French hopes that their Tour riders would put on a special show for Bastille Day failed to be fulfilled yesterday despite having two riders in the winning break.
Whilst the overall favourites eased back on a stage that meandered for 179 kilometres through the southern foothills of the Alps, the day's victory was finally disputed between Sergio Paulinho and Vasil Kiryenka, from Portugal and Belarus respectively. The best Frenchman? Fourth, at over a minute back.
When Paulinho and Kiryenka took off on the final unclassified climb of the day, local TV commentators pointed out that Kiryenka has a French connection of sorts as his team is sponsored by a French bank, Caisse D'Epargne. That at least, would allow local honour to be saved on France's national holiday.
However, that particular vein of patriotism dried up when Paulinho (pictured) claimed his country's ninth ever stage win in the Tour — and first in 21 years — by outsprinting Kiryenka.
An Olympic silver medallist back in 2004, the 30-year-old's first victory in the Tour came after he and Kiryenka dropped the rest of the break, including two Frenchmen, just outside the finish.
Paulinho then took the two-man sprint with a mixture of cunning and strength, darting across the road as he accelerated before edging towards the centre again — a manoeuvre that just gave him the edge on Kiryenka's counter charge.
His strategy paid off richly, earning Lance Armstrong's RadioShack team their first stage victory — some consolation at least after Armstrong's stinging defeat in the Alps.
But whilst Armstrong's now total disinterest in the overall classification was reflected when he lost a minute to the other favourites yesterday for no apparent reason, Briton Bradley Wiggins’ bid for a top ten place suffered a new blow following a late lone move by Irishman Nicolas Roche.
The son of 1987 Tour winner Stephen, Roche junior sneaked out of the bunch with around 10 kilometres to go, because he said later: “They were all taking it fairly easy there and I didn't see why I should hang around.”
As a result, Roche is now 13th overall, while Wiggins has slid from 16th to 17th.
If Wiggins had a slight setback, Mark Cavendish's chances of the green jersey increased marginally when he outsprinted the classification’s current leader Thor Hushovd for ninth place.
Cavendish has now closed the gap to 41 points behind the Norwegian overall, but the importance of winning yesterday's sprint behind the breakaway was more in terms of boosting his morale - by proving to himself and his rivals he has come through the Alps in good shape.
Meanwhile, media reports in the USA state that the investigation into possible fraud and doping charges involving Armstrong's former team, US Postal, has intensified, with grand jury subpoenas being issued to several potential witnesses.
The investigation was sparked by allegations made by former Postal rider Floyd Landis that organised doping, funded by sales of bikes, regularly took place during 2002-2004 — when Armstrong was at the height of his powers.
Armstrong has consistently denied the claims, questioning Landis credibility, which he recently likened to a carton of sour milk: “one sip,” he said, “and you know the rest is bad.”
However, the subpoenas would seem to indicate that the federal authorities enquiry, are at the very least prepared to investigate Landis claims in full and leave no stone unturned.