Just 11 weeks ago, Sylvain Chavanel fractured his skull during Liège-Bastogne- Liège, but tonight the Quick Step rider is celebrating pulling on the Tour de France race leader’s maillot jaune for the second time in a week after a fine solo win at Station de Rousses in the Jura Mountains this afternoon.
Chavanel, who also won Stage 2 in Spa on Tuesday – coincidentally, on a day when the race followed some of the Liège-Bastogne- Liège route where he suffered his injury after being hit by a team car – spent several weeks out of competition while his wounds healed, and in remarks quoted on the Tour de France website this evening joked that the rest had done him good.
“I think next year I will no longer compete for the month of May, considering the form I’ve currently got at the Tour,” said Chavanel, who comes from Châttelleraut, near Poitiers. “I had legs of fire, and I knew I was on climbs that suited me very well – a gradient of four per cent, hills more than mountains,” he continued.
The 31-year-old confessed, however, that he had found himself in something of a dilemma during the stage, with team-mate Jérôme Pineau, wearer of the polka dot jersey, having got into an early breakaway as he sought to consolidate his lead in the mountains classification.
“At first I was afraid to attack, because I did not want to take any riders up to Jérôme,” said Chavanel, who eventually bridged the gap on his own to Pineau on the day’s final climb, adding that “When I did eventually catch him, he told me: ‘Go ahead!’ He was exhausted.”
He continued: “I began to think of the yellow jersey on the last climb, and I told myself that after having lost, it was quite a coup to take it back again,” but he is realistic about his chances of retaining it as the race hits some major climbs in the Alps tomorrow.
“I will do everything to defend it,” he insisted, “but I know that the battle will mainly concern Contador, Schleck and Evans. In the midst of it, I’ll always give everything but if I lose it does not matter,” he added. “Right now I’m on my little cloud, I’m floating and I don’t know how else to describe it. But I see that I have great support on the road and everywhere. It warms my heart.”
Pineau, who had stated his intention yesterday to get into an early break with a view to picking up points for the mountains classification, said that the his and Chavanel’s success was down to the strength of the Quick Step team, despite the absence following injuries received during the Tour of Switzerland of its biggest star, Tom Boonen.
“Of course he [Boonen] is a great champion, but we also proved that there are other riders,” Pineau maintained. “At the Giro d’Italia, many doubted us, and we won two stages. At this Tour de France, they still doubted us and we have won two stages, and taken the yellow jersey twice,” he went on.
As for his hopes of remaining in the mountains jersey beyond tomorrow, Pineau said: “I like this polka-dot shirt and I have good legs, so we do not set limits. And if ever Sylvain must take a chance, he will do so without any problem and with our support because it will only do so if he feels strong."
According to Andy Schleck, whose Saxo Bank team mate Fabian Cancellara had begun the day in yellow but lost a quarter of an hour on Chavanel as the mountains took their toll, the lack of attacks from the big names today came as little surprise.
“There were no battles between the favorites today but that’s how we expected it to be,” he explained. “It was a chance to survey how everyone is going on the climbs. Lance looked really good, so did Alberto and I hope they say the same about me. That’s why nobody really attacked. It was not a day that is going to decide the winner of the Tour,” he added.
Schleck, missing the support of brother Fränk who broke a collarbone after falling on the cobbles in Stage 3, expects the general classification to be shaken up by the end of tomorrow’s stage in Morzine-Avoriaz, but was at a loss to explain why reigning champion Alberto Contador’s Astana team had sought to force the pace at the front of the bunch today.
“I didn’t really understand the tactics of the Astana guys. They dropped half of the peloton and that didn’t really need to happen today. In the end, nobody wanted to pull anymore and why should I? I had only one team-mate and I didn’t want him to work because we still had the yellow jersey even if he was 10 minutes back.”
The Luxembourg rider, runner-up to Contador last year, now lies fourth in the overall standings and also moved up to the top of the young rider’s classification, in which he is looking to emulate Jan Ullrich’s record of three victories.
“I’m happy to have the white jersey again. I’ve got the nicest podium girls so of course I’m pleased,” he joked. “I’m aiming for yellow but this is now the beginning and I hope I can go higher on the podium. I feel pretty good and now we take it from here and fight to the end.”
The man who started the day in the white jersey, Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who had also been lying second in the general classification, suffered on the climbs as the stage approached its climax in temperatures of over 30 degrees and finished 5 minutes 18 seconds behind Chavanel, resulting in him dropping to 31st overall and 6th in the young riders competition.
The 24-year-old Welshman said afterwards: "I felt pretty good but then late on my legs just went with 10km to go.” He added, “I never expected to be in the position I was in - it was good to have a go but I just didn't quite have it today."
Cadel Evans of BMC Racing, who now lies second overall, is prepared to continue to play a waiting game tomorrow but believes that others among the main contenders may decide to try and make a decisive attack.
“I think it'll be another day where the main GC contenders are looking at themselves, testing themselves," the World Champion said. "We'll see if someone really wants to lay it on the line and try and blow it apart. Someone like Alberto or Lance, it's probably in their best interest to do that. It's not like they've got that much too lose. For me, I'll see how they go and how I go."
Garmin-Transitions, who endured a difficult first week of the Tour with a number of team members injured during the chaos of Stage 2’s descent of the Col du Stockeu, including team leader Christian Vande Velde who was forced to abandon the race with broken ribs, had some cause for cheer today as Ryder Hesjedal moved up to third overall after finishing 8th on today’s stage.
“Today was great,” said the Canadian. “The team took care of me really well all day and it was perfect to have Johan there in the final. I am really pleased with my Tour so far and we will see what tomorrow brings. For everything we’ve gone through as a team at this Tour, I’m really proud of what we’ve done so far. We’ll just keep taking it day by day.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.