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The Tour Giveth, and It Taketh Away

The sixth stage of Le Tour de France 2008 is in the books, and one image has dominated the coverage so far. It’s an advertisement from Versus, the station that carries the tour for American television, that shows, among others, Jan Ullrich, Alexandre Vinokourov, Michael Rassmussen and Floyd Landis, all major riders caught cheating in tours past. The film runs backwards, so that it looks like Landis is actually having the yellow jersey TAKEN OFF his shoulders.

It’s a powerful icon, and Take Back the Tour is most definitely the message of the 2008 race. It’s the only time that Versus mentions doping in its coverage. There are no references to Ullrich, or Rasmussen or Landis in the telecasts, and it’s obvious that everybody has their fingers crossed that no test comes up positive.

Except for dancing around the subject of doping, the tour has been splendid thus far. Tour officials change the rules and routes every year. Nearly every tour we have seen began with several days on flat roads, so this year the race started in Brittany along the west coast, and riders spent three days battling the wind, rain and elements as well as challenging courses that didn’t necessarily set up well for sprinters. Thor Hushvov grabbed Stage Two, but there wasn’t a pure sprint until Stage Five, when the whole pack thundered across the finish line on the wide streets of Chateauroux Wednesday.

One of my favorite things about the tour is watching individuals or small groups that beat the peleton across long stretches or attack on high mountains. Physics has proven that a large group of riders in formation can overcome large time gaps, and computers can calculate how long it will take the peleton to overtake attackers. So far at least, the computers can’t judge the quirks or subtleties of humanity, so watching whether breakaways succeed can be the biggest thrill of many sprint stages.

Stage Three included a breakaway in the first couple of miles started by Will Frischkorn, a Boulder resident in his first tour, that actually defeated the peleton and successfully broke away, giving Samuel Dumoulin the stage win and Romain Feillu the yellow jersey in the general classification race. The trio beat the pack by more than two minutes! Frischkorn paid for his frivolity in the time trial the next day, but I can’t imagine the thrill he had putting the pedal down on an angry peleton that blew it badly on his third tour stage.

In a footnote, the end of Stage Five showed what a bitter poison the tour can be for those who challenge the peleton. A three-man breakaway early on proved troublesome, and the peleton didn’t catch Agritubel’s Nicolas Vogondy until just meters from the finish. After leading for more than 200 kilometers, his legs gave out ten seconds before he might have grabbed the stage victory.

Today’s stage brought the first drama in the race for the yellow jersey. It was a half-mountain stage that wound first through fields and among ancient volcanoes now covered with grass and ended with two second-category climbs, first up the Col de La Croix Morande and then almost straight up a two-kilometer 10-percent gradient to the ski village of Super Besse.

Attacks began early on the last 2K climb, which just kept getting steeper the higher the riders went, began early. This kept the pace high, although every attacker was hauled in. Versus announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen kept saying that the leaders were watching CSC’s Alejandro Valverde, who was bandaged up after a fall Wednesday and needs to catch up some time on favorite Cadel Evans. But as it turned out, all the favorites stayed bunched together and Valverde and Evans came in second and third, strong races for both.

Stefan Schumacher, the man wearing the yellow jersey for the second day today, lost it, in another ironic twist, after he claimed he hit the rear wheel of Kim Kirchen just below the finish line. When all was said and done, Kirchen, who didn’t fall, wound up wearing the yellow on the podium. Schumacher now is in third, 16 seconds behind Kirchen.


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