Tour de France 2017
French debutant Lilian Calmejane won an enthralling Stage 8 of the Tour de France, holding off the chasing Robert Gesink in a tense finale to a topsy-turvy day of racing in the Jura mountains, which also saw Chris Froome leave the road but retain the yellow jersey.
Calmejane, the 24-year-old from the French wildcard Direct Energie team, showed maturity beyond his years to solo to a magnificent win in a testing 187.5km stage from Dole to Station des Rousses – snatching the polka dot jersey in the process.
Rolling roads and a succession of climbs whittled down a large break of 50 riders to a select group of nine – including the Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet of BMC – going onto the decisive final climb, the third of three categorised ascents.
When Calmejane attacked with 6km of the climb – and 18km of the stage – remaining, only Dutchman Gesink of LottoNL-Jumbo had the legs to follow. Gesink crested the summit of the Cat.1 Montee de la Combe de Laisia les Molunes 30 seconds down on the seemingly irrepressible Frenchman.
Cramps threatened to derail Calmejane’s charge to the line, with the grimacing youngster almost coming to a complete standstill on an uphill drag in the final 6km.
But Calmejane recovered in time to give French fans at Station des Rousses an unforgettable victory parade – seven years after Direct-Energie team-mate Sylvain Chavanel triumphed and took the yellow jersey in the same town in the Jura mountains.
Calmejane’s victory was his fourth of the season and comes 10 months after he capped his debut Vuelta a Espana with a similarly fantastic stage win over equally undulating terrain. It was also the perfect 61st birthday present for his team manager, Jean-Rene Bernaudeau.
Gesink crossed the line 37 seconds in arrears to take second place, while another 24-year-old French debutant – Guillaume Martin of Wanty-Groupe Gobert – won the sprint for third place while Ireland’s Nicolas Roche finished in 4th.
Britain’s Chris Froome (Team Sky) finished safely in the peloton to retain his yellow jersey – despite one heart-in-mouth moment when he and Welsh team-mate Geraint Thomas both left the road after overcooking a bend on a technical descent.
While Froome managed to stay upright, Thomas was flipped off his bike and landed in some road-side hay bales. Neither rider was injured in the incident, which occurred with 45km remaining as Team Sky led the chase on the front of a pack that had been blown apart by the demanding terrain and frequent attacks.
From the outset of the stage there was a relentless succession of battles before a large break of 50 riders finally seperated itself from the peloton. While the gap never grew much larger than three minutes, the likes of Pierre Latour (FDJ), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) all enjoyed fleeting stints as the virtual yellow jersey on the road.
The Belgian Pauwels was joined by Calmejane and Gesink in the select nine-man group that formed ahead of the final climb – along with BMC duo Nicolas Roche and Van Avermaet, Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb), Simon Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac), Jan Bakelants (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Michael Valgren (Astana).
Frenchman Barguil had taken maximum points from the break over two lower category climbs earlier in the stage, which followed some demanding hills which saw numerous breakaway attempts both flourish and falter.
It was not until the best part of 60km had passed that those 50 riders – which included Team Sky trio Mikel Landa, Sergio Henao and Christian Knees – managed to extricate themselves from the pack, before the first of numerous counter attacks came thick and fast.
Calmejane bade his time and did not try to bridge over until the race hit the Cat.2 Cote de Viry with 55km remaining. The Frenchman joined the leaders soon after and managed to weather early attacks from Barguil, Roche and Pauwels before putting in his stinging attack just ahead of the steepest part of the decisive climb.
Calmejane’s victory was the host nation’s second in this year’s Tour following Arnaud Demare’s Stage 4 triumph in Vittel. Demare, the French national champion, had a day to forget – coming home some 37 minutes in arrears and narrowly avoiding missing the time cut.
On the eve of what is for many the queen stage of the race, Froome leads Thomas by 12 seconds in the general classification with Italy’s Fabio Aru – who conceded his polka dot jersey to Calmejane – in third place for Astana, a further two seconds back.
Sunday’s 181.5km Stage 9 from Nantua to Chambery is peppered with seven categorised climbs, including the HC ascents of the Col de la Biche, Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat, ahead of a fast descent to the finish.
Tomorrow will certainly tell a lot as to who will take home the yellow jersey come Paris.