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Tour de France news feature, July 11, 2008
Lead change shrouded in controversy
The finish of Stage 6 was somewhat controversial, with Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher crashing within sight of the line and conceding the yellow jersey to closest rival Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia). Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes gets reactions to a dramatic finale at Super Besse.
With the Tour de France moving into the mountains on Thursday, it was clear that there was going to be a shakeup in the race. Gerolsteiner's Stefan Schumacher had a narrow lead over several dangerous rivals including Team Columbia's Kim Kirchen - who started the day just twelve seconds back. Several of those close to the sport tipped that the Luxembourg rider would take over at the top.
That's what ultimately happened, but the manner of his doing so was utterly unexpected. Schumacher rode superbly on the stage, remaining in the front group while other better-regarded climbers such as Damiano Cunego (Lampre) lost time. With 500 metres to go it not only looked like he would hold on, but it appeared that he would be one of those actually sprinting for the victory. But then it all went terribly wrong.
Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) found himself on the front after team-mate Oscar Pereiro pulled off. He moved from the left to right side of the road, presumably to try to get one of the other riders to come by, but this created a ripple effect which made Kirchen swing over and - unintentionally - clip Schumacher's front wheel. The German went straight down, hitting the road hard. While he remounted immediately and set off in pursuit, he crossed the line 32 seconds behind stage winner Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott) and 31 adrift of Valverde, Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Frank Schleck (Team CSC) and Kirchen.
Confusion then reigned. On normal stages, any mishaps inside the final three kilometres have no effect on the rider's time, unless the group splits. However on mountain stages this doesn't normally apply, due presumably to the possibility of riders faking problems. There was nevertheless a lot of uncertainly; Schumacher initially declined to speak to the media circled around the team bus, being clearly gutted about losing yellow. A team worker told those gathered there that he wouldn't talk due to the disappointment of this loss happening due to a crash.
However, a couple of minutes later the German was out of the bus once again, heading back to the finish after a Tour official told him that he had held on. His serious expression suggested that he wasn't totally convinced, and so it proved. Kirchen was confirmed as the new race leader, with Schumacher dropping to third overall, 16 seconds back.
"I came here with excellent form and tried to get a victory," said Kirchen. "I have the green jersey and now the yellow. I am very happy with this. We will try to control the race with Team Columbia and I am very confident for the next days."
Schumacher was, as expected, somewhat less happy with the day's conclusion. "I lost time, I crashed because Kim swerved and I had no chance," he said. "I couldn't avoid it. I am not injured, it is not much. That is not the problem, I am just really disappointed with what has happened."
In the post-race press conference, Kirchen was asked about Schumacher's statement. "Actually, I am very surprised to hear that," he said. "I hadn't seen him in the last two kilometres. I was trying to move up on the right hand side but then everybody swerved to the right side. The guy in front of me had to brake and I had to do the same. I couldn't do my sprint for the victory. I am very surprised to hear he said that."
Schumacher's team manager Hans Michael Holczer had, like the rider, initially believed that the yellow jersey was lost. Cyclingnews then spoke to him moments after the rider was called back to the podium and, at that point, it looked like Gerolsteiner would continue with the maillot jaune.
"The team worked extraordinarily well today, I have to say that," said Holczer. "Now that he has the jersey, we will work to keep it and it is thanks to the work of the team. I hope that we are capable of keeping the jersey until the Pyrenees.
"I wasn't surprised by his performance," he continued. "I know that he could do well in the mountains like this. He can ride well in the hills, he prefers them to the big mountains."
Approximately 10 minutes later, Cyclingnews spoke to Holczer once again. This time he was in an angry mood, having learned that the jury had decided to give the jersey to Kirchen after all.
"I know why they made the decision," he said. "When you have a hill finish, it is easy to pretend you have a problem, for example, and that is why the normal situation doesn't apply. That is the rule, but today shows that the rule is not right in every situation.
"It was hard [for Schumacher and the team], because somebody from the commissaires came and told him he was in the jersey," he added. "On the other hand, we knew that normally it could not be the case. I called the president of the jury and then he said that you get the time you have on the finish line [and the jersey was consequently lost]. It is stupid."
One can understand why in this case Gerolsteiner would feel the judgement was a little harsh. The crash happened well inside the final kilometre and Schumacher was looking strong at the time; it is almost impossible that Schumacher would have lost the 12 seconds Kirchen trailed him by.
Even though the latter implied this could happen, it seems highly unlikely. "The speed was good enough, fast enough, and it is tough to attack with a headwind," said Kirchen. "I knew I could make the difference in the final 500 metres, but unfortunately it didn't happen as expected…there were several other attacks. But I am happy with the yellow jersey. "
The obvious question on people's minds is how long Kirchen can keep it for. He was on few people's list of pre-race favourites, but has shown already this week that he is in superb form. Kirchen was asked if he now considered himself one of the big contenders.
He is playing things cautiously, not making rash predictions at this point of the race. "Well, as you know the Tour is the Tour and there are many days left," he answered. "I have exceptional form and I decided to concentrate on the opening stages and trying to get the jersey. The time trial two days ago went extremely well, I was a bit surprised by that.
"It is necessary to take it day by day," he added. "Everything is possible with a very strong team, we will see how things go in the Pyrenees as regards staying with the best climbers. If I succeed there without losing too much time, perhaps I can be there in the Alps and also in Paris."
Both Schumacher and Gerolsteiner would, clearly, have been very happy to have retained the maillot jaune a while longer. Unlike Kirchen, he has no aspirations of a high overall finish; the Pyrenees and Alps would almost certainly be too tough for a rider of his build. The German team is however looking for a replacement sponsor, and so time in the limelight is a vital currency tool for attracting backers.
Schumacher will start Stage 7 with a deficit of 16 seconds; it's a narrow one, but Holczer feels it's unlikely that they can reclaim the lost time. "I think it will be very hard to get it back," he said. "If we had retained it today, maybe we could have kept it until the Pyrenees. But I don't think it is possible to get it back now."