Welcome to the Tour de France!
Stage 7: Lunéville-Karlsruhe, 228.5 km
So today the riders will whiz between the cities of Lunéville in France and Karlsruhe in Germany, a total of 228.5 km with two climbs early on. The winner of the King of the Mountains competition in last year's Giro d'Italia, Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), has gone on the attack.
As we start today's stage, the French TV people don't seem to realize that Lance is being surrounded and held up by his men so that he can take a leak while on the fly. So Lance is taking a leak in front of the world right now... great! Really giving the Yellow Jersey new meaning. Viva la France!
1509 CEST - 100 km left. Wegmann took maximum points over both climbs, and should now have the lead in the Polka Dot Jersey competition for best climber of the Tour. He also has about 8' on the peloton, a huge lead.
So today has seen a lot of interesting things so far. First off (and very sadly), yesterday's breakaway hero Christophe Mengin (FDJeux.com) has had trouble keeping up with the pace of the peloton due to his injuries from yesterday's crash. Last time we saw him, he was almost 2' behind the pack.
Discovery is setting the pace at the front of the peloton, looking like they aren't exactly in a hurry to get to Germany. Wegmann, for his part, is driving along quite well on his way to his home country. It looks like Armstrong would be quite happy to let Wegmann take the stage and the Yellow Jersey... the sprinters' teams will have to come to the front soon to help with the chase, before it's too late.
So before Wegmann got away, there were a number of interesting developments. Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) was caught up in a crash early on and had to chase back on to the peloton. We'll see if it affects his sprinting later on today. Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) also took two points by coming in 3rd in the first intermediate sprint to close to within five points of Boonen in the chase for the Green Jersey.
For my fellow Americanos, today saw two early attacks by "California" Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto), but both breaks he was involved in got brought back. This seemed to be part of some larger plan for the Davitamon boys, as the stage also saw Robbie "Napoleon" McEwen go on the attack twice. In fact, McEwen was originally in the break with Wegmann, but sat up and waiting for the peloton for some reason, after the two got about 1' 20" on the pack. Maybe the great distance and the rain discouraged him.
1524 CEST - 82 km left. So no more mountains today, which means that Wegmann is just riding alone through the rain in search of a stage win. He does seem to be just sort of tooling along, though his gap is still 8'. Wegmann takes it careful through a corner... he clearly doesn't trust this rain-slicked surface.
The sprinters teams still haven't come to the front to help with the chase. The rest of today's stage is as flat as a Paris runway model, so it is perfect for the sprinters. I imagine they'll come up shortly and begin to chase.
Well well, now Credit Agricole, led by Christophe "Bug Taster" Moreau, is leading out Thor Hushovd at the front of the pack as he is chasing points at the second bonus sprint. This will be a fierce sprint for 2nd place.
Now Boonen's team comes up with a leadout too. Here comes the sprint. Now here comes Boonen, up the right-hand barriers. Hushovd jumped up the left... and Boonen gets it! So Boonen will take 4 points to Hushovd's 2, and thus retake the 2 points Hushovd snaked earlier in the stage.
Wow, that was really a hotly contested sprint. And let me tell you, Boonen didn't look to be suffering at all from that crash. McEwen and O'Grady both didn't bother with this sprint, instead sitting back in the pack thinking, "that's right, waste your bullets, boys... seeya at the finish...".
1537 CEST - 74 km left. Ah, now three Davitamon-Lotto riders come to the front to lead the chase. Between that and the acceleration of the last sprint, the gap is down now to 5' 30". Really, Wegmann doesn't seem to be hammering as hard as he can, so it's not surprising the lead has come down so fast.
1543 CEST - So the rain is back, and the peloton is getting dribbled on. The rain is coming down at the finish line too. After yesterday's pileup in the final corner, you have to think the riders will be more careful today. But then again, with the pressure to win driving the riders through the final corners, you never know.
The riders are nearing Germany, but aren't there yet. Wegmann will likely try to stay off the front until he gets to his homeland, and get some good cheers and some rain-checks on beers in the process.
