By Andrew Hood
Tuesday’s 167.5km third stage of the 2003 Tour de France was hot out of the gate and the fireworks continued all the way to the final sprint.
Jean-Patrick Nazon (Jean Delatour) gobbled up time bonuses on the day’s three intermediate sprints to grab the yellow jersey from prologue winner Bradley McGee (Fdjeux.com) while Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) again avoided a finish line crash to sprint to his second stage in three days.
It was another messy ending, with Austrian Rene Haselbacher (Gerolsteiner) slamming into the barriers along the finish stretch after bumping shoulders with Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo) and Baden Cooke (Fdjeux.com).
“It’s chaos again, mate, you just put your halo on and hope for the best,” observed Credit Agricole’s veteran sprinter Stuart O’Grady.
Nazon proved – at least for one day – his team’s selection over the Domina Vacanze team of world champion Mario Cipollini was not a complete farce. His run in yellow, however, isn’t expected to last too long with Wednesday’s team time trial on the horizon.
Hot day in the saddle
The day’s lone climb came with the Category 4 at the Cote de Boutancourt at the 8.5km and it acted like a catapult for the Tour’s second-shortest road stage. The pace was blistering over the first hour (50.3 kph) and it seemed for awhile that perhaps the Tour’s stage speed record might be in danger.
Credit Agricole’s Jens Voigt and Franck Renier (Brioches) jumped at the 4km mark, but were quickly checked when Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) made a run for the mountain points. Following Bettini over the summit were Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel) and Christophe Mengin (Fdjeux.com), who took third to preserve his hold on the King of the Mountains jersey.
The yellow jersey was up for grabs with the on-course time bonuses and Nazon – who started the day just six seconds behind McGee — played the perfect card. At the day’s first sprint, Jaan Kirsipuu (Ag2r) came through first, but Nazon edged McEwen to take a four-second time bonus.
Nazon’s Jean Delatour team reeled in a three-man break that went up the road at 33km. Etxebarria, Maryan Hary (Brioches) and Carlos Da Cruz (Fdjeux.com) never got more than 1:12 ahead of the main bunch and the bunch was together coming into the day’s second sprint.
Nazon was first across with McEwen hot on his wheel and became the virtual Tour leader. Fate played into Nazon’s favor when Anthony Geslin (Brioches) jumped at 83km and built up a 3:25 gap (and becoming the virtual leader). Geslin grabbed the lead points at the third sprint, but Nazon was second and all that remained was for Geslin to get reeled in. The sprinting teams where anxious for another mass gallop and Geslin was brought back with 16km to go.
Coming into the finish, American Fred Rodriguez (Caldirola) did a good job setting up teammate Romans Vainsteins, but Petacchi is clearly the man of the moment. With Petacchi across for the win, Nazon slipped into the yellow jersey eight seconds ahead of McGee.
Nazon’s move into the yellow jersey away at the expense of McGee was a bit of revenge for the French racer who was let go by none other than Fdjeux.com last season. It was also a bit of revenge against Lance Armstrong, who called the Jean Delatour team “amateurs” during June’s Dauphiné Libéré.
“What’s happened, happened,” Nazon said after donning the jersey. “Maybe he’ll back down on his comments which were a little bit pathetic towards our team. We’re doing the same job as he does. We pedal, too. We might not be as strong as he is, but this can be seen as a reply to his remarks.”
Petacchi wins dangerous sprint
Several teams moved forward to set up their hot sprinters, including Credit Agricole, Lotto-Domo, Fdjeux.com, Quick Step and Vini Caldirola. Rodriguez did great work over the final 400 meters to spring loose Vainsteins.
All the action was on the left side of the course and Cooke and McEwen were nearly squeezed into the fences by Haselbacher. The Austrian leaned heavily into McEwen’s right shoulder, who was forced onto Cooke.
Neither of the Aussies went down, but Haselbacher crashed hard on his left side going full blast. He suffered cuts and scrapes and looks like a questionable starter Wednesday.
Once again ahead of the fray, Petacchi came through clean and held off former world champions Vainsteins and Freire to score his second Tour victory.
Coming into this season, Petacchi had never won a stage in the Giro d’Italia or the Tour. Now he has six from the Giro and two from the Tour.
“I didn’t want to come to this Tour, but my team encouraged me. You can see I am suffering on the climbs to stay with the bunch, but my team says that’s normal because I haven’t race much since the Giro,” said Petacchi.
“This year I’ve made like 20 sprints and I’ve won 14 of them, so everything is very good,” Petacchi said.
