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Tour de France

One week in to the 2008 Tour de France — a status report

After seven stages, the 2008 Tour de France is one-third over and starting to take shape, even with the Monday’s first high-mountain stage looming in the distance. Four of the first week’s six road stages have seen separation on the day’s final climb, with the race’s GC contenders coming to the fore to show their cards and limit their losses. And in an unusual twist, the race has seen only one field sprint, won by Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, and its first solo breakaway victory, won Friday by Caisse d’Epargne’s Luis-Leon Sanchez.

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By Neal Rogers

After seven stages, the 2008 Tour de France is one-third over and starting to take shape, even with the Monday’s first high-mountain stage looming in the distance.

Four of the first week’s six road stages have seen separation on the day’s final climb, with the race’s GC contenders coming to the fore to show their cards and limit their losses.

And in an unusual twist, the race has seen only one field sprint, won by Columbia’s Mark Cavendish, and its first solo breakaway victory, won Friday by Caisse d’Epargne’s Luis-Leon Sanchez.

It’s been a fantastic week for American teams Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle. Columbia has taken a stage win, with Cavendish, and the race lead with Kim Kirchen, who has placed in the top five in five of the seven stages.

Garmin saw American Will Frischkorn miss the stage 3 win by a wheel’s width, while compatriot Christian Vande Velde currently sits fourth overall, 44 seconds behind Kirchen. Garmin also held the top spot in the team classification for three days before relinquishing it to CSC-Saxo Bank Friday.

And though Silence-Lotto’s Cadel Evans is perhaps best poised of the race’s pre-race favorites, three squads — Caisse d’Epargne, Columbia and CSC-Saxo Bank — have revealed themselves to be the strongest teams in the race.

Caisse d’Epargne has won two stages, in stage 1 winner Valverde, who wore the yellow jersey for two stages, and Friday’s winner Luis-Leon Sanchez. The team showed its strength when it took control of the race Thursday into Super-Besse with a punishing tempo that shred the peloton. In the end, however, the effort came up short as Valverde just missed the stage win to Riccardo Ricco’s perfectly timed attack.

Columbia has held the green, white and yellow jerseys and successfully defended yellow Friday, although not with out a price. Kirchen was forced to chase down several moves Friday, as his Columbia team was whittled down after chasing down several dangerous breakaway attempts. In the end, Kirchen was left with alone after his teammates Konstantin Sivtsov and Thomas Lovkvist were dropped from the lead group of 22 riders.

Team CSC-Saxo Bank, the top squad on the team classification, showed its strength by taking charge of the peloton Friday and splitting the peloton, looking to blow the race apart and isolate Kirchen. The move worked, trimming the lead group down to 25 riders, but not quite as the team had hoped. With Caisse d’Epargne hesitant to contribute to the pace making, the furiously chasing groups caught the leaders at the base of Entremont.

Meanwhile Evans’ Silence-Lotto team has done well to protect its leader without the added stresses that come with vying for stage wins or protecting the race lead — unlike Caisse d’Epargne’s efforts Thursday, and the combined efforts of Colombia and CSC on Friday.

“Caisse d’Epargne certainly took the initiative [Thursday], but I think it might have cost them a bit in the end,” Evans told VeloNews. “They left Valverde a bit exposed there in the final. If they had one more guy, maybe they would have had another stage win. But when they ride for him, they ride well.”

Asked if his rivals’ team efforts could cost them in the weeks to come, Evans smiled. “Maybe,” he said, “but someone’s got to defend the jersey.”

Asked to rate the top three teams’ performances through the first week, CSC’s Jens Voigt told VeloNews, “Columbia really had to work hard [Friday]. They had to dig deep to get it going. Some of the breakaways I covered I had the yellow jersey of Kim Kirchen chasing me down personally. If the yellow jersey is chasing, that means the team is really suffering, and is really blown apart. But as far as I am concerned, I think Caisse d’Epargne is the strongest team here — closely followed by us. But they looked damn impressive. But you know, if you light up a candle at both ends, it might burn up quite quickly. So we’ll hope for that.”

Friday’s stage saw several riders exit the race, including 2007 French national champion Christophe Moreau (Agritubel), who was dropped by the peloton’s pace on Friday’s fast ascent of the category 2 Entremont, and VeloNewsTV diarist Magnus Backstedt (Garmin-Chipotle), who missed the time cut of 4 hours, 20 minutes and 50 seconds by just under five minutes.

“It was a hard day and Maggy gave a good effort, he just couldn’t quite get to the line in time,” Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters said. “He’ll be racing again at the Tour of Denmark.”

Three of the top-five men on general classification — Valverde, Schumacher and Kirchen — have worn the yellow jersey in the race’s first week. And while Kirchen holds the race lead, several contenders have lost significant amounts of time, including Valverde, Damiano Cunego, Denis Menchov and Andy Schleck.

Valverde lost 1:16 to Kirchen on the stage 4 time trial, and then crashed hard on stage 5 before rebounding to try for a second win at Super-Besse. Cunego also lost a minute to the favorites in the time trial, and then hit the deck Friday and fell back into a chase group when the peloton split. The 2004 Giro d’Italia champ regained contact with the front group before he was dropped on the category 3 climb up Saint-Jean-De-Donne, losing 27 seconds to the GC leaders.

Menchov’s dream of taking yellow suffered a serious blow on stage 3, when he missed a critical split and lost 38 seconds to his GC rivals. Schleck lost one minute to the GC favorites in Tuesday’s stage 4 time trial and another 45 seconds Thursday when he dropped a chain in the crash that saw Schumacher’s yellow jersey touch the ground.

Crashes have also claimed Barloworld’s Mauricio Soler, last year’s King of the Mountains, and Francaise Des Jeux’s Lilian Jegou, who hit a tree Friday and was sent to the hospital with a broken wrist and head injuries.

And those hoping for a scandal-free Tour were disappointed to learn that Spain’s Manuel Beltran, who rides for ?Liquigas, tested positive for blood booster ?erythropoietin (EPO). A report on L’Equipe’s Web site said Beltran failed the test at the first stage of the race last ?Saturday in Brest. It’s possible that by Saturday morning, Liquigas might be packing its bags, taking stage hunters Filippo Pozzato and Vincenzo Nibali.

The biggest loser still in the race would have to be Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher, who saw his time in yellow cut short on Thursday’s final climb up Super-Besse when he touched wheels with Krichen and hit the deck.

Schumacher told VeloNews Friday morning that he didn’t expect to retake the jersey, and was resigned to aim for stage wins. However his actions — a late-race attack Friday marked by Caisse d’Epargne’s Oscar Periero — spoke louder than his words.

“I tried, it didn’t work,” Schumacher said following the stage. “I’ll try again.”

If the first week has been any indication, Schumacher won’t be alone.