Well another rider has abandoned: Steve Zampieri (Phonak) had a rough stage yesterday and pulled out earlier today. Mengin has managed to get back into the peloton, by the way... he suffered like a dog over those climbs, but reintegrated the pack on the flats.
Some more good news: after getting dropped on the final climb yesterday and looking like something was wrong (like an illness), Thomas Voeckler was on the attack today coming in 2nd on the first climb. Go Tommy V! Of course, Voeckler was the big French hero of last year's race, wearing Yellow for well over a week and defending it through the Pyrenees.
1553 CEST - 65 km left. The gap is now under 4'. Wegmann still doesn't look like his heart is in this attack. Quick Step-Inntergetic is up there now with the Davitamon-Lotto boys. Wegmann is probably wishing there were more mountains out there to conquer.
So as the riders kind of snooze their way to Deutschland, I'm thinking about Bradley McGee's very interesting diary on his website. The FDJeux.com boys, he said, had things perfect yesterday. Mengin looked good in the final 20 km, and McGee had Cooke in the perfect position, leading him out into the final corner. Then bam! it was all over with that crash. The FDJeux.com boys are very bummed about that result.
More interestingly, McGee was incensed that CSC came to the front to drive the chase up that Cat 4 climb. The sprinters' teams had faltered and Mengin was slipping away, and then CSC (McGee says) went crazy and started chasing like mad. McGee said he rolled up to Bobby Julich and asked what the hell they were doing, and Julich said "we have our reasons." But McGee doesn't buy it, and he made it clear that he and his team now have a grudge to settle with CSC. If CSC is in a position to need help or to get a good result, you can bet the FDJeux.com boys will try to "flick" them if they can.
For those of you new to cycling, you'd be surprised how often races get influenced by alliances between friends and grudges between enemies. Looks like the peloton now has another grudge to complicate the tactical situation. And so, like the sands through the hourglass...(that's a "Days of Our Lives" reference, by the way... an American soap opera).
1608 CEST - 52 km left. Davitamon-Lotto and Quick Step-Innergetic still have their men driving the rather apathetic pack. The gap is down to 3' 14". Lance is sitting in the pack, riding right behind the French Champion Pierrick Fedrigo (Bouygues Telecom) and next to the big German, Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile).
1615 CEST - 45 km left. The gap is down to about 2' 50". Wegmann is thinking about more mountains, and is just cruising along now. He's not into this attack. Especially since McEwen bailed on him so long ago.
So when asked what he thought about the attack of Vinokourov and Vino's acquisition of 19" yesterday, Armstrong said "nothing" according to Dan Osipow at thepaceline.com. This is in contrast to Ullrich's comments on the T-Mobile website, where the U-Boat said that Vino's move will make Lance notice them and give Lance something to chew on. The game of poker is on already, both on the road and in the post-race comments.
Tomorrow will be the first sniff of the real mountains, though it won't be a big test or anything for the GC hopefuls. There are four Cat 3 climbs right out of the gate, which should be enough for a group of strong men to get away. Then there is about a 140 km stretch of flats, and then the climb and descent of a Cat 2 climb. Men like Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir) who are powerful but can also climb will be well suited to the stage.
The sprinters will be in the back of the bus for a while starting tomorrow. One sprinter who could be up there is O'Grady... he's done well on such stages before.
Jens Voigt (CSC) comes up to the front of the pack to be the 2nd man (after Wegmann) to cross into his homeland of Germany. Voigt shares a laugh with Knaven of Quick Step, who is driving the peloton in the chase.
Up front, Wegmann is laboring a bit... or he would be laboring, if he was going all out. It looks more like apathy...
1628 CEST - 37 km left. 2' 15" is the gap now. Oh, Wegmann picks up the pace and rides like a hero as he rolls through a very big crowd of Germans along the side of the road. He's happy he made it first into his homeland.
