Vino's last-second attack pays dividends
By Andrew Hood
Wet roads, tight corners and a nervous peloton are always a recipe for disaster. Add a gang of hard-charging sprinters anxious to reel in a breakaway, and you’ll come up with the crash-derby finish to Thursday’s 199km Tour de France stage 6 from Troyes to Nancy.
It was a veritable otter slide on the rain-soaked final right-hander 700 meters from the finish line as a score of riders slipped, skidded and piled into the metal barriers.
“It was like ice on that corner, there was nothing you could do,” said Fred Rodriguez (Davitamon-Lotto) who ended the day with a nasty scrape on his right knee. “It’s the Tour de France’s fault. They shouldn’t make the finishes so dangerous.”
Christophe Mengin (Française des Jeux), a veteran Frenchman who tore away from the day’s main breakaway with 15km to go, almost pulled off a heroic solo win into his home region, but he was the first to slide on the final turn with a shot at glory still in sight.Results are posted
The chasing Alex Vinokourov (T-Mobile) and Lorenzo Bernucci (Fassa Bortolo) were just seconds from catching Mengin, but Vinokourov was forced to step out of his right pedal to avoid crashing, opening the door for Tour rookie Bernucci to sneak through clean and grab the win, his first-ever win as a professional.
Seconds later, the peloton surged into the corner too hot on the cool, rainy day between the Champagne and Lorraine regions of northeast France.
All the big names went skittering down, including stage favorites Tom Boonen, Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady and Allan Davis, who could only watch as Fassa Bortolo’s Fabian Cancellara screamed ahead to Bernucci on the team radio to go full-gas.Results are posted
“I was in a good position on the last corner, then Mengin crashed. It was a dangerous finish because of the rain,” said Bernucci, 26, who had not won a race in four seasons as a professional. “Then Vinokourov slowed down, so I just passed him and gave it everything I had in the finishing straight.”
Coming through the fractured peloton unscathed was race leader Lance Armstrong, whose Discovery Channel team was warned off the front coming into the final turn.
Vinokourov grabbed seven seconds on the splintered bunch and 12 seconds in time bonuses to claw from seventh to third, now 1:02 back from Armstrong, who retained the yellow jersey without major incident.
“It was a hairy finish with a lot of turns,” said Armstrong, who finished 32nd. “It’s scary on the crosswalks. The last corner there was nearly blocked and so there was nothing you could do. When you’re stopped behind a crash like that you have to just pick your way through and try and get to the finish.”
No luck for George
It was a relaxed atmosphere in Troyes at the start of the stage, so much so that one photographer wondered out loud, “Are we sure the Tour is starting here today?”
Thursday’s stage was the hilliest so far in this year’s Tour, featuring four categorized climbs along the rolling course. The climbs — the Côte de Joinville (at 83.5km), Côte de Brouthières (at 104km), Côte de Montigny (at 141km) and the Côte de Maron (at 185.5km) — were all Category 4s, with the final hump coming 13.5km from the end of the stage.
All remaining 188 riders started, but Claudio Corioni (Fassa Bortolo) would abandon, leaving the Tour two riders lighter since its departure last Saturday. Still, that’s a smaller number compared to six abandons at this point in last year’s Tour.
There was a flurry of attacks early on, with the day’s opening six-man move containing Americans George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) and Bobby Julich (CSC). There’s been lots of talk in the Discovery Channel camp about trying to get Hincapie — 55 seconds behind Armstrong — into a break to have a shot at the jersey.
“Sure, I’d like to have the jersey, but a lot of other guys want it too,” Hincapie said before the stage. “I tried a few times [Wednesday], but every time there was a CSC rider on my wheel.” Marking Hincapie’s move this time was Julich, who sits 1:07 back, and the break was quickly checked.
The day’s main breakaway went clear at 30km, when Mengin and Mauro Gerosa (Liquigas-Bianchi) were joined by Karsten Kroon (Rabobank), Jaan Kirsipuu (Crédit Agricole) and Stéphane Auge (Cofidis).
With Gerosa the best-placed rider in 84th place at 4:22, the break had just the right mix of riders for the big teams to ease up and let them chase some TV time.
Driving it home
This was an experienced break, with three of the five riders being former stage winners. Kirsipuu has won four stages (Challans 1999, Strasbourg 2001, Rouen 2002 and Charleroi 2004). Kroon won on Bastille Day in 2002 at Plouay in Brittany. And Mengin won a stage in the Swiss city of Fribourg in 1997.
