Tour de France stage 8: Costa’s winning break as Contador continues to look vulnerable

Stage 8: Aigurande to Super-Besse Sancy, 189km

The first mountain stage of the Tour, even one of only moderate difficulty such as today’s, always results in a moment of revelation as the yellow jersey contenders are forced to reveal their hands, while the sprinters who traditionally dominate the general classification in the opening week tumble down the order faster than a skier down the slopes of Super-Besse. Movistar’s Rui Costa, the last survivor of the day’s breakaway, clung on to win the stage by just 12 seconds, as behind him defending champion Alberto Contador showed more of the vulnerability which his rivals had already glimpsed on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on Tuesday.

Alberto Contador grimaces after an aborted attack which failed to shake off Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Van Garderen shows his potential

A nine-man break – including Rui Costa, AG2R’s Christophe Riblon, Europcar’s Cyril Gautier and promising HTC-Highroad youngster Tejay Van Garderen – formed early in the day, building a lead of 6:10. Julien El Fares (Cofidis) and Aleksandr Kolobnev (Katusha) claimed the single points on offer over the two fourth-category climbs after 65.5km and 119.5km, while the intermediate sprint in between was won by Riblon. When the peloton arrived at the sprint point, Philippe Gilbert claimed the six points for tenth place ahead of José Joaquín Rojas, with Mark Cavendish content to soft-pedal across the line in 13th to minimise his losses.

With the break’s lead reduced to two minutes at the start of the penultimate climb of the day with 31km remaining, the 6.2km, 6.2% second-category Col de la Croix Saint-Robert, Van Garderen ignited the race with a strong attack at the base of the mountain, immediately reducing the lead group to six, then three and finally just himself and Costa.

Behind them, the peloton was also subjected to attack as the main contenders remained happy just to ride tempo. One group of three went off the front, and then the polka dot jersey of Johnny Hoogerland, followed by Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha, also attacked in search of mountains points.

Costa hangs on to win as Vinokourov fails in a bid for yellow

Nearer the summit, one of the race’s big guns finally tried a serious move with designs on the yellow jersey, and it would have surprised no one that it was Alexandre Vinokourov who made it. The Kazakh veteran’s trademark solo attack quickly carried him clear of the peloton and soon saw him starting to sweep up the other attackers and the initial break’s cast-offs. Despite two previous top five finishes and four stage wins, Vino has never actually spent a day in the leader’s colours at the Tour, and a desire to do so in what is likely to be his final attempt at the race helped drive him on far enough ahead of the BMC-driven maillot jaune group to become the virtual yellow jersey on the road.

Costa became the first breakaway survivor to win a stage at this year's Tour

Up ahead, the two leaders were rejoined on the descent from the Saint-Robert by Gautier and Riblon, and as the quartet approached the final Super-Besse climb they started to attack each other repeatedly. It was not until Costa made a decisive kick on the early part of the climb with just under 6km to go that the group disintegrated, and the Portuguese rider kept going on his own until the finish to claim the biggest win of his career.

Behind him, Vinokourov had continued to close but the other leading contenders also upped their pace on the final part of the climb as they jockeyed for position. Gilbert accelerated on the front under the 1km banner in a late attempt to snatch the win. However, he had a problem trying to shift gears and was forced to drop back momentarily. Contador had a small but quickly aborted dig, and then tried a second time after Gilbert, who this time had successfully managed to shift into the big ring, powered over the top of him. But, not helped by a stiff headwind, the defending champion’s move lacked the explosiveness we normally expect from him. Cadel Evans was easily able to catch and overtake him, to which Contador was unable to respond. With only a few hundred metres to go to the finish, nobody decided to press the advantage further, and in the end virtually all the main contenders finished in a bunch fifteen seconds after Costa and three behind Gilbert, who was closing rapidly at the end but ran out of road.

Second place was enough to reclaim the green jersey for the Belgian champion while Van Garderen, in claiming maximum points over the top of the Saint-Robert, became the new leader of the mountains classification.