Of course Wegmann has been getting lots of TV coverage for his sponsor with this break, and will make the sponsor happy as they roll into their home territory. The big card to play for Gerolsteiner will be their sprinter Förster, also a German, who has been putting up some good results. He won the sprint for 3rd yesterday after avoiding the crash.
Wegmann has done very well to stay off the front for so long. You can bet he'll be off the front again tomorrow on those early Cat 3s to try and defend his lead in the Polka Dot Jersey, his real goal in this race.
1635 CEST - 32 km left. The gap is down to 1' 30", and the peloton looks like it has a big crash! There is a railway line right across the road, and this has caused a lot of riders to go down! Wow, guys went down all across the road. That was not good.
They will be pissed off about that rough bit of road. A lot of men went down in the middle of the pack. The front of the pack with all the GC men made it through fine.
The pace in the peloton is slack, and Wegmann again looks like he's putting more into this break. Well, there are a few Domina Vacanze men and an AG2r rider trying to get back on.
Back at the front, there is the sprint for 2nd at the final bonus sprint. Here is a big leadout by Quick Step... and Boonen easily takes 2nd and Hushovd sits up but comes across in 3rd. Again, McEwen is grinning in the pack most likely, keeping his legs fresh for the finish.
Well Vinokourov almost went down in that crash... he wobbled, and banged against a teammate... but he made it through okay. Unfortunately, Zabriskie seems to have been one of the men who hit the deck. Last thing old Dave needs right now, another crash. He was up quickly and is in the pack. Furlan, the Domina Vacanze sprinter, is one of the men who went down as well.
1643 CEST - 28 km left. The gap is just over 50". The peloton now has to squeeze through a narrow passage. The peloton is not pushing particularly hard still. Looks like everyone is back in the pack now.
Wegmann waves to the crowd. He's sitting up waiting to be caught, basically. Guirini (T-Mobile) has to get a wheel change. He's back on his bike and chasing now... should catch up no problem.
Well, I must say that Wegmann has a deceptively easy style. Sometimes it looks like he's not making an effort, but he's been off the front for over 150 km. You don't stay off the front like that by soft-pedalling.
Fassa Bortolo has dropped three riders back to help Cancellara pace back up to the peloton after some kind of mechanical.
There is now a five-man Fassa train trying to get back on. Now Wegmann really is sitting up, stretching his legs, looking over his shoulder, and thinking about the climbs tomorrow. He'll get a podium visit today for his efforts, now that he's leader of the King of the Mountains competition.
Wegmann won't be happy about getting caught, but he will likely be grateful to get his face out of the wind for the first time in a few hours. He'll probably find a nice big body to hide behind in the pack, someone like Padrnos or Backstedt who cuts a huge hole.
Davitamon-Lotto is leading out the train as they go under the 20 km left banner. Discovery has a nice train riding parallel to and a little behind the Davitamon train. Lance is third wheel in that train, clearly trying to stay out of trouble. Now Mancebo, the leader of Illes Balears, is off the back in the cars. He has a teammate trying to pace him back. Not sure what happened to him. Mancebo is a climber and doesn't like these flat stages.
The Illes Balears train of four men hooks up to the back of the peloton, and Mancebo pushes right up through the pack trying to get to the front.
So there is still the sprinters' train on the left of the road, and the GC "stay out of trouble" train led by Discovery headed up the right side of the road. While the sprinters understand that the GC men need to stay up front and out of trouble, it is considered bad form for the GC men to get too mixed up with the sprinters' train in the last 20 km or so.
That's one reason why Hincapie is so valuable to Lance: he can rival those big sprinter trains with his huge motor, and keep Lance out of trouble without pissing off the sprinters.
Well the rain is back, a light rain, but enough to slick the roads a bit. The crowds are huge on the side of the road. The peloton is on a slight uphill drag, not really a climb but more of a mean false flat.
1700 CEST - 12 km left. The pace is rising. Credit Agricole is putting riders up there to work with Quick Step and Davitamon to keep the pace high.
