Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Tour de France 2007

2007 Tour Stutters to Finish; Exhaustion Reigns

I stopped posting about the Tour after last Monday’s second stage in the Pyrenees, a dramatic duel between Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen which set up another mountaintop tit-for-tat on Wednesday.

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to post, but we flew to Seattle on Wednesday. We were able to see the daily stages; meanwhile, in those short 48 hours, the tour almost imploded.

But before we get to that spot of bother, I want to remember two riders whose presence was indisputably part of the heroics of this tour. Michael Boogerd of Rabobank led the entire peleton through the desolate passes of the Pyrenees for two days, doing his part to set up Michael Rasmussen for the final victory. Boogerd, riding his last Tour, will be sorely missed, the super-est of super-domestiques.

And a nod of the helmet to Yaroslav Popovych, the unselfish Discovery Channel rider whose gritty performances day after day allowed Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer to make the podium in first and third places. Huzzahs to two of the often faceless team members who made it all possible.

Rasmussen, as we all know, is another story. My last entry began innocently enough: “I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune.”

Oh how true that proved to be. We got to Seattle on Wednesday afternoon and watched the incredible Stage 15 that evening, an exhausting race where Rasmussen and Rabobank outwitted the entire Discovery team, saving himself until the others wore themselves out and did what he has always done on the crest of mountains at the end of long climbs: He just flat out took off and left everybody else in his wake.

He kissed the sky as he crossed the line, an act that would prove to be his last in this or any future tours or bike races. As we watched him bask in the greatest moment of his life, a ticker beneath the image on the TV screen reminded us again and again that his team had disqualified him from the event after the stage.

We wouldn’t find out until Thursday morning that Rasmussen was disqualified because he had lied about his whereabouts on two occasions before the tour when he was supposed to be available for drug-testing. Rasmussen said he was in Mexico but was spotted in the Dolomite mountains training. It left the team, and the rest of us, with the strong suggestion of doping. Rasmussen, who had passed seventeen drug tests since the Tour began, was gone. I wondered what Michael Boogerd and his Rabobank teammates felt about that?

Rasmussen trained meticulously, rode smart races and followed his leaders to glory – two Tour King of the Mountain jerseys — but drug rumors have dogged the Danish rider for years. This is the microcosm of the Tour and how it echoes life. One second you are leading the race, and the next you are on your ass with road rash and a broken collarbone, like David Millar. Or like Contador, you wind up in the yellow jersey the evening after you just got your ass kicked by a rider you tried in vain to wear down for three days. Or something from the past catches you up in lies, like it did with Rasmussen.

Alexandre Vinokourov, the pre-tour favorite and one of the main reasons I was anticipating this tour, tested positive for blood doping after a convincing win in Stage 13 that appeared to show the grit and determination that we all have all grown to love about Vinokourov. His B sample also came back positive, and he tested positive after a later stage.

Three other riders, Patrik Sinkewitz, Iban Mayo and Cristian Moreni, also tested positive for various illegal substances and now, perhaps, have seen their last days as professional riders. There were probably some others who weren’t tested and got away with their transgressions. Not to put too blunt a point on it, but let’s hope this shit is ending.

I would like to think that blood doping or other cheating could be eliminated from this and all sports. After decades of watching everything from pitchers greasing up baseballs to skinny hitters becoming hulking behemoths at 35, I am much too cynical to actually believe this. But I would hope, like all those who adore the race, that the governing bodies of the Tour and pro cycling can end their turf wars and come together to deal with cheaters.

All those caught save Sinkowitz this year were older riders, and it’s encouraging to see people like Bradley Wiggins take a strong stand against doping, and stage winner Linus Gerdemann calling for clean riding. Punishment to those caught should extend to those who supplied these riders; doping is not an isolated act.

There was still a bit of excitement to come on Saturday, when Levi Leipheimer finally stepped up, winning the stage in the third fastest time trial ever, which assured him of a podium place.

Underdogs everywhere rallied behind Cadel Evans, the gutsy Australian, and he responded with a desperate bid on the time trial that made up a minute and a half on Contador but came with 26 seconds of winning the race.

