By John Wilcockson
There aren’t too many flat roads on Wednesday’s 215km stage 4 from Huy to Verdun that traverses the Ardennes range from north to south. And the stage won’t be made any easier by a predicted three-quarter head wind gusting up to 25 mph and possible rain showers. The good news is that most of the day’s climbing is in the first half of the stage, when the unfavorable wind should keep the peloton together.Despite that likelihood, there are bound to be early attacks.
Half the field is now more than five minutes off the pace, and 40 of them are more than 10 minutes behind race leader Stuart O’Grady.
In other words, breakaways by any of these riders will be given some leeway — especially as Thursday is the crucial team time trial. None of the top teams will want to commit riders to long attacks or long chases that will compromise their chances in that 67km test.
Given all these parameters, and the closesness of the yellow-jersey contest — 64 riders are still within one minute of the leader — the most likely result Wednesday is another field sprint.
However, the last time the Tour finished in Verdun, eight years ago, Lance Armstrong (in his rookie year) won the stage at the head of a small breakaway group that formed in the final 15km.
Don’t expect Armstrong to go on the attack this year — especially with the team time trial coming up in 24 hours. There will be late attacks though, especially with so many riders within shooting distance of the yellow jersey.
Those most likely to try to take the lead from O’Grady are third-place Rik Verbrugghe of Lotto-Adecco (18 seconds back), and the aggressive French riders Didier Rous of Bonjour and Laurent Brochard of Jean Delatour (both 33 seconds back).
As for the stage victory, there are two probable scenarios.
If it’s a field sprint, look for a rider with sharp acceleration like Frenchman Jimmy Casper of La Française des Jeux, as the finish straightaway is only 120 meters long after a final kilometer made up of long curves, with one sharp turn 400 meters from the line. In the event of a breakaway, it could form on the 3km-long climb to the World War I memorial at Douamont with 15km to go.
It’s the sort of finale that could suit Mapei-Quick Step’s standout classics riders Paolo Bettini and Michele Bartoli, who showed signs Tuesday of their best form. One of these Italians would be an ideal successor to that rookie American in Verdun.
DETAILS OF STAGE 4: Huy to Verdun, 215km.
Intermediate sprints at Ciney (28km), Florenville (125km) and Damvillers (175.5km). Cat. 4 climbs at Celles (43km), La Marquiesette (46.5km) and Abe-et-Auffe (59km), and a Cat. 3 climb at Redu (72km).