself five minutes or so clear of the likely contenders for the title. "This morning my task was to try to get into an escape if more than a dozen riders were involved. You need a bit of luck for that, and I had that as well as legs that were on fire today," he said.
"On the first climb I saw Mercado was the man to watch, that he was the strongest. We let Landaluze, Isasi and Rinero come back up to us to work better on the flat, then we worked hard together off the last mountain to keep ahead of Landaluze. When Mercado realised I was going for the stage win as well he stopped coming through and then waited a long time before making his sprint. But even despite losing that it has been a fantastic day."
Stage 10, Cambo les Bains-Pau
1 Juan Miguel Mercado (Spa) Agritubel 190.5km in 4.49.10 (39.53kph)
2 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r
3 I¤igo Landaluze (Spa) Euskaltel 0.56
4 Cristian Moreni (Ita) Cofidis 2.24
5 Christophe Rinero (Fra) Saunier Duval 2.25
6 I¤aki Isasi (Spa) Euskaltel 5.03
7 Cdric Vasseur (Fra) Quick Step 5.35
8 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Lampre 7.23
9 Erik Zabel (Ger) Milram
10 Stefano Garzelli (Ita) Liquigas
1 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r Prvoyance 43.07.05
2 Mercado 2.34
3 Serhiy Gonchar (Ukr) T-Mobile 3.45
4 Moreni 3.51
5 Floyd Landis (USA) Phonak 4.45
6 Michael Rogers (Aus) T-Mobile 4.53
7 Landaluze 5.22
8 Patrik Sinkewitz (Ger) T-Mobile 5.30
9 Andreas Klden (Ger) T-Mobile 5.35
10 Vladimir Karpets (Rus) Caisse d'Epargne 5.37
11 Cadel Evans (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto
12 David Zabriskie (USA) CSC 5.38
1 Robbie McEwen (Aus) Davitamon-Lotto 211
2 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step 188
3 Oscar Freire (Spa) Rabobank 181
1 Cyril Dessel (Fra) Ag2r Prvoyance 54
2 Mercado 45
3 Landaluze 38
Teams: Ag2r Prvoyance
Best young rider: Marcus Fothen (Ger) Gerolsteiner
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