Let me say again that I really dislike the “tradition” of doing the traverses of the Champs Elysees as a ceremonial part of the race. Especially when, like today, the three leaders were only thirty seconds apart after the penultimate stage. Think of that, as Paul Sherwen reminded us that nothing even close to this has ever happened in the Tour’s long history. Less than thirty seconds between the three leaders after 91 hours in the saddle.

Evans admitted that he was ready to attack on Sunday but was stymied when the sprint teams took over the race on the Champs Elysees. Such is life.

Calls for ending the tour or cycling altogether are premature. And those who decry cycling forget it is the only professional sport so far taking active steps against doping, far ahead of the whole of U.S. professional sports. Le Tour has weathered its share of difficulties, and it will outlive these, too. It is a long, winding road, but there is a finish line at the end.

Meanwhile, let’s sleep on it for awhile.

August 2, 2007   No Comments

Stage 14: And Then There Were Two

Stage 14
Mazamet-Plateau de Beille
197 kilometers/122.4 miles
Stage: Alberto Contador (Discovery)
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

I read somewhere that the race for this stage could easily be a microcosm of the three-week race for the maillot jaune. If so, the two riders at the top of the heap are Michael Rasmussen and Alberto Contador.

Both were eased to the top by strong team efforts. On the first climb, the Port de Pailheres, David Millar and Saunier Duval teammates climbed at a blistering high pace. Yet for all that, Evan Mayo, for whom Millar assassinated himself, dropped out near the top of the Port, a high mountain pass with gradients of 12% near the top of the climb.

But the rock and roll really started during the ascent of the Montee D’Hauteville, 16 kilometers that reach into the sky to a mountain-top finish.

There were about ten riders left halfway up, after Rabobank’s Michael Boogerd, running his last tour, 22-year-old Thomas Dekker, and Discovery’s elderly George Hincapie and rising star Popovych took turns at the front. Popovych rode an especially powerful race up the Montee D-Hauteville to keep Contador and Leipheimer in the top five. Leading the way up some of the road’s steepest stretches, he reminded me of the days when Floyd Landis was Lance Armstrong’s super-domestique, leaving riders panting in his wake.

Soon the main group was down to eight riders after Andreas Kloden found himself in a spot of bother about the 10k mark. The Versus cameras were inside the Discovery Channel car, and we got to see manager Johan Bryneel tell Popovych to attack, which put announcer Phil Leggitt into a spot of bother about how TV cameras shouldn’t be inside cars that have televisions in them.

On and on, up and up they went, until finally everybody fell away, even Cadel Evans, the most quiet and steady rider all tour, and Leipheimer, who ran a strong race but just couldn’t keep up with the leaders.

So it was Contador and Rasmussen, both working together as they left the others behind and pulled back the two breakaway riders left ahead. They chatted a lot on the way up about putting time on Evans, and Contador got the stage win while Rasmussen got precious minutes on Evans and the other contenders.

A serious casualty was Alexandre Vinokourov, who brought himself back among the contenders with a brave and lightning-fast time trial Saturday. Today his body finally feel victim to a hard two weeks riding with injuries, and Vino fell back on the penultimate climb and lost half an hour on the leaders by the end of the day, enough to put him out of contention.

It was as exciting a race as I have seen, and we finally got to see who had the right stuff and who didn’t. Right now the only two who have it are in first and second place. Everyone else has the task of attacking the two best riders on the high passes for two more days. Do these guys ever get tired?

July 22, 2007   No Comments

Many Winners, Several Losers in Stage 13

Stage 13
Albi-Albi
54 kilometers/33.6 miles
Stage: Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) 1:06:34
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

This stage has been advertised as the first of the tour that might give us some indication of who is serious about winding up next Sunday with the maillot jaune. It more than lived up to its billing, as winners and losers played out a drama along a 33.6-mile, often rainy and wet race against the clock.

Among the winners:

Alexandre Vinokourov, nearly written off after taking sixty stitches in both knees and an elbow after an early crash. Vino, who gave a quick primer during Friday’s flat stage by leading Astana on an attack that split the field, just blew past most of those close to him, taking back boggling amounts of time from some of the front-runners.

