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Tour de France Cycling News for July 28, 2007

Edited by Sue George

Casar gives French some good news

By Jean-François Quénet in Angoulême

Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux)
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Sandy Casar (Française Des Jeux) finally won a stage in the Tour de France after trying many times with no success. In 2005, he finished second twice, and he did so again last week in Marseille behind Cédric Vasseur (Quickstep - Innergetic). "I had come second too many times. I could have been fourth today, it didn't matter. Only the victory counted," he said.

"It's a relief," said team manager Marc Madiot who advised his riders prior to the start that to increase the chance of a French win, it was best to breakaway with other Frenchmen. A gentleman's agreement between Casar and Bouygues Telecom's Laurent Lefèvre also worked for the good of the man with the four leaf clover jersey.

Casar's win wasn't enough to cancel out all the bad news for French cycling. "It remains a sh** Tour," added the FDJ boss. But it gives a bit of hope as Casar and his team have stood clear against drugs since 1998. "On Sunday next week, I [will] organize a bike race for Under 17 [racers]. There will be more than 100 starters, and I want these kids to have the will to become bike riders," Madiot said determined, but optimistic.

Madiot said he was proud to see Casar taking the initiative with about three kilometers to go. As the rest of the group was going on the right side of a roundabout, Casar attacked on the left. "Boogerd chased me down quite hard," Casar said. "When they caught me with 300 meters to go, I thought it was over for me, but I persisted because I wanted this win very badly. I wanted to do well for all the crowd who supported us again today."

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He had crashed after only 27km of racing due to a dog that crossed the road unexpectedly in front of him. "We hadn't created a big gap to the bunch yet, so we were riding flat out when a dog crossed the road. Dogs always get crazy when the crowd yells. I thought I had avoided him, but he blocked my foot, and I went down. I thought I wouldn't come make it back across. Because of circumstances, I did thanks to Axel Merckx who was in between the break and the bunch."

Casar has been a talented professional ever since he joined FDJ in 1999. Now he's got the freedom to set his own goals. "Because of finishing sixth at the Giro last year, I gave it a go in the GC here at the Tour this year, but once again, I've struggled a lot in the mountains," he said. "Attacking is my way of racing. Breaking away is what I like. I hate staying on the wheels in the peloton. Now I know that I'll forget about the GC, and I'll go for stage wins again in future Tours de France."

Evans collides with spectator - but Aussie jags three seconds on GC

By John Trevorrow

Cadel Evans (Predictor Lotto) had a close encounter of the female kind. Just after crossing the line at Angouleme, a woman ran in front of him, and Evans had to revert to an "Aussie Rules" style hip and shoulder move.

Fortunately, the GC podium contender remained upright although the same can't be said for the spectator. "I copped one at the finish but I'm alright (rubbing his shoulder)," said Evans.

Commenting on the upcoming time trial, Evans said, "The last two days have been good recovery after the Pyrenees. That's normal to recover for the time trial. We will know all the answers out on the road tomorrow, through all the time checks and then at the finish."

Although he admitted his chances looked small after the Pyrenees, Evans was more optimistic now. "Yeah, five minutes to make up in the time trial was a bit daunting, but now I'm a lot more confident." With Michael Rassmussen (Rabobank) gone from the race, Evans is only 1.50 off current leader Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel).

Evans showed some cunning and strength in the 18th stage by closely following the sprinters' teams, who created a gap in the main peloton as they barrelled down the final few kilometres of the stage. Tom Boonen's Quick.Step-Innergetic squad put on the gas to set up their man to collect all-important points in the green jersey category. Although he was only sprinting for fifth place in the stage, the points were very important to Boonen as well as his main rivals, Barloworld's Robert Hunter and the evergreen Erik Zabel (Milram). Those three riders finished in that order, and retain those positions in the green jersey competition, with Boonen now 24 points clear of the South African, Hunter.

QSI did a clinical job of setting up Boonen for the sprint, and tucked into this fast-finishing group was Evans, while current yellow jersey Contador was gapped and led a second group across the line, three seconds in arrears. The only Disco rider with the strength to stay in the sprinters' train was Yaroslav Popovych; Levi Leipheimer was also gapped and he, too, lost time to the Australian.

Discovery believes in mentally tough Contador

By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême

The Spaniard intends to keep it
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Before and after stage 18, Cyclingnews talked with Discovery Channel team managers Dirk Demol and Johan Bruyneel, who have guided their team to the enviable position of defending first and third places in the general classification with only one definitive time trial left before the final parade into Paris.