10 km left. The pack is at full gas. The dual trains still lead the peloton, the GC train on the right slightly lagging behind the sprinters' train on the left. Hincapie and White Jersey-wearing Popovych push the wind for Armstrong.
8 km left. This is going to be very fast, but the roads are supposed to be fairly straight. That'll be a nice change from the past two days. The crowds are monstrous. The Germans do love their cycling.
Knaven is driving the peloton. White (Cofidis) is up there working for 0'Grady.
Hmmm... T-Mobile with Vinokourov are prominent near the front. The U-Boat, Jan Ullrich is up there too. German flags are waving and the crowds are going nuts. In a good way.
5 km left. Davitamon, Cofidis, Liquigas, and Quick Step still drive the peloton. O'Grady is well positioned near the front. Förster is there, as is Backstedt and Hushovd. Boonen in up there. Oh yeah, here is the elbow-fest... the wrasslin' is on!
Fassa comes to the front for some reason, and behind there are men waging little wars for position. FDJeux.com now comes up a bit... McGee setting it up for Cookie and Eisel. The FDJeux.com boys have the point.
The line is getting very strung out.
2 km left. Men still swarming, fighting for position behind the leadout. Now the FDJeux.com men get swamped. Quick Step is getting mixed in with it. Liquigas asserting itself too. Final Kilometer.
Hushovd with Boonen on his wheel are moving up. McGee is up there getting ready to lead out Cooke and Eisel.
Wide open road for this sprint... straight on and here comes McGee. Davis is in there...Here comes Boonen up the middle, McEwen on the right! It's McEwen!
There was a crash in the middle of the pack, very nasty. Looks to have been Isaac Galvez, and Furlan went down too.
So McEwen and Backstedt were really going after it there... McEwen dove up the right-hand barriers, and Backstedt tried to come around him on the left but failed by half a bike. McEwen won easily. Boonen came right down the middle of the road, but faded... perhaps he left too much on the road in those intermediate sprints, eh?
Looks like Cooke (or Eisel) and Davis were in there as well, on the right half of the road. Makes McEwens early attacks a bit of an omen for today. Good thing Robbie sat up and gave up on that early attack with Wegmann... he saved enough legs to smoke everyone in that sprint. Looks like a great decision in hindsight.
Cooke came up on the left of Boonen actually and seemed to beat him to the line...
Some strange names up there in the top eight. Eisel is the one who came around Boonen on the left, Cooke was behind Backstedt on the right side of the road.
Galvez looks like his wheel got swept out by Allan Davis as Davis tried to get in behind that McEwen push up the right. Galvez went down very hard and took out Furlan too. Amazing more men didn't go down.
Hushovd was on Boonen's wheel, and he came in 9th. Förster was right behind Hushovd. When Boonen crossed the line, he was giving a partial moon to the world: that early crash he had ripped a big hole in his shorts on his left cheek, and that might have caught up to him (the crash) at the end.
Boonen said after the finish that his back is really messed up from that crash. He said his leadout faded too early and he was in the wind for way too long in that final sprint. Still, he got 7th. He said that the crash was just a typical Tour crash, and shrugged with a laugh.
McEwen says that those intermediate sprints probably took the edge off of Boonen in the sprint... he says that he used to do the same thing when chasing the Green Jersey, but these days he's all about sitting back, saving energy and going for stage wins. He also says that this win is a big pep-up after that disappointing crash/finish yesterday. McEwen now steps up onto the podium to get his rewards for the victory.
Now the Texas Tornado comes up for another Yellow Jersey, which precipitates a call to his architect to build another wing on the mansion to house the new pile of Yellow Jerseys and Credit Lyonnaise lions he's collecting in this race.
No change in the GC.
Well, that's it for the fast fun and elbow-in-the-ribs glory of the sprinters for the next several days. Now it's moving increasingly towards the climbers. Heras is probably doing a little pixie dance, he's so excited to be getting out of this flat terrain. Be sure to join us for the first taste of the mountains tomorrow, and thanks very much for joining us today!