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Tour de France

Andrew Hood’s Tour de France Notebook, Stage 6

RICCO A LA PANTANI? Will Riccardo Riccò pull a page from the playbook of his childhood hero, Marco Pantani, and surprise everyone at this Tour de France? Riccò insists he’s here only for stage victories, but his impressive pop in Thursday’s stage could betray his public declarations.

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By Andrew Hood

RICCO A LA PANTANI?
Will Riccardo Riccò pull a page from the playbook of his childhood hero, Marco Pantani, and surprise everyone at this Tour de France?

Riccò insists he’s here only for stage victories, but his impressive pop in Thursday’s stage could betray his public declarations.

“It’s a very important victory. I came to the Tour to win a stage and now I’ve already reached my objective,” said Riccò. “I had two full weeks off the bike without training following the Giro. I only decided to come to the Tour to gain experience and try to win a stage. Maybe next year I can came back to try to do something in the GC. Valverde is the big favorite for me to win this year’s Tour.”

Riccò, 24, is coming off second overall at the Giro d’Italia and continues to play down his GC chances at what is his second Tour start. His poor showing in Tuesday’s time trial seemed to confirm his public stance and he’s sitting well back in 31st at 3:52 back.

But Riccò could definitely become a factor if he finds his climbing legs in the Pyrénées and the Alps. Teams might not consider him a threat and let him go away in the first climbs.

Pantani, whom Riccò adores, was about 10 minutes back before the first mountain stages of the 1998 Tour. And he later blew everyone away to pull the Giro-Tour double in the best year of his troubled and controversial career.

“Pantani is my hero. He was something incredible, but I’m not the next Pantani. There was only one Pantani,” said Riccò, known for his tongue. “I always say what I think. I’m not afraid of what others think about that. Podium? I’m only here to dispute for stage victories.”

We’ll see. Riccò would love nothing more than to make up for the disappointment of losing the Giro to Alberto Contador than to barnstorm a Tour without Contador.

COLUMBIA JERSEY HOG
There’s no stopping Team Columbia so far in the Tour de France. The team is making its new title sponsor plenty happy, with plenty of podium time at the end of each stage. The team holds three of the four jerseys awarded daily at the Tour and stands third overall in the team GC standings.

Kim Kirchen now holds the yellow and green jerseys. Swedish phenom’ Thomas Lovkvist claims the young rider’s white jersey and the team is just 20 seconds back in the team GC. Not bad for a team whom many were calling outsiders to make an impact on this Tour.

And all this comes a day following Mark Cavendish’s sprint victory Wednesday. Team Columbia boss Bill Stapleton was already gushing.

“Real big. We wanted this. We brought a team here to support him. We were all working for this. It’s really great for the team,” Stapleton said Wednesday. “This is a big one for us. We really wanted to get a win in. It was a really good team, we couldn’t be happier.”

Now that Kirchen has the jersey, how far can the Luxembourg national time trial champion go? Kirchen said the team will defend the jersey into the Pyrénées. After that, only his legs will tell.

“The Tour is the Tour. I’m surprised at my condition and I will take it day by day. Right now, everything is possible for the team. They’re so strong, so we’ll carry the jersey into the Pyrénées,” Kirchen said. “We’ll see if I can stay with the best climbers. To win? It’s too early to say.”

Kirchen was one of the few riders to stay on with the team following the tumultuous changes post-Ullrich at the former T-Mobile.

Stapleton was already calling him a GC outsider last year before he popped for seventh overall. This year, Stapleton isn’t putting a ceiling on how far he can go.

“Kim continues to grow and he’s benefiting from the changes we’re introducing. He’s ridden his new time trial bike twice, he won the Luxembourg nationals and then he rode a great race Tuesday, so it’s all lining up nicely for him,” Stapleton said. “He just needs to avoid the bad day. He had that bad day at the Tour de Suisse. Maybe that’s the difference in this Tour. Whoever can ride for three weeks without a problem can win. Evans and Valverde are still the favorites, but Kim still has a few weeks to prove himself.”

VALVERDE BREATHING EASIER
Alejandro Valverde was wondering if his Tour de France jinx was back. After tripping up on a cat-eye road reflector in Wednesday’s stage, Valverde nearly crashed out of the Tour with injuries for the third time in four years.

Valverde started Thursday’s climbing stage to Super-Besse with his right arm and leg heavily wrapped in white gauze. After only sleeping two hours Wednesday night, Valverde woke up Thursday wondering about his chances. By the day’s feedzone, his legs had warmed up and he told his Caisse d’Epargne teammates he was feeling good.

“I was seriously in doubt about my future in this Tour, but later in the day, I felt better. I told my team and they began pulling because we wanted to win the stage,” Valverde said. “Considering my crash yesterday and the fact that I sleep only two hours last night because the entire right side of my body was burning a lot, I think that I must be satisfied with my stage. When the Italian attacked, he immediately made the gap and it was impossible for me to come back but this is a very good day for me and I am again at a good ranking in the general classification.”