Today, Vino was 1:14 ahead of Cadel Evans, his nearest challenger. He beat Yaroslav Popovych , Alberto Contador and Levi Leipheimer by more than two minutes each. He was more than four minutes faster than Carlos Sastre, six minutes ahead of Eban Mayo. He moved from 20th to 9th position in the general classification and gained three minutes on the leader, Michael Rasmussen. And though he was flying most of the way, he picked his way carefully down a winding section that put several riders on the ground, including teammate Andreas Kloden, showing a restraint and intelligence that Vino hasn’t been known for.

Except for a fall on a hairpin turn, from which he seemed to recover quickly, Kloden might have wound up even higher than the fourth spot he currently holds, just 2:34 behind Rasmussen.

Leader Rasmussen had a splendid day. Leaving as the final rider, the day after being thrown off the Danish National team and accused of drug use by a Boulder amateur, and already written off by many who remembered his poor showing in previous time trials, Rasmussen passed Alejandro Valverde three minutes ahead of him, and retained his yellow jersey. He lost time, but not nearly as much as expected.

Cadel Evans was a winner today, too, moving up to second place after a strong, steady showing. He is in the best position to win in his career, and we’ll be watching him as we hit the mountain stages.

Discovery’s Alberto Contador, a threat in the Alpine stages last weekend, had a fast day and is now in third place in the general classification. And Yaroslav Popovych, riding in the unenviable position just ahead of Vinokourov, finds himself in 15th place after a fast ride that was only overshadowed by Vino. Levi Leipheimer again rode a conservative race and is now in fifth, 3:37 behind the leader. Leipheimer needs to attack in the Pyrenees, which he has said he will do last week, in order to have any chance of winning. Popovych and Contador and George Hincapie will need to be there for him. Leipheimer will have to show us something he has not even hinted at so far this year and that I have never seen him do in five tours – dominate the competition — to make the podium.

The biggest losers included Valverde, who dropped to the 11th spot by finished more than six minutes behind Vino and, humiliatingly, more than half that behind Rasmussen. Christophe Moreau was blown completely out, now in 23rd place, ten minutes behind the leader and a long 13 minutes behind in the race. Carlos Sastre and Eban Mayo’s hopes were trampled upon. Barring a miracle, they are out.

Summing up, Rasmussen has to be considered to be a serious candidate for the final podium, especially with three mountain stages coming in the next four days.

But he will have to race as well as he ever has, because now that he’s in the yellow jersey, other riders and teams will strive to stay with him if he tries one of his patented breakaways straight up a mountain. Does he still have it after a hard time trial? Vinokourov is definitely back in the race, and team Astana, especially with Kloden and workhorse Andrey Kashechkin, who had a great time trial, is looking to be the strongest team at this point in the race, which could spring Vinokourov on another daring time-grab.

The dark horse is Evans, who is quietly running a strong, even race after almost two weeks in the saddle.

July 21, 2007   No Comments

12 Stages Down, Tour Has No Clear Leader

Stages 10-12

Real life got in the way of the tour the last couple of days. We only saw a part of Stage 10, a very flat stage from Tallard to Marseille after three days in the Alps. Kudos to CSC vet Cedric Vasseur for the win on the tour’s second longest stage.

Stage 11 was another basically flat day from Marseille to Montpelier in the south along the coast. Astana, taking strategic advantage of strong cross winds that came up suddenly about 100k from the finish, put down the hammer to split the field and caught one of the favorites and France’s hopes for the yellow jersey, napping.

Christophe Moreau had crashed earlier and sustained some superficial injuries. He said he was changing shoes when Astana took off, but there’s not doubt his inattention cost him. In the process, we got a close-up glimpse of how difficult it is for someone to get back in the peleton after an acceleration. Moreau lost his high standing in the general classification; he is now more than six minutes behind leader Michael Rasmussen.

Attacks were expected from somebody on the leaderboard to attack during the second-category climb. A camera view from in front of the peleton at a couple of places explained why that never materialized: a serious head wind kicked up that was swaying the trees like a serious chinook coming off the Flatirons into south Boulder, forcing the riders to concentrate on just getting up the gradient.

For all the Astana effort, which included a fleeting Vinokourov mini-attack about 7 k from the finish line, the only casualty was the humiliated Moreau. Robbie Hunter, riding for the renegade team Barloworld, snatched the sprint away from Tom Boonen, who retained the green jersey. His first-ever stage victory was particularly sweet for Hunter, riding in his last tour.

