Armstrong keeps yellow
Emotion fuelled the windswept, rain-spattered 183km stage 5 of the Tour de France from Chambord to Montargis on Wednesday – and for a full spectrum of reasons.
At the start, we had an almost reluctant overall race leader in American Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) not wanting to wear the yellow jersey he felt that, morally, still belonged to Dave Zabriskie of CSC. But it was a gesture the Tour organizers would not allow.
Then at the finish, we had an elated stage winner, Australian Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), championing his vengeance against a race jury that relegated him to last place on stage 3 in Tours two days ago and for his successive sprint losses to Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick Step).
In between these emotional bookends, on narrow and lumpy roads that took the Tour from the Loir-et-Cher region into Loiret, we were treated to a stage that saw another brave daylong breakaway that was caught near the line, not to mention several spills and thrills that left the heart pumping.Results are posted.
We all should have known there was going to be something special on a day that began on the majestically beautiful world heritage site of ChambordChâteau – one of the most famous of French castles whose construction was started in 1519 by King Francois the First.
Armstrong’s call to not wear the yellow jersey smacked of royal nobility. He explained that doing so would not be right as he won it through the misfortune of the previous leader, his countryman Zabriskie, whocrashed near the end of Tuesday’s stage 4 team time trial.
“I decided not to wear the jersey today in respect of tradition and in respect of Zabriskie,” said Armstrong. “I watched television [after winning the team time trial by two seconds over CSC] and I had a sick feeling.
“CSC were very close and without this crash they would have had a good chance of winning the stage. It would have been a matter of tenths or hundredths of seconds.
“There is a tradition in the Tour not to wear a yellow jersey when you take it from a mishap. The last I can remember is when Greg LeMond didn’t wear it when Rolf Sørensen crashed [in 1991].”
But as well intended as his call was, it was not accepted by organizers, who ordered him to swap from his Discovery Channel strip to the yellow jersey at thestart proper after riding in his team uniform from the staging area.
That order earned hefty criticism that was on Armstrong’s side: one of the more cynical remarks being: “No wonder Paris didn’t get the Olympics,” referring to the IOC’s vote Wednesday to award the 2012 Games to London, not Paris.
However, such emotion and meaning was not in short supply today, as was revealed by the stage that unfolded beneath the peloton’s wheels, and the gathering dark rains clouds, for the next three hours and 46 minutes.
Boonen quickly showed he was not complacent about his lead in the green jersey points competition by contesting the first intermediate sprint after20km at Villeny.
And he did so for some handsome dividends too, as he won the sprint from Norway’s Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) and Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis).
It was soon after that first sprint that Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo), a Tour stage winner at Toulouse in 2003 and third in this year’s Paris-Roubaix classic, attacked and prompted the day’s first serious break.
Flecha remained out in front alone and took a maximum five-minute lead by the second intermediate sprint at Aubigny sur-Nere at 80km.
It was there that he sat up and waited for a three-man chase of Hungarian Laszlo Bodrogi (Crédit Agricole), Italian Salvatore Commesso (Lampre-Caffita) and Finland’s Kjell Carlstrom (Liquigas-Biacnhi) to catch him a few kilometers later.
The four leaders still had a 4:10 lead on the peloton after 87km, by which time the crosswind that hit the peloton at the start of the stage had swung into a favorable tail wind.
The quartet shared the workload dutifully, knowing they would be wasting their time and energy by half-heartedly continuing. They would also have known that poor weather awaited them, and that that could work in their favor should it provoke crashes and hesitation behind.
The major beneficiary of their escape was Bodrogi as he was the highest placed rider among them on the overall classification — 19th place at 1:45 to Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel).
However, while Tour leader on the road, Bodrogi’s yellow jersey chances soon diminished as their lead dropped under the inevitable chase from the pelotondriven by the sprinters’ teams like Davitamon-Lotto, Cofidis and Quick Step who all had plans for the Montargis finish.
With the peloton hurtling along at 50-plus kph it was not surprising there were several crashes along the way. One of them, after the feed zone at Vally-sur-Sauldre after 97km, raised a few scares when Tour contender Ivan Basso (CSC) went down.
For the stage leaders, the peloton was like a guillotine hanging over their heads; the execution came with 10.5km to go as the roads became narrower.
With a bunch sprint almost certain and Montargis getting closer with every pedal stroke, riders from Française des Jeux, AG2R and Crédit Agricole also started appearing for turns at the front.
