Lance Armstrong may have won more stages of the Tour de France in the post-war era than anyone else except Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinhault, and his RadioShack team may boast some big names in Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer and Janez Brajkovic, but it was the less heralded Sergio Paulinho who this afternoon claimed the American outfit’s first victory in cycling’s most famous race on Stage 10 into Gap.
If the Portuguese rider’s lucky number isn’t already 10, it really should be – before today’s win, by far the biggest victory of his career had been Stage 10 of the 2006 Vuelta, when he was riding for Liberty Seguros-Würth.
Paulinho, who other career highlight is claiming silver behind Paolo Bettini in the 2004 Olympic road race in Athens, joined Discovery Channel in 2007, then moved with team manager Johan Bruyneel first to Astana, where he was very much in the Armstrong rather than Contador camp at last year’s Tour de France, then to RadioShack.
The 30-year-old had fought out the sprint this afternoon with Caisse d’Epargne’s Vasili Kiryienka, the pair being the last survivors of a four-man break that had got away after 40km and which was subsequently joined by two French riders seeking that elusive Bastille Day victory.
With Kiryienka, the best placed of the escapees in the GC, three quarters of an hour down on race leader Andy Schleck, the peloton effectively awarded itself an extra rest day after an incident-filled opening ten days of the race, and eventually rolled into Gap almost 14 minutes after the stage winner.
“It was a close sprint,” Paulinho said afterwards, his words reported on the Tour de France website, “but the most important thing is to win and so this moment, for me and my team, is a good one. I hope that in the coming days the team can achieve a few more victories."
His team mate Leipheimer now lies sixth overall, a second shy of four minutes behind Schleck in the overall standings, and with Armstrong out of contention following his disastrous Stage 8 to Morzine-Avoriaz on Sunday, Paulinho suggested that RadioShack now has its sights set on another goal for the rest of the Tour.
“The team started with one objective and that is the general classification,” he explained, “but also the team prize so for us the Caisse d’Epargne, Astana and Rabobank are the most important rivals and that’s why I put myself in the breakaway because there was a guy from the Caisse d’Epargne team,” adding, “We’ll stay in the fight for the team GC.”
As to the personal magnitude of today’s victory, the Portuguese rider simply said, “For me this victory is more important than the silver medal in the Olympic Games. This is the best race in the world and to win one stage in the Tour is the pinnacle of what a cyclist can achieve."
Meanwhile, there were intriguing sub-plots being played out in the race for the green and polka dot jerseys today, with the latter, appropriately enough for Bastille Day, involving three French riders.
At the start of today’s stage, the polka dot jersey was sported by Bbox Bouygues Telecom’s Anthony Charteau, who took it almost by default yesterday after being the first rider over the Col de la Madeleine.
That tied him on points with Quick Step’s Jerome Pineau, who had started the day at the top of the mountains classification. Both had been involved in the day’s break, but with Pineau dropping back before the Madeleine, Charteau took the jersey on countback.
However, there seems to be a tacit agreement between French riders and teams that Pineau represents the best chance of a home rider winning a jersey of any description this year.
To date, he has amassed his points almost unopposed, an exception being one of the climbs on yesterday’s Stage 9 when the Tour’s oldest rider, Christophe Moreau of Caisse d’Epargne, sprinted ahead of him to take maximum points on one of the climbs, earning himself a rebuke form his own team management.
Today, though, it was business as usual as Pineau, who had missed the day’s break, headed the main field up the day’s major climb, the Category 1 Cote de Laffrey, afterwards offering a hand to Charteau, who had followed his wheel to the top of the climb, as he rode back into the polka dot jersey by a single point.
After today’s stage, Pineau said: “Yesterday I was very disappointed because the work I did in the breakaway was all for nothing. I like this polka-dot jersey, I think it suits me well and so I wanted it back. It was enough of a sprint to get there.”
He continued: “Initially, I wanted to try to be part of the the escape, but this was not the kind of stage start which allows me to put myself in the move. Then I was happy when I saw that there would still points to be distributed at the top of the Laffrey climb.”
“At the top, both Charteau and I sprinted ahead but I was faster than him on this kind of climb. There’s no friends in the heat of competition but I have respect for him and that’s why we shook hands after the sprint.
That may not quite be how the rest of the world sees it – Charteau had seemed almost apologetic to have taken the jersey away from Pineau yesterday – and the Quick Step rider seems to have the upper hand in the mountains competition as the race heads towards the Pyrenees.
However, the presence of Moreau, 29 points back in third place, may give him some sleepless nights. The 39-year-old announced on Monday, the day before his attack on Pineau, that this would be his last season, and it’s likely that he’s planning on going out on a high by winning the polka dot jersey – which explains his decision to ride off the front of the main field today to crest the final categorised climb alone, although it turned out that the available points had already been taken by the escapees further up the road.
With Pineau evidently struggling on the bigger climbs in the Alps lin recent days and Moreau a perennial contender in the Dauphiné Libéré, winning it twice, and for several years the best-placed Frenchman in the Tour itself, this could evolve into one of this year’s more intriguing battles.
The fight for the green jersey is also shaping up to go to the wire. This afternoon, Mark Cavendish finished ninth on the stage, taking the bunch sprint as the peloton finally crossed the line, suggesting that he still believes he can win the points competition, despite a disastrous start to his campaign that finally burst into life last Thursday and Friday when he won back-to-back stages.
However, although he now lies 41 points behind defending champion and points competition Thor Hushovd, who seems to be lacking the competitiveness he had last year in out and out bunch sprints, it’s intriguing that HTC-Columbia didn’t do more to try to get Cavendish into a position to win today’s first intermediate sprint, which came after just 19.5km.
Instead, it was Hushovd of Cervélo TestTeam who took the maximum six points on offer, and he was followed under the PMU sign by Lampre-Farnese Vini’s Alessandro Petacchi and Katusha’s Robbie McEwen, who picked up the minor points.
It’s clear that to stand any chance whatsoever of winning the sprints competition, Cavendish will need to win as many of the remaining sprint stages as possible – potentially, that’s tomorrow’s Stage 11 in Bourg-les-Valences, Friday’s Stage 13 into Revel, Stage 18 to Bordeaux a week after that, and then the final day’s Stage 20 on the Champs-Elysées.
It’s a tall order, but if anyone can do it, an in-form Cavendish can, and last week suggested that the Manxman is getting back to his best. But can he afford to let his potential rivals to the prize carve up the intermediate points when they are there for the taking?
As Hushovd himself said following today’s stage, as reported on the Cervélo TestTeam website,“The big battle for the green jersey started today, now every point matters. We will have to battle every day like this. I have to grab points when I can. I am going to try to win another stage. That would be the best way to gain points. It will be a real battle all the way to Paris.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.