Boonen, who was visibly upset Thursday on the podium, got his revenge today, winning in a great sprint that shaped up after the peleton caught the two riders who had been ahead all day at the 1k marker. I’m a sucker for the breakaway, like Phil Leggitt, who is always pulling for breakaway riders. Paul Sherwen, Versus’s other announcer, is always more practical and chiding Leggitt for his enthusiasm. It is a fact that the peleton will catch breakaways almost every time, which makes those that get away such sweet victories to watch. But it didn’t happen today for Euskatel’s Amets Tzurruka and Bosque’s Pierrick Fedrigo.

Biggest news outside the race was that the Danish Cycling Federation has suspended Michael Rasmussen because of an irregularity in a diary of movements he keeps so riders can be spot tested for drugs. My reaction is the same as Liggett’s on his Versus blog: “Although he has never given a positive test, his Federation has taken a very hard step on a man who is his country’s greatest athlete. There are no winners here.” Liggett, who calls Rasmussen, “an annoyed man,” thinks that might spur the Dane to a stronger-than-expected time trial Saturday, a long individual race-against-time. The betting money is that leader Michael Rasmussen will lose the yellow jersey and perhaps more because of his time-trialing record, which has been abysmal.

Will Rasmussen ride more confidently and quickly against-the-clock with the yellow jersey on his back? Will one of the other favorites finally become bold during the Pyrenees climbs? Or will some unknown name vault his way up the leaderboard with a storied ride into history? We shall soon see.

July 20, 2007   No Comments

Another Horrible Day for Vinokourov in Stage 9

Stage Nine
Val-d’Isere-Briancon
159 kilometers/98.7 miles
Stage: Mauricio Soler Hernandez (BarloWorld)
Maillot Jaune: Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

There weren’t many clues in the battle for the maillot jaune today. Michael Rasmussen, who left the rabble behind on the final climb Sunday, stayed with the bunch today, keeping the yellow jersey on his skinny shoulders. The only favorite not challenging any longer is Alexandre Vinokourov, who cried after the stage as he explained who a horrible day he had five days after an accident left him with stitches in both knees and his ass. He is more than eight minutes behind, and there is not another day off until Tuesday. Levi Leipheimer told the International Herald Tribune not to count the Kazakh out, but his situation is getting desperate.

One of the things that I was most looking forward to this year was watching the fascinating and mercurial Vinokourov, especially when he wasn’t able to participate in last year’s tour when other Astana riders were implicated in Operation Puerto. We all know that, at 33, this might be his last good chance for a tour victory. But already teammate Andreas Kloden, a contender himself, might have ended his chances for the yellow jersey Sunday by holding back his climb to guide Vino to the finish. Today he was still in obvious pain to even stay as close as he did.

Beyond that, it was an exciting day of racing. Discovery came out of the chute with big plans, as Yaroslav Popovych broke away and was joined by a teammate in a breakaway. This made the rest of the field, especially Rabobank, ride hard to keep up along the flatlands before the big climbs and long descent into Briancon. It was a good strategy that, had it worked perfectly, would have brought team captain Levi Leipheimer into a better overall position.

But the plan didn’t have a contingency for Barloworld’s Mauricio Soler Hernandez, a Colombian who blistered the field by taking off much the same as Rasmussen had on Sunday, with nobody in tow and only the open road in front of him. His ride was good enough to move him into fifth place overall.

Apparently, Columbian riders work in higher altitudes than the other racers. Today’s ride went over two of the tour’s highest passes, the Iseran and the Galibier, and like Rasmussen (and unlike Linus Gerdemann, who didn’t have water for his descent Saturday and was foaming at the mouth) Solar Hernandez didn’t seem to break a sweat as he smoked everybody.

Alejandro Valverde, Cadell Evans, Iban Mayo, Alberto Contador, Rasmussen and Leipheimer all ran strong races, gaining big time on Soler Hernandez on the 20 km downhill race to the finish. Andreas Kloden and Carlos Sastre are in the running.

I am really impressed with Discovery. Young, very strong riders like Popovych, Contador, Egoi Martinez bode well for the future. Three teams were given unannounced blood tests early Tuesday, and all 25 riders passed. Seeing three non-favorite names in the maillot jaune in the first three mountain stages would seem to bode well, too.