The break worked together well as they plowed over the series of rolling hills, marching eastward with the wind toward the finish in Nancy. The gap widened to 4:25 at 56km, putting Gerosa into the virtual jersey.
Discovery Channel was leading the main bunch, but they weren’t getting too worried about the break. The gap widened to 8:30 at the midway point and the sprint teams, led by Quick Step and Davitamon-Lotto, upped the tempo of the chase.
There were scores of punctures and mechanicals in the messy chase, with Chris Horner (Saunier Duval) getting a wheel change near the day’s third climb.
“The legs are feeling good,” Horner said before the stage. “I’m just trying to stay out of trouble until the mountains. Then if I’m feeling good, I’m going to go for it. That’s what I’m here for, to do something.”
With 25km to go, the escapees’ lead was trimmed to 1:50. The 3.2km ascent of the day’s final hurdle, the Cat. 4 Maron, served as a launching pad for Mengin. The Frenchman attacked the break and no one had the legs to follow.
Following over the climb were Kroon and Auge, who ended tied on the mountain points, but Kroon snuck into the jersey, taking it from his Rabobank teammate Erik Dekker because he won two of the day’s climbs ahead of the Frenchman.
Mengin continued to drive the pace down the steep descent into the narrow roads of Nancy, nursing a 20-second lead on the main bunch with 7km to go. His teammates were slowing the pace for him when Italy’s Dario Cioni (Liquigas-Bianchi) made a short-lived charge off the front.
The heavy pressure from the bunch trimmed Mengin’s gap to just 10 seconds with 2km to go, but he was really pouring it on. At 36, this was probably his last chance to win a Tour stage.
Coming into that fateful final corner – when Vinokourov and Bernucci were zeroing in on his wheel – Mengin’s tires slipped from under him on the rain-splattered stripes of white paint on a pedestrian crossing.
Mengin slid hard into the barriers. Seconds later, he became the backstop as another dozen or so riders slid into him. “I feel more like a boxer after a fight than a cyclist,” said Mengin, whose left eye was black and swollen. “I’ve got a bit of a black eye where I think a brake lever or gear shifter hit it. I’ve got a sore hip on my left side.”
Mengin lives only 15km from Nancy and had been hoping his knowledge of the local terrain might help him hold off the chasing peloton. “I know the roads well here. I even know that bend where I crashed,” explained Mengin. “I didn’t have great legs today, but I had the morale to try something. That’s life. You have to give 100 percent when you’ve got the chance.”
Vino’ on the march
As the peloton surged closer and Mengin looked to be at the end of his rope, the group inevitably took a breather to regroup. That’s when the ever-opportunistic Vinokourov shot off the front. “The peloton slowed, that’s when I attacked,” said Vinokourov, a man who clearly prefers to let his legs do the talking than his mouth. “I like to attack. I will keep attacking in this Tour.”
The aggression seemed to be the opening salvo from the 31-year-old Kazakh, who finished third in 2003 but missed last year’s Tour after injuring his shoulder in the Tour of Switzerland.
“It’s a pity I was behind Mengin when he crashed. I had to take my foot out of the pedal, otherwise I would have won the stage,” he said. “I am at least satisfied to have gotten a time bonus.”
Bernucci shot into the lead during Vinokourov’s moment of hesitation to grab his first professional victory. In his wake, the peloton fractured as riders slid into Mengin and braked hard to avoid the carnage. Robert Förster (Gerolsteiner) led the first chase group across the line seven seconds back to take third.
Bernucci, meanwhile, conceded that he won because the cycling gods were smiling down upon him at that moment.
“I was in a good position on the last bend, then Mengin crashed. It was a dangerous bend because of the rain. Then Vinokourov ended up slowing down, so I just passed him and gave it everything I had in the home straight.”
Groups trickled in across the line, but all were given the same time after the crash came inside the 3km marker. Only Bernucci’s and Vinokourov’s gaps stood as they had attacked before the crash.
Armstrong seemed unworried about Vinokourov’s attack, perhaps because it looked as though the sprinter teams had the move under control before the crash. He said that the Discovery riders knew the corner was nasty, so they moved further back in the bunch to avoid any troubles.
The Tour pushes into Germany for Friday’s seventh stage from Lunéville to Karlsruhe. Expect one of the 16 Germans starting the Tour to come alive, especially if reports are true that a million fans will be waiting for them.
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