The Tour de France tackled its first high mountains in stage eight Saturday. As expected, the critical attacks came near the top of the Col de Peyresourde, the final climb of the 184-kilometer race, shattering the 31-rider group, all that remained of the peloton after a day of mountain ascents.
With each acceleration, Bauke Mollema held his ground, and by the top the select climbing group numbered only 14 men. Then, unexpectedly, Team Sky's Chris Froome pulled away on the descent.
Froome's sneak attack caught everyone off guard, and he ripped apart the technical downhill to grab the win and the yellow jersey.
Behind 13 riders gave a heated pursuit but could not come closer than 13 seconds. Mollema arrived with the elite group for ninth place on the stage, moving him into 10th place overall (+23 seconds).
"It was a good day. Hard day. Really warm. I think I drank 10 liters, but I felt quite good, especially on the last climb," said Mollema. "In the last climb you know there will be some attacks, but I could resist pretty well, and I could hang on with the best GC guys, so I am happy with that. When Froome went, I thought it was someone else who attacked. I didn't expect he would attack in the descent."
It was a day only for climbers with the iconic Col du Tourmalet the entrée on a menu of mountains. Peter Stetina, Haimar Zubeldia, and Fränk Schleck successfully tackled the hors catégorie climb, keeping Mollema safe and sound with three more tough ascents still to come.
The team's four mountain goats navigated over the next climb before the pace and gradient increased on the penultimate uphill.
The attrition was fast and furious as Sky turned the screws at the front, whittling down the peloton to 31 riders. Zubeldia and Stetina, their jobs done, left the rest to Schleck, who continued with Mollema onto the final climb of the day, the Col de Peyresourde.
"I was happy, I did my job, the maximum for Bauke and he stayed out of trouble and is good in the overall, " said Schleck. "In the end, I was able to stay in a good group. I mean, it seems that everyone is impressed, but I was hoping to come back (to the top level); I have done this before, and I know how it works. I'm okay. Feelings are good!"
Sky persisted its ungodly pace up the seven-kilometer Peyresourde until accelerations blew the group apart two kilometers from the top and the final 14-rider selection formed.
While Mollema climbed with the top guns, Schleck settled in with an elite second group not far behind and finished in 22nd place.
"I counted every second," answered Schleck about the relentless climbs. "From the start on it was just the feeling that you wished you were not there, that you would wake up any moment. It was a very, very hard race. It was a long, hot day, but it turned out to be a good day for us."
"The team was great," agreed Mollema. "Peter and Haimar did a lot for me in the first climbs, and Fränk was there on the last climb, and he kept me in good position going into it. It's motivating to have the guys working for me, and then to have the legs to finish it off - it was a good day for us."
The view from the team car
Segafredo CEO Massimo Zanetti, a guest in the team car during stage 8: "It was really fun in the team car today. It is not my first time; I was also a guest in the car at the Giro. But it is really an experience! I was hoping to stay alive on the descents more than anything, and not hit any of the spectators!" he smiled.
"The team did a great job; Mollema was really strong. I could not believe it when Froome attacked! His descent was impressive. But our team was very good – molto bene, molto bello (very well, very nice)."