|The day after I gave Tacconi Sport a Ham-Gazer Award, their team leader Dario Frigo managed to escape with Mario Aerts (LOT) and Giuseppe Guerini (TEL) and win the sprint for Stage 17. It was a wild day in the mountains, with numerous attacks, counter-attacks, and GC repositionings. On the first of four climbs of the day, there were several attacks and counter-attacks that got nowhere. By the top of the first climb, Frigo got away from the pack with Aerts, Guerini, Laiseka (EUS), and Gutierrez (KEL). By the second climb of the day, the Col des Saises, a chasing group developed behind them that included Jalabert (CST), Jaksche (ONE), Hushovd (CA), and Casar (FDJ). Then a second group went off the front that included Konecny (DFF), Nozal (ONE), Serrano (ONE), Bruseghin (BAN), Halgand (DEL), Lefevre (DEL), Blanco (BAN), and Moncoutie (COF). In the peloton, U.S. Postal was struggling to keep the pace up, having lost several riders. Because of the threat Moncoutie posed in the GC (13th), the Rabobank team of Leipheimer (9th) came to the front to help with the chase. Azevedo (ONE), currently in 4th on GC, attacked the peloton, causing a response from the Yellow Jersey himself, followed by Rumsas and Basso. They caught Azevedo and neutralized the attack. In the lead group, Laiseka and Gutierrez were dropped. Over the top of the Saises, Frigo, Aerts, and Guerini had over 2' on the chasers and over 4' on the Yellow Jersey group.
On the descent of the Saises the chase group grew to 15, including CSC-Tiscali's Carlos Sastre, currently in 11th on GC. His teammate Jalabert set the pace on the descent, having taken enough mountain points on the day to sew up the Polka-Dot Jersey for this Tour. Up the next climb, Jalabert dropped away and Sastre came to the front, driving the chase with Moncoutie. These two had the most to gain, so nobody else in the group worked. There was a regrouping in the peloton on the descent of the Saises as well, with all nine Posties taking up their familiar position at the front of the ever-expanding group. They set a modest tempo with the Rabobank riders until the start of the next climb.
Heading into the climb of the Col des Aravis, the lead trio had ridden to an advantage of 3' over the chasers and 5' 50" over the peloton. They continued to work well together over the climb and the ensuing descent. In the chase group, the pace set by Sastre--who showed yesterday he has great climbing legs in the Alps by finishing 2nd on the stage--led to a number of chasers falling off the back of the group. In the peloton all was peaceful, as everyone now seemed content to wait until the final climb of the day to attack.
With 31km to go the leading trio had built their advantage to 4' 55" over the chasers and 8' 21" to the Postal and Rabobank-led peloton. There were nine men in the chase at the base of the Columbiere, the final climb of the day: Sastre (CST), Moncoutie (COF), Jaksche (ONE), Nozal (ONE), Serrano (ONE), Gutierrez (KEL), Hushovd (CA), Lefevre (DEL), and Osa (BAN). The leaders stayed together over the climb, leaving the sort-out for the descent. The more interesting race was happening lower on the climb, where Botero (KEL) launched himself out of the peloton in pursuit of the Sastre group. Azevedo tried to follow, but was brought back by the increasing pace being set by Postal and Rabobank's Boogerd, the hero of yesterday's stage. The increased pace led to another split, with all of the GC contenders either off the front or in the Yellow Jersey group. Over the top of the climb the chasing group was 4' 12" behind the leaders, Botero was 5' 55" back, and the Yellow Jersey group was 6' 53" back. With the 20.5km descent, things looked interesting.
Aerts attacked Guerini and Frigo repeatedly on the descent towards the finish line. Guerini countered effectively but Frigo struggled, only rejoining when the roads flattened out. Botero had bombed on the descent, catching the group containing Sastre and Moncoutie. His teammate Gutierrez went to the front and pulled for his leader to help him maintain his advantage over the Yellow Jersey group. Armstrong came to the front of his group and attacked the descent, most likely to ensure that he had a clear line in the corners to avoid a crash. In the final kilometer the three leaders sat up and began to jockey for position. Guerini attacked strongly twice, and Aerts chased him back both times. At the finish, Aerts led out but couldn't match the sprint of Frigo. The Italian Time Trial Champion won easily, followed by Aerts in 2nd and Guerini in 3rd. Moncoutie jumped away to take 4th at 2' 55", and Hushovd came across in 5th at 2' 58". Sastre and Botero crossed the line in 10th and 11th respectively, both at 2' 58". The Yellow Jersey group with the remaining GC contenders crossed the line at 4' 36".
Ham-Gazers of the Day:
Golden Hams of the Day:
- Fassa Bortolo. A team full of talent, including noted champions like Belli and Honchar, did nothing to help their new star Basso today. When Leipheimer's 9th place on GC was threatened, his team came to the front and rode their hearts out for him. Basso was in 10th on GC, his lead threatened as well. So where were his teammates? Like Rumsas (LAM), Basso seems to be all alone in this race when it counts, which makes his excellent ride so far all the more remarkable.
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. Yesterday Mayo made a noble effort that failed. Today it was Laiseka's turn, as he charged ahead with the Frigo group only to get dropped on the second climb. They have tried to make a difference in the last couple of days, but the Basque boys just don't seem to have the legs this year. A dissappointing Tour for the excellent team of climbers, as the race now leaves the high mountains.
Doorknob of the Year:
- Dario Frigo, Tacconi Sport; Mario Aerts, Lotto-Adecco; Giuseppe Guerini, Team Telekom. Frigo gave his team a badly needed win, and showed the form the made him a major challenger in the last two Giros. This win will help restore the credibility he lost with the drug scandal from the 2001 Giro raids. For Aerts, this was his second great 2nd place in the mountains this year. He has really silenced his critics now. Guerini helped restore a bit of luster to the forgotten Team Telekom with his gutty performance.
- Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca; Carlos Sastre, CSC-Tiscali; David Moncoutie, Cofidis. All three of these riders moved up in the GC with their attacking rides today. Botero landed himself in 4th at 10' 59" behind Armstrong; more importantly, he now leads Azevedo by 1' 09", and looks a lock for the top five now. Sastre jumped over Basso into 10th at 14' 49", and his dream of a top ten finish is now much closer to reality. Moncoutie moved over Boogerd into 12th at 17' 12"; more importantly, he put more time into compatriot Virenque (14th on GC) to lead the race for best Frenchman in the Tour by 5' 28".
- Ron Borges of NBCSports.com. He argued in an article recently that Lance Armstrong isn't a real athlete. I'm a professor who has taught writing for several years to 18 year-olds, and I can honestly say that his argument is the most ridiculous thing I've ever read. It is full of contradictions, bizarre assertions, and moronic leaps in logic...truly deserving of this one-time award. If you haven't read the article yet, don't bother: it really isn't worth the time. Just go to the editorial by the site goddess here if you're curious, and you'll get the gist.