Cadel Evans, winner of one of the most eagerly anticipated stages of the 2011 Tour de France today on the Mur de Bretagne, has been singing the praises of his BMC Racing team mates for helping him get back to the bunch to contest the finale after suffering a mechanical problem. Meanwhile, Thor Hushovd has been reflecting on holding on to the yellow jersey, to the surprise of many, and Team Sky have been looking back on a day that ended with three of their riders in the top eight of the GC.
Philippe Gilbert of Omega-Pharma Lotto, the team Evans left just weeks after winning the World Champioships in Mendrisio in 2009, had been installed as a strong favourite for today’s stage which coincidentally took place on his birthday. However, some strong GC contenders were also in the 10-man group contesting the finale, including Alberto Contador, looking to make up the time he last on his rivals at the weekend.
The Spaniard attacked first on the climb of the Mur de Bretagne at the end of the 172.5km stage that had begun today at Lorient, but was swiftly brought back and it was Evans who made the decisive move for the line. Contador went with him, however, and seemed to be about to celebrate a stage win until he realised that there was nothing between himself and the BMC man and a photograph was needed to separate the pair.
“In the final sprint I was committed but I didn’t want to launch too hard because I knew the others could have come around me,” revealed Evans afterwards. “I saw Contador closing in on me but I just had to hold him off. It came down to the throw to the line and right at the finish I couldn’t even see who crossed the line first. I honestly didn’t see it… I was just focused on reaching for the line. I really had to wait for the official result myself before I knew for sure that I’d won.”
The 34-year-old’s victory was a hard-fought one, however, and not just in his going head to head with the defending champion in the finale – Evans had needed to change his bike as the race headed into its closing stages due to a mechanical problem and it was only through the unstinting efforts of his team mates that he go back to the main bunch.
“With around 20km to go something happened. I think someone hit my derailleur so I had some problems with my gears,” he disclosed. “At that moment my bike worked but you have to have everything perfect for the finish so I took a moment and, George [Hincapie] with his experience, told me: ‘Change bikes now!’ It was Marcus Burghardt who took me right to the front and thanks to him I could deliver in the end.
“I was only on my own for the last kilometre or so… I think everyone saw George there two or three kilometres to go and it was having him there to watch out for me and Burghardt there to deliver me to the front 15km to go after a quick bike change that made the difference.
“It was thanks to my team that I could do what I did in the final there. That was the first objective and if I could do something in the stage was extra. To win a stage here in the first week is a real bonus and I owe it all to my team.
Evans has spent spells in the yellow jersey in two previous editions of the race – images of him being comforted by Mauro Santambrogio after losing the race lead on a day he rode with a broken elbow are some of the most memorable of last year’s race – and although today’s win puts him into the polka-dot jersey, his eyes are on the bigger prize.
“I’m here for the overall classification and I’m just very happy to get through today without too many problems and be in front. To try for the stage win – and get it – is already fantastic and now we’ll look towards tomorrow and beyond,” he explained.
“As a bike rider you have to have confidence in yourself but you should exude this otherwise you’re considered arrogant so it’s important that I have the confidence of my team-mates and I have full confidence in them,” he added.
Garmin-Cervelo’s Thor Hushovd had been expected to struggle to hold on to the race leader’s maillot jaune today, but he came over the line in the same group as Evans and Contador to finish sixth on the stage.
It was a fantastic performance from the Norwegian given the toughness of the finish and the fact that he had played a super-domestique role in helping Tyler Farrar to his Fourth of July stage win yesterday – not many sprinters get led out by a world champion who happens to be wearing the yellow jersey.
“Our goal now is to defend the yellow jersey and also for Tyler to win another sprint,” Hushovd stated after today’s stage. “It will be hard to control the race because there are still a hell of a lot of attacks and a lot of riders like to win stages but maybe I’ll keep it until the stage on Saturday which is a hard finish.
“Today I think I did a perfect climb. I did all in my rhythm and I didn’t really follow the attacks. Then I put it in the big ring at the top of the climb and came back to the other leading guys and just had enough to stay there with them – so I’m a happy man here today.
“I really had to fight. I went so deep to stay with the climbers but I’m pleased that I managed to be there and keep the yellow jersey. There was a moment there on the steepest part, just before it got flat at the top, that I thought I’d lose a few meters but I was able to sprint up and close the gap and that was the biggest effort of the day so I had no chance of passing and doing the sprint for the stage win.
Reflecting on his team’s Tour de France to date, Hushovd, who unlike his team mates in the race tasted success in previous editions with Cervelo TestTeam, including wining the points classification in 2009, said: “What Team Garmin-Cervélo has done until now is just beautiful. It’s a dream start and it seems like it’s not stopping. We’re just loving it and we have to keep going.”
Garmin-Cervelo remain top of the team classification, but Team Sky are now snapping at their heels, with just a 2-second deficit on the US outfit. Today, Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran finished strongly to claim fourth on the stage.
Bradley Wiggins finished 11th, just six seconds down on the winner, and Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen were a further two seconds back. Those three riders respectively occupy sixth, seventh and eighth position on the GC, and sports director Sean Yates was happy with the afternoon’s work.
"It was an exciting finish and it’s good we’ve still got the three guys in the top 10 on the GC,” said Yates, himself a former wearer of the yellow jersey. “Everything is very much on track and we’re in the right place but it’s a long waiting game in many ways, especially for Brad.
"We knew it was going to be hard on that final climb today and so it proved. Those sort of finishes don’t particularly suit Brad but he only lost six seconds to the front group so it was a great result and the team worked well.
"The plan was to make sure Brad was in the right place at the bottom of the climb and then it was always going to be a bit of a free-for-all after that. So it proved and plenty of guys attacked on that final climb - and Rigo was one of those who was able to fire which was good to see."
Reflecting on today’s finale on the Mur de Bretagne, Wiggins said: "It's probably not much of a climb if you do it in training but the way the stage was, with the wet, the wind and a nervy peloton, that was pretty tough at the end of 170k.
"I just conceded a few seconds at the top there but gained a lot on other people and at the end of three weeks it's not going to mean much. It was a tricky finish and it's a question of making sure you stay out of trouble again, staying upright and getting it all out so I'm pretty happy.
"It's still early days yet and these stages are all about not giving anything away but the real stuff is still to come."
Geraint Thomas agreed with his team leader that it had been a punishing finish to the stage, saying: "We started the climb at the front, with Brad in a good position, and then it's all about giving everything to the top and getting up it as quick as you can.
"Those last 500 metres were hurting a bit but I just had to hold the wheel in front of me and all in all I think it's another decent day for the team.
Thomas retains the best young rider’s white jersey, which he has held since finishing sixth on the opening stage of the race, and the 25-year-old from Cardiff is clearly relishing the responsibility that comes with wearing one of the Tour’s four jerseys.
"There was a lot of stress in the bunch earlier on and it was a long, hard day especially with the weather playing its part too,” he said. “But I feel pretty good and have just been getting stuck in every day; when you've got a jersey like this you have to dig in and give it everything - and I'm enjoying it."
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.