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Tour de France

Echelons, rain showers, crashes — and now a time trial

When I was an amateur racer in Brittany a few decades ago, one event I did was the local classic, Nantes-St. Nazaire. We raced on some of the same flat roads that the Tour de France peloton covered Monday; and the weather was similar: heavy rain showers and a strong southwest wind. Although I usually enjoyed racing in the rain, that classic was the first time I encountered fast-moving echelons, angled into the wind. It was all I could do to grovel in the gutter, trying to hang on to the thin line of riders stuck at the back. It’s not a pleasant memory.

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By John Wilcockson

Cancellara is the odds-on favorite for a stage win on Tuesday

Cancellara is the odds-on favorite for a stage win on Tuesday

Photo: Graham Watson

When I was an amateur racer in Brittany a few decades ago, one event I did was the local classic, Nantes-St. Nazaire. We raced on some of the same flat roads that the Tour de France peloton covered Monday; and the weather was similar: heavy rain showers and a strong southwest wind.

Although I usually enjoyed racing in the rain, that classic was the first time I encountered fast-moving echelons, angled into the wind. It was all I could do to grovel in the gutter, trying to hang on to the thin line of riders stuck at the back. It’s not a pleasant memory.

Watching stage 3 of the Tour, I knew that some of the guys were feeling as bad as I felt that rainy day so long ago. There have been a fair number of crashes since this Tour set out from Brest Saturday, and the wounds that riders are nursing always make tough conditions feel even tougher. On Monday, the conditions were most critical when the race turned sharp left at a roundabout with 29km to go to the finish in Nantes.

That was where the daylong cross/head wind became a three-quarter tail wind, when savvy teams knew that the hammer was going to go down. At that point, the peloton was five minutes behind the four-man breakaway that had been 15:08 ahead 100km earlier. There was still an outside chance that the field would catch the leaders, and that’s why the Quick Step riders went to the front, hoping to close the gap and give their sprinter Gert Steegmans a shot at a stage win.

The Quick Step acceleration split the peloton into three distinct echelons just as a half-dozen riders hit the deck after riding into a low road divider they hadn’t seen. Two of the Tour favorites, Denis Menchov of Rabobank and Riccardo Riccò of Saunier Ducal-Scott, were caught in the second group.

Riccò, riding the Tour for the first time as a team leader, was a little unlucky. He was riding behind his teammates as the speed increased, and the Italian only lost position when his Spanish colleague Angel Gomez crashed over the divider (and was forced to abandon the Tour).

Menchov was jus badly positioned — an unforgivable error for the race-hardened Russian. “I don’t have any excuses,” Menchov said, “but I’m not too far behind.”

He and Riccò would lose 38 seconds by the finish, but the loss could have been much greater. Five of Menchov’s Dutch teammates (Sebastian Langeveld, Koos Moerenhout, Joost Posthuma, Bram Tankink and Pieter Weening) rode phenomenally hard with two of Riccò’s Spanish teammates (David De la Fuente and Juan José Cobo) to limit their losses.

So going into Tuesday’s 29.5km time trial at Cholet, the time differences between the 11 top favorites (now that the injured Mauricio Soler is out of the running) are still tight. If we exclude the riders in Monday’s break (neither temporary race leader Roman Feillu nor runner-up Paolo Longo has great time-trialing skills, especially after being in a 207km-long breakaway!), these are the GC positions of the favorites (including the other TT specialists in parentheses):
Valverde
?Kirchen, (Millar), Evans, F. Schleck, all at 0:01
?Sanchez, (Hincapie), A.Schleck, (Schumacher), (Vande Velde), Sastre, Devolder, (Cancellara), Cunego, all at 0:07
?(Lang), (Nibali), (Gutierrez), all at 0:18
?Riccò, at 0:39
?Menchov, at 0:45
?(Clement), at 5:00

The hot tip for the time trial is CSC-Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara, the two-time world TT champ, whose teammates worked hard at the end of Monday’s stage.

“We’ve been hoping the whole time to get Fabian in yellow tomorrow,” said team director Kim Andersen in Nantes. “That’s why we moved to the front for the last couple of kilometers in order to reduce the gap to the four in the break, so hopefully he’ll have a chance to catch up to them tomorrow.”

Cancellara confirmed, “I really want to win. It’s the first time trial, and I feel great right now.” His biggest opponent might be Garmin-Chipotle’s David Millar, who has won two TT stages in his Tour career, including the rain- and wind-affected stage into Nantes in 2003, when he beat no less a personage than Lance Armstrong.

Millar’s team boss Jonathan Vaughters said, “I’ve known David since 1997 and I haven’t seen him as motivated as he is for this Tour. It’s the first time he’s trained very methodically. In the past, he’s relied mostly on pure talent.”

As for Garmin-Chipotle’s team leader, Christian Vande Velde, who also has a chance to challenge Cancellara, he said, “Tomorrow is a big day for us. We are a team of time trialists and we are going to give everything.”

Millar says Cancellara is beatable, but it will take a great ride to do it.

Millar says Cancellara is beatable, but it will take a great ride to do it.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Millar added, “For me, the big favorite is Cancellara. He’s beatable, but I’m going to have to have the performance of my life to beat him.”

Over Tuesday’s medium-distance TT course, with no significant hills and a likely head wind on the outward half of the triangular circuit, don’t expect Alejandro Valverde to place top three. The TT he won in the Dauphiné by a few seconds over Levi Leipheimer (absent at the Tour) and Cadel Evans was extremely hilly and greatly favored the lightly built Spaniard.

Evans will be much better in a stage he has been working toward for many months. He may not beat Cancellara, but it’s likely that the Aussie will gain time on most of his GC rivals. And with strong west winds again in the forecast, the time gaps might be much bigger than expected.

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