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Tour de France

Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson

The French fans finally saw a real sprint finish Wednesday — resulting in a superbly confident first Tour stage win for Team Columbia’s young Manxman Mark Cavendish — but his well-placed GC teammates, along with the other race favorites, are already looking ahead to the next three stages through the low mountains of the Massif Central. Besides heading into the hills Thursday, the riders will be racing into summer temperatures as the Tour now heads south before arriving in the Pyrenees on Sunday.

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By John Wilcockson

Casey Gibson Gallery, stage 5: Mark Cavendish celebrates while the lead out boys do the same.

Casey Gibson Gallery, stage 5: Mark Cavendish celebrates while the lead out boys do the same.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

The French fans finally saw a real sprint finish Wednesday — resulting in a superbly confident first Tour stage win for Team Columbia’s young Manxman Mark Cavendish — but his well-placed GC teammates, along with the other race favorites, are already looking ahead to the next three stages through the low mountains of the Massif Central. Besides heading into the hills Thursday, the riders will be racing into summer temperatures as the Tour now heads south before arriving in the Pyrenees on Sunday.

Thursday’s stage 6 is the hilliest one to date, and ends with a the first two Cat. 2 climbs of the week. Neither the Col de la Croix-Morand nor the ascent to the finish at the Super-Besse ski station are long enough to create major time gaps, but the climbs are challenging enough to further filter out the list of favorites.

Rather than a battle for the final yellow jersey, Thursday’s stage is more likely to see a fight for the current race lead. Team Columbia has three riders (Kim Kirchen, George Hincapie and Thomas Lövkvist) within 47 seconds of Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher, while Garmin-Chipotle has two men (David Millar and Christian Vande Velde) within 37 seconds of the current maillot jaune.

When we asked Vande Velde after the finish in Châteauroux whether he or Millar would try to get the yellow jersey on Thursday, he said, “If there’s a chance for the yellow jersey I guess tomorrow would be the best chance, wouldn’t it? Dave’s got a great chance, I’ve got a good chance, there’s a lot of guys that have got a good chance. It’ll be up for grabs tomorrow. I think [the finish] will be more for the guys who are first and second place, and third for that matter with Dave. But it’ll be hard to dethrone Schumacher, that’s for sure.”

After we repeated that he and Millar should try to get in attacks before the final climb, the American rider smiled and said, “We should do something. We should.”

As for Hincapie or one of his Columbia teammates shooting for yellow on stage 6, Big George said coyly, “We’ll see. If it’d be someone it would probably be Kim [Kirchen] that could do it. But we’ll take it day by day. Right now, we’re gonna celebrate this one [taken by Cavendish].”

Hincapie’s Australian directeur sportif Allan Peiper was more explicit when asked which of his riders would go with the breaks over the next few days, he said, “We’ve got a couple of good helpers in [Markus] Burghardt, [Kanstantsin] Sivtsov and [Adam] Hansen — don’t underestimate Adam Hansen tomorrow and in the Massif Central on Friday. He’s a big strong kid who could also go for a stage win. So we’ve got some guns there before we have to use Thomas Lövkvist … and George Hincapie knows the score. There’ll be no problem with George going in a break; we’ve seen him win a mountain stage in the Tour de France, so there’s a lot of guys we can still use.”

As for Hincapie or Lövkvist making up the 40 or so seconds that separate them from the jersey, Peiper said, “The other teams are not going to let it get to that point.” He then revealed that he had heard that his fellow Aussie, Cadel Evans, was planning something for the finish at Super-Besse. If that’s the case, then the fourth-placed Evans might well overtake Millar and Kirchen, or even challenge Schumacher for first place. Evans was hush-hush when asked whether he was planning to attack.

Should the race leaders still be together when they reach the climb, Evans may well be the fastest finisher. After climbing for 7km at 6 percent through the town of Besse, the course heads downhill for 2km before the final 1.5km, 10-percent kicker to the finish line. Other riders hoping to show their climbing skills at Super-Besse include Riccardo Riccò or Damiano Cunego, and probably one of the Schleck brothers.

With Mauricio Soler dropping out Wednesday after another fall, these are the GC position (and relative time gaps) of our 11 tips before Super-Besse. These margins will certainly widen on Thursday, and maybe one or two of them will fall further back.

OUR 11 FAVORITES (after five stages)
2. K. Kirchen, 14:04:53
4. C. Evans, at 0:09
11. D. Menchov, at 1:00
13. S. Devolder, at 1:06
16. D. Cunego, at 1:14
17. A. Valverde, at 1:15
18. A. Schleck, at 1:17
19. S. Sanchez, at 1:19
23. C. Sastre, at 1:31
28. F. Schleck, at 1:56
59. R. Riccò, at 3:56

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