Well, I got one thing right in my predictions on the rest day: U.S. Postal's Spanish climbers are the best, especially Roberto Heras. On the first day in the mountains, U.S. Postal blew the field to pieces. Dominating from the gun, Armstrong had his teammates lead him out all the way to the last 100 meters of the final climb, where he blew past Joseba Beloki (ONE) for his second stage win and the Yellow Jersey.
Of course if today was any indication, my other predictions were way off the mark. Laurent Jalabert (CST), who I'd given up on, stormed off the front and took the mountains points over the second climb of the day, the Hors Catagorie Col d' Aubisque. What an idiot I was! The stage was dominated by Jalabert's attack and the Postal pace-setting. After leaving his breakaway companions on the Col d'Aubisque, JaJa stayed off the front until the final climb, when he was caught by the storming Posties. Jalabert finished the day a respectable 9th, 1' 49" behind Armstrong. Patrice Halgand (DEL) had the Polka-Dot Jersey by the end of the day by virtue of coming in 3rd over the first climb, and leads second-place Jalabert by 57pts to 46pts in the mountains competition.
I also said that McEwen (LOT) would win the Green Jersey in Paris, but today he was off the back on the Col d'Aubisque, while Zabel (TEL) was able to hang on to take second in the intermediate sprint (behind breakaway Jalabert) to regain the lead in the points competition. If Zabel can continue to ride better in the mountains like this, it will be hard for McEwen to close the gap on him in the final days. Zabel now leads McEwen 213pts to 210pts.
But the real story of the day was the Postal train. While Floyd Landis struggled today, something that could hurt Armstrong down the road, the other Posties were rock solid. They whittled the field to 50 over the Col d'Aubisque, and then when there was a large regrouping on the descent they kept the hammer down and thwarted any possible attacks. On the final climb, the Posties--led by the surprising mountain lion George Hincapie--took turns on the front, again decimating the field. By the time Hincapie pulled off the front, the only men left were the real climbers and leaders of the race. Then Jose Luis Rubiera took his turn, putting the serious hurt on the rapidly disintegrating peloton and shelling riders like Boogerd (RAB), Hamilton (CST), Frigo (TAC), Menchov (BAN), Julich (TEL), Yellow Jersey wearer Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONE), and several other quality climbers . By the time Rubiera was done, only a select group of 13 was left. In this group were teammates Heras and Armstrong, as well as Beloki (ONE), Sevilla (KEL), Basso (FAS), Kivilev (COF), and Rumsas (LAM). At the 5km banner, it was the turn of Heras: he came to the front and within 100m everyone was gone except Armstrong and Beloki. Rumsas and Basso hung on for a few short moments, but once Heras was up to speed with Armstrong on his wheel, only Beloki could follow.
Heras, Armstrong, and Beloki rode up into a sea of orange, as the cycling-insane Basque fans jumped, shouted, and waved their fists in support of the riders. The three charging riders passed Jalabert with about 3.5km left on the climb. In the last kilometer, Armstrong sat up and forced Beloki into second wheel in pursuit of Heras. Behind, Basso had caught and passed Jalabert with Rumsas in hot pursuit. The Yellow Jersey had a teammate helping him struggle up the climb over a minute back of the leaders. Armstrong and Heras now had Beloki in what Jaime Nichols of DP called a "Postal Sandwich": as soon as Beloki made a move to pass Heras, Armstrong would see it and take the win. And that's what happened...Beloki pulled even with Heras, and Armstrong then shot up the right side of the road. Beloki tried to follow, but ended up losing 7" in the final 50 meters. Heras finished 3rd @ 15", Rumsas recovered to finish 4th @ 1' 16" alongside 5th place Francisco Mancebo. Basso completed his surprisingly strong ride to come in 7th @ 1' 23", right behind Sevilla of Kelme (6th @ 1' 23"). Botero was the bad luck man of the day, riding well but flatting halfway up the final climb. He ended up losing 2' 24" to Armstrong, but maintained his 5th in the GC.
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Adecco. He suffered as all sprinters do in the first mountain stage, but he couldn't manage to hang close enough to challenge Zabel for the intermediate sprint points. He'll have to bounce back and find his mountain legs to stay in contention for the Green Jersey.
- Richard Virenque, Domo-Farm Frites. He lost the sprint for 3rd on the Col d'Aubisque to Laurent Brochard (DEL) and "Mad" Bradley McGee (FDJ), and then faded to 29th at 3' 14" on the final climb. This doesn't bode well for the famous Frenchman, and he will have to rediscover some old form to compete with Jalabert, Halgand, and Sevilla, the three riders who look to be the main contenders for the Polka-Dot Jersey.
- Floyd Landis, U.S. Postal. He finished 117th, 21' 35" behind his team leader. He was brought to the Tour to support Lance in the mountains, and he'll have to dig deep and adjust quickly if he's going to make a contribution over the next few key stages. Hopefully he is not sick or injured, and just had a hard time making the rookie adjustment to the first hard mountain stage.
- Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE-Eroski. He has defended the Yellow Jersey like a true champion for the past week. He finished 11th @ 1' 54", a solid ride for the Spaniard who has a bright future ahead of him. He lost the Yellow Jersey, but managed to stay in 3rd on the GC, 1' 48" behind Armstrong. If he and Beloki can maintain this form, they could both land on the podium.
- All those poor bastards who don't have bones made of carbon fiber. Today was the first day of pure suffering for most of the peloton. They will now be reduced to a struggle to survive as the leaders and their teams duke it out over the next week. They have our heartfelt sympathy.
Grazed Hams of the Day:
- George Hincapie, Jose Luis Rubiera, Roberto Heras, U. S. Postal. I may change Hincapie's nickname from "Gorgeous George" to "The Mountain Lion" if he keeps climbing like this. He was at the front the whole race, taking a huge turn at the bottom slopes of the final climb before handing off to his teammates. He blew most of the peloton away, showing why he was a brilliant selection for the Tour. Rubiera and Heras proved once again that Postal has the best Spanish climbers in the world.
- Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal. He didn't ever look like he was really racing hard until the last 50 meters. The strength of Armstrong and his team has struck fear into the peloton tonight: what will happen when Armstrong really attacks?
- Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski. He hung on to Armstrong's wheel even though he looked like he was suffering on a bed of glass. He toughed it out and showed why he is such a favorite, a truly hard rider with great climbing legs. He'll disprove my prediction of a letdown and he'll finish on the podium riding this way.
- Ivan Basso, Fassa Bortolo; Francisco Mancebo, iBanesto.com; Raimondas Rumsas, Lampre-Daikin. They each rode themselves into the race for a top five finish in Paris today. They are the surprise riders that few would have picked for such a position at the start of the race, but in today's first serious test they proved that they have the goods to be contenders.
- Bradley McGee, FDJeux.com. He rode well, coming in 4th on the Col d'Aubisque. Then he crashed hard at 80kph on the descent. After sitting on the side of the road for awhile, he remounted and finished in 67th only 9' 45" behind Lance. A great, tough ride for the Aussie stage winner who showed true grit today.