Today's stage of the Tour de France took the riders through some picture-postcard Alpine scenes, as they pedalled from Val-d’Isère to Briançon. Twelve years ago, inspired by the deeds of Roche and Zulle, Hinault and Lemond, Herrera and Parra, I took myself off to ride that same road, tackling first the Col du Telegraphe and then the fearsome Col du Galibier. Even with 1100cc of Yamaha power to help, it was no easy matter and gave me an enduring respect not just for the riders' endurance, but for the bike-handling needed to get up and down these ancient routes. These roads are for the hardest of sport's hardest men.
Race organisers like to include a chance for all types of riders to have their day in the sun, so, with two mountain top finishes to come next week when the race hits the Pyrenees, today's stage was constructed for the opportunist who could build a lead over the mighty Galibier and hold off the peloton all the way down to Briançon. Overall contenders know that on stages like this the Yellow Jersey can be lost but never won, so will sit back to let others make the race.
However, the first noteworthy incident of the day is destined for "What happened next?" quizzes and youtube immortality - we can laugh now we know all parties were unhurt, but it shows the dangers of open road racing. Click here for the action http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/gallery/2007/jul/17/tourdefrance.cycling?picture=330211215 and navigate with the arrowheads. Barking mad!
On the lower slopes of the Galibier, two questions were resolved: (i) the stage's opportunist would be wild card entry Barloworld's Columbian climber Juan Mauricio Soler Hernandez; and (ii) pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov was in trouble with his injuries.
Soler had two minutes over the Galibier which proved enough on the 38km descent into the finish. His stage win will send his cycling-mad countrymen into riotous joy and makes us aging fans recall the great Cafe de Columbia equipes of the mid-eighties - how I would have liked to have worn that jersey without the fear of people pointing and laughing. His win rewards his enterprise and the race organisation, whose punt on Barloworld is proving very wise. Soler will never buy a drink in his homeland for the rest of his life.
Chasing Soler were a a very select group that included GC men Valverde, Evans, Contador, Mayo, Leipheimer, Kloden, Sastre and a brave Moreau. It also included a very strong Race Leader, Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, who must be hoping that the jersey will inspire him to personal bests in the time-trials to come. He is clearly the strong man in the mountains. The most prominent name missing from that list is Vino's who finished in tears and now trails the Yellow Jersey by an unbreachable 8 minutes 5 seconds. Vino's dream is over, probably for good.
The race is wide open as it leaves the Alps. You can get 3/1 about Valverde and Kloden; 5/1 about Aussie Evans; and 13/2 about Rasmussen and Contador; with Mayo at 16/1. The Mouth advises a piece of those two climbers at 13/2.
Join me on Sunday for an update after Saturday's Contre-le-Montre and Sunday's ferocious stage to the Plateau-de-Beille, before Mimi's back for next week's denoument.