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Tour de France

Hail Columbia

While the spectacular battle for stage 6 unfolded on the erratic climb to Super-Besse on Thursday, I was standing at the finish line next to Bob Stapleton, the owner-manager of Team Columbia. As we watched, we speculated whether his team leader Kim Kirchen could make up the 12 seconds by which he trailed Stefan Schumacher and take the yellow jersey. Right then, as Kirchen and the other race contenders were about to start their sprint for the line, Schumacher fell off his bike.

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Team Columbia boss Stapleton: ‘I’m just pinching myself’

By John Wilcockson

Kirchen gets the jersey. His boss says the team will work to protect the <I>maillot jaune</I>.

Kirchen gets the jersey. His boss says the team will work to protect the maillot jaune.

Photo: Graham Watson

While the spectacular battle for stage 6 unfolded on the erratic climb to Super-Besse on Thursday, I was standing at the finish line next to Bob Stapleton, the owner-manager of Team Columbia. As we watched, we speculated whether his team leader Kim Kirchen could make up the 12 seconds by which he trailed Stefan Schumacher and take the yellow jersey. Right then, as Kirchen and the other race contenders were about to start their sprint for the line, Schumacher fell off his bike.

“He seemed to hit his teammate,” said Stapleton, before wondering whether Schumacher would be given the same stage time as the group he was with before the accident. But did the 3km “safety zone” apply to summit finishes? Whatever the verdict, Team Columbia had already had another successful day, with Kirchen winning back the green jersey from sprinter Thor Hushovd (who would finish in the 53-strong back group, 17:46 back), and Thomas Lövkvist, the talented Swedish all-arounder, retaining the white jersey of best young rider.

After Schumacher crossed the line near the end of the line of 30 riders that streamed through the finish within half a minute of stage winner Riccardo Riccò, the grim-faced German was pursued by reporters on his way to the Gerolsteiner team bus. “It’s like a bad movie for me,” Schumacher said after being told he had lost the jersey to Kirchen — whom he claimed caused him to fall. In any case, the unhappy Schumacher rode back to the podium area, heard the bad news himself, before returning to his bus.

As he left, the Tour anthem heralded the presentations. First came Saunier Duval’s Riccò, thrilled to have won his first Tour stage in the style of his late hero, Marco Pantani. Next up was Kirchen, the first Luxembourger to pull on the yellow jersey since countryman Charly Gaul exactly 50 years ago.

Both Kirchen and Riccò then worked the rope line of TV and radio reporters before heading to the media interview bus. Riccò, who bears a remarkable likeness to Tyler Hamilton, calmly answered the press’s questions, saying he would love to win some more mountain stages. The little Italian climber/sprinter also said he was not thinking about the GC.

Kirchen was just as talkative, switching between his perfect English and a more hesitant French. When we told him Schumacher was blaming him for the crash, Kirchen replied, “I’m surprised to hear that because I hadn’t seen him for the last 2 Ks. Actually, I tried to move up on the right side, and everybody moves to the right side, so the guy in front of me has to brake … so I brake too, and I couldn’t do much then for the victory. That was it.”

On one level, the phlegmatic Kirchen was clearly sad he didn’t get a chance to challenge Riccò for the stage win — especially after his close (but no cigar) second places on stages 1, 2 and 4. Kirchen’s regret was made up for by the smiles of his proud boss, who was standing outside the interview bus.

“I’m just pinching myself,” Stapleton said, continuing our conversation. “We were there together, and I didn’t think [Kim] had [the overall lead]. But I guess there’s no safety zone on an uphill finish. The good news is, we’ve been close enough every day that when Lady Luck shined on us Kim was there to take advantage of it.”

We then asked him if the Columbia team was going to defend the jersey. “It’s too big a prize to ignore,” he said. “I think we really have to look at what we can do now, what’s realistically possible and just bury ourselves to put on the best race we can.

“Can we budget the energy intelligently to take this as far as we can take it? That’s difficult. We’ve already done a lot this week [including Mark Cavendish’s stage win on Wednesday]. We’ve probably got guys that are a little bit tired, and need a good recovery. But, you know, the other [teams] have to take it from us, so I think we’re gonna try and make that difficult.”

While Team Columbia is thrilled to be holding the yellow, green and white jerseys, Stapleton was right in saying the maillot jaune is too big to ignore. But as the daily update shows below, our top GC picks are inexorably moving up the standings, while the time gaps are starting to grow.

Don’t expect any of the 11 favorites to make rash moves on Friday’s stage 7, a shorter and hillier stage that’s likely to see a successful breakaway group make it to the finish in Aurillac — where we might even get the first solo stage winner of this opening week. The most likely riders to spring a surprise, judging by their performances yesterday, are two little-known Spanish riders: Barloworld’s Moises Duenas and Agritubel’s Eduardo Gonzalo.

OUR 11 FAVORITES (after six stages)
1. Kim Kirchen (Lux), Team Columbia 24:30:41
2. Cadel Evans (Aus), Silence-Lotto at 0:06
7. Denis Menchov (Rus), Rabobank at 1:03
8. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), Caisse d’Epargne at 1:12
9. Stijn Devolder (B), Quick Step at 1:21
11. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 1:27
12. Carlos Sastre (Sp), CSC at 1:34
14. Damiano Cunego (I), Lampre at 1:42
17. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC at 1:56
18. Andy Schleck (Lux), CSC at 1:58
31. Riccardo Ricco (ITA), Saunier Duval at 3:52