Rivals hold fire at Tour de France

The attacks never came on the first mountain trek of the Tour de France, as defending champion Alberto Contador and his main rival Andy Schleck both held fire and let others contest victory on stage eight.

There was much hype about the possibility of a first hill-top duel following a crash-marred week of nervous racing on flats roads.

But with much harder climbs to follow in the Pyrenees and Alps, three-time Tour winner Contador preferred to save energy on Saturday’s stage in the Massif Central, which Rui Alberto Costa held on to win after a solo breakaway.

When Costa surged ahead late into the 189km trek from Aigurande to Super-Besse, the likes of Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan and Philippe Gilbert of Belgium tried — and failed — to chase the Portuguese down.

But, with neither Gilbert or Vinokourov a real threat for the overall title, Contador was not going to follow them for the sake of it. The Spaniard has bigger battles to win later on, harder mountains to climb.

The final climb up to the Super-Besse ski resort was less than 1.6km-long and, even if he had hunted down Gilbert and Vinokourov, Contador would not have been able to drop Schleck and Evans on such a minor climb — making chasing futile.

“It was not too testing a climb at the end and it was too difficult to split the pack,” Contador said after Costa won his first stage in a time of four hours, 36 minutes, 46 seconds ahead of Gilbert. Evans, the Australian, was third.

“We rode at a high tempo all day and we didn’t have time to get a rhythm going in the climbs,” Contador added.

Norwegian rider Thor Hushovd kept the overall lead heading into Sunday’s ninth stage, just one second ahead of Evans, something Hushovd described as “a miracle” as he is not a renowned climber and had expected to lose the jersey.

Schleck stays 12 seconds off the lead in sixth place, Contador is still 1:42 behind Hushovd in 20th spot.

Although Contador and his rivals did not take the bait by committing themselves to all-out attack, they still checked each other out. Heading into mountain stages, riders always look for indications as to what shape their rivals are in.

As Vinokourov and Gilbert surged after Costa, Contador, Evans and Schleck took turns to launch micro-attacks, but only because they were wanting to test each others’ reactions.

Getting the measure
“It was interesting to see how every one would end up,” Contador said. “I can see we are all very close. it’s very important to get the measure of other contenders.”

Even though he resisted the chance to go after Gilbert, Contador secretly felt he would have caught him.

“I had felt very, very good today,” Contador said. “I was capable of following Gilbert.”

After withstanding Gilbert’s charge, Costa waved his hands in delight and punched the air as he crossed the line.

“I knew I could get in the breakaway today. The team put me in the best position,” Costa said. “I was lucky that I managed to hold on until the end. I’m very happy with this win.

“I attacked on my own at the end. I saw that my legs were good and that I could hold it alone. When it got to 2km from the end, I really worked hard and managed to reach my objective.”

Costa paid tribute to Spanish cyclist Xavier Tondo, who died in May in a freak accident after he was crushed between his car and a garage door.

“I want to dedicate this win to all the people who believed in me and supported me,” Costa said. “To my family, my teammates, to Xavier Tondo.”

The stage featured a sharp category two climb up Col de la Croix and a final climb of 1.5km.

Gilbert of Belgium made up a huge amount of time on it, but finished 12 seconds adrift of Costa, with Evans finishing 15 seconds behind Costa.

“I needed a few more hundred metres,” Gilbert said. “The stage was very fast, there was a favourable wind. The last climb was very hard, I had to sit back down near the end of the line.

“The last 200m were very long, but I’ll take a second place on the Tour de France any day.”

Hushovd has been wearing the yellow jersey since his Garmin-Cervelo team won last Sunday’s time trial.

Hushovd was certain he was going to lose the yellow jersey before the stage.

“Maybe I was a bit pessimistic,” he said. “I didn’t think I could do it. Another day in yellow, it’s a miracle.”

Vinokourov, meanwhile, ran out of steam as he had no teammates to help him when riding for several punishing kilometres on his own. By contrast, Gilbert — winner of the race’s opening stage on July 2 — was fresher after sitting in with the main pack for much of the day’s climbs. He overtook Vinokourov after launching an attack with about 400m left. Vinokourov finished in 22nd place as many of the pack swallowed him up.

“Vino is really very strong, I take my hat off to him,” Gilbert said. “He deserved to win this stage.”

Hushovd, a two-time winner of the green sprint jersey, only has to survive one more day in the mountains to keep hold of the yellow jersey into Monday’s rest day and wear it on Tuesday’s 10th stage.

“I live in the south of France, in Monaco, and I train a lot in the mountains,” Hushovd said, joking about his newfound climbing prowess. “I also train a lot with Philippe Gilbert, and he pushes me.”

Costa’s win comes exactly one year after he was involved in a fight with Spanish rider Carlos Barredo at the end of the sixth stage of the 2010 Tour.

Barredo tried to strike Costa over the head with a bike wheel, and they fell to the ground screaming at each other.

“It was not beautiful, not at all,” said Costa, who rides for the Movistar team. “We became good friends after that.”

Saturday’s ninth stage is another medium mountain route from Issoire to Saint-Flour, before riders get a well-earned rest day on Monday. – AP

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