Escape's success doesn't faze Astana
SAINT-GIRONS, France -- The Tour de France danced in place Saturday, as Stage 8 unfolded with the peculiar choreography of a day in which every rider at the start knew a breakaway group was almost sure to win.
It may be hard to understand how 172 men can ride almost 110 miles over three challenging climbs, yet leave the top of the overall standings untouched. Get used to it. The same thing is likely to hold true Sunday, although that Pyrenees stage includes a pair of famously backbreaking ascents up the Col d'Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet before rolling terrain gives way to a downhill finish.
Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong remain in second and third place, respectively, six and eight seconds behind Italy's Rinaldo Nocentini, whose French Ag2r team protected his yellow jersey by sending a man ahead in an early breakaway.
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That rider, Russian Vladimir Efimkin, wound up battling for the stage victory, relieving Ag2r of any obligation to chase for most of the day.
Instead, Astana formed a flying wedge in the front of the peloton and did what it does so efficiently -- maintained the status quo. Both Contador and Astana director Johan Bruyneel said it would have taken too much effort for the team to try to reel in the overall lead at this point in the race.
The real intrigue of the stage occurred when Australia's Cadel Evans, Tour runner-up the past two years, fought his way into the breakaway during a tough uphill start in Andorra. He was not entirely welcome, as he entered the day just more than three minutes out of the lead.
The other riders in the group were gunning for various goals -- a stage win, points in the green-jersey hunt -- and knew the top teams would not give Evans a long leash, so they set about trying to ditch him.
"We all spent a lot of energy trying to get rid of him,'' said Team Columbia-HTC's George Hincapie, a veteran of 14 Tours who understands the game as well as anyone. "We finally got rid of him by attacking nonstop and then three guys came from behind from the peloton, and caught us right before the feed zone. Those were the three guys who basically were the strongest on the last climb because they didn't burn any matches.''
Evans didn't lose any time in the end, but he was apparently miffed. In a blog posting, Evans accused the other riders in the break of acting like "3-year-olds in a temper tantrum ... that's racing, and a little bit to do with why you don't often see serious GC [overall] threats in breaks -- usually a waste of energy.''
The breakaway eventually disintegrated and four men went on by themselves, including eventual stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez of Spain. Hincapie, a versatile rider capable of winning stages by sprinting out of a small group, made one last attempt to bridge up to them but couldn't quite muster the legs.
"It was kind of an unfortunate situation, but that's the way breakaways work, you've got to have everything go right,'' Hincapie said. "I'll keep trying, look for breakaways like that and hopefully I'll get lucky.''
One jersey did change shoulders, however, as Hincapie's teammate Mark Cavendish of Great Britain ceded the top sprinter's garment to veteran Thor Hushovd of the Cervelo team. The big Norwegian classics specialist, a hardy climber for his size, was able to hold his own in the breakaway and won the first two intermediate sprints ahead of Hincapie to move ahead of Cavendish in what should be a wrestling match all the way to Paris.
Cavendish finished florid-faced in Saturday's heat with a large group that rolled in 23 minutes behind Sanchez. Asked about the team's tactical plan for the young star, Columbia owner Bob Stapleton said simply, "His tactic was to survive.''
Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck was the other Tour contender to try an attack, but did it in a seemingly more logical spot, early on the climb of the Col d'Agnes, the day's third and last obstacle. His acceleration whittled down the elite group, but he didn't gain any ground on the men ahead of him and remains in ninth place, 1 minute, 49 seconds off Nocentini's pace.
Sometimes these forays are more useful for the rider's ability to gauge his form and test the waters than they are standings-wise, and in that sense, the 24-year-rider from Luxembourg continued to show that he deserves to be taken seriously.
Armstrong was tapped for an anti-doping control after the stage -- his second in 24 hours and 40th since his comeback, by his own estimation -- as was Contador. Dehydration made the process longer than usual, and the Texan declined to talk to waiting reporters afterward, saying he was tired.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Follow her Twitter feed here or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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