Surprisingly, Thor Hushovd finished with the leading group to retain the yellow jersey. His cause was helped by the headwinds, the steady pace and lack of full-on attacking from the main contenders, but this was nonetheless a Herculean effort from the big Norwegian, who is now guaranteed a full week in the most coveted jersey of all. Levi Leipheimer added another 14 seconds to his losses of the previous two days, while an out-of-sorts Robert Gesink, hampered by back pains after crashing on stage five, lost 1:08 on the other favourites.

Costa was both exhilarated and relieved to have held on for the victory:

Winning a stage of the Tour de France is a dream for me. I can’t believe it. Since the start of the race I’ve felt very fit. I am confident, but you never know what can be done exactly. A stage win is amazing.

Throughout the day the break worked well. When I attacked I felt that was the right time, and I was the strongest.

Then Vinokourov was right behind me, and I thought he would catch me. But I gave everything, and I managed to keep my lead. It’s great.

Hushovd was delighted to have held on to the yellow jersey for one more day against expectations:

I didn’t think I could stay in yellow after this stage, even if deep inside I had plans to try. But you know I have good form – the best form I’ve ever had – and that allows me to go really deep and get everything out of my body and of course that’s what I did again today. It gives me motivation again to keep the yellow jersey on my back.

And Contador claimed that he was feeling strong, despite the evidence on the road suggesting otherwise:

I felt really good going up the climb. I managed to follow Gilbert. But what counts most for me is to know I’ve got good legs. If there is any battle to come, I don’t think it will start till the Pyrenees.

As a neutral, it is hard to feel anything but great joy to see a Movistar rider succeed at the Tour, after a traumatic two months in which first Xavier Tondó was killed when a garage door fell on his head and then Mauricio Soler spent three weeks in an induced coma with serious head injuries suffered in a crash at the Tour de Suisse. His prognosis remains uncertain, with the spectre of long-term brain damage still a distinct possibility.

What can we conclude from this stage? For sure, Contador looked extremely vulnerable in the final kilometre, and was fortunate that the Schleck brothers remained passive and did not back up Evans’s late acceleration. They might only have gained a handful of seconds in doing so, but the psychological impact of seeing Contador dropped at the end of a week in which he has been on the back foot throughout could have been enormous.

It is possible we may look back on this as the day when the other contenders started to genuinely believe they can beat Contador in the mountains. However, it should also be remembered that on stage eight last year Andy Schleck dropped the Spaniard by ten seconds in the final kilometre of the climb to Morzine-Avoriaz, which was perceived as a sign of the champion’s weakness and yet proved to be something of a false dawn.

Stage 9 preview

The peloton must tackle eight categorised climbs on a profile which is constantly up and down after the first 40km. The toughest ascents come in the middle of the stage with a trio of second-category mountains, including the first-ever visit to the Col de Perthus (4.4km at an average of 7.9%). The cumulative effect of these climbs will test the yellow jersey contenders and break many legs in a peloton facing its ninth consecutive day of racing at the end of a tougher-than-expected opening week. If a decisive breakaway has not already escaped. the final slopes of the Saint-Fluor climb (1.6km at 6.1%) will be a perfect springboard for a late attack. It is a finish perfectly suited to an explosive climber or a classics specialist. Expect a constant succession of breaks and counter-attacks throughout the final 100km, as this will be an impossible stage for any team to control.

Stage 8 result:

1. Rui Costa (Movistar) 4:36:46

2. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:12

3. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:15

4. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +0:15

5. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:15

General classification:

1. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 33:06:28

2. Cadel Evans (BMC) +0:01

3. Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:04

4. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack) +0:10

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

6. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

7. Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad) +0:13

8. Peter Velits (HTC-Highroad) +0:13

9. David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:19

10. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:30

Points classification:

1. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) 187 pts

2. José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) 172 pts

3. Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) 153

4. Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) 130

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 120

Mountains classification:

1. Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) 5 pts

2. Rui Costa (Movistar) 5

3. Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) 4

4. Anthony Roux (FDJ) 3

5. Cadel Evans (BMC) 2

Links: Tour de France official

Race analysis

Is the new green jersey points system working?

Stage recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages


Tour de France analysis: Is the new green jersey points system working?

