By Andrew Hood
Juan Antonio Flecha blazed like an arrow across the finish line on an airport runway to claim victory in Thursday’s 153.5km stage 11 from Narbonne to Toulouse. Flecha, which means arrow in Spanish, escaped the clutches of an eight-man breakaway with 15km to go in this relatively easy transition stage that carried the 90th Tour closer to the Pyrénées.
Coming across the line four seconds ahead of Rabobank’s Bram De Groot, Flecha, 25, reached behind his back to grab an imaginary arrow and shot it toward the heavens. The Spanish ibanesto.com rider was right on target.
“I haven’t won a race in two years and my friends were asking me if the arrow is wet, if it’s lost its way,” said Flecha, who went away from the peloton with seven others 57km into the stage. “Today I have demonstrated that the arrow is working.”
Flecha is the second Spanish rider to win a stage at this year’s Tour (Iban Mayo won at L’Alpe d’Huez), but he’s the first Catalan racer to win a Tour stage in more than 30 years. Flecha was actually born in Argentina, but moved to the Catalan region of Spain when he was a young boy.
Flecha said his Tour victory is an important milestone because of the significance of the Tour’s centennial, but his bigger dream is to shoot his imaginary arrow across the finish line of one of cycling’s World Cup classics.
“This victory is important for the team, because we are losing the Banesto sponsorship at the end of this year, but I dream of winning one of the monuments of cycling, Liège or Flanders,” Flecha said.
Break under the sun
The Tour returned to action following Wednesday’s rest day and the mood was upbeat and relaxed in Narbonne as huge crowds turned out to watch the rollout.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was looking for some publicity for his new movie, “Terminator 3,” and pressed the flesh with Lance Armstrong before the start and appeared with the four-time Tour champion on the finish-line podium.
The rolling stage featured a Cat. 3 climb at 71km and two points sprints. All 171 remaining riders started, but the Tour took its toll, with four more falling out of the race by day’s end. Fdjeux.com’s Matthew Wilson and Stéphane Augé (Crédit Agricole), both having breathing problems, didn’t finish within the time limit and were eliminated, while Jens Voigt (Crédit Agricole) and Tobias Steinhauser (Gerolsteiner), both sick, had to abandon.
The stage was lively right from the start, but nothing stuck until Carcassonne, where eight riders pulled away in what would be the winning move. Joining Flecha and De Groot were Stuart O’Grady (Crédit Agricole), Carlos Da Cruz (fdjeux.com), Michael Rogers (Quick Step-Davitamon), Nicolas Portal (Ag2r), Isidro Nozal (ONCE-Eroski) and Iñigo Cuesta (Cofidis).
They quickly built up a three-minute lead, prompting Lotto-Domo and La Boulangère to do some work to bring them back in a half-hearted effort to favor their respective sprinters Robbie McEwen and Jean-Patrick Nazon. The break gobbled up all the day’s intermediate sprint points, as well as those for the KOM mark atop the Cat. 3 Côte de Saissac.
The gap widened to 4:20 and the peloton finally got busy to try to bring them back, with Vini Caldirola and Lotto-Domo doing the brunt of the work.
Coming into the finish, the leaders started attacking each other. O’Grady, who lives in the Toulouse area, was the first to make a solo move. Flecha chased after the next attacker, Nozal, with 18km to go, but these moves were short-lived.
Flecha went again with 15km to go. Rogers and later De Groot and Nozal chased in vain, but Flecha said he knew exactly where he wanted to make his move coming into Thursday’s finish. His girlfriend lives and studies in Toulouse and Flecha spends a lot of time training on the local rides on frequent visits from his home near to Barcelona, Spain.
“I knew the course like a map. My girlfriend lives here and I ride here a lot,” said Flecha, whose girlfriend was waiting at the finish line.
Lotto-Domo’s McEwen took the bunch sprint for ninth just ahead of green jersey holder Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com). McEwen grabbed one point back from his compatriot and rival in the battle for the green jersey, and just eight points now separate the two Aussies.
