A relatively uneventful stage today as the big teams were saving their energy for the team time-trial tomorrow. Much will be decided towards the GC, as the leaders jockey for position with still a week before the big mountains. Of course, "Wacky" Jacky Durand of FDJeux.com attacked at the first kilometer today, and stayed away with co-breakaway bandit Franck Renier of Bonjour. The teams that helped chase during the day included U.S. Postal, Lotto, Telekom, and Mapei. The lead got over 10' at one point, but the breakaway was never a real threat to stay away with such a flat parcours and with the sprinters so keen for a win. Postal was at the front to protect Armstrong and keep him out of trouble.
At the first intermediate sprint, Renier and Durand went through in that order, with Jan Svorada of Lampre-Daikin sprinting to the 2" time bonus for third back in the peloton. Svorada was riding to protect the Yellow Jersey of his young Swiss teammate, Rubens Bertogliati. Telekom's Erik Zabel took out the 2" bonuses at the final two intermediate sprints without much competition, however, securing his virtual Yellow Jersey as he started the day just 2" behind Bertogliati in the GC.
As the peloton approached the finish, the teams keen to set up their sprinters led the chase with Lotto, Mapei, and Telekom doing most of the work. Meanwhile, Stuart O'Grady of Credit Agricole visited the race doctor with an unusually high heart rate, perhaps a side-effect of illness. His teammates had to literally push him along in the back of the group. At one point near the finish, a crosswind split the peloton for a minute and O'Grady was caught out. However, the peloton reformed as the riders slowed heading into the narrower streets and tricky corners of the city.
When the peloton caught Renier and Durand in the final 10k, U.S. Postal had to come to the front as the sprinters' teams sat up and bickered amongst themselves. No team really organized or took control of the run into the city of Reims. Lotto, Mapei, Credit Agricole, and Telekom all had riders at the front at some point, but the sprint was something of a free-for-all. Thor Hushovd, the Credit Agricole rider who limped to the finish with leg-cramps yesterday, started the final lead-out towards the line. Robbie McEwen jumped early again, this time up the left-hand barriers. He had Zabel and then Freire on his wheel. Freire sat up quickly, however, seemingly lacking the legs to contest the sprint all the way to the line. Eventually, Zabel tried to go around McEwen on the right. McEwen swerved to the right a bit, but had good enough position to not seem like he was simply blocking Zabel's line illegally. Meanwhile, Aussie tour rookie Baden Cooke of FDJeux.com was coming up the right side of the road with Tacconi Sport's Andrej Hauptmann on his wheel. Zabel eventually made it around McEwen's back wheel, but the Lotto rider in the Australian Champion's Jersey kept his front wheel ahead of the German to take out the stage win. Cooke came across the line third, and Hauptmann finished a strong 4th. After looking in great difficulty all day, O'Grady managed to contest the sprint and come in 10th, a gutsy ride from the man who finished a stage of the 2000 Tour with a broken collar bone.
While Zabel might have protested McEwen's swerve to the right, he shook the Aussie's hand after they crossed the line. And why not? He maintained his lead in the Green Jersey competition, and vaulted ahead in the GC to take the Yellow Jersey. While the race jury could hand down a whacky decision to strip McEwen of his win later in the day--they've done it more than once before--it looks as though the Aussie sprinter's good form has finally landed him another Tour stage win. In the mountains competition, Frenchman Christophe Mengin of FDJeux.com reclaimed the Polka-Dot Jersey from countryman Stephane Berges of AG2r Prevoyance. While losing the Yellow Jersey, classy Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati retained the White Jersey for the best young rider in the Tour.
