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By Andrew Hood
Team CSC’s Jakob Piil won Tuesday’s hot and steamy stage 10 from Gap to Marseille as the Tour de France left the Alps behind and headed toward the Mediterranean Sea. Once more, Lance Armstrong retained his hold on the yellow jersey, this time staying on dry pavement a day after his already famous “short-cut” on Monday’s stage to Gap.
It was stinking hot again Tuesday in what’s been one of the hottest Tours in recent memory. It was too hot for a sick Stefano Garzelli (Vini Caldirola), the 2003 Giro d’Italia runner-up, who didn’t take the start, leaving 171 riders in the 90th Tour as the race hit its halfway mark.
“It’s the hottest Tour we can remember,” race leader Armstrong said. “We’ve had hot days before, but never so many in a row. You have to focus on hydrating, before the stage, after the stage. We really try to super-hydrate before the stage because it’s hard to drink enough during the race.”
The long, rolling stage coming after three hard days in the Alps was ideal hunting ground for a breakaway. It didn’t take long for the action to heat up, but fdjeux.com wanted to keep a lid on things before coming into the day’s first of two points sprints at 10km.
The race for the green points jersey is going to be one of the Tour’s main story lines with Aussies Baden Cooke of fdjeux.com and defending champion Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Domo looking to knock heads all the way to Paris. McEwen shot ahead to claim 6 points at that first sprint, but Cooke took second and at the end of the day took an exciting field sprint for 10th ahead of McEwen and Erik Zabel, to retain his hold on the green jersey.
Nine men in the hunt
The day’s major move came when nine riders shot off the front just after the 10km sprint. Joining CSC’s Piil were Vicente Garcia Acosta (iBanesto.com), Bram De Groot (Rabobank), Fabio Sacchi (Saeco), Philippe Gaumont (Cofidis), José Enrique Gonzalez (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Serge Baguet (Lotto-Domo), Damian Nazon (La Boulangère) and René Hasselbacher (Gerolsteiner).
Gonzalez was the best-placed rider in 61st at 47:04, so Armstrong’s U.S. Postal squad was content to let the break ride away. The nine riders sped along, building a comfortable 14-minute lead by the day’s feed zone and widened the lead to 17 minutes at the day’s first climb, the Cat. 4 Côte de Villedieu at 99km.
Back in the pack, Euskaltel’s Alberto Lopez de Munain crashed into a 15-year-old boy 100km into the stage. Neither the Spanish rider nor the boy were seriously injured.
Angry French protesters stopped the peloton at the 147.5km mark and forced the riders to a standstill for nearly two minutes. The UCI jury ruled it as an “incident of the race” and the peloton carried on more than 24 minutes behind the leaders.
Kelme’s Gonzalez tried his luck over the day’s last climb, the Cat. 4 Côte du Jalliet at 170km and attacked again to hold a 45-second lead with 28km to go. The other riders worked together to bring him back with 17km remaining. Sacchi immediately counterattacked, and Piil chased after him as the race headed into a big loop around the highways and streets of white-hot Marseille.
Piil and the rest of the group caught Sacchi and the Dane soon counterattacked, but Sacchi soon rejoined him with 15km to go and they sped away working hard to ensure that only they would contest the stage win. The pair shook hands as they entered the wide, downhill 2km-long finishing straightaway in a gesture of good sportsmanship. Piil was the first to wind up the sprint, then Sacchi went, but Piil came back hard to grab a clear victory.
The former Danish champion has come close to stage wins at the past two Tours. In 2001, he finished second to Serge Baguet on stage 18, and last year in stage 17 his foot slipped out of pedal during a three-man sprint that Norwegian Thor Hushovd won.
“It’s a nice feeling. I’ve tried the last two years. I had some bad luck, so I’m very happy now,” Piil said. “The last couple of years I’ve learned a lot from being part of breaks and I had the opportunity today. I didn’t want to miss it.”
Cooke led the main bunch home 21:23 back.
Favorites catch their breath
Armstrong rolled out of the Alps with his thinnest lead since his first Tour victory in 1999. Both individual time trials still lie ahead, but Armstrong was unable to put the hurt on his rivals in three hard days in the Alps.
“Everything is open in the Tour. It’s never happened like this before that after the Alps everybody is so close together,” said U.S. Postal’s assistant director Dirk Demol. “In the mountains Lance couldn’t make the difference like he has in the past.”
Demol said the team is not panicking because he said they realize that the Tour’s toughest stages are still looming in the Pyrenees. “We know the hardest part is yet to come. There are still two time trials and four stages in the Pyrenees,” Demol said. “To make a big difference in the mountain stages you need to have a great day. On Sunday, Lance was good, not great. He lost two minutes to Mayo, but he kept Hamilton and Beloki under control. If he was bad he could have lost 5-6 minutes. In every Tour, he’s always had one super day in the mountains. Let’s hope it can happen in the Pyrenees.”
Joseba Beloki’s painful departure from the Tour left a big gap in the fight for the final podium. Beloki had finished on three consecutive Tour podiums (third in 2000 and 2001; second in 2002). He flew home to Spain on Tuesday where he will undergo surgery in his hometown of Vitoria.
Alex Vinokourov (Telekom) moved into second following his victory Monday and the time bonus that came with it. Jan Ullrich (Bianchi) has been quietly riding through the first half of the Tour and sits in sixth place, 2:10 back. While he wasn’t great on L’Alpe d’Huez, Ullrich said he was happy with his ride because he came down with a stomach bug going in to the Alps.
“I am still standing among the favorites and that’s good because I had a very high fever after the team time trial,” Ullrich told German reporters. “I am recovered and I am looking forward to the time trial and then the Pyrenees. Everyone knows that’s where the Tour will be decided.”
Team CSC’s Tyler Hamilton said he’s still suffering with pain from injuries caused in his crash in stage 1, when he fractured his right collarbone. Hamilton said Tuesday’s stage was difficult because although the swelling has gone down in his shoulder and back, pain continues to hinder him.
“I feel like there’s a knife in my back,” Hamilton said. “My shoulder is a little sore today. Now throughout my body, collarbone included, the swelling is pretty much gone, but when the swelling is gone, the pain is a little more. I lucked out because today was a pretty easy stage. Had it been yesterday, I might have been in a little trouble.”
Hamilton said he satisfied he made it through the Alps in good position, but insisted he’s still not thinking of the finish in Paris. “I’m still taking it one day at a time. I still don’t feel 100 percent. I know the Pyrenees are going to be hard,” Hamilton said. “It’s a nice feeling. Three difficult stages, especially under my circumstances they were that much harder. I’m pleased to have them over and I’m looking forward to a rest day, and here come the Pyrenees.”
The Tour’s 171 remaining racers enjoy the first of two rest days on Wednesday. With the decisive part of the Tour looming, they’d better enjoy it.
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