Speeding away on a small mountain road more suited to goats than riders, Lilian Calmejane won Stage 8 to the Rousses ski station in the Jura Massif on Saturday, for his first victory in his first Tour de France.
Calmejane, riding for French team Direct Energie, fought cramp after breaking away on the final climb and hung on, tongue lolling, for victory in only the second visit by the Tour to the Rousses. It was the second win at this Tour for a French rider, after Arnaud Demare’s on Stage 4.
Tour leader Chris Froome finished in a group further back, retaining the yellow jersey ahead of a second, far harder day of climbing, again in the Jura mountains, on Sunday.
Froome’s day wasn’t without incident: On a downhill, right-hand bend after the second of three rated climbs on the 187.5 kilometer (116-mile) stage from Dole, the three-time Tour champion went straight into roadside gravel instead of cornering. Froome managed to stay on his bike and quickly recover. But his teammate Geraint Thomas went over roadside barriers. Thomas dusted himself off and quickly rejoined the race, too, and Froome said his teammate was uninjured.
The corner “sprang up on us a little bit,” Froome said. “One moment you’re in control, the next thing you’re in a ditch.”
Calmejane held off Dutch rider Robert Gesink, hot on his heels, on the final climb and rolling finish. Cramping from his effort, Calmejane had to slow and rise off his saddle to stretch his legs in the final section and then gritted his teeth and pedaled onward to the line.
“I gave myself a huge fright,” Calmejane said of his cramps. “It would have been so sad to lose the stage like that.”
Gesink, of the Netherlands’ Lotto-Jumbo team, rode in 37 seconds after Calmejane. French rider Guillaume Martin placed third on the stage, another 13 seconds back.
By being the first rider to scale the day’s last climb, Calmejane enjoyed the added bonus of picking up enough points to take the polka-dot jersey awarded for points collected on climbs off the shoulders of Italian Fabio Aru.
“Winning alone like that is incredible,” said Calmejane, who also won a stage at his first Grand Tour, the Spanish Vuelta, last year. “It’s everything I dreamed of.”
The stage was raced at a furious pace and under searing summer heat, sapping energy ahead of Sunday’s monstrous stage. Arguably the toughest of this Tour, it has seven notable climbs. Three are “hors categorie,” or defying classification.
“Tomorrow is going to be very, very tough and very selective,” Froome said. “Some riders will win time, others will lose it.”
To keep Froome in the yellow jersey, his teammates never let Calmejane and other riders who rode off at the front of the race build up too much of a lead.
“We had to ride a pretty fast pace all day,” Froome said. “My team did a great job of controlling the race. I can thank them for keeping the jersey.”
After eight stages of the 21-stage Tour, the top 10 riders in the overall standings are all still close to each other. The 10th-placed rider, Rafal Majka, is only 61 seconds behind Froome overall. But that could all change on Sunday.
Froome predicted the standings could be “blown to pieces” on the 181.5 kilometers (112 miles) from Nantua to Chambery in the Alps.
“It’s going to blow the general classification right open,” he said.