Riccardo Ricco produced a stunning final 30 kilometres in the Pyrenees to claim his second Tour de France stage victory and underline his reputation as one of the best climbers in the sport.
Team Gerolsteiner’s Sebastian Lang held the lead from the start of the ninth stage from Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre but Ricco slowly reeled him in after stepping up the pace.
The Saunier Duval-Scott rider’s attack saw him surge through the peloton and begin closing on Lang.
The 24-year-old hit the front after 186 kilometres, just a few hundred metres from the top of the Col d’Aspin, and maintained his position to the finish, coming home just over a minute clear of Vladimir Efimkin of the AG2R La Mondiale team.
Ricco, the Giro d’Italia runner-up, completed the 224km stage in five hours, 39 minutes and 28 seconds. The Italian also won both the climbs that awarded double points, although he failed to wrest the polka dot jersey from David de la Fuente.
Luxembourg’s Kim Kirchen retained the yellow jersey, preserving his six-second lead over Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto in the general classification, with Ricco two minutes and 35 seconds behind.
Evans survived an early scare after he was involved in a crash near the head of the peloton. However, after treatment by medical staff the Australian was helped back to the front of the pack by his team-mates.
Ricco was delighted to win his second stage in four days and thanked his team, who had never won a stage of the Tour de France prior to this year’s race.
“It was important for me to win another stage,” he told Eurosport. “I’m very happy. There are no doubts about my form, I’m happy about the victory.
“I didn’t think I’d win like that in a stage of this kind. I want to thank all my team.”
The Italian’s stunning ride saw him reclaim the white jersey – worn by the leading young rider – from Thomas Lovkvist, who finished over six minutes off the pace.
Victory left Ricco confident he can continue to do well in the mountains and reduce Kirchen’s lead.
“My legs are good,” added Ricco. “Everyone knows I’m an extremely competitive rider.
“I know there’s a lot of strong competitors up against me but my particular way of attacking is the only thing I can do to win so I went on the attack today.”
Britain’s David Millar was 55th on the ninth stage, with Mark Cavendish down in 150th.
Tomorrow’s stage, the 10th of the tour, is the difficult 156km ride from Pau to Hautacam.