Tour Diary - First Impressions
Stage 1: Fromentine – Noirmoutier (19km ITT)
Poetry in motion
As Lance Armstrong bows out of his long and successful career, there was poetry in the manner that another American (the young Dave Zabriskie) should win the TT just 2 seconds in front of le patron Armstrong . Both riders put nearly one minute into the third placed rider with the rest of the field spread out behind them.
The pre-Tour media hype reached deafening levels and expert predictions from many sources were shown to be just so much hot air. Zabriskie should have been no surprise. He has already shown incredible TT talent that includes stage wins in last year's Vuelta and the recent Giro. Now his team CSC will focus on him holding the Yellow Jersey for the next few days. Their long term plan is to deliver Ivan Basso to Paris in Yellow.
Why everyone is showing surprise at Armstrong's TT ride demonstrates that for six years few people have understood the USPS (and now Discovery) team approach to the Tour. It really started with Greg LeMond when he first introduced techniques borrowed from Corporate America. Armstrong and his team have elevated those early corporate introductions and in the process revolutionized the sport. In particular the TdF has been their number one objective. Strategy, planning, tactics, technology, nutrition, training and every other aspect has been placed under a magnifying glass and then adapted for maximum effect. Given Armstrong's undoubted genetic benefits, his obsession with the Tour and his highly sophisticated team set up, we have seen him dominate the race for six straight years.
Armstrong may have had a winless 2005, which included a terrible (by his own admission) TT in the Tour of Georgia, but July is another animal. Here we are at the end of Stage 1 and already he has over one minute on all of his main rivals. His obsession with the Tour is by no means diminished and he is that type of super-champion that hungers for victory. Only illness, an accident or by his own choosing will he fail to reach Paris in Yellow.
Stage 2: Challans – Les Essarts (181.5km)
No guts, no glory
Last year little Thomas Voeckler (Bouygues Telecom) slipped into a break early in the Tour and took the Yellow Jersey. For ten days all of France reveled in his plucky and gutsy spirit while he refused to relinquish the lead. Even Lance Armstrong applauded his tenacity and willingness to suffer. To the French fans Richard Virenque has been their “darling” for many years. That mantel slipped across to Voeckler last year.
Today he was one of four riders that rode away from the field and stayed out there for just over 135km's. Together with Laszlo Bodrogi (Credit Agricole), David Canada (Saunier Duval) and Sylvain Calzati (Ag2r-Prevoyance) they gained a maximum of 4mins 30secs. However on this mostly flat stage it was clear that the sprinters would not let this one get away. On the run in to Les Essarts there was a modest Cat 4 climb and the first one to count towards the Polka Dot mountains jersey. At that point the sprinters trains were driving the peloton hard and only about 30secs behind the doomed break. Canada attacked hard on the climb and it looked as though he would take the prime having opened a sizeable gap. Voeckler, who is a local and knows the roads around here very well, counter-attacked and claimed the climber's points.
Even after the climb the break ( now down to three after Bodrogi dropped back on the climb) refused to give in. Predictably their gutsy ride came to an end with about 5km to go. The sprinters teams took control and it was Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) who got the better of Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto) on the line.
At the awards ceremony Voeckler donned the Polka Dot jersey. Seeing how he hung on to his Yellow Jersey last year we can be sure that he will do everything in his power to hang on to it. This is the stuff of great racing.
Stage 3: La Chataigneraie – Tours (212.5km)
Optimism springs eternal in most bike racers and in a race such as the Tour everyone dreams of grabbing glory, even if only momentarily. Most days we see breaks escape and with many it is clear that the effort is a forlorn cause. On the flat stages the sprinters teams have created a science out of bringing back breaks before the final dash to the line. Sometimes the breaks are very long and race fans will them on to hold off the pack until the very end. We saw this in stage 2 yesterday and again today three brave souls were away for almost the entire day.
Erik Dekker (Rabobank), Rubens Bertogliati (Saunier Duval) and Nichols Portal (Ag2r) led the race for 177kms. Dekker has won many classics as well as four Tour stages. A power rider with amazing resilience, he is one to never give in. Bertogliati can probably claim to have recorded the most audacious Tour stage win when a couple of years ago on Stage 1 of the Tour he jumped the field with 1km to go and held them off to the line. That exploit earned him very brief custody of the Yellow Jersey. Portal is a solid rider and his objective was to get his sponsors jersey in front of the cameras.
