Five seconds separated George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC) from the yellow jersey in Saturday’s hilly stage across eastern France.
How those five seconds are dissected will be the source for debate throughout the remainder of the 2009 Tour de France.
At the finish line Besancon, Hincapie seemed poised to move into the maillot jauneafter riding into the day’s winning 12-man breakaway on the hilly 199km 14th stage from Colmar to Besancon. The American started the stage 28th at 5:25 back and was the best-placed rider in the move.
Once the gap grew to 8:50 at the 120km, Hincapie was the race leader on the road. Ag2r moved up to defend leader Rinaldo Nocentini and with 25km, the gap was still hovering at 6:25.
Everything followed the script until Garmin-Slipstream put three riders on the front of the pack to help drive home the main pack.
Katusha’s Serguei Ivanov surged out of the breakaway with 11km to go to win the stage, 16 seconds clear of the chasing Hincapie, who crossed the line eighth on the stage.
All eyes were on the clock. If the difference was 5:41, Hincapie would be in yellow. Instead, the main group stopped the clock in 5:36.
Once the dust settled, Hincapie moved to second at five seconds back.
How it happened ? and why ? drew emotional reactions from everyone involved.
VeloNews pulled together reactions from the top actors in the unfolding drama.
Here’s the story in their words:
Why George Hincapie was a popular choice to inherit the yellow jersey:
Johan Bruyneel, sport director Astana: “Once we saw group was going, and who was in there, and who was best on GC, for us it was a good situation. There was nobody there from the big favorites, or contenders, but George was in there. When we saw George was in there, it was definitely our intention to keep the gap so that George could eventually take the jersey.
First of all we have a long relationship, he was on our team a long time and we still have a very good relationship with him. It would have been nice for him personally, and also for our own tactics it would have been good because I was pretty sure that if he took the jersey that tomorrow Columbia would defend the jersey or try to control the race. So that’s a pity. Naturally AG2R didn’t agree with that gap, so they started to work. But it looked to me like they had no chance to close it.”
Bob Stapleton, general manager of Columbia-HTC: “Our plan was to race for green and we thought we had a good chance at the finish and to pick up at the intermediate sprints. But the only way we can really get other teams to cooperate with us is to have somebody in the break. Whenever we can we try to do that. And George got in the break, and got in the break with a lot of strong guys, and they were able to stay away to the finish. For us that was an okay outcome. We really had a chance there for yellow.”
Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner: “The break goes, George is in there, he’s the best placed rider on GC, which means he has a chance at the yellow jersey. For our team, that’s a good thing, and for me personally, it’s a great thing, because he’s my best bud in the peloton. The scenario of George in yellow was perfect for our team. His team would have ridden (at the front) all day tomorrow. It’s exactly what we wanted.”
Ralf Aldag, sport director at Columbia-HTC: “We were willing to risk green and some points because we really wanted to have George in the yellow jersey. We believe after 14 years in the road captain and being one of the key guys helping Lance Armstrong win seven Tours, he really deserves a day in yellow.”
On what happened when Garmin moved to the front:
Matt White, sport director, Garmin-Slipstream: “Our guys only starting rotating on front in final kilometers. The main thing I told boys – and I make the calls from the car – is that we’ve been caught out two times in this race for riding in poor position. It happened to (Bradley) Wiggins a couple of days ago and then on stage 3 when there was a split in the peloton. In every single finish, whether you are riding for the win or for 14th place, the safest place is to ride a fast tempo and be in good position in the final.”
Armstrong: “When the break got to be about five or six minutes, we put two guys on the front so it didn’t get to be 10 or 11 minutes. There were 13 guys in the break and two guys riding moderate tempo. That is by no means a chase. It’s the Tour de France. You can’t let a break have 15 minutes. When George became the virtual leader, AG2R decided to ride. We immediately stopped, everybody back in the peloton. They started to bring it back, and they got it down to about a minute. Then Garmin came and closed the rest.”
White: “We only started riding from 5-6km to the line – AG2R rode full gas from 50km to the end to defend the jersey – and for good reason, every single day in the jersey is good for the team, good for the sponsors – it was an unfortunate circumstance that it came with George missing the jersey.”
Aldag: “We asked the boys to really slow it down. They went to the front and they didn’t go full gas until it was absolutely necessary. If they wouldn’t be there at all, they would have come closer. If they are in the front, the ambition to overtake them is very low. It was more the fact that other teams started to start chasing with 10km to go. That was what made the difference of five seconds.”
Rinaldo Nocentini (Ag2r-La Mondiale), race leader: “We had our guys riding at the front and then we saw Garmin put riders on the front. I don’t know why they did it. I didn’t speak to any of them, so I don’t know their reasons. But we didn’t mind at all. It helped me stay in yellow.”
Hayden Roulston (Cervélo TestTeam), member of breakaway: “I didn’t care if George got yellow or not. I was there to win the stage. I think George was there to win the stage as well. Then the gap went out to eight and a half minutes, the gap started to come down really slowly. I think with 25km to go, I think he really had a chance to get yellow. I think everyone did their fair share in the breakaway.”
