Well, today's 147km stage from Bazas to Pau was very short, as the winner, Patrice Halgand of Jean Delatour, finished in just 3h 00' 15". But there were several interesting subplots crammed into such a short stage, the final flat ride before the Pyranees climbs tomorrow.
The biggest subplot was the battle for the Green Jersey, as Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Adecco started the day only 2 points behind Telekom's Erik Zabel. In the first intermediate sprint at 43.5km, McEwen took out the six points for 1st, with Zabel taking 2nd and gaining 4 points. This tied the competition with 2 more intermediate sprints and the points at the finish still on offer. However, a large breakaway went up the road before the next sprint, and that proved to be the decisive move of the day. The next showdown between Zabel and McEwen would have to wait until the finish line. The breakaway included last year's points competition runner-up, Stuart O'Grady of Credit Agricole, a rider who had struggled so far in this year's Tour. This was a brilliant move for O'Grady to get himself back in the race for Green, and he took out a total of 10 points in the final two intermediate sprints. He now had to finish well, with a stage win sure to catapult him within striking distance of McEwen and Zabel.
The main men driving the break of 11 were O'Grady, Halgand, Ludo Dierckxsens (LAM), Pedro Horillo (MAP), Jerome Pineau (BJR), and Nico Mattan (COF). They were accompanied by Constantino Zaballa (KEL), Enrico Cassani (DFF), Unai Etxebarria (EUS), Nicolas Vogondy (FDJ), and Andy Flickinger (AG2). The group worked well together, with everyone sharing the work, until the final Cat 4 climb of the day at 126km. At this point, and with only 21km left in the stage, Halgand attacked to gain maximum points for the climbers competition and then continued off the front. He was pursued by Dierckxsens, O'Grady, and Pineau, and the four quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the breakaways. In the meantime, the peloton had sat up, content to let ONCE do the driving all day. The sprinters teams made no effort whatsoever to try to chase down the breakaways, despite the relative ease of the climbs on the day.
Within the last 9km, Halgand put in a scathing attack up the left side of the road. O'Grady was pulling on the front at the time, and when he saw Halgand go, he sat up and looked over his shoulder, waiting for someone else to chase. This proved a fatal mistake, as by the time Dierckxsens stepped up to chase, Halgand was long gone. The three remaining from the lead group (O'Grady, Dierckxsens, and Pineau) worked together for awhile in pursuit of Halgand, but their chase was clearly half-hearted. Halgand hammered away, finishing 27" ahead of Pineau to the delight of the French crowd: the day had ended with two French riders from two minor French teams in the first two positions. Jean Marie Leblanc must have been smiling at this turn of events, which he will doubtless cite as justification for including the two teams. Never mind that Acqua e Sapone would have chased down those breakaways.... O'Grady took third in a sprint with Dierckxsens, while Horillo led the remaining breakaways across the line for fifth. O'Grady ended the day with 157 points, not as good as he'd hoped for but enough to put him within shouting distance of McEwen and Zabel.
Tied in the points competition, both McEwen and Zabel gave it their all in the sprint for 12th as the peloton came to the line. They were both beaten by FDJeux.com's Tour rookie Baden Cooke; however, McEwen edged out Zabel for 13th to take the Green Jersey by a single point. McEwen now has 210 points compared to 209 for Zabel, so this tight race will get even more interesting as the riders make their way towards Paris.
Another key subplot of the day was the battle between ONCE, U.S. Postal, and the rest of the teams with GC contenders. ONCE was left out to hang on the front all day, getting help from no one after the final breakaway went up the road. To make matters worse, ONCE lost an important support rider when Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano, brother of Yellow Jersey holder Igor, abandoned with a thigh injury. This was certainly not a good day for the ONCEs, and it looks like U.S. Postal and Kelme are well positioned to take it to the boys in pink in the coming days. ONCE has not been pushing hard on the front at all, but the mere fact that they have been in the wind for the last five road stages will definitely affect their ability to challenge in the days to come. How much of an effect this will have remains to be seen.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Lotto-Adecco and Team Telekom. They didn't have a rider up the road, but they just sat on during the last flat stage before the mountains. Their failure to go for the stage win is inexplicable, especially after what amounted to two rest days for the teams. McEwen and Zabel had an interesting battle, but it would have been more interesting if a stage win had also been on the line.
- U.S. Postal Service. They had one more day of sitting on while they watched the ONCE boys ride in the wind. With the loss of ONCE's Alvaro Gonzalez de Galdeano, Postal has a definite tactical advantage heading into tomorrow's stage. ONCE could still take it all, but today's stage was not helpful for their cause. You have to wonder how many more days they can take riding at the front.
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. Sure, they finally got a rider into a breakaway (Unai Extebarria), but he was the weakest in the group and got shelled near the end. Really, though, I'm only including them here to highlight that they will likely only be listed in the Golden Hams awards from here on out. The Tour is entering their terrain, and they have done an excellent job of sitting on, staying out of crashes, keeping their team intact, and saving their energy to this point. The next week will see a flurry of orange-clad hams flying up the road, with green-clad Kelme hams mixing it up with them over every climb. It should be fun to watch.
- Patrice Halgand, Jean Delatour. He struck a blow for the small French teams, and announced his intentions to chase the Polka-Dot Jersey by taking first over every categorized climb today. He's now got the drop on Virenque (DFF), Sevilla (KEL), Jalabert (CST), and the other favorites in this competition.
- Ludo Dierckxsens, Lampre-Daikin. The powerful 37-year-old dynamo has attacked constantly on the flats, and was the big motor in a breakaway yet again today. It would be a beautiful sight to see the former paint factory worker's big efforts finally pay off with a stage win before the riders hit Paris.
- Stuart O'Grady, Credit Agricole. He has been frustrated in the bunch sprints, so he has again turned to the tactics that got him close to Zabel in last year's points competition by joining a breakaway. He will have to do this a couple of more times if he hopes to catch Zabel and McEwen this year.