One of the big changes for this year’s Tour de France has been the way the points competition for the green jersey has been organised, with additional emphasis being placed in two areas: the value of winning a stage – the differential between first and second place on a flat stage is now ten points (having previously been just five) and the change to having just one intermediate sprint per day, but with more points being available (20 for the winner, rather than six) to more riders (down to 15th, rather than just to the top three).

The thinking behind these rule changes is twofold. Firstly, it promotes the idea that the green jersey will be won by the fastest sprinter, not the most consistent one. And secondly, it makes the intermediate sprints meaningful. Too often in the past, the break of the day would mop up the available points, leaving nothing for the sprinters in the peloton to fight over. But now, with points being awarded down to 15th, every intermediate sprint has become an event in its own right, a race within a race, which has had the effect of bringing more sprinters to the fore to challenge for a meaningful number of points in a best-of-the-rest race after the breakaway has swept past.

There is no dispute that Mark Cavendish is currently the fastest sprinter at the Tour, having won six stages in 2009 and five in 2010. And yet in both years he has failed to secure the green jersey. Last year Alessandro Petacchi took two early wins and was able to defend his lead all the way to Paris with a string of five other top three finishes. Cavendish crashed on stage one, took until stage five to register his first win, and never managed to overcome Petacchi despite being significantly superior to him thereafter. And the year before that Thor Hushovd won just one stage, but the cumulative effect of his consistent finishing – three other top three and four top ten finishes – selective attacks in the mountains and a Cavendish disqualification again meant the Norwegian was able to hold his significantly faster rival at bay.

That is categorically not the case this year. With the steeper differential between the top few places under the new system, Cavendish would almost certainly have won in both years (assuming he at least held his own in the intermediates sprints). For instance, previously two wins would have earned fewer points (70) than three fourth places (72). Under the new system, the wins would carry greater weight (90 vs 78), favouring outright speed over consistency.

The greater effect that stage wins has on the standings is illustrated in the graph below. After a slow start by Cavendish in which he was unable to contest the uphill finishes on stages one and four, he trailed José Joaquín Rojas by the significant margin of 48 points. However, even though Rojas has more than doubled his total since then, Cavendish has won two of the last three stages and also won the best-of-the-rest intermediate sprint on the last two days. This has reduced the deficit to a much more manageable 17 points in the space of three days. In previous years, he would not have been able to close the gap so fast. On the graph, you can see how rapidly Cavendish’s yellow line has converged on Rojas’s blue one.

Analysis © Tim Liew

The tactics of who competes at which intermediate sprints is also evolving. Riders such as Rojas and Philippe Gilbert know they cannot beat Cavendish on a flat finish, and so they are looking to maximise their points everywhere. Tyler Farrar specifically targeted stage three for a win, for which he saved his legs by not contesting the intermediate sprint, leaving Hushovd to fly the Garmin flag there. On stage five Cavendish, desperate for his first win and knowing that the finish featured some leg-sapping ramps, did not overly exert himself and settled for a minor placing at the intermediate, where Borut Božič was best of the rest. Conversely, Cavendish went all-out to secure maximum points on the intermediate sprint the following day, knowing that he would not be able to contest the win because of a steep climb close to the finish.


Intermediate sprint winner (excluding breakaways)

Stage winner





Team time trial












Boasson Hagen




Important though the intermediate points can be, there is a fine balancing act to consider. Is it worth throwing everything to finish sixth for 11 points at the intermediate sprint, or are you better off settling for, say, ninth (seven points) if this maximises your chances of finishing with a stage win (45 points) rather than a second place (35, i.e. ten points less)?

All this means that, as well as producing more exciting racing, there is also a much more complex and satisfying strategic element which goes beyond trying to win every stage.

How will the top contenders win the green jersey?

Looking at the current top five in the points competition, we have a varied mix of pure speed and all-round ability, which lends itself to distinctly different approaches to the intermediate and final sprints, dependent on terrain and rider characteristics. Here is a quick look at the top five, and some thoughts on how each might achieve their goal of winning the green jersey.