Hamilton pushing on
What a difference a good night’s sleep can make. Hamilton said slept 11 hours overnight Monday and started Tuesday’s stage with less pain in his shoulder.
“Sometimes I was wondering if I’d finish with the front group, but I grit my teeth and kept going,” he said after finishing 43rd and safely in the main field. “There’s pain all the time, all day. If it was a sharp pain, I’d have to reconsider. I tried not to think about the race today. I sang songs to myself to take my mind off the pain.”
Forty-eight hours ago, Hamilton’s Tour turned bad when he crashed into Sunday’s finish and cracked his collarbone. A pre-Tour podium favorite, Hamilton didn’t expect to stay Monday’s stage.
But here he is, making it through Tuesday’s high-speed race, and now Team CSC is growing quietly optimistic the 32-year-old New Englander might have more than anyone expects.
“I think he will hang on. It all depends on his position on the bike, but it’s going to be difficult. We are team that sticks together. We will try our best,” said Team CSC manager Bjarne Riis. “Tyler was OK today. He was better than yesterday. He looked more comfortable on the bike, so that’s good for the team time trial.”
Hamilton admits the road ahead remains very difficult and said the next few days will decide his fate.
“We’re going to take some more X-rays on Thursday and see how it’s healing. If I can be patient, maybe I can come around,” Hamilton said. “If I can get better 5 or 10 percent every day, then we’ll see. Right now all I can think about is taking it day by day.”
Wednesday’s 69-kilometer team time trial is Hamilton’s immediate goal. A strong time trialist, Hamilton wants to help Carlos Sastre to repay the Spanish rider for all the hard work he’s given Hamilton in the victories at Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour of Romandy earlier this season.
“I want to help Carlos because in every race this spring he’s been there to help me. Now I want to help him,” Hamilton said. “I’m confident I can help the team, even if I’m not 100 percent. He’s helped me in every race this spring. I want to pay him back the favor.”
Hamilton said he’ll take a hard look at his situation if he can make it through the Tour’s first mountain stage on Saturday for stage 7.
“If I hit the mountains and I’m not a factor, that’s when I’ll ask myself some questions. It’s not about finishing the Tour, not just riding and suffering to make it to the finish. This is my sixth Tour, been there, done that,” Hamilton said. “If I can continue to come back and be a factor, we’ll see. If I’m not, maybe I’ll stop racing and refocus on the Vuelta.”
Lance Armstrong, meanwhile, had some nice words of encouragement for his former teammate.
“Tyler is a tough dude, he’s a fighter,” Reuters quoted Armstrong said before the start of the stage. “I dislocated my collarbone once and I didn’t want to get on my bike but Tyler’s got a lot of ability to suffer. Yesterday the stage to Sedan wasn’t an easy day, especially if you don’t have complete control of the bike. I was riding along thinking, ‘man, how’s he doing it all taped up and in pain?’ I admire him a lot for having the courage to carry on. I knew he’d finish if he managed to start the stage but that’s the kind of guy he is.”
Postal eyeing team time trial
Armstrong finished safely in the lead bunch to finish 69th and moved into 12th overall at 19 seconds back. Armstrong said he still has some minor pain from his spill in Sunday’s stage, when the four-time Tour winner touched pavement for the first time in a Tour since 1999.
Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates are looking to Wednesday’s 69km team time trial as a chance to show the world Armstrong is in top form to make a run for a record-tying fifth Tour.
“It’s always the first key stage of the Tour,” said Dirk Demol, Postal’s assistant sport director. “It’s important because we can take time out on our rivals or you can lose time. We always go for the win in the time trial.”
The nine-man Postal team practiced the team time trial formation Thursday and Friday before last weekend’s start and Demol previewed the course earlier this year to make sure there are no surprises.
In the three previous Tours (there was no team time trial in 1999), Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service has finished third, fourth and second, respectively.
In 2000, Armstrong was so strong he dropped his teammates on a steep climb over the Pont de Saint-Nazaire, the massive cable-stayed truss bridge over the mouth of the Loire river, while in 2001 Christian Vande Velde and Roberto Heras crashed and disrupted the team’s tempo. Last year, the team was just edged by ONCE, winner of two of the past three Tour team time trials.
Demol shrugged off Armstrong’s somewhat rocky start to the Tour, when he didn’t finish among the top-three for the first time in the opening prologue and then crashed Sunday.
“That’s just part of the Tour. We know that the first week is loaded with risks and we just keep crossing our fingers and working hard to keep Lance out of trouble, but sometimes you cannot avoid it,” Demol said. “We’re looking forward to getting Lance to the mountain stages, then things become more organized.”