As it so often does, the changement de rhythme, the transition from the big ring riding style of the flat to the relentless grinding effort required to haul oneself over the Alps and Pyrenees found out many of the sport's best on Stage 8 to Ax-3-Domaines. But as explanations go, it's really only piecemeal. Sky was systematic in decimating the race's best, a sublime performance that will haunt its rivals, writes Al Hinds.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Starting as favourites is one thing, but converting is another prospect altogether. Sky took on the mantle of Tour leadership from the bottom of the Col de Pailheres and never looked back. Even as Nairo Quintana, one of the world's most talented climbers danced on the pedals up the hors categorie ascent, Sky's resolve never waned.

Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas were immense in standing up to the rigours of a difficult stage in spite of their injuries, while Belorussian duo Siutsou and Kiriyenka looked unshakeable when they took their rotations at the front. As the peloton whittled, Sky did as well, and Quintana's pressure did enough to unhinge the majority of the British squad before the top of the Pailheres.

Only Peter Kennaugh, Richie Porte and Chris Froome remained, but by then the race itself had been blown apart. Kennaugh had one of the rides of the day, and Porte but for Froome's climbing masterclass, ripped the legs off every one of the race's heads of state with his own Tour de Force.

The finish at Ax-3-Domaines was the setting of the wounded struggling off the battlefield. Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Tejay van Garderen, Andy Schleck, Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky all pictures of pain, and major casualties. And this is just day one.

Some of those failures were unexpected, and only further ram-home Sky's dominant position going forward. Where will the challenge come from? BMC has already kissed its Tour goodbye. There's no coming back for them. Garmin aren't in a dissimilar plot. The eternal dark horse, Joaquim Rodriguez, looked a shadow of his usual self.

It would be easy to suggest that the race is already won, but there were glimmers of hope for Sky's detractors and rivals. The team was shattered by the time it hit Ax-3-Domaines, and Kennaugh as heroic as he was yesterday, will fade into the third week as his youth gets the better of him.

Meanwhile, Movistar has two quality climbers in Valverde and Quintana, and with Costa not far behind the team still has its three pronged attack largely intact. Contador may be hurting now, but with Kreuziger he has a ox-like lieutenant and can draw strength from the fact historically he's only likely to improve as the race wears on - just look at last year's Vuelta.

And what of Belkin? Surprise packages Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam had a belter yesterday, but they won't win the Tour following wheels. That said they still pose a threat, and one Sky wouldn't necessarily have banked on.

A conventional race strategy will play into Team Sky's hands, Froome and Porte, can wear the attacks on the climbs and will ride superlative time trials. How do you beat them? The 2006 Tour was won when Oscar Pereiro rode into Montelimar on an innocuous transition stage behind Jens Voigt. The peloton came in nearly 30 minutes down after Floyd Landis's Phonak was left to hang out to dry.

Thomas Voeckler nearly stole the race in 2011. Like Phonak in '06, and BMC in '11 Sky will have no friends this year. Can it weather the next week, can it weather the next two? They're in the box seat but days like today will really test their mettle.

What's on the menu
Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down. Yeah you get the point. You couldn't have chosen a more sadistic day in the saddle as a Tour course designer if you tried. It'll be attrition in slow motion over the 165km course. The one saving grace for riders is that the rest day is just around the corner, and at 'only 165km' it could be a lot worse. But, the relative truncated nature of this stage makes it all the more intense, the racing will be fierce from the gun, and by the time the peloton hits Marignac at km 57 with a Cat. 1 and Cat. 2 behind it, it'll be significantly thinner. Three more category ones will bury riders deep into the red zone, before the finish, and a long transfer north for the Tour's first rest day.

As Cycle Sport puts it, with what's in store, "this is cycling fan heaven". I couldn't agree more.

What to expect
If Sky is to be overthrown, it'll be days like today that will be the biggest thorns in its side. Climb after climb, all day, impossible to properly control, and with a downhill finish into Bagneres de Bigorre the scales will be levelled against Porte and Froome. After last year, the Tour de France technical directors have learnt that making formulaic parcours will play into formulaic racing. This stage promises anything but.

In all there is just under 50km of climbing and short of Porte and Froome time trialling away from the field on the Col de Peyresourde this is ideal terrain for Sky's rivals to take time. Some, like Tejay van Garderen and Andy Schleck have very little to lose and a lot to gain. A long-range attack might bear fruit in a group of 20 plus riders. More than likely, a la, Thibaut Pinot last year, an opportunist will make the most of today's stage and the favourites will fight out a relative stalemate.

Then again, it's a rest day tomorrow. There's no point stepping off the bike wondering what if? Another corker of a day in the Pyrenees.

My pick? Pierre Rolland. With plenty of KOM points on offer, this is a prime day for the Europcar climber.

http://media.sbs.com.au/cyclingcentral/upload_media/2692_2040-stage9.jpg

History & The Tour in numbers
The Col de Portet-d'Aspet (the first climb of today) was where Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing on the descent in the 1995 Tour. The Col de Peyresourde is being used for the 64th time at the Tour de France.

On offer for the riders on Stage 9
Green Jersey - 20 points for the first rider over the line, and 20 points at the intermediate sprint in Bagneres-de-Luchon. 40 points in total.
Polka Dot Jersey - In order as they appear: 5 points for the Category 2 Col de Portet-d'Aspet, 10 for each Category 1, the Col de Menté, Col de Peyresourde, Col de la Val Louron-Azet, and the La Hourquette d'Ancizan. 55 points in total.
Yellow Jersey - After yesterday, if Froome doesn't keep yellow I'll be stunned.

Stage 9 will be streaming live through the SKODA SBS Tour Tracker from 1930 AEST. Live broadcast on SBS ONE and SBS HD also begins at 2200 AEST.