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Tour de France

Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: The workers

10 team workers who make a difference at the Tour

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Their leaders grab the headlines but these men make it possible

2011 Tour de France, stage 6 peloton. Photo: Graham Watson
2011 Tour de France, stage 6 peloton. Photo: Graham Watson

If a layman looked at the result of Thursday’s Tour de France stage from Dinan to Lisieux he would think that these guys didn’t have a very good day: 79th Ivan Gutierrez at 48 seconds; 98th Daniel Oss at 1:34; 106th Ben Swift at 1:44; 120th Fabian Cancellara at 2:23; 125th Michael Schär at 2:23; 128th Dani Navarro at 2:23; 132nd Juan Garate at 2:23; 160th Bernie Eisel at 3:15; 169th Dave Zabriskie at 5:27; and 184th André Greipel at 12:26.

But, no, they all did a great job for their teams on Thursday, as they are doing on every day of this Tour. Let’s take a look at the 10 riders’ performances on what was the longest (and wettest) stage of this year’s Tour at 126.5km (140.7 miles).

Ivan Gutierrez is a 32-year-old Spaniard from Hinojedo in Cantabria who has been on the same team for 10 years, now sponsored by Movistar. He’s been his country’s national champion in both road racing and time trialing and he regularly takes a couple of wins a season. His job at this Tour is to ride for Movistar’s top sprinter, the current Spanish champ José Rojas, who is shooting for the green jersey. That’s what Gutierrez was doing Thursday, especially in the final hour of the stage, keeping Rojas close to the front of a nervous peloton.

RESULT: Rojas was fifth on the stage after taking seventh at the intermediate sprint to move up to one point behind green jersey leader Phil Gilbert.

Daniel Oss is a 24-year-old Italian from Trento in the Dolomites region who’s riding his second Tour de France with the Liquigas-Cannondale squad. His job is to work for team leader Ivan Basso, especially on the flatter stages. On Thursday, he was prominent in keeping Basso right at the front of the pack in the closing 20km up to the steep climb in Lisieux.

RESULT: Basso was the only Liquigas rider to finish in the front group of 62 riders, crossing the line in fifth place to take 20th place on GC, 1:03 behind race leader Thor Hushovd.

Ben Swift is a 23-year-old British rider from Rotherham in northern England, competing in his first Tour with Team Sky. A top sprinter with five wins this year, his job at the Tour is to ride hard for the team and be one of the lead-out men for Edvald Boasson Hagen. On Thursday, he was a key ingredient in Boasson Hagen’s stage win by leading teammate Geraint Thomas (who had the Norwegian on his wheel) into the final climb. “Swifty sacrificed himself for me to get round the last corner and up the first part of the climb,” Thomas said. (Ben Delaney grabbed an interesting post race video interview with Swift, that is posted as part of the stage 6 race report.)

RESULT: Boasson Hagen won the stage after a long, strong lead-out from Thomas.

2011 Tour de France, stage 6: Zabriskie
Garmin-Cervelo's Dave Zabriskie sets tempo in the main field Thursday. Photo: Graham Watson

Fabian Cancellara is a 30-year-old Swiss from the village of Wohlen near Bern who’s a big star on the Leopard-Trek team. He is the four-time world time trial champion, has won seven Tour stages and worn the yellow jersey at four different Tours. Cancellara has given up his stage-winning ambitions in this opening week to ride tempo at the head of the peloton and protect his team leaders, the Schleck brothers. On Thursday, after being at the front of the peloton all day on what he called “a nasty stage,” Andy Schleck said: “Thanks to the team, they look after me like I never experienced before.”

RESULT: The Schlecks both finished in the front group of 62 riders with Fränk staying in third overall and Andy 10th.

Michael Schär is a 25-year-old Swiss from the village of Geuensee near Lucerne in his second year with BMC Racing and riding his first Tour de France. One of the tallest riders in the peloton at 6-feet-5, Schär is a great windbreak for team leader Cadel Evans on these flat stages. He spent a long time shielding Evans from the wind on Thursday before dropping back on the last hill, his job done.

