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90th Tour de France - July 5-27, 2003
Wednesday, July 16: Rest day, Transfer to Narbonne
Tour wrap-up, Part I
Hump day - 10 down, 10 to go
By Anthony Tan
As the riders eventually wake up, enjoy a long, hot shower, sit down to a lazy breakfast without the need to inhale a kilo's worth of pasta, and board the team bus to make the transition west to the town of Narbonne, each of the 171 men left in the Tour will no doubt take a moment to reflect on the events over the past week and a half and what lies ahead. So will we.
The 90th edition of Tour de France couldn't have got off to a better start - so long as you were an Aussie. Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com), world champion in the 4000 metre individual pursuit and Parramatta pin-up boy from New South Wales, signaled his presence at the top of the cycling world with a magnificent win in the prologue. At an average speed of 52.45 km/h, McGee's name became as ubiquitous in France as the McDonalds golden arches in the United States of America. But as Bradley's handsome face was plastered over the TV screens, another pretty-boy prologue winner from three years prior, Cofidis' David Millar, was sitting lonely and dejected after a missing front derailleur most certainly cost the flying Scotsman a second spell in the maillot jaune.
Alessandro Petacchi's four stage wins in the next five road stages could only be described as Petacchimania, and in that week, we witnessed the crowning of a new Italian über-sprinter, and in some ways, the dethroning of the old with Jean-Marie's decision to exclude the Cipollini gang from the Centenary Tour.
While Petacchi insisted that comparisons with the temporarily-caged Lion King not be made, their apparent likeness cannot be overlooked; their straight-line sprinting technique, their pure power to the pedals, their natural good looks - the only difference is the hair colour, although the gel content throughout remains the same. And let's not forget the Fassa Bortolo rider's shameless exit into the team car on Stage 7 - now that was vintage Mario!
The opening week was never short of drama too. Tyler Hamilton's crash and virtual return from the dead on the stage to L'Alpe d'Huez, where the CSC team leader separated mind from matter despite his collarbone fracturing seven days earlier, would have been enough to make Days of Our Lives producers jump with glee. Half a million screaming fans were witness to arguably the most exciting Tour stage in the past decade as Hamilton, Joseba Beloki, Iban Mayo and Alexandre Vinokourov turned the tables on a seemingly vulnerable Armstrong, with the four-time TdF winner unable to "hold the Mayo" as happened at the Dauphiné Libéré exactly one month ago.
If Armstrong does falter in the Pyrénées, however, Beloki's name will no longer be attached to the undoing. It was quite literally a side-splitting affair of the non-comedic kind as the ONCE-Eroski leader hit the deck faster than a pack of cards, overshooting on a tight bend and causing his tyre to roll. Millions of television viewers worldwide winced simultaneously, his groans audible as the Spaniard lay motionless by the roadside, his director Manolo Saiz looking on in disbelief as the team's hopes vanished into thin air.
Speaking of cards, Lance has certainly been keeping his hand very close to his chest. Up until this point, Armstrong has not shown one sign of fragility when under a somewhat unprecedented series of attacks in stage eight. The sight of Beloki, Vinokourov, Mayo and the winged avenger, Tyler Hamilton, testing his resolve made for great racing. Even when faced with a unexpected detour on the road to Gap two days ago, the Texan was ever so-cool as he cyclo-crossed through the fields to rejoin the leaders. It is also worth noting that at the same time last year, Armstrong was 26 seconds behind Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, with the individual time trial coming just prior to the rest day; the fact that the first ITT comes after the rest day this year could bode well for a specialist like Armstrong.
The good news, however, is that the Tour is as close as it has been for many years, and while Beloki's departure is Armstrong's gain, the overall classification is still wide open. But Vino, Mayo, Tyler and Jan are going to have to do something special before the next rest day park-up in Pau on July 22.
Stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden presents the best opportunity for these men to unlock the Armstrong's stranglehold on the Tour de France. The stage plays host to the second and last of the Tour's mountain-top finishes, and coming after the hors catégorie Col du Tourmalet, we could well be treated to another Alpe d'Huez-style showdown at the Pyrénéean Corral. One another salient point: this is Basque country, so if Mayo and team-mate Roberto Laiseka (winner at Luz-Ardiden two years ago) combine forces with Hamilton, Vino et al in front of a madly screaming, pro-Basque crowd, it may be enough to unseat Sir Lancelot from his throne.
If not, it'll be all over, red rover, and the fight for sloppy seconds will be the only thing these boys will be feeding on as the peloton wind their way back towards Paree.