The helter-skelter pace left victims, with one crash of about eight riders happening with 3.5km to go on a sweeping right turn – prompting many to ponder what carnage a 90-degree right-hander after a sudden narrowing of the road with 500 meters to go would bring.
Thankfully, there was none as the FDJ train led by Australian Brad McGee negotiated the turn with artistic grace, with his teammates Australian Baden Cooke and Austrian Bernard Eisel and the peloton in his slipstream.
After they completed the turn, before them was a 500-meter-long rise to the finish line that Boonen, with two stage wins to his name, thought he would relish the most – not knowing the deep desire that was burning inside McEwen.
The FDJ bid on the right side failed. Cooke sat up after leading out Eisel, who in turn quickly faded. And then with about 300 meters to go, Boonen swept past in the center of the road after he unleashed his pedaling fury, a fury that only McEwen could match – or better.
With every pedal stroke McEwen, having prepared his sprint perfectly rather than in the previous stages where he went too early, brought back space on Boonen.
The Aussie battler then drew level with the Belgian with about 25 meters to go, their tussle only being settled as both riders threw their bikes forward across the line, McEwen getting the vital edge.
A smiling McEwen’s winning salute – four successive points to his chest with each forefinger – said it all.
After beating second-placed Boonen and Norwegian Hushovd he agreed that it was possibly his best-ever stage win from six in the Tour.
“I’ll have to look at the pictures,” said McEwen, who has been wearing the Australian road champion’s jersey – a white stripe with gold and green hoops. “(It is for) a moment like that, not just when you win a stage but after a few days where it has been a bit tough – where I had a tough call (relegation) the other day – and obviously for the amount of work my team has been doing in the last few days. Whenever it has been a flat stage us and Quick Step have been the two teams controlling the race. Our guys really deserve this stage win to pay them back for all their work.”
McEwen is still pessimistic about his chances of making an assault on the green jersey that Boonen still keeps, his 30 points for second place — plus six from winning the first intermediate sprint – taking him to 106 points.
In second place is Hushovd (77 points), followed by Australian Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) at 76 points after placing fourth today and then McEwen in fourth with 61 points. “This morning I was 44 points behind, this afternoon I am 45 points behind and I won the stage, but didn’t compete for the first intermediate sprint,” he said. “Obviously, I would have to hope for a miracle to come back into contention, or for Tom Boonen to have some serious bad luck – and of course I don’t wish that on him. I am still the same stance. I am here hunting for stage wins now. I know in the Tour nothing is impossible, everything can happen; but I am not counting on it.”
Asked if his win was revenge for his relegation on stage 3, McEwen, who would have 91 points had he not been punished as he was, said, “A little … but [the relegation] should still be reversed to make an interesting points competition. The win today doesn’t change my mind. I have watched the video enough times, the pictures enough times. There are other people who definitely know what they are talking about who agree with me.
“One of them is Sean Kelly. He’s not a nobody. He has won the green jersey five times. Eddy Merckx has won the Tour five times and he agrees with me as well. Nobody should have been disqualified.”
“It is a pretty harsh decision and has put a pretty big hole in the green jersey competition. It is not looking half as interesting as in the last couple of years. I want to make it very clear. I am not trying to blame anyone. I definitely didn’t make the first move and it didn’t affect the classification of the stage, it didn’t affect any other riders. I was more than disappointed not at the actions of any rider but more of the decision of the jury.”
Stage 5 results
1. Robbie McEwen (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto, 183km in 3:46:00 (48.584kph)
2. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step
3. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole
4. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis
5. Angelo Furlan (I), Domina Vacanze
6. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros
7. Bernhard Eisel (A), Française des Jeux
8. Baden Cooke (Aus), Française des Jeux
9. Jens Voigt (G), CSC
10. Robert Forster (G), Gerolsteiner
Overall, after Stage 5
1. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel
2. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, at 0:55
3. Jens Voigt (G), CSC, at 1:04
4. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC, at 1:07
5. José Luis Rubiera (Sp), Discovery Channel, at 1:14
6. Yaroslav Popovych (Ukr), Discovery Channel, at 1:16
7. Alexandre Vinokourov (Kaz), T-Mobile, at 1:21
8. Benjamin Noval Gonzalez (Sp), Discovery Channel, at 1:26
9. David Zabriskie (USA), CSC, at 1:26
10. Ivan Basso (I), CSC, 01:26
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