RESULT: Evans was prominent on the final climb, taking 12th at the line and maintaining second place overall, one second behind Hushovd.

Dani Navarro is a Spanish climber from Gijon on the Asturian coast who celebrates his 28th birthday on Friday. He rides for the Saxo Bank-SunGard team and was the most valuable teammate for his compatriot Alberto Contador in his 2010 Tour victory. Navarro has a bike the same size as Contador’s and on Thursday he gave up his machine to his team leader when the rain caused Contador’s pedal to stick when climbing a hill in the final hour.

RESULT: Contador was the only Saxo Bank rider to finish in the front group and stay 1:42 behind Hushovd on GC in 34th place.

Virtual GC after stage 5

GC positions of the top-20 favorites

1. Cadel Evans 976km in 22:50:35
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andreas Klöden at 0:09
4. Brad Wiggins s.t.
5. Andy Schleck at 0:11
6. Tony Martin at 0:12
7. Peter Velits s.t.
8. Chris Horner at 0:17
9. Robert Gesink at 0:19
10. Alexander Vinokourov at 0:31
11. Jorgen Van den Broeck at 0:38
12. Ivan Basso at 1:02
13. Nicolas Roche at 1:11
14. Damiano Cunego s.t.
15. Ryder Hesjedal at 1:21
16. Levi Leipheimer at 1:22
17. Alberto Contador at 1:41
18. Christian Vande Velde at 1:56
19. Roman Kreuziger at 2:28
20. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35

Juan Garate is a 35-year-old Spanish Basque from Irun, not far from the French border, in his third year with Dutch team Rabobank. He’s a former national champion and won the Tour stage atop Mont Ventoux in 2009. Garate started Thursday’s stage with a hairline shoulder fracture after crashing on stage 5, but he was on hand when his team leader Robert Gesink (also injured from a fall) needed help chasing back to the peloton during the long stage to Lisieux.

RESULT: Gesink finished in the front group with two teammates to remain 20 seconds behind Hushovd on GC in 14th place.

Bernie Eisel is a 30-year-old Austrian from Voitsberg a village near Graz in southern Austria. In his fourth season with the HTC-Highroad team, he is one of the lead-out riders for sprinters Mark Cavendish and Matt Goss. On Thursday, Eisel did most of his work in the middle part of the stage, riding at the front to close down a five-man break that had an 11-minute lead at one point. (Be sure to check out our daily pre-race videos with Eisel, Breakfast with Bernie)

RESULT: Goss finished second on the stage.

Dave Zabriskie is a 32-year-old American who lives near Los Angeles and is one of the world’s fastest time trialists. In his fourth year with the Garmin team, he played a major part in Garmin’s team time trial victory on Sunday. He is riding tempo this week to keep teammate Hushovd in the yellow jersey. That’s what he did Thursday, making long, long turns towing the peloton and helping neutralize the various breakaways.

RESULT: Hushovd, who’d targeted this stage as a possible victory, placed third and defended the yellow jersey for the fourth day.

André Greipel is a 28-year-old German from Rostock in northeast Germany who’s riding his first Tour for the Omega Pharma-Lotto team. He is a world-class sprinter with a goal to win a stage, but he has sacrificed that ambition this week to help his teammate Phil Gilbert in his quest for the green jersey. On Thursday, Greipel was again seen taking long turns at the front to prevent breakaways in the finale and help set Gilbert up for a second potential victory.

RESULT: Gilbert was seventh on the stage and maintained the green jersey by one point over Rojas.

All of the 22 teams have workers like these 10 men and they all make similar sacrifices to help create publicity for their sponsors. Crashes and injuries sometimes intervene as they did at Team RadioShack in the past two days.

Because team worker Yaroslav Popovych was badly knocked around on Wednesday, he was excused pacing duties on Thursday. Perhaps this is why there was no one to help The Shack’s Levi Leipheimer chase back to the front group after he crashed 4km from the finish when trying to move up on the right side of the peloton and getting knocked into a crash barrier.

The 65 seconds the American lost there could cost Leipheimer a place on the podium. Avoiding such a situation and keeping their leader out of trouble shows just how important a team worker can be.