José Joaquín Rojas (Movistar) – 1st, 167 pts

Rojas has been Mister Consistent so far during this race. He has yet to beat his fellow sprinters head-to-head at either intermediate or final sprints, but has finished third (twice), fourth, fifth and ninth and consistently collected points at the intermediates. He has picked up at least 17 points on every stage, and is the only rider so far to have racked up at least 25 points on four separate days. He benefits from being his team’s sole focus in the sprints and will pick up extra point on hilly intermediates/finals which are too tough for Cavendish or Feillu. A few extra points here and there in the mountain stage sprints could make all the difference.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) – 2nd, 156 pts

If Gilbert is to contend for the green jersey, he will need to continue targeting high finishes on the hilly rather than mountainous stages and sneaking every point he can at the intermediate sprints, as he cannot expect to out-sprint the likes of Cavendish, Greipel and Farrar, and is highly unlikely to pick up another stage win. However, he has led the competition for four days so far by virtue of his consistent performances. It’s unlikely, but if the other sprinters take enough points off each other he could certainly be there or thereabouts. The most likely threat to his chances comes from within his own Omega Pharma-Lotto team, as André Greipel is their lead sprinter. But if Gilbert can stay in touch with the classification lead up to Monday’s rest day, the team may have no choice but to put their efforts behind him instead.

Image courtesy of Graham Watson

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) – 3rd, 150 pts

As ever, Cavendish will primarily look to gain his points in big chunks via stage wins. He knows that his scoring ability will dry up in the mountains, and yet he is the only man to date with two stage victories and two ‘wins’ heading the sprint out of the peloton at the intermediates. He will pick and choose his moments mid-stage, but his prime focus will be the flat finishes. If he can get over the final climb on stage ten, he will have a good chance of completing his hat-trick, after which he will target stages 11, 15 and the final day in Paris. Already we have seen Cavendish alter his tactics after a slow start. His stated strategy pre-Tour was to focus on winning stages and minimising his losses at the intermediates, but after a lackadaisical approach to the mid-stage sprints initially, he is now taking these seriously and has been best-of-the-rest at the last two. He must be considered the odds-on favourite for the jersey, given his current form.

Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) – 4th, 130 pts

Hushovd is the only rider to have finished in the top ten on each of the seven stages so far this Tour – a testament to his consistency and all-round ability – allowing him to steadily accumulate points. With his ability to get over smaller and medium mountains, he is the one most capable of sneaking into a break in the Alps and Pyrenees and earning crucial points there. His flat-out sprint is not what it used to be, so a stage win is probably beyond him now (at least on flat finishes), but if he can pop up and earn extra points here and there he could repeat his 2005 performance, where he won the green jersey despite failing to win a stage. This would probably require Garmin to change their tactics, however, as Farrar is the team’s nominated sprinter on flat finishes, which all the remaining sprint stages are.

Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) – 5th, 99 pts

Feillu is a long shot for the green jersey. Like Cavendish, he will score his points mostly in big bunches on flat stretches of road. SO far, he has scored 25 or more points three times, but accumulated just nine points elsewhere. Realistically, he will need to win at least one of stages ten and 11 to put himself into serious contention, and then ensure he scores more consistently than he has done so far.

One thing is for certain. If any one sprinter can dominate over the four remaining flat stages, they will almost certainly win the green jersey in Paris, which is exactly how the organisers intended it.

In conclusion the green jersey competition is just as exciting as ever, but the promotion of the intermediate sprint ensures that even the dullest stage holds some interest for the sprinters. Whether the close and unpredictable competition for the jersey is due more to the effect of the new points system or the varied nature of the opening week’s flat stages is unclear, but it is certainly forcing the sprinters to pick and choose where to put in their big efforts. With a greater range of strategic options open to riders, there are now more ways in which a wider variety of riders could legitimately win the points competition, and that is no bad thing. Is the new system working? I would say yes.

Links: Tour de France official website,

Tour de France recaps

Stage 1: Gilbert climbs to victory as Contador faces uphill battle

Stage 2: Hushovd takes yellow as Evans misses out by one second

Stage 3: Farrar’s green jersey challenge is born on the 4th of July

Stage 4: Evans wins slug-fest but Hushovd clings on to yellow

Stage 5: Cannonball Cav conquers crash carnage

Stage 6: Boasson Hagen wins battle of the strong men

Stage 7: Cavendish wins again as the Sky falls in for Wiggins

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Ten riders to watch

Six key stages

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