Cavendish room-mate takes centre stage
Of all the European cycling nations, Italy has suffered the most marked decline in recent years. Vincenzo Nibali's third place in last year's Tour de France and his victory in this year's Giro d'Italia are mere blips in a long-term trend which has seen the number of Italian teams racing at the highest level plummet, and the ranks of star Italian cyclists decimated by retirements and doping scandals.
The fact that Matteo Trentin's stage victory here was the first for any Italian in the Tour since 2010 spoke volumes, as does the fact that he rides for a Belgian team, Mark Cavendish's Omega-Pharma-Quickstep. The second-year professional is not merely one of Cavendish's lead-out train, he is the Manxman's regular room-mate, and as a result he speaks English with an amusing blend of Italian, Flemish and Manx intonation.
With a complete lack of pressure on his shoulders after his leader's victory the previous day, Trentin's first professional win was lucidly taken from a large escape group that numbered 18 at its zenith, but was whittled down to little more than a baker's dozen in the finale.
Attack and counter-move followed each other in bewilderingly rapid succession in the final few kilometres in Lyon. The Italian sat tight in the group as others made their efforts, making the move that mattered only in the final 200 metres when he emerged from the back of the group to overhaul the Swiss Michael Albasini by just over half a wheel.
As Trentin pointed out modestly afterwards, his and his team-mates' task for the next seven stages will be to marshal Cavendish through the mountains with their eyes on the final Sunday's stage to the Champs Elysees.
The fourth stage win of the race for Cavendish's squad was an impromptu affair. The hilly stage suited a breakaway move, and this was a classic early move of 18, including the Scot David Millar and his Garmin-Sharp team-mate Andrew Talansky, who was to be the main beneficiary in the overall standings, moving from 17th to 12th overall.
He is now less than six minutes behind Chris Froome; Sky will keep him on a shorter leash from now on.
Initially, the peloton chased hard, led by two teams who are hungrier than most and had missed an obvious move. Both the Vacansoleil and Euskaltel-Euskadi squads will lose their main sponsors at the end of the season and are in dire need of a stage win to attract new backers; despite their best efforts, the 18 pulled clear eventually, and with 30km left it was clear one of them was destined to win.
The French have yet to win a stage in the 100th Tour, and it was the young Breton Julien Simon who came closest to breaking their collective canard, attacking on the first of two short, steep climbs within the city with 15km remaining, and carving out a lead that at one point looked big enough to give him the stage win.
However, he was swept up at 2km mark, after which Albasini looked to have covered every move and timed his sprint to perfection, until Trentin came surging past.
Ireland's Nicolas Roche was 36th for Saxo-Tinkoff and now sits in 36th overall, while his cousin Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp claimed 50th yesterday to remain 11th overall.
Team Sky finally had a relatively routine day in defence of Froome's yellow jersey. Today, however, they and their colleagues face a challenge of a different kind.
The stage to Mont Ventoux is the longest of the race, it will be boiling hot, and it comes at the end of a second week when the stage speeds have been high. After Friday's 47.1 kph, Saturday's average, on far hillier roads, was a breathtaking 44.9kph.
The stage finish here took place in the shadow of the great basilica of La Fourviere, which overlooks France's second city. The hill on which it stands is known as La Colline qui Prie – the praying hill – or La Montagne Mystique, the mystical mountain. On Mont Ventoux there should be little mystery but there will be many prayers being muttered.