On the run in to Tours Bertogliati was the first to throw the towel in. Portal followed shortly afterwards as he felt the collective breath of the bunch at his back. Dekker refused to concede with about 180 riders on his heels as they headed for the famous Avenue de Grammont at 55kph. Over the years Dekker has been in similar situations and the picture of him, head down, flat out, trying to outgun the sprinters trains was marvelous. And with Dekker you never count him out. Unfortunately with just 3kms to go he was swamped by the masses and at that precise moment Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo) burst from the front. His freedom was short lived and the predicted bunch sprint took place. Once again Tom Boonen dominated to take the win. In the heat of battle to Tom's right, Stuart O'Grady (Credit Agricole) and Robbie McEwen (Davitamon.Lotto) were locked in mortal combat. McEwen head-butted O'Grady in an attempt to make room to get up to Boonen and was later disqualified to last place for his aggression.
Stage 4: Tours – Blois (67.5km TTT)
Enough to make you weep
While watching the stage up to Luz Ardiden a couple of years ago I literally leaped up from my seat when Armstrong hit the deck. I experienced the same shock wave today when Dave Zabriskie suddenly hit the ground with just 1.5km to go in the TTT. Watching him ride in battered, and his Yellow Jersey torn to shreds was enough to make you weep.
The race itself was a thrilling battle between CSC and Discovery with T-Mobile and Liberty Seguros definitely adding to the drama. Phonak was also in the mix but they started losing riders faster than most teams. At the finish Discovery finished intact and just 2 seconds ahead of team CSC which was in shock following the crash. At the time of writing Zabriskie still had to undergo medical examination.
Unlike last year's TTT which was run in apocalyptic conditions, today's race was dry and with a favorable wind. The combination of the conditions and the intense rivalry between teams produced the fastest average race speeds ever seen at the Tour. Discovery covered the 67.5km at an astounding 57.324kmph (35.62mph). No stage of any type has been run at a faster speed.
Jan Ullrich was happy with his teams ride (3 rd at 35 seconds) and still considers himself very much in the race. Particularly pleasing was to see Joseba Beloki finish together with his teammates (4 th at 53 seconds). It has been a long and difficult return to the top level since his horrific crash two years ago.
The Tour opened with the “race of truth” and already after that stage it was clear who was in form. The team time trial further emphasized the pecking order. Armstrong is now in Yellow and few will bet against him continuing his winning campaign once they head into the mountains. Team Discovery looks unbeatable.
Stage 5: Chambord – Montargis (183km)
Today's stage was flat and featured a long break which was caught shortly before the finish. The predictable bunch sprint was won by Robbie McEwen. Many would look at this as a routine day in the Tour. This may be so but just consider what the peloton is doing.
Most club cyclists would consider 183km (114mls) to be a relatively long ride. After such a day out a few days of rest, and maybe even a day off the bike, would be in order. For the Tour this distance represents an average road stage. Also of course they repeat the exercise most days for three weeks.
As the race cruised through the French countryside the riders appeared to be making little effort yet they were averaging 48.5kmph (30.2 mph). Thus far the race is heading towards a new overall average speed record. Most club riders congratulate themselves on completing a 162km (100mls) ride at 32.2kmph (20mph). On our club rides we occasionally have the distinct pleasure of a Pro-Tour rider join our club rides. Typically our average speed for the day will be elevated by about 6kmph (3-4mph) and our distinguished guest would have spent the whole ride at the front happily chatting away as the rest of us attempt to hold the pace. It is at times like that you truly appreciate the chasm between the elite pro bunch and the rest of us.
For the majority of the peloton, Stage 5 would have been one of active recovery. For Zabriskie and any other rider nursing injury or less than optimal form, today would have been a welcome lull in hostilities that gives them a chance to ‘convalesce'.
Tomorrow a lumpy 19kms (123.6mls) with four Cat 4 climbs. Another routine day. Some routine.
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