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Stage 2 Obernai-Esch-sur-Alzette 229km July 3, 2006
Written by David Balkin
 
 

pixelThe TDF is a soap opera that reinvents itself daily without need of a scriptwriter. There’s something for everyone. For those that like sleek, the equipment is sweet and its lean, well muscled players perform in skintight stretch clothing. There’s spontaneous action and moments fraught with peril. There are improbable, often heroic athletic outcomes; and sadly there’s a dark side; the lurking blood doping scandal that’s shaken the sport’s foundation to its core. It’s riveting. What more could a daytime audience ask for?
pixelIt’s also not surprising to read of other sports and star athletes that are soon to be implicated as deeply as cyclists in the operation Puerto bust. The compliant blood lab kept accurate records (duh) with paper trails and pouches of blood leading to riders by name. That and video evidence is the compelling evidence leading to suspension without a trial.
pixelThe teams in a prior arrangement decided to banish without replacement when any rider was found under compelling suspicion of using illegal techniques to enhance performance. The sanctioning bodies insisted the riders be allowed to compete until proven guilty.
pixelThe teams did the right thing. The long term health problems racing cyclists suffer are severe and it’s attributable to the widespread use of drugs that defined the early racing culture and remains a lingering haunt. Clearly, the players and the owners have decided it’s time to make their sport clean once and for all and damn the unintended consequences.
pixelOkay, TDF is bigger than this scandal and ten times more interesting. The yellow jersey that George Hincapie took away from Thor Hushovd yesterday was only a 24 hour loan. It was retrieved in dramatic fashion by the man himself who’s mostly recovered from yesterday’s 2” wide paper cut inflicted 100 meters from the line.
pixelThe gory details: Thor’s blazing by at 45mph and a giant paper hand (now banned) dipped into Thor’s air space slicing his upper arm wide open. After racing 138 miles these last few hundred meters were at maximum heart rate or beyond and the man’s blood was coursing through his system. TV images of the TDF doctor squeezing hard to stem the flow were eye opening. A pool of blood and a stained yellow jersey hits home hard and for those into symbolism definitely more art film than soap opera.
pixelToday, fully recovered, Hushovd finished 3rd overall and winning points in intermediate time bonus sprints. That was enough to put him back in yellow. Hincapie rode conservatively and really didn’t stick his nose out. But he was vigilant and never far from the front, obviously preferring to conserve his energy.
pixelLast year Lance rode like that and it underscored his total dominance. His ride came with a willingness to share glory even when a stage victory or two was there for the taking. Last year the Discovery team rode like banshees for Lance. A year later they rode conservatively for any number of good reasons not the least of which is several other teams were motivated to work hard to give their sprinters a shot at victory.
pixelIn this case discretion also works much better than valor because Hushovd and Boonen were the men playing off the front for time bonus points and both are top level sprinters. Hincapie can’t compete with them on a level playing field. But check back after a thousand miles and a few hard mountain climbs when those guys won’t be seen in big George’s company.
pixelWhen asked after the stage if yellow meant he was the team leader. He said something like we’ll see after the time trial and a couple of mountain stages. That’s another way of saying Lance earned his leadership and that’s the legacy he leaves for the next Discovery man to take his place.
pixelAll the while, much is being made of Discovery’s other strong GC contenders that include the likes of Yaroslav Popovych, last years’ white jersey winner in the under 25 competition and Paolo Salvoldeli, last years’ Giro winner and certified superstar.
pixelBut there’s no controversy brewing here because there will be no conflict. Throughout his lengthy stage riding career Hincapie has played 1st lieutenant with consummate skill and grace. Just a few words to the press makes it clear he knows his place and if he’s the man for GC. So will the team.
pixelThe stage began with a 2 man break that went 1km from the line and stayed away for most of the stage. Wegmann was in the main bunch. That meant the first and second place KOM points were harvested before he got there. Wegmann had to settle for 3rd place table scraps. That’s really hard work and less rewarding than chasing down the breakaway and playing at the full buffet. That’s what he did and it still wasn’t enough. It’s really early and now he knows who else is in this game.
pixelRobbie McEwen won the stage and will wear the green jersey; Tom Boonen was 2nd and in 3rd back in yellow a patched Thor Hushovd. Hincapie and the rest of the American contenders were content to finish in the field but with the same time. George is now in 4th 10 seconds down because of time bonuses earned by Hushovd and Boonen.
pixelAll the American riders are where they should be. Actually it matters not so much this early. It’s the mountains that sort out pretender from contender and when that’s not decisive the time trials finish the job.
pixelTomorrow the route is on the same roads through Belgium and Holland where the one day classics are contested. The finish up Le Cauberg, is a 1km kicker of a hill at 8 -11% (category 3) and may see a solo victory or a two up sprint rather than the mass mayhem of 100 guys elbow to elbow looking for an opening to blast through. The latter is much more fun to watch and what seems most likely here when legs are still fresh.
pixelIf Tom Boonen wins this stage he’ll be wearing yellow for the following day’s start in his Belgian homeland. It’s a big deal to him and one of his goals going into the TDF. So far he hasn’t been quite on but still an easy man for me to pick when he’s immersed in his element.

 

   
 
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