By Andrew Hood
There really is no such thing as a “routine” stage of the Tour de France.
Following the fireworks of Sunday’s first stage, when Levi Leipheimer and Tyler Hamilton were the primary victims of a dangerous high-speed crash, everyone was hoping just for that.
As far as Tour standards are concerned, Monday’s 204.5km second stage from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre to Sedan in the French Ardennes region was relatively calm. Long, but surprising hilly in places, the day more or less followed the script of what’s expected from a Tour stage in the first week: early attack by French riders that falls just short and a field sprint to wrap up an exciting finale.
Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com) kept the Aussie Tour fest rolling in high gear, capturing his first career stage win at the Tour, just ahead of runner-up Jean-Patrick Nazon (Jean Delatour) of France, with Jaan Kirsipuu (Ag2r) of Estonia in third. The Australian’s exploit sent him into the best young rider’s white jersey.
His teammate Brad McGee did journeyman work to lead out Cooke, who deprived the other sprinters of the 20-second win bonus to allow McGee to hold on to the maillot jaune. Meanwhile, their compatriot Robbie McEwen took over the green jersey to complete an Australian sweep of the podium.
Hamilton’s hard day
In the starting town of La Ferté-sous-Jouarre late Monday morning, there was a huge crowd of media cameras and reporters crowding around Team CSC’s bus, all waiting to see if Hamilton would start the stage.
The New Englander hinted in a Sunday night press conference that he might start Monday’s stage despite fracturing his right clavicle. After one-and-a-half hours of physical therapy before the stage, and a heavily bandaged shoulder, Hamilton decided to give it a shot.
Hamilton’s no stranger to pain. He rode much of last year’s Giro with a broken bone in his left shoulder, but he didn’t know what to expect from a broken collarbone on this long, rolling stage.
“I guess time will tell if I made the right decision,” Hamilton said after finishing in the field, in 100th position. “I tell you, it was a hard day. I didn’t get much sleep last night. It was difficult, really a dull ache, all day.”
Just five kilometers in, Lilian Jegou (Credit Agricole) and Frederic Finot (Jean Delatour) went on the attack. The peloton let them go and this took the pressure off Hamilton. By 30km, the French duo’s advantage was up to 8:15 and eventually hit the maximum at 11:20 at 74km.
“Fortunately for me, the stage was ideal,” Hamilton said. “It started real easy and just progressed, and the pace picked up throughout the day. Had it gone flat out from the start, I’d have been in trouble.”
Hamilton’s drive and ability to endure pain impressed everyone on the team, including Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis.
“Sunday night I was so distraught I wanted to cry,” Riis said. “I know how hard Tyler worked to be ready for the Tour, how much he suffered and trained. Things have to get better the next couple of days before we can talk about anything else. The entire team will help him every day.”
Hamilton said his immediate goal is to make it through Wednesday’s team time trial to help Carlos Sastre, who was vital to Hamilton’s win at Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour de Romandie. After Wednesday’s team time trial, Hamilton will have to wait and see.
“I’ll be taking it day by day. I want to get to the team time trial so I can help Carlos Sastre, to repay him for the help he’s been giving me all spring,” he continued.
Leipheimer heads home
While Hamilton pushed on, Leipheimer and his Rabobank teammate Marc Lotz didn’t take the start, both victims of the crash that downed Hamilton.
Leipheimer had no choice but to go home. After spending a lonely Sunday night at a drab French hospital, Leipheimer left Monday morning to return to his home base in Gerona, Spain. “The thing that hurt more than the injury is the fact is that the Tour is going on and I’m not a part of it anymore,” Leipheimer told Dutch journalists.
“We were racing so fast, I tried to stay in the front and you’re afraid to lose seconds. I don’t know what happened. I was lying on the ground and it felt like even 30 seconds later there were still riders falling,” said Leipheimer. “I don’t know how it happened.”
His final diagnosis was a fracture of his sit bone; Leipheimer will be off the bike from 10 days to three weeks, depending on his recovery progresses. “I’m very disappointed. It’s very bad,” said an emotional Leipheimer. “I’ve been training so hard for this and I was thinking of doing something big in this Tour. Everything I did was for this Tour. I knew it was something worse than a muscle problem, but I didn’t realize how bad it was until I went to the hospital.”
Leipheimer said he would get back on the bike as soon as could and hinted he might race in September’s Vuelta a España. But if he does, it’s all for the 2004 Tour after that.
“Everything I do from now will be to prepare for next year’s Tour,” he said. “I will be here. The Tour is on my mind already.”
Smooth day for Armstrong
Jegou and Finot continued to work together up the road despite a bizarre fall by Jegou after his handlebars got tangled up with a television cameraman’s motorcycle. Fassa Bortolo and Lotto-Domo moved to the front when the gap reached 11:15 at 105km and the gap dipped to 6:50 with 80km to go.
It was a relatively light day in the saddle for four-time defending champion Lance Armstrong. With the break up the rode, Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team licked their wounds from Sunday’s crash. Armstrong, George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov were all involved in the previous day’s spill.
“It wasn’t a free ride today, but the team didn’t have to work too hard because the breakaway meant nothing to us,” said Jogi Mueller, U.S. Postal’s team spokesman. “None of the riders had serious problems from the crash, so it was a good day.”
All the Posties finished safely in the main bunch and continued in the top spot of the team classification.
At 162km, Finot dropped Jegou and made a run for the finish line. With 25km to go, Finot held a 4:20 gap on the main bunch and had a good chance to grab the yellow jersey. But between the Frenchman and the finish line in Sedan was perhaps the day’s longest, though not steepest hill.
Meanwhile, with 13km to go, there was another spill in the peloton. Several riders went down from Caldirola-Sidermec, while Olaf Pollack (Gerolsteiner) – who walked across the finish line Sunday with a damaged bike – crashed again.
Ahead, Finot suffered on the climb. He struggled on, but the hill seemed to have taken its tool and he was finally reeled in with just 2.5km to go as the big guns moved forward. A nearly 200km break ended almost in sight of the line.
Quick Step, Telekom, Fdjeux.com and La Boulangere set the pace coming in. McGee helped lead out Cooke as Nazon made a run up the left side of the long finishing straight. Cooke moved around the right side to score his first Tour victory.
“It’s fantastic and it really hasn’t set in yet and I owe a lot to Brad, to have the yellow jersey ride for you like that,” said Cooke, who raced in the United States with Mercury before joining Fdjeux.com last year. “That’s the way Brad is, he would have ridden the same even if it meant that I would take the yellow jersey from him.”
Cooke’s victory makes him the sixth Australian to win a stage in the Tour and continues an impressive Australian showing so far in the Tour this week. A record seven Aussies started this year’s Tour, with McGee taking the yellow jersey thanks to his narrow prologue win over Cofidis’s David Millar on Sunday.
“If this doesn’t get people [in Australia] up and talking about cycling, nothing will,” Cooke said.