I won’t see the entire tenth stage, as real life intrudes and we will spend the evening being entertained by Cirque de Soliel. Back again on Thursday.

July 18, 2007   Comments Off

Rasmussen Blows Away the Field in Stage Eight

Stage Eight
Le Grand-Bornand-Tignes
165 kilometers/122.7 miles
Stage: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Maillot Jaune: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank)

All week we have been hearing and reading and watching the favorites. Vinokourov. Leipheimer. Valverde. Evans. Will an American win? Will there be another Lance?

But this tour is different. There is no rider that everyone fears. Which means that someone not a favorite could win this one.

Though he rides for Rabobank, a team supporting Denis Menchov for the yellow jersey, that someone right now is Michael Rasmussen. He was invisible throughout the first week and at the beginning of this stage. Though he has been King of the Mountain the last two years, his name was hardly mentioned even as the first-week KOM pretenders-to-be, in this case led by Sylvain Chavanel, played with the early peaks and points.

After a bunch of false starts, a breakaway that included contender Michael Rogers and American George Hincapie finally got away from the peleton. The Ichabod Crane of the circuit took off at the base of the first of the three category-one climbs like the headless horseman was behind him. He kindly let another couple of wannabes hang with him until the final first-cat climb. From there it was all Rasmussen, the most natural climber riding in the Tour today, leading the way, seemingly oblivious to the drama unfolding in his wake.

The worst was watching the end of Michael Rogers’ tour. Coming down the Cormet de Roseland, the highly regarded Rogers, who at that moment was leading the tour, and David Arroyo were caught by the cameras just after hitting a road barrier designed to keep cars from running off a narrow curve. Rogers was on the pavement after obviously hitting at a high speed, and you couldn’t see Arroyo until he appeared climbing out of the woody area he fell into after going over his front handlebars.

Arroyo was more dazed than injured, and he got back on and tried to take down Rasmussen, who was having none of it. Rogers kept going for another couple of kilometers, with a TV camera zeroing in the scratches on his face and arms. But as he went farther, the camera closed in his right wrist, which he was visibly favoring.

Riders, and finally the peleton passed him. He quietly pulled over to the right side of the road, got his feet out of his pedals, lowered his head and just started crying as his mates shepherded him into the team car, his wrist and hopes for the 2007 Tour shattered.

The favorites staggered in behind Rasmussen, who holds the KOM lead as well as the yellow jersey and has 1:24 on his closest challenger, Iban Mayo, who raced better than I have ever seen him over the years. Also looking very strong today was AG2R’s Christophe Moreau, now in fourth place. Cadel Evans, Discovery’s Alberto Conador, Frank Shleck and Carlos Sastre are all lurking in the top ten.

Say what you will about Rasmussen’s weakness for time trialing and Leipheimer’s preference for the Pyrenees, but you have to give him some kind of chance. With a day off and an easier mountain stage on Tuesday, he’s in a good position. No team has been able to control the peleton, but with the Menchov-Rasmussen combo, Rabobank has plenty of incentive to try.

To be honest, Vinokourov and Leipheimer don’t seem to be doing much more than just barely keep up. Leipheimer and Menchov came in pretty strong at the end of this stage. Vino is still recovering and getting stronger. But without the pure-guts performance of Andreas Kloden today, who is giving up his own tour hopes to help a teammate he wouldn’t help two years ago, Vino might not be where he is, a distant 5:16 off the lead. For his efforts, Kloden fell to sixth, 3:39 in arrears.

Everything could change Tuesday, and the peleton and the press will certainly be more attentive to Rabobank. But more than a week into the race, we have a wide-open Tour de France. There are no favorites. Anyone could win.

July 16, 2007   No Comments

Linus Gerdemann: The Once and (Perhaps) Future King

Stage Seven
Bourg en Bresse-La Grand-Bornand
197 kilometers/122.7 miles
Stage: Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile)
Maillot Jaune: Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis)

Linus Gerdemann.

That’s right. Try it on for size. The leader of the Tour de France is Linus Gerdemann. A name to watch in the future and a name to praise today. Participating in his first Tour de France, Gerdemann, 24, rode a memorable race to victory on the first mountain stage.

