The eighth stage of the 2014 Tour de France added mountains to the already potent mix of crowds, crashes and cobbles that had fuelled an exhilarating first week.
The Vosges range may not offer the altitudes of the Alps and Pyrenees, but it certainly has gradient, and the three climbs that closed the 161km run from Tomblaine to Gérardmer La Mauselaine shattered the peloton in a style of which their taller cousins would be proud.
The day belonged as much, however, to the riders as to the roads, and one in particular, Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale), delivered a performance so emphatic that it deserves to earn him the lifetime of recognition afforded to a stage winner in cycling’s greatest race. Shrugging off the pressure to deliver a home victory, the Frenchman rode with a fierce concentration that appeared to set at nought the constant rain and noisy multitudes that greeted him at the summit of each of the three closing climbs. He produced an almost identical performance to win last year’s Roma Maxima. So what now might Kadri achieve?
News that Britain has a new star might not yet have reached the casual observer whose interest in the Tour is patriotic only and who might have declared the race over after the abandonments of Cavendish and Froome, but Simon Yates’ performance on stage eight is likely to change that. The Bury-born neo pro, enjoying the season of his young life at 21, enhanced an already formidable reputation by riding so confidently in the breakaway that Kadri revealed afterwards that he had launched his stage-winning attack to discourage Yates, rather than to escape the likes of Sylvain Chavanel and Niki Terpstra. Do Simon and his twin brother Adam already represent Orica-GreenEDGE’s long-term future?
While television pictures of yet another rain-hit day in France are likely to have inspired an ironic chuckle among the multitude who had gathered in sun-baked Leeds or Harrogate a week earlier, few among the riders who tasted the tarmac on another crash-strewn day are likely to have seen the funny side. But shouldn’t those with pretensions to victory at the Tour be able to perform in the wet? Should endurance by itself ever be enough to win a bike race? Or should skill always play a part?
Stage eight provided two races for the price of one. Not only did the breakaway provide a showcase for the determination of Kadri and the burgeoning talent of Yates, but it provided a battleground for the first of what we expect to be many personal battles between maillot jaune, Vincenzo Nibali, and joint pre-race favourite, Alberto Contador. What might we learn about the ultimate destiny of this year’s race from the extended confrontation between the two Grand Tour champions that shaped the closing kilometres of stage eight?
Richie Porte has been elevated to the position of Team Sky leader by the abandonment of defending champion, Chris Froome. The Australian, whose performance as super domestique was integral to Froome’s victory last year, had his first opportunity to exhibit his talents in the leader’s role on a climbing stage on the cols that brought the climax of stage eight. What did his performance on the road to Gérardmer reveal about his prospects for overall victory?
We’ll address all these questions and more on the following pages, where we’ll make a detailed analysis of stage eight, and offer five observations. Share your own in the RCUK Forum.