Bruyneel: “(Ag2r) had been working already a lot the whole Tour and they were blowing up. But when I saw Garmin coming to the front, that’s something that tactically I don’t really understand. I don’t think that has anything to do with the race, or defending your own interest, or your future strategy.”
Aldag: “Danny Pate started to chase, we were wondering a little bit, then they put two other guys, and that really made the difference, they start chasing – it’s hard to understand for sure.”
Stapleton: “I don’t know how Garmin was riding to accomplish anything. I think that’s a reasonable question to ask.”
Armstrong: “I completely understand why Ag2r would ride. They had the yellow jersey. I have no idea why Garmin would pull. It has to be something to do with Garmin against Columbia. There’s no love lost between (Bob) Stapleton and (Jonathan) Vaughters. I asked (David) Millar, ‘What are you guys doing?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know.’’
Aldag: “We wanted to wait as long as possible, we don’t move to the front to pull hard. We went to the front and slowed it down.”
White: “The gap was coming down, but even with 3km to go it looked too far out for George to lose jersey. Looking at the TV, it looked like Columbia was at the front and led out the sprint. I can’t control the pace of the final kilometer. Our guys were only there for one reason. It was touch and go in the end and no one knew the exact time gaps.”
On rivalry between Garmin and Columbia:
White: “Me and George are good friends. It’s not something personal. We’re not out to ruin someone’s day in yellow. I’m here to look after the objectives of my team – that’s all I am interested in – whether it’s George or another Australian, I am looking out for my team and my sponsors, and to put Christian and Bradley Wiggins in best position on every stage.”
Stapleton: “I think the relationship is fine. We share the same basic goals, clean and fair sport, to grow the sport in the United States, and to show the beauty and drama of the sport worldwide, and to develop young athletes. So I think there is a lot of commonality there of goals. I don’t think there is a big rivalry.
Sure there has been some trash talk around some pretty minor things, but the fact of the matter is we’ve won a ton of bike races, so if we were keeping score, I think it would be pretty lopsided in our favor. I think we try and refocus on what we are trying to achieve long term here and try and work toward that together.”
White: “There’s not a problem there at all between our team and Columbia. We are here to win the Tour de France. We’ve been caught out twice already, we didn’t want to make that mistake a third time.”
Aldag: “I don’t know if there are any open wounds between Garmin and George, but it’s definitely not something you do to destroy somebody’s else’s race. There was no way it was for their own success anymore. I don’t think you can say that you can chase down five and a half minutes when the winner, Ivanov, was already taking a shower when they started chasing. It’s pretty difficult to understand their ambitions.”
Bruyneel: “I think it was more personal, or a clash between two American teams, and one American team not wanting another American team, or another American guy, in the yellow jersey. I don’t think that is nice. Everybody, of course, has to decide what they want to do, but I think if you start to race against others having his moment of attention. If Hincapie takes the jersey, I don’t think it affects anything in terms of Garmin’s race.”
Aldag: “Sure, there is a rivalry between the teams, but there’s also between us FDJeux, between us and Astana. We try to keep it on a sporting level, not on a personal level. If someone else does it for something else, that’s really sad because this isn’t what sport is about. Sport is about fair competition and not to destroy somebody else.”
On potential fallout:
Bruyneel: “Obviously it was clear they didn’t want to see him in the jersey. If you start to race like that, to go against the success of other people, ultimately it comes back, and I think that is what is going to happen.
Columbia is not going to be happy. It’s going to be a battle of American teams, and it’s not a battle of results. It’s a battle of not wanting somebody else to be in the spotlight. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like what I saw. I don’t think George will be very happy. I know George has a lot of friends on Garmin. I don’t know if they wanted to do what they did. I expect that this will have another story to it in the future.”
White: “It is unfortunate, but it’s my opinion we wouldn’t even be talking about it if it wasn’t George. If it was another rider, or another team or even someone else at Columbia. But we’re talking about it because George is American and he’s friends with the guys in team. But this was just the unfortunate consequence of guys riding at the front.”
Armstrong: “It’s a shame for George. He deserved it. He was going to be in the jersey by two minutes, and that’s tactically perfect for us and for him. The last thing I want to do is screw over my best friend. I talked to Rogers, I talked to (Bob) Stapleton, I talked to Cav. I’m really upset about the confusion, but more importantly, I’m upset for George. This is going to be an interesting week. A lot of people are going to be suffering. It’s gonna be survival of the fittest.”
Roulston: “George is a great guy, it would have been great to see him in yellow. He’ll be gutted to lose it by five seconds.”
Stapleton: “It’s too bad for George. How many more chances is he going to get? That’s a guy late in his career, having a chance in yellow, I think that’s something pretty special, and something that every that athlete would aspire to, and everyone would like to see. I think George is focused on calming down and trying to have a good recovery. His whole family came today and he was thinking he had a chance to celebrate a big day with his family, that’s a little disappointing I’m sure.”
Bruyneel: “Tomorrow we don’t know what will happen. I’ve no idea who will be in yellow tomorrow night. Not the slightest idea.”
Aldag: “We missed it by five seconds, tomorrow’s another day.”