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  Stage 9 Bordeaux-Dax 170km July 11, 2006
by David Balkin

pixelConserving energy while racing at this level for 20 days is a delicate balancing act. Both the individual riders and the team as a whole have to be vigilant not to run out of steam at precisely the wrong time. Those that remain strong know no wrong time but pity the others. Today's green jersey competition pinpoints the depth of the conundrum.
pixelThis super flat stage offers 3 intermediate sprints each with 3 places for green jersey bonus points yet none of the points contenders was willing to expend the energy to get in the break thus leaving them to riders who have no real interest.
pixelFurthermore, Robbie McEwen's team Davitamon-Lotto announced they weren't going to chase any break because they have a very legitimate GC contender in Cadel Evans who is 7th overall 1:52 behind. They now will use all their energy to support his chances. That reduces the chase horsepower by one strong team and it's their calculated risk that the break will get reeled in regardless. It was.
pixelOther concerns of Robbie's are Oscar Freire who is 3rd only 30 points behind and Daniele Bennati 4th another 30 points back. Both those men are good sprinters and also climbers capable of winning a mountain stage or coming very close. 35 green jersey points go to the winner of a stage and one victory by either, or a couple of high finishes may put them back in the hunt. McEwen is in no position to capture any points; going uphill he'll finish in the first 100 maybe; but top 25 never. Look for him next on July 23rd in Paris where he'll win, maybe.
pixelTom Boonen who is 2nd and 23 points in arrears is capable of winning mountain points, but he'd have to train specifically for that at the expense of his goals throughout a long racing season. Single day races, the classics and the world championship road race are his focus. He's won 17 times so far this season and that's why it's almost shocking that Tornado Tom hasn't yet managed to win a stage. Look for him in Paris too and maybe before that in a transitional stage that resembles the classics at which he does so well.
pixelToday's riders are specialists unlike past greats including the greatest of all time Eddy Merckx who won everything in sight at least once and most several times even while winning 5 TDF's. Back then they rode all the races in order to make a living while now the best of these riders, as with other elite athletes, have million dollar contracts and choose their poison in smaller doses.
pixelToday 3 riders broke away; the roads were flat, they got caught and let's get right to the sprint. It was the best so far -- by far; simply sensational.
pixelOscar Freire beat Robbie McEwen by a tire's width, picking up his 2nd stage win. Once across the line Robbie leaned into Oscar for a little extra stability and patted him on the helmet in congratulations. It took a photo before everyone else knew for sure.
pixelThe race commentators Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett are a joy and one of their best moments was the Harry Potter cloak of invisibility they awarded to McEwen. On this sprint as usual he was nowhere to be seen but I managed to pick him out at least 50 meters behind the first bunch's hard charge down the stretch. He was buried in the middle of a group, boxed in and finished. Then out of nowhere an explosive charge; it was like watching a race horse blast through an invisible opening, get around horses to the middle of the track and fly to the line. Almost up in horse race parlance. Freire was better positioned and saved ground.
pixelTom Boonen finished 4th and has to be talking to himself as his team gave him a more than good enough lead-out with a 6 man train dropping him off with a clean shot at it. He lost a few more green jersey points to McEwen and was also nipped at the line by the amazing Erik Zabel, who 36 is well past his invincible prime but still good enough to beat all but a very few young lions.
pixelIn the green jersey competition it's still the same 4 in the same order. (McEwen, Boonen, Freire and Bennati) And Zabel? He's 5th with no realistic hope of winning in a competition he won a record 6 straight times.
pixelIn baseball 47 year old Julio Franco is a position starter, hits for average and steals a few bases. He's amazing too. FYI the one thing they have in common is their vigilance in personal protoplasm management; health nuts by common definition.
pixelNo real change in the GC standings. It's like boxers mid way through an even fight with only the accumulative punishment a mystery that'll get sorted out in later rounds.
pixelTomorrow the mountains and the race will break apart. It'll probably take a few mountain stages before the GC winner comes clear. The Pyrenees and the Alps offer different profiles and some riders are more suited to one than the other and perform accordingly. That makes it hard to know when a contender is truly fork tender.
pixelFinally, the Basque team rode unforgivably poorly on their home mountains last year and they were lucky that their unhappy fanatics allowed them to escape alive. Running the gauntlet on those climbs is akin to running the bulls in Pamplona with unintended results a vibrant and often unfortunate part of the mix. It's palpable and worth watching.


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