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Continental Drift, with Andrew Hood: Dave Z’s yellow run could last a while

Dave Zabriskie didn’t quite know what to make of all the fuss. Sure, he became just the third American to wear the yellow jersey in Tour de France history and he beat six-time Tour champ Lance Armstrong to do it, but after all, it’s just a bike race. “I got a massage, had dinner, read a little, then went to sleep,” was how Zabriskie described his first evening in yellow. “Yeah, we had a little champagne.” Sunday morning, Zabriskie got the full yellow-jersey treatment, with dozens of photographers and reporters waiting outside the team bus. Team CSC riders huddled inside the bus for

By Andrew Hood

Dave Zabriskie didn’t quite know what to make of all the fuss.

Sure, he became just the third American to wear the yellow jersey in Tour de France history and he beat six-time Tour champ Lance Armstrong to do it, but after all, it’s just a bike race.

“I got a massage, had dinner, read a little, then went to sleep,” was how Zabriskie described his first evening in yellow. “Yeah, we had a little champagne.”

Sunday morning, Zabriskie got the full yellow-jersey treatment, with dozens of photographers and reporters waiting outside the team bus.

Team CSC riders huddled inside the bus for nearly an hour as Bjarne Riis spelled out the team’s strategy in the coming days. When asked what he wants to do with the yellow jersey, Riis simply replied, “Keep it.”

How long will Zabriskie will stay in yellow? It’s an interesting question.

Of course, anything can happen in the Tour – a crash or an illness – but Zabriskie could keep the yellow jersey several days, perhaps all the way into the Alps. Here’s how:

With Saturday’s 19km time trial torpedoing the sprinters’ chances for the yellow jersey, Zabriskie’s only threat in the GC is second-place Armstrong at two seconds back. Armstrong’s ultimate fantasy of carrying the yellow jersey from start-to-finish was foiled by two ticks of the clock, but don’t expect to see him chase time bonuses to grab the jersey. Having Bjarne Riis’s red army expending valuable energy to protect the maillot jaune early on plays perfectly into Armstrong’s plans to win a seventh Tour.

Zabriskie is relatively safe from the threat of losing the jersey to time bonuses.

The nearest pure sprinter is Tom Boonen in 40th place at 1:49 back. Even if he won Sunday’s and Monday’s stages and all six intermediate sprints, he’d only earn back 1:06 going into Tuesday’s team trial. Other riders such as Fabian Cancellara (Fassa Bortolo), seventh at 1:02 back, will have a hard time fending off the likes of Boonen and McEwen for bonus sprints.

Zabriskie’s biggest threat will be a long breakaway that makes it all the way to the finish. Laszlo Bodrogi – the Hungarian on Credit Agricole who started Sunday’s second stage in fifth at 59 seconds back – is just the kind of threat Riis’s big red machine will have to watch.

Team CSC will likely find some allies in the sprinters’ teams, which will be keen to take advantage of the relatively gentle profiles offered up in Sunday’s second stage and Monday’s third stage to catapult their captains toward the line.

Barring a big escape, Zabriskie should at least be able to enjoy the yellow jersey into Tuesday’s 67.5km team time trial.

Three days in yellow – so far, so good – but it could last even longer.

Rules introduced last year that limit time losses in the team time trial (20 seconds from first to second and 10-second intervals for each subsequent placement) means that if Team CSC finishes ahead of Discovery Channel and rides among the best teams, Zabriskie will retain the yellow jersey.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially considering that Armstrong’s team has won the past two Tour team time trials in dominating fashion. Still, an inspired ride by Team CSC could keep Zabriskie in the lead.

From there, things get more complicated.

Stages 5-7 serve up more ideal hunting ground for the sprinters’ teams, but it will become increasingly difficult to control the race as more teams will be anxious to win a stage in a breakaway ahead of the looming climbing stages.

And without the presence of a large, dominant team – for example, a Fassa Bortolo working for Alessandro Petacchi – there’s no one squad strong enough to single-handedly chase down every move.

The peloton will see the first serious climbs in Stage 8-9 across the Vosges, but a motivated Zabriskie could surprise many with his under-appreciated climbing skills if he gets the green light to protect his yellow jersey.

Throw in a dash of luck, Zabriskie could hold the jersey all the way through the Tour’s first rest day and into the Alps for the climbing stage to Courchevel on July 12.

Of course, Riis could call off the troops well before then, letting the responsibility of the jersey slip away and electing to save his riders’ strength for the more important battles looming in the Alps and the Pyrénées.

Don’t expect Riis to surrender the yellow tunic too easily, however.

His management company is currently in negotiations with computer software giant CSC to extend the team’s sponsorship for three more years, so an extended run in the yellow jersey would be the ideal way to seal the deal.

And don’t forget those cold, dark nights wallowing around in a Danish swamp during Riis’s legendary team-building exercises that forge a close, tightly-bonded team. Team CSC will do what Riis’s special forces instructors train them to do: stick together and fight.

There’s no better fight than protecting the yellow jersey.

And what about the even more tantalizing option – why not take the scenario to its absolute maximum – and pass the jersey from Zabriskie to Ivan Basso in the Alps?

That’s assuming a lot, but for much of his short, but prolific career, people have been underestimating Dave Zabriskie.