Current race leader Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana finished last night’s 181.5km stage together in a reduced bunch just 10 seconds behind winner Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R).
Vencenzo Nibali finished a further 10 seconds back and surprised onlookers with a 30th place finish in this early test of form. The result saw him drop back one place on the general classification to 13th.
“It was a bad day and I didn’t expect that at the beginning of the stage,” Nibali told Cyclingnews. “Before the climb, too, I felt OK, but when it accelerated at the very end, I didn’t feel good.”
Froome, by comparison, looked quite comfortable as he defended his overall lead on Stage 8, which finished with an average gradient of 6.9 per cent up the Mûr-de-Bretagne.
The Sky rider accelerated hard on the tough uphill finale to secure eighth place across the line and maintain his 11-second hold on the yellow jersey over Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).
Given the 28km team time trial loomed large as the next big test of the Tour, Sky aimed to conserve energy where they could during the preceding 181.5km stage.
"My team-mates did such a good job of bringing me into the foot of the climb in a good position. Once I hit the front I felt I'm here, I might as well just push on a little bit and see how the legs are feeling and also the response from the group behind.
"Today wasn't really about extending that gap, more about looking after the gap I already have. It's 11 seconds so it's not a big gap. But the main race is still to come. We've got the TTT tomorrow, then the rest day before we head into the Pyrenees and the real race for the yellow jersey starts.” - Chris Froome
Despite a crash-filled opening week of the Tour, Sky, BMC, Tinkoff-Saxo and Movistar all boast a full complement of riders heading into the team time trial.
"That's really quite an important stage for us," said Froome. "That's a day where half a minute could be won or lost depending on how it goes.
"It's going to be tough, especially with BMC breathing right down my neck and Tejay (van Garderen) right there. But we've got a really strong group of guys for the team time trial and hopefully we can be up there with the best."
BMC are more than ready to challenge Sky for the yellow jersey, with van Garderen currently sitting third in the general classification, 13 seconds behind Froome.
"With the team I have and what they have shown so far, I think we are pretty confident," said van Garderen. "We are just going to go out there and ride as hard as we can. We have four world champions in that discipline on the team, so we will put out the best performance that we think we can."
In addition to van Garderen, team-mates Rohan Dennis, Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato were members of the BMC’s winning team at the world championships last September. Dennis won the opening stage of the Tour de France one week ago and was part of the winning team time trial squad last month at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
"We are the favourites, but I don't ever look at the other teams as not challenging us," said Dennis. "If you start looking at them in that way, you get beat.”
Valverde’s third place finish on Stage 8 was also a good sign for the race ahead, although the Spaniard was disappointed at not crossing the line two places higher. “I had really good legs and could well have won, but when the three-man group including Vuillermoz attacked, I hesitated for a bit when I would surely have had to go after them,” said Valverde.
The Movistar rider has switched his focus to the team time trial and the mountain stages that follow. "I'm in good shape and I think I could show it today,” said Valverde. “There's a serious test for all of us tomorrow with the TTT,” he added.
Like many teams in this year's Tour, Movistar team have had a more challenging opening week than they expected. “We went through many difficult days so far, other ones where we had to fight a bit less, but the terrain most suiting us starts now," said Valverde.
“We're really strong at the moment, all the nine of us, and we hope to profit from that form tomorrow."