By John Wilcockson
As heavy rain continued to fall on the green hills of the Jura Sunday night, speculation was rife in the hotels and inns where the thousands of people following the Tour de France were staying. Among the questions being asked were: How could the race favorites allow 14 riders to gain almost 36 minutes? Will a similar breakaway happen Monday? Will the rain still be around? How long will Stuart O’Grady keep the yellow jersey this time? Or how strong a challenge will come from second-placed François Simon or fourth-placed Andrei Kivilev?
All this speculation has arisen because this is a Tour where nothing is certain. The opening week has been full of surprises, not the least of which has been the ambition and strength of O’Grady and Crédit Agricole. The French team –- led by an American (Bobby Julich), an Australian (O’Grady) and a German (Jens Voigt) –- has put riders into every important break and gained a huge psychological boost by winning the team time trial last Thursday.
On Saturday, it was Voigt who infiltrated the winning break through the Vosges mountains and took the yellow jersey from O’Grady. And Sunday, O’Grady was the one delegated to go with any dangerous moves. Certainly, the Australian did not have plans to deprive his teammate of the race lead; he was just along for the ride to see what developed when a 15-man break developed in the opening 16km of the 222.5km stage to Pontarlier.
The break might have been short-lived if Alex Vinokourov of Telekom hadn’t flatted after 32km, at a point where the gap was only 45 seconds. But the dangerous Vino’ — a past winner of the mountainous Dauphiné Libéré — was the reason why Lance Armstrong’s Postal team was heading a strong chase by the peloton. Once he flatted, 32km into the race, the Postals blew a sigh of relief. Otherwise, the U.S. team would likely have had to chase for another hour or so, which not only would have made them more tired but would have opened them up to a counterattack by another potential race contender.
So when Vino’ punctured and was absorbed by the pack it was understandable that the Postal riders (as well as ONCE and Festina) didn’t continue the chase. Telekom, too, eased back, especially as a persistent rain grew heavier as the day wore on. Temperatures fell to the mid-50s Fahrenheit as the race climbed into the limestone hills of the Jura.
The weather was no problem to most of the 14 riders ahead, including men who specialize in long-distance breaks, both in stage races and one-day classics. Half of the 14 fell into this category: Dutchmen Erik Dekker and Servais Knaven; Belgians Marc Wauters and Ludo Dierckxsens; and Frenchmen Jacky Durand, François Simon and Pascal Simon. They threw themselves full-tilt into their attack, benefiting from a strong tail wind along the Rhine Valley for the first 60km, where they averaged almost 49 kph. By that point the break was 4:10 ahead –- and the gap simply continued to grow the rest of the day.
That’s how the breakaways gained their more-than-half-hour advantage, but why weren’t they considered dangerous by the race favorites? Well, let’s take a short look at the riders now sitting atop the general classification.
Stuart O’Grady (35:19 ahead of Armstrong): The 30-year-old Aussie is in his seventh season as a pro. He’s okay in low mountains, like the climbs on last Saturday’s stage in the Vosges, but not high mountains like those coming up in the Alps. He crashed out of last year’s Tour on stage 7, and in 1999 finished 54th overall, more than an hour behind Armstrong.
François Simon (30:47 ahead of Armstrong): The 32-year-old Frenchman is in his 11th pro season. He too is strong in medium-mountain stages; and slightly stronger than O’Grady in the high mountains. Last year, Simon was 58th in the Tour, more than two hours down.
Bram De Groot (14:03 ahead of Armstrong): The 26-year-old Dutchman is in his third pro season. This is his first Tour.
Andrei Kivilev (13:12 ahead of Armstrong): The 27-year-old from Kazakhstan is in his fourth pro season. Last year, he finished 32nd at the Tour, 1:17:28 behind Armstrong. Won his first pro race last month, a mountain stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, which he finished in fifth overall, 3:57 behind overall winner Christophe Moreau
Given that after Monday, there are five consecutive mountain stages, the most likely scenario is that either O’Grady or Simon will have the yellow jersey at L’Alpe d’Huez; Kivilev could take the overall lead after Wednesday’s uphill time trial; and Armstrong will take over the jersey on one of the three mountaintop finishes in the Pyrénées.
As for Monday’s stage, expect to see more attacks, and another breakaway group fighting out the finish in Aix-les-Bains. The rain cleared overnight, and only the occasional shower is in the forecast, with temperature warming up from 50 degrees in the early hills to closer to 70 degrees at the finish.
DETAILS OF STAGE 9: Pontarlier to Aix-les-Bains, 185km.Intermediate sprints at Mouthe (28km), Frangy (141.5km) and Rumilly (161km).Cat. 3 climbs at Les Rousses (68km) and Bossy (145km), and Cat. 4 climb at Pralon (131.5km).