Blel Kadri (Ag2r-La Mondiale) raced through the rain to win alone at the summit finish in Gérardmer La Mauselaine and claim stage eight of the 2014 Tour de France.
The Frenchman, winner last year of the Roma Maxima, was a member of a five-strong breakaway that contained Britain’s Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE), and launched his own bid for victory after chasing down the first of the escapees to blink: the vastly experienced Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling).
Once clear of his compatriot, there was no stopping Kadri, who rode alone for the final 25km, leading over the summits of the final three climbs and collecting the king of the mountains jersey, as well as the plaudits for stage winner.
He said: “I’m really, really happy. It’s an amazing feeling that I have right now. I want to thank my team because I told them that I really wanted to go for it today.
“I knew that Sylvain was going to try to attack. I just tried to follow him. I took my time, but I also felt he was beginning to tire a bit. It was tricky to take the chance so early, but I went for it.
“The main aim for the team was to win a stage. To get the polka dot jersey, well, that’s important too.”
Today’s gruelling 161km run from Tombaline brought an examination of the form of many of the leading riders, including yellow jersey, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and pre-race favourite, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
The two favourites fought an extended duel in the closing kilometres, with Nibali finally cracking just 50m from the line. Team Sky’s new leader, Richie Porte, kept both men in sight, and crossed the line seven seconds after the Spaniard.
Tomorrow’s 170km stage from Gérardmer to Mulhouse offers a still greater challenge as the peloton spends a second day in the Vosges. Some five categorised climbs, including the first category Le Markstein, await the riders, as well as a sharp descent before a flat run to the finish.
The stage in detail
Chavanel attacked early, breaking clear after just 30km and sparking an unexpectedly fractured response in the peloton that saw it split briefly into three sections, with Garmin-Sharp leader, Andrew Talansky, who had crashed heavily a day earlier, among those caught at the back. Niki Teprstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) bridged to Chavanel, with Simon Yates the next to make it across the gap. Kadri and Adrien Petit (Cofidis) soon joined them.
The quintet worked effectively to build a lead that peaked at more than 11 minutes, but with the efforts of Tinkoff-Saxo slashing their lead as the denouement approached, Chavanel attacked on the slopes of the day’s first climb: the 891m Col de la Croix des Moinats.
Kadri clawed his was back to his compatriot’s wheel, while Yates continued to display the impressive maturity that has become his calling card by refusing to panic, and continuing to set a steady tempo, followed by Paris-Roubaix winner Terpstra and Petit.
Some five minutes further down the road, Tinkoff-Saxo set a ferocious tempo, signalling the intentions of team leader, Contador, to claw back some of the time lost to his rivals on the cobbled fifth stage.
Kadri makes his move
Kadri wasted no time in riding away from Chavanel. The IAM Cycling leader suddenly looked as if he was feeling each of his 35 years. His young compatriot forged on ahead, while behind Chavanel, Yates suddenly represented danger. Contador danced on the pedals for the first time as the peloton reached the Moinats some 4.30 after the breakaway, and with three team-mates ahead of him, appeared well protected.
Sizable crowds lined the road to the Moinats’ summit, but Kadri seemed unaware of their exhortations, such was his focus in maintaining the same aggressive tempo, before beginning a careful descent on treacherous roads. He lead too onto the Col de Grosse Pierre: a climb offering 900m of pain and a peak gradient of 16 per cent. With rain running down his face and falling from his chin, the Frenchman cut a determined figure.
Tinkoff-Saxo shifted from ‘determined’ to ‘full gas’ as they swept beneath the 15km to go kite. The men in fluro yellow were strung out in a tell-tale pace line, with Team Sky’s newly-appointed leader, Porte, held a watching brief, and behind him, race leader Nibali similarly attentive. The role reversal may not have been lost on Porte, frequently used to setting tempo himself. Contador appeared at ease in the saddle, but his look of concentration betrayed the importance of the task at hand.
Kadri forged his way through a multitude gathered at the summit of the Grosse Pierre, seeming barely to notice the rain, but perhaps alarmed by news from the radio that his lead had fallen below four minutes for the first time.
Michael Rogers was next on the front for Tinkoff-Saxo, replacing an exhausted Rafal Majka, who fell back rapidly through the struggling bunch having set a formidable tempo for Contador. The roll call of strugglers included Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol), Pierre Rolland (Europcar), and Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida).
Rogers reprised his performance at the Giro d’Italia on the Mont Zoncolan by leading the bunch over the Grosse Pierre’s peak 16 per cent gradient, his face a mask of pain. Contador, by contrast, retained an impassive expression, riding close to the wheel of second man, Nico Roche. Nibali and Talansky remained in close proximity.
Jakob Fuglsang was the next rider dropped, and by far the most significant. The Dane had worked tirelessly for Nibali for almost an entire week, but the effort of defending a yellow jersey so early in the race had clearly taken its toll. The shattered remains of the peloton sped on in almost complete darkness as cloud cover increased. Rogers unwittingly opened a gap on the descent, making too much of the advantage of a clear road ahead. Astana’s Tanel Kangert had less success, and slid into spectators on a tight corner.
The 2km to go kite would have been a welcome sight for Kadri, who tip-toed his way through the tighter corners, before standing and dropping the hammer again as the final climb of the day approached: the 10 per cent ascent to a summit finish at Gérardmer La Mauselaine.
Talansky crashed for a second time in two days, sliding into a camper van on a descent, and slowly resumed his progress after receiving impromptu mechanical assistance from a spectator at the roadside.
Kadri was a study in determination as he pushed on to the finish, seemingly riding in his own mental space and blocking out the conditions and enormous crowd to seal a memorable triumph.
Behind, the race for the GC exploded. Having burned all of his support riders, Contador attacked as he passed beneath the flamme rouge with Nibali fastened, limpet-like, to his rear wheel.
The Italian nullified the Spaniard’s attack, but seemed to be bracing himself for a second assault. As Porte clawed his way into the picture, Contador kicked again. The Australian lost ground, but Nibali stubbornly clung on.
As Contador rested Porte drew closer, but the Spaniard, dancing again, was not finished. He sprinted a final time with the line in sight, and finally Nibali cracked. Porte too lost time, but neither man will lose sleep. If they can limit Contador’s gains to a handful of seconds each day, they will retain hope.
Tour de France 2014: stage eight – result
1) Blel Kadri (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – 3.49.28
2) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +2.17
3) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +2.20
4) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky +2.24
5) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ.fr +2.28
6) Jean-Christophe Peraud (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – ST
7) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +2.36
8) Tejay Van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +2.40
9) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +2.48
10) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – IAM Cycling +2.54
1) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – 33.48.52
2) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +1.44
3) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky +1.58
4) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +2.26
5) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +2.27
6) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +2.34
7) Romain Bardet (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +2.39
8) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida +2.52
9) Bauke Mollema (NED) – Belkin – 3.02
10) Jurgen Van Den Broeck – ST