All the pressure on the Discovery Channel team has ended up on the shoulders of young Spaniard Alberto Contador, who's currently leading the general classification. Contador will face off against Predictor Lotto's Cadel Evans, now in second place, in Saturday's final Tour de France time trial. Directeur sportif Dirk Demol reminded us that the yellow jersey does strange things with the riders who wear it.

When asked if he felt a one-two finish was possible for the American team given that Levi Leipheimer is within just a minute Evans, Discovery team manager Johan Bruyneel said, "Evans will also try to ride the time trial of his life, so it will be very difficult for Leipheimer to get past him; if we can keep the yellow jersey, then we'll be happy," the Belgian director said.

Adjusting to yellow

"Contador found it hard to be suddenly offered that yellow jersey; we were at peace with [being in] second place," Demol reflected on how the team was suddenly in the yellow jersey after the departure of Michael Rassmussen (Rabobank) from the Tour late Wednesday. "He's young, and before the Tour, we didn't know how he would react during the third week. We noticed that he was near the limit in the mountains although the motivation of a yellow jersey can help a lot, of course. We believe we can do it," Demol said.

Bruyneel said it isn't easy to predict the result of the time trial because there wasn't much data to compare the two riders. "Evans is more of a time trialist specialist than Contador, so that's a disadvantage for us, but I don't think the difference can be so big as to lose the yellow jersey. Anyway you never know, if Evans has a super day, and Alberto an off day, then it's all possible; otherwise it should be no problem," Bruyneel claimed.

"I did study the data and found out that Evans performs best in the tough time trials. The reference I have right now on a flat course is the [prologue] time trial in London where Contador took a second on Evans. If we take that as a reference, it looks good for us," Bruyneel smiled.

The Spaniard wore white before yellow
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There's also another time trial where Evans took a few minutes on Contador and that was in the French Dauphiné Libéré HC stage race. "His [Alberto's] time trial in the Dauphiné wasn't good. Alberto had a bad day back then, but he wasn't too well there anyway. He started with a bad prologue, but he was good in the mountains. Now it's different as he starts the time trial with a killer spirit to keep the yellow jersey," Bruyneel said.

The Belgian added that there was another motivation for the young Spanish rider. "Lance Armstrong will be next to me in the team car behind Alberto," Bruyneel said to Cyclingnews. The team is preparing for the time trial in detail. They will drive the course on Friday evening and again on Saturday morning.

Whatever the result will be in Paris, it will be much better than the team's performance in 2006, when they earned only a stage win for Yaroslav Popovych. "It was a year where we came with less expectations than usually, but still high enough with hopes for the podium for Leipheimer, a stage win, and the white jersey for Contador. Now we're in this unexpected position, and now we're at the eve of the battle for the war we are trying to win--the Tour," Bruyneel said, showing the spirit needed to win a war.

To read the complete feature, click here.

"Contador couldn't hold his wheel"

By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême

Contador is a young winner
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Predictor-Lotto manager Marc Sergeant talked with Cyclingnews about the time trial that will decide the outcome of the Tour de France.

Yellow jersey Alberto Contador's Discovery Team director Johan Bruyneel, had made a comment pointing to the mostly flat prologue in London where Cadel Evans had lost a second on Contador.

"Then Contador will win the Tour," Sergeant laughed in response. He didn't want to argue with Bruyneel's comment. Instead, the Belgian pointed out that his own rider, Tour contender Evans, was clearly fresher than Contador.

"Evans is fresh and Contador, who couldn't hold his wheel a few moments ago. That's what I saw, he just lost three seconds [in stage 18]," said Sergeant. "Before that, we were very lucky because Evans almost hit a spectator who wanted to take a picture with only three kilometres to go. We're happy with what we have now."

Sergeant said he prefers that Evans stay in his current position rather than crash out. "Anyhow every time trial is different, especially after three weeks. Contador showed he wasn't going that strong anymore in the last mountains stage while Evans saved his Tour there, so we're not giving up. It will be decided on who's the most fresh rider," Sergeant predicted.

"We gain three seconds now," Sergeant said, expressing his hope that these seconds could decide the final winner. When reminded of the smallest gap ever (only eight seconds) that separated winner Greg Lemond from Laurent Fignon in 1989, the Belgian team manager was humble. "We don't need anything more tomorrow," Sergeant laughed.

New Tour doping case looms?

By Cyclingnews staff

Following the exclusion of pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), race leader Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) and Christian Moreni (Cofidis) from the race, hopes that the Tour de France would get to Paris with no further scandals appear uncertain due to rumours that another doping case has taken place.

Unconfirmed reports have said that a prominent rider tested positive on last Sunday's Pyrenean stage to Plateau de Beille.

