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Stage 3 Esch-sur-Alzette - Valkenburg 217km July 4, 2006
by David Balkin


pixelIt’s July 4th and in honor of our American riders they’ll come first even though they’re not doing anything special except remaining upright and very well placed by riding conservatively. Six of eight are in the top 25 with Levi Leipheimer worst placed at 28 seconds.
pixelFor now the time gap is nothing as this race is made in the mountains where minutes not seconds separate riders. Getting there within easy reach of the leaders and as fresh as possible is brilliant strategy and so far they’re pulling it off. Except for Fred Rodriguez who crashed out today and Chris Horner who lost 8 minutes when he also found himself on the ground.
pixelThe TDF is a race of attrition and just finishing is an achievement. Freddie Rodriguez will be sorely missed by his teammate Robbie McEwen who so far has been the best sprinter but without Fred’s lead out it’ll be much harder. Erik Dekker, also crashed out and he was a solid choice to win today’s stage on his home turf over roads which he trains and where he’s won the Amstel Gold. (Golf fans think Masters)
pixelThe third man to crash out was Alejandro Valverde, the pride of Spain, who went down in a mid pack crumple breaking his collarbone. Valverde won two classics this season (horse racing fans think Triple Crown) and by all accounts is a solid citizen. He’s young at 26 and Lance called him the future of cycling. He can do everything with the best but time trial and he’s getting better. In last year’s TDF he won a mountain top stage fair and square by doing his share of the work and beating Lance in a two up sprint. This year he was a longshot pick of many to win overall; that’s even before the major stars were kicked out.
pixelA moment’s inattention riding in the closest possible quarters for 135 or so miles in 90°F heat is all it takes. And this is the easy time, the race is only 3 days young, the roads are mostly flat and legs are fresh.
pixelFlat is relative. Today’s stage was hilly by real world standards with 5 short but stiff climbs. Still it was flat enough for the sprinters to be there at the end. No climbs were graded more difficult than category 3 which means a mile or two at most—or really short and steep like today’s final climb the category 3 Cauberg which is 1km at 8-11%. That’s an annoying pimple in comparison to the mountains ahead with this year’s longest climb almost 14 miles and just as steep.
pixelThe stage winner was T-Mobile’s Matthias Kessler who like yesterday found himself off the front with the finish line literally seconds away. Yesterday he was swallowed alive by the sprinters and spit out with 100 meters to go but on this day he extracted a 5 second lead going over the Cauberg and held on for the next 2km to win by that amount. T-Mobile is out to prove there’s life after Ullrich and teammate Michael Rogers took second in a bunch sprint.
pixelMy choice, Tom Boonen just missed again finishing 4th but it was enough as he’s now the race leader by 1 second. Tomorrow’s start is in his native Belgium and he’s achieved one of his major goals for the TDF and that was to be introduced wearing yellow. The crowd will be huge and they will go as wild as Fenway after a David Ortiz walk off homer.
pixelIt’s said that putting on the maillot jaune does strange things to a rider and from post race comments made by Boonen he’s now unsure if he’s going to defend it or save all his energy to win green which by the way he also now owns. If he remains upright (he crashed out last year) and is focused over the next 3 flat stages he’ll be wearing yellow going into the stage 7 time trial. He’s good in that discipline too but unless he changes his mind he has no interest in going for GC.
pixelIn the KOM competition Jerome Pineau took off in an early break and won each mini-mountain sprint harvesting enough points to wear polka dot. My choice Fabian Wegmann was back in the pack taking a day off from the points chase but is riding well and finished 10th. He’ll be back to play another day.
pixelTomorrow's 207km stage starts with a couple of minor climbs and then flattens out for the remaining 150km. If Boonen decides to defend the yellow jersey then he’ll compete in the time bonus sprints but if he’s just interested in green then he’ll wait for the end and sprint for the win. He’s good enough to do both but hasn’t yet won a sprint which means he’s not quite right. Even not quite right he’s in possession of the two most coveted racing jerseys in the world. All these guys are great but this guy is something else.


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