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Stage 1 Strasbourg--Strasbourg 185km July 2, 2006
Written July 2, 2006 by David Balkin
pixelWinning is well defined by our sports culture as first place but within the TDF are competitions that reward those with no hope of finishing first. In this event are several chances to gain recognition that lasts a lifetime.
pixelThe 2nd most coveted prize is the green jersey for the most consistent finisher; it’s a reward for sprinters who suffer in the high mountains as they are not built for climbing while those built to soar; fly away gaining huge chunks of time ending any hope for the overall before it begins.
pixelThe green jersey keeps sprinters motivated. On each stage a rider gets 35 points for 1st, 30 for 2nd down to 1 for 25th place. To keep accurate track all bikes are equipped with transponders that give exact order of finish.  That used to take hours to sort out and with questionable accuracy; especially on early stages.  On this day 171 out of 176 riders crossed the line en masse and by rule were given the same time.
pixelPolka dot is the 3rd most coveted jersey and is worn by the KOM. (King of the Mountain) One would expect best climber to win it but that’s not exactly how it works. It recognizes good climbers who lack the other skills needed to win an overall title.  KOM contenders animate the race by going with or creating the early breakaways in an effort to harvest mountain points before they’re reeled in. That uses a lot of energy and they’re seldom contenders for the overall.
pixel Meanwhile, the men looking for yellow are great climbers but they’re forced to save themselves for the high mountain stages where the race is won or lost.  By that time KOM is generally out of their reach.  
pixelOn this flat stage the first KOM points were awarded at the top of a very minor, mile long climb. (the commentators called it no harder than a highway overpass) Fabian Wegmann in a breakaway of 7 that was 5 minutes ahead of the field was first over the top and earned 3 points. He will wear polka dot tomorrow.
pixelWegmann and 6 others were off the front almost from the start line. Being out there gets the sponsor’s name on television but it’s futile as a stage winning strategy unless the earth swallows the pack alive.
pixelThis break stayed out for over 100 miles and all but one was reeled in with about 15km remaining. George Hincapie then made a bold move with 9km to go winning 2 seconds in an intermediate time bonus sprint and that turned out to be just enough to put him in yellow at day’s end.
pixelHincapie went after a scrap left on the table after the last man standing in the break handily won the first place 6 second bonus before being reeled in a minute or two later.  George seized the moment and jumped out of the pack by himself with the only chaser one of Hushovd’s Credit Agricole teammates trying to keep the yellow jersey for another day.
pixelThe CA guy easily dusted Hincapie and took the 2nd place time bonus but this display of what teamwork is about went for naught because the 2 lonely seconds Hincapie got for third was all he needed to take possession of the legendary maillot jaune.
pixelWith less than a second advantage over big George, Thor Hushovd would have had to finish in the top 3 to overcome Hincapie’s 2 second bonus but finished 9th and is now second overall.
pixelEven worse Thor was riding too close to the barriers in the final sprint and his right arm was sliced open with 100 meters to go by something held by a spectator.  After he crossed the line he collapsed, lying in a pool of blood.  In the sport Hushovd is known as a hard man and he appears to be alright but lost a lot of blood. Here’s hoping he can recover in time and continue racing as the strong rider he’s proven to be.
pixelFrench rider Jimmy Casper surprised everyone winning the 45mph mad dash to the line.  2nd was Robbie McEwen and 3rd went to 36 year old Erik Zabel whose glory days as the “fastest man in the world” are past but not by much.  In the 90’s Zabel won the green jersey a record 6 consecutive times and has 12 TDF stage wins to his credit.  He’s still tough and always close to the front but younger legs have proven hard to get past.
pixelTom Boonen the big favorite for green finished a disappointing 13th and it’s going to be a challenge for him to win the only thing he’s here for.  Boonen is a complete rider who does everything well (climbing, sprinting and time trialing) but expresses absolutely no interest in competing for the overall. He’s a brilliant single day classics rider and doesn’t want to jeopardize his regimen that’s brought him extraordinary success.
pixelAmerican riders are very well placed with 3 in the top 10 overall even though the highest placed American finisher today, not surprisingly, was Fast Freddie Rodriguez in 20th place.  It’s Fred’s job to lead out his teammate Robbie McEwen who thanks to Fred is always up front in time to win his share of sprints.
pixelLance may be gone but the USA rules. Hincapie is now 1st, David Zabriskie is 3rd, Floyd Landis is 9th, Chris Horner is 20th, Bobby Julich 31st, Christian Vandevelde 36th, Levi Leipheimer 38th, and Fred Rodriguez 114th.
pixelAlong with Hincapie our two other main contenders, Landis and Leipheimer, are well in the hunt for the overall.  They excel in the mountains, are decent time trialists and have as good a chance as any to be on the podium in Paris. Both are confident and if they weren’t there’s no bluffing, they’d say nothing. Few athletes are as realistic and know their bodies as well as stage racers who also know that braggadocio is a haunt in a race this lengthy and demanding.
pixelTomorrow’s stage is the 2nd longest of the TDF at 228km or 142 miles. It has 5 minor climbs that could disrupt the plan where escapees are routinely reeled in by the pack just in the nick of time for a final sprint.  More likely the Discovery team will protect the yellow jersey and mark any breakaway containing a rider that can take it away.  The other teams with sprinters will also be vigilant so their man has a chance to win a stage that makes a season.


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