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Cancellara tightens grip on jersey— but for how long?

With his impressive stage win in Compiègne and its accompanying 20-second time bonus, CSC’s Fabian Cancellara widened his gap over the rest of the field to margins that might well hold until the race’s first real tests later this week. The Swiss “time machine” now holds a 33-second lead over Astana’s Andreas Klöden, with Saunier Duval’s David Millar sitting third, 41 seconds back. But the more important number is Cancellara’s lead over the race’s top sprinters, who stand to gain time bonuses at intermediate and finishing sprints in the coming days.

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By Neal Rogers

With his impressive stage win in Compiègne and its accompanying 20-second time bonus, CSC’s Fabian Cancellara widened his gap over the rest of the field to margins that might well hold until the race’s first real tests later this week.

The Swiss “time machine” now holds a 33-second lead over Astana’s Andreas Klöden, with Saunier Duval’s David Millar sitting third, 41 seconds back. But the more important number is Cancellara’s lead over the race’s top sprinters, who stand to gain time bonuses at intermediate and finishing sprints in the coming days.

Leading up the Tour’s fastest finishers is Thor Hushovd, who sits 49 seconds down. However Crédit Agricole’s Norwegian was caught up in Monday’s nasty pileup into Ghent, landing hard on his hip, and could only manage a 12th place finish in Compiègne.

Milram’s Erik Zabel, the rider who admitted to causing Monday’s pileup, finished second behind Cancellara in Compiègne and now sits 58 seconds down, while top sprinters Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic) and Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) are over a minute behind the mailliot jaune.

With no immediate end in sight for Cancellara’s run in yellow until Saturday’s stage 7 finish at Le Grand Bornand as the race enters the Alps, the world time-trial champ’s fourth day in the race lead begs the question — how long will CSC work to defend the race lead while simultaneously burning matches intended to be used later in the race for their GC contender Carlos Sastre?

Posing the question to Cancellara, at the obligatory post-race press conference, and to his teammate Stuart O’Grady, outside a celebratory CSC team bus, fielded two somewhat differing answers.

“We want to keep it as long as possible,” said Cancellara, who took his biggest career win when he won Paris-Roubaix in April 2006. “The Tour de France is a big cake, it’s 21 days long. Team CSC is going to respect and defend this jersey. I think it’s up to the other teams to have something from this cake. We will work, we will do our best, we go with respect in the race, and it’s on the finish that the other ones don’t win. It’s not up to me; it’s up to them. This is the Tour de France, and everyone wants to win. It’s possible that tomorrow is another day that we’ll have a sprint, and it’s up to the sprinters, it’s one more day to try.”

Meanwhile O’Grady offered up a slightly different analysis, saying, “We’re going to let [the yellow jersey] go pretty soon, it’s just going to depend a lot on other teams. The sprinters’ teams are almost fighting each other because they don’t want to do all the work, and they are waiting for each other to put a rider up there. It’s not going to be us who designates who is going to be the next wearer of the yellow jersey, it’s going to be up to the sprinters’ teams.”

With a handful of category 4 climbs marking Wednesday’s otherwise flat 193km stage from Villers Cotterets to Joigny, CSC should have little problem defending the race lead for another day, particularly after the relatively light workload the team carried Tuesday.

The following day, however, could see the yellow jersey change hands. Stage 5, 182.5km from Chablis to Autun, features eight categorized climbs, including the category 2 Haut-Folin 47km from the finish, and the category 3 Cote de la Croix de la Liberation just 4.5km from the line. It’s a stage well suited for a breakaway, and with three intermediate sprints also up for grabs, it could well be the day Cancellara concedes the race lead for the sake of his team leader.

Should CSC keep the jersey after stage 5, Cancellara would likely hold it on the flat 189km stage 6 from Semur en Auxois to Bourg en Bresse that dishes up only pair of category 4 climbs and three intermediate sprints. Either way, Cancellara won’t likely be wearing the jersey come Saturday night — however by then, he might well have spent a week in cycling’s most coveted tunic.