Ignore the Saunier Duval one-two for a moment, today’s stage in the Pyrenees was a classic.

If Sunday’s stage did little to alter the overall picture, the one over the Tourmalet and on up to Hautacam shook it up like a child’s snow globe. Now the riders have the rest day to reflect on the new picture, followed by four awkward transitional stages before hostilities can truly resume.

The next mountain stage is Sunday’s incursion into Italy with the Col Agnel early on and the first-category summit finish at Prato Nevoso. That’s a long time for two riders to be split by only a single second. Tensions are going to be high by the weekend.

Bruised and battered Cadel Evans was counting the pedal strokes to Bagneres-de-Bigorre after his crash. Today he was counting the seconds to see if he would end the day with the yellow jersey on his shoulders. It wasn’t that the pain was any less. He was bleeding still, but he did it, despite Frank Schleck’s bold effort. Evans had a torrid start to the day when he suffered on the third-category Cote de Benejacq and had to reassure his team-mates he was okay, but he looked good on Hautacam.

The CSC team rode a great race. It was obvious they had to do something today. Having their three main men grouped together would do them no good in the long run, they knew that. They had to use that solid base as a springboard to send someone away. That someone was Frank Schleck.

But it was the preparation work they did that was so impressive. Sending Fabian Cancellara up the road meant he would be able to help set the pace in the valley before Hautacam. CSC had five men in that break and helped distance Valverde. Cancellara did his time trial thing before Jens Voigt gave it absolutely everything he had on the lower slopes of Hautacam. It was the perfect set-up.

Though the younger brother, Andy, succumbed to the enormity of the Tour de France. It’s easy to forget he’s making his Tour debut and that he’s still only 22. Now he’s lost all that time – seven minutes to the Evans group – he’s actually more use to CSC. He will have a week to recover strength and he’ll be able to move when the race hits the Alps should CSC need to try something else to wrest the lead from Evans for either the other Schleck or Sastre.

Sastre sat tight, possibly because history tells us he goes better in the second range of mountains than the first. Possibly because he thinks three tough Alpine stages will offer him the chance to crack Evans, but possibly because he’s just not strong enough.

There were several riders who suffered badly, losing any chance finishing on the podium. Alejandro Valverde was dropped near the top of the Tourmalet and never looked like getting back. It was the equivalent of waving the white flag. There’s no way back for him now and he’ll do well to even haul his way back into the top ten. Not many will shed too many tears over his sudden collapse.

Damiano Cunego, who has suffered every time the road has gone upwards, battled extremely hard on Hautacam, without much success. One joker suggested his ‘I’m Doping Free’ tattoo must be imbued with an energy-sapping quality but that’s just cruel. The style of racing at the Tour is not suiting him one bit and he looked shell-shocked before they even got to the big climbs.

If Riccardo Ricco did have any ideas about trying to win the Tour, Saunier Duval messed up today. They had the wrong two men up the road. Ricco is 2-29 down on Evans and would need to have a cushion of at least that himself to have any hope of holding off the Australian in the time trial to St-Amand-Montrond.

It’s all set up for a tremendous few days in the Alps. Four riders are within a minute of Evans. Schleck will be dangerous, but is as vulnerable as ever to suddenly grinding to a halt. His team-mate Sastre, who is 1-28 back, may be the one to make it onto the podium.

Denis Menchov was finally persuaded by Evans that it might be to his advantage to help set the pace on Hautacam, to limit Schleck’s gains. But will the cautious Russian do enough to gain a minute over Evans? Can he do that? He attacked with all his might to gain a handful of seconds in the Giro’s mountains, but it was a lot of effort for very little reward.

Christian Vande Velde of Garmin-Chipotle has ridden extremely well to remain third at this stage. Admittedly, he’s a seasoned stage racer, not unused to riding in the top 20 of the Tour, Giro or Vuelta, but he’s another you’d have expected to slip down today. Likewise, Bernhard Kohl has risen to fourth place with the minimum of fuss. These two are now eyeing a top ten finish in Paris. Vande Velde, certainly, could even have thoughts of the podium, which would be a tremendous result for Garmin.

It was an unpredictable stage with some riders looking good one moment, going backwards the next. There seemed to be a more natural ebb and flow to proceedings, not so much of the searing but robotic one-paced racing that eliminates from the back and offers little hope of accelerations at the front. And how long is it since so many big favourites found themselves in trouble on the penultimate climb of such a short stage?

For their part, the Evans group went through the full range of emotions. Evans knew he could not chase everyone so chose his targets. But as they neared the top of Hautacam, they did not eat into Schleck’s lead.

Today the big threat was Frank Schleck. Next weekend it’ll be someone else. In the meantime it’s not all going to be plain sailing.

Wednesday’s stage features a tricky first-category climb towards the finish in Foix. This is no ordinary transitional stage.

And if anyone knows how narrow the margin between success and failure can be, it’s Evans. But one single second? That’s pushing it, even for him.

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: STAGE REPORTS

Stage 10: Evans takes yellow jersey by one second
Stage nine: Ricco wins in the Pyrenees
Stage eight: Cavendish wins again in Toulouse
Stage seven: Sanchez takes action-packed stage
Stage six: Ricco storms to win
Stage five: Cavendish takes first Tour win
Stage four: Schumacher wins TT and takes race lead
Stage three: Dumoulin wins stage from break
Stage two: Hushovd wins chaotic sprint
Stage one: Valverde wins

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: NEWS

Cavendish talks about his second stage win [stage eight]
Beltran heads home but doubts remain about other Tour riders
David Millar: the dope controls are working
Manuel Neltran tests positive for EPO at the Tour
Comment: How the Tour rediscovered its spirit
Doping back in Tour de France headlines
Millar: close but no cigar in Super-Besse [stage six]
Super-Besse shows form of main contenders [stage six]
Millar to go for yellow [stage six]
Team Columbia’s reaction to Cavendish’s win [stage five]
Cavendish talks about his Tour stage win
Tour comment: Why Evans should be happy [stage four]
Millar: Still aiming for Tour yellow jersey [stage 4]
Who is Romain Feillu?
Cavendish disappointed with stage two result
Millar too close to Tour yellow jersey
Stage 2 preview: A sprint finish for Cavendish?
Millar happy after gains precious seconds in Plumelec
Valverde delighted with opening Tour stage win
Comment: Is Valverde’s win a good thing for the Tour?

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: PHOTOS

Stage nine
Stage eight
Stage seven
Stage six
Stage five
Stage four
Stage three
Stage two
Stage one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: BLOGS

Life at the Tour part three
Life at the Tour part two
Life at the Tour part one

TOUR DE FRANCE 2008: GUIDE

Tour de France 2008 homepage>>
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Day by day summary>>
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