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He said he was going to win in Paris. He’s said it since day one. It’s bold to make such big claims with that brand of unflinching confidence, but Cavendish has a way of delivering the goods. And today on the storied Champs-Élysées was no different.

The Englishman stormed away from everyone to claim his 6th (and most dominating) win of this year’s Tour. The moment marked the 10th Tour de France stage win of his career and the realization of a major goal for the entire Columbia-HTC team.

How it unfolded

Champagne and smiles were the order of the day for the first half of today’s stage which saw the riders enjoying their final hours in the 2009 Tour de France. Some were celebrating GC victories, some were celebrating success in the classification competitions, but most were simply celebrating survival.

But when the group turned onto the storied Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, it was back to business. On tap? A frenzied sprint and a bid for one of the highest honors in the sport – the top podium spot for the final stage win of the Tour. Glory in Paris is every sprinter’s dream.

Traditionally, the stage to Paris ends with an 8 lap race around a 7 kilometer circuit – the perfect venue to set up a dramatic finish.

The requisite attacks went out almost immediately as a few escape artists attempted to thwart the sprinter’s plans, but the Columbia-HTC train was having none of it. As the field sped along the circuit through the city, all 9 Columbia riders moved to the front to drive the pace and string out the 156-man peloton.

With wind ripping at 25 mph near the summit of Bald Mountain, Columbia-HTC’s Tony Martin battled for a second place finish after riding in a breakaway for nearly the entire 104-mile stage. The strong winds battered the main field throughout the day and made for a challenging chase by the peloton, allowing Martin’s group to stretch their gap to as much as 8 minutes and 45 seconds with 28 miles until the finish.

Massive crowds lined the narrow roadway as the breakaway lifted the pace at the base of the final climb and the group shattered as the grade kicked up. One by one, riders faded backward down the hill as Martin pressed on through a wall of sound, flags, cowbells, noisemakers, and rabid screaming fans.

At the end of the day, he was among just two men to stay away from the chasing GC group of Contador, Armstrong, Wiggins, and the Brothers Schleck. Martin’s lone companion at the summit was Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate, who pulled away in the final meters to steal the stage victory from the young German.

Despite the near-miss for the day’s top honors, Martin’s incredible ride bodes well for the future of a man who is sure to become a top GC contender in the coming years. Keep your eye on this one!

The showdown: Schleck attacks not enough to shake up the GC

This was the day everyone was waiting for. 104 miles of truth. 5 climbs primed and ready for race leaders to lay down the pain. A final, grueling battle on the slopes of Mon Ventoux. Heat, wind, and relentless attacking.

When the sparks finally started to fly, Alberto Contador proved to be as unstoppable as many have suspected.  Likewise Lance Armstrong, who fended off one attack after another in order to defend his third place position in the overall classification.

They said he couldn’t win on an uphill finish. They said he couldn’t win without his long, roaring leadout train. The said he wouldn’t win today. But he did.

Nobody – and I mean nobody – expected Cavendish to make it over today’s Category 2 climb with the main field to be in position to contest a bunch finish. But there on the Col de l’Escrinet, the Englishman battled up the final slope, towed by loyal teammates, and crested with the field.

“It was so painful, it was so hard.” Cavendish reported moments after the stage, “I was just sitting there suffering and it hurt so much. I talked to the team before the stage and I said, ‘Just wait for me. Just wait for me…’”

After the climb, there was still 18k until the finish – and with two men still off the front, Columbia’s work wasn’t over. George Hincapie (who has a suspected broken collarbone but has refused x-rays because he wants to finish out the Tour) drilled the pace to bring back the two escapees: Alessandro Ballan (Lampre) and Laurent Lefèvre (Bbox).

The chase to close the gap consumed a precious portion of the Columbia-HTC leadout train, eating up energy that is usually used closer to the finish to launch Cavendish off the front at the very last second. As it was, Hincapie closed the gap to a very stubborn Ballan with just 2k to go, then peeled off to the left – head down, completely blown.

Most of the rest of Cav’s delivery train were missing in action, spent after the long chase, so it was the young climber, Tony Martin who took on the final leadout duties typically assigned to Mark Renshaw. Martin pounded down on the pedals for as long as he could hold on and then pulled off to the side as Cavendish came around him to start the long grind to the finish.

