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By John Wilcockson
There are no easy days in this very different Tour de France. This was especially true on Friday when stage 7 was raced more like a one-day classic than a semi-mountain stage of the Tour. One man who knows a thing or two about the classics (and the Tour!), George Hincapie, had this to say about a stage where his Columbia was stretched to the limit in defending the yellow jersey of Kim Kirchen.
“It was a very hard day today,” said Hincapie, just after he crossed the line in Aurillac alongside CSC’s Fabian Cancellara almost 11 minutes behind stage winner Luis Leon Sanchez of Caisse d’Épargne. “It was a head wind all day, and we had to pull from the first kilometer. It was one of the epic days, for sure.”
Thankfully, on a stage when former U.S. Postal team worker Manuel “Triki” Beltran of Liquigas would leave the race because of a positive EPO test last Saturday, it was the “clean teams” that dictated the tactics. Team Garmin-Chipotle’s David Millar and CSC-Saxo Bank’s Jens Voigt (respectively 0:47 and 3:01 behind Kirchen on GC) led the way with a six-man break that went clear after the ancient hilltop town of St. Flour, and soon had a 30-second gap.
On steadily rising roads, Hincapie was pulling so hard with Columbia teammates Gerald Ciolek, Markus Burghardt and Thomas Lövkvist that the peloton was on the point of rupture, while individual riders were already being spit out the back. It was then, with 106km still to go in the stage, that the race split into four echelons, just like it does in a Flanders classic. In the jostling for position, Lampre’s Damiano Cunego touched wheels and tumbled, and so he didn’t make it into the select front group that suddenly moved ahead in fierce crosswinds.
Four CSC riders — Fabian Cancellara, Volodymir Gustov and the Schleck brothers — powered the front echelon that soon swept up the breakaway, and picked up Voigt as a an extra CSC workhorse for team leader Carlos Sastre. Hincapie, unfortunately, wasn’t there anymore.
“Yes, I made a mistake,” the American team captain told us in Aurillac. “I went to the back to get some bottles as we were catching the break, and then CSC put it down.” Hincapie’s absence left Kirchen with just Lövkvist to help him in the new front group of 25. The other team leaders up front were Cadel Evans (with his Silence-Lotto teammate Dario Cioni), Alejandro Valverde (with Caisse d’Épargne’s Sanchez and Oscar Pereiro), Denis Menchov (and Rabobank teammate Oscar Freire), Riccardo Riccò (and Saunier Duval worker Juan José Cobo) and a very motivated Christian Vande Velde (who now had Garmin teammate Millar to help him).
The major GC contenders that missed the split, besides Lampre’s Cunego, were Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez, Quick Step’s Stijn Devolder and Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher. Consequently, these were the three teams that organized the chase of a peloton that had already lost 60 riders.
The chase lasted 40km (covered in exactly 40 minutes!), with the gap extending to 47 seconds at one point. The chasers did win out, but the efforts they made would severely affect how they raced the remains of the day — which included the stage’s three steepest climbs in the spectacularly green mountains scenery of the Cantal. The first of these saw four men counterattack led by Caisse d’Épargne’s Sanchez; the highest peak, the Puy Mary, was the one that caused Hincapie and the other hardest workers to fall back; while the last (very steep) hill, 9km from the finish, decided the day’s outcome.
It was on these 10-percent slopes that all the top GC men, except Cunego, made it into a group of 19 that caught the break, with Sanchez re-attacking to score the Tour’s first solo stage victory. Summing up the day, race favorite Evans said, “It was a short, intense stage, let’s say that, both physically and mentally.”
Besides Evans, Sastre (and the Schleck brothers) and Riccò, the most impressive team leader on the day was Garmin’s Vande Velde — who wasn’t on our list of pre-race favorites. The American’s potential in the high mountains as a leader is still untested, but for now, we’ll include him in our daily update. Once more, our GC picks nearly all moved up a few places as the Tour moves toward the Pyrenees.
And if the racing continues to be as demanding as it was Friday, even more top-20 riders could drop back on Saturday’s stage 8. This will again have testing terrain in the opening 100km, but the later flats and rollers will likely see the sprinters get a chance to show their prowess in the city of Toulouse. Erik Zabel and Robbie McEwen are the ones most anxious to open their score — and they are both looking good.
OUR 11 FAVORITES(after seven stages)
1. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 28:23min40sec
2. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 0:06
(4. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 0:44)
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 1:03
6. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 1:12
8. Stijn Devolder (BEL), Quick Step at 1:21
11. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1:27
12. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 1:34
13. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:56
14. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 1:58
17. Damiano Cunego (ITA), Lampre at 2:09
28. Riccardo Ricco (ITA), Saunier Duval at 3:52