We always knew it would be a difficult day for Fabian Cancellara, but the Swiss rider suffered more than anyone could have expected with a crash over fifty kilometres from the finish in Huy. The break of Jan Barta (again), Serge Pauwels (No, not Kevin, bwah), Martin Elmiger (ehm...) and Bryan Nauleau (your customary Europcar rider) had been well caught by this stage, with teams nervous before the Mur, setting a fast pace, and catching the escapees. The crash was caused by William Bonnet getting slightly cut across, and swerving, falling down and knocking what looked like half the peloton off their bikes. Cancellara did a front flip as several riders ploughed into a lamp post. The race was neutralised for a short while, as there were too many injuries for the doctors to handle. Four riders, Simon Gerrans, who broke his wrist, Dmitri Kozontchuk, white jersey Tom Dumoulin, and Bonnet himself were forced to abandon, while Michael Matthews finished twenty minutes down, and Cancellara thirteen, with their injuries making them uncertain of riding tomorrow.
Soon after, the racing was on, and the peloton sped toward Huy, with even more crosswinds causing Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo causing echelons, which got a small gap over another made by Team Sky. However, with good work from the Sky domestiques, that echelon was brought back, with Pinot, Valverde and Bardet caught behind, only to regain the peloton. There was no helping Cancellara, who remained in the third group on the road, grimacing and holding his leg and back.
Sky and Tinkoff shared the work over the last few kilometres, with help from Cannondale-Garmin, as the tension mounted. The last third last climb saw Michael Schar get the points, before the riders reached the Côte du Cherave within the last ten kilometres, and Tinkoff-Saxo setting the pace, with Michael Rogers sprinting up the climb with Michal Kwiatkowski in his wheel, and Rafal majka taking the solitary mountain point.
When we reached the day's main attraction we could clearly see that favourites Alejandro Valverde and Daniel Martin were too far back, fighting to get through gaps that weren't appearing. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador on the other hand, were perfectly placed, and the 2013 winner was the first to hit the front, followed by Contador, who could not follow Rodríguez when he attacked.
He wasn't the only one, as Rodríguez put in a huge acceleration around the outside, dropping Gallopin as Froome clung on, winching back the Spaniard as Contador blew up and fell back, with Alexis Vuillermoz and Daniel Martin coming from behind, Martin especially setting a very fast time up the Mur, almost a repeat of his 2013 performance in La Flèche Wallonne.
And that was how it finished. Rodriguez was almost reeled in by Froome on the flatter section, and the gap was deemed to be small enough to not count as even a one-second deficit. Vuillermoz was four seconds back, and Martin five, in fourth. Nibali, Quintana and Van Garderen finished eleven seconds back, and Contador eighteen, by himself.
Rodriguez looked back at Froome and had time to celebrate, saying later "We started at the bottom of the Mur de Huy all of us with a tough pace and I wasn’t sure that I could win, but I realised I had a chance and accelerated and it felt it was the longest time I have ever spent going up the Mur. It was a really tough stage." He took the mountains jersey.
Froome, thanks to the generous organisers saying that what I deem to be a gap of a few seconds was no gap at all, took the yellow jersey by only one second from Tony Martin, who for the second time in two days may be right to feel aggrieved about his garb, but Froome was happy to take the jersey. "I definitely didn’t wake up today thinking I was going to be in yellow by this evening. That was a real surprise. I knew there would be gaps up on that final climb but I really didn’t expect it to be that significant, to be able to get into yellow," he said later.
From just 1.3 kilometres of climbing, Froome is already in yellow, and is over thirty seconds ahead of Contador, and two minutes ahead of his other main rivals. Currently it's all falling into place for him. Can he survive the cobbles tomorrow?