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92nd Tour de France - GT
France, July 2-24, 2005
Rest Day - Monday, July 11: Grenoble
Time to get it on!
By Les Clarke
Nine stages down, and the 92nd edition of the Tour de France is beginning to look like a real race, a la 2003. All the pre-race contenders - Armstrong, Ullrich, Basso and Vinokourov - are looking comfortable near the top of the standings, albeit with a few hiccups along the way. As expected, the shift to higher ground has begun to sort out the contenders from the pretenders, and tomorrow should really see the race for yellow begin.
The high pace of the race so far appears to be taking its toll on the field, with 175 of the original 189 riders remaining, and as the field hits the Alps for stage 10 it's only going to get harder. There have been successful breakaways and drama in the sprints over the past nine days, with Robbie McEwen's relegation in stage 3 handing the initiative in the points competition to Tom Boonen, and Michael Rasmussen's solo break for most of yesterday's stage creating some real interest in the race for the polka dots.
After a dominant opening from Lance Armstrong that had many observers writing off the Tour for the overall prize, the fight for the yellow jersey has been fired up with solo breaks and a hint of weakness from Discovery Channel on stage 8. None of Armstrong's real challengers are more than two minutes away from the Texan.
Stage 1 - Saturday, July 2: Fromentine - Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile ITT, 19 km
Most race observers knew that Lance Armstrong would be strong on this short time trial stage, but the dominance shown by the Discovery Channel man was only bettered by another top performance from Dave Zabriskie, who took the stage, meaning he has taken a stage win in every Grand Tour over the last 12 months. The 26-year-old CSC rider took the yellow jersey with a new record stage speed of 54.67km/h, which was an indication of things to come throughout the first week.
Armstrong was only two seconds behind his former teammate, on his way creating more moments for Tour photographers as he passed Jan Ullrich in an aero version of 'the look'. Third place went to Alexandre Vinokourov - the worrying aspect for T-Mobile management being the 51-second gap between Vino and Armstrong in second; once again the American had managed to take full advantage of his superior time-trailling ability and have fans scratching their heads as to how Armstrong could be beaten in his last Tour de France.
Stage 2 - Sunday, July 3: Challans - Les Essarts, 181.5 km
Riders hit their straps out on the road with a 181.5km dart along the west coast of France, with Tom Boonen taking the stage in Les Essarts in a powerful display of speed and confidence. A stellar year for Boonen so far, and a great start to his attack on the green jersey competition. Most of the contenders for that competition were there, with Hushovd, McEwen and O'Grady taking out the minor placings.
Dave Zabriskie spent the day in yellow, sharing the moment with a man who's spent the most time in yellow over the past six years, Lance Armstrong, and many people believe this won't be the last time we see Zabriskie in yellow. A standout of this stage and those to come was the high average speed - 47km/h. No bold moves but plenty of jostling for position on the opening day, as riders found their feet, especially those who were riding their first Tour de France. But the big news of the day was Boonen's continuation of a superb run in 2005, and with the speed he displayed in the sprint looked like he'd be very hard to beat. The stage was set for a super battle for the green jersey.
Stage 3 - Monday, July 4: La Châtaigneraie - Tours, 212.5 km
Ahhh, you can't keep a super sprinter down! Boonen backed up from his win in stage 2 with an equally dominant finish to stage 3, as Robbie McEwen was relegated for a dangerous run to the line. The Davitamon-Lotto rider appeared to be thrusting his helmet (with head attached) into fellow Australian Stuart O'Grady's face in an attempt to stake his claim to a position on Boonen's wheel. Both riders were racing for the same position and came together. As a result McEwen was relegated to 186th position, missing out on any available points and making it almost impossible for him to stay in the race for the green jersey.
McEwen said post-stage, "It's a normal clash that happens. The commissaires have obviously never riddden a bike; what would they know of the rough and tumble of a sprint? When you look at the overhead shots you can see that Stuey was involved as well." O'Grady was upset with McEwen's tactics, saying, "He went too far. I was very happy with the sprint; Thor [Hushovd] hit the front early and I came off him at 150 to go. I saw Boonen's wheel and got onto it, and at that moment clashed with Robbie - I had McEwen's helmet sticking in my face. It was more than what was required; that was too much."
