Stage 7 today ended similarly to Stage 2, with Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) taking the win and moving into the Yellow jersey after taking a gutsy solo win. Chavanel has bounced back from a terrible crash at this year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege to take two stage wins and the Yellow jersey twice in one Tour. French cycling fans must surely be naming their young boys Sylvain for the remainder of this year at least.
The stage was billed as something of a transition stage into the mountains. The 6 categorized climbs were all relatively "safe" on their own, but with the combination of the last 3 climbs each being category 2 climbs, life was going to be difficult.
Unlike stage 2, Chavanel did not spend the entire day out on his own, but executed a perfectly timed attack to chase down a break that had been out all day. His teammate and Mountains leader Jerome Pineau was in that break and solidified his lead in the Polka Dot jersey. Even though the stage was supposed to be "easy", for a mountain stage, several riders were put into trouble as their legs (or injuries) couldn't handle the intensity of the final climb speeds. In the end, Fabian Cancellara succumbed to the pressure and finished 14+min behind Chavanel. He now switches back to his main role at the Tour of support rider for his team leader Andy Schleck.
Chavanel's victory put him back in Yellow, but it is likely to be another short stay in the golden tunic, as the real Alps are looming ahead and the real race contenders are sharpening their teeth for the battle ahead. After riding smartly today, pre-race semi-favorite Cadel Evans moved into 2nd on GC and is certainly the best placed of the true contenders for the overall. Surprisingly, Garmin's Ryder Hesjedal now sits in 3rd- and looked good on the climbs today... possibly another "Wiggins" in the making? With Schleck in 4th, Vino' in 5th and Contador in 6th, the GC is starting to really take shape. Lance is now up to 14th after looking supremely comfortable today, even when nearly completely alone towards the end. Wiggins sits in 11th, right behind Menchov (Rabobank) and just ahead of Kreuziger (Liguiqas). It's an interesting looking group...
It simply must be noted that Footon-Servetto rider Rafael Valls, a first year pro riding for the mostly forgettable Spanish team, fought bravely by himself to try to catch Chavanel and came within 57 seconds at the finish to grab 2nd and some great exposure for the team. Created from the ashes of the disgraced Saunier-Duval team of doper Riccardo Ricco, this humble team of unlikely riders came to the Tour as gigantic question marks. Valls just missed the win and true vindication for the team, but his effort was valiant and classy.
Tomorrow's Stage 8 promises to bring a lot of pain to the legs of anybody who has not quite recovered from their injuries of previous stages or from the efforts of today. 5 rated climbs, with two of them "only" being category 4 climbs, means that the hurt will last a long time. The final climb of the day- Morzine-Avoriaz- is a category 1 and 23km long, starting after 175km of racing... and the day before the first rest day of the race. Breakaways will certainly be going away constantly, but it is likely going to be the first real fisticuffs between the GC heavyweights. Astana, Saxo and RadioShack will likely all send attacks up the road to force the other GC rival's teams to chase. It was clear today that some of the GC support riders were holding back today, resting for stage 8... so the fireworks are likely to be impressive.
I expect to see Chavanel out of the jersey by the end of the day again... but who will take it from him? The final climb is one that could actually work well for Evans, since it is neither terribly long or terribly steep. It isn't really suited to the explosive nature of either Contador or Schleck, so they might not have much of a chance to get away. In the end... it's likely to be a good day for cycling fans.