Contador didn’t need to win today to protect his race lead, but win he did. The Spaniard rode away with the 40 kilometer individual time-trial, beating time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara (a two-time former TT World Champion and Olympic gold medalist) by three seconds. Contador covered the course in 48 minutes and 30 seconds, averaging over 30 miles per hour.

Winning the individual time-trial is a point of pride for the maillot jaune - Armstrong did it in 6 of his 7 historic Tour de France wins. The victory puts a stamp of authority on Contador’s overall race lead - if there were any doubt up to this point, the performance confirms his worthiness of the Tour’s highest honor.

More changes in the GC

The individual time trial event almost always causes significant shakeup in the overall classification and today was no exception.

While Contador and A. Schleck remained in the 1st and 2nd place slots, Lance Armstrong’s performance (16th place, 1:30 off the lead pace) was good enough to bump him up a spot from 4th into 3rd overall. The Texan will be keen to keep a foot on the podium all the way to Paris and will likely set his sights on moving into second with a big ride up Mont Vontoux on Saturday.

Contador’s four minute lead over the rest of the field will be hard (if not impossible) to overcome in the remaining days. He’ll have to make a pretty serious mistake to open the door for his rivals to have a chance at stealing the maillot jaune. That said, there’s a very real battle shaping up for the remaining podium positions.

Basque rider Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi) did what the Basques do best today and conquered two major slopes in a bid for personal and national glory. After spending most of the day out ahead of the peloton, Astarloza successfully attacked 3 remaining breakaway companions with 2 kilometers to go, earning him the first ever victory of his 7-year professional career.

Behind the race for the stage win, GC contender Andy Schleck and his Saxo-Bank team fired several missiles in the battle for the overall classification, but were unable to shake Astana’s firm hold on the yellow jersey. Alberto Contador responded to every Saxo-Bank move with apparent ease and Lance Armstrong also showed impressive form that caught many off guard.

At the end of the day, the main group of GC contenders remained neutralized and finished together barring one notable exception – the dismal performance of Silence-Lott’s Cadel Evans. The Australian, who was second in last year’s Tour, was once considered a hopeful for the overall win in this year’s show, but lost 3 minutes on his rivals today. Now more than seven minutes back in the overall classification, it’s fairly safe to say that his chances of winning the 2009 Tour are over.

How the race unfolded

An early break of 21 riders went clear of the peloton early and opened up a 2 minute gap just 17 kilometers into the race. The group contained no serious threats to the race leaders, and their gap group to as much as five minutes over the course of the stage.

The first climb of the day shattered the large pack of leaders and Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Vladimir Karpets (Katusha) led over the summit with a gap of 1:20 ever the rest of their breakaway companions and 2:30 over the peloton. Three groups strung out along the road between the two lone leaders and the main field.

Alberto Contador climbed into a wall of sound, legs ticking out a quick rhythm, face calm in the midst of a frenzied crowd. When his pace dropped, he stood up and accelerated. Pressing fans roared their support, clanging cowbells, banging sticks together, and screaming at top volume – often blocking the road ahead and moving clear just at the last second to reveal the pavement ahead. When they came too close, he threw two warning punches into the air – one to the left, and one to the right.

In the midst of the mountain-top chaos, the Spaniard pedaled smoothly away from his competition, winning the Tour’s first stage of the Alps 42 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Andy Schleck (Saxo-Bank).

It was a performance that put an end to any doubt about who will lead the Astana squad (Armstrong is now second overall, but at 1’37” off the pace, it would be a tall order for him to overtake his teammate in the coming stages) and also established that he is the man to beat in this year’s Tour de France.

Three in the top fifteen for Columbia-HTC

Kim Kirchen, Tony Martin and Maxime Monfort all finished in the top 15 today (10th, 12th and 14th respectively) preserving their top-20 positions in the overall classification. Don’t be surprised if you see one of the three Columbia climbers find their way into a break in the coming days.

Kirchen looked solid on the steep slopes of Verbier and we should continue to see strong performances from him over the coming mountains. He has managed to increase his standing in the overall classification almost every day since the beginning of the Tour – if he can dig deep and deliver the ride of his life over one of the next four stages, we may be in for a sweet surprise.

© 2011