Both riders were soundly beaten by the young Belgian sensation, who affirmed his favouritism for victory in the points competition in Paris on July 24. Dave Zabriskie remained safely in the bunch to finish the day as overall leader and retained the yellow jersey heading into the team time trial. It was another fast stage with an average speed of 46.17km/h and several 'tarmac skirmishes' as the nervousness of the peloton claimed a few casualties, but nothing serious. Everyone was fit and healthy for the crucial race against the clock.
Stage 4 - Tuesday, July 5: Tours - Blois TTT, 67.5 km
Discovery Channel's dominance of this event almost came to an end as Team CSC pushed them all the way, with the Disco boys holding on for a two-second stage win. The finish in Blois was marred by an accident, as maillot jaune Dave Zabriskie came down two kilometres from the finish, ending the day 1'28 down and in shock. It appears Zabriskie lost concentration, coming down after touching wheels with the rider in front. It was a sad end to his time in yellow, but definitely a learning experience for the young American.
After a slow start, Discovery built its speed in the final sector in a close race with Team CSC, as T-Mobile, which appeared to be in with a fighting chance of taking the stage, failed to make a strong impression on the all-important final sector and finished the day in third, 35 seconds down on Discovery's time of 1h10'39". Liberty Seguros showed some of its class to come in fourth, with Phonak, which was tipped to perform well in the team TT disappointing in fifth, 1'31 behind the Disco boys.
Armstrong had the yellow jersey he probably wasn't looking for so early in the race, but with plenty of their riders high on GC, Director Johan Bruyneel was looking at tactics to play down Armstrong's surprise arrival in yellow, saying, "Maybe the team keeps the yellow jersey, but not Lance - it depends on the next few days, but I repeat: our goal is to win in Paris, and if it means in a certain situation another guy takes the jersey or another team takes the jersey, then that's the way it'll be."
Stage 5 - Wednesday, July 6: Chambord - Montargis, 183 km
Whether he's relegated or ridiculed, Robbie McEwen never gives up, taking the fifth stage into Montargis with a smart, fast finish to prove he's not going away despite any setbacks. The Australian National Champion was clearly ecstatic with his win after the drama of stage 3, saying, "I got Boonen's wheel in the last 500m and this time, I waited for the right moment. The first (sprint), I went from too far out and in Tours, I waited too long and was boxed in. After Boonen jumped early in Tours, this was different. I'm the man!"
Lance Armstrong spent the day in yellow, but was reluctant to wear the maillot jaune as a sporting gesture to Dave Zabriskie, but Tour officals made a request for him to put it on, which he did. He wasn't troubled on the stage, but there were still plenty of nerves in the peloton, with more crashes and the Tour's first abandonment, with Saunier Duval rider Constantino Zaballa pulling out. Discovery Channel dominated the general classification after their time trial win the previous day, with Armstrong still on top at day's end.
Stage 6 - Thursday, July 7: Troyes - Nancy, 199 km
It wouldn't be summer in Europe without a bit of rain to add some spice and the odd surprise to the Tour. It provided both, with a surprise stage winner in Italian Lorenzo Bernucci (Fassa Bortolo) and some spills. The stage was run in wet conditions, with plenty of crashes and a pretty uncomfortable day all round. The day's feature was a crash in the last kilometre that brought down escapee Christophe Mengin (Francaise des Jeux) as he was looking good for the stage win on home territory. Alexandre Vinokourov attacked in the last two kilometres but was held up by Mengin's crash, and Bernucci ducked inside, sprinting to the line for his biggest career win.
Armstrong had another day in yellow, but whether he enjoyed it is another thing altogether. He and his GC buddies all finished the day safely, away from the slip-sliding going on at the front of the field - Vinokourov was the only rider not from Discovery or CSC in the top ten overall, with the team time trial still having a bearing on proceedings overall. With only one stage left before the parcours headed upwards (albeit only slightly), that wasn't to be the case for much longer, however, and the escape artists were awaiting their cue.
