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  Stage 4 Huy-Saint Quentin 207km July 5, 2006
by David Balkin

pixelToday's stage followed the predictable pattern of an early breakaway that was allowed to stretch its legs for 4 hours or so before getting reeled in with 2km remaining. Once again it was just in time to give the sprinters a reason for being in the race. Come the mountains the fast men will vanish but early on it's their TDF and for those that like action seeing 100 fearless men doing 45mph in a mad elbow to elbow scramble is fun to watch.
pixelIt was not exactly the same old same old because Discovery sent a clear and compelling message that they are the strongest team. The messenger was a late addition and largely unknown Basque rider, Egoi Martinez who made the break. At the same time they've obscured for now who their team leader will be.
pixelWith Lance they were forced to show their hole card but it didn't matter because he was the only ace in a no trump game. This year there's no dominant Discovery rider and they're playing it close to the vest in hopes of making more work for the other teams.
pixelHow the strategy works in a moment but back to Martinez who is Lance's find. In a race last year Martinez finished with Lance and impressed him mightily. That was enough to get him a 2 year contract.
pixelMartinez describes himself as a worker not a winner and at 27 has only one major victory to his credit. But what he did this day was to win all 3 time bonus sprints taking 18 seconds off his GC time moving him up to 5th place overall just 10 seconds down. With 3 riders in the top 10 Discovery is sitting in the catbird seat.
pixelIt places the burden on the other teams to chase down any break with a Discovery rider in it. That's a lot more work than sitting securely in the pack and stealing a bit of rest while carefully monitoring those hammering at the front.
pixelHincapie is still Discovery's man most likely to succeed and if he tried to go off in an early break it couldn't get 100 meters out before the pack would swarm. Hincapie's teammate Paolo Salvoldeli currently resides in 7th and is also a very legitimate contender. Salvoldeli's won the Giro twice and has all the stuff to win this race if he's on form. He wouldn't be allowed off the front either. Now Martinez joins those two as a marked man and any extra vigilance Discovery can force upon others is money in the bank.
pixelAll of this solidifies my belief that a Discovery rider will win the TDF and it may not even be one I've written about so far. They are just so strong from top to bottom. Maybe tomorrow they'll send Jose Azevedo up the road and sit back while he piles up time bonus points and also breaks into the top ten.
pixelBack to today's stage where the break was spit out with 2km to go and Martinez was blown back to a same time 55th. Robbie McEwen won again and dedicated his win to Fast Freddie Rodriguez his loyal lead out man who crashed out yesterday. Robbie found another teammate to give him a train ride to the 200 meter mark and then won by a couple of bike lengths. That's the same as being safe by a mile while scoring the winning run.
pixelTom Boonen didn't get it right once again. Still he finished 5th retaining his yellow jersey but he lost the green jersey he's really after to McEwen whose only reason for being here is to win green. But unlike Boonen, McEwen can't get over high mountains without losing chunks of time so he's no threat for GC.
pixelTill now neither was Boonen because his racing and training agenda is centered on winning green and overall victory is far more work than he wants to do. Competing for GC means there are no off days and that takes its toll. Recovery is a lengthy process after a race like this and repeating as World Champion is next on his schedule. A super hard TDF may not give him enough time to be on form.
pixelGoing for green is much less hard than yellow because it takes the mountains off the table. All of the serious contenders for green can't climb except for Boonen who can but chooses not to, especially on long climbs. By the time those come around, if he's in green the loss of a few minutes is of no concern and he's more than content to ride it in without killing himself.
pixelBut if McEwen is in green going in to the mountains it will force Boonen to forage for points. If McEwen wins the next two flat stages or finishes in front of Tom (and he has to be considered the favorite) the green jersey will be his in Paris barring incident. That's unless Boonen works in the mountains to gain points McEwen can't contest.
pixelIn that scenario Tom's quest for the green jersey becomes much harder and may find him contending for yellow. One thing's for sure there's no way Boonen is going to leave this TDF without giving his all to win a jersey.
pixelFinally, the Americans are right where they want to be. Close enough to the action to be in the hunt but saving themselves for the super hard days that are just around the corner. They still haven't done anything except remain upright and ride strong and smart. Pretty soon they're going to be forced to show what they've got and I can hardly wait to see.



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