Tour de France organisers ASO have called a press conference for 11 am on Saturday, where they are expected to elaborate further on the situation.

Sastre to face Zubeldia for fourth

By Gregor Brown in Angoulême

Carlos Sastre (Team CSC)
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The 55.5-kilometre time trial between Cognac and Angoulême will likely decide the Tour de France when Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans go head to head, but there will be another tight battle on the roads through the Charente department as CSC's Carlos Sastre fights to keep his fourth overall from Haimar Zubeldia of Euskaltel-Euskadi. There are only 27 seconds separating the two Spaniards, and for Sastre, it is a matter of pride and a difference in 70,000 and 50,000 Euros in prize money.

Friday morning, as the sun was beating its rays down on the holiday town of Cahors, 32 year-old Sastre explained that he is a little bit worried about keeping his spot in the general classification to the younger Basque (30 years-old).

"He is really close, but I am here to fight and I will do my best in the time trial," said Sastre, who comes from Madrid, to Cyclingnews. "Normally in the last time trial we were at the same level. I don't know what will happen but I will worry, for sure."

Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
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The Danish team started the Tour with Fränk Schleck and Sastre as captains but its first week was filled with glory as Fabian Cancellara took the maillot jaune on day one in London, which he held it to Le Grand-Bornand. Sastre had the help of Schleck in the mountains and, along with his steady riding, he remained in the top-end of the GC even with a loss of 20 seconds to Zubeldia on stage 16 to Col d'Aubisque.

"I started with the podium as my dream for this Tour, it is not possible but still I am here to fight, and to do my best in the time trial to maintain my fourth position." Overall, he is content with his performance in this year's race. "I am happy because I came here and went at the top of my capabilities. It is just that two or three riders have better legs than I do. You have to be realistic. I give my congratulations to them, and I am happy for myself."

Zubeldia rose to fame in the shadow of Iban Mayo at Euskaltel-Euskadi. Once the past Tour stage-winner passed over to Saunier Duval this last winter, Zubeldia took over the captain's role for the Basque team heading into the Tour. Sastre knows his rival well from their amateur days in Spain and this will help him as he defends himself on Saturday.

"He is from the Basque region and I am from Madrid but I know him well. When we were amateur riders, we raced in many of the same races. I have known him for many years. He is here to try his best but I will be going at my best as well."

Merckx says farewell with final break

By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême

Axel Merckx (T-Mobile)
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In what turned out to be his last realistic chance at a Tour stage win, Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) nearly managed to claim his first ever Tour de France stage win. He sprinted towards a second place behind the unreachable Sandy Casar who started the sprint from first position.

After the finish, Cyclingnews spoke with Merckx when he had recovered from his sprint. "I'm not a sprinter," Merckx laboured an obvious point, "and second is ok, because if I can be honest, Casar was the best. If you can start from the front and nobody can overtake you, then you're simply the best. Nobody could overtake him."

"It was a tough year for me, mentally and physically, and I wanted to give something to the team-mates but it wasn't to be." With ten kilometres to go, Michael Boogerd, another retiring rider, started the final quest for the victory with a predictable attack. With less than five kilometres to go, Laurent Lefevre managed to create a gap, and then it was Casar himself who was left to ride solo in the final kilometres.

"I had to chase very long to get back in the wheels," Merckx said he lost a lot of energy before the sprint. Casar kept going for the solo win but going into the final kilometre, he was brought back by Boogerd, while Merckx and Lefevre joined a little later.

"The last 1,000m, it was everybody on his own, and Sandy Casar was so strong. I was empty and gambled that they would come on his wheel." Nevertheless the Belgian didn't spoil any energy on attacks, and in the final straight, he seemed to be in an ideal third position, behind the caught Casar and Boogerd, to start the sprint. "I was dying in last position, and then we came to the sprint... I am not a sprinter," Merckx smiled. "Anyway, if you can ride like this and still win with such an advantage then he was the strongest."

The Belgian will retire after the Tour de France and is planning to live in Vancouver with his wife Judy and their daughter, so stage 18, with only a time trial and a sprinter's finish on the Champs-Elysees remaining, it was the last time we will see Merckx on the attack in a break.

"I don't know why, but I was happy when I rode to the start. I can't be disappointed, I haven't got the right to be disappointed. It was a nice day," Merckx looked back on his glorious day on French roads.

Boogerd committed to retiring

By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême

Boogerd wanted another stage
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"No, I'm really retiring," Boogerd didn't leave any doubts when asked if he wouldn't consider an extra year after his strong performances in this Tour de France.

