Today's stage seven of the Tour was one of the biggest tests for the general classification riders—the first mountaintop finish of the race. The longest stage of the Tour, at 224 kilometers, took the riders from Barcelona to the small country of Andorra, over several very tough mountains, finishing on the beyond-category-rated Arcalis.
Many events on the road did not play out as expected. Many thought that the breakaway would get caught on the final climb as the overall contenders raced up the mountain at breakneck speeds with attack after attack.
In reality, the breakaway survived the day. Forming only a few kilometers into the day and faced with over 200 kilometers of distance off the front of the peloton, Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne), Christophe Riblon and Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Christophe Kern (Cofidis), Jérôme Pineau (Quick Step), Brice Feillu (Agritubel), and Johannes Fröhlinger (Milram) hoped to make it to the finish before the peloton.
Treated to an over 12-minute advantage at the base of the long climb of the Arcalis, it was readily apparent that the winner of the day would come from the breakaway.
As the Astana-controlled peloton was flying up the ascent, it spit previous race leader Fabian Cancellara (Saxobank) out the back, but the advantage up to the breakaway was completely insurmountable by that point.
Lance Armstrong (Astana) had assumed the virtual race lead on the road, or so people thought. Actually, up ahead in the breakaway, some forgot that Nocentini had started the day 3:13 behind Armstrong in the classification, and he had more of an advantage than that going for him.
Pre-race favourite Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) was the first to attack out of the main bunch. His effort was completely fruitless, though, as Armstrong was immediately on his wheel, followed by most of the Astana team and the rest of the general contenders.
Then Evans's teammate Jurgen Van Den Broeck was the next to try his luck, in the hope of setting up Evans again.
But all attempts were shut down completely and definitively when Alberto Contador (Astana) shot out of the pack like no other rider in the peloton can. He built a mind-boggling lead almost right away, caught Van Den Broeck, and then left him for dead.
The headwind made for a tough final few kilometers, and Contador later said that it limited the raw time that he could have gained with his attack at two kilometers remaining.
Up ahead, first-year professional Brice Feillu (Agritrubel) had attacked the breakaway with fewer than five kilometers to go and soloed to the first win of his career. Coming in second and third were Christophe Kern (Cofidis) and Johannes Fröhlinger (Milram).
Contador ended the stage in ninth place. In only two kilometers and with a headwind limiting his speed, he managed to put 21 valuable seconds into the group of favourites.
Tonight, thanks to the advantage his breakaway kept to the finish, Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2R) managed to snatch the yellow jersey away from an Astana-dominant leader board. He holds only six seconds over Contador, who slots into second, and eight seconds over Armstrong, who is comfortably in third.
Astana still holds several spots in the top six, with Levi Leipheimer in fourth and Andreas Kloden in sixth.
Tomorrow's 176-kilometer ride from Andorra back into France in Saint-Girons contains three big mountains, the first of which coming right from the start, the last of which coming 40 kilometers before the finish. While the finish is flat, a sprinter showdown is out of the question.
A breakaway comprising capable climbers has a good chance to survive, and riders such as Cofidis leader David Moncoutie, who said he is targeting the polka-dot mountain points jersey, needs to feature in the breakaway tomorrow to gather valuable points and possibly win the stage as well.