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By John Wilcockson
This Tour de France couldn’t be going any better for Cadel Evans. In four days of racing he and his Silence-Lotto team have ridden conservatively, largely out of the spotlight — just like the modest Aussie wants it. He showed his form was coming along nicely on opening day, losing by just one second to the explosive Alejandro Valverde on the uphill finish at Plumelec. On stages 2 and 3, his team kept him near the front of the peloton all day, well away from the crashes that were all too common. And in Tuesday’s time trial, while placing only fourth, he gained a lot of time on his chief rivals: 59 seconds on Italian climber Damiano Cunego; just over a minute on Andy Schleck, Samuel Sanchez and Valverde; 1:16 on Carlos Sastre, 1:47 on Fränk Schleck, and more than three minutes on Riccardo Riccò.
Now, Evans can look ahead to another four days of below-the-radar racing before the Tour reaches his favorite terrain, the long climbs of the Pyrenees. Winning the Tour is as much about getting good recovery time as racing well, and the Aussie has been scoring points in both these areas.
While yellow jersey Valverde was “wasting” an hour after stages 1 and 2 dealing with media and anti-doping obligations, Evans departed straight to his hotel. Being a champion “relaxer” will pay big dividends later in the Tour, particularly when the race starts hitting back-to-back days in the high mountains.
Some critics are saying that time-trial specialist Evans failed to meet his goals Tuesday; he didn’t deliver a knock-out blow like a Lance Armstrong, Miguel Induráin or Bernard Hinault. But riding a well-balanced time trial at Cholet, and not taking the yellow jersey, was the smart way to go. For the next week, his teammates can continue to conserve their energy, protecting Evans from the wind, while keeping his closest rivals under control.
For the moment, stage 4 winner Stefan Schumacher has the maillot jaune — which is perfect for his Gerolsteiner team that wants to defend the lead as long as possible while it is seeking a new title sponsor for next year. That arrangement is also perfect for Evans. He trails Schumacher by only 21 seconds, a time gap that he’ll be happy to see remain through the coming stages.
The situation is also good for Team Columbia’s Kim Kirchen, one of the outsiders to challenge Evans for the overall title. Kirchen rode his best-ever TT Tuesday to take second place to Schumacher. The Luxembourger has had a phenomenal opening to this, his fourth Tour de France: Kirchen looked like the stage 1 winner until Valverde made his astonishing acceleration in the final 100 meters of the hilltop finish at Plumelec; he came from 20 places back in the stage 2 sprint to nearly catch sprinter Thor Hushovd; and he did well enough in the stage 3 field sprint to retain the green jersey.
Should his Columbia team want to get the yellow, directeur sportif Ralf Aldag has three cards to play: Kirchen (12 seconds behind Schumacher), George Hincapie (41 seconds back) and Thomas Lövkvist (at 47 seconds). The smart thing to do would be to place Hincapie or Lövkvist into a break on one of the hilly stages through the Massif Central on Thursday or Friday, to make Gerolsteiner chase, while leaving Kirchen to recover his strength before the Pyrenees.
Knowing that the high mountains are coming at the end of this week, Garmin-Chipotle boss Jonathan Vaughters also will want to shoot for the yellow jersey with his well-placed leaders, David Millar (level on time with Kirchen) and Christian Vande Velde (sixth at 37 seconds). Claiming the lead at the Tour — two months after Vande Velde did the same the Giro d’Italia — would be a tremendous coup for the young American team, and a huge reward for Garmin on stepping up as title sponsor.
So, with Garmin, Columbia and Gerolsteiner all vying for the yellow jersey in the next five days, Evans can look forward to a continuing smooth passage towards his next major, major challenge: the mountaintop finish at Hautacam next Monday.
In the meantime, Wednesday’s 232km stage 5 from Cholet to Chateauroux looks guaranteed to end in a true field sprint. There hasn’t been one yet, so expect to see all the sprinters’ teams at the head of the peloton on this rolling “with the wind” stage that is not only the longest of the Tour but also likely to be the fastest. Judging by Monday’s sprint for fifth place behind the four breakaways, the men most likely to take the spoils in Châteauroux are Silence-Lotto’s Robbie McEwen, Milram’s Erik Zabel and Rabobank’s Oscar Freire; but if the stage victory is in play, Columbia’s Mark Cavendish just might prove he is the fastest of the fastest, as he likes to tell us.
The final 5km of the stage along wide boulevards with very few changes of directions are ideal for an all-out drag race. And with the wind at their tails, Cavendish, McEwen and company are sure to put on a spectacular display. It may not have any effect on the overall standings, but a gold-star sprint is needed as much by this exciting, surprising Tour as the enthralling finishes we’ve witnessed so far.