The stage was fairly devoid of drama until riders reached the bottom of the first category-one climb of the tour, a ten-mile ascent of Col de La Colombiere that got progressively steeper the higher you went, reaching gradients of 7 and 8 for the top four kilometers, before plunging into a technically challenging and wild descent into the town of Le Grand Bornand.

As predicted, the favorites for the yellow jersey stayed close to each other in the peleton most of the way, and as riders started breaking down on the Colombiere, all the top riders easily made the top together, including Andreas Kloden and Alexandre Vinokourov, who showed no problems up that last climb or down to the finish. For the general classification candidates, today was not a day to win but rather a day to make sure you don’t lose, and the pretenders to the yellow jersey all won today.

But give Gerdemann plenty of credit here. After being part of a breakout of 15 riders from 13 teams, the baby-faced T-Mobile rider attacked at the bottom of Col de La Colombiere, at first with Dmitri Fofonov, David de la Fuente and Inigo Landaluze with him. The last two fell off and Fofonov kept up with Gerdemann until the steepest part began. Gerdemann rode along with Fofonov appearing to size up the Credit Agricole rider for half a minute, and then just accelerated to victory.

Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Landaluze, a more experienced rider, tried to keep contact in case Gerdemann flagged, but he wasn’t able to even get close. Gerdemann seemed to momentarily falter, just barely missing a motorcycle stopped at the side of the road less than a kilometer from the top. Landaluze was only thirty seconds behind when he crested the hill, but Gerdemann, taking advantage of the full road on the treacherous descent, raced away to beat Landaluze by forty seconds.

At least part of that downward slope he was in the apparently aerodynamically sound but scary-looking stance where he drops down onto the frame and seems to grab it with his crotch and leans into the handlebars. It’s a position that would seem to penalize the balls seriously for anything you might hit in the road. I don’t want to see anybody go down from that position. But Gerdemann knew he was riding for history, and he was taking all the chances.

It was a spectacular ride, and the first time a rider has beaten the peleton in this year’s race. He said later that the last two kilometers seemed to last hours, not the three minutes it actually took him. He was forty seconds ahead of Landaluze at the end.

Gerdemann finished with a tour lead of 1:24 over Landaluze, 2:45 over De La Fuente, four minutes over Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer and 5:16 from Vinokourov.

Gerdemann is thought to have little chance of winning the race. (We’ll watch tomorrow to see how today’s energized young legs hold up during the three category one climbs at the second half of Sunday’s stage.) But those legs were better than anybody’s else’s today, and it is sooo good to see someone whose name wasn’t on anybody’s lips until he started his charge at the bottom of the Col de La Colombiere to steal the maillot jaune (and the limelight) from the contenders. We will be keeping our eyes on this guy. With Cancellara’s week in yellow, this is the most promising and surprisingly turn of this tour.

Tom Boonen looked good staying with the pack and retained his green jersey. His 147 points are 13 ahead of Erik Zabel (Phil yesterday said that in sprints, Zabel “will fight like a scalded cat” for the victory.), with Robbie Hunter in third with 103 points.

Hopefully the cat-and-mouse game between the potential leaders sorts itself out a bit somewhere along those three climbs on Sunday, advertised as the most difficult stage of the race. Who will rise to the occasion. Coverage starts in Boulder at five a.m. It’s nap time.

July 14, 2007   No Comments

Boonen Takes Stage Win; Mountains Beckon

Stage Six
Semur en Auxois-Bourg en Bresse
199.5 kilometers/123.9 miles
Stage: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Maillot Jaune: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis)

We spent most of the day watching the peleton ignore and finally chase down Bradley Wiggins, who took off five kilometers from the start and led until there were seven kilometers left. The peleton played cat and mouse with him in the later stages of the stage. Wiggins rode a brave race, but there was just no way that he was going to take the peleton today.

My favorite image of the tour (and indeed my fave image in sports today) continues to be the sight of the peleton just as it pounces upon and chases down a breakaway – from the point of view of those being caught, caught from a motorcycle. Though it is 180 riders strong, the peleton takes on a life and churning energy of its own as it relentlessly eats up the pavement and the riders in front of it. I read somewhere that a rider in the middle of the peleton does a third of the work of someone at the front, so much energy is expelled by the sheer number of riders. (The converse, of course, is that those who ride in the middle and back are more susceptible to crashes and injuries.)