He was in low spirits when talking to Cyclingnews after the finish of Stage 18. "I'm disappointed because I had the legs to win today, but so be it," Boogerd said. "It was clear Casar was the strongest...if you can win the sprint from the lead. I guess Axel [Merckx] was probably empty because otherwise, he would've take pulls with Lefevre and he would've gone in the last kilometre. Casar was the deserved winner."

After the departure of Michael Rasmussen, the Rabobank team chose not to leave the race along with the disgraced Dane. Yesterday at the start, "Boogie" drew negative attention when he attacked a so-called fan who was booing the Dutchman. But today, he was noticed in a more positive way thanks to his impressive riding.

The leaders reached an advantage that was sufficient to make Boogerd a real threat for riders in the top-10. "It was very good today, but suddenly, Merckx was only sitting on our wheels because the position of Kirchen [seventh in GC] came into danger, which is understandable.

"So we started riding 33km/h, and that isn't good for me, I prefer a harder race." The Euskaltel team finally started chasing to save the fifth placed spot for Haimar Zubeldia and tenth for Mikel Astarloza.

Boogerd, the sympathetic Amstel Gold Race specialist said he never thought about the general classification. He just went for a third stage win in the Tour de France. "I just went for the victory, not for the GC or whatsoever."

The 35 year-old is retiring at the end of the season, and he explained that he had liked the thought about a victory in the Tour de France in his last year. "That was going through my mind, and I realized that it would make me a legend if I took a victory in my last Tour--my last chance."

Tosatto's 'bella fuga'

By Gregor Brown in Angoulême

Tosatto looks pained
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Matteo Tosatto took his first Tour de France win last year in Mâcon after an escape of 140 and Thursday he tried his luck again, this time lasting near 160 kilometres in stage 17, eventually won by Daniele Bennati. Twenty kilometres shy of the finish in Castelsarrasin, before being shot out the back the accelerations of Voigt and Elmiger.

At the start of stage 18 in Cahors the Quickstep rider explained that his legs gave out due to the first kilometres as the escape tried to build its gap. "It was a 'bella fuga' yesterday," the 33 year-old rider from Veneto explained to Cyclingnews. "It was really hard at the start, rather, for the first 90 kilometres! The peloton was not giving us space and we consumed a lot of energy during that time."

He made the escape of eight once the race was 12 kilometres out of the Pyrenean foothill town of Pau with Elmiger, Voigt, Millar, Quinziato, Fothen, Righi and eventual stage winner Bennati. "In the finale, with the riders there, like Voigt and Bennati... maybe they were a little fresher than I was. My energy was draining, but congratulations to them."

The artilleries were launched on the final climb of the day, the 1400-metre Côte de la Montagnère, and it was too much for Quickstep's Tosatto. He had paid his dues in the first part of the Tour and perhaps the length of the Tour was starting to show.

"First it was Elmiger and then Bennati closed it down. Voigt never had any difficulties in closing the gap. When Voigt took off on the climb that was too much and I could not do anything to close it." Even without Tosatto, getting the win his Belgium-Based team has already gained four wins in this Tour.

"Bennati showed that he was the fastest but he was also the strongest because he closed all the escapes that attacked in those last kilometres. Complements to him."

Tosatto took a minute to focus on his compatriot Cristian Moreni (Cofidis) who left the Tour Wednesday afternoon after it was announced that he had tested positive for Testosterone. "For cycling it is not good," he noted. "We are making a fight against doping but unfortunately some cyclists... [He paused - ed.] I don't know what to say. The fight is there but let's hope that that a complete cleaning comes."

Tosatto will continue in the Quickstep colours for the next two years; he signed a contract during the Giro d'Italia for 2008 and 2009.

Willems laments failed break attempt

By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême

Belgian Frederik Willems (Liquigas) was in the breakaway with his compatriot Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) today, but he was taken down by a crash involving Sandy Casar and a dog.

The Belgian explained to Cyclingnews what happened after he rolled over the finish line as last rider, 11 minutes behind winner Casar. "A dog was crossing the road, and the man in front of me [Casar] hit it. I was hidden behind him, and I never saw that dog. I only saw it when we were already down," Willems recalled.

After the unsuccessful attempts to get into otherwise breakaways, including the successful one today, the Belgian was again unlucky. "It isn't to be in this Tour de France," Willems said to Cyclingnews.

"It turned out to be the successful escape, and that makes it more painful. I couldn't deal with it at great length. Otherwise things seem worse, so I just focused on riding to the finish." Willems has only one goal left in this Tour and that shouldn't be a problem. "I want to make it to Paris."

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