By Magnus Bäckstedt, Alessio-Bianchi professional cycling team
I’m relieved… I think my heart has finally started to beat again.
As you might recall, the other day I said that I was not feeling up to contesting the sprint, figuring that it was not my day and I wanted to stay out of it, mostly out of respect for the guys who were in a position to contest it. Well, today I was feeling up for it, got myself into the mix and had a very, very, very close call when Cipo’ went down. I even had his bike clipping my foot as he went down, so I just missed it.
I stopped breathing there and my heart is just now starting up again. Some times it is just so, so close and you get away with it… and then, maybe half-an-hour later, the realization hits you.
I am still not too sure what happened. It looked like he touched a wheel twice within about 100 meters or so. I was right on his wheel – usually not a bad place to be – and I could see that he had one encounter which caused his bike to move back a bit and then he got going again and all of a sudden he was on his ass. I don’t know quite what happened when he went down, but it looked like he touched wheels with Andrus Aug. You can sort of tell when someone goes down after touching a wheel. The result is different than when it’s caused by something else.
Either way, it was definitely not a good finish. But, you know the risks you’re facing when you get into a sprint like that. You know the saying: If you can’t handle the heat….
The other day I didn’t think I had the legs and I didn’t like all of the turns, so I stayed out of it. Today, with the rain and all, it was almost as bad, but my legs felt good, so when you feel like that, it’s worth taking the risks. Of course, I wasn’t expecting Cipo’ to drop himself right in front of me either.
When Cipo’ hit the deck, I hesitated a bit and had to ease off, tap my brakes and swing my bike out to the right to avoid his bike, which was coming right at me. Once that happens it’s hard to regain your momentum. Both mentally and physically, it stops you cold and your big priority in life switches from winning a sprint to avoiding. Then, you feel happy for managing to stay upright and realize you need to re-focus within a tenth-of-a-second.
Honestly, there’s only one guy right now who can recover like that and then go on to win a sprint…. and he was already up the road racing Robbie McEwen to the line. Right now, Alessandro Petacchi can handle something like that because he just has so much more in him than all of the other sprinters he’s competing against. In order for a guy like me to pull off a stage win like today, the sprint has to come at the end of an absolutely perfect run in.
It was looking like that, too. I moved up front with about 10km or so to go. Angelo Furlan was up there to help me out today. He did a good job, keeping me out of trouble from about 1500 meters out to 800 meters to go, he kept me out of the wind and allowed me to ride just on the outside edge of the peloton. That way I didn’t need to be there in the middle where all the pushing and shoving was going on. It was already pretty crowded in there. So after Angelo got me that far, with maybe 700 meters to go, I went looking for Cipollini’s wheel.
The art of positioning
So Angelo was up there helping me and then the rest of the team was back helping our GC guys – Andrea and Alessandro – as near to the front as possible, but still out of the mix. That’s another element that complicates the finishes of the big tours. The teams all try to find that perfect spot in the peloton for their big GC guys: ahead of the usual crashes and behind the mad scramble of the sprint. Unfortunately, there’s not room for everyone there in that “perfect spot.”
So, we had Vini Caldirola up there with four or five guys keeping Garzelli out of trouble; Saeco had three or four guys protecting Simoni and Cunego and we had ours. That’s an essential role, since you can’t let your team leader slip back into the absolute worst spot – about 50 or so riders back. At the same time, it really complicates things for the sprinters.
Sprinters are usually used to taking a few risks, pushing and shoving and bumping shoulders. Sometimes, when you’re moving out, you need to push past someone and you see it’s a GC rider. Now you don’t really want to mess with those guys because they have nothing to do with the sprint and all they’re doing is trying ride their own race and stay out of trouble. But then again, you need to work your way through to get to the front.
So a sprint at one of the big tours can be very complicated. You have the GC riders hanging around near the front and then you have the big sprinters’ teams and their lead-out men and at times it’s just chaos, absolute chaos.
So once you’re into the final few hundred meters it’s a relief being up near the front in the top 10 or 20 riders… unless you run into something like today.
So I sit here and, now that I can breathe again and my heart has re-started, I can count my blessings and feel quite lucky that I came through without a scratch after coming so, so close.
Goodnight and see you all tomorrow.