Stage 7 - Friday, July 8: Lunéville - Karlsruhe, 228.5 km
Robbie McEwen proved his ability to fight back with a second stage win of this year's Tour on stage 7 in Karlsruhe. The Australian sprinter proved his chances of taking green jersey competition are not dead and buried, cutting eight points from the deficit between himself and current points leader Tom Boonen as a result of his stage win. Boonen was riding wounded and lacked a little speed in the finale, but the big Belgian wasn't using that as an excuse.
If there's a prize for the Tour's most enthusiastic fans, those on stage 7 would have to be in with a chance of winning it, along with the perennial mad orange brigades in the Pyrenees. Crowds lined every available piece of roadside real estate as the peloton made its way into Germany, and it was a German rider, Fabian Wegmann, who broke away early to be the first into his homeland. He was caught by the peloton before Robbie McEwen took another smart sprint ahead of Magnus Backstedt; despite a gallant effort, the big Swede wasn't able to match McEwen's speed in the final metres.
No change to the top of the leaderboard, with Armstrong remaining the top dog after a day safely tucked away in the main field. Stage 8 was waiting to throw in a few surprises and a little intrigue, and the time for sprinters to put away stage-winning ambitions for a while. Step up anyone fancying themselves on a solo break...
Stage 8 - Saturday, July 9: Pforzheim - Gérardmer, 231.5 km
Another day with plenty of kilometres to ride and an opportunity for any GC contenders to put their hand up, particularly on the cat 2 Col de la Schlucht, which decided the day's stage winner. It was Rabobank rider Pieter Weening, in his first Tour de France who took the stage win ahead of T-Mobile's Andreas Klöden, who has been quiet all year and all Tour so far. Weening broke away and was caught by the German at the summit of the final climb after his own break from the main field. It was then a drag race between these two riders, with Weening defying his youth and getting the better of Klöden on the finish line - but only just, with a photo finish needed to separate the two.
Stage 8 was a perfect example of why Lance Armstrong didn't want to be in yellow so early in the race - he was attacked on the Col de la Schlucht and became isolated, saying post-stage, "it's a strange climb too; it's a long climb but not very steep, so you can keep 30, 40, 50 guys there and they can take shots at you from the back. It's hard to follow those." Discovery went missing in action in support of their leader, which prompted a baffled Armstrong to take action, and it was a case of "sitting down with them and saying 'what's wrong with you, how did you feel, what's your problem, was it your legs, was it the rhythm?"
A real indication of the race to come, therefore, and with more of these climbing stages to come it Armstrong's early dominant run may come to an end and the T-Mobile eagles could swoop. Valverde showed what he's capable of, leading the race for third behind the two escapees, and he may weigh into the equation in the next week. At day's end the top 10 on GC were separated by two minutes, with Basso, Ullrich, Klöden, Julich and Landis all present and waiting for their turn to strike - let the battle begin!
Stage 9 - Sunday, July 10: Gérardmer - Mulhouse, 171 km
The best break of Tour so far was led by Rabobank's Michael Rasmussen, and he received just reward for his heroic performance on a stage that included the Tour's first cat 1 climb, the Ballon d'Alsace. This was the Tour's first climb in 1905, and a century later Rasmussen showed how modern riders eat these climbs for breakfast.
The main field splintered early in the stage, with Liquigas rider Dario Cioni keeping Rasmussen company out front, until he succumbed to the pace, and a 'semi-chase' effort was sustained by French roleur Christophe Moreau (Credit Agricole) and his former teammate Jens Voigt (CSC) with the field about four minutes behind. It remained this way until the finish, with Rasmussen taking the stage win and leadership in the mountains classification, and Voigt's third place ensured him the overall race lead.
Discovery Channel was extremely vigilant in front of the main field after their failure on stage 8, and it was clear that Armstrong was glad to be rid of the 'burden' of the yellow jersey. Overall, it's beginning to heat up even more; some big days of climbing and a small blanket covering the main contenders should lead to some great days of racing and plenty of intrigue in a race that's anything but dead and buried.