NEUCHÂTEL, Switzerland (VN) — The body language of the men who finished first and second on stage 3 of the 65th Tour de Romandie said it all. The man in front, Team Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov, made only one modest gesture: sticking out an arm, while his face remained implacable. Just behind him, Frenchman Mikael Chérel of Ag2r-La Mondiale also had an arm raised, but his was raised in protest, claiming that Vino’ had almost run him into the barriers at the end of their eleventh-hour break with a feisty Tony Martin of HTC-Highroad.
Chérel, who Thursday unwittingly caused Cadel Evans’ defeat in an uphill sprint at Romont, turned to Vinokourov as they sped past the line of race photographers, shouting “Putain! Putain!” (That’s French for something bad!) The veteran Kazakh, 37, didn’t reply to the lean Frenchman, 25, but he later told the media: “I thought I did everything right; he took the risk of going left, the road was wide.”
As he waited to hear the judges’ verdict, Chérel said this about Vinokourov: “He was very nervous, telling me to go, but I just followed. And in the sprint, he kept on moving closer to the barriers; I couldn’t get through.”
This controversial conclusion to what was billed as a sprinters’ stage was just one more chapter in what has turned out to be a highly suspenseful Tour de Romandie, with the GC battle between Evans, Vinokourov and still race leader Pavel Brutt of Katusha likely to be decided in Saturday’s individual time trial. That battle intensified Friday when Vinokourov picked up a 10-second bonus for the stage 3 victory, which means (1) he has that much of a time advantage over his Australian rival, and (2) he now starts, vitally, one slot behind Evans in the TT.
Martin, too, has an outside shot at overall victory. HTC’s German star is on rising form, as he showed when the 80-strong front group appeared headed toward a bunch sprint Friday. But Martin, who knew there was a short, steep hill 3km from the finish alongside the lake in Neuchâtel, dashed out of the pack, hoping he could get the win and a time bonus to put him closer than the 36 seconds that now separate him from Evans.
Vinokourov had the same idea. “My legs are responding well,” the Kazakh said, “but I’ve been holding back for tomorrow’s time trial. I wasn’t keen to attack today, but I saw Tony Martin go clear, and I said to myself, ‘That could go all the way.’ So I went from behind and bridged up.” And the astute Chérel was on his wheel.
Evans put a BMC teammate on the front hoping to close down the Martin-Vinokourov tandem, but the 150-meter gap was cut to only 5 meters at the end. And the bunch sprint — for fourth place instead of first — was taken by Team Sky’s very impressive Ben Swift ahead of stage favorite Oscar Freire, whose Rabobank teammates had run out of steam after an all-day chase behind a four-man break.
But where were Swift’s Sky teammates when he needed them most? The 23-year-old British rider, who’s developing into a new-generation Freire who can get over hills and contest a sprint, has already taken three wins this season and looked headed for another one. His team’s coming up short didn’t please Sky sports director Sean Yates.
“It was extremely disappointing,” Yates told VeloNews. “Ben obviously had the legs. He won that sprint ahead of the three-time world champ (Freire). But Ben was alone. We had the firepower there, in Bradley (Wiggins), to close that gap down. But there was no commitment from Bradley to help Swifty.
“Rabo had no one else; they’d been chasing all day. And, yes, BMC had someone there for GC, but they didn’t have a sprinter, and the real commitment is obviously for the stage win.
“Rabobank was committed but they’d been on the front for 150K. We’d been on the front with Morris (Possoni) for 20K; he did his bit. I wasn’t expecting (climbers) Chris Froome or Dario (Cioni) to close down gaps or put Swifty in the right place. G (Geraint Thomas), who would normally do that job, was dropped with Michael Barry, so the only guy left was Brad.
“I’m disappointed in the situation (with Wiggins) but it’s nothing new, and without being too derogatory, it’s just frustrating basically. It’s not every day that an opportunity like that comes along. And except for Oscar Freire there was no other sprinter there.”
Indeed, the two climbs in the final 50km split the peloton in two and left the other sprinters behind. One of those was HTC’s Leigh Howard — who had been with the front half of the pack until Omega-Lotto’s Adam Blythe crashed at the foot of the last climb, with 20km to go. Riders were descending at over 80 kph coming into the right turn where the next climb started; several overshot it, and both Blythe and Howard went down.
“Our plan today was to ride for Leigh Howard,” HTC team director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “He was feeling great and I’m sure he would have won the sprint. But he crashed … and so our next plan hope was Tony (Martin). He knew that small hill was there 3km before the finish … and he almost pulled it off.”
In the end, potential stage winners Howard, Freire, Martin and Chérel all missed out, and it was Vinokourov who took his second win of the season, following his solo stage win at Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month. Whether he can end up winning his first Tour de Romandie in his final pro season is a question that will be answered late Saturday afternoon.
The stage 4 time trial from Aubonne to Signal-de-Bougy is only 20.1km long, but the U-shaped course features 1,138 feet of actual climbing with a long uphill in the first half and a series of undulations in the second half. The focus will be on the guys battling for Brutt’s yellow jersey — Vinokourov, Evans and Martin — but should one of them not win the stage perhaps riders in their final preparation for next week’s Giro d’Italia will come through: Marco Pinotti (HTC), Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC), Wiggins, Roman Kreuziger (Astana) or David Millar (Garmin-Cervélo).
There’s also a possible fight for the under-25s white jersey, between the current leader, Garmin’s Peter Stetina (who’s in 18th overall), and his talented rookie teammate Andrew Talansky, who has 41 seconds to make up.