Today race officials showed the peleton just over Wiggins’ shoulder as he was being turned over and sent to the back of the pack.

Phil: “Wiggins is being cooked, overcooked.”
Paul: “He is cooked, overcooked and pan-fried.”

The peleton again seemed not to pay much attention until the end, and if it seems as if the teams don’t know what they’re doing, it should be said that not once, so far, has anyone got away from the pack for a stage win. And after it chased down Wiggins, the peleton seemed nervous and unsteady going into the finish, with no team taking charge until Quick Step’s Tom Boonen finally got a stage victory, and he will wear green into the mountains tomorrow.

I have been questioning Boonen’s strength after he wasn’t able to put the pedal down at the end of sprints, even losing once to his lead-out man, Gert Steegmans, but Boonen, led out again by powerhouse Steegmans, looked great in the win, his first stage tour win in two years.

As much as I love to watch how the sprint stages play themselves out, like everyone else, we are all waiting for the mountain stages to begin. Who will have the yellow jersey at the end of Sunday’s race, which looks to be one of the most challenging stages of the entire tour?

Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Kloden, both highly regarded as possible winners of this race, survived another day, although how they are actually feeling remains to be seen. Vino is bandaged up, looking, as Phil said, more like a mummy than a professional cyclist. We saw Kloden trying to stretch out his tailbone at one point, his poker face revealing little.

I still wonder what Astana was doing at the back of the peleton. Given that Astana is considered a tough team with strong riders, why weren’t they in front instead of riding at the rear? Didn’t they study Discovery’s Armstrong wins and watch the way those teams dominated the peleton? I’m calling it the tactical blunder of the tour so far, and it could cost the team dearly.

After Vino’s erratic but exciting 2005 performance and his exit from the tour last year when Astana couldn’t field a nine-man team in connection with the Spanish dope inquisition, I have been really looking forward to see how the mercurial rider would perform in perhaps his last serious try for the title. Will it open to the door for silent up-to-now Levi Leipheimer or Christian Valdelde? Or some new rider from a lesser-known team.

We will know more after that first category climb at the end of Saturday’s race.

July 13, 2007   No Comments

Crashes Take Toll on Vinokourov, Kloden

Stage Five
Chablis-Autun
182.5 kilometers/113.4 miles
Stage: Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas)
Maillot Jaune: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
Green: Erik Zabel (Milram)
Polka-dot: Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis)

Though the rain and cold were no-shows today, there were plenty of thrills and chills on the first stage to include a category two climb, and seven other lesser ones to stretch the legs a bit. Everyone was betting that Fabian Cancellara, who has worn the yellow jersey since he won the time trial Sunday, would shed it today. And many commentators, including me, figured that someone would show themselves in the general classification race.

The early part of the race was all Sylvain Chavanel. The Cofidis rider took the King of the Mountain jersey from teammate Stephane Auge on a breakaway with three other riders. Wednesday, Chavanel, who was in the break, didn’t go after the last climb points because that would have wrested the jersey from Auge, considered bad form in cycling.

Today, however, he took each climb except the last and will wear the yellow jersey tomorrow. Chavanel has Friday’s flat stage to rest and keep the jersey into the first mountain stage Saturday. But remember that Micheal Rasmussen is lurking back there, and he rarely shows himself until the high mountain stages, which seem to suit him better than any climber I have ever seen.

Paul Sherwen said early that this day might be the first “to see how their legs are,” but the drama of the day came in the crashes through the last half of the race. The breakaway was caught just at the top of the last climb, and the final 20 kilometers became a mad downhill scramble at speeds around fifty miles per hour.

Discovery Channel’s Vladimir Popovych made an attempt to slip the pack near the end, just before stage winner Filippo Pozzato weaved his way through the front group to take the stage by a nano-second. And there was Cancellara there not far behind protecting the maillot jaune. On the downhill, he followed another rider down a sharp curve with an arc that took him off the road. He still managed to stay aboard and get immediately back into the action. No matter what happens to him in the mountains, Cancellera has proven to be a tough and highly qualified defender of the yellow jersey.

The accidents exacted painful tolls, and it will take a day or so to see how the injuries will affect their performances. Geoffrey Lequatre went down on a musette, the bag that cyclists grab along the road at designated stations for their lunch. Discovery Channel’s Benjamin Noval took a few stitches in his arm and chin after he went through the rear window of a French TV crew car that hit the brakes in front of him while going downhill, a cowboy maneuver that drew the wrath of team manager Johan Bruyneel.

