Race leader shuts down escape by off-bike rival
It was meant to have been a day for the minnows in the 2004 Tour de France peloton to fight for the scraps. And whoever won the stage could steal some thunder from the Armstrongs and Ullrichs of the race.
But instead, the 166.5km stage 18 from Annemasse to Lons-le-Saunier became the platform for an ugly and bitter dispute between the biggest name in cycling, the overall race leader Lance Armstrong (U.S. Postal Service) and one of the lesser known names in the sport, Italian Filippo Simeoni (Domina Vacanze), who has won only seven races in his 11-year pro career.
For a race that is now 48 hours from reaching what is meant to be a celebratory run into Paris with Armstrong writing history as the first six-time winner, today’s incident left a sour taste.
The 32-year-old U.S. Postal captain, who leads the race by more than four minutes and has won four stages – five if you count his team time trial win – chased down the 32-year-old Domina Vacanze rider as he sought to join a break of six riders, hoping for a stage win.
For those unaware of the history between the Texan and the Italian, there seemed to be absolutely no reason why the yellow jersey would bother to chase down a rider placed 142nd, at 2:42.55.
Simeoni — who has given testimony against Dr. Michele Ferrari in the ongoing investigation into the controversial Italian sports doctor — has sued Armstrong for defamation for comments the Texan allegedly made questioning Simeoni’s honesty and good name.
And ever since the French newspaper L’Equipe published an interview with Simeoni in the first week of the Tour, in which the Italian voiced his ill feelings about Ferrari, a flare-up between the two riders was expected.
It finally came Friday, soon after Simeoni’s wheel went to the front of the pack at 32km and sped off in pursuit of an early break that included the two Spaniard’s who would fight out the stage, eventual winner Juan Miguel Mercado (Quick Step) and Vicente Garcia Acosta (Illes Balears).
Armstrong saw what Simeoni was doing, jumped onto his wheel and stayed there up until the pair joined the breakaway at 36km. Once there, they contributed to the pace setting and helped the break accrue a 1:50 lead at 40km.
Mercado said the arrival of the yellow jersey in the break was “bizarre” and he didn’t understand what was going on. It has been reported that at one point one of the breakaways, Spanish rider Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) said to Simeoni: “What the hell are you doing? You know we won’t stay away with you.”
Spaniard Vicente Garcia-Acosta (Illes Baleares) spoke to Armstrong, asking him to do the breakaway a favor and leave them to fight for the stage victory. Armstrong accepted, but only if Simeoni left the break as well. Several men in the break then asked Simeoni to leave, according to Sebastien Joly (Crédit Agricole), and the Italian had no choice but to forget his victory ambitions, and drop back to wait for the bunch.
“When he let go, Lance had the kindness to do the same thing,” Joly said.
Armstrong and Simeoni stayed with the break until the first sprint at 43km where the lead was 2:20. That was when Armstrong and Simeoni agreed to sit up and let the break race on to the finish.
As they dropped off the back, it was clear that Armstrong and Simeoni shared some words, with the Texan even placing his right hand on the Italian’s left shoulder.
With 120km to go, attention for the remaining hours of racing was on what would be the fall-out of the incident: correctly, a bitter one.
Even U.S. Postal directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel, while aware of the reasons behind it, said he was unprepared for Armstrong’s antics. “It was something to do with what happened in the past. It was a surprise. It wasn’t planned,” he said on French television.
So, under a blanket of thick humidity and intrigue, the scene was set for a sensational finale — but sadly, for all the wrong reasons.
The breakaways rode on, relieved that they were left to fight out the stage among themselves. In the final 10km, there was a spree of attacks, resulting in just Mercado and Garcia Acosta remaining in front. With 5km to go their lead was only 25 seconds over four chasers. But it was a big enough gap to fend them off.
Garcia Acosta did much of the work, setting tempo over the last 2km, but he was robbed of a true chance to win when he had gear trouble and could not shift down to sprint.
But credit to Mercado with his timing to jump off Garcia Acosta’s wheel with 200m and win the stage. Mercado played his hand perfectly to come over the line just inches ahead of his 31-year-old rival, who has tried several attacks throughout the race and demonstrated his frustration by punching the air downwards as he crossed the line in second place.
The big topic of the day
Photos snapped and a stage winner determined, the press quickly turned its attention to the bigger story of the day, and that wasn’t to see who would win the bunch sprint for seventh place; but for Armstrong and Simeoni to explain their scrap.
Later reports said that Armstrong was “thanked” by many riders for his stand and that Simeoni was abused by some and left to slip to the back of the peloton for a lonely day in the saddle that left him on the verge of tears and quitting.
Both openly stated their cases after they crossed the finish line with the peloton 11:29 behind Mercado.
Armstrong arrived in 74th place with teammates George Hincapie and Pavel Padrnos around him in support, while Simeoni was third last to finish the day in 145th.
Armstrong stood by his actions, claiming it was on behalf of all riders. “I was protecting the interests of the peloton. The other riders were very grateful,” he said.
“I followed Simeoni. He is not a rider the peloton wants to be in the front group. All he does is attack the peloton, says bad things about the other riders and group in general. When I came back I had a lot of people patting me on the back.
“Simeoni … it is a long history and (with) a guy like that, all he wants to do is to destroy cycling … to destroy the sport that pays him.
“For me that is not correct. And when back with the group I cannot say how many riders said: ‘Hey, chapeau … thank you very much.’
“They understand this is their job, they absolutely love it and are committed to it. And they don’t want somebody within their sport destroying it. For me it is no problem to go on the wheel, to follow the wheel. So.…”
Simeoni must feel thankful that the Tour is nearly over. But the last two days will surely seem a lifetime as he takes on his life as an outcast. But he was clearly not afraid to say what he felt of Armstrong today.
“He showed the whole world what type of person he is. I was the victim of a big injustice,” he said. “How can a champion like Armstrong not let a little rider like me get a little piece of the glory in the Tour de France. It is a sin.”
Wall of silence
Vincenzo Santoni, team manager of Simeoni’s Domina Vacanze team, was furious at the way his rider has been treated not only by Armstrong but other prominent members of the peloton.
Santoni told RAI TV: “The American (Armstrong) went to catch him and told him and the six leaders that if he (Simeoni) did not stop he would not let the breakaway continue.
“What is even worse was the insults that Simeoni had to take when he was rejoined by the peloton.”
Santoni said that Italian Daniele Nardello (T-Mobile) was among those who directed verbal abuse at Simeoni.
He also said that the team’s star sprinter, Mario Cipollini, who pulled out of the Tour early in the race, did not even want Simeoni on the squad.
“Simeoni wanted to quit,” said Santoni. “We had to plead with to stay in the race: he is someone who makes sacrifices for the team and that Cipollini, who joined the Tour run down and not bothered about the team, did not want on the team. Frankly, I wish Cipollini just stops riding – he has taken the team and the sponsors for a ride.”
Nardello denied insulting Simeoni although he conceded that the two had spoken.”I have never insulted anyone in my whole career and I don’t think I have today,” he told RAI TV. “If I have today, then I am sorry.”
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