It usually takes a highly-publicised doping scandal to bring Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme to the brink of tears.
But on Friday it was 23-year-old debutant Brice Feillu, giving the hosts their second stage victory of the race, who brought the emotions flooding out after an impressive ride to victory on the first day in the mountains.
Feillu, a specialist climber who rides for Agritubel with his brother Romain, took his chance by attacking his small group of breakaway companions inside the final 6km of the 10.1km climb to Arcalis.
And despite fearing he would be reeled in by Cofidis rival Christophe Kern, he dug deep on every remaining corner to come over the finish line with a five-second lead on his fellow Frenchman.
After Thomas Voeckler’s gutsy win at Perpignan, it brought smiles to the faces of the hosts who, despite having plenty of racing talent, are still waiting for an heir to Bernard Hinault, the last French Tour champion in 1985.
“I’ve got tears in my eyes, and that doesn’t happen to me often,” said Prudhomme as he congratulated Feillu.
A first year professional, for Feillu it was already an accomplishment being picked to ride the world’s toughest bike race for his division two team.
“I’m just a first year pro, I’m only 23 and I’ve been given my chance to race the Tour,” said Feillu. “It’s a great victory, and in a big mountain stage – what more can I ask for?
“I had a similar performance when I won the Ballon d’Alsace amateur race last year. I love these kind of finales where you always have to dig deep to accelerate on the corners.”
Joining Feillu at the finish after arriving with the sprinters’ ‘grupetto’ at 28:29 behind, older brother Romain could not hold back his tears.
“When I saw they had a seven-minute lead at the bottom of the Arcalis climb I thought, ‘he’s going to win’. I just knew it,” said Romain, a former Tour of Britain winner who placed third in three sprint finishes at last year’s race.
“It augurs well for the rest of the race. Hopefully he’ll do something else in the Alps. But he’s already made a superb entry on to the Tour.”
Whether he wins another stage or not, this stage win could count double for Brice when it comes towards securing a contract at the end of the season, when Agritubel are set to fold.
Discord at Astana?
Alberto Contador relaunched his bid for the 2009 yellow jersey on the first mountain stage of the Tour de France Friday, after taking back time previously lost to teammate Lance Armstrong.
Speculation since before the race that Contador’s Astana team might favour the seven-time champion instead of the much younger Spaniard, who won the race in 2007, has so far failed to abate.
Astana teammates lance armstrong (l) and alberto contador during stage 7 of the 2009 tour de france.: astana teammates lance armstrong (l) and alberto contador during stage 7 of the 2009 tour de france. PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images
And this latest episode in Astana’s mystery book of race strategies, which on Friday saw Contador take 19 seconds off Armstrong to move up to second overall, has left no one the wiser.
In recent days Armstrong has indicated he will aim for an eighth Tour de France crown, while Astana team manager Johan Bruyneel refuses to reveal who their official team leader is.
Contador’s move on Friday meanwhile put his ambitions back in the spotlight, and comments from both Bruyneel and Armstrong hinted there could be discord in the team.
“No one had specific instructions to attack,” said Bruyneel when asked if he had given Contador the green light to go.
Armstrong admitted Contador’s move had not been expected: “I was a bit surprised. Things didn’t go according to the plan we’d set out earlier, but it didn’t matter. It was a fine day overall.”
While Contador finished the race 3:26 behind new yellow jersey holder Rinaldo Nocentini, Armstrong and his group came over the finish at 3:47.
The American is still third overall, however, at just 8 seconds off the leading pace with teammate Levi Leipheimer fourth at 39.
With Andreas Kloden in sixth, one place behind surprise Briton Bradley Wiggins, it means Astana still have four riders in the top ten.
However, ahead of two more days in the Pyreenes, Bruyneel would have preferred Nocentini to have gained much more than the slim six-second advantage he has on Contador, so his AG2R team could take over the responsibility of defending the yellow jersey.
“Six seconds is not a lot. We’d hoped for a bit more. Hopefully AG2R are now going to honour their responsibility of defending the race lead,” added the Belgian director.
Armstrong had first shown his yellow jersey ambitions on a calamitous third stage on Monday when he took 41 seconds off Contador, who was trapped behind in windy conditions after the Columbia team had forced a damaging echelon.
The next day the American moved to within 0.22 seconds of the race lead — then being held by Fabian Cancellara of Saxo Bank — after Astana won the team time trial.
On the first day in the mountains on Friday there were no spectacular fireworks between the big contenders for the race’s yellow jersey.
However, Contador attacked with apparent ease inside the final two kilometres of the 10.1km climb to the race’s first summit finish.
Armstrong simply sat back and kept a tight rein on their yellow jersey rivals, Cadel Evans of Australia, Andy Schleck of Luxembourg and Spain’s defending champion Carlos Sastre, before finishing 19 seconds after Contador.
“When you’ve got a guy away, like I’ve said all along, you just got to stay on one wheel,” Armstrong said. “Schleck put in some good moves, Cadel put in some good moves, but you gotta just stay on the wheel – that’s bike racing.
“It’s not a very steep climb, so the speed was quite high.”
But the seven-times Tour de France winner said he was feeling good after the steep 10.1km climb up to Andorra’s Arcalis ski station.
“I feel good, it was a fine day, I think overall we’re fine as a team,” he added. “It may be tough, it’s high and the elevation hurts, but I don’t feel as tired as I thought I’d be.”
Bruyneel said he had not given the team a specific plan to attack and said Contador had acted on his own initiative.
“We didn’t have a specific plan to attack, our plan was to maintain our collective strength first and wait for attacks from the others,” said Bruyneel. “Alberto counter-attacked after an attack, our plan had been for the riders to communicate and respond.
“I had no race radio at that time or TV, so it was something they decided themselves,” he added.
Tour mountains claim first victim in Joly
Sebastien Joly of the Francaise des Jeux team became the fourth rider to pull out of the Tour de France when he abandoned on the seventh stage Friday.
Sebastien joly of the francaise des jeux team.: sebastien joly of the francaise des jeux team. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images
Joly got off his bike just before the peloton rode into Andorra, having gone over four climbs and ridden 175km of the mammoth 224km ride from Barcelona to Arcalis ski resort.
Belgium Jurgen Van de Walle, and Dutchmen Piet Rooijakkers and Robert Gesink have already been forced out of the gruelling race, although all three riders abandoned after crashing.
© 2009 AFP & BikeRadar