Among the leaders, two Astana standouts, Andreas Kloden and favorite Alexandre Vinokourov, suffered crashes that left them in a lot of pain. Kloden, who is second in the general classification standings, just 33 seconds behind Cancellara, was seen lying in pain along the side of the road before finally catching up. German news is reporting that Kloden suffered a fractured coccyx, similar to one he had in 2004.

Neither of the crashes were caught on camera, but Vinokourov was literally ass to elbows to knees in blood as he got back up and started riding again, dazed and confused. The knee wound went to the muscle and required stitches, and it took six members of his team (nobody came back to help Kloden after his fall) to bring him back into the race, As the boys melted off behind him (Phil said he had to “assassinate his team in order to survive”) he joined up with a group that included Tom Boonen. Still, with all that, Vinokourov is now in 81st place, 2:10 off the pace, a devastating blow to his chances of winning this race.

Among the top ten in the overall standings are stage winner Pozzato in third, Discovery Channel’s George Hincapie and Vladimir Gusev, and Thomas Dekker. Among those considered favorites, Levi Leipheimer is 22nd, a minute off the pace and tied with Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, and Alejandro Valverde three seconds behind them in 25th.

July 12, 2007   No Comments

Hushvod Nips Hunter for Stage Win

Stage Four
Villers Cotterets-Joigny
193 kilometers/119.9 miles
Stage: Thor Hushvod (Credit Agricole) 4:37:47
Maillot Jaune: Fabian Cancellara (CSC)
Green: Tom Boonen (Quick Step)
Polka-dot: Stéphane Augé (Cofidis)

Every sprint is different. Monday lead man Gert Steegmans snatched victory from his own sprinter, Tom Boonen, who couldn’t put down the hammer at the end. Tuesday Fabian Cancellara took off with a full kilometer to go and improbably smoked the field.

Today it was Credit Agricole’s Julian Dean’s great effort that gave Thor Hushvod his first 2007 stage victory. This came once again at the expense of Robbie Hunter, who was accelerating at the finish line and who has been desperately close each of the last three stages.

A breakaway that included one of favorite riders, Rabobank’s Juan Antonio Flecha, stayed away to the seven-kilometer mark. Flecha, who we have watched win and lose against the field after breakaways over the years, didn’t have the gas left to try it this time.

Unlike in past sprint days, when the finish came after negotiating tricky turns, cobblestones and narrow lanes, this one was “the first true sprinter’s race and a free-for-all,” as Liggett remarked as the teams barreled down the wide streets to the line.

The free-for-all comment pointed to the fact that no team could take control as the peleton cracked into pieces with the acceleration of the leaders. So the fastest guys lined up in the last couple hundred yards, and lead-outs were searching for their sprinters and vice-versa.

But soon there was Julian Dean in third place, with Hushvod directly on his wheel. They took off at the same moment and passed the others. Dean ran himself into the ground and gave way to Hushvod.

Hunter broke from the pack a half second too late, and you could feel his rising frustration as he shook his head and shook his fists right next to Hushvod, who leaned back with his hands raised in victory. Neither Tom Boonen nor Robbie McEwen made an appearance at the end of this one. I’m guessing McEwen’s wrist injury the other day is worse than he let on. Oscar Freire and Erik Zabel came in third and fourth, respectively.

There were a few scrapes. ESP’s Zandio Xabier crashed early in the race and quit with a broken collarbone, and Staf Scheirlinckx of Cofidis looked to have hit a car and fallen late in the race. Another rider, couldn’t find his name, was nursing a badly bruised arm to the finish line. But for many after Monday’s pile-up, another day of healing.

Otherwise, don’t miss Martin Dugard’s behind-the-scenes account of the press’s impatience with le Tour for not including a time trial in the first week to give them something more to write about than the sprints. Funny stuff.

Tomorrow’s stage is the most hilly of the non-mountain stages, with seven climbs, including the first category two at Haute Falin, in weather expected to be cold and rainy. CSC will be hard pressed to keep Cancellara in the yellow jersey.

July 11, 2007   Comments Off