Heading into tomorrow's crucial stage, CSC-Tiscali has the tactical advantage of leading in the team competition by 3", which means they will be the last ones on the road tomorrow. With a clear knowledge of the split times to beat, they could well pull off a coup and put Laurent Jalabert, currently in 4th at 17" behind Zabel, into the Yellow Jersey. The team standings look like this right now:
- CSC Tiscali @ 40h 36' 10"
- Cofidis @ 3"
- U.S. Postal Service @ 3"
- Kelme-Costa Blanca @ 5"
- ONCE-Eroski @ 9"
- Lampre-Daikin @ 14"
- FDJeux.com @ 20"
- Jean Delatour @ 26"
- Mapei-Quick Step @ 28"
- Rabobank @ 28"
- Fassa Bortolo @ 32"
- Lotto-Adecco @ 34"
- iBanesto.com@ 37"
- Domo-Farm Frites @ 39"
- Team Telekom @ 46"
- Tacconi Sport @ 49"
- Alessio @ 50"
- Bonjour @ 1' 05"
- AG2r Prevoyance @ 1' 06"
- Euskaltel-Euskadi @ 4' 57"
- Credit Agricole @ 8' 17"
Ironically, Credit Agricole won the team time-trial last year, but they will be leading off this year as the team in the worst position. The real battle should be between CSC-Tiscali (for Jalabert and Hamilton), U.S. Postal (for Armstrong), Cofidis (for Millar), Kelme-Costa Blanca (for Botero), ONCE-Eroski (for Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano), and Rabobank (for Leipheimer). The winner of the stage will likely take the Yellow Jersey. It should be very, very interesting.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- ONCE-Eroski, Rabobank, CSC-Tiscali, Kelme-Costa Blanca, Cofidis. None of these guys have done a lick of work since Stage 1. They have kept their lead riders out of trouble and in good position heading into the team time-trial. U.S. Postal sent some riders to the front at times, and didn't ham-gaze their way through the stage today. Hopefully they didn't expend too much energy and will be ready to take on these well rested teams tomorrow.
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. These guys aren't stupid. They know that their place to shine is in the mountains in the last 10 days. So they aren't going to waste any energy until then, not even in the time-trials. Most riders on the team have lost time on the flats, and they'll likely lose more time in the time-trials, which will mean that when the mountains come, they'll be so far behind that the teams like U.S. Postal won't chase them right away because they aren't GC threats. Meanwhile, they might as well be riding with paper bags over their heads, they've been so anonymous.
- Damien Nazon, Bonjour. Last year in the early stages, Bonjour rode at the front constantly for their sprinter and Nazon had several top 5 finishes. This year he hasn't even shown up in the sprints. He's clearly not in good form.
Ham-Grazers of the Day:
- Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Adecco. He finally got his stage win after placing in the top three the past two days. He is riding high in the points competition (2nd, 5 points behind Zabel) and in the GC (2nd, 8" behind Zabel). If his team turns in a stellar time-trial tomorrow, then he could be a threat for the Yellow Jersey in the next few days. Regardless, he said that after he won a stage he'd start thinking about the Green Jersey. Well, he's won the stage, and he looks a wheel faster than Zabel right now, which bodes well for his chances for Green in Paris.
- Erik Zabel, Team Telekom. Though he has yet to win a stage, he has been riding hard as first ass-watcher the last few days, which has kept him well clear of the ham-gazing awards. His consistency has him in Yellow and Green, a great victory for a team dogged by the scandals surrounding their absent leader, Jan Ullrich. He'll likely lose the Yellow Jersey tomorrow, but he'll fight to the death to protect the Green Jersey he's owned for so many years.
- Jacky Durand, FDJeux.com and Franck Renier, Bonjour. Both went out on a suicide mission to try to grab some glory for their small French teams. FDJeux.com has had good results from sprinterBaden Cooke and strongman Bradley McGee, but Bonjour's sprinter Nazon has been invisible in the race so far. Renier did much to rescue Bonjour from obscurity, at least for the moment.
- The Whole Freakin' Peloton, again. Riders like Rabobank's Erik Dekker and Credit Agricole's "Thunder God" Thor Hushovd have been spectacular in the previous couple of days in their struggles to stay in the race. They both finished with the pack today, and every darned rider is still in the race after 4 stages! Amazing!!
For the second day in a row, none. Yesterday the crashes were minor and minimal, and today they were non-existent. Again, amazing! Hope this keeps up, but I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop...
NOTE: Due to a family commitment, I won't be posting my next Jambon Awards and Report until this coming Saturday. I hope to catch up then with the Awards for each stage. See you then!