There were no changes in the jersey holders. Richard Virenque (Quick Step) retained the polka-dot climber’s jersey, Armstrong finished safely in the main bunch to retain the yellow jersey, while Denis Menchov (ibanesto.com) retained the young rider’s jersey.
Armstrong ready for time trial
Armstrong rolled through a relatively easy day after what was a very relaxing rest day Wednesday.
He called Friday’s 47km individual time trial from Gaillac to Cap’Decouverte one of the most important of his career. “I think this will be the most important time trial for me in five Tours,” said Armstrong, who holds a 21-second lead over second-place Alex Vinokourov. “Because the time trial comes so late in the Tour and because the race is so close, this could be the most important time trial of my career.”
Armstrong leads the Tour, but not with the same dominance he’s shown in his four consecutive Tour victories. This year’s first individual time trial comes after the Alps, so it will be a critical test for Armstrong. “It’s more important because the time differences are so small,” Armstrong said. “It’s a big day for me and for the Tour.”
The rolling course favors Armstrong, who will be shooting for his first stage victory in this year’s Tour. “It’s not easy, but it’s not too hard, either. It’s good for rollers. It depends on the heat and the wind, but it’s a good course,” he said. “I know the course well. I previewed it early this year and I will ride it again tomorrow morning.”
Hamilton’s injury draws flack
Tyler Hamilton has been one of the Tour’s inspirational stories, but many within the close-knit cycling world are not so convinced. Telekom team manager Walter Godefroot called Hamilton’s determination to stay in the Tour despite fracturing his right shoulder in the Tour’s first stage, “a cheap PR American stunt.”
Not to be outdone, former Tour winner Stephen Roche told AFP that Hamilton’s efforts “have been blown out of proportion. It’s totally ridiculous. If the doctor says it’s broken or fractured then he shouldn’t be racing. It’s as simple as that.”
Roche, who won the Giro d’Italia, the Tour and the world championship in 1987, went on to suggest that Hamilton’s efforts hurt cycling image. “I mean, it’s not doing any favors for the image of cycling. For the past few years cycling has been getting its act together (vis-à-vis doping) and the commentators on TV are going mad about Hamilton,” Roche continued.
“But I think all he and his team are doing is giving the public a gun to shoot us with. People watching what’s happening are going to be asking themselves, ‘Is this guy for real?’ or they are going to be saying, ‘What kind of shit (drugs) are they giving him?’ Sitting in the saddle with a fractured collarbone is hard enough, getting up out of the saddle is even harder, and attacking is almost impossible.”
Hamilton and CSC team manager Bjarne Riis responded to questions in a team press conference Wednesday. On Thursday morning, the team’s press officer had photocopies of Hamilton’s hospital records to hand out to any doubters.
“I’m very sorry and disappointed in all those people who don’t believe Tyler is riding with a fractured collarbone,” Riis said. “We are here to tell the truth and we can show the pictures, we have them here. I think everyone should think that what Tyler is doing is something very special. I don’t need everybody to believe what we’re saying, but they should respect what happened.”
Hamilton bristled at the notion that the team has overblown his injuries in a cheap maneuver to gain publicity. “Most people tell me I’m crazy. That’s about it. There have been a lot of people coming up to me showing a lot of respect saying how tough I am, which is nice. I haven’t had anybody come up to me and question whether or not I had a broken collarbone,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said he’s been lucky to get through the Alps in such strong position, fifth overall, but he said the race tactics taken on by the other favorites worked in his favor. “I had a hard time standing up out of the saddle, accelerating. As you could see on Alpe d’Huez when it first accelerated at the bottom, I was not there,” he said.
“I rode within my limits and came back to the group with Roberto Heras and Lance Armstrong. Then the day after, when Beloki attacked on the second to last climb, in that very steep section, again I wasn’t there. I couldn’t accelerate, but I went at my own pace